Literature has always played an important role in forming a particular image about women and the constructing certain gender norms. We tend to idealize the characters we admire and try to imitate them in our lives. Sometimes, we also align our beliefs with the ones of the author, if the story is able to make such an impact.

A book such as Eleanor & Park may seem like an ordinary romance novel but the portrayal of the female protagonist, Eleanor, helps to make some important deductions about how women are represented in contemporary literature by female authors.

Having the name of the main character as the title of a novel usually signifies he/she is a strong character. In the case of Eleanor & Park, while two characters share the title, we know the focus is on Eleanor, as her name appears first. Also, it is noteworthy how Rowell cleverly named her character. Eleanor relates to light/brightness (often associated with the Queen Eleanor in the story) but her character attempts to stay low and not draw attention to herself. Ironically, we also see her as a highly sensitive girl who instead of standing up against the bullies, wouldn’t dare utter a word and chooses to remain silent.

After building a weak image of Eleanor, we are made aware of her family background (separated parents), physical appearance, which didn’t fit the definition of the usual beauty standards (bullied as a ‘fat chipette’), and constant indications to her manly personality, be it attraction towards Park’s comic books or her wearing ‘a giant men’s shirt’. As a critical reader, it meant that if a woman does not have certain feminine traits, she should not be recognized as one. We also know that Eleanor is an honors student yet her intelligence is overpowered by her appearance.  

Despite this, her love-interest to-be, Park, finds her very red curly hair, with dark brown eyes, appealing. As we see the novel normalizing these features as beautiful, reference to her ‘white skin’ later, proves us wrong. Being a reader from Pakistan, a country that obsesses over white complexion, from finding gori bahus (daughter-in-laws) to endorsing whitening products to become ‘beautiful’, such colorist remarks can be extremely harmful for the youth and the wider audience. In the 21st century, when we should be promoting the idea of being comfortable in our own skin, reading such literature that uses ‘whiteness’ of a female character as a scale of beauty, can hinder that progression, and further undermine the image of women with darker complexions.

Not only that, Park’s comparison of Eleanor with his mother, reminded me of the common desi mindset – neglecting a woman’s individual personality and finding similarities between her personality and a man’s epitome of womanhood.

The imposition of patriarchal values continued in the story with Eleanor’s mother grabbing books with male protagonists at random, when packing to shift, and the ones around women (or equally about them) not making the cut – Oliver’s Story was given preference instead of Lovestory and Little Men was included but not Little Women.

Fast forwarding to the end, Eleanor eventually becomes a victim of violence and threats from her evil stepdad, Richie, and is saved by Park, who drives Eleanor to her uncle in Minnesota. Eleanor’s rescue was not unexpected but ending with them parting confirms that only the ‘ideal’ woman deserves permanent happiness and to be loved. Park ultimately goes to prom with another girl but the damsel in distress Eleanor does not forgo her attachment with him.

From the desi mindset we come from, Park would resemble any typical South-Asian male, who would not want to be associated with a woman, coming from such a background. Thought of as a matter of integrity, cutting ties with Eleanor and moving on seemed like the most appropriate thing to do. Eleanor, being a naïve, innocent girl, is still hopeful for it to work.

Eleanor & Park is one of the most celebrated novels of Rainbow Rowell and would have been an exemplary and inspiring work, in my opinion, if Eleanor was shown as a strong-minded woman, an attribute that drew Park’s attention. Seeing such a woman who confronted her fears instead of escaping could be a source of courage for many.

We can only expect to see a positive change in the way female protagonists are depicted in books, in the near future.

‘Sanya Mithani is a content writer at Femmerang. She’s a lifestyle Instagram blogger passionate about books.

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