One might consider the trite, insipid and primarily asexual heroines of Victorian fiction: Esther Summerson in Dickens’ Bleak House, for example. Such portrayals of women as without desire or passion, lacking any kind of sexuality, can be seen as reflecting universal expectations held by the society of the time concerning women in relation to such issues as love, marriage, sexuality, domesticity, and motherhood.
Feminists like De Beauvoir would claim that such universal expectations about the nature and the role of women were used as a means of repression by the male members of the society in which they lived; or rather “protection”, the term which was often used to justify such repression. Women were seen as innocent, morally superior to men, yet both biologically and mentally inferior: it was felt in nineteenth century England that women must be sheltered from moral corruption, a view which can be seen reflected in a number of works of literature.
In the novels of Jane Austen, for example, women are often confined, kept from the outside world, and men are careful to avoid discussing “shocking” or morally corrupt information such as Harriet Smith’s illegitimacy in Emma in their presence. However, the women in such works rarely express dissatisfaction at their purely domestic lot, seeking amusement in feminine pastimes such as music and drawing.
In opposition to this, one might consider Ibsen’s heroine in Hedda Gabler, a play in which Hedda begs Ejlert Lovborg to tell her stories of his nights of dissipation, longing to be a part of this solely masculine world, and dreads the confinement of pregnancy and motherhood, the biological and domestic fetters common to her sex, ultimately choosing death over domesticity. The confinement of women in Victorian society and literature is expressive of the belief that men only were an autonomic, unified, rational self.
It was this belief which was used to justify the deprivation of employment and thus economic independence for women, forcing them into domesticity, servitude and isolation. Women were denied entirely the right to any kind of independence, prevented from owning property, voting or divorcing an abusive husband, a problem which is represented and challenged in Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, in which Helen Graham deserts her alcoholic and philandering husband in order to morally safeguard her son Arthur.
Unhappy marriages such as Helen’s, though they may be uncommon in the majority of Victorian literature, were nevertheless present in the reality of Victorian society. It can be seen that such problems could have arisen from the so-called “marriage market”, the virtual sale of a woman by her family in an arranged marriage.
Elaine Showalter writes on the sale of women through marriage in her feminist deconstruction of Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge, which begins with the literal sale by Michael Henchard of his wife and infant daughter at a fayre. Showalter remarks wryly that “Patriarchal societies do not readily sell their sons, but their daughters are all for sale sooner or later” (in Modern Literary Theory: A Reader, by Philip Rice and Patricia Waugh).
It can even be observed that this “marriage market” was central to a woman’s life and upbringing in the nineteenth century; in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, for example, Mrs Bennett talks solely of marrying off her five daughters, encouraging them to flirt and make themselves attractive to men, and is incensed when her daughter Elizabeth turns down a lucrative proposal of marriage. It can be perceived that both Mrs Bennett and her daughters, and Victorian heroines in general, are products of an upbringing looking forward to and entirely based on their marriage prospects.
Hence in literature, whether or not the heroine supports or challenges this convention of “the marriage market” (for example, by marrying outside her social class, as Shirley Keeldar does in Charlotte Bronte’s Shirley), it can be observed that within nineteenth century literature, women were portrayed as being solely defined by their relationships and the concept of being “in love”; while men may define themselves through political, economic or intellectual means, the only option for a woman was to find meaning in life via her personal relationships, in particular her relationship with a man, which would eventually lead to a new, all-absorbing purpose in life: that of domesticity and motherhood.
Even apparent feminist writers such as the Brontes, whose novels were considered shocking when first published (as much for the gender of the writers as that of their heroines), submit to this convention. Jane Eyre eventually relinquishes her independence, returning to Thornfield to marry Rochester, just as Cathy in Wuthering Heights is defined through her love for Heathcliff, although their love is adulterous. Patricia Stubbs refers to this convention of the definition of women through feeling in her book, Women and Fiction, saying “the need to love and be loved finally submerges all other essentially feminist issues”. While men within literature are defined through their rationality, women find meaning in life solely through emotion.
Another important issue in discussing the role of women in literature is that of The Body, and its portrayal in literary texts. The portrayal of the female body in literature can be seen as emphasising De Beauvoir’s notion of “the myth of woman”. In nineteenth century literature, for example, in the majority of cases the body is described only as far as it expresses the character of the woman the author is describing, through her facial features and dress, as in this description of Harriet Smith in Jane Austen’s Emma, for example: She was short, plump and fair, with a fine bloom, blue eyes, light hair, regular features and a look of great sweetness (“Emma”, p 23)
No reference is made to any parts of the body which might indicate sexuality in a woman; generally, this issue is avoided altogether, its existence denied as women are desexualised, as in Dickens, in which the women are always affectionate but never shown to be sexually attracted to their lovers, or sexuality is referred to only through suggestion and euphemism, as in Jane Eyre, in which hands and eyes are often substituted for penises, and the word “vitals” used for female genitalia: He had a rounded, muscular, and vigorous hand, as well as a long, strong arm. (“Jane Eyre”, quoted in “The Marxist-Feminist Collective,” in Rice and Waugh’s “Modern Literary Theory”, p109)
However, although it does make reference in this veiled way to the existence of a feminine sexual desire rather than denying its existence, even Jane Eyre can be seen as representing a double standard of sexuality: Jane is expected to repress her passionate nature and sexual desire, remaining the chaste Victorian heroine, while it is considered acceptable that the married Rochester has had a string of mistresses. Later works of fiction are less wary about descriptions of the female form; in Lawrence, for example, one finds this description, in which the writer refers openly to the girl’s bosom without evasion or euphemism: She was a handsome girl with a bosom, and dark hair and blue eyes, a girl full of easy laughter, flushed from the sun, inclined to wipe her laughing face in a very natural and taking manner. (“The Rainbow”, p16)
However, even in these cases it can be observed that descriptions of the female form are always aesthetic, always idealised; physical realities of the female body such as menstruation and puberty are overlooked or ignored, while later, post-feminist writers such as Margaret Atwood are not afraid to mention these issues, referring unashamedly to the female body’s biological functions. In her novel The Handmaid’s Tale, for example, the heroine Offred, in a futuristic distopia, finds comfort in the existence a hotel lavatory, recalling her friend Moira’s observation that “everybody shits”. Conversely, the body, in literature as in reality, can also be used to emphasise rather than detract from a woman’s biological differences.
This, too, can be seen as a means of repression: the body is used to place emphasis on the woman’s function as a child bearer, thus often implicitly suggesting this as her sole purpose. In her book The Second Sex, De Beauvoir quotes from Balzac: Pay no attention to her murmurs, her cries her pains; nature has made her for our use and for bearing everything: children, sorrows, blows and pains inflicted by man. (Balzac, “Physiology of Marriage”; quoted in “The Second Sex”, Simone de Beauvoir) Such conceptions concerning a woman’s biological purpose can lead to another myth regarding the nature of women: that of a woman as being a creature of nature, more animalistic and primitive than man.
In literature, this myth can be seen to operate in two ways: either it is presented in the extreme, woman as the monster, a purely animal creature controlled by passion and instinct; or alternatively, the opposite may be presented: woman as a spiritual being, an angel. One might consider the opposition of the mad Bertha Rochester with the saintly Helen Burns in Jane Eyre. However, both of these figures, the angel and the monster, can be seen as outside humanity and into the mythical realm of De Beauvoir’s “eternal feminine”. Jane herself could be viewed as a more realistic representation of a woman, a mix of the Christian faith and charity of Helen Burns and the animalistic passion and desire of Bertha Rochester, which she must learn to control.
Thus it can be seen that “the myth of woman” is not one myth but a variety of myths concerning stereotypical ideas of the nature of women, all of which have been incorporated in and influenced various works of literature by both male and female writers, whether their purpose was to construct or challenge the myth. In order to illustrate the points I have raised in this essay, I will attempt a feminist deconstruction of Charlotte Bronte’s novel Shirley in relation to “the myth of woman”. It can be perceived that this novel attempts to challenge traditional constructs within Victorian literature concerning “the myth of woman” in its portrayal of Shirley Keeldar, a character who not only has a traditionally male name, but who runs her own estate and by her own admission sees “a newspaper every day” (Shirley, chapter 18, paragraph 59).
Shirley refuses to allow herself to become a victim of “the marriage market” by letting her uncle force her into marriage with her titled suitor Sir Philip Nunnely, nor does she accept an advantageous proposal of marriage from Robert Moore, a local mill owner. It could be argued that Shirley is in every way a feminist. However, it can also be suggested that, as much as Shirley can be viewed as a feminist, at the end of the novel she too, like other Victorian heroines, allows “the need to love” to “submerge all other essentially feminist issues” when she marries Louis Moore, thus relinquishing control of her estate to him, a representative of the patriarchy. Thus even Shirley is ultimately defined through her emotions and love relationships. In spite of this, the reader finds it hard to appreciate Shirley’s submission to marriage as an injustice.
The narrator encourages her readers to feel that Shirley submitted to Louis not only because she loved him but because he was the right man for her, one who would not abuse her submission and the power she relinquishes to him. It is seen as a natural progression, from the master and pupil relationship they had previously to the relationship of husband and wife. It is suggested that the narrator approves of this arrangement: his rationality is seen as a check for her flaws, and in particular her passionate nature. The narrator’s implied approval of Louis Moore as Shirley’s husband can be seen in relation to the portrayal of the other male characters and potential suitors for the two heroines, Shirley Keeldar and Caroline Helstone, within the novel: in particular, the representation of masculinity which is demonstrated through them.
The curate Malone, while courageous, hearty and quintessentially masculine, is ridiculed by the narrator for his harsh, coarse and stupid nature. In direct contrast, the characters of the other curate, Sweeting, and Sir Philip Nunnely are portrayed as weak, over-sensitive and effeminate, although they are treated with more respect and approval by the narrator than is the character of Malone. It is regarded as obvious, however, that neither Caroline nor Shirley could love such effeminate men. By comparison, their future husbands, Robert and Louis Moore, present a happy medium, combining masculine courage with sensitivity and intelligence. Robert, however, is not presented in the same way as his brother Louis.
He is portrayed as essentially flawed, a selfish materialist who encourages then ignores his cousin Caroline, who he knows is in love with him, until she becomes dangerously ill. However, the narrator implicitly suggests that his love for Caroline helps him to develop into a better man; thus the redemptive power of love allows the narrator’s approval concerning his eventual marriage to Caroline. Indeed, this can be seen as the only ending for the relationship of Robert and Caroline. While she is intelligent and sensitive, Caroline is not depicted as having the physical and mental energy of Shirley; she is more the passive heroine we find in other works of Victorian literature.
Her love-sickness over Robert Moore which causes her to become seriously ill, her immediate acceptance, without resentment, of the mother who abandoned her, and her acceptance of life as an old maid if she cannot marry Robert, all seem to be standard to this kind of heroine; thus Caroline’s marriage to Robert at the end of the novel, in spite of his ill-treatment and manipulation of her throughout, can be seen as the only possible destiny for her, since her life revolves solely around one man in a way Shirley’s does not. De Beauvoir’s notion of “the myth of woman” can also be observed in the portrayal of the two old maids in the novel, Miss Mann and Miss Ainley, who Caroline goes to visit when contemplating her future as a spinster.
Like Miss Bates in Emma, they are subjected to the mockery and ridicule of those around them, ostracised from a society in which marriage is considered the norm, defining themselves through good works, poor with no husband to support them and no possibility, because of their gender, of economic independence. While both are examples of “the myth of woman” in that both represent traditional ideas of the old maid in Victorian England, they are seen also as opposites; Miss Ainley is depicted as the saintly, maternal figure who accepts current hardships by thinking of a heavenly reward, whereas in contrast is the character of Miss Mann, the sad, embittered old maid who can’t help but be resentful of the society which created her.