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 educated...by 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...
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