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.

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.







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