[Extracted from the lengthy exposition of the prevalent characteristics of "current literature" in the final chapter of The Gay Science, this passage incorporates a collage of material revised from three articles previously published by Dallas and listed below. - Graham Law]

(from) Chapter XVII. The Ethical Current

Decorated initial W

e continue to travel on the same line of rails, if now we give a few moments' attention to another characteristic of current literature - the feminine influence that pervades it. Women are of much account in it, and women produce a large share of it. Of late, indeed, the women have been having it all their own way in the realm of fiction. There was a time when the chief characters in fiction were men, and when to find a female portrait well drawn, especially if she was intended to rank as a heroine, was a rare exception. How colourless, for example, are most of Sir Walter Scott's heroines, when compared with the men in whom he delights. Now all the more important characters seem to be women. Our novelists have suddenly discovered that feminine character is an unworked mine of wealth, and they give us jewels of women in many a casket. This is all the more natural, seeing that most of our novelists just now seem to belong to the fair sex. But their masculine rivals follow in the same track. Nor is this tendency evident only in prose fiction. Look at Mr. Tennyson. A great poet is supposed to be the most perfect representative of his age, and the greater part of the Laureate's poetry may be described as a "dream of fair women." For one man he paints half a dozen women, and we remember the women better than the men. We remember the Princess and all her train; we remember Enid, Elaine, Vivien, Guinevere, Dora, Lilian, Isabel, the Gardener's Daughter, Maud, Godiva, the May Queen, Mariana, Lady Clara, and many more. How many men of the Laureate's drawing can we set against such a splendid array of women?

It must be allowed that this feminine tendency in our literature is not all for good. But the evil which belongs to it is not what one would expect. Woman embodies our highest ideas of purity and refinement. Cornelius Agrippa argues for the superiority of women over men, because Adam signifies earth, but Eve life. And in the thinking of the medieval times we are often reminded that Adam was formed out of the dust of the earth, but Eve out of the living flesh; that Adam was created no one knows where, but that Eve was born in the garden of Eden. And now, when the influence of women is being poured into our literature, we expect to feel within it an evident access of refinement. We find the very opposite. The first object of the novelist is to get personages in whom we can be interested; the next is to put them in action. But when women are the chief characters, how are you to set them in motion? The life of women cannot well be described as a life of action. When women are thus put forward to lead the action of a plot, they must be urged into a false position. To get vigorous action they are described as rushing into crime, and doing masculine deeds. Thus they come forward in the worst light, and the novelist finds that to make an effect he has to give up his heroine to bigamy, to murder, to child-bearing by stealth in the Tyrol, and to all sorts of adventures which can only signify her fall. The very prominence of the position which women occupy in recent fiction leads by a natural process to their appearing in a light which is not good. This is what is called sensation. It is not wrong to make a sensation; but if the novelist depends for his sensation upon the action of a woman, the chances are that he will attain his end by unnatural means.

There seem to be scattered over the world in the most opposite regions - in South America, for example, not less than in Russia - certain legends as to the existence of Amazons; but always in the neighbourhood of these Amazons are to be found "the Anthropophagi, and men whose heads do grow beneath their shoulders;" and, after the fashion of Lord Bacon, we may give this interpretation to the legend that where the women are as men, there the men will be monsters; that when the women do violence to their nature in rivalry of men, then the men will have no hearts at all, but heads where the hearts should be. It is certainly curious that one of the earliest results of an increased feminine influence in our literature should be a display of what in women is most unfeminine. One is reminded of the famous fact that the first record of feminine conduct in the world's history is unfeminine. Eve is said to have eaten the apple in a masculine lust of power to be as the gods; Adam in a feminine weakness of affection for the mate who offered it.

We might multiply these parallels; but it may be doubted whether they explain anything. The great fact with which we are more immediately concerned needs no elucidation. Some of the consequences which have attended the increase of feminine influence in literature may not be easy to explain; but the one great consequence with which we have now to do stands out clear, and easy of understanding. Woman peculiarly represents the private life of the race. Her ascendancy in literature must mean the ascendancy of domestic ideas, and the assertion of the individual, not as a hero, but as a family man - not as a heroine, but as an angel in the house. The individual as a great public character withers. The individual as a member of society and in all his private relations grows in importance. . . . [II 295-99]

Links to Related Material


Dallas, Eneas Sweetland. The Gay Science. 2 vols. London: Chapman and Hall, 1866. A HathiTrust online version of a copy in the Harvard University Library. Web. 24 January 2024.

[Dallas, Eneas Sweetland.] "Currer Bell," Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine 82 (July 1857): 78-79. [Review of Elizabeth Gaskell, Life of Charlotte Bronte (Smith, Elder, 1857).]

[Dallas, Eneas Sweetland.] "A Couple of Novels," The Times (1 October 1863): 9. [Review of two recent novels by Matilda Charlotte Houstoun.]

Dallas, Eneas Sweetland.] "History of Our Lord," The Times (19 May 1864): 7. [Review of Mrs (Anna Brownell) Jameson & Lady Elizabeth Eastlake, The History of Our Lord as Exemplified in Works of Art (Longmans, 1864).]

Created 2 February 2024