Bronte's condemnation of the societal evil of patriarchy is basically conveyed through the depiction of her male and female characters. In terms of the female characters, Bronte fleshed out a variety of female protagonists who, to a certain extent, forge their way forward despite the challenges they face. Both Helen and Agnes appear to be capable of leading a dynamic and independent existence by living outside the limited frame of a domestic life. Bronte's female characters consider domestic life in a negative light and they persistently try to avoid it.
The frame of domesticity is the construction of the patriarchal society. Domestic life in its traditional connotations is characterized as an impediment to personal development of female potential. Therefore, it imposes various restrictions on women's search for self-empowerment, freedom and ambitions. Within this domestic atmosphere, women would never have the opportunity to express adequately their dreams and ambitions because of the preferences given to the male-dominating culture. For that reason, Bronte's protagonists are determined to attain social and economic independence, and realize that this is impossible in one simple domestic existence. Thus, they acquire a new sense of identity through which they fight the challenges they face.
Bronte shows female characters who face different kinds of challenges. These characters may suffer from an inappropriate, unsuccessful marriage, as in the case of Helen Huntingdon and Arthur. Helen is depicted as an extremely courageous woman who deals with arising difficulties with immense inner strength. The main challenge that she faces is associated with the behavior of her drunkard husband. Agnes also faces the challenge of leading a completely new way of life full of uncertainties after she decides to leave her family at a quite fragile age. Her dream of becoming a governess is realized, but she soon finds out that she needs to work under difficult conditions dominated by the lack of respect toward her personality.
Bronte furthers her rebuke of the male society by depicting male characters who embody the tyranny and violence characterizing the typical masculine mentality. In The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Arthur is a callous husband who deprives Helen of her possession, her talent, and thus her identity as a woman. He remains in the minds of the reader as a man known for his abuse of Helen and his insensitivity to her feelings. Gilbert is not much different from Arthur. He shares Arthur's sense of possessiveness, violence, and patriarchal way of thinking. Similarly, Mr. Bloomfield, in Agnes Grey, contributes to the heroine's dilemma through his brutality and lack of understanding. These male characters give Bronte an ample space to critique the patriarchal principles that gives women limited opportunities to establish their freedom. As Carol Senf explains, through the interaction between those male and female characters, Bronte shows how the "nineteenth-century notions of marriage consigned women to silence" (450).
However, it remains evident that Bronte's texts do not contain the strong agenda and the feminist politics found in other revolutionary feminists texts. Instead, Bronte favors an approach that relies on compromise and mutual benefit of both parties. As Rachel Carnell observes, "Bronte ultimately sought wholeness and integration between the sexes through an eighteenth-century ideal of the public good in which most women might participate indirectly as instructors and nurturers of their husbands and sons" (20). Bronte perceives women realistically and believes in their potential of being both instructors and nurturers.
The combination of instructing and nurturing aspects in women's behavior is an inseparable part of making compromise within the marriage. These are major roles prescribed to females, and Bronte is categorical that reinforcing the two roles can bring balance within the marriage. In this way, females acquire particular freedom to express their individuality through instructing. Likewise, it is crucial that women fulfill their traditional role of nurturing because this role is more favorable in society. Helen is the embodiment of this idea. For example In spite of the difficult situation Helen lives in Wildfell Hall, she manages to nurture her son and even goes on to instruct him about the respectful relationship between a husband and a wife.
This peculiar approach of Anne has drawn less attention to her as a feminist writer than her sisters and has lead many critics to criticize her works on different grounds. Compared to her sisters, Anne Bronte's literary works have received much criticism for a lack of complexity. According to Julie Nash and Barbara Suess, this peculiar aspect of Bronte resulted in her literature being in the shade until it was brought to the light quite recently (ix). Bronte has also been criticized for the "extravagant over-coloring in those very parts that were carefully copied from the life" (Bronte, Tenant 15). In a rejoinder, Bronte firmly and categorically defended her position declaring that the so-called distasteful subjects in her novel existed in reality, which contributes to giving a true representation of the current state of affairs within the society. That is actually why she prefers to "depict (her characters) as they really are than as they would wish to appear" (Bronte, Tenant 15).
It is this difference in approach between Anne's feminism and that of her sisters that resulted in the fact that her works remained in the shade. As Alisa Clapp argues, "unlike many writers in history, Anne Bronte has had the misfortune not to be unknown by literary critics but to be ignored" and that "even scholarship devoted to "the Bronte sisters" often fails to include the work of the youngest" (113). In comparison to Anne, both Charlotte and Emily entered into the field of writing defying patriarchal dominance in society and the literary field more strongly. They did not rely on the implementation of balance or compromise in their writing; on the contrary, Anne's sisters openly and categorically initiated various discussions on actual political, social, and cultural issues.
On the other hand, Anne adopted a more balanced view of depicting certain matters of her surrounding reality. For example, Anne's novels do not exhibit the politics and issues found in Charlotte's Jane Eyre and Bronte's Wuthering Heights. Through intricately interwoven psychological drama that Anne's works lack, Charlotte and Emily address issues that have not been addressed directly by Anne. These issues include the plight of the woman writer, women's madness, and women's sexuality, to name a few. The context of Jane Eyre definitely allows for exploring complex political, social, and personal issues in the Victorian era. Charlotte describes the story of a quest to be loved, as the female protagonist seeks both love and appreciation in society. In addition, Jane struggles to find the appropriate balance between moral duty and pleasure. Jane Eyre is also rather critical of Victorian England's social hierarchy.
By engaging in such detailed exploration of complex topics, Anne's sisters succeeded in capturing the reading audience's attention and claiming a solid view on the psychological force, which is important throughout the development of female characters. In addition, the two Brontes weave remarkable psychological profiles for their heroine, which is barely found in Anne's literature. Such psychological profiles definitely emerged with complexity and mysteriousness. Both Charlotte and Emily depict characters that are impressive with their psychological strength and complexities. For instance, the characters Jane from Jane Eyre and Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights demonstrate ambiguous class standing and extensive social tension. Anne was not occupied by depicting female characters in deep psychological contours, and that is why her works were inadequately appreciated.
Evidently, Anne's feminist stance is different from that of her two sisters. Even the kind of empowerment Bronte endows her female heroines with is only represented in the talents and skills which they celebrate. It seems that Bronte's implied message here is that women can achieve self-realization by relying on their own feminine attributes, not necessarily by revolution against the system. However, the tools the heroines are equipped with do not help them in combating the patriarchal repression. Although Helen takes a daring step by deserting her husband to fulfill her artistic aspirations, and although Agnes strives to create a living by her own efforts, both heroines ultimately surrender to the major patriarchal institution represented in marriage.
This brings forth a significant feature of Bronte's novels, which is the final destiny of her heroines represented in their marriage at the end. It is true that this aspect is shared with some other women writers including the other Brontes; however, it remains as an issue that helps further understanding the status of Bronte as a feminist writer. The marriages that take place at the end of each novel perpetuate the basic principles underlying the male-dominated society. Even in her condemnation of the male hegemony, Bronte seems to be promoting the same system that she aims to critique. This trend shows that insofar as Bronte's writings were an attempt to voice women's concerns, gendered socialization was clear in her texts. In the end, the very platform that was intended to highlight the plight of the woman succumbs to notions of male authoritarianism.
Within this context, Bronte's writing may be seen to serve the paradoxical purpose of both denouncing and promoting the patriarchal ideology. Her novels provide both a platform upon which she lambasts the oppressiveness of male hegemony, while ultimately conforming to it by ending the novel with the marriage of the female characters; in other words, the entrance into the very institution, which inhibits women's emancipation. Such contradiction demonstrates the difficulty in Bronte's situation as a woman writer, which, although empowering as giving her the opportunity to voice her rejection of make hegemony, was a complex task, considering how embedded the patriarchal ideology was in her mind.
One may read these endings with view at Bronte's feminist stance and what Carnell terms as her "nostalgic vision of domestic harmony" (23). Bronte seems to propose the suggestion that the emancipation of women does not necessarily mean that men and women cannot enjoy mutually respectful associations; instead, both can live together respecting one another's rights and freedom. This atmosphere of mutual respect is implied in Gilbert's letter to Halford at the end. His mentioning of Halford and Rose's impending visit, stressing the "invigorating relaxation and social retirement with us" (Bronte, Tenant 471) gives a clear indication of the difference between Helen's previous life with Arthur and her current life with Gilbert where she is no longer the oppressed wife functioning as a host for her husband's rowdy friends.
Bronte here is delivering the message that patriarchy is neither a divine law nor a natural phenomenon, and that men are not hegemonic by nature, but because of cultural constructions that instructs them to be so. Bronte's argument suggests that a marriage based on mutual respect is not only possible, but also required. This respect is required for better functioning of the marriage as it obliterates any possibility for marriage constituting an institution for oppressing women. Bronte's emphasis on the importance of this healthy atmosphere is articulated by Helen in her conversation with her son regarding marriage as she says: "Then you must fall each into your proper place. You'll do your business, and she, if she's worthy of you, will do hers" (Bronte, Tenant 53). Helen even goes on to mention her husband as "he was steady and punctual, seldom found fault without a reason, always did justice to my good dinners, and hardly ever spoiled my cookery by delay" (Bronte, Tenant 53).
Accordingly, while Bronte may be appropriately criticized on some grounds, she cannot be accused of failing to address the plight of women in a repressive patriarchal society. That is why her novels still serve the purpose of denouncing male domination of women in Victorian society though some critics have been appalled by her realism stating that "as a realist, Anne had the knack of being faithful in little things" (Harrison 243). Still, this realistic depiction of characters and situations expresses the true embodiment of a feminist spirit. Bronte's realistic style was evidently suitable in addressing the oppression of women, as the absence of such a style in female literature was an illustration of such domination. Comparing her perspective on patriarchy with that of other women during her time, she appears to be more realistic in her feminist discourse avoiding the complex portrayal of characters and events that may disturb the reader. This disturbance may come from psychological complexity that would probably lead to confusion and misunderstanding among the reading audience. Avoiding this disturbance may be the reason why a critic like Marion Shaw would describe Bronte as "A Quiet Feminist."
Put more clearly, Bronte remains as a prominent realistic feminist. She undertakes her feminist mission recognizing the impossibility of the complete eradication of the crippling circumstances inhibiting women's self-actualization within the patriarchal society. Bronte herself declared; "Let it not be imagined, however, that I consider myself competent to reform the errors and abuses of society, but only that I would fain contribute my humble quota towards so good an aim" (Bronte, Tenant 15). It is this recognition of reality that distinguishes Bronte's works. After all, her realism was a more firm adherence to women's issue than the case with some feminists striving to create ideal characters who may take revolutionary actions, which are impossible to take, not only in the Victorian patriarchal society, but also in the most developed and highly liberal societies in the twenty-first century.
Bronte, Anne. Agnes Grey. London: The Folio Society. MCMXCI, 1998.
---. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. The Folio Society. MCMXCI, 1998.
Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. New York: Penguin Group, 1982.
Bronte, Emily. Wuthering Heights. Philadelphia: Courage Books, 1991.
Carnell, Rachel. "Feminism and the Public Sphere in Anne Bronte's The Tenant of Wildfell
Hall." Nineteenth-Century Literature 53.1 (June 1998): 1-24.
Clapp, Alisa. "The Tenant of Patriarchal Culture: Anne Bronte's Problematic Female Artist." Michigan Academician 28.2 (March 1996): 113-22.
Harrison, Ada and Derek Stanford. Anne Bronte: Her Life and Work. Hamden, CT: Archon
Nash, Julie and Barbara Suess. New Approaches to the Literary Art of Anne Brone. Burlington: Ashgate, 2001.
Senf, Carol A. "The Tenant of Wildfell Hall: Narrative Silences and Questions of Gender." College English. 52 (1990): 446-456.
Shaw, Marion. "Anne Bronte: A Quiet Feminist." Bronte Society Transactions. 21 (1994): 125-135.
B- Broad Area
Question No. 2: Women and Religion
Religion played an important role in Victorian patriarchal society. The religious domain in nineteenth-century England gave patriarchal hegemony a divine backing, thereby proving its prevalence. Most women were often denied opportunity for religious expression, which the patriarchal society considered the man's exclusive terrain. As Ruth Jenkins states, "the formation of institutional Christianity severely restricted, even denied, (women) a voice in the dialogues that shaped theological doctrines" (16). Still, there were some cases in which women had a voice in the religious institution. These women were able to break the male domination in religious matters and thus participate in "the test of unalterable principles of reason and religion" (Harman 20).
The Victorian-era literature exhibited a critique of the religious institution which contributed to female oppression. Writers like Thomas Hardy, Elizabeth Gaskell and Charlotte Mary Yonge were among those who reflected on the hegemony exhibited by this situation. Their works show women who were oppressed by the religious instructions and attempted to rebel against it. Female characters employed by Hardy, Gaskell and Yonge also demonstrate how women suffered from religious conventionality and double standards. Some of these characters made attempts to challenge the male domination and use religion as an opportunity to challenge the male dominated system with different levels of success.
In Jude the Obscure, Hardy promulgates a wholesale rejection of the religious patriarchal constraints that restrict women's freedom. He launches a trenchant attack on the Victorian religious conventionality that goes against women's search for freedom, independence, and happiness. Hardy's views on religion are articulated through Sue. She is portrayed as a woman who aspires to break away from traditional religious dictates. She therefore boldly questions the basic orthodox religious principles regarding morality and marriage.
From the outset, Sue is described as "a woman clipped and pruned by severe discipline" (Hardy, Jude 136). Sue exhibits a rejection of this stringent discipline. Her attitude and behavior rejects all conventional Victorian morality and ethics. She emerges as a woman who weighs matters by reason, thereby rendering irrelevant the idea that women are governed by their emotions. In her dissenting conversations, Sue also questions rigid religious and other social ideas regarding marriage and morality.
Sue does not keep her liberal ideology in a theoretical frame and goes ahead to allow her behavior to substantiate her religious stance. She rejects all forms of religious prayer as a manifestation of hypocrisy. Her repudiation of the religious institution is best represented in her negative view of Christminster, describing it as characterized by "timid obsequiousness to tradition" (Hardy, Jude 329). Most importantly, the fact that she leaves her lawful husband to live with someone to whom she is not married is a blunt rejection of religious dictates of her time.
Sue shows her extreme disregard for the confinements of marriage as sanctioned by religion. For her, such an institution, with its religious foundations, is the antithesis of freedom. She lambasts the extreme conventionality of society which relegates marriage into a mere obligation that has to be fulfilled. She views marriage as a "vulgar institution" that issues a 'sordid contract" in which the woman's affection should be given to the man "appointed by the bishop's license to receive it" (Hardy, Jude 256). Sue mainly criticizes the obligatory nature of marriage as she cannot accept the view of marriage as an institution where one "must and shall be a person's lover" (Hardy, Jude 267).
Like most women in nineteenth-century society and literature, Sue is trapped in the conflict between satisfying her emancipatory impulse and conforming to social norms based on religious dogma. She ultimately chooses the latter. Still, Sue's return to Phillotson is not a manifestation of defeat of her revolutionary nature; rather, it comes as a final choice that represents a fear of some supernatural power of which she may not be aware. Subsequently, her retreat into the religious domain proves to be a protective strategy. She regards her marriage to someone she does not love as a sort of punishment and source for redemption and shelter from further tragedies that may come if she continues in her transgressions. Here, Sue never contradicts herself and never abandons her repudiation of conventionality. She has always been a believer, but like Hardy, she has been critical of the religious institution that embraces conventionality and inhibits women's freedom.
Gaskell also criticizes religion for its role in fostering the gender roles perpetuated by the patriarchal society through establishing a penal system that targets women as its victims rather than men. Joana Mink observes that the nineteenth century witnessed a strong tendency to punish women who were regarded as fallen. Ruth is Gaskell's commentary on this issue. The novel highlights the hardships through which the heroine goes and the callousness of the patriarchal religious system which condones men for their sins and imposes its punishment only on women.
Gaskell's major critique of the patriarchal religion is targeted towards the double standards it employs when examining moral and ethical issues. Ruth alone faces society's negative attitude and subsequent punishment for having gone against the religious code of conduct governing sexual relations. Bellingham, on the other hand, is not even questioned. It is strange that punishment is imposed only on the woman, Ruth, although the "crime" that she committed necessarily requires the existence of a partner. What adds to the severity of this double standard is the fact that Ruth was a naive girl who engaged in a sexual relationship with Bellingham without recognizing its consequence. She says "I was very young; I did not know how such a life was against God's pure and holy will - at least not as I know it now" (Gaskell, Ruth 238).
Additionally, within the patriarchal religious parameters, women had to bear more responsibility when it came to issues of religious morality and conduct. That is why Ruth is immediately fired by her boss when she is seen walking with Bellingham. She is the only one who has to be subjected to humiliating conditions such as being called a sinner and losing her job. The ensuing stigma she wears both outwardly and inwardly is formed by religious and social construction.
The introduction of Thurston, a dissenter from the Church of England who is the Eccleston minister and his sister further show the religious paternalistic influences in the Victorian society. The minister and his sister take in the pregnant and desolate Ruth as a way of shielding her from harsh statements about the illegitimacy of her child. No one is concerned about the man responsible for Ruth's condition, and how he may have broken religious laws. Only Ruth is to blame, and only another man, the minister, can shield her from societal condemnation. Thurston's admonition of Ruth concerning a means to help her illegitimate son learn to cope with the inevitable harsh treatment he will suffer at the hands of the religious and socially-powerful men offers the insight that she lacked previously. Thurston advises Ruth saying, "The world is not everything, Ruth; nor is the want of men's good opinion
and esteem the highest need which man has. Teach Leonard this. You
would not wish his life to be one summer's day" (Gaskell, Ruth 192).
Admittedly, the novel highlights the emphasis on female piety and the instant condemnation of women when found transgressing the religious barriers. In this sense, it is ironical that Ruth is more religious than the majority of those who pretend to be so. Her ambition was to bring up the child in a religious manner and be righteous for the rest of her life. This opens up avenues for the critique of the religious principle of mercy. Ruth ultimately realizes her sin and intends to lead a pious life and yet society does not forgive. She receives no sign of mercy from society. She was not only seduced and deserted by the same man, but was also rejected by society and had to face its harsh punishment. In brief, Ruth's story enunciates Gaskell's belief that "(the female) sex is badly enough used and legislated against" (qtd.in Beer 35).
Yonge's The Clever Woman of the Family is a domesticated view of the strength of a woman's intellect and the subsequent battery upon it when such temerity is displayed against a patriarchal society. Written as a work of domestic fiction, the novel uses pathos, irony, and wit to show how the Victorian society instilled anti-feminine notions into young women's minds, a phenomenon that is supported by the religious setting of the Victorian period. This is clearly seen in Yonge's protagonist, Rachel Curtis' audacity in being conspicuously offensive yet clever when performing acts of charity by herself and for reasons not sanctioned by the church. Rachel battles the pressures to leave her elected spinsterhood for some time, but ultimately succumbs to the religious and social pressure by marrying and becoming a mother, thereby making her "much more really useful and effective than ever (she) could have been alone" (Yonge, Clever 337).
During a discussion with the malevolently-intentioned Mr. Mauleverer following a search of the "Clergy List" in which she found him to be a "cathedral canon", Rachel is quite outspoken concerning the "dogmatic enunciations" of the Catholic church (Yonge, Clever 165-166). As Mauleverer excuses the pertinence in Rachel's search and recovery of his name and reputation in the list, she responds with an independent intellect finally suppressed and assimilated into the church's patriarchal system of female control and role assignment. She says: "even some of the most superior persons refuse to lay their hands to any task unless they are certified of the religious opinions of their coadjutors, which seems to me like a mason's refusing to work at
a wall with a man who liked Greek architecture when he preferred Gothic! (Yonge, Clever 166).
Yonge's fiction is a very engaging story of life, death, and subsequent assignment of consequences toward young women who challenge the male-dominated hierarchical structure of the church, and by extension, society. This can be readily seen in Bessie's untimely death, the newborn infant's gender - male, of course, and the subsequent fall and rise of Rachel's status in the church and society through selflessly nurturing the newborn and agreeing to become domesticated. Certainly not surprising, the use of near-death recovery and sudden, seemingly undeserved deaths in the book serves to show how the Victorian religious system used to punish, threaten, tame, and ultimately reward those women who followed the church's prescriptive path. Punishment and threats were meted out to those who disobeyed the religious doctrines, after which some were tamed and rewarded for conforming.
In conclusion, the above argument shows that women in the Victorian period had to face the oppressiveness of the religious system which provided unquestionable authority to the patriarchal system under which they suffer. For the male society, men's dominance over women was religiously ordained, and women had no choice but to show complete submissiveness and acceptance to such repression. Religion here manufactured the mechanism by which male hegemony authenticated its power over women and instilled its repressive agenda. Within this context, then, women who expressed their rejection of the religious dictates faced the thrilling power of patriarchy and the deceptive balm of paternalism. Each of the protagonists referenced in this essay announces, amplifies, and then emblematizes the oppression double standard that was at the core of male-dominated religion of the Victorian period.