Sisterhood Blog

Esther vs. Vashti, Austen vs. Brontës

By Sarah Seltzer

  • Print
  • Share Share

As I prepared for the beginning of the perennial Purim question of “Esther vs. Vashti” at the same time as I delved into Jane Eyre-mania, I began to think about how women are always pushed into dichotomies. I wondered cynically how soon someone would write about the new Brontë films by declaring Jane Austen passé. I didn’t have to wait long. This article about the “Battle of the Bonnets” in the Washington Post is a witty and sharp look at women’s cultural obsessions and it contains some great literary observations. But the headline, and the “battle” premise, rankles.

It always seems to me that when it comes to women who take different paths there’s a meme out there that there’s only room for one. Virgin or whore, Esther or Vashti, Austen or Brontë. Yes, the two most famous Brontë sisters, Charlotte and Emily, and Jane Austen took divergent approaches to writing about the “woman question.” Austen was sort of an Esther, using her brilliant wit to dazzle readers but containing steely critique of the system under her perfect prose, while the Brontës, Vashti-like , seethe with rage at women’s unfortunate lot and churn with a desperate desire for escape.

These women were writing in different styles, and in completely different cultural eras. Why not just appreciate the fact that both of those approaches worked so well that readers can’t get enough of them even today?

After all the blogging we’ve done here at The Sisterhood this year about why women’s writing gets short shrift, it’s worth asking again where these kinds of comparisons fit in on a wider scale. The Washington Post’s Monica Hesse makes the point herself, wondering whether “there might be some latent, dismissive misogyny involved in the concept that there is only enough cultural love for one female literary figure at any given time.” I’d take her suggestion further. It’s an extension, and a continuation, of sexism to push female authors into a catfight, or to lump them together just because of their gender. This rarely happens with their male counterparts. Do we ever assume that because people enjoy the satirical writing of P.G. Wodehouse, they must hate the tragic novels of Henry James? Do we ever see pieces in the media declaring “Joyce or Beckett: readers choose!” Even with biblical figures where a comparison may be warranted, there’s less interest (note to self: don’t pitch articles asking “Are you a Moses or an Aaron?”) We have a social attitude that sees men who have different styles as complementary and women or people of color who have different styles as competing.

Austen and the Brontës should be able to share the spotlight comfortably as should all women who achieve fame and acclaim, no matter how they do it. Esther and Vashti have transcended their legend and become enduring figures for women to look up to and little girls to dress up as. That’s something to applaud. As Leah Berkenwald wrote last year, “MY feminist reinterpretation of Purim not only celebrates Vashti and Esther, but validates both of their choices.”


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Charlotte Brontë, Emily Brontë, Jane Austen, Literature

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • "You wouldn’t send someone for a math test without teaching them math." Why is sex ed still so taboo among religious Jews?
  • Russia's playing the "Jew card"...again.
  • "Israel should deal with this discrimination against Americans on its own merits... not simply as a bargaining chip for easy entry to the U.S." Do you agree?
  • For Moroccan Jews, the end of Passover means Mimouna. Terbhou ou Tse'dou! (good luck) How do you celebrate?
  • Calling all Marx Brothers fans!
  • What's it like to run the Palestine International Marathon as a Jew?
  • Does Israel have a racism problem?
  • This 007 hates guns, drives a Prius, and oh yeah — goes to shul with Scarlett Johansson's dad.
  • Meet Alvin Wong. He's the happiest man in America — and an observant Jew. The key to happiness? "Humility."
  • "My first bra was a training bra, a sports bra that gave the illusion of a flat chest."
  • "If the people of Rwanda can heal their broken hearts and accept the Other as human, so can we."
  • Aribert Heim, the "Butcher of Mauthausen," died a free man. How did he escape justice?
  • This guy skipped out on seder at his mom's and won a $1 million in a poker tournament. Worth it?
  • Sigal Samuel's family amulet isn't just rumored to have magical powers. It's also a symbol of how Jewish and Indian rituals became intertwined over the centuries. http://jd.fo/a3BvD Only three days left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • British Jews are having their 'Open Hillel' moment. Do you think Israel advocacy on campus runs the risk of excluding some Jewish students?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.