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How Are Women Portrayed As Victims English Literature Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 2261 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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The portrayal of women as victims is one of the key themes presented throughout “Othello”, “Jane Eyre” and “The Colour Purple”. The writers employ narrative and plot as vehicles to challenge the social attitudes of the period in which they are set. The women in the texts are subjected to three forms of suffering: physical, verbal and psychological; in which the audience/reader discover how women were treated and have the opportunity to reflect on how the drive for social change was born. Shakespeare’s play “Othello” presents women through the eyes of the fellow male characters, however there is some self-representation by the female characters; although much less frequently. “The Colour Purple” by Alice Walker is an acclaimed epistolary novel, showing the life and journey of Celie, a poor black woman who has known nothing of love in her life. Walker uses her as a vehicle to challenge the American society and to depict the brutality of the cruelty which black women endured daily. Finally, “Jane Eyre” by Charlotte Bronte depicts the story of a young woman on a journey of love and self-realisation; in a characteristically bildungsroman genre, but with elements of gothic genre also. The eponymous heroine in “Jane Eyre” is shown as a woman suffering throughout her life in this society, as an educated, astute, yet poor young woman who is neglected and unacquainted with love. Jane is in a struggle to shake off the social conformities thrust upon her, meanwhile having to cope with psychological and physical abuse from her superiors in social status.

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The most prominent form of abuse present in “Othello”, towards the female characters, is psychological abuse; the fundamental ideas, attitudes and values the men have and how they behave around the female characters. “Othello” is a Jacobean revenge tragedy written in approximately 1603. Despite Elizabeth I reigning over England up to this point, women in Britain still remained dormant in society, having virtually no rights or status; the only status they could gain would be through marriage. This is where we are able to see the cause of why women were treated as property in this time, due to the importance of money; where fathers can secure fortune by marrying their daughters to wealthy aristocrats.

In “Othello” the three women, Desdemona, Emilia and Bianca are subjected to equal amounts of abuse, although Bianca is the only one to survive in the play. Desdemona is not introduced to the audience by name until she is present on stage, which is the first indication of the subservient female status. She is only referred to as a piece of property by the other male characters, “Look to your house, your daughter and your baggage”, showing how Iago is referring to her as a piece of baggage, amidst his household and other property. This reference highlights not only her apparent unimportance, but also her inferior position as a female as, much like the audience, she seems unable to intervene and must watch her husband break down through paranoia. Secondly, the fact that Brabantio is not offended by this remark displays how he expects Desdemona to defer to his wishes and how this attitude was routine in this period. While Desdemona is a victim due to her sex, there are other factors also beyond her control which cause her further suffering. There are apparent similarities to the way marginalised characters are presented, whether it is due to sex, race or belief. So, while we see the contrast in living environment between male and female characters in a white patriarchal society, we can also observe the subtle similarities, particularly between black men such as Othello and women such as Desdemona, and how black men are subjected to ridicule by white men and how this accumulation affects women. Iago’s murder of Emilia and deceit of Othello could also stem from the general hatred of women that he displays; Jeremy Abrams suggested that Iago’s motive for betraying Othello is an underlying homosexual love for him, and the jealousy of Desdemona that comes alongside this. Many critics has dismissed this suggestion, but there is evidence in the play which testifies to this theory, such as the two-part exchange between himself and Othello in Act 3 Scene 3 “Iago doth give up the execution of his wit, hands, heart, to wronged Othello’s service.” This is similar to an exchange of vows at a wedding as they are both kneelt, creating an image of matrimony. Despite this, Iago is a talented villain for he is able to debase the strong, wilful Othello, manipulate his devoted wife into becoming part of the scheme and dooming Desdemona, all through the cunning use of one of the core concepts of any relationship: trust. This clever, yet lethal use of trust leads Othello into paranoia and to the eventual murder of his innocent wife Desdemona.

In the Victorian setting of “Jane Eyre” two hundred years later, women seem to have attained some benefits or choices in their lives; although once more money is paramount in giving them the opportunity to do this. Women like Jane were ‘gentlewomen’ who were semi-poor, and had to work. The only worthwhile role was as a governess, and it did not carry much respect. Bronte’s exploration of the social position of governesses in Victorian England shows how class divide between females can lead to further neglect. There is evidence of this from the disparaging remarks from Blanche, “You should hear mama on the chapter of governesses: Mary and I have had, I should think, a dozen at least in our day; half of them detestable and the rest ridiculous, and all incubi”. Jane is in a rather complex situation, as her education has been impressive and she has experienced childhood in a wealthy lifestyle, she possesses a sense of self-worth and dignity, trust in God, sound morals and a passionate disposition. But throughout the course of the novel, her integrity is tested time and time again as a young woman, and Jane must learn to balance the frequently conflicting aspects of herself and the restraints of being a governess, in order to find contentment in love and liberty. There are instances which highlight this divide and relate to Desdemona’s situation, such as the time Jane spent at Lowood as a young girl, where the reader examines how Mrs. Scatcherd forces her to stand on the stool for the rest of the lesson due to hearing misleading news of Jane’s childhood, followed by Brocklehurst’s unfair tormenting of Jane under this false information; “This girl, this child, the native of a Christian land, worse than many a little heathen who says its prayers to Brahma and kneels before Juggernaut – this girl is – a liar”. Despite Desdemona and Jane being subjected to the same kind of abuse, the difference between the two is that Desdemona is subjected to this by a male, whereas Jane is subjected to this by another female; highlighting this extra element to female suffering from other females. Jane is in a continual struggle to overcome oppression and achieve equality. She must also fight against male domination, alongside class hierarchy, as her quest for self-integrity poses as a threat to men in the patriarchal society. There are three key males in the novel, Mr. Brocklehurst, Edward Rochester, and St. John Rivers, who threaten her goal of equality. Each stops Jane expressing her own thoughts and feelings by keeping her in an obedient state. Her unwillingness to comprise her integrity fuels her refusal of Rochester’s proposal as Jane believes that she should not make herself a mistress to Rochester while he, legally, remains married to Bertha; not even to gratify her emotional needs. Paradoxically, her time spent at Moor House leads her to experience economic self-sufficiency and meaningful, educative work to prove that she can truly become her own woman; yet in this environment she lacks emotional sustenance. In regards to St. John proposal marriage, Jane declines knows the marriage would be based on the convenience rather than any emotion, and can therefore decline the offer, rather than deny her emotional needs for a husband. Jane later clarifies her choice when she says, “I am my husband’s life as fully as he is mine. . . . To be together is for us to be at once as free as in solitude, as gay as in company. . . . We are precisely suited in character-perfect concord is the result”.

The Colour Purple also portrays the constant psychological distresses of 20th century black women, and the constant fear of abusive husbands. Although we see the liberty of white women growing over the years between the writing of “Othello” and of “Jane Eyre”, for black women this oppression remains continuous. When black people were brought over to the western world as slaves, they lacked literacy and so were deemed inferior, leading to their constant persecution. Despite white and black women being in separate social background, the brutalisation and emasculation of black men in society meant their treatment of women was no better than the way white men treated women. Celie, the central character in “The Colour Purple” serves to show how, similarly to Desdemona, Bianca and Emilia, black women were victims of extreme forms of abuse, primarily due to the victimisation which black men were forced to endure through the slave trade in the white dominated society of the 20th Century. From an early age, Celie ensures her survival by making herself practically invisible; the only means of self expression or fortitude which she possesses are in her letters to God. The cause of this lies with her stepfather, Alphonso, who physically, verbally and sexually abuses her from a young age, but she represses any retaliation; contrasting greatly to view of Jane (even from a young age) but comparable to Desdemona’s inert attempts to defend herself at the climax of the play. Later in life she reacts in a similarly lifeless manner when subjected to the abuse of her husband Mr._____. However, we see a change in the psyche of Celie when she meets the unconventional female character, Shug Avery. Celie has had every female relation or role model taken away from her, such as her mother or her sister Nettie, so when Shug appears as a new part of her life, Celie attaches herself to Shug and relishes the chance to find a female companion. Shug offers Celie an insight into an unknown world of success, opportunity and hope, and reawakens the lost youth and vitality which Celie has spent so long restraining. This new relationship draws parallel’s to the unity between Jane and Helen Burn’s at Lowood. Helen gives Jane insights into Christian thinking and how our actions determine our place in heaven, which is similar to the way Shug opens up a world of success for Celie and an opportunity to escape her life of torment; something which she never thought possible.

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The second form of abuse to be addressed is verbal abuse. The letters from her sister Nettie, which Celie discovers in Mr. ______’s trunk, reimburse a sense of hope and resilience for Celie, as she learns of the lives of her children which have been a mystery to her for many years. Gradually, we see Celie able to formulate and communicate her thoughts and feelings which leads to her violent outburst at Mr. ______, in which the years of abasement and maltreatment which he has put her through, is finally lifted from her shoulders. Celie takes the act of sewing, which is traditionally thought of as a mere chore for women who are confined to a domestic role, and turns it into an outlet for creative self-expression and a profitable business. So, now the reader sees her finding solace and happiness in traditional conventions which woman have been saddled with for centuries, and after remaining docile for years, she, like Jane, is finally contented and self-fulfilled And when her family are reunited with her, she has truly everything she has ever dreamed of and needed, evident as she says, “Don’t think us feel old at all. . . . Matter of fact, I think this the youngest us ever felt.”

It is interesting to see how, although she is subjected to arguably harsher levels of abuse, Celie represses these feelings and shows no signs of resistance, whereas Jane struggles continually to overcome oppression. Furthermore, Desdemona surfaces as a much more submissive character, which conforms to archetypal views about marriage and the role of women, and breaks the theme of militancy and fighting oppression amongst the three texts. These three female characters represent the authors’ attitudes to the oppressive nature of which women were subject to, and would have acted as a symbol of hope for all women who feel pressured in a male-controlled society. They would inspire confidence and show that perseverance through the repression thrust upon them will lead to success; although in Desdemona and Emilia’s cases there is an exception. Perhaps, through the deaths of Desdemona and Emilia, Shakespeare aimed to draw attention to female suffering and, although their lives will have been in the balance earlier on in history, perhaps this was one of many stepping stones towards female equality.


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