Atonement -Female Disempowerment

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In their reflection on the past modern writers present the experiences of a woman as one of disempowerment. To what extent do you agree with this proposition? Angela Holdsworth foregrounds the changed position of women in her book 'Out of the Doll's House' where 'women are no longer content to endure the treatment which in past times their inferior position obliged them to suffer.’ The use of obliged suggests how passively women had to accept their lower role under men and how they were unable to break out of convention due to stagnant male attitudes and values. However it is clear in both novels that strong forces of dis-empowerment are at work for both men and women. This results in many being trapped within their gender’s crippling social expectations as well as their own self-inflicted acts of duty and image. It could also be argued that characters in both novels are overseen by powerful, unreliable narrators; in Water's case, a male doctor, Faraday and in McEwan's an upper-class female, Briony.

In 'Atonement', McEwan's empowered narrator Briony Tallis, uses ‘her powers of all the powerful and dangerous work of the imagination’ to control the novels twists and turns, with her ‘desire to have the world just so'. However the author's approach also creates a network of intimate third person narration, allowing his narrator and with her, the reader, to delve into the psyche of others. This is specifically important as it helps foreground attitudes and values of expectation of the other characters.

The state of women’s world in the 1940s and 30s is portrayed in the two novels as a highly unfair one, with lack of opportunity and interest for mothers outside their house. This centers on the importance of the role being tethered to the home, however it is argued in 'Out of the Doll's House' that even now women feel obliged to be at home: 'However much women may wish to be different, most feel a certain amount of guilt about the time they spend away from home'. This can be argued as self disempowerement through duty, which is shown through the psyche of Cecilia Tallis.

'Cecilia wondered as she sometimes did when she met a man for the first time, if this was the one she was going to marry'

In this sequence the reader gains insight into Cecilia's expectations as her role as a woman ad shows how she conforms to society's ideals. Through McEwan's use of the lexical choices 'wondered' and 'sometimes' it shows that she passively accepts her immanent marriage. 'the one' suggests a lack of choice on her part, as if McEawan is attempting to show the structure of a patriarchal gentry family like the Tallises; almost questioning: is this 'the one' her parents will choose for her? This scene suggests to the reader that Paul Marshall is one of many powerful men brought to the house for Cecilia's benefit. Though we can see through the dedication of a whole chapter foregrounding Cecilia's need to convey a certain image of herself to Marshall, how far she disempowers herself through obeying expectation. ‘Cecilia dotes upon from afar, without ever having met him (Marshall). In her efforts to impress him, she spends an extraordinary effort preparing a vase of flowers for his room.’

‘..She had no job or skill and still had a husband to find and motherhood to confront.. .’. As Emily Tallis is allowed to voice her concerns, through the intimate third person narration, she also brings the expectation of an older generation forward. Her matter-of fact tone through lexical choices including 'confront' and 'still' mirrors her daughter’s compliance. Mary Turner gives context in ‘The Woman’s Century’ ‘in 1948, twenty-eight years after Oxford first awarded degree schemes to its women students, Cambridge University finally followed suit’. Women’s education was compromised because their parents believed that they would be supported by their husbands when they married. However in Cecilia’s case she disobeyed her mother’s wishes by choosing to...
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