Self-Esteem Problems in Classic Literature

         Over time, we have seen a shift in literature. Ancient stories usually describe the adventures of some hero. People wanted to read epics and stories of amazing circumstances (and many people still do). But especially over the last two hundred years, there has been a shift toward characters and stories that are more relatable; more normal people with normal flaws and problems. Throughout the semester, we encountered many characters that suffered from self-esteem problems. Some authors dealt with these problems realistically, others seemed too optimistic. I will look at three different women in our iterature this semester that suffered from self-esteem problems, and how they dealt with their problems.

         In Henry James's 1880 Washington Square, filmed in 1949 by William Wyler as The Heiress, Catherine Sloper (Olivia de Havilland) is perhaps the best example of someone suffering from low self-esteem that we have had all semester. She has a belief, probably helped formed by the attitudes of her father (Ralph Richardson) and her "friends," that she is plain and boring, and could not be loved. While she may be a bit dull, this is only a product of her own self-image. However, when she finally learns the truth about Morris (Montgomery Clift), knowledge that should have destroyed any sense of self-esteem she may have had left, she becomes stronger, independent. By the end, she seems secure in herself and needs no one. This seemed a little unrealistic, that this one act could completely change a person's self image and overall personality.

         In George Bernard Shaw's 1913 Pygmalion, filmed in 1938 by Anthony Asquith and Leslie Howard and in by George Cukor in 1964 as My Fair Lady, Eliza Doolittle (Wendy Hiller/Audrey Hepburn) also had self-esteem issues. She was self-conscious of her speech, appearance, and overall station and how others perceived her because of it. But she is able to at least try and take action to overcome her problems, which she eventually does. This instance seems a little more realistic, as when someone does have a major change in her self-esteem, it comes from other changes as well, not some revelation.

         In Tennessee Williams' 1947 A Streetcar Named Desire, filmed in 1951 by Elia Kazan, Stella Kowalski (Kim Hunter) gives us perhaps the most realistic view of true self-esteem problems. She allows Stanley (Marlon Brando) to treat her horribly because she seems to believe that she is lucky in finding a man like him to love her, as if she does not deserve him. Stanley only worsens her condition over time, making her feel bad for any breach his protocol. When she does leave in the end of the movie, but not the play, it is hard to believe that it is done with any resolve, given her past actions. It is easier to believe that she will crawl back to Stanley, upon hearing his mating call once again, to keep trying to earn his validation.

         It is clear that these literature-film combinations effectively depict three different women who have suffered from self-esteem problems, with which they have coped in three different ways.

Nathan Beard

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