19th Century Heroines

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‘The Nineteenth Century English Novel offers us strong, independent heroines, but ultimately has them conform to socially acceptable feminine roles'. Do you agree with this statement?

By definition, a heroine is a woman who would typically encompass the qualities of nobility, courage, independence and strength. Nineteenth century English women would have struggled to accomplish any of these particular acts of heroism within their social environment as ultimately, their roles within civilisation saw them becoming a good wives and mothers and before that, obliging and caring daughters. Within this ubiquitous discourse of separate spheres, Kathryn Gleadle suggests that women were ‘encouraged to see themselves as ‘relative creatures', whose path in life was to nurture the family and to provide unstinting support for the head of the household' In this respect, the nineteenth century British woman conforming to this ‘path' would prove to be the heroine of that time as a free-spirited independent individual would have been cast aside as socially unacceptable. Essentially, although it would appear that many women wished to lead active, working lives and so make an important contribution, either to their families or to social welfare, ‘the woman's position [was] to preside over a loving home whilst men were to brave the vicissitude and demands of public and business life' Novelists Thomas Hardy and Emily Brontë present us with two strong and independent females Tess Durbeyfield and Catherine Earnshaw. These women are far from the idealistic view of nineteenth century females; Tess, intelligent and strikingly attractive, strives to uphold the values expected of her but outside forces beyond her control determine her fate. Catherine on the other hand begins her life free-spirited, rebellious and of a wild nature. However, her inner desire craves social ambition which, in turn, shows her slowly representing culture and civilisation.

Tess, the protagonist and heroine of Hardy's novel, becomes a victim of rape and in turn, her life grows to become degraded, humiliating and depressing; of which none of these things she deserves. Although initially striving to be heroic and providing for her family, (after she was responsible for the death of Prince) the position she takes on at the d'Urbervilles' ultimately leads to her death as she is raped and then pursued by her seducer Alec d'Urberville until she must murder him. This courageous yet dangerous decision to murder Alec epitomises her character as a heroine as she is brave enough to perform such a malicious act in order to kill her suffering at the root rather than being passive and perhaps choosing to take her own life instead. By murdering Alec, Tess redeems herself from the passive role that she has been forced into. Alec's rapacious use of her body represents the male manipulation of female frailty. Through Tess' tyranny it may not seem that she possesses many traits of a heroine but Hardy has injected his character with an ever present sense of hope; ‘Tess felt the pulse of hopeful life still warm within her; she might be happy in some nook which had no memories. To escape the past and all that appertained thereto was to annihilate it'. It is this admirable and feisty attitude that gives Tess the will and strength to be virtuous.

In Wuthering Heights, Brontë depicts her heroine as an admirable and feisty woman like Tess, however Catherine's arrogance and need for social advancement differentiates her from Tess in the way that her character comes across as more in control of her destiny. Fortunately, for Catherine her wealth and middle-upper class family background gives her the ability to be in more control of her future whereas Tess' future lies in the hands of the work that she is able to get and the wealth of the man she decides to marry. In her essay Gender and the Victorian Novel, Nancy Armstrong suggests that the nineteenth century woman would ‘Marry...
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