Though feminists have long questioned the institution of marriage by claiming that it has been a fundamental site of womens oppression, it is not until the 19th century that organized feminist movements began to emerge and feminist voices grew louder and stronger. Meanwhile, in the 19th century British literature, both some women writers and men writers began to focus on the well-being of women, their social position, and women and men relationship in their literary works; one of the crucial issues they are concerned with is the issue of marriage. This paper is dedicated to the analysis of marriages in three 19th century British novels-Frankenstein, Jane Eyre and The Odd Women in order to offer a general idea of the feminist progress in the 19th century
Women in the 19th Century
First of all, a general picture is given to showcase women's status in the institution of marriage through the 19th century Briton. As a whole, feminists have long criticized that marriages cast women as inferior by degrading women or constraining their appropriate options and ambitions  .
Marriages reinforce the gendered division of labor, positioning women as domestic and less independent than men. Women were largely described as mentally inferior, irrational, passionate and emotional. It was considered that only marriage justifies their existence, that is, to provide companionship for men, a cure or moral outlet for lust, a renewal of species  . As the inferior in the family, women were confined in the domestic sphere to take care of babies and do chores in the house. Though later in the 19th century, some women began to work in factories or as governess, what they did was some low level jobs, and women were paid much less than men (even when they did the same job).
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In the eyes of the law, women were treated as the second class citizen in society. Women did not exist as legal beings in their own right; in a marriage, women did not possess any property (anything a woman earned or inherited became her man's property, and her earnings were paid directly to him), and even the children belonged only to the husband; husbands legally had rights to beat their wives, provided the stick was not thicker than his thumb; even under the husband's violence, a woman had no rights to sue for divorce  .
Through the 19th century, women's virtue was to be "the Angle in the House" who was expected to be devoted and submissive to her husband  . This name seems to redefine a woman's role in a marriage, giving her glory and dignity. However, the so-called angel is more a yoke than a crown, because the Angel must be "passive and powerless, meek, charming, graceful, sympathetic, self-sacrificing, pious, and above all-pure"  . Under the requirement of being pure, women's sexuality must be repressed. Even in a marriage, the woman was not permitted to enjoy sexual pleasure, or she would be considered by both her husband and others as a whore.
Women in the 19th century did not share equal rights with men, and the truth was disclosed and the cure was explored by some 19th century writers. On one hand, many women writers like Marry Shelly and Bronte sisters began to emerge. On the other, some men as well began to speak for the better-off of women, for example, Gorge Gissing. In Mary Shelly's Frankenstein, Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, and Gorge Gissing's The Odd Women, women and marriages were important and meaningful themes informing of the 19th century feminist awareness. In Frankenstein, Elizabeth was killed on her wedding night with Victor. Is her death inescapable? In Jane Eyre, why must Rochester be made imperfect to be together with Jane? In The Odd Women, does Rhoda's refusal to Everard have other layers of meaning? The answers are related to what the woman character is like.
Frankenstein: the Death of Obedient Women in a Patriarchal Institution
The marriage between Victor and Elizabeth is short and bloody. Their wedding room became a tomb for Elizabeth, for on the wedding night, the bride was killed by the monster, Victor's own creation. Shelly seems to make the death of Elizabeth, to some degree, quite unreasonable. How can victor fail to figure out the monster's intention to kill his lover after its numerous killings of his beloved ones- his bother, his sister, and his best friend? Isn't it obvious that the monster aims to make Victor suffer instead of kill him directly? Anyway, Shelly does not believe Elizabeth can escape death.
Elizabeth belongs to Victor since the day she was accepted in the family. She was a "pretty present"  that Victor's mother gave him, and that, luckily, won Victor's protection and love. As was said by Victor, "since till death she was to be mine only"  . However, Elizabeth brings hurt to Victor as well, for Victor's most beloved mother died for nurturing the sick Elizabeth. Soon after his mother's death, Victor left for Ingolstadt. Though the death of Victor's mother did not diminish his love for Elizabeth, it did lit dangerous fire in Victor's heart-to make dead alive. The birth of Victor's monster brings about the agony of Frankenstein family, including Elizabeth. During Victor's struggle with the monster, Elizabeth became his sole soothe and comforts. Unfortunately, his final hope of happiness was destroyed due to Victor's ignorance. Victor blamed the monster that had blinded him to his real intentions  . Anyway, it is Victor that had created the killer who finally destroyed Elizabeth (does Victor unconsciously want Elizabeth dead?).
The tragedy of Elizabeth and Victor's marriage is doomed. Elizabeth is a perfect lady of the day-pure, beautiful and willing to sacrifice for Victor. It is reasonable to believe that she would have been "an Angel in the House" if her marriage with Victor had not been disturbed by the monster. Ironically, the monster is her man's creation. In this sense, Elizabeth's death embodies the women's sacrifice in a patriarchal marriage. As is known, Marry Shelly is the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft (author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman) who is considered to be one of the major figures of 'first wave' feminism. Influenced by her mother, Shelly also highlights the inequalities between the sexes. In Frankenstein, as an embodiment of subservient women, Elizabeth's death is inescapable.
Jane Eyre: Pursuit of Gender Equality in a Marriage
Jane and Rochester are from different classes. One is the master, while the other is a governess; one is rich, while the other is poor. Rochester with his good blood and fortune is thought by the hierarchical system to deserve a beautiful and graceful lady like Ingram. Even though there is this huge gap between Jane and Rochester, Charlotte Bronte deliberately plotted a happy marriage between them which exhibits gender equality. To gain this gender equality, Jane must be subversive to social oppression on women, and meanwhile, Rochester has to reconcile himself to the demands of gender equality.
Different from social and religious norms of women-to be obedient, Jane is a subversive woman. She is blessed by Charlotte Bronte with her wish of a woman, that is, to have minds and independence, and deserve a good man who cherishes a woman for her mind instead of outward beauty and material wealth and who regards her as an equal companion. All these blessings require Jane Eyre to be subversive against both class and gender inequalities in the contemporary society.
Jane's left from Rochester and her refusal to St John is her struggle to get away from being chained by gender inequalities. St John is a typical patriarchal man who also embodies the religious oppression on women. In his eyes, Jane's virtue is to marry him and accompany him to fulfill his mission. He expects Jane to obey him, to satisfy him, and to please him, because he is in the name of God's clergyman. However, this god refuses Jane to be like St John and to do the same things. What the god wants from Jane is to ask her to fulfill a wife's duty, and its church gives St John more power than Jane. Jane's own identity is threatened in his realm. "I felt daily more and more that I must disown half of my nature, stifle half my faculties, wrest my tastes from their original bent, force myself to the adoption of pursuit for which I had no natural vocation"  . Jane's refusal to St John is her struggle against outward oppression, while her left from Rochester is her struggle against her own weakness. Rochester and Jane see each other as soul mate. They determined to get married regardless of the gap between their statuses. However, Rochester's mad wife became an invincible obstacle that made their marriage impossible. Jane was confronted with two choices: to be Rochester's mistress, or to leave Rochester forever. Although Jane loves Rochester and would like to accompany him, she finally chose to leave Thornfield. Jane realized that there was still distance between Rochester and her. She is the "paid subordinate" who was less beautiful than Rochester's other mistresses. Moreover, she remembers Rochester's degradation of his other mistresses. "Hiring a mistress is the next worse thing to buying a slave: both are often by nature, and always by position, inferior; to live familiarly with inferior is degrading"  . Jane would prefer to earn thirty pounds a year as a governess than be hired as a mistress or brought as a slave. Jane rejected Rochester and left; this way, she could main mentally equal with Rochester.
Charlotte believes Jane deserves to be together with Rochester, but their union can be possible only when Jane and Rochester are totally equal. To win this equality, the stronger one shall be weakened, while the weaker one shall be made better. As it turned out, on their way to be together, Jane becomes stronger both in terms of her mind and economic power; while Rochester becomes less strong due to the burn down of Thornfield and his loss of eyesight.
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The Odd Women: Willing to Be the Odd and New Women
Rhoda in The Odd Women by Gorge Gissing is another subversive woman. Different from Jane, she finally refused marriage. Rhoda's refusal to marriage embodies a huge step that women take in protecting their rights. As was in the 19th century Briton, the unmarried women were considered odd which means abnormal, strange and eccentric  . Being "odd" is marked with radical and agony by the patriarchal society. In The Odd Women, Rhoda does not believe Everard (or any other man) can give her an independent and free life after marriage. Her determination to refuse marriage is made gradually. At first, Rhoda thought she had chosen the single life for a life time with conviction. She scorns marriage as well as those weak women who regard marriage and men as indispensable. However, Rhoda, in some part of her heart, still is weak. After she and Everard fell in love, she forced Everard to propose to her. Rhoda's decision to refuse marriage is eventually consolidated after her witness of Monica's experience. Monica, afraid of being odd and poor, married Widdowson. Soon after their marriage, Widdowson was overwhelmed with jealousy and possessiveness which symbol the stifling patriarchal values, and Monica fell in love with another man which embodies women's failed flee. Their marriage ended in Monica's death for childbirth. After Monica's death, Rhoda eventually made her determination to refuse Everard.
Rhoda, after her refusal of Everard, with Miss Barfoot belongs to the new women who are willing to be odd. They ignore the spell of being "odd", and work to alleviate the social plight in which women find themselves by training them to be fit for positions  . Gorge Gissing, like Charlotte Bronte, also gives the feminism blessings. The end of marriages (Monica and Widdowson, Rhoda and Everard), the new born girl in Rhoda's arm, and the flourishing of Miss Barfoot's work (like a green bay-tree) promise the bright future of the new women like Rhoda and Miss Barfoot.
To sum up the above mentioned marriages in the novels, through the death of Elizabeth in her marriage with Victor, Shelly highlights the sacrifice of the obedient women in the patriarchal institution of marriage; Jane Eyre's marriage with Rochester shows her pursuit of gender equality; Rhoda Nunn's refusal to marry Everard marks the emergence of the new women. Charlotte Bronte and Gorge Gissing conveyed their support of feminist awakening by describing subversive characters in their novels. Overall, the 19th century British literature exhibits the contemporary feminist voices, that is, women are awaking and asking for greater freedoms, more social opportunities, and equal status with men.
Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. London: Thomas Nelson and Sons, Ltd. 1937.
David, Deirdre. "Ideologies of Patriarchy, Feminism, and Fiction in 'The Odd Women'". Feminist Studies, Vol. 10, No. 1 (Spring, 1984), p 117.
Lesser, Wendy. "Even-Handed Oddness: George Gissing's 'The Odd Women' ". The Hudson Review. Vol. 37, No. 2 (Summer, 1984), pp. 211.
Nadelhaft, Jerome. "The English Woman's Sexual Civil War: Feminisn Attitudes Towards Men, Women, and Marriage 1650-1740". Journal of the History of Ideas. Vol. 43, No 4 (Oct. - Dec., 1982).
Shelly, Mary. Frankenstein. London: Penguin Books. 1978.
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