Essay, Research Paper
It all started when God made woman second:
The Woman Question
The woman question was not born when Eve ate the apple; no, it all began when Eve was created second. God can t be at fault for the woman question ; after all, men wrote the bible. A man wrote a story about creation: Man is born first and is given life by the Almighty. Woman is born second and is given life by the Almighty and from the rib of the first man. Hence, woman could not have existed without man. The shortcomings of females began early on and have persisted throughout the history of this world even into present day. The subordinate status of woman is based primarily on her supposed inferior intellect; because woman is less intelligent than man is, she should be submissive to and dependent on the superior gender. Additionally, a woman should have attributes that are considered to be feminine: tenderness of understanding, unwordliness and innocence, domestic affection, and, in various degrees, submissiveness. 1(1719). Women and men alike of England began to question gender-specific roles during the 19th century. Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Alfred Lord Tennyson and Robert Browning were prominent authors during the Victorian Era who voiced their opinions on the gender debate through poetry and persona.
In Aurora Leigh, Elizabeth Barrett Browning presents a refreshing character that rebels against the Victorian norm. Additionally, she creates Aurora Leigh s aunt as a character foil to reveal the true feminist nature of Aurora. The epitome of the ideal Victorian woman, Aurora Leigh s aunt is everything she is not. Browning employs cold, sharp images to delineate the aunt s appearance: Her somewhat narrow forehead braided tight brown hair pricked with gray/ By frigid used of life a nose drawn sharply (1181). Aurora Leigh s aunt has the appearance of a cloistered woman and leads the life of one as well. Leigh explains, She had lived, we ll say, / a harmless life, she called a virtuous life which was not a life at all (1181). Aurora equates her aunt s virtuous life with a restrictive, stifling existence. Not only does the aunt lead a structured life; additionally, she adheres to the traditional gender roles (or rules) established by man in a man s world. The lord-lieutenant looking down sometimes The apothecary looked on once a year (1181). These male, authority figures feel it is their duty as Christians and, more importantly, as men to look upon the aunt who has no man in her life to take care of her. Leigh s aunt does not object to the men fathering her, but instead, exercised her Christian gifts/ of knitting stockings and continues to fill her female role in a males society (1181). Aurora perceives her aunt s traditional role playing as A sort of caged bird life and describes herself as, A wild bird scarcely fledged, who was brought to her cage (1182). Perhaps Browning employs the bird metaphor to invoke sympathy in the reader for Aurora Leigh. By doing so, the reader develops sympathy for the advancement of women in society. Also, in portraying Aurora s aunt in a negative fashion, the aunt s opinion becomes less credible. For instance, the aunt hates Aurora s Tuscan mother who had fooled away/ A wise man from wise courses, a good man/ From obvious duties (1182). The aunt s opinion of her late brother s wife reflects the collective Victorian attitude towards women. Hence, women are foolish creatures who lead men astray. One may also notice that the aunt gives no responsibility to her brother; a silly woman is completely at fault. The aunt now feels it is her obligation as a moral, Christian woman to assure that Aurora will not turn out like her mother for, She misliked women who are frivolous (1184). Instead, She liked a woman to be womanly, / And English women were models to the universe (1185). The aunt s convictions perfectly reflect the ideals placed on women by Victorian society. Aurora, a true feminist at heart, rails against these ideals. She remarks sardonically:
The works of women are symbolical.
We sew, sew, prick our fingers, dull our sight,
Producing what? A pair of slippers, sir,
To put on when you re weary (1185).
Desperately questioning the complacent behavior of women, Aurora is asking why a woman should have to destroy her body to serve a man. Aurora does not subscribe to the idea of a complacent woman. Her complete rejection of Victorian ideals is evident when she turns down her cousin s marriage proposal. She reasons to him, You have a wife already whom you love, / Your social theory I am scarcely meek enough/ To be the handmaid of a lawful spouse. Leigh refuses to marry Romney because she knows that he isn t in love with her, but rather with an ideal woman; Leigh knows she is not and never can be the Victorian ideal. Evident in Aurora s unhappiness in England, her opinion of her caged bird aunt, and her rejection of Romney are Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s convictions on woman s place in society. Through use of persona, Browning fully embodies the pre-feminist movement.
In his The Lady of Shallot , Alfred Lord Tennyson creates a female character who represents the embowered woman of the 19th century. The Lady is ideal in all aspects. The purpose of her dwelling, which Tennyson describes as Four gray walls, and four gray towers, is to protect her from the world. Tennyson may, however, be pointing out that the walls and towers confine and isolate the Lady. Tennyson also employs several other symbols to represent the traditional role of women in society. One of these symbols is the Lady weaving A magic web with color s gay (1205). Weaving is a conservative activity a woman could do to keep her hands busy. Inherent in the context of this activity is the attitude that women have nothing better to do than keep their hands busy; by not being idle, a woman is less likely to think or to cause trouble. The mirror, in line 65, is also a symbol. It is only through the mirror that the Lady perceives the world. Therefore, she sees the world in an ideal, mediated way. The mirror also may suggest that it is a second-hand world for women. The Lady seems as though she is content in her mediocre life, until Lancelot rides by. Perhaps it is Lancelot s freedom that inspires the Lady to take action, or the mere sight of him. Nonetheless, the Lady of Shallot took action: She left the web, she left the loom, / She made three paces through the room Out flew the web and floated wide; / The mirror cracked from side to side (1206). This passage indicates that the Lady abandons her traditional way of life. The mirror cracking symbolizes that the Lady is about to experience the world in a non-mediated way. As soon as the Lady takes action, Tennyson shifts to less pleasing images of Camelot: In the stormy east wind straining, / The pale yellow woods were waning, / The broad stream in his banks complaining (1206). The images are real to the Lady and not as inviting as her former disillusioned world. The question of woman s place is further explored in the death of the Lady:
Heard a carol, mournful, holy,
Chanted loudly, chanted lowly,
Till her blood was frozen slowly,
And her eyes were darkened wholly (1207)
Tennyson could be suggesting that death is the consequence for a woman who takes action and that a woman should be happy in an ideal world. From a feminist approach, perhaps he is suggesting that a woman should take action, no matter what consequences may arise. Lancelot s attitude on women however is clear. Upon finding the late Lady of Shallot, Lancelot laments, She has a lovely face; / God in his mercy lend her grace, / The Lady of Shallot (1208). Lancelot wonders not why the Lady is dead, but thinks only of her appearance. He asks God to be kind to her merely for her beauty. Lancelot s attitude is reflective of the Victorian perspective that a woman is an object to be worshipped (1719). The value of a woman is placed on her beauty and her morals.
Through dramatic monologue in his My Last Duchess , Robert Browning reveals the value that a man s world places on women by creating a character who objectifies women. During a marriage negotiation, the speaker is showing off a portrait of his late wife to the marriage broker. The marriage negotiation itself is insight into what these men and society thought of the value of women. The simple idea that a woman can be bought objectifies and dehumanizes her. The speaker tries to lead the audience to believe that the Duchess was promiscuous by claiming She had/ A heart how shall I say? Too soon made glad, / Too easily impressed (1353). His intent is to invoke sympathy for himself. However, the Duchess was not so impressed by him as to treat him specially. The Duke becomes jealous and reveals this when he tells the broker, She thanked men as if she ranked/ My gift of a nine-hundred-years old name/ With anybody s gift (1353). In this passage, the Duke reveals his true nature, for if the Duchess really was too easily impressed , then she would be in awe of his nobility and status. Sympathy now shifts to the Duchess. It is really the Duke who is caught up in a material world. Possessions are all important to him. He reveals his lust for possessions when speaking to the marriage broker: His fair daughter s self, as I avowed/ At starting is my object (1353). He blatantly states that he perceives a woman only as an object and a possession. The speaker further reveals his objectification of women as the poem progresses, for he finds it more and more difficult to distinguish between the portrait and his late wife. He announces to the broker, There she stands/ As if alive (1353). It does not matter to the Duke whether the Duchess can speak or think, so she is the ideal woman as a portrait. Not only can he admire just her beauty, but also he can be assured that she won t be giving her attention to other men. Robert Browning is clearly portraying Victorian England s attitude on women through his persona. However, the death of the Duchess makes Browning s personal opinion on women unclear. The Duke gave commands; / Then all smiles stopped together (1353). This passage indicates a warning to the audience that the Duke will not tolerate a woman who is not submissive to him. Therefore, a woman s place is behind man, serving man and never testing the wrath of man.
Though Robert Browning and Alfred Lord Tennyson paint vivid pictures of the 19th century woman, it seems as though they are unsure of the answer to the woman question . Both male authors share an obvious concern as to the question, but neither writer will reveal a solid solution as an answer. Elizabeth Barrett Browning however, not only presents all the injustices in a man s world, but also suggests that perhaps it shouldn t be a man s world. Ending the injustice lies in challenging the collective attitude of an entire society. Not only must woman struggle against the forces of man, but an entire history of inequality as well.