Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy
This dissertation examines the approximately 700 anonymous female characters who appear in Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur, expanding the possibilities for how gender roles might be interpreted based on a wider range of female roles. Primary named female characters such as Guinevere and Morgan Le Fay perform more stereotypical functions in the text as created and limited by the Arthurian literary tradition, but a significant portion of the nameless female characters challenge these assumptions. Malory uses many of these anonymous women to perform actions which are often attributed to male characters in medieval literature, such as acting as a guide or helper on a quest, challenging gender roles by assigning more active roles to these secondary characters. However, the very anonymity of the women help negate examples of potentially dangerous female agency by downplaying their presence in the text, removing a sense of individuality by creating nameless, faceless female characters who more easily fade into the background by refusing to identify them. This helps reassert patriarchal concerns both by focusing the reader's attention on the male characters' actions and by partially glossing over the female characters' contributions to the text. In order to address such a significant number of characters, this dissertation is divided into two parts. The first section is an analysis of Malory's text, examining the implications of using the anonymous female characters as a more significant factor in examinations of Le Morte. While current scholarship does address gender concerns to some extent, this generally focuses on those primary female characters who align more readily with stereotypical gender roles. I examine how gender assumptions can be undermined when the anonymous women are included as part of an analysis, as well as how they can affect such concerns as threatening or preserving the masculinity of the male characters based on the functions the female characters perform. I also explore medieval naming customs, or onomastics, and how cultural practices might have influenced Malory's text. This includes analyzing how Malory uses various forms of anonymity. How he refers to individual characters, such as through a vocational reference, gives the reader some insight into the character's function and portrayal. The second section of this dissertation consists of indexing the approximately 700 female characters according to Stith Thompson's Motif-Index of Folk-Literature. Because the number of episodes these women are in comprise 44% of the total text , Thompson's Motif-Index offers a systematic approach for dealing with such a significant number of characters. It provides a method for classifying specific actions in Le Morte according to common themes, as well as identifying how these motifs are used by Malory in non-traditional ways. Since many of his anonymous female characters perform stereotypically male roles, the motifs offer a way to quickly identify areas of future interest for scholarship. My own Index sorts the motifs based on forms of anonymity Malory uses to identify his characters. This allows the reader to compare how he portrays women within the same category, such as female relatives or helpers. While this project is necessarily limited, my Index offers a starting point for future study by allowing for an easy identification and comparison of the anonymous female characters in Malory's text.
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