The first part of Aurora Leigh, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s novel-poem about an orphaned poet, focuses primarily on the issue of how gender affects the life of a female writer. Barret Browning presents the protagonist, Aurora Leigh, as a well-educated and insightful woman. Through Aurora's narration, the reader comes to understand her love of poetry and how she struggles to merge her career as a poet while simultaneously meeting society’s expectations for her as a woman. In one particularly perceptive passage early in the poem, Aurora Leigh comments bitterly on the function that women are expected to serve for men in the domestic sphere. This criticism highlights how such efforts by women are often under-valued:
The works of women are symbolical.
We sew, sew, prick our fingers, dull our sight,
Producing what? A pair of slippers, sir,
To put on when you're weary — or a stool
To stumble over and vex you . . . "curse that stool!"
Or else at best, a cushion, where you lean
And sleep, and dream of something we are not,
But would be for your sake. Alas, alas!
This hurts most, this . . . that, after all, we are paid
The worth of our work, perhaps. [lines 457-65]
1. Elizabeth Barrett Browning's use of imagery in this passage reinforces the Victorian perception that women were best suited to perform domestic tasks. How does Barrett Browning use these images in contrast to Aurora Leigh's own well-rounded education and chosen profession?
2. At this point in the poem, Aurora Leigh's only real interaction with men has been with her doting father. Why is it that the description of men's attitudes toward women reflects the way Aurora's aunt treats her rather than how her father treated her?
3. Is Aurora Leigh a sympathetic character?
Last modified 5 October 2003