Stories are filled with archetypes and stereotypes of characters, which first oral storytellers and then professional writers plugged into their works in almost formulaic fashion. Sometimes this was deliberate, other times unconscious on the storyteller’s end. But these types of characters in turn serve a role in forming the opinions and preconceptions of us, the readers. For example, the stories of princesses who are fairest in the land create a subconscious ideal of blonde, blue-eyed beauty. Character types aren’t always that simplistic.
Take the old women in fiction, for example. Whether it’s the old hag, the wise woman, the helpless widow, or the overbearing matriarch, elderly women in fiction crop up more often than you might realize at first glance. P.G. Wodehouse’s works are teeming with autocratic aunts, whom even the crotchety old uncles are afraid of. It seems like Jane Austen has at least one form of Lady Catherine de Bourgh in each of her novels. Charles Dickens has Mrs. Clennam in Little Dorrit and Miss Havisham in Great Expectations, but then there’s Aunt Betsy Trotwood in David Copperfield whose abrasive character is actually heroic rather than scheming, controlling, or mad. And then there’s Oscar Wilde’s Aunt Augusta from The Importance of Being Earnest….
What can we learn from these characters? Has literature given us a sort of double-edged ageism, where older women are viewed as kindly grandmothers or conniving witches or authoritarian matriarchs...none of which teaches us to look on our elders as real, complex, flesh-and-blood persons? Are these archetypes really negative—after all, they hardly put women in a positive light—or positive—because they do give these women power over the other characters and drive the plot? In our post-modern world of feminism and gender roles in flux, are these characters informing our opinions, or holding us back? And where exactly, if anywhere, does Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle fit in?