Term Paper: Sensibility Women's Identities

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[. . .] And surely, with her more mature self? awareness, Elinor has few peers with whom to share intimate feelings. Yet there is a sense of desolation with which Elinor handles her emotional trials, so that with all her praise of Elinor, Austen cannot avoid the silence which enclouds Elinor's emotional existence:

From [her mother's and Marianne's] counsel, or their conversation she knew she could receive no assistance, their tenderness and sorrow must add to her distress, while her self? command would neither receive encouragement from their example nor from their praise. She was stronger alone. (121)

"Stronger alone," Elinor yet seems to be outside of the action, silently enduring her own emotional trials and watching others while having little nurturing support of her own. Indeed, without the support of other women, Elinor appears to lack a sense of or confidence in her own feminine self. "Femininity," says Gilligan, "is defined through attachment...[and] female gender identity is threatened by separation" (8). Elinor's is a world of the mind, intelligent, practical and sensitive, but cut off from a woman's life of intimacy, nurturance and support, from the connectedness with other women that reaffirms their feminine selves.

Thus, in contrast to Marianne, while Elinor might represent the moral maturity that is Austen's ideal, she also manifests the subconscious threat to women of too severe separation from her mother and thus from her feminine self. To Marianne, Elinor's rationality appears as her being superior; it distances her from Marianne and her mother. In this way, Elinor appears to reject the world of women and the intimacy, support and nurturance that defines female identity. Thus, though it is Elinor's independence and rationality of mind that she feels protect her from the chaotic, irrational world of her mother and sister, these qualities in fact define her as unfeminine. Because of this, Elinor's text does not provide a model for women, for she is isolated, where Marianne at least has spontaneity and the enjoyment of people around her.

Furthermore, Elinor's lack of friendships, while denying her validation as a woman, also inhibits her ability to know herself. For, as Elizabeth Abel explains, "Through the intimacy which is knowledge, friendship becomes a vehicle for self-definition for women, clarifying identity through relation to another who embodies and reflects an essential aspect of the self" (416). Elinor, while not losing her independent spirit, must also learn to soften her emotions, to communicate honestly and openly with other women. Until her confrontation with Marianne, she rejects the feminine within herself because she knows it only as it is manifested in Marianne and in her mother, as weakness of character, or as she sees it in Lucy Steele, who epitomizes the "person who joined insincerity with ignorance" (110), the shallow woman Elinor most disdains. For her part, Marianne refuses to see herself as independent because she understands it only to mean the isolation and solemn reserve she sees in Elinor.

For Marianne, Elinor's independent practicality becomes less threatening and female-denying after Elinor's confession. She sees that a woman can be intelligent and rational and still need friendship and connectedness. Marianne, in fact, begins to understand that Elinor is a woman of great feeling but that she controls her emotions out of a sense of responsibility to and love and concern for others. Thus, Elinor becomes a model for Marianne. She says to Elinor of her past blindness,

Your example was before me: but to what avail? Was I more considerate of you and your comfort? Did I imitate your forbearance, or lessen your restraints, by taking any part in those offices of general complaisance or gratitude which you had hitherto been left to discharge alone?...

You, my mother, and Margaret, must henceforth be the entire world to me; you will share my affections entirely between you. (304)

This might be seen as Marianne transferring her dependence from men to women. But, in fact, she is proving her newly separated self. Her friendship with these women, because it is based on mutual support rather than weakness and fear, suggests that Marianne is actively pursuing growth as an independent woman. Merging is completed through each woman appearing as a model for and reflection of the other; separation is achieved once that support system is established. With these issues resolved, each woman has formed her own identity and begins autonomous growth. Their friendship has brought them closer together while simultaneously allowing them to become independent individuals and bringing new understanding to themselves, each other and the world. Thus, Austen's delineation of the sisters' growth through their relationship in itself provides a text for women's lives.

Jemima is one of those "passionate" Victorian women who needs to be silenced. Willful, knowing her own mind and feeling that "there was something degrading in trying to alter herself to gain the love of any human creature" (217), Jemima represents the liberated woman trying to reconcile her place in the repressive patriarchy. As an adolescent, she is trying to define herself as a woman who is feminine and loving yet independent and respected. But she has no role models who can both provide a text for her and give her approval as she struggles with her freedom and her identity. Her mother, "sweet and gentle-looking, but as if she was thoroughly broken into submission" (152), is Jemima's only female role model; like Mrs. Dashwood for Elinor, she projects the dismal text for Jemima's life in her own submissive actions. Merging with her mother for Jemima would mean becoming like her mother, adopting her "weak and anxious mind" (229), rather than developing pride in herself as a woman.

Moll Flanders and Identity

It has been argued by several critics that the character of Moll Flanders repeatedly transgresses both gender roles as well as the code of normative sexual behavior.' Quite early in her life she becomes aware of the exclusion of women from the sphere of production. Young Moll's s desire to earn her bread by her own work, mending lace and washing ladies' laced-heads, and win the title of a "gentlewoman" is shattered when her meager income can hardly provide the bare essentials for her. Soon Moll discovers that it is not through honest labor, but through the exploitation of her sexual potential that she can finally win the title she craves for. Moll eventually does become a gentlewoman, only not in the sense she had originally intended, i.e., that of a woman who attends or waits on a lady, but in the sense of a kept woman or prostitute. Through her first lover, the elder son of her foster family, Moll learns that the only product she has to sell is her body and that the only market open for her is that of marriage.

Yet, although Moll can offer no resistance when she is pushed by the elder son into marrying his younger brother, in the marriage contracts that are to follow, she changes from a passive object of exchange into an active dealer. If ?Marriages were...the Consequences of politick Schemes for forming Interests, and carrying on Business, Moll reasons, and if this ?Market run very Unhappily on the Mens side, (Defoe, 23) still, she asserts to her female companions, women have the power to turn the tables upon men, and play their own game back upon them. The book projects a female support network, as Mother Midnight, Moll's first nurse, even her actual mother are all independent, self-made women, involved in a triumphant matriarchal system that transcends circumstances of sexual and financial transaction. They manipulate patriarchal restrictions on their gender in solidarity and ?exercise covert power by forming mutually beneficial unions that physically and emotionally shelter them from a male- dominated system (Defoe, 194, 195). Moll's success is indeed due to her excellence in this art of ?Deceiv[ing] the Deceiver' (Defoe, 112). She hides her true identity, her income, her intentions, her former life, and husbands; she hides any part of her story that could prove disadvantageous to her. Even in moments that are supposed to be highly emotional, such as Moll's reunion with Jemy, her fourth husband, in prison, she is careful to tell him only so much of her story as she thinks is convenient (Defoe, 327). But lying to a man is not a mere survival tactic. As Moll's obsession with secrets displays, it can be as stimulating and as pleasurable as lying with a man - even more perhaps. Her frolicsome repartee with Humphrey, her third husband-to-be, is a perfect example of the fraudulent nature of love and desire, enhanced by and reflected in their highly ambiguous language. Moll's answer to his avowal, ?Be mine, with all your Poverty, epitomises the lovers' ultimate desire: Yet secretly you hope I lie (Defoe, 23). The apparent meaning of Moll's words - that despite his declaration that he could love her in all her poverty, he secretly wishes her to be rich - is… [END OF PREVIEW]

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