Victorian Women During the Victorian Age Term Paper

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Victorian Women

Women during the Victorian age had little choice over their fate once they became marrying age. In most cases, men married these women because of the property they owned and to have and raise children. Once wed, the women lost all ownership of their goods as well as any legal rights. On the other hand, if a woman did not get married, she had few choices other than becoming a governess, domestic helper or, in the worst case, a prostitute. Even when men kept mistresses, they still expected their wives to be faithful. If a woman took a lover, and it was discovered, she would lose any standing in society. If a man divorced his wife, she no longer had any right to her property or children. Women also did not have the freedom to act as they wished socially. Well-to-do wives were required to spend their time welcoming guests, reading, sending correspondence, having dinner parties, watching over the care of the home and seeing to the servants' responsibilities. Poor women worked in homes, factories or as prostitutes. They had very little to eat, and most often lived in the worst of conditions with their families. Regardless of the women's condition, however, authors were remarkably able to use literature as a means of describing these societal restraints and the burden placed on Victorian women and wives. Much of the Victorian poetry, shorts stories and novels provide an intimate look into the role and treatment of women in their marriages.

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For example, through their short stories, Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Kate Chopin clearly demonstrated the psychological burdens women had due to their situation. Because of the constraints placed upon them, the women protagonists not only lost their property and personal identity but their mental well being and sanity as well. In both the "Yellow Wallpaper" and "Story of an Hour," the wives broke the bonds that held them in unhappy lives to reach even more unfortunate conclusions.

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In these two stories, the women are considered very fragile characters, as all Victorian women were at the time. The narrator in "Yellow Wallpaper," who appropriately goes nameless because of her lack of standing, is said by a physician of high standing to have a "temporary nervous depression." Mrs. Mallard, in "Story of an Hour" is afflicted with a heart condition. Actually, however, the woman in "Yellow Wallpaper" is suffering from post-partum depression, and Mrs. Mallard is a victim of the personal pain from her husband's controlling personality and their stifling life together. In both cases, the women would have felt much better physically and psychologically if having the ability to express themselves openly and honestly. At the end, these women perish, one into insanity and the other into death, due to pain of not being free to enjoy the outdoors, which symbolized their escape from being smothered from being kept inside all day. As she states in "Yellow Wallpaper": "I don't like our room a bit. I wanted one downstairs that opened on the piazza and had roses all over the window, and such pretty old-fashioned chintz hangings! But John would not hear of it."

In both stories the setting was the same -- a room in a house, surrounded by four walls closing closer and closer inward and windows that offered freedom. The narrator in "Yellow Paper" was stranded in her bedroom. Despite the house's beauty, she believes that it holds something menacing, which does not bode well for her future. Yet her life outside of this room only goes as far as the windows where "I can see the garden, those mysterious deep-shaded arbors, the riotous old-fashioned flowers, and bushes and gnarly trees. Out of another I get a lovely view of the bay and a little private wharf belonging to the estate. There is a beautiful shaded lane that runs down there from the house." In "Story of an Hour," Mrs. Mallard could also see the beauty outside. When she hears of her husband's death, she truly believes that soon it will be possible to actually escape through that window and "see in the open square before her house the tops of trees that were all aquiver with the new spring life. The delicious breath of rain was in the air." Personal independence is the ultimate for both these women. As Mrs. Mallard concludes: "And yet she had loved him -- sometimes. Often she had not. What did it matter! What could love, the unsolved mystery, count for in face of this possession of self-assertion which she suddenly recognized as the strongest impulse of her being!" Yet, neither woman can gain independence by escaping into the real world outside her window. She can only be free by escaping from life itself.

Although not a well-known author, Margaret Oliphant's writings exemplified the condition of women in marriages. Most of her later work is concerned with the injustices women faced and her disdain of the social morality of the 1800s. She scorned the traditional ending to many of the Victorian novels, where the lovers would be united and live happily ever after. Instead, she appreciated the benefits of a free and independent life. In the Marriage of Elinor, she comments on the bias against women who do not marry:

It is curious how determined the mind of the English public at least is on this that the man or woman who does not marry (especially the woman, by-the-bye) has an unhappy life, and that a story which does not end in a wedding is no story at all, or at least ends badly, as people say. It happened to myself on one occasion to put together in a book the story of some friends of mine, in which this was the case. They were young, they were hopeful, they had all life before them, but they did not marry. And when the last chapter came to the consciousness of the publisher he... refused to pay. He said it was no story at all. (Rubick, 1994, p.169).

Oliphant shows that Victorian women, as those in "Yellow Wallpaper" and "Story of an Hour," are not allowed to be open and creative and voice who they really are. In another of her novels, the Perpetual Curate, she writes about the sense of frustration and disillusionment that women felt. They had a feeling of abandonment to their problems. Yet, like Mrs. Morgan below, they cannot make their sentiments known to their insensitive husbands.

Her compunctions, her longings after the lost life which they might have lived together, her wistful womanish sense of the impoverished existence, deprived of so many experiences, on which they had entered in the dry maturity of their middle age, remained for ever a mystery to her faithful husband. (Rubik, 1994, p.169)

It was not only the female authors who recognized and wrote about the societal constraints. Anthony Trollope, for example, wrote scathing novels about this historic era. He shows the irresponsibility of the society and how the wealthy have no regard for others besides themselves. They base their importance on their property, including the women they marry. In the book the Way We Live, Trollope describes in satirical detail how fathers find husbands for their daughters. Parents will do anything to find someone rich; the happiness of their daughters is the last thing considered. A subplot of the book, for example, describes how non-urbanites make their way into the citified society. Every year, many landowners move to London in the hope that their daughter would find someone to wed. A girl has no chance in the country to find the right sort of man. Georgiana Longestaffe is frantic, because her father does not know if he has enough money to keep a house in London until finding a husband. She cries to her mother: "What is to become of me? Is it not enough to drive me mad to be going about here by myself, without any prospect of anything? Should you have liked at my age to have felt that you had no choice of having a house of your own to live in?" (Chapter 15). Marriage at this time was a complex step-by-step process that had to be followed correctly for the right results. Usually, the mothers spread the news that her daughter was looking for someone and negotiated the alliances.. Ideally, he would be from a wealthy family with income.

The main plotline of the Way We Live takes place in London where the greedy and villainous Augustus Melmotte purchases a large house for himself, his wife and daughter, Marie, in the exclusive area of Grosvenor Square. In order that Melmotte can gain a reputation as "a great financier," a San Francisco conman by the name of Hamilton Fiske convinces him to organize and promote a fictitious railroad and set up a dummy high-society board of directors. Melmotte's rsulting large gifts to charity and lavish parties convince everyone that he is a financial genius, and much… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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