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The Influence of Narrative Perspective on the Portrayal of Women

HistoryThe Influence of Narrative Perspective on the Portrayal of Women

Imagine spending your entire life working at the highest level to build and strengthen a country. Then, imagine, after your death, being vilified and called an evil murderer instead of being hailed as a hero. This was the fate of Livia, the wife of the Roman emperor Augustus. I, Claudius and Samarkand are two very different books and are written about different periods of history. However, they are both told from the perspective of male characters. On the other hand, in Homegoing female characters narrate several of the chapters in the book. In these three books, women are often judged solely based on their gender and outward appearance and are portrayed unfairly by male characters, but when they are the narrators of their own stories, they portray themselves more fairly.

In I, Claudius’s Ancient Rome, women do not have a lot of direct power over themselves or others. In today’s world children are required to have legal guardians who sign documents on their behalf and control the different aspects of their life until they become independent legal adults. But in I, Claudius, the women of Ancient Rome have to have a male guardian for their entire life. Throughout the book, Claudius is seen as essentially an incompetent imbecile who cannot be trusted with any of the offices that his position in the imperial family should grant him. However, since he becomes the oldest male member of his immediate family when he comes of age, at around seventeen years old, Claudius writes, “I became my mother’s guardian—for she had never married again” (Graves 118). He is considered to be unintelligent but is still entrusted with the guardianship of his mother, Antonia. 

There is a similar case with Livia and Tiberius. Livia is the empress of the Roman Empire and is basically running the country. She makes all the real decisions and controls her son Tiberius, who is the emperor and is supposed to be in charge. In spite of all her power, Livia, “as a woman could not attend the debates in the Senate and was legally now under Tiberius’s guardianship” (Graves 180). 

The idea behind guardianship in Ancient Rome seems to have been that women were considered unable to speak for themselves or were easily swayed by arguments and therefore too likely to be duped (Kittell-Queller). Women are given such a low estimation in the eyes of men solely because of their gender and are not able to control their lives and tell their own stories. Instead, male historians, such as Claudius in Graves’s fictional account, write down the stories that have become their only remaining legacy.

In I, Claudius, when men like Claudius are shaping the narrative, women are often portrayed as schemers who pull strings in order to get their way. Livia is villainized and her friend Urgalania is called “one of the most unpleasant characters in [the] story” (Graves 99), quite an incredible description in a book with characters such as Caligula and Tiberius. In addition, Livilla, the sister of Claudius, is central to a nefarious plot by Livia to turn Augustus against his grandson Postumus through trickery and deception (Graves 141). Overall, Livia is made out to be one of the evilest people in human history. She is blamed for the murders of almost everyone in the book, including the grandchildren of her husband, Augustus, and Augustus himself (Graves 311). What’s worse, her primary method of killing, poisoning, is considered to be “a mean way of killing, a slave’s way” (Graves 135). This attitude towards poisoning as an especially bad and lowdown method of murder is connected to the portrayal of women as schemers who act behind the scenes. Poison is seen to be a more insidious way of killing and is stereotypically used by women to accomplish nefarious goals.

If all of these accusations against Livia were true, she and her accomplices would truly be deserving of being called evil schemers. However, this portrayal of Livia and her female accomplices is not supported by any historical evidence; it is very likely that Livia did not commit any of the murders that are attributed to her in I, Claudius (Hashmi). So then why go to so much trouble to malign Livia, a woman who arguably built the Roman Empire? Bestselling author Stephanie Dray offers an explanation: “For the misogynistic Romans, the only way to explain her political success was to make her a monster” (Dray). If Livia had been able to write her own narrative, her own account of her life and actions, history might remember her in a much more positive light. But since men who did not wish to give her credit wrote all the history books, she is represented completely unfairly. And it is these unfair and even false accounts that form the basis of I, Claudius’s portrayal.

In Maalouf’s Samarkand, women are similarly unfairly characterized. As in I, Claudius, the book’s narrators are not women. Omar Khayyam, through his disciple Vartan, is the narrator of the first part of the story, and Benjamin O. Lesage is the narrator of the second part. Similarly to I, Claudius, women are often shown to be schemers, usurpers, and manipulators in Samarkand. For one thing, the Sultana Terken Khatun comes up with a complex scheme to take power, which involves concealing the death of the sultan so she can rule in his name. She also works to exile Nizam al-Mulk, “the obstacle to her ambitions” (Maalouf 113). 

Jahan, the wife of Khayyam, is shown to be power-hungry, in contrast to Khayyam’s desire to just study the stars and the sciences. Khayyam recounts that Jahan “wanted to rule the world and had the ear of the Sultana who had the ear of the Sultan. By day she intrigued in the royal harem, intercepting incoming and outgoing messages, alcove rumours, promises of jewels, and the stench of poison.” This is in contrast to Khayyam, who delights in the “pleasure of science and the science of pleasure” (Maalouf 86). This is showing Khayyam, a man, to be interested in scientific pursuits, while Jahan, a woman, is more interested in getting more and more power over the affairs of the empire, similarly to how Livia is described in I, Claudius. The interesting thing is that Jahan and Terken Khatun are shown to be schemers and manipulative in a way that Malikshah and the other sultans are not. The women are called power-hungry usurpers, not conquerors. And in return for the daring and ambition that would be celebrated in a male ruler, they both die ignominiously as a direct consequence of their taking power. 

It is Jahan’s eloquent and beautiful poetry that makes Khayyam fall in love with her (Maalouf 25). Though at the beginning of the story, Jahan is consigned to a life living with the entourage of the sultan (Maalouf 54), her poetry is able to show her to be much more than a lowly woman of the court or a power-hungry schemer. Women are never the literary narrator in Samarkand, but Jahan’s poetry recitation has a similar effect to her actually being the narrator because her words are able to speak for themselves, without interpretation or distortion. Recitation is her opportunity to tell her own story so she can be judged for who she really is. Indeed, her poetry is able to make her seem powerful and beautiful in the eyes of Khayyam. Therefore, “narration” seems to be able to take on many meanings.

In the initial scene where Shireen is introduced, her physical appearance is described in detail by Lesage, who immediately falls in love with her based on her outward presentation (Maalouf 172). However, her intellect only becomes apparent later, through her writing and her actions. Going back to I, Claudius, Claudius immediately judges his wife, Urgulanilla, based on her unattractive appearance and not based on talking to her or getting to know her (Graves 103). The stories of Shireen and Urgulanilla are examples of how women are often judged by male narrators based on how they look, which is not an accurate picture of who they are.

In Homegoing, women are still restricted in the amount of power they have over their lives, but in the chapters where women are the narrators, a more accurate and complex picture emerges. At one point during the story, Akua sets fire to her hut, resulting in the death of two of her children. The villagers yell at her “Crazy woman,” “Evil woman,” and “Wicked one” (Gyasi 180). From the perspective of the crowd, she seems like an evil murderer. However, when Akua has the opportunity many years later to tell her story, it turns out that she suffers from a sort of PTSD after watching a white man be burned to death. She has terrible recurring nightmares about that fire and says: “In my sleep one night, I set the hut on fire” (Gyasi 220). The fire that killed her children was an accident; she is not an evil woman. Giving Akua the ability to be the narrator of her story allows her to be portrayed more fairly instead of being judged based on the incomplete perceptions of others.

In Marjorie’s chapter of Homegoing, her schoolteacher tells Marjorie that in America, “it doesn’t matter where you came from first to the white people running things. You’re here now, and here black is black is black” (Gyasi 249). People look at Marjorie, see her skin color, and that she is a woman, and they create a simplistic and completely false image of who she is. 

However, Marjorie, through her writing and her poetry, is able to capture what it feels like to be a woman in that society. Marjorie writes a poem about her experience as a black American, how she is so similar to those who came on slave boats but so different at the same time (Gyasi 257). This poem is able to describe her feelings in a very complex way. When she is the narrator of her personal story, she is able to accurately depict herself and how she feels. 

For so many centuries, her ancestors were condemned to the fate of being slaves, homemakers, farmers, or slavers, based on their gender and the color of their skin. But Marjorie’s writing, like Jahan’s poetry, shows her individuality, her intelligence. And this is able to get her to Stanford, one of the best universities in the world.

In Homegoing, Samarkand, and I, Claudius, women are often judged based on stereotypes and other sexist motifs. However, when women are able to tell their own stories and the stories of other women, they are more able to accurately portray themselves and their actions. The unfair portrayal of women by male narrators in these books is not necessarily the fault of the novels’ authors. It is very possible that the authors were simply being faithful to biased historical books, as these three books are works of historical fiction, or that the authors purposefully wished to expose the way in which men can unfairly characterize women.

History is the story of the past, not the past itself. Stories about the same event can be told from many different angles, in many different ways. And, the way in which the story is narrated can have a large impact on how we comprehend the past, and how we look to the future. Therefore, narrative perspective may be the single largest influence on our understanding of the past. Throughout history, men have controlled the narrative and have often suppressed or ignored women’s voices. If we want our understanding of the past to be accurate, it is essential that women be allowed to participate in the writing of history. These three books are proof of that. 

Bibliography

Graves, Robert. I, Claudius: From the Autobiography of Tiberius Claudius, Born B.C. 10, Murdered and Diefied A.D. 54. Vintage Books, 1934. 

Maalouf, Amin, and Russell Harris. Samarkand: A Novel. New York: Interlink Books, 2004. Print.

Gyasi, Yaa. Homegoing. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2016. Print.

Haire, Melissa Leanne. “Feminae Horribiles: Depictions of Women in BBC’s I, Claudius (1976).” ScholarWorks, California State University San Marcos, 1 Jan. 1970, https://scholarworks.calstate.edu/concern/theses/tq57nx093?locale=en. 

LitCharts. “Gender Stereotypes, Sexism, and Violence Theme Analysis.” LitCharts, https://www.litcharts.com/lit/homegoing/themes/gender-stereotypes-sexism-and-violence. 

Hashmi, Firas K. “Historical Discrepancies in I, Claudius.” GoldPundit Media, GoldPundit Inc., 8 Apr. 2022, https://www.goldpundit.media/2022/04/07/historical-discrepancies-in-i-claudius. 

Helmy, Hussam. “(En)Gendering Orientalism: The Representation of Women in Amin Maalouf’s Samarkand.” SciencesPo Kuwait Program, Sciences Po, 2019, https://www.sciencespo.fr/kuwait-program/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/Samarkand.pdf. 

Dray, Stephanie. “Livia Drusilla: Evil Empress or Maligned Mother of the Empire?” Stephanie Dray, https://www.stephaniedray.com/livia-drusilla-evil-empress-or-maligned-mother-of-the-empire/.

Dwikasari, Martha. “Objectification towards Female Characters in Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing (2016): A Feminist Study.” UNAIR REPOSITORY, Universitas Airlangga, 4 July 2020, https://repository.unair.ac.id/102020/. 

Kittell-Queller, Emily. “Guardianship of Women in Ancient Rome.” Emily Kittell-Queller, http://emilykq.weebly.com/blog/guardianship-of-women-in-ancient-rome. 

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