The Cultural Construction of ‘Woman’ throughout history in Western Art & Literature

chasityIn her groundbreaking work, The Second Sex (1949), Simone de Beauvoir argues that contrary to popular belief, femininity, or what it means to be a woman, is not organically or metaphysically predetermined, but culturally determined. Is ‘woman’ a construct? Beauvoir most certainly argued yes and I have to agree, at least in the sense that the literature and art of Western civilization provides much to support her allegation.

For example, in her essay Poses and Passions, Zirka Filipczak reminds us that the poses adopted by men and women in the artwork of the English Renaissance are strategically quite different – whilst men are represented as active (holding a sword, perhaps) and intelligent (hands on a stack of books, for example), women either sit modestly silent, their empty hands crossed demurely across their girdles or, in exceptional circumstances, they hold a bible. Ms Filipczak suggests such poses were sociality established in order to demonstrate those qualities which were most highly prized in each of the respective sexes; there is much to support this too.

For example, during the English Renaissance chastity was the most important virtue in women. Certainly one legitimate reason for this was that men needed to be certain that the sons borne by their wives were actually their rightful heirs. But another important reason was as demonstrated in Ben Jonson’s comedy, Volpone, with the character Corvino – society rains shame upon a man who is cuckolded and hence a man must take every precaution to ensure such a disaster does not happen.

In her novel, Orlando, Virginia Woolf underlines the social determinations of virtues such as chastity when Orlando, her hero turned heroine remembers how ‘as a young man’ she had ‘insisted’ that women should not only be ‘obedient’, ‘scented’, and ‘exquisitely appareled’ but also ‘chaste’. Orlando reflects that this means that now he is a she – I shall now have to ‘pay’ in my ‘own person’ for such desires for certainly now she realises that women by nature are none of these things. But as T.S. Eliot makes clear in his poem The Waste Land, at least in the early 20th century things had not changed much when in the section, ‘The Fire Sermon’, the ‘bored and tired’ typist who casually has sex with ‘her young man carbuncular’ is, through allusion to a poem by Oliver Goldsmith, compared to an 18th century woman, who has likewise ‘stooped to folly’. But the 18th century hides her ‘shame’ fro ‘ev’ry eye’ instead of having audacity, as does the 20th century woman, to ‘pace about her room’ and ‘put a record on the gramophone’.

Another important myth propagated by men (they were, after all, almost inevitably the ones doing the painting and writing) was that women are dependent upon and inferior to them. They did not have to reach any further than the Bible for support of this position. As Woolf made clear in her essay A Room of One’s Own, that when resurrecting ‘the dead poet who was Shakespeare’s sister’, one had to look past ‘Milton’s bogey’ and his colourful depiction of man’s fall from the Garden of Eden all because of one woman named Eve. As with the portrait poses, these myths (if one should choose, as I might, to see the Bible as such) force stereotyped roles upon women and if the women fail to conform to these culturally ‘accepted’ standards then all will be lost.

This is amply demonstrated in Kyd’s Renaissance drama, The Spanish Tragedy, when Bel-Imperia dared to love Antonio and not Belthazar as mandated by her brother and father, all hell broke loose; everyone (except her father – no doubt because he was the king) died as the result. The Duchess of Malfi in Webster’s play of the same name provides another example – not only did the duchess (now a widow) marry of her own choosing but she also neglected to preserve her chastity in the eyes of society (she was commonly known as a ‘strumpet’). This gave her brother, Ferdinand, added ammunition when he determined to proceed with her murder.

In the 18th century, Mary Wollstonecraft very capably argued that the problem with women was not that they were by nature irrational and emotional but that they were educated to be thus. Educate women properly, she argued, and they will stop acting like children and instead like adults. Unfortunately for Wollstonecraft, like the Duchess of Malfi she neglected to look after her own chastity and thus provided her detractors enough ammunition to successfully ‘shoot down’ her otherwise legitimate claims. Even by the mid-Victorian times, education for women remained a significant issue as demonstrated by Charlotte Bronte’s heroine, Jane Eyre – one can only imagine how dismal her future would have been had she not escaped from her nasty aunt, Mrs Reed, and (although at some personal expense) received a decent education at Lowood.

Even that however did not ensure her longer-term success as the only paid positions available to her afterwards was as a teacher or governess. As the story of Jane Eyre made clear, even being (or at least demonstrating) oneself to be the intellectual or moral equal/moral superior of a man did not ensure she was thus treated. Lucky for Jane that her Mr Rochester was more a Gothic than Victorian hero. Until the early 20th century such inequality was more than apparent as Virginia Woolf made clear in her novel, To The Lighthouse – whilst Mr Ramsay strutted about thinking great thoughts, his wife Mrs Ramsay sat and knitted stockings for needy children.

Not only did men naturally consider themselves superior to women but they showed significant fear and agitation when a woman like Jane Eyre, did demonstrate herself to be their superior. As Thomas Hardy’s poem, The Ivy Wife, written in the late 19th century about a woman who successfully competes with a man, makes clear such folly will be the ruination of them both.

In summary, Simone de Beauvoir argued that ‘woman’ is a construct at least in the sense that what it means to be a woman is culturally determined. I would have to agree that she has a valid point as there is much evidence throughout the history of Western art and literature to support it. For example, there have been centuries of such works reminding women that ‘chastity’ is their most important virtue and that along with being subservient and inferior to men, if they fail to ensure their behaviour remains within the culturally accepted boundaries all hell will break loose both for them and their households. Such ‘womanly’ concerns were reinforced by their education and attempts by reformers like Mary Wollstonecraft to improve education for women were ‘shot down’ with allegations of her own indifference to chastity. Such concerns have persisted well into the 20th century as has been well documented by male and female writers such as Woolf, Hardy and T.S. Eliot.

Representations of Gender in Modernist Literature – Virginia Woolf & TS Eliot

A Room of Ones OneModernism has been seen as a response to widespread concern that the traditional ways of representing the world distort actual experience. In The Cambridge Introduction to Modernism, Pericles Lewis suggests that modernist literature attempts to respond to this ‘crisis of representation’ by creating literature that is radically different. Attitudes toward gender relations were shifting during this period and thus I suggest that modernist writers like Virginia Woolf and TS Eliot seized upon using radically different representations of gender in order to explore their own take on the gender-related concerns of modernity.

Woolf wrote extensively regarding women’s access to a level playing field – be it in marriage or the learned professions. In her essay A Room of One’s Own, she muses suggestively on the fate of William Shakespeare’s imagined sister, Judith, who, although as talented as her brother met with a very different results purely because of her sex. After running away from home to pursue her writerly goals, poor Judith would have been denied the same opportunities to display her talents as her brother would have enjoyed – and hence finally broken by the societal ‘ideas and prejudices’ that blighted her life, after committing suicide and instead of being enshrined as would be her brother, lay buried at ‘some crossroads’ where the ‘omnibuses now stop outside Elephant and Castle’.

In her novel, To The Lighthouse, Woolf evoked images of her own parents to demonstrate the inequalities of the sexes in marriage. Whilst Mr Ramsey (so gruff that he excited in his children such ‘extremes of emotion’ that they fanaticised ‘gashing a hole in his breast’ with any handy sharp object) strutted about pondering great things such as the philosopher David Hume, ‘enormously fat’ and ‘stuck in a bog’, his long-suffering wife, Mrs Ramsey (adored by her numerous children), charitably knitted stockings for the Lighthouse keeper’s son (with a ‘tuberculosis hip’). But whilst Mr Ramsey lived a long, literary life littered with accolades, Mrs Ramsey died young having burned herself out in the service to others (Mr Ramsey was especially needy).

In another novel, Orlando, Woolf evoked representations of the androgynous Tiresias who as punishment for affronting the goddess Hera, was forced to experience life as both a man and a woman. Whilst as a man, the character Orlando lived and loved in unfettered freedom, eventually being appointed ambassador to Constantinople where between long, luxurious lunches, he was ‘kept busy’ with the ‘wax and seals’ and ‘various coloured ribbons’ of officialdom. However upon becoming a woman, Orlando was ‘forced to consider her position’ and with the ‘coil of skirts about her legs’ concluded her life now revolved solely around preservation of her chastity – that ‘jewel’ and ‘centre-piece’ – laying at the foundation of womanhood.

Tracy Hargreaves (Androgyny in Modern Literature) has suggested that for a broad range of writers, the androgyne has signalled both cultural regeneration and degeneration – a disruption in ‘normative’ gendered identities which can be seen as being ‘divine or reviled’. But whilst Woolf takes the position that such disruption would be divine, Eliot seems to suggest that as women become more like men, society suffers.

Certainly this is the picture he presents in his poem, The Waste Land when in the section entitled The Fire Sermon, the ‘bored and tired’ typist returns home from work ‘at teatime’ and ‘lays out food in tins’ before coupling indifferently with her equally uninspiring ‘small house agent’s clerk’. As is well known, androgynous beings cannot reproduce and impotency is an important theme of The Waste Land – much of its symbolism suggestive of the myth of the Fisher King whose damaged sexuality was the cause of his kingdom being infertile and drought-stricken (the poem invokes this from the beginning commenceing with ‘April is the cruellest month, breeding’).

In his notes accompanying The Fire Sermon, Eliot states that Tiresias was the most ‘important personage’ in the poem, ‘uniting all the rest’. After witnessing the grim love-making of the typist and clerk, the speaker (presumably still Tiresias), making an allusion to Oliver Goldsmith’s poem When Lovely Woman Stoops to Folly), looks wistfully back in time to the 16th century when a woman ‘knew’ her place as a woman (after illicit promiscuity, she could only hide her shame and die) rather than lackadaisically turning on her ‘gramophone’ as did the ‘bored and tired’ typist, saying ‘Well now that’s done’ and ‘I’m glad its over’ as perhaps might a man. Such reversals of gender can only spell trouble – for with the departure of normative gendered identities all hope of cultural regeneration is now lost (keeping in mind that Tiresias could prophesize the future) and our own civilisation is now destined to fall away as did Carthage – ‘burning burning burning burning’.

Whispers from a Secret Life – The poetry of Christina Rossetti

Christina RossettiSome have suggested that the work of Christina Rossetti revolves around a secret, which she was either unwilling or unable to disclose (D’Amico, 173). Whether or not this is true, the usefulness of viewing her poetry as ‘whispers from a secret life’ is debatable because we no longer place emphasis on authorial intent.

But this was not the case when Rossetti was writing. Indeed, while ‘psychoanalysing’ an author might, today, be considered to commit the ‘sin’ of intentional fallacy, the study of an artist’s life to explain her work – and vice versa – was an established practice during Rossetti’s lifetime (Wright, 34).

This essay is intended as a brief ‘psychobiography’ through which to explore facets of Rossetti’s ‘secret’ as represented through several of her poems. In no way, however, am I trying to prove or disprove that a secret existed. Even if that were possible, I agree with Ms D’Amico (176) that attempting to explain Rossetti’s poetry through a single secret does not allow her to be the complex, fully-rounded poet that she undoubtedly was. I do believe, however, that this approach shines an interesting light on Rossetti as a person.

Biographers note that when young, Rossetti was passionate and wilful. She had more than the usual difficulties conquering her childish desires (Marsh, 13). Hence I have chosen to use classical Freudian (Id-Psychology based) Literary Criticism which asserts that all art and literature fulfils some repressed infantile desire of its creator much in the same way as do dreams (Wright, 28). Even though contemporary literary criticism often frowns on Freud’s patriarchal (phallas-centred) approach, I suggest it is appropriate for Rossetti who not only lived in a very patriarchal society, but also in a patriarchal household. Further, although literature is not the same as dreams in the sense that an author retains significant control over representation of her ‘repressed reality’, in Freudian terms this does not alter the fact that (1) such repression exists and (2) that it will find expression (Wright, 27).

In the Freudian context, this almost always relates to the Oedipal complex. A young girl like Rossetti, once bound to her mother through homosexual desire, must turn that desire toward father and the wish for his baby (Blass and Simon, 169). Perhaps such a desire would give rise to secrecy in a such a passionate, yet religious, young girl like Rossetti? In any event, to resolve her complex, the young girl must turn away from father back to mother with whom she must identify. This is key to successful integratation into society as a wife and mother in her own right (Eagleton, 135).

Freudian psychoanalytic theory purports that tension exists between these infantile desires and their expression. Freudian (Id-Psychology based) Literary Criticism claims this tension is channelled (consciously or not) by an author into her work (Wright, 18). Hence in investigating Rossetti’s poetry, I will look for tension in regards to setting, characters, and emotion (Wright, 27).

Winter: My Secret is considered to be Rossetti’s signature poem in regards to secrets. The tension is whether or not a particular secret shall be revealed. Usually, the title of a poem is meant to reveal important information about it and a colon indicates that which follows explains or illustrates that which precedes. Winter is a dark, dead time when people are reluctant to go outside. Might winter be symbolic of Rossetti’s well documented secluded life in later years? If so, might it at least in part, have resulted from the secret?

Today, the secret cannot be told; it ‘froze, and blows, and snows’. That which is frozen connects through rhyme with ‘knows’ and ‘shows’. Might the secret be frozen? Although rhyme also suggests a light-hearted ‘gaming’ attitude (perhaps there is no secret but just ‘my fun’), the scansion is at odds with such gaiety – it is illusive and evasive and, perhaps like the emotions underlying it, the metre is an untidy jumble.

Might this light-hearted attitude be a ploy?

Winter: My Secret is structured as a dramatic monologue the major feature of which is the speaker’s desire to achieve a purpose (Pearsall, 68). Here the speaker is attempting to establish herself (the veil suggests the speaker is female) as more powerful than her silent listener. How could she be expected to let down her guard to ‘test’ his or her ‘good will’ with so much potential for ‘nipping’ and ‘biting’ and ‘pecking’? Not only that, but giving in would unveil her – strip her cloak – exposing her to the ‘draughts’ that come ‘whistling’ through her ‘halls’. Would revelation of the secret cause her to being literally ‘frozen out’ in her own home?

While there is little evidence that Rossetti had a difficult relationship with her mother, we do know that during her father’s illness she was more or less forced to be his constant, sole companion (Marsh 47). There is the suggestion that her father, confusing Christina with her mother whom she resembled, might have made excessive demands on her (Marsh, 48). What these might have been, we ought not to conjecture. But we can surmise the scene was set for Rossetti’s Oedipus complex to unfold.

The poem shifts to spring and summer. Yet the secret remains untold. Issues of ‘trust’ endure as does the continued threat of ‘frost’ that ‘withers’ May flowers (virginity?). During the time of her father’s illness, Rossetti, well-developed for her age, changed from a ‘quick-tempered’ but ‘affectionate girl’ to a ‘painfully controlled young woman’ who was ‘mistrustful of the world and of her own self’ (Marsh 49). It was also during this period that she started to self-harm (Marsh, 50). Both suggest the Oedipal complex was in full swing (Gardner, 72).

The poem ends in limbo. The secret will be revealed only at such impossible time as there is ‘not too much sun nor too much cloud’ and ‘the warm wind is neither still nor loud’. Might the speaker also be in limbo in regards to her secret? If so, there are many possible reasons. However in terms of Freudian theory, the most likely is that her Oedipal complex has failed resolve. More often than not, the Oedipal complex is not enacted physically but psychologically. Father is the king and daughter, the princess. But as Rossetti reached sexual maturity, her father became old and ill. If ever he was, he is kingly no more. Rossetti’s biographers suggest she found this extremely difficult with which to deal (Marsh, 49). Possibly, she discovered other ‘father’ figures upon which to hang her desires? Her brother revealed she did hold a ‘rather unusual feeling of deference’ to the (male) head of the family in later years (Marsh, 48). At any rate, there is more than a hint that she never came to grips with her sexuality vis a vis men.

Men, Freud claims, separate women into either mothers/sisters or prostitutes. While symbolising the mother, a woman is a ‘forbidden oedipal object-choice’; she is to be married, not sexually desired. A wife must reciprocate her husband’s establishing her as an asexual mother (‘angel in the house’) so that he may pursue the ‘prostitute’ while avoiding his own Oedipal guilt (Chodorow, 239). Freud does not suggest how this might affect women who may or may not have successfully completed their own Oedipal journeys (he claimed his understanding of women was ‘shadowy and incomplete’, Chodorow, 246). But it is not hard to imagine that these ‘angels in the house’ might resent their sexually promiscuous ‘rivals’.

A recurring theme in Rossetti’s poetry was that of the ‘fallen woman’. This was not unusual. The fallen woman was a recurring leitmotif in Victorian art and literature (D’Amico, 94). However, unlike most artists, Rossetti refused to lay the blame solely on the woman (D’Amico, 95). An Apple Gathering, written in 1857 when Rossetti had already received one of the three marriage offers she would reject, is representative of her approach.

Initially, this poem appears to be either another story of ‘love gone wrong’ or a warning that only virgins become wives. But the use of apples as allegory for the relationship between temptation and ‘original sin’ should not be overlooked. ‘Pink’ apple ‘blossoms’ have been ‘plucked’ (suggesting sexual indulgence) by a young girl for the benefit of her ‘love’. As the result, at harvest (the appropriate time to pick fruit), she has no apples (no husband nor home of her own).

Instead of heaping scorn on herself, however, the speaker turns it on her ‘love’ – for in her eyes, it was he who succumbed to temptation: the ‘rosiest apples offered by ‘plump Gertrude’. How could the speaker’s love be of ‘less worth’ than whatever Gertrude had brought to the table? This is not a standard Victorian response. Even more surprisingly, when the night grew ‘chill’ (the speaker is literally left out in the cold) and her neighbours ‘hastened’ (away), the fallen woman ‘loitered’ and ‘loitered still’, refusing to either tragically fade or die as was socially expected (D’Amico, 102). Given her religious values and social position, it is puzzling why Rossetti would have strayed so far from the party line. Had she perhaps, like the fallen women in her poetry, also succumbed to temptation?

Rossetti often wrote sympathetically about the Eve, ‘the first mother’. Her stance was that, being deceived by Satan (master of guile), Eve’s only error was one of mistake. Adam, on the other hand, was not mistaken. His was not an error of judgement, but one of will (D’Amico, 126). That Rossetti failed to wholesale adopt the angelic ‘mother’ imagery of her time suggests that, having commenced her Oedipal cycle, she failed to complete it by returning to identify with ‘mother’. For Freud, this would account for her apparent inability to form appropriate adult heterosexual relationships. It would also account for her retreat into religion; Freud believed religion was an attempt to master or control the Oedipus complex.

This brings us to the last of Rossetti’s poems that I wish to consider. Up-Hill is hauntingly – yet subtly – evocative of religious imagery (‘day’ and ‘night’ suggests life and death and the weary traveller ‘seeking’ a ‘resting place’ at an ‘inn’ is often used to signify Christians seeking redemption).

Like Winter: My Secret, Up-Hill also focuses on secrets, albeit of a different kind. Like Winter: My Secret, Up-Hill adopts a playful, rhyming tone. Unlike Winter: My Secret, however, the secret in Up-Hill will be freely given if only the seeker knows how to ask. Up-Hill is not a dramatic monologue. The speaker does not necessarily have a purpose to achieve. Instead, it is structured as a question and answer sequence with two speakers, both fully articulated and engaged. They are not equals, however and their relationship is more akin to that of teacher/student or, perhaps because of the riddle-like nature of the responses, that of guru/disciple.

Most importantly, the primary speaker in Up-Hill no longer is anxious or threatened as she was in Winter: My Secret. This suggests that he or she (there is no clue as to the speaker’s sex in Up-Hill) has found solace – perhaps even forgiveness – in religion. As with Eve, ‘the first’ mother’, his or her past sins will be washed away and as Rossetti desired for Eve, this speaker plans to be among the forgiven on resurrection day (D’Amico, 129). This is not to suggest that Rossetti definitively found resolution of her Oedipus Complex (or her secret) in religion. However, it is well-known that she turned down three marriage offers in a society where marriage was expected and, as she grew older, she took increasing solace in her religion.

In summary, while no conclusions can be drawn regarding whether Rossetti’s work revolved around a secret (or whether or how she resolved her Oedipal complex), I believe that by looking through the lens of ‘whispers from a secret life’, we can view Rossetti and her work in new and engaging ways.






Blass, Rachel and Bennet Simon. “The development and vicissitudes of Freud’s ideas on the Oedipus complex (161-174). The Cambridge Companion to Freud. ed. by Jerome Neu. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (online) 2006.

Chodorow, Nancy J. “Freud on Women” (224-248). The Cambridge Companion to Freud. ed. by Jerome Neu. Cambridge University Press (online) 2006

D’Amico, Diane. Christina Rossetti: Faith Gender and Time. Baton Rouge; Louisiana State University Press (1999).

Devlin, Rachel. “Acting out the Oedipal Wish: Father-Daughter Incest and the Sexuality of Adolescent Girls in the United States, 1941-1965.” Journal of Social History, Spring 2005, Vol. 28, No. 3, pp. 609-633.

Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory: An Introduction. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press (1996).

Frankland, Graham. Freud’s Literary Culture. Port Chester, NY: Cambridge University Press (2000).

Gardner, Fiona. Self-Harm: A Psychotherapeutic Approach. ed. by Patrick Parrinder. London: Routledge (2013).

Hassett, Constance W. Christina Rossetti: The Patience of Style. Charlottesville; University of Virginia Press (2005).

Marsh, Jan. Christina Rossetti: a literary biography. London: Jonathan Cape (1994).

Pearsall, Cornelia DJ. “The Dramatic Monologue” (67-88). The Cambridge Companion to Victorian Poetry. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (online) 2006.

Peck, John and Coyle, Martin. Practical Criticism. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan ((1995).

“Religion as an attempt to master the oedipus complex.” Freud Museum London. (3 April 2014).

Wright, Elizabeth. Psychoanalytic Criticism: A Reappraisal. Cambridge: Polity Press (2nd ed.) 1998.


Cosmology and the Fate of Hardy’s Tragic Heroines


imagesTo what extent are Hardy’s tragic protagonists themselves responsible  for the fate that overtakes them?

I suggest that depends on cosmology.


As scientific advancements in the 19th century made it difficult for Hardy to accept his Christian cosmology, he looked for alternatives (Inghan, 181). I suggest that Hardy mixes and matches them to such a degree that it is virtually impossible to assess responsibility.

Using a working definition of cosmology as a theory of the universe as an ordered whole and of the general laws which govern it (OED a), I propose to investigate what I believe to be the three primary cosmologies (i.e. Anglo-Saxon, ancient Greek, and Hardy’s version of Christianity) in his Wessex novels in relation to two of his tragic heroines – Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Eustacia Vye. I will explore whether under any of these individual cosmologies, Tess and Eustacia might be responsible for their ‘fate’ and whether such ‘fate’ would remain ‘tragic’.

Hardy noted that ‘tragedy exhibits a state of things in the life of an individual which unavoidably causes some natural aim or desire of his to end in a catastrophe when carried out (Lathe, 115).

As initially portrayed by Hardy, Tess is ‘tragic’. She desires and aims to be happy with Angel (‘if you could only half know…how anxious I was to have him’ – Tess, 360), yet she also knows that because of her past, this cannot be. Still, she marries him and then ‘blabs’ the truth (Tess, 360). Must this ‘unavoidably’ lead to catastrophe? As the narrator points out, ‘if Tess had been artful’, things ‘would probably’ have been different (Tess, 356). Nonetheless, for whatever reason, she is not artful and catastrophe ensues.


Eustacia is likewise ‘tragic’. She desires and aims to use Clym to escape the Heath knowing it is unlikely he will return to Paris (as he has said numerous times). Yet for whatever reason (she admits that he’d given her no hope – RON, 242), she remains committed to her task and when it cannot be accomplished through Clym, she reengages with Wildeve (‘help me as far as Budmouth,’ she begs him, ‘so I can get to Paris, where I want to be’, RON, 334). Must this ‘unavoidably’ lead to catastrophe? The circumstances under which Eustacia drowns would, on the surface, appear avoidable. Perhaps it is only occurs because ‘having resolved on flight’, Eustacia ‘could not rest indoors’, and Susan Nunsuch, having seen her as a ‘figure in a phantasmagoria’, sticks those pins in that voodoo doll?


This brings us to the relationship between fate and free will, or providence and responsibility. Although fate can mean simply ‘what happens’, more often it implies some degree of determinism, whereby ‘human action is not free but necessarily determined by motives, which are regarded as external forces acting upon the will’ (OED 1).


Fate in this sense was a key feature of Anglo-Saxon cosmology (Trahern, 160). Clearly Hardy’s writing was influenced by Anglo-Saxon cosmology for not only does he make significant use of the memorials and monuments of these older people (for example, barrows in RON and Stonehenge in Tess), but he also sets his novels in Wessex, the Anglo-Saxon kingdom that disappeared about the time of the Norman Conquest (Utter, 129).


In Anglo-Saxon cosmology, fate always plays out against one’s ‘ancestry’ (Utter, 130). Hardy picks up on this when he makes Tess’s ancient d’Urberville lineage – ‘one of the oldest Norman houses’ (Tess, 513) – such a prominent factor in securing her fate. ‘How Are the Mighty Fallen’ is even engraved on her father’s tombstone (Tess, 519). However, the Anglo-Saxon cosmology was not just one of fate, but also one of heroes – and heroines – who, self-reliant by nature, took whatever action necessary (including natural magic) to further their aims (Utter, 133).


Ostensibly, Tess is completely lacking in such initiative. Perhaps she is more scheming than we are led to believe? Certainly her mother thinks so. Upon hearing Tess’s tearful tale regarding how she ‘blabbed’ to Angel about her past, her mother remarks ‘but you sinned enough to marry him first (Tess, 360).


Yet it is Eustacia who best exemplifies the Anglo-Saxon heroine. We first meet her on bonfire night (a Druidic period of power) as she flits about on the barrows. Perhaps we may be forgiven for suspecting her to be a witch? Even she refers to herself as such when, explaining the purpose of her bonfire to Wildeve, she says that she wanted to triumph ‘over you as the Witch of Endor called up Samuel’ (RON, 66).  But it is her mumming adventure undertaken to ensure she meets Clym before he can return to Paris without her that demonstrates the full extent of her talents.


This is not to suggest, however, that self-reliance is the equivalent to responsibility – at least not in the sense in which we understand it as being ‘answerable or liable to be called to account to another person for something’ (OED 3b).  This concept of responsibility was only marginally present with the ancient Greeks (MacIntyre, 81) and with the Anglo-Saxons, it arises only when their traditional understanding of ‘fate’ becomes contaminated by Christianity (Trahern, 160).


Would Tess’s fate have been different in Anglo-Saxon cosmology? This is doubtful given not only her ‘fallen’ ancestry but also her seeming unwillingness to take positive action to help herself. But perhaps the final determinant is the deterministic mind-set she maintains to the bitter end. ‘It is as it should be’, she murmurs when the men have come to take her away to be hanged (Tess, 550). Can she be held responsible for this catastrophe? Not in our modern sense of being called to account by another – because such a concept did not yet exist.


Would Eustacia’s fate have been different? I suspect so. Her lineage was not tainted and she took every possible action to further her aims. Anglo-Saxon women were not so much under the domination of their men as we have been led to believe (Sarmiento, 1). Had Eustacia not been compelled to rely on a man to get her to Paris, she might well have got there under her own steam. Would she have still drowned? Possibly. Would she have been responsible? Only in the sense that fate is ‘what happens’. Would this ‘fate’ have been ‘tragic’? For Anglo-Saxons, to be killed in the line of heroic action was never tragic (Utter, 130).


Fate was likewise a staple component in the cosmology of ancient Greece but it operated differently. Although fate caused everything to happen, its role was limited to an initial prompt leaving individuals, as co-conspirators in their ‘fate’, free to respond as they chose (Brunschwig and Sedley, 172). Further, the events manifesting from such choices were thought to be causally linked (Hankinson, 282-284).


This cosmology is more in evidence in RON than in Tess. ‘If only’ Tess’s ‘guardian angel’ had been in the Chase protecting her then perhaps she, ‘practically blank as snow’, would not have been caught up in a ‘coarse pattern’ of ‘wrong man’ and ‘wrong woman’. But her angel was not on the job and ‘there lay the pity of it’ (Tess, 109). By contrast, Eustacia did not need to rely on guardian angels. She was ‘the raw material of a divinity’ (RON, 68) and although ‘she seldom schemed’ when she did, her plans ‘showed rather the comprehensive strategy of a general than the small arts called womanish’ (RON, 73).


Eustacia’s greatest desire was to be ‘loved to madness’ (RON, 71). Hence she was the model of the ‘ideal, cheerful, sensuous, pagan life’ that so appealed to Hardy (Pinion, 106). By contrast, Tess represented that which Hardy feared (Pinion, 106) –  ‘that over ‘a long line of disillusive centuries’ the ‘Hellenic idea of life’ has been ‘permanently displaced’ (RON, 167).


Hardy was concerned that with ‘the ache of modernism’ (Tess, 182), life will become a thing to be put up with rather than enjoyed(Pinion, 106). In terms of Greek cosmology, this is the fundamental difference between Eustacia (‘she was so well fitted to enjoy’ – RON, 236) and Tess, who was particularly unsuited for pagan hedonism: ‘(t)he basket was heavy and the bundle was large, but she lugged them along like a person who did not find her especial burden in material things’ (Tess, 113).


Would Tess’s fate have been different in the cosmology of ancient Greece? Unlikely. Since the game required co-conspiracy, ‘(her) soul chooseth strangling and death rather than my life’ (Tess, 182). Would it have ended in catastrophe? With such pessimistic views, it is unlikely it could have been otherwise. Would she have been responsible? Not in the sense that she was answerable to anyone other than herself.


Would Eustacia’s fate have been different? Again, I suspect so. She knew what she wanted and went for it (MacIntyre, 82). I also suspect that, Susan Nunsuch notwithstanding, Eustacia’s story would not have ended in catastrophe this time. Even if it had, to be ‘fit for purpose’ was one of the goals of ancient Greeks (MacIntyre, 8). If a pagan was meant to be cheerful and sensuous, as was Eustacia, she made the grade regardless what happened.


Perhaps Angel expresses Hardy’s own sentiments when he told his father that ‘it might have resulted far better for mankind if Greece had been the source of the religion of modern civilization and not Palestine;’ (Tess, 228). But it was not and while responsibility was only marginally an issue in ancient Greece, it became the raison d’ être of Christianity (Hauerwas, 21).


Possibly it was because of his deep sympathies to the Evangelical cause – (Tess’s clergyman father-in-law was ‘an Evangelical of the Evangelicals’ – Tess, 227 and Clym found his vocation preaching the Sermon on the Mount) – that in his Wessex novels, Hardy favoured Old Testament doctrines of sin and atonement (Stotko, 1). Because the basis of evangelical doctrine is the concept of Original sin (Stotko, 11), it is little surprise that Hardy’s heroes (who could easily ‘imagine (themselves) to be Adam’ – RON, 107) and heroines often seem portrayed ‘(a)s if they were Adam and Eve’ (Tess, 189).


Responsibility (in terms of being called to account to another person) now takes on new meaning – especially for women. The word ‘blame’ is used thirteen times in Tess and eighteen times in RON and while Eustacia is ‘blamed’ by just about everyone for something (for example, by Wildeve for her failed marriage (RON, 275)) and by the reddleman for Thomasin’s troubles (RON, 92), in the case of poor Tess, ‘(n)obody blamed Tess as she blamed herself (Tess, 52).  In Tess, Hardy created a character who seemed to be more than aware of the hopelessness of her situation. Not only did she name her baby SORROW, but also the word ‘sorrow’  appears twenty-two times in Tess (fifteen times in RON). Early on Tess knew her world was ‘blighted’ (Tess, 48). Eustacia does not realise how ‘blighted’ is her life, until much later (RON, 346).


It is difficult to see how the fate of either Tess or Eustacia could have been much different under Hardy’s version of Christian cosmology. While Eustacia realises her fate only after her mother-in-law dies (‘There is evil in store for me’ – RON, 297 ), Tess’s fate seemed sealed from the beginning (her mother ‘tried her fate in the Fortune-Teller,’ Tess, 42). Even Tess’s atonement through constant self-sacrifice (in the end, she literally becomes a sacrificial victim on the ‘altar’ at Stonehenge) did not get her off the hook. Perhaps it might have been different had she ever actually met up with her Evangelical father-in-law? Sin such as hers was his speciality. Perhaps Eustacia would have repented her pagan ways in time had she not had such a bad experience with Susan Nunsuch pricking her at church (RON, 176)? Doubtless, but possible. As for responsibility, in regards to any cosmology built on the pillars of Original sin, the woman is always to blame.







Burian, Peter. ‘Myth into muthos: the shaping of tragic plot’ (178-208). The Cambridge Companion to Greek Tragedy. ed. P.E. Easterling. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997 (online).


Brunschwig, Jacques and Sedley, David. ‘Hellenistic philosophy’ (151-183). The Cambridge Companion to Greek and Roman Philosophy, ed. David Sedley. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006 (online).


Hall, Edith. ‘The sociology of Athenian tragedy’ (93-126). The Cambridge Companion to Greek Tragedy. ed. P.E. Easterling. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997 (online).


Hankinson, R.J. ‘Philosophy and science,’ (271-299). The Cambridge Companion to Greek and Roman Philosophy. ed. David Sedley. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006 (online).


Hardy, Thomas. Tess of the D’Urbervilles. London; CRW Publishing Limited (2003). (cited Tess).


Hardy, Thomas. The Return of the Native. London: Penguin Books (1999). (cited RON).


Hauerwas, Stanley. ‘On doctrine and ethics’, (21-40). The Cambridge Companion to Christian Doctrine, ed. Colin E. Cunton, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006 (online).


Inghan, Patricia. Authors in Context – Thomas Hardy. Oxford; Oxford University Press (2003).


Lathe, Jakob. ‘Variants on genre: The Return of the Native, The Mayor of Casterbridge, The Hand of Ethelberta’ (112-129). The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Hardy. ed. Dale Kramer, Camridge; Cambridge University Press, 1999 (online).


MacIntyre, Alasdair. A Short History of Ethics. London: Routledge Classics, 1998.


Pinion, F.B. Thomas Hardy: Art and Thought. The Macmillan Press Ltd; London (1977).


Sarmiento, Catori, ‘Reevaluating the Role of Women in Beowulf’. Student Pulse, The International Student Journal, Vol. 4 (2012) pp. 1-21. (12/02/2014).


Stotko, Mary-Ann. ‘Victorian agnosticism; Thomas Hardy’s doomed universe’. Thesis (2009). University of South Africa Insitutional Respository. (13/02/2014).


Trahern , Joseph B. Jr. ‘Fatalism and the millennium (160-171). The Cambridge Companion to Old English Literature, ed. Malcolm Godden and Michael Lapidge. Cambridge; Cambridge University Press, 2006 (online).


Utter, Robert Palfrey. ‘The Work of Thomas Hardy’, The Sewanee Review, Vol. 25 No. 2 (April, 1917), pp. 129-138.


Wiles, David. ‘Aristotle’s Poetics and ancient dramatic theory’ (92-107). The Cambridge Companion to Greek and Roman Theatre. ed Marianne McDonald and Walton J. Michael. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009 (online).




A Critique of Ecriture Feminine

UnknownCan there be a ‘distinctly feminine mode of writing’?

Cixous says yes.

I suggest the better answer is no.

Nearly forty years ago, Helene Cixous made an impassioned argument for the existence of a distinctly feminine mode of writing, or ecriture feminine (Cixous 1976), which she believed might free women from the ‘exclusionary nature of dominant modes of language and writing’ and provide them with a mode in which to speak and write in their own voice (Thaiss, 134-135).

In this essay I will suggest that because western concepts of ‘self’ have changed so significantly from that relied upon by Cixous in forming her argument, that ecriture feminine is no longer possible.

Furthermore, using three brief alternative (traditional, ecriture feminine, and queer) readings of Christina Rossetti’s In An Artist’s Studio (1856; 1896), I will attempt to demonstrate that even if a feminine mode of writing’ does exist, it could not be ‘distinct’ in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED, adj. 3.b) sense that it is individually peculiar and not able to be confounded with another.

Cixous suggests ecriture feminine is necessary because language reflects culture and Western European languages reflect a culture she calls ‘Logocentrism’ – a hierarchical system that underpins the patriarchal and ensures that women detrimentally remain passive partners in relation to men (Hopkins, 324-325). Her position is underpinned by Lacan’s construction of the self, the ‘Mirror Stage’, which relies on the presence of ‘other’ to reflect back the image of ‘self’ (Blyth, 20).

In particular, Cixous was interested in the ‘Imaginary’ and the ‘Real’ which are two of the three overlapping stages in Lacan’s theory of childhood development – the third stage is known as the “Symbolic”. The ‘Imaginary’ is essentially the pre-verbal state inhabited by a child before his or her resolution of the Oedipus complex during which although the child has developed the beginning of a sense of self, he or she remains identified with mother. Like Freud, Lacan believed the bond with mother must be broken in order to resolve the Oedipus complex and like Freud, he believed this happened through a metaphorical castration or  identification with father and the ‘Symbolic’ (Blyth, 20).

Because the transition from the ‘Imaginary’ and the Real’ to the ‘Symbolic’ is a one-way ticket, in patriarchal societies the ‘self’ of a woman is determined by lack (Blyth, 23). This in turn creates ‘the master/slave dialectic’ that Cixous was keen to overcome (Blyth, 23).

The problem as highlighted by Cixous and Lacan is essentially one of binary relationship. In ecriture feminine, the relationship between ‘self’ and ‘other’ is not juxtaposed but jumbled.

This is all very well and good however the self at the heart of any distinctly feminine (or traditional) mode of writing – jumbled or otherwise – remains a singular self and as such can relate only through binary means.

Today, we no longer perceive of self in this way.

According to Kenneth Gergen’s theory of the ‘saturated self’, no longer is there a single ‘self’ but a multiplicity of ‘selves; not only friendship selves, parent selves, child selves, professional selves but also possible selves and ideal selves. Furthermore, although socially constructed like Lacan’s ‘Mirror Stage’ self , Gergen’s ‘saturated self’ does not relate through lack. Instead the ‘saturated self’ has multiple opportunities for interaction and as the result of playing so many roles concurrently, finds it impossible to categorize itself along traditional lines such as gender (Worldviews).

I suggest that progressive theories such as Gergen’s have actually led to the destabilization of binary determinations of gender to such a degree that ecriture feminine as envisioned by Cixous is no longer possible.

For example, Queer Theory, developed in part on ideas about gender put forth in Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble,  suggests that it is meaningless to talk in general terms about ‘women’ or any other group because identities consist of so many elements that people can never be classified by one (Melanson).  Furthermore, based on Butler’s work, Queer theory suggests gender may even be a performance – an imitation – not of an original (gender), but as a parody (or pastiche) of the very notion that there is an original (gender) to be imitated (Butler, 175-176).

In the wake of Queer theory, I suggest that the binary oppositions between ‘feminine and masculine’ supporting Cixous’ ecriture feminine have dissolved. Indeed queer now uses ‘the open mesh of possibilities’ – those ‘gaps, overlaps, dissonances and resonances, lapses and excesses of meaning’ (Bennett, 217) which Cixous once claimed for ecriture feminine.

I further suggest that even if were a ‘feminine mode of writing’, that if the same text can support multiple readings, then it can not be considered ‘distinct’ in the OED sense that it is individually peculiar and not able to be confounded with another.

As an experiment to support my supposition, I purpose the following brief, alternative readings for Christina Rossetti’s In An Artist’s Studio (1856; 1896):

One face looks out from all his canvases,

One selfsame figure sits or walks or leans:

We found her hidden just behind those screens,

That mirror gave back all her loveliness.

A queen in opal or in ruby dress,

A nameless girl in freshest summer-greens,

A saint, an angel — every canvas means

The same one meaning, neither more nor less.

He feeds upon her face by day and night,

And she with true kind eyes looks back on him,

Fair as the moon and joyful as the light:

Not wan with waiting, not with sorrow dim;

Not as she is, but was when hope shone bright;

Not as she is, but as she fills his dream.

1)   Traditional reading – Traditional modes of writing represents the symbolic; they are linear, logical, and authoritative thus reinforcing the master/slave dialectic (Waugh, 336). This poem most certainly does that. It begins with a male artist gazing at one of his canvases – a picture of a woman he has painted. As he ‘feeds upon her face by day and night,” he sees her mainly in terms of frozen poses and the roles in which he has painted her (‘a queen in opal’, ‘a nameless girl’, ‘a saint an angel’). She is ‘hidden’ and comes alive ‘not as she is’ but ‘as she fills his dreams’. This poem is both about contrasting images of reality (the picture vs. the woman) and domination and control. The woman in the picture  is not tolerated to exist on her own but only in relation to the male artist. Once the image is captured on canvas, there is no more room for the expansion of possibilities leaving only a fixed past represented by a single image of the feminine – the ‘other’ – as framed by the patriarchal eye (Hopkins, 314-315).

2)   Ecriture feminine reading – Ecriture feminine focuses heavily on the female body (Blyth, 24-28). This poem is an example of the female body being written into discourse – ‘her face’, ‘her figure’ as she ‘sits or walks or leans’. Ecriture feminine plays with language through pluralistic, non-linear and imaginary techniques (Thaiss, 135) and in the poem, the women is imagined in pluralistic aspects of the Victorian ideal – ‘a queen’, ‘a nameless girl’, as well as a ‘saint’ and ‘angel’. Ecriture feminine desires to establish space in which the self can explore and experience (Butler, 15). Although the form of the poem is traditional (Petrarchan sonnet), the emphasis on the ‘s’ sounds the end of each of the first eight lines (canvases, leans, screens, liveliness, dress, greens, means, less) gives it such a sense of fluidity that also in keeping with ecriture feminine it carries rather than holding back. To avoid essentialism, Cixous couches her distinction of ‘feminine’ in terms of ‘libidinal economies’ – sexually related sensation and experience.  Although we learn nothing of the subject’s actual physical characteristics, in terms of her sensation and experience or jouissance, we are assured she is ‘not wan with waiting’ or ‘with sorrows dim’, but ‘joyful as the light’ which most certainly sounds blissful if not downright heavenly. It is only with the turn in the ninth line of the poem (night) that we plunge into darkness and death, both also important themes in Cixous’ ecriture feminine (Blyth, 42-25).

3)   Queer Theory reading –   Queer readings of literary texts involve ironic reconstructions of traditional gender roles, reimagining supposedly heterosexual characters as closeted gays, and turning formerly marginal forms of pleasure and desire into acceptable, mainstream ones (Post World War II Database). In this poem, a Victorian male artist regards the image of a woman he has painted as if in a ‘mirror’ reflecting various aspects of the Victorian feminine ideal – ‘a queen,’ a ‘nameless girl’ and an ‘angel’ and ‘saint’.  For this artist, these images hold the ‘same one meaning’ and because ‘he feeds upon her face by day and night’ we know they are of serious import to him. Yet we are given no reason for such preoccupation.  We are not even told the relationship the artist has or would like to have with the woman. Queer reading tries to pinpoint ambiguities in traditional gender relationships and evaluate them in ways that do not support traditional roles (Brizee).  Perhaps if the subject of his painting is neither his wife, lover, sister, or muse (as traditionally might have expected) but instead the image the artist might like to appropriate for himself? After all, throughout history, creativity has been associated with the feminine and in regards to male artists, homosexuality. Queer reading also seeks to pinpoint literary devices and strategies that support gay or lesbian social and political experiences (Brizee). Perhaps it is significant then that the woman subject is ‘hidden just behind those screens’? Might the allusion to ‘queen’ (the first image on the list) further suggest homosexuality? According to the OED the word ‘queen’ in respect of homosexuality was already in use when this poem was written (OED, n. 13). Queer reading examines texts in terms of ways they might reveal the social, political, or psychological operations of homophobia (Brizee). Perhaps the image the artist has captured on canvas even ‘fills his dreams’ of the future of gay pride?

In conclusion, if our concept of ‘self’ is no longer singular then identification along binary gender lines (the basis for ecriture feminine) is no longer possible. Furthermore, even if a feminine mode of writing would exist, it can not be distinctive because the same literary text can be read in terms of traditional, ecriture feminine, and queer theory (the later, which interestingly relies on many of the same techniques as ecriture feminine to give voice to yet another marginalised group).



Bennett, Andrew and Royle, Nicholas, An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory, 4th eds., (Harlow: Person Longman, 2009).

Blyth, Ian and Sellers, Susan, Helene Cixous: Live Theory, (London: Continuum, 2004).

Brizee, Allen and J. Case Tompkins, “Gender Studies and Queer Theory (1970’s – present)”, Purdue Online Writing Lab (2/11/2013).

Butler, Judith, Gender Trouble (London: Routledge, (1999).

Castle, Gregory, The Blackwell Guide to Literary Theory, (Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2007).

Cixous, Helene, “The Laugh of the Medusa”, trans. Keith Cohen and Paula Cohen, The University of Chicago Press, Vol. 1, No. 4 (1976), pp 875-893.

Gergen, Kenneth J, The Saturated Self: Dilemmas of Identity in Contemporary Life (New York: Basic Books, 2000).

Hopkins, Chris, Thinking About Texts – An Introduction to English Studies, (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2001).

Melanson, Karen, “Queer Theory: Destabilizing Gender”, (27/10/2013).

Meyers, Diana, “Feminist Perspectives on the Self”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2010), Edward N. Zalta, ed.

Post World War II American Literature and Culture Database (27/10/2013).

Thaiss, Janet Mel, “Viva l’orange: Writing in the Open and Outlawed Space of a Feminine Economy”, Third Space A Journal of Feminist Theory & Culture, Vol. 5, No. 2 (2006).

Worldviews. “Postmodern Psychology and Socially Constructed Selves”. 25/10/2013.

Waugh, Patricia, ed., Literary theory and criticism; an Oxford guide, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).

Feminism and Jane Austen

Was Jane Austen a Feminist?

becoming-janeThis has not been the traditional view.  Indeed it was not until the 1960’s that Austen’s name was associated with feminism in any widespread way.

Although there are as many faces of feminism as one cares to discover, if the works of Austen are to be fairly evaluated, it should be in terms of feminism as it was understood in her time.  To do otherwise (however tempting), would be anachronistic.

This essay evaluates Austen’s portrayal of three of her heroines in regards to the goals of ‘Enlightenment feminism’ which asserted that men and women should share the same moral code in regards to conduct, feelings, and responsibility.

In Emma, despite being ‘handsome, clever, and rich’, we find a heroine flawed.    In economic terms, Emma Woodhouse passes with flying colors; an heiress of £30,000 is not easily dismissed.  But the citizens of Highbury do not value money nearly as much as they do character and in this regard the imperious Miss Woodhouse must learn that she has ‘been used to despise (Highbury) rather too much’.   In other words, Emma’s moral code is lacking and requires remedial work.

But instead of undertaking to improve herself of her own violation, Emma is instructed by Mr Knightly who appears to believe himself the more morally capable of the two (‘I have blamed you, and lectured you, and you have borne it as no other woman in England would have borne it.  Bear with the truths I would tell you now, dearest Emma, as well as you have borne with them.’)

Not surprisingly, it is only when Emma becomes all that Mr Knightly would have her be, that he realizes he is in love with her for we all know the story of Pygmalion, the ancient Greek sculptor who fell in love with (and married) the statue he carved.  We have only to look at how Mr Knightly’s view of Harriet changes (the former ‘fair lady’ become ‘the foolish girl’ and ‘a greater simpleton’) when by refusing Robert Martin’s marriage proposal, she fails to conform to Knightly’s norm.  Luckily for Emma, she had learned her lessons well and so ‘what did she say’ when Knightly declares himself?  ‘Just what she ought, of course’ for ‘a lady always does.’

In Emma, although women may have been portrayed as capable of moral equality, they were also portrayed as incapable of forging a moral code of their own.

Likewise, Fanny Price in Mansfield Park with ‘all her faults of ignorance and timidity’ must be carefully tutored to the standards of her cousin Edmund.

Although Miss Price is oft portrayed as a plucky feminist who finally has the courage to speak her own mind (by refusing to marry Henry Crawford as Sir Thomas Bertramwould have her do), we who have followed her long, steady progress with Edmund know she did not reach that pinnacle on her own.

The scene in the East room provides the perfect example.  One morning Fanny escapes to her ‘nest of comforts’ in order ‘to see if by looking at Edmund’s profile she could catch any of his counsel’.  When in the flesh Edmund arrives to obtain ‘her opinion’ on ‘an evil of such magnitude as must , if possible, be prevented’, he begins by voicing his own.  When finished with his soliloquy, he asks Fanny whether she sees ‘it in the same light’.  When she has the temerity to say ‘no’, he recommends that she ‘think it a little over’ for ‘perhaps you are not so much aware as I am, of the mischief that may’ arise.

When Edmund’s love interest, Mary Crawford, speaks her own mind by refusing to agree with him regarding her brother, Henry’s, adultrous behavior, Mary is out and Fanny is in.  ‘Loving, guiding, protecting her (Fanny), as he (Edmund) had been doing ever since her being ten years old, her mind so great a degree formed by his care’, it should be little surprise that by end of the story he’s fallen in love with her  and ‘acknowledged’ her mental superiority.

However, in Northanger Abby, Catherine Morland, arguably the most feminist of Austen’s heroines, receives a very different moral education – that of first-hand experience (as we might expect with a man).

As a child, Catherine is left largely to her own devices allowing her to early on rely on her own judgment.   Later she navigates Bath with little or no outside guidance and moves on to her next adventure afflicted only by her love of Gothic novels and vivid imagination.   Convinced that General Tilney has murdered his wife, like Pandora she finally commits the unpardonable sin and opens that ‘forbidden door’.

But even then when she receives a dressing down from her love interest,  Henry Tilney (‘consider the dreadful nature of the suspicions you have entertained’ and ‘remember that we are English’ and ‘Christians’), she is asked by him to not to do or think as he would ,but instead to ‘consult your own understanding’ (which she does to her shame).

Once her ‘visions of romance were over’,  she ‘was completely awakened.’  Catherine goes on to win the heart of the man she loves and to ‘begin perfect happiness at’ the age of eighteen, which as Austen reminds us is ‘to do pretty well.’

If the only goal of Enlightenment feminism was that men and women should share the same moral code, then Austen can be said to have wholeheartedly supported this through her fictional characterizations.

However if we look to the basic premise underlying Enlightenment feminism – that women, not having been denied powers of reason, must have the moral status appropriate to ‘rational beings’, formed in the image of a rational God – we must reach a different conclusion.  At least two of the three of Austen’s heroines examined were apparently presumed by the men in their lives as capable not of forging their own moral code, but only of regurgitating that of their lovers.

What 21st Century Women Might Learn From Simone de Beauvoir

We’ve Come A Long Way Baby – But Where Do We Go From Here?

Carrie Bradshaw, feminist icon from the hit series Sex and the City, has a good income of which to dispose as she pleases.  When not shopping for outrageously expensive shoes, she brags about sexual conquests with her female friends. Paradoxically, while enjoying these pursuits once reserved by the patriarchy for men, Carrie dreams of the day that her egoistical and fabulously wealthy prince charming, Mr Big, will sweep her off her prettily shod feet and carry her to patriarchal bliss.

And she’s not the only one.  It is sobering to realise that the immense popularity, especially with younger women, of the feminine paradigm Carrie represents, provides a gauge on how 21st century women view themselves as women.  Increasingly, young women are looking to return at least in part, to the pre-feminist, patriarchal, stereotyped norm.  We’ve come a long way, baby, but where do we go from here?

For help, we might turn to one of the founders of the feminist movement, the existentialist philosopher, Simone de Beauvoir.

In her groundbreaking work, The Second Sex (1949), Beauvoir argues that contrary to popular belief, femininity, or what it means to be a woman, is not organically or metaphysically predetermined, but culturally defined.

Further, to maintain their superior, ‘top dog’, patriarchal position, men perpetrate myths that by their nature, women are dependent upon (and inferior to) them (Beauvoir, 281).  These myths force stereotyped roles upon women, depriving them of their existential freedom to live authentically in accord with their own values, a freedom always enjoyed by men.  To remedy the disparity, Beauvoir calls for economic, political, and reproductive (through birth control and abortion) parity between the sexes.

She does not advocate that men and women be equals.  Nor does she suggest that man is the ideal to which women should aspire.   This would serve only to maintain the perception that women are outsiders trying to infiltrate the norm. She cautions that in her bid for freedom, woman should not abandon her femininity, which (like childbearing) makes her truly different from man.  To do this, would be to renounce a part of her humanity (Mahon, 196). Besides, none the above will achieve the desired goal.  For Beauvoir, each of us necessarily is constrained by his or her situation, the socioeconomic, political, and bodily givens in which we live, work, and play.  It is parity in these respective playing fields that Beauvoir advocates and by definition this presupposes gender difference.

Sixty years later, feminism faces perhaps its most serious challenge.  In her book, Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women, Susan Faludi chronicles the outrage of both sexes that feminists have encouraged women to focus on autonomy, independence, and career (traditional male concerns) at the expense of children and family (traditional female concerns).  Shattered lives and nationwide unhappiness is only result they see.  Have feminists ignored the advice from Beauvoir and forfeited their femininity in order to become pseudo men? Might Carrie and her compatriots be back paddling into the pre-feminist, patriarchal, stereotyped norm in a confused effort to regain their femininity?  Will this get anyone where they want to go?

If the goal is freedom for women – parity on the playing field – then Beauvoir would have to answer no.  She specifies the feminist battle will only be won when both women and men recognise each other as peers, each free subjects to pursue his or her own goals (Beauvoir, 754).  Firmly linking freedom to brotherhood, Beauvoir argues this is possible only when both sexes have equal access to their humanity without penalty to their economic and professional positions (Moi, 228).  To accomplish this, both men and women must take charge of their own existence, conscientiously exercising the choices with which they are presented.  Shunning this ultimate human responsibility by hiding behind predetermined stereotypes is the ultimate bad faith.

In conclusion, what advice might we give Carrie?  Beauvoir might say that while you’ve come a long way, baby, you have a long way to go. Take responsibility to make your life your own and stop blaming others when it doesn’t work out as planned. That’s good advice as far as it goes, yet still, its tone is essentially patriarchal.

Even as Beauvoir warned against women abandoning their femininity to become pseudo men, she was herself, so much the product of the patriarchy that she could only envision femininity vis a vis its opposition to masculinity (Léon, 147).  In that light, femininity could have little positive value as it is doomed by definition, to lack (of masculinity).  Subsequent feminists (albeit not existentialists per se) like Hélene Cixous, have glorified the feminine in its own right, with the view to denying the political, social, and economic significance of gender difference and instead making it a cause for personal delight (Léon, 148).

I suggest that if Carrie can transcend the traditional male/female stereotypes she seems to be straddling, and instead embrace that which it truly means for her to be woman she will have attained the real essence of Beauvoir’s existentialist, feminist ideal.  If that means a closet full of outrageously expensive shoes and bragging about sexual conquests then so be it.  If not, then we’ve come along way, baby, but its time for a direction change.


De Beauvoir, Simone.  The Second Sex, trans. by H M Parshley. London: Everyman’s Library, 1993.

Faludi, Susan. Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women. New York: Doubleday, 1991.

Mahan, Joseph. Existentialism, Feminism, and Simone de Beauvoir. Palgrave Macmillan, 1997.

Léon, Céline T. “Beauvoir’s Woman: Eunuch or Male?” (137-167), The Philosophy of Simone de Beauvoir, ed. by Margaret A. Simons. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2006.

Moi, Toril. Simone de Beauvoir – The Making of an Intellectual Woman. Oxford; Oxford University Press, 2008.

Tidd, Ursula, Simone de Beauvoir. London: Routledge, 2004.

Ward, Julie K., “Reciprocity and Friendship in Beauvoir’s Thought” (223-242), The Philosophy of Simone de Beauvoir, ed. by Margaret A. Simons. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2006.