To my mind, this is the first novel about marriage ever written. After surviving the Trojan War, Odysseus tries to get home to his wife and son in Ithaca. But the gods are angry with him and prolong his voyage interminably. He encounters every sort of obstacle, and both his heroism and his tenacity are tested. When he finally sees his wife, Penelope, after years at sea, he faces an even greater challenge: proving that he is really her husband. The tenderness of their reunion, the reestablishment of trust between wife and husband, shows how similar people in Homer's time were to people in ours. Their feelings about love and marriage were not so different from our own.
These lyrics about love by one of the only female voices to come down to us from antiquity have been adored, translated, and imitated for 2,600 years. What has given them their enduring power? I think it is their directness and honesty as well as their vivid evocation of physical sensations. It was Sappho who first described passion as a subtle fire running under the skin. It was Sappho who said that the sight of one's beloved was worth more than victorious armies mustering. Sappho's work exists in fragments, the music to which she sang has been lost, but her insights into the female mind remain stunningly timeless.
By Edith Wharton
Lily Bart is beautiful and wellborn but without a dowry in the rigid New York society of the early 20th century. She knows that her only way to rise in this milieu is to marry for money, but she sabotages her chances. Caught between her disgust with selling herself on the marriage market and her inability to declare herself to a man she really trusts, she drifts along, becoming ever more unmarriageable. What makes this novel so moving is the way Lily never quite grasps her situation and thus cannot solve it. Her feminism is on the edge of her consciousness but never really guides her life. That lack of clarity becomes Lily's tragedy.
Renée, the heroine of Colette's novel, is a divorced writer who has gone on the music-hall stage to support herself. We first meet her as she's coping with being suddenly single, suddenly broke, suddenly bereft in a world that is particularly unfriendly to unmarried women. When a rich "stage-door Johnny" falls in love with her and wants to rescue her, she wavers. She contemplates being taken care of again—but in the end she cannot do it. So she goes on with her solitary but free life. The book inspired me because it was the first happily-ever-after story that ended without marriage.
By Simone de Beauvoir
This is the first book that powerfully showed me how women's second-class status is a social invention. Reading de Beauvoir, I realized that if women could be made to believe they were second, they could also be made to believe they were first. I began to understand that the myth of women's inferiority was a convenient way to get women to be the unpaid laborers of the world. I understood my mother's anger and what fueled it, and I became determined to change society for the better. I was not alone. Published in the United States in 1953, de Beauvoir's theory that women are made, not born, galvanized a whole generation of women and made them eager to transform their world.
By Doris Lessing
This book was very important to my growth as a novelist because it told the story of a woman whose various selves—political, psychological and sexual—are equally represented. Anna Wulf is a novelist trying to write a novel about contemporary women, but she is blocked. I had never before read a story about a woman who was seeking a way of integrating the disparate parts of her life. The journey of the book is a woman's struggle to harmonize all her passions. I read it when I was writing Fear of Flying and found it fiercely inspiring.