THE PRESENTATION OF WOMEN IN LITERATURE
Pride & Prejudice – Emilia Isaacs
‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife’.
The true question here; are those women in want of a husband? Pride and Prejudice, a Jane Austen classic, was written in 1797 and first reached the public in 1813. If you think back to around two hundred years ago, the opinions on gender and sexism were highly different to the common views people have today. Austen teaches both her nineteenth and twenty-first century readers how women have changed over time, yet somehow have interchangeable values. It was a rare enough feat for Austen to openly identify as a female author, although she first wrote both Sense and Sensibility (1811) and Pride and Prejudice under a pseudonym. Many of her strong female characters differ from the gender norms of the time, where women were habitually given one common purpose. Their lives, as well as the lives of their mothers and fathers, revolved around the veiled idea of marriage. People believed that if a woman was married to a gentleman, the parents had succeeded in their primary job. The sexism does not end here (naturally, it continues throughout the book), but it persists into adulthood. Not only did parents live to find their daughter’s husbands, but the mother was forbidden from interacting with these future suitors. Inherently, it was the job of the father to meet, invite and seduce the men into antagonising over the prospect of marrying their daughters.
Austen does not move away from this principle. In fact, entirely the opposite. She creates the Bennett Family, made up of five daughters, a mother and a father. Through these six unique females, Austen manages to persuade her readers that everyone has more than one purpose, nor is it necessarily the same one. Unlike women today, who are presented with many opportunities such as going to university, following any chosen career paths or marrying if they should so desire, women then were not permitted to attend school. Any female with an inquisitive mind would have to satisfy their brains with reading, or with the simple work set by a governess. Being ‘accomplished’ (reading, writing, arithmetic, music, needlework and art) was regarded as slightly important, whilst their social standing in the strict hierarchy was of the utmost significance. Jane Austen addresses a diverse range of issues concerning feminism and sexism in the nineteenth century, and unfortunately, manages to confront some longstanding issues that still hold prevalence today.
First and foremost, Elizabeth. Considered to be one of literature’s most beloved characters, Lizzie’s outlook on life has remained timeless, with her never-changing view that women are intelligent, strong-minded and independent, if not more so than some of her male counterparts. Her first vital act of what one might refer to as female power is her refusal of Mr Collin’s proposal. (Of course, she similarly rejects Mr Darcy, before accepting him slightly further on, and it is rather undetermined as to whether this makes her less formidable). It was extremely rare for a woman to refuse a proposal. When an arrogant, obsequious and conceited man such as Mr Collins proposes, one must accept without hesitation! However, Lizzie knew what she wanted. His proposal speech, (please, do read chapter 19) contains so many sexist remarks that if it were only two hundred years earlier, Mr Collins would undoubtedly have received a far harsher punishment than a simple rejection. Someway through the speech he proclaims ‘I am to inherit this estate after the death of your honoured father (who, however, may live many years longer), I could not satisfy myself…’. In short, he wishes to marry Lizzie Bennett to satisfy the guilt he will feel when he wrongly takes ownership of her father’s land, (and no, he has no relation to her, women were simply not allowed to own land). He does, as any reasonable man would, attempt to justify his thoughts, yet rather unsuccessfully. Another personal favourite line, ‘when we are married’ is simply astounding. Before having received a response, he assumes she will accept. Instead of using an interrogative, or ‘if’, he uses ‘when’. ‘When’, in the English Language, (if you go by technicalities, it is an adverb) appears to be a declarative; a statement word. Lizzie is unlike other women of her time which is what makes her so increasingly relatable, even as hundreds of years pass. She finds the power to say no. She is not without her faults, but any woman who shows up in a muddy dress to a potential husband’s house, unbothered by the criticism she receives, is more than autonomous.
Although I have dwelled on Elizabeth Bennett, she does indeed have four other siblings. Lydia, who can be reckless and irresponsible at times, Jane, the eldest and sweeter than Elizabeth, determined to see the good in everyone, Mary, who is the most intellectual and Catherine. Lydia and Catherine, the youngest, are mentally abandoned by their father and rely on their wayward mother for nurturing, yet receive little to none. Each of these girls are used for different purposes with regards to Jane Austen’s desire to showcase the good and evil of the time period.
Pride and Prejudice has been described as ‘engaging’, ‘witty’ and ‘ageless’. I have yet to find someone tell me they found it boring, dull or incomprehensible. Jane Austen writes with a unique sense of humour, as well as a diacritic perspective on life which is clearly seen throughout her works. I highly recommend Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Northanger Abbey, Persuasion and, of course, Emma. One could read her books for years, and never reach their limit.
Wuthering Heights – Ryan Ratnam
Wuthering Heights is a novel that is considered a literary masterpiece, written by Emily Brontë and published in 1847. The novel explores a tale of love and revenge on the Yorkshire moors between Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff and the intergenerational impacts that their relationship has. It is known for many things, but the most prominent being the strong female characters it presents. But what really sets this text apart, is that the female characters are three dimensional.
Wuthering Heights has four female character; Catherine Earnshaw, Cathy Linton, Isabelle Linton and Nelly Dean, the former two arguably being more prevalent than the latter two. Often in even media today, women are presented as relatively two dimensional, having one overwhelming characteristic or trait which is supposed to personify them as a whole. Obviously, in real life that is not true, with every person being a complex amalgamation of different traits, opinions and thoughts.
Catherine Earnshaw’s life is contained mostly in the first volume of the novel. She is a fiery, tempestuous character but accompanied by an extremely soft side which she seems eager to hide away. The utter rage and the ultimate lows that she feels are expertly written so that these change in moods do not seem out of place, but natural. She combats the gender stereotypes, never backing down and always making her voice heard. She is almost in direct contrast to Isabelle Linton, who arguably enforces these stereotypes in the first half of the novel (although she does also end up growing into her own). In Chapter 9 of the novel, Catherine delivers the powerful line, “I am Heathcliff.” Whilst some might say that this is a perfect example a female character being made secondary to a male one, it is far from it. This powerful quote represents Catherine’s own thoughts and beliefs. It takes place at a moment where she is heavily conflicted and the quote represents to utter love and friendship she herself feels for another. But despite all this, she decides to go against everything she was feeling and reject Heathcliff. Falling into his arms, intoxicated by the thought of true love; she does no such thing. Making the hard decision, she chooses wit over will, discarding her feelings for her future. In the moment she makes the decision on what kind of future she wants for herself, controlling her fate.
Cathy Linton is the daughter of Catherine Earnshaw (it is very confusing in the novel as well). Despite this relation to her mother, there are some qualities that they both do not share. She is certainly one of the more sympathetic characters of the novel with some describing her as the embodiment of the process of youth to adulthood. She is quickly thrown into a tumultuous series of events, often being key to them, but having no control over them. However, like her mother, she is seen to take control of her situation and make the hard decision, something which only characters of great strength could have made.
Wuthering Heights is an intense, sad and gothic read. Yet in so many rights it is a masterpiece with Emily Brontë writing every character so that they almost become real. I’d challenge anyone to find a critic who says any less.
Simone de Beauvoir (author of The Second Sex) says that, “One is not born, but rather, becomes a woman.” She is saying that a female is not born with any biological differences or qualities to make them subservient or secondary, it is society that makes females passive. Both Pride & Prejudice and Wuthering Heights perfectly present characters fighting against this notion in order to make their own decisions and shape their own fate, representing the real woman, a complex, three-dimensional human being.