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According to Phillip O'Neill "few of the characters in The Woman in White appear to be totally subsumed by the traditional markers of gender." (118) Some of the characters that do present traditional markers of gender in this novel are Laura Fairlie, Anne Catherick, Mr. Vesey, Madame Fosco, Vincent Gilmore and Mrs. Catherick, Anne's mother. As it has been discussed in the previous chapter, Marian Holcombe is "one of a number of characters who are used to destabilize gender boundaries" (Pykett Collins 126) because she is a woman "alarmingly 'masculine'" (Rance 13) and the other characters that are not exactly proper representatives of their gender are men who have feminine behaviour and appearances.
The novel is composed from several narratives and the first narrative is that of Walter Hartright, who is one of the main male protagonists. Strangely, there are no references to his physical appearance and no descriptions of his figure throughout the novel. However, in the first part of the novel, his way of behaving, talking and his frequent references to his emotional states correlated with the way Marian Halcombe speaks and treats him make of him a man with more feminine traits than masculine ones, an effeminate man. According to Lyn Pykett he is "a man whose own class and gender identity is presented from the outset as being extremely unstable." (Collins 126) His effeminacy does nothing more than to accentuate the strong and determinate character of Marian Halcombe.
When he arrives at Limmeridge house and first meets Laura Farlie he is incapable of having a discussion with her and he says "Observing my hesitation, and no doubt attributing it, naturally enough, to some momentary shyness on my part, Miss Halcombe took the business of talking, as easily and readily as usual, into her own hands." (Collins 41) This is the first instance when Marian takes the lead and helps Walter escape from an embarrassing situation, when it should have been the opposite. There are several other moments when she is more resolute than he is and knows what is best for him. Walter is aware of his weakness and after he falls in love with Laura he avoids telling her that and he says "I felt that I must cast off the oppression under which I was living, at once and for ever--yet how to act for the best, or what to say first, was more than I could tell." (Collins 55) Unlike him,Marian, with few exceptions, always knows what to say and do. At this point in the novel he lacks mental strength and courage.
Walter's situation is that of Laura Fairlie, who like her is protected and advised by Marian, but in his case because of his lack of confidence in his manhood and maturity. For instance, when Walter finds out that Laura is going to marry Sir Percival, him being "a nervous, sensitive type" (Law & Maunder 75) is affected by the news and feels a great emotional pain. Marian tells him
Crush it!" she said. "Here, where you first saw her, crush it! Don't shrink under it like woman. Tear it out; trample it under foot like a man!" The suppressed vehemence with which she spoke, the strength which her will--concentrated in the look she fixed on me, and in the hold on my arm that she had not yet relinquished--communicated to mine, steadied me. We both waited for a minute in silence. At the end of that time I had justified her generous faith in my manhood--I had, outwardly at least, recovered my self-control. (Collins 59-60)
From this fragment results the fact that Marian is a strong woman and Walter a weak man, masculinity is performed by Marian and femininity by Walter. Walter seems to recuperate his manhood only when Marian is with him because when she is not he is again overwhelmed by his sensitivity and weakness, like the moment when he leaves Limmeridge House at Marian's demand and he says goodbye to his beloved Laura. He begins to cry over Laura's hand and he confesses "my tears fell on it, my lips pressed it--not in love; oh, not in love, at that last moment, but in the agony and the self-abandonment of despair." (Collins 109) His despair comes from his incapacity to cope like a man with the hard situation of leaving his love, Laura.
However, in the last half of the novel Hartright reappears as a "changed man" (Collins 366) and he resembles Marian to a great extent because as he confesses "I had tempered my nature afresh .In the stern school of extremity and danger my will had learnt to be strong, my heart to be resolute, my mind to rely on itself. I had gone out to fly from my own future. I came back to face it, as a man should." (Collins 366) On one hand his masculinity is affirmed now because he is strong, resolute and self-reliant and ready to act as a man should. On the other hand the fact that he had to learn how to be resolute, strong and self reliant, these being characteristics of masculinity, shows that gender is not natural (Butler 49) and that a man needs not always be born masculine. According to Law & Maunder "he provokes pity, admiration, and exasperation in more-or-less equal measures, but he is also part of the focus of the text's interest in questions of gender and sexuality." (75)
As Lyn Pykett observes, in Collins's novel, "sex-gender hybridity is not restricted to Marian and Walter" (Collins 123). Mr. Fairlie is clearly an effeminate man and this shows from his physical description made by Walter and the way he behaves. He is "the master of the house" (Collins 31 but "an invalid" (Collins 25) and his passivity is another marker of Victorian femininity that makes of him a "languidly effeminate" (Law& Maunder 76) man. Walter describes him as follows
His beardless face was thin, worn, and transparently pale, but not wrinkled (â€¦) His feet were effeminately small, and were clad in buff-coloured silk stockings, and little womanish bronze-leather slippers. Two rings adorned his white delicate hands (â€¦) Upon the whole, he had a frail, languidly-fretful, over-refined look--something singularly and unpleasantly delicate in its association with a man, and, at the same time, something which could by no possibility have looked natural and appropriate if it had been transferred to the personal appearance of a woman (Collins 31)
There is nothing masculine in his description and nothing masculine in his behavior either because he is always complaining of something and especially of his health "Pray excuse me. But could you contrive to speak in a lower key? In the wretched state of my nerves, loud sound of any kind is indescribable torture to me. You will pardon an invalid? I only say to you what the lamentable state of my health obliges me to say to everybody." (Collins 32) It can be said that he even profits from his state of health and always tries to portray himself as a victim. He accentuates his frailty although he should have hidden it. He lacks physical strength and admires Walter because he can carry a portfolio of drawings to his room "How nice to be so strong!" (Collins 36) Like a woman, he relies on his instincts when he makes a decision. For instance, when he is visited by Count Fosco and he is harassed by the way he looks at him he says "My instincts told me that I had better close my eyes. I obeyed my instincts." (Collins 315) He is nothing more than "a bundle of nerves dressed up to look like a man" (Collins 314) according to his own affirmation. He is extremely sensitive and because of his nervous condition he is always in a bad mood and imagining things. For instance, when he is visited by Walter he hears or thinks he hears noises in his yard when nobody is there. All noises bother him "Gently with the curtains, please--the slightest noise from them goes through me like a knife" (Collins 36) and he is sensitive to light.
According to Lyn Pykett he is "unpleasantly feminized." (Collins 127) In contrast with him is "the masculine" (James 170) Marian who despite the fact she emanates masculinity is not unpleasant to one's sight. As Lyn Pykett observes "Collins's representation of the blurring of gender boundaries is sometimes, as in the case of Frederick Fairlie, associated with grotesqueness." (Collins 127) Another thing that emphasizes Mr. Fairlie's femininity and Marian's masculinity is the fact that she is not as sensitive as he is and she says "My nerves are not easily shaken by trifles." (Collins 182) This could not have been said by Mr. Fairlie about himself. Marian knows him well and when she talks with Laura about asking him to let her go back to Limmeridge House she says "your uncle is a weak, selfish, worldly man (â€¦)he will do anything to pamper his own indolence, and to secure his own quiet." (Collins 270) He is a passive man whereas Marian is active and even if he should have secured the welfare of his nieces he only thinks of himself. As a man he should have protected Laura and Marian but he does not do that, he runs from responsibilities.
Sir Percival Glyde is a man who controls his wife with the power of fear and hurts her physically "his cruel hand was bruising my arm" (Collins 268) and emotionally, expressing his masculinity and thus the power that is implied with it. Yet, he too can be considered an effeminate man even if his feminine side is less emphasized throughout the novel than his masculine side. He has some physical traits that are not exactly masculine "his nose, straight and handsome, and delicate enough to have done for a woman's. His hands the same." (Collins 66) On the contrary, Marian has a "rather large" (Collins 25) hand. His manner of behaving resembles sometimes that of a woman and Eliza Michaelson observes while attending at one of his discussions with Laura that "He seemed to be almost as nervous and fluttered, every now and then, as his lady herself. I should never have supposed that his health had been so delicate, or his composure so easy to upset." (Collins 344) He looses his calm often and is criticized by Count Fosco for that who tells him "control your unfortunate temper, Percival." (Collins 218) He is easily manipulated by his friend Fosco and their relation of friendship is in a way a version of marriage where Sir Percival is "the wife" and Fosco "the husband", in the sense that Fosco is always telling Percival what to do. Laura is one of the characters that observes that and even declares "he has so much more power over my husband than I have." (Collins 202)
According to D.A. Miller "even in the less fey male characters, nervousness remains a signifier of femininity. At best it declares Walter still "unformed," and Sir Percival's imposture that he is not, so to speak, the man he is pretending to be." (151-152) I would like to add that in the cases of Mr. Fairlie, Walter Hartright and Sir Percival their nervousness only adds to their incapacity" to do their gender right". (Butler 178)
Although Count Fosco has power over his friend Percival and his wife Eleanor and to a lesser extent over Marian Halcombe he too is an effeminate man. Again as in the cases of the other effeminate men that have been the subject of discussion until this moment his body betrays his effeminacy. Marian is the one that gives his description
his face, closely shaven all over, is smoother and freer from all marks and wrinkles than mine (â€¦)All the smallest characteristics of this strange man have something strikingly original and perplexingly contradictory in them. Fat as he is and old as he is, his movements are astonishingly light and easy. He is as noiseless in a room as any of us women, and more than that, with all his look of unmistakable mental firmness and power, he is as nervously sensitive as the weakest of us. He starts at chance noises as inveterately as Laura herself. He winced and shuddered yesterday, when Sir Percival beat one of the spaniels, so that I felt ashamed of my own want of tenderness and sensibility by comparison with the Count (Collins 193-194)
In this fragment Marian does not only describes the way the Count looks and behaves but also she compares herself with him only to find out that he is much more feminine than she is because he has a good complexion, he is sensitive and appears to be weak. Marian also compares him with " a fat St. Cecilia masquerading in male attire" (Collins 202" In addition, he has passions that are not manly, he is fond of "pet animals" (Collins 194) and "he has brought with him to this house a cockatoo, two canary-birds, and a whole family of white mice" (Collins 194) Marian says. He is aware of his feminine side and even declares that "a taste for sweetsâ€¦ is the innocent taste of women and children. I love to share it with them--it is another bond, dear ladies, between you and me." (Collins 259) He somehow identifies himself with women. Unlike Marian who does not sing and does not play the piano he does all this things, showing he is sentimental and feminine because these were activities specific to women in the Victorian period.
The Count passed the morning quietly indoors, some part of it in the library, some part in the drawing-room, playing odds and ends of music on the piano, and humming to himself. Judging by appearances, the sentimental side of his character was persistently inclined to betray itself still. He was silent and sensitive, and ready to sigh and languish ponderously (as only fat men can sigh and languish) on the smallest provocation (Collins 258-259)
According to Law& Maunder "The Count is a threatening presence because, although elderly, obese, and effeminate, he is also a chameleon, a fantasy stereotype of enhanced masculinity who confronts the native Englishman with his own sexual inadequacy." (80) I would also add that the feminized Count Fosco with his chameleonic nature puts Marian Halcombe in the situation of realizing her own sexual inadequacy and also he is used to emphasize her transgression from the gender roles that the Victorian society established for women.
The main male characters of The Woman in White, Walter Hartright, Mr. Fairlie, Sir Percival Glyde and Count Fosco, are all effeminate men, although it is true that in the case of Mr. Fairlie the effeminate characteristics are more obvious than in the case of the others. They all come in contact with "the mannish Marian" (Miller 174) and a comparison between them and her on the one hand outlines her strong, resolute and independent nature and transgressions from the conventional gender norms and roles and on the other hand reveals that masculinity and femininity are not inborn qualities and characterizing only men and respectively only women but acquired through one's acts.