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Stereotypical Expectations in Wilkie Collins' Basil

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 1417 words Published: 18th May 2020

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The selected extract from Wilkie Collins’s novel Basil portrays traditional gender stereotypes and expectations, i.e. ‘generalised view[s] or preconception[s] about attributes, or characteristics that are or ought to be possessed by women … or the roles that are or should be performed by … women.’[1] The following analysis will focus on identifying stereotypical expectations as well as some of the narrative techniques employed to portray the former.

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 The extract seems to claim that women who oppose traditional gender stereotypes and expectations oppose their very nature. The ‘natural womanly way’ [l.20], according to prevalent female stereotypes and male expectations, is to be ‘impresse[d], agitate[t], amuse[d], or delighte[d]’ [l.19]. Members of the female sex are supposed to be ‘hearty’ [l.20], ‘gentle’ [l.27], ‘innocent’ [l.27], and ‘sincere’ [l.27]. However, women who ‘[repress] all … warmth of feeling’ [l.13-14] and ‘[abstain] from displaying any enthusiasm’ [l.14] are seen as problematic and deviant – that is deviant from traditional patriarchal expectations. Their ‘[s]ympathy looks ironical’ [l.20] and ‘love seems to [become] an affair of calculation, or mockery’ [l.20-21]. As irony and mockery are commonly perceived as deceitful and insulting, women seem to betray their very nature when engaging with such types of behaviour. Thus, it becomes apparent that a lack in the area of ‘”sentiment’” [l.19] is a serious challenge to the ‘natural womanly way’ [l.20].

Another major concern resulting from such deviant behaviour is about women losing their femininity entirely. Indeed, as the extract sets forth, ‘[w]omen of this exclusively modern order’ [l.16] appear ambitious to ‘[unsex] themselves before society’ [l. 11-12]. In other words, they start to abandon their ‘hearty, natural, womanly way’ [l.20] and start to mimic ‘the language and the manners of men’ [l.12]. They do so, for example, by using ‘slang expressions in their conversations’ [l.16-17]. These are, however, largely considered vulgar, abusive, and essentially unwomanly. Moreover, women start to adopt ‘a bastard-masculine abruptness in their manners’ [l.17] and ‘a bastard-masculine licence in their opinions’ [l.17-18]. In other words, they seem to abandon their gentleness and kindness for abruptness, and seem to taint their ‘innocent’ [l.27] female nature with bastard masculinity. The repetition of ‘bastard’ emphasises the negative connotation of this changed behaviour. The result of this transformation is a ‘modern’ [l.16] woman, which would later be called “New Woman”. In essence, the stereotypical line between feminine and masculine behaviour starts to blur and thus, the modern women become deviants in the eyes of men.

The language employed to describe such a modern woman carries a rather negative connotation and contributes to the overall bad light in which these women are depicted. To show ‘bastard-masculine … manners’ [l.17] is to possess manners which are ‘no longer in its pure or original form’.[2] To connect a woman’s behaviour with the term ‘bastard’ [l.17] is to deem their manners impure, to define it as something tainted and unwomanly. To possess ‘bastard-masculine … opinions’ [l.17-18] is to display improper and impure opinions which should not be held by the female sex. Other vocabulary used to describe such women includes ‘aping’ [l.12], ‘miserable’ [l.13], ‘repressing’ [l.13], ‘betrayal’ [l.13], ‘ridicule’ [l.18], and ‘mockery’ [l.21]. The effect of employing such heavy negative language is an overall negative perception of the modern woman as a whole.

In contrast, the image of the ideal Victorian woman is depicted in a positive and warm manner. The extract presents the reader with an image ‘of some woman’ [l.29] in which men ‘could put … perfect faith and trust’ [l.29]. She possesses ‘emotions [which] are still warm and impressible’ [l.27] as well as ‘affections and sympathies’ [l.28]. She is supposed to appear ‘fresh [and] and innocent’ [l.27]. Her duty is to act ‘gentle [and] sincere’ [l.27]. The image painted of the ideal woman appears to be based on wishful thinking, yet the extract presents the reader with an example: Clara. The narrator’s sister Clara appears to represent the Angel in the House, a concept first introduced by the poet Coventry Patmore, which presents the ideal woman according to Victorian gender expectations. Clara is ‘natural – exquisitely natural’ [l.4] with a ‘kindness of heart, and word, and manner’ [l.4] which is effortless. The repetition of ‘natural’, and its connection with ‘exquisitely’, underlines the importance of a natural woman. Additionally, Clara’s voice and smile are attractive, impressive, and delightful [l.2-3]. She seems to mirror the painted image of the ideal woman ‘whom [men] despair of finding’ [l.29-30].

The narrator places women within a binary system instead of presenting them as a two-sided medal. In doing so, he influences the reader’s attitude towards female gender roles and the text in general. By using impressively positive language to describe the ideal Victorian woman, the narrator paints them in an angel-like manner – that is as someone who can do no wrong and is inherently good. In contrast, the excessive negative language employed to describe the deviant women paints them in a demon-like manner – that is as someone who is of bad character. This coerces the reader into thinking that the ideal woman cannot possess vices, and the deviant woman cannot possess virtues. Further, it leads to the belief that the deviant woman is, in fact, deviant. It essentially perpetuates patriarchal control over what a woman ought or ought not do. In other words, the reader is influenced into thinking that if a woman opposes patriarchal control, i.e. traditional gender stereotypes and expectations, she becomes deviant. The narrator creates a binary, consisting of the good woman and the bad woman. Each woman is distinct from the other and there is no overlap of attributes. However, an unbiased portrayal would be a spectrum: the good woman with vices and the bad woman with virtues. It incorporates the reality that even an Angel in the House can have character flaws, and that the “deviant” woman can share attributes with the Angel in the House. Thus, it becomes clear that the narrative techniques employed by the narrator effectively influence the reader’s interpretation and attitude towards the text and its female characters.

 All in all, the extract figures a male narrator employing specific narrative techniques and terminology to either highlight the positive attributes of the ideal woman or degrade the behaviour of the “deviant” woman. Women who oppose traditional patriarchal gender stereotypes and expectations become “deviant” in the eyes of society, especially men, and risk to lose their femininity, i.e. the very core of their nature. (Word count: 1088)


Primary sources

  • Wilkie Collins, Basil (1852)

Secondary sources

[1] United Nations Human Rights, ‘Gender stereotypes and Stereotyping and women’s rights’, https://www.ohchr.org/documents/issues/women/wrgs/onepagers/gender_stereotyping.pdf [accessed 6th October 2019].

[2] Oxford Dictionaries, ‘bastard’, https://www.lexico.com/en/definition/bastard, [accessed 6th October 2019].


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