Widowhood and its cultural representations

Authored by: Anne Martin-Matthews

Routledge Handbook of Cultural Gerontology

Print publication date:  June  2015
Online publication date:  June  2015

Print ISBN: 9780415631143
eBook ISBN: 9780203097090
Adobe ISBN: 9781136221033


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The word ‘widow’ comes from Sanskrit and means ‘empty’ (Caine, 1974). Since biblical times, accounts of the plight of the widowed have evoked powerful images of women at their most vulnerable and in greatest need. Throughout history, the widow has been a ‘cultural category, produced and shaped through popular culture, custom, and law’ (Bradbury, 2011: 390). While the ‘lusty widow trope’ was emphasised in comedies by Shakespeare’s contemporaries (Kehler, 2006: 21), other cultural representations have included ‘the Merry or inconsolable [widow]; the poor deserving widow; the black widow who had buried several husbands; the faithful widow wearing black until her own death’ (Bradbury, 2011: 390). The lens of culture is a powerful tool in explicating processes and practices of meanings in widowhood. This chapter explores cultural understandings and representations of how widowhood is experienced and is being changed by societal and cultural forces, and how it is understood and represented in research and in the wider cultural context.

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