In the Garden: How Tess of the d’Urbervilles shows gender inequality

Amongst the constantly looming religious undertones throughout Tess of the d’Urbervilles (which shall henceforth be referred to as TOD), the superiority of the male figure over the women one is a theme that grows with the plot. It is well known that in the book of Genesis, woman came from man and hence a stereotype lasting ages was born, where men dominate women. Tess, for all of her hard work and struggles, is constantly plagued by men. The men, in particular, are of course Alec and Angel, who both share the same love and show the same domination over the same woman. Though very different characters overall, the ability for both Alec and Angel to hold such emotional (and at some times, physical) power over Tess is used by Hardy to show just how bad the discrepancy between males and females were during the time the novel was written.

The most literal example of male domination is in the act of Alec sexually assaulting Tess. This act in and of itself is disturbing regardless of its modern implications and is the most direct instance of male domination over a woman character. The act of being sexually assaulted is not one done out of ignorance, as Alec is both fully aware and even acknowledges how awful he is for seducing Tess for his own pleasure. Tess is affected by this event for the rest of the novel, but in the grand scheme of things, she still goes back to Alec at times. It is interesting here to note that Hardy is giving the responsibility and acknowledgment to the men (Alec), and the consequences to the women. It can be argued that this was because even in sin men still dominated women, and would exploit this often.

Angel represents the emotional control men had over women. One example is when Angel reveals he prefers Tess over other women, one of Tess’ friends attempts to kill herself and another becomes an alcoholic. There is an unhealthy obsession that some of these females had over men, and this obsession ends up dominating their lives at no cost to Angel. This, of course, is not so much a commentary on the psychological state of humans as much as it is a reflection on the power relative gender roles had on the members of each respective role. Angel then creates a mold by which Tess is supposed to belong to, rather than actually loving her for herself. Angel describes Tess as “dead” (260) in response to learning about her secrets. This suppression of female identity, which to Tess was “all is vanity” (287) was the dominating emotional force behind the institution of marriage at the time, where females lost their name, their money, and what little freedom they had. The identity of Tess was never her own but was rather at the design of men who held perceived power over her.

Mobility as a Disruptive Force

In a sensation novel that concerns itself chiefly with deception, Lady Audley’s Secret is also concerned with mobility- both literally and figuratively. Where in the literal sense it is the mobility of characters such as George that sparks a huge chain of events, and figuratively a mobility of social class through Lady Audley, described by Robert as a “poor little creature; poor unhappy little golden-haired sinner” (269) and the effective reshaping of her entire life. The attempt at a transition from a lower social class to a higher one is prevalent in other minor characters like Phoebe, Lucy, and Luke, who all try to advance their financial and social positions, and this force of social mobility ends up being a disruptive force in Braddon’s novel.

Robert is a man who brought himself out of ignorance through his mobility. The only way he was able to discover Lady Audley’s secret was through having to travel place by place until he was able to unravel the necessary clues. Mobility in Robert’s case was a necessary disruption that unraveled the secrets encompassed in the novel for the reader, and it is through this mobility that the art of sensation was brought about by Braddon. “‘Why do I go on with this,’ he said, ‘when I know that it is leading me, step by step, day by day, hour by hour, nearer to that conclusion which of all others I should avoid?” (183), Robert exclaims about George concerning his quest to discover the truth. Perhaps it is through his mobility that Robert was able to push on, that being stagnant would have been a slow-burning fuse that would have amounted to nothing. This is purely speculation, but a speculation that is recurrent with the fact that every main character in this novel is centered around mobility.

George is another example of literal mobility as a disruptive force, and his decision to go to Australia is the spark that sets off the chain of events throughout the rest of the novel. The disruption here is the obvious strain on George’s marriage, but there is also a figurative disruption of mobility through George actually climbing the social ladder. Here George does something that is rarely done, which is rise to a better financial situation through sheer will. Granted, finding gold is more luck than science, but the decision to move to a then-existing penal colony to find gold is daring to say the least. It was through his physical mobility that George gained social mobility, but lost everything else. Maybe Braddon is suggesting through the story of George that society was set up in a way that you could not gain financial influence without losing emotional support, that the two were mutually exclusive. This could explain why the general attitude towards the rich was less than savory in the Victorian era- because they had moved away from empathy to gain gold.

The mobility of Lady Audley through social classes was described by Braddon (the narrator, specifically) as her “no longer innocent, and the pleasure we take in art and loveliness being an innocent pleasure had passed out of her reach” (309). Lady Audley had strayed away from the things that made people people and focused only on escaping her own sins. In fact, the narrator says that “all the treasures that had been collected for her could have given her no pleasure” (309). Here the mobility of Lady Audley serves as an internal disruptive force that has both internal and external implications. The internal are obviously deceit, lust for power, and influence over lesser classed beings. The external are the created strifes with George, Luke, and Robert to name a few characters that create a power struggle that only leads down a road towards more disruption in everyone’s lives.

A Larger Look on the Pairing of Maggie and Tom

When considering the application of a general extrapolation from a character’s story, it is common to isolate the internal and external events in accordance with the person which they directly relate to. Mill on the Floss poses as an exception to this principle, where a thematic difference between expected gender roles are made most apparent when pairing the characters of Tom and Maggie together. This pairing, among others, provides an illustration of many of the social issues during the time which Eliot was living.

With what began as sibling rivalry that grew with age, a message concerning the disparity between males and females over-loomed the surface picture of familial struggle. While the Tulliver’s intrapersonal struggles can be seen as a subtle commentary on the condition of gender roles within a household, the conclusions drawn from this argument can be applied to western culture overall. These conclusions I refer to vary by gender, where males are expected to be picturesque masculine figures who also serve as providers, and females conversely are household laborers whose meek influence rarely spreads outside the front door to their own homes. This is evident by Mr. Tulliver’s decision to send Tom to school for “Tom to be a bit of a Scholard” (53), but leaves Maggie behind to go on wit her “patch-work, like a little lady” (58). This specific example shows how gender roles have infiltrated both societal norms as well as family tradition.

Later on in the novel another example is given, where Tom and Maggie argue over their inherent characteristics. The underlying issue here has to do with an imbalance of power, specifically described by Maggie here as “dominance” (261) several times. Tom tells Maggie that (from the perspective of Tom to Maggie.) “You think you know better than any one, but you’re almost always wrong. I can judge much better than you can” (261). Tom, in great irony, describes his most apparent flaws and projects them upon Maggie, doing so because he has more perceived dominance over Maggie much in the same way men had more perceived dominance over women. It is in this irony that many of the struggles women faced became laid bare for the reader, where the third-person narrator interjects with an insight into Maggie’s (and subsequently women overall) mind- “They were very bitter tears; everybody in the world seemed so hard and unkind to Maggie: there was no indulgence, no fondness, such as she imagined when she fashioned the world afresh in her own thoughts” (261). The hyperbole of everyone in the world being unkind to Maggie is not as much as a dramatization as it is a relation to the struggles of Maggie with the struggles of women across the globe.

The Narrative Voice In “Mary Barton”

The narrator serves an equally important purpose as the reader- they convey the story being told, and dictate what we as readers do or do not know, and even how we are to feel. In Mary Barton, the narrative voice is third person limited, with occasional interjections of first person thought and reflection, the latter of which will be the chief discussion.

The two main schools of thought concerning the first person narrative use are that it is Gaskell herself placing her thoughts in the novel at face value, and the other is the ambiguous narrator quantifying the underlying opinions given throughout the text. I believe it is a mixture of the two, where Gaskell framed her thoughts and opinions in the voice of an unidentified narrator in order to bolster the opinions stated free of bias. This opinion giving is evident throughout the novel, one such example occurs on page 54, with the narrator stating (in the first person) “and I know what is the truth in such matters: but what I wish to impress is what the workman feels and thinks”. Here the narrator states her knowledge of the plight of the lower class, and says that he/she wants to give us as readers the same knowledge. If Gaskell had outright said this from the voice of her own person, it would serve to discredit the opinions of the narrator, rather than strengthen them, because applying a known identity to the narrator also applies what is known about that identity- in this case that Gaskell is a well-to-do and prominent female author who arguably cannot personally relate to the issues the lower class faced outside of her independent philanthropy work.

The general tone of the narrator when discussing the actual lower class members is one that is condescending at best, and assumes with relatively low levels of warrant that the members of the lower class are not actually self aware of their ignorance, but are rather embodied by it. This is evident on page 225, where the narrator claims that “the actions of the uneducated seem to me typified in those of Frankenstein”, where the implication here is that the lower class has basic elements of human life, but nothing more. This condescending tone occurs again with one of the narrator’s calls to action on page 340, where they state that “as you and I, and almost everyone, I think, may send up our individual cry of self-reproach that we have done all that we could for the stray and wandering ones of our brethren”. The interesting pairing of an effective call to action with a patronizing tone may not have been intentional, but the negative consequences of such pairing were avoided by the narrator being ambiguous rather than known. Had Gaskell had truly implemented her own being into the novel, she would have presented herself and her work in a negative light. By using the ambiguous narrator, she was able to hide (for lack of a better term) behind a faceless man, who was able to take all criticism and give all the call to action.

A Bigger Picture: What to Take Out of Frankenstein

It is that time of year again, where shelves of most stores are lined with wearable depictions of the grotesque- a common one being the monster of Frankenstein. Despite the fact that this representation is not remotely correct (Frankenstein is not in fact the name of the monster, but the creator), it is indicative of the role of the reader when examining the Gothic tale of Frankenstein.

The roles of authors are clear- to deliver and present a story consistent with the message that is meant. Characters are the harbingers by which these stories are told, and it is the job as we the reader to interpret, imagine, and apply what is before our eyes. Shelley presents the obvious visual, that the monster looks nothing short of such. The reader, however, is given the freedom to decide what actually constitutes a monster. Is it mere appearance? Or demeanor? Or perhaps motivation? And when put into context of a life’s story, how do all of these relate? These are the questions we must unpack.

A cheap answer is that the monster is whatever you make it to be- a victim of circumstance or a product of ignorance. Whichever depiction a reader perceives has direct and incredibly important factors into what we are to make of the story. I urge you to consider that the reason that the monster’s actual degree of grotesqueness and literal appearance are left to these vague adjectives is to allow the essence of what he is to be applied to a real world situation. The monster himself juxtaposes his being with that of Satan, stating “Satan had his companions, fellow-devils, to admire and encourage him; but I am solitary and detested” (144). I believe Shelley uses the frequent allusion to Christian scripture to appeal to a then heavily religious audience, where the application of such sin allows the reader to see the monster as more of an idea that can be applied to others rather than a simple figure of imagination. The time that Frankenstein was written was a time when the world was moving from agricultural to industrial economies, and quality of life rose so did the questions surrounding who deserves that life. The reader, if he/she is doing their job adequately, is able to relate the monster to the raw passions of man and better understand our role in the universe, as well as the growing importance of relative equality. The plight of the monster as misunderstood and unjustly shunned by the society which created it mirrors many of the struggles of civil rights groups, and the reader’s responsibility was to recognize and apply these lessons to bring the necessary change.