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The Role of Women in 18th and 19th Century Literature

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The Role of Women in 18th and 19th Century Literature

The role of women in literature has typically been influenced by their role in society. In the 18th and 19th centuries their role in society began to change. Women began their transformation from anonymous objects of their fathers' and husbands' possession into animate, productive members of society. This change was reflected in the literature of the time, regardless of the gender of the author, and in a variety of genres and styles. Whether a light-hearted novel, a commentary on industrialization, or a play, women were ever-present in literary pieces. They appeared more educated, more intelligent, and more independent than ever before. They went against conventions and formed their own opinions. This movement toward the liberation of literary representations of women is portrayed in such well-known and widely regarded literary works as Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility, Charles Dickens's Hard Times and Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House.

Sense and Sensibility was published anonymously in 1811 by Jane Austen herself, at a time when women were not only regarded as intellectual inferiors of men, but were expected to remain such. They were thought to be too feeble-minded to be educated and were expected to live their lives for the sole purpose of catering to their husbands' and children's needs (Monaghan 42). Austen, rejecting this common assumption, portrays women as valuable members of society. "Jane Austen's attitude to women, ...while growing directly out of the social and philosophical environment in which she lived reveal the workings of a keen individual intelligence... She takes a clear-sighted look at the functions performed by women and finds that, regardless of the very low esteem in which their sex is held, they are given a role substantial enough to satisfy the needs of such intelligent and capable people as Elinor and Marianne Dashwood" (Monaghan 50). In her thinking, Austen is not attempting to start a liberation movement, or even to illustrate one. She simply shows that by performing their duties in their limited realm, women play an important role in maintaining society and preventing it from crumbling. "...For all Jane Austen's sense of female worth, nowhere in her novels... does she [express] discontent at the woman's restricted role. None of her heroines has any ambition to be admitted into the professions, to manage an estate or to join the army. Instead, they concentrate their energies into the world of manners until, at the conclusion of the novels, they add to this the concerns of marriage" (Monaghan 46-47).

"Austen condemns meekness in her women characters and believes that they are indeed capable of learning and should be concerning themselves with manners and educating their children properly, women foster a moral society and preserve its stability, and they make great contributions as skillful managers of their households" (Monaghan 42). In fact, the main role of women in Jane Austen's novels is household management. She mercilessly pokes fun at Mrs. Dashwood's inability to be a successful household manager. When Mrs. Dashwood talks of her plan to make certain alterations in the cottage, Austen sarcastically says: "In the mean time, till all these alterations could be made from the savings of an income of 500 a-year by a woman who never saved in her life, they were wise enough to be contented with the house as it was" (Austen 25). The duty of introducing some method into the family's dealings, therefore, falls on Elinor, the novel's most admirable character. It is Elinor who makes the decision to sell Mrs. Dashwood's carriage and limit the number of their servants to only three when they decide to move to Barton Cottage from their more elaborate residence at Norland (Austen 22).

Another point related to the treatment and behavior of women made in Sense and Sensibility is the importance of the existence of mutual respect between a husband and wife. When a wife is overindulgent towards her husband, there appears "the kind of imbalance that characterizes the Palmers' relationship in Sense and Sensibility. The more Mrs. Palmer remains good-natured in the face of her husband's display of childish bad temper, the more excessive and self-indulgent his conduct becomes" (Monaghan 45). Elinor is even noted to wonder at "Charlotte's being so happy without a cause, at Mr. Palmer's acting so simply, with good abilities, and at the strange unsuitableness which often exists between husband and wife" (Austen 101). In sharp contrast to the relationship between the Palmers, Austen presents Mr. and Mrs. John Dashwood. Mr. Dashwood pretends to make the financial decisions for the family. However, his wife sways his decisions and makes him conform to her wishes very easily. She's the one who really has all the decision-making power in the household (Austen 7). It's obvious that this other extreme is not better than the previous one because it causes Mr. Dashwood to neglect his sisters and stepmother.

Charles Dickens's commentary on the evils of industrialization, Hard Times, first published in 1854, presents women as the heroes of the story. The two main female characters, Sissy and Louisa, are responsible for showing the evils of the fact-based education of Mr. Gradgrind's school. They accomplish this by resisting this kind of education, as in Sissy's case, or making a conscious decision to renounce it, as Louisa finally does. It seems that Sissy is the only one who, from the start, will not submit to a life dedicated to cold, hard facts. From the beginning, she is actually frightened and bewildered by being forced to see things that way (Dickens 7). Although she wants to please her benefactor, Mr. Gradgrind, her heart is too kind and she is too sensitive to be able to ignore her emotions. She is swayed too much by her sympathy for other people to be able to look at the world simply in terms of numbers and figures (Dickens 52-53, 54-55). Louisa, Mr. Gradgrind's daughter, who used to be one of the model students in his school, learns to regard facts so highly, that she seems to lose her ability to feel. However, she is the only character to combine her strict adherence to facts with her unconditional love for her brother. The reader feels the most admiration and sympathy for her because she sacrifices her life, without really realizing it until the end, to pleasing her father and brother, by marrying Mr. Bounderby. When as a teenager, she describes the factories of Coketown at night, she might as well be speaking of herself evolving throughout the book: "there seems to be nothing there, but languid and monotonous smoke. Yet, when the



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