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Jul 04

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Women in 19th Century Fiction

Women in 19th Century Fiction Glimpse of hope or Total Darkness   

   The conditions under which white pioneers came to 19th century fiction created various situations for women. Where, women were imported as sex slaves, child bearers, and companions. Many women came in those early years as indentured servants- often teenaged girls-and lived lives not much different from slaves, except that the term of service had an end.

   They were poorly paid and often treated rudely and harshly, deprived of good food and privacy.

Living in separate families without much contact with others in their position, indentured servants had one primary path of resistance open to them. Sexual abuse of masters against servant girls became conventional. In Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Thomas Hardy has shown the condition of the women of that society slightly by the character of Tess. Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises is also another novel where the condition of woman of that society is shown by giving different female characters.  He has shown the women as the source of entertainment of male, drinker, miss relationship and roamer.  

    Women’s Rights: In the past, there was not enough right of women in that society. So, wifehood and motherhood were regarded as women’s most significant professions. During the time most of history women generally have had fewer legal rights and career opportunities than men.

   Early Attitudes toward Women: In the early times women have been exclusively viewed as a creative source of human life. Historically, however, they have been considered not only intellectually inferior to men but also a major source of temptation and evil. In Tess of the D’Urbervilles we observe that Tess is the main source of earning of her family because her father does not eager to work. Her mother also wants that her daughter should earn to lead their family. So she is sent outside of her family to do a job.

 Women had to walk behind their husbands or father. Women could not get own property, and widows could not remarry. In both East and West, male children were preferred over female children.

    The Weaker Sex: In 19th century fiction women were shown and considered naturally weaker than men, particular, and unable to perform work requiring muscular or intellectual development. In most preindustrial societies, for example, domestic chores were relegated to women, leaving “heavier” labor such as hunting and cultivating to men. This ignored the fact that caring for children and doing such tasks as milking cows and washing clothes also required heavy, sustained labor. They were frustrated and drunker. In Tess of the D’Urbervilles Hardy has shown Tess and her friends as milking cows. In The Sun Also Rises we observe that the women are shown as the source of male’s entertainment. Male love them only for getting physical and sexual amusement.  

   It is also shown in the 19th century fiction that traditionally a middle-class girl in Western culture has a habit of learning from her mother. For example cooking, cleaning, and caring for children was the behavior expected of her when she grew up. The major reason given was that the girls’ own expectations declined because neither their families nor their teachers expected them to prepare for a future other than that of marriage and motherhood. In Tess of the D’Urbervilles we get Tess’s mother has continued an important role for Tess who taught her as a teacher. So, when Tess was raped by Alec at that time after returning home when she told the occurrence to her mother at that time she told about the negative side of male. Then Tess peculiarly asked her mother why she did not tell it before.   

    The Legal Status of Women: The myth of the natural inferiority of women greatly influenced the status of women in law. Under the common law of England, an unmarried woman could get own property, make a contract, or sue and be sued. The women were dominated by the male.

   In the 19th century, women began working outside their homes in large numbers, notably in milking farms as a cloudier, faulty farms and garment shops. Eventually, some of these labor laws were seen as restricting the rights of working women.

  Traditionally, it was believed that women were essentially different in character from men. This was a convenient necessity because, it was maintained, they were here on earth for a different purpose than a man. Women were homemakers. They nourished their families and kept them safe from the cruel world. Husbands depended on their wives, fathers depended on their daughters, and brothers depended on their sisters to maintain solace in their homes. 

    Law: Laws concerned with welfare, crime, prostitution, and abortion also displayed a bias against women. Sex discrimination in the definition of crimes existed in some areas of the United States. A woman who shot and killed her husband would be accused of homicide, but the shooting of a wife by her husband could be termed a “passion shooting.” In most states abortion was legal only if the mother’s life was judged to be physically endangered. In Tess of the D’Urbervilles, we find Tess as a victim and she did not get any support from law but when she killed Alec to escape from him at that time she was proved as a killer. At last she was hung for her guilt. So the law was totally discrimination.  

    Women at Work: In colonial America, women who earned their own living usually became seamstresses or kept boardinghouses. But some women worked in professions and jobs available mostly to men. There were women doctors, lawyers, preachers, teachers, writers, and singers. By the early 19th century, however, acceptable occupations for working women were limited to factory labor or domestic work. Women were excluded from the professions, except for writing and teaching.

   Beginning in the 19th century, the required educational preparation, particularly for the practice of medicine, increased. This tended to prevent many young women, who married early and bore many children, from entering professional careers. Specific discrimination against women also began to appear.

        Women in Reform Movements: Women in the United States during the 19th century organized and participated in a great variety of reform movements to improve education, to newcomer prison reform, to ban alcoholic drinks, and, during the pre-Civil War period, to free the slaves.

 There were certain written and understood laws governing the behavior of women. These were very strict and limiting on the women. And then there were the real actions. There were the husbands who asked their wives’ opinion even though some members of society thought it shortsighted and useless. And there were the wives who wanted the mental, as well as physical, relationship with their husbands that society said they were not qualified to receive. In The Sun Also Rises Ernest Hemingway shows all the poor condition of that time nicely.

   Many women supported the temperance movement in the belief that drunken husbands and parents pulled their families into poverty. In Tess of the D’Urbervilles Tess’ father does not do any work; so, Tess is bound to go outside the house and get a job to support her family.  

Women were also active in movements for agrarian and labor reforms and for birth control. After researching The Sun Also Rises and Tess of The D’Urbervilles it can be decided that in 19th Century Fiction, the life of women were shown as full of sufferings, darkness and they had not totally any hope to rise. They were dominated by the society, family and male. Several times they were shown the shadow of hope but it did not last long. 

Author: Mahbub Alam Murad. Dhaka, Bangladesh. Email: Mahbub_murad@yahoo.com. Cell: +8801919879309 

 

About the author

Mahbub Murad

I am a Lecturer of English at Mohanagar Ideal College, HSC Examiner of Dhaka Board and the Founder of this site. If anyone wants to share his/her idea or get any support, he or she can contact me. Cell: 01761519111 (12 pm - 3 pm and 10 pm - 11 pm)
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