Decorative Initial T

he Victorian period saw the emerging idea of feminism -- or rather, to avoid all connotations which that word has taken on — the equality of men and women. This simple proto-feminism surfaced quite slowly, mostly through literature and other forms of public discussion. The Quakers were the most active group purporting equality, however they were a small group and, for the most part, not influential, except as a novelty to the greater population.

In 1966, R.B. Martin stated that Jane Eyre was the first major feminist novel, "although there is not a hint in the book of any desire for political, legal, educational, or even intellectual equality between the sexes." Rather, Martin supports the idea that Jane (Brontë) merely wants recognition that both sexes are similar in "heart and spirit." Nowhere in the novel is this sentiment more obvious than in the passage in chapter 23, when Jane responds to Rochester's callous and indirect proposal:

Do you think I am an automaton? ­ a machine without feelings?...Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong — I have as much soul as you, — and full as much heart...I am not talking to you now through the medium of custom, conventionalities, nor even of mortal flesh; — it is my spirit that addresses your spirit; just as if both had passed through the grave, and we stood at God's feet, equal, — as we are (252)

A clearer voicing of a plea for simple human equality could hardly be imagined.

What makes Jane's speech so easy to sympathize with is Brontë's adept use of the first person point of view. Often, when an author wishes to further his or her own cause, the identity of the speaker can either be lost in the course of an ideological tirade, or never even be established outside of the plot. What sustains the believability and emotion of Jane's speech is that it is continually being referenced back to the character who we have grown to love through the course of the novel thus far. In the middle of her monologue, Jane refers to herself as "poor, obscure, plain, and little," reminding us of the characteristics of the girl being hurt here. Another section of the monologue, which I omitted in the above excerpt, serves the same function, "And if God had gifted me with some beauty, and much wealth..." The final aspect of the discourse which anchors the view of equality to the character of Jane Eyre is that, philosophically and spiritually, the view has an experiential origin in Jane's life, in that much of what she says can actually be traced back to her conversations with Helen Burns, the wise young girl who died in Lowood.

Charles Dickens, in writing Pickwick Papers, heavily relied upon common opinions of the time regarding the feminine function of society ­ that the woman is the passive, domestic, energy-storing vessel, as opposed to the masculine active, worldly, energy-expending vessel. The most favorably portrayed women in the story are those who receive little mention, save for descriptions of their beauty and their meekness, such as Emily and Isabella Wardle, Arabella Allen, and the servant Mary (perhaps not coincidentally, three out of the four young ladies marry Pickwickians, and all four end up married). By contrast, those women who are talkative, active, and not necessarily pretty and youthful are, almost as a rule, manipulative, domineering, and occasionally given to lust.

Mrs. Bardell, perhaps the focal, or at least most influential female character, is presented in direct opposition to our hero, the benevolent Mr. Pickwick. She is portrayed to be not only stupid, in misunderstanding Mr. Pickwick's proposal to employ Sam, but at the same time manipulative, in that she brings the suit against Mr. Pickwick.

For further evidence of her manipulative tendencies, and those of her entire sex, witness chapter 46, which takes place at Goswell Street and the Spanish tea-house with herself, Mrs. Cluppins, Sanders, Rogers, and Raddle, accompanied by Tommy Bardell and the hapless Mr. Raddle. The chapter begins with the culmination of an argument between Mr. and Mrs. Raddle being Mrs. Raddle exclaiming, "Oh If ever a woman was troubled with a ruffinly creetur, that takes pride and pleasure in disgracing his wife on every possible occasion afore strangers, I am that woman" What Dickens finds so amusing in this is that in the argument, whether the Bardell residence has a yellow or a green door when it turns out that the door in question is red, both parties were incorrect, but the woman takes a tone of victimization. Because she was wrong, she tries to blame her husband and use her own supposed subordinate station as an excuse. Throughout the entire chapter, all possible variations on this theme are played, from the solidarity of the women against Mr. Raddle's inconsequential (to us) or devastating (to the women) remarks, to the use and overuse of fainting fits. And all instances are at least as ridiculous as the first.

Dickens uses his privilege as storyteller to promote these views. The dryly sarcastic third-person point-of-view of the narrator easily relates the story without using any terms of partiality, yet Dickens has so skillfully created the situations, so that the readers know "the real story," without the real story ever needing to be explained. We know that both husband and wife were wrong about the doors, and that the wife unjustly blamed the husband, yet the narrator ever refrained from commenting on the implicating factors, leaving Dickens's expertly crafted story to account for itself.

R.B. Martin very neatly sums up the relationship between the contemporary views on sexual differentiation and how they affect the characters of each author:

The condemnation of women to a place apart results in the creation of empty, capricious women like Blanche Ingram, who tyrannize over men whenever possible, indulge in dreams of Corsair lovers, and can communicate only in the Byronic language of outdated romantic fiction.

Dickens, knowingly or unknowingly, has condemned women to their place apart, and as a result, has created only empty, capricious, and tyrannical women.

Last modified 1996