Sunday, 10 January 2016

The Changing Perceptions Of Women In Literature

The Changing Perceptions Of Women In Literature

It is often thought that the Victoria era was a time of change and modernity, and for women, a period where their role in society evolved. Despite Britain being ruled by an effective and popular Queen, there was still significant inequality between men and women. In short, women were marginalised. Due to this, the main focus of this blog will centre around the perception of women in the Victorian era, and a Freudian interpretation their status in society.

Sigmund Freud 
 At the time, it was seen as a respectful act for a woman to cover her legs; if she was a respectable lady, her entire body would be covered. It was a common misconception, however, for people to also cover the legs of tables, chairs and other objects. A Freudian understanding was that the sight of such things would spark sexual desire: ‘...Victorian age ladies used to cover the legs of their chairs too, because they were legs, and legs were not to be shown"[1]. According to Freud, the legs of a chair, and of any other object, could be viewed as phallic suggestions, and sitting in the chair, as a woman, showed her willingness and desire to enjoy sex. In Freud and his Followers, Freud suggested that once a man has taken a woman’s virginity and her love, no other man can compare to the initial experience. Freud’s theories, however, do not take into account the obvious examples of how women did, and continue to, disassociate themselves from love when engaging in sex. Prostitution, for example, which was very popular at the time, was a potentially lucrative endeavour, and this reality greatly undermines Freud’s argument.

“Whoever is the first to satisfy a virgin’s desire for love, long and laboriously held in check, and who in doing so overcomes the resistance which have been up in her through the influences of her milieu and education, that is the man she will take into a lasting relationship, the possibility of which will never be again open to any other man.”[2] (Roazen)
Women were depicted as objects of desire, though according to doctors, such as John Harvey Kellogg, if a man wished to fulfil his sexual desires, he should acquire a prostitute, as a wife would be placed in pain if used for desire. For Kellogg, a man’s wife should only be subjected to the action of sex for procreation. The Victoria era was notoriously repressive, and it wasn’t only women that were subjected to sexual scrutiny. Though it was also taboo for men to consider the prospect of sex, the invention of the ‘jugus penis[3]’ was used to prevent any form of erection or desire to masturbate if the end result was not to conceive.

Robert Browning was a controversial Victorian figure, and not only developed female protagonists in his poems/short stories, but also depicted them as victims, rather to be seen and not heard, a common philosophy for the time. Both Browning and his wife, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, were regarded as leaders of the feminist movement through their writing in the Victorian period. The poem, Porphyria’s Lover, could be seen as a symbolic poem to reflect the true treatment of women, contextualising the fact that at the time, it was more important for a woman to be seen rather then heard. At the moment where Porphyria enters the cottage, and is disrobing, she calls to the unknown male narrator, and simply ignores her: ‘...And, last, she sat down by my side/And called me. When no voice replied/She put my arm about her waist...’[4]

Throughout the poem, there is a focus on the protagonist’s appearance, her ‘yellow hair’ being the main source of his admiration for her. The poem, however, holds a darker element when her hair and beauty become the making of her death: ‘ one yellow string I wound three times her little throat around and strangled her...’[5] This, in many ways, could be a subtle way of displaying a social context; that a woman's lavish appearance could potentially lead to her demise, as she attempts to be seen. This could be considered as a threat to a dominant male’s masculinity. It is therefore evident that, to truly be an obedient lady, one must be submissive to a man’s actions, and Porphyria’s Lover clearly displays a man’s need for superiority. The fact that ‘God has not said a word’[6] in regards to Porphyria’s murder merely suggests it was considered God’s order to have women in a state of submission. 

The Laboratory, another of Browning’s poems, adopts a slightly different tone, where a woman narrates. The language and tone of the poem suggest that it is she who is associated with power and manipulation, and her male lover being the cause of her mental anguish. This, in effect, was a complete juxtaposition and role change of the social standards, and Browning’s unknown female narrator was a radical one. She is consumed by revenge, caused by the lover in question, therefore her actions are a product of his doing. Throughout the poem, the narrator’s primary objective is to create pain to her lover, by poisoning his mistress, and the language used suggests she’s takes great enjoyment from the scheme: ‘...And yonder soft phial, the exquisite blue, Sure to taste sweetly,—is that poison too?’[7] She is idealising the notion of death, as she describes the phial’s colour with wistfulness and purity. This links back to Porphyria’s Lover, where death is also romanticised. The Laboratory, however, justifies the act of murder, by suggesting that the scorned female is acting out of revenge: ‘He is with her ...Where they are, what they do: they believe my tears flow’[8]. This may be Browning attempting to show how even the most criminal of acts committed by a woman are seen to be done with rationality. This is in contrast to Porphyria’s Lover, the male narrator has no motive for his murder, and seems to be acting randomly. The narrator in The Laboratory also uses language that echoes the attitude of men towards women in society, such as casting judgement of her rival lover’s figure: ‘What a drop! She’s not little, no minion like me’[9]. Here, Browning is suggesting that so consumed with hate is the narrator , that she is expressing herself in a way typical of a man, which shows how far a woman can by corrupted by a man’s impact on her.


It is clear that the perception of women in literature throughout the Victoria era began to change, and these selected poems are both attempting to highlight the changes of women’s roles in society. They both display extreme ends of women’s representation in society. A woman has to remain obedient to her husband, and if she dares to stray, she will only be led to the path of destruction or prostitution. The only way to remain pure is to have an honest life with one man. In Porphyria’s Lover, there is an allusion to forbidden love, so Porphyria’s death can be seen as the result of her own actions. The narrator concludes that his murder is just, after reassuring himself that ‘no pain she felt’[10], and that God’s lack of interference is a sign that the narrator, at least in his own mind, carrying our God’s unspoken will. A woman’s obedience is shown in The Laboratory is even more apparent, as it appears that the only way the narrator can convince a man to make poison for her is not through money, but with a kiss. Her body is still the object of desire, and her the money is worthless without a kiss.

[2] Roazen, Pete.  ‘Freud and his Followers’, chapter Love and Marriage, page 49
[4] Browning, Robert. ‘Porphyria’s Lover’
[5] Browning, Robert. ‘Porphyria’s Lover’
[6] Browning, Robert. ‘Porphryria’s Lover’
[7] Browning, Robert. ‘The Laboratory’
[8] Browning, Robert. ‘The Laboratory’
[9] Browning, Robert. ‘The Laboratory’
[10] Browning, Robert. ‘The Laboratory’

1 comment:

  1. Hey Chloe,

    I thought your blog was very nicely written and very interesting. I loved your analysis on Browning's poem Porphyria’s Lover, this idea of a woman's beauty being her demise. As well as the Freudian perspective on women's clothing compared to a table.