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Plain and Ugly Janes: The Rise of the Ugly Woman in Contemporary American Fiction [Hardcover]

Charlotte M. Wright
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Book Description

June 19 2000 0815336527 978-0815336525 1
First Published in 2000. Routledge is an imprint of Taylor & Francis, an informa company.

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This study provides a dimension to the interpretation of American literature that may well bring it to a closer relevancy to American culture. Wright has defined a significant American social totem here, one that has been manifest particularly within the final decades of the twentieth century and has placed far more value on image than on substance....
–The texas Writer's Newsletter

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5.0 out of 5 stars Original Look at Old Ideas Dec 2 2000
Format:Hardcover
This slender but concisely written study of the depiction of women in American fiction offers a unique thesis concerning a much broader concept, which is the way in which Americans have evolved something Charlotte Wright calls "the beauty system." For some time now, many voices (both staunchly feminist as well as non-sexually-politically aligned) have noted that contemporary American culture has in the past fifty or so years become almost maniacally obsessed with the notion of feminine perfection. That perfection seems to be represented as much in the manifestation of sexual and aesthetic qualities ordinarily associated with female beauty as it is a reflection of the character and personality of the individual herself. Wright points out thatthe bromides and aphorism about physical beauty being superficial and shallow measurements of an individual's nature belie a deeper and far more deeply ingrained notion that "handsome (or beauty) is as handsome (or beauty) does." But far from laying the blame for this "cult of beauty" at the feet of advertisers or even at the gate of one of Hugh Hefner's mansions or in the pages of Sports Illustrated's swimsuit issue, Wright delves much deeper into the cultural totems that have given rise to the notion that beautiful women are, by their physical presence, imbued with virtues and desirability-as people-that far exceed what might actually lie beneath the ideal figures and batting eyelashes, the flowing tresses and creamy complexions of so many heroines of our national mythology and popular culture. Beginning her study with early nineteenth century American literature, Wright starts from a premise that there is a common perception that there are no "ugly" American literary heroines. Read more ›
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Amazon.com: 5.0 out of 5 stars  1 review
15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Original Look at Old Ideas Dec 2 2000
By Clay Reynolds - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
This slender but concisely written study of the depiction of women in American fiction offers a unique thesis concerning a much broader concept, which is the way in which Americans have evolved something Charlotte Wright calls "the beauty system." For some time now, many voices (both staunchly feminist as well as non-sexually-politically aligned) have noted that contemporary American culture has in the past fifty or so years become almost maniacally obsessed with the notion of feminine perfection. That perfection seems to be represented as much in the manifestation of sexual and aesthetic qualities ordinarily associated with female beauty as it is a reflection of the character and personality of the individual herself. Wright points out thatthe bromides and aphorism about physical beauty being superficial and shallow measurements of an individual's nature belie a deeper and far more deeply ingrained notion that "handsome (or beauty) is as handsome (or beauty) does." But far from laying the blame for this "cult of beauty" at the feet of advertisers or even at the gate of one of Hugh Hefner's mansions or in the pages of Sports Illustrated's swimsuit issue, Wright delves much deeper into the cultural totems that have given rise to the notion that beautiful women are, by their physical presence, imbued with virtues and desirability-as people-that far exceed what might actually lie beneath the ideal figures and batting eyelashes, the flowing tresses and creamy complexions of so many heroines of our national mythology and popular culture. Beginning her study with early nineteenth century American literature, Wright starts from a premise that there is a common perception that there are no "ugly" American literary heroines. Indeed, she avers that the most common assumption is that female characters who are less than pretty have little or no appeal to readers. This, she avers, is both incorrect and misleading. "Judging from the number of published examples I found," Wright states, "readers have long responded to the less-than-lovely heroine; it has been the critics, the scholars, the literature professors, and the anthologists who have ignored her." This would seem to be a familiar lament of the feminist critics, except that Wright's discoveries as they are revealed through her study bolster the notion that "ugly," as a descriptive nomenclature for a heroine, is so often equated with some negative personality trait or character flaw-in women-that one might assume that, to reverse Keats' famous line, "ugliness is a falsehood and deception." She notes that spinsterism, divorce, widowhood, even merely a long life can be a contributing factor to a female character's ugliness, although there is no logical correlation between such situations and physical appearance. From this beginning, Wright divides her discussion into three parts. In Part One, she discusses the "Nature of Ugliness," examining the physical characteristics Americans have traditionally associated with feminine plainness and lack of physical appeal. Here, she establishes the precedence American fictional writers have given to feminine physical appeal. Part Two deals with the effects of ugliness, especially on the relationships female characters form with other people, their roles in the "community" of their fictional settings, and the ways in which a number of writers have used a woman's lack of physical appeal as an elemental tool in both character and plot development. In Part Three, "Ugly Women in Contemporary American Fiction," Wright homes in on the issue of beauty vs. ugliness in the works of a number of major American authors writing today. She discusses the ways in which the stereotype of the ugly or plain woman has been used to authorial advantage, sometimes in an ironic way by writers who have tried to emphasize the importance of character and personality over physical appearance. Her conclusion is that many American authors, "by use of the ugly woman character, are exploring the ironies and inequalities inherent in the beauty system." Wright's study is blessedly void of volatile sexist language and defensiveness that has marred so much of feminist critical theory. She examines both male and female authors, noting how both tend to operate under the same set of assumptions when presenting beautiful or ugly women to their readers. She spends a good deal of time with Hawthorne, Hemingway, and Faulkner, but she also examines Wharton, O'Conner, and Walker in her litmus tests of how these authors share a use of the stereotype. The primary value of this study is to provide a dimension to the interpretation of American literature that may well bring it to a closer relevancy to American culture. Wright has defined a significant American social totem here, one that has been manifest particularly the final decades of the twentieth century and has placed far more value on image than on substance not only in the depiction of women (and men) but also in the perception of almost every institution in American life.
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