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Novel Form Representations Of Masculinity English Literature Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 2481 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Masculinity is a primary theme in both “Jane Eyre” and “Adam Bede”, exploring the changing moral values of Victorian society from a male point of view. The changing social ideals of masculinity frequently considered in literature written in the time of George Eliot and Charlotte Bronte are portrayed in both novels, encouraging the reader to consider the male and female opinion in each case.

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The representation of class in the community is imperative to the portrayal of masculinity in both novels. Having such significance when defining status in society, the novel form concentrates particularly on detailing the career and wealth of the male characters. Eliot portrays the most apparent distinction to do with masculinity to concern class. Represented to be the paragon of masculinity, the working man is the embodiment of strength, honesty and integrity in contrast to the upper class gentry and aristocracy. Adam and Seth Bede are illustrated as “large-boned muscular” men with an “iron grasp” who “roar” with laughter. [1] Eliot describes their physical appearance with particular detail typical of a realist novel. Eliot uses this precise documentation to emphasise the masculinity associated to the working man;

“The sleeve rolled up above the elbow showed an arm that was likely to win the prize for feats of strength; yet the long supple hand, with its broad finger-tips, looked ready for works of skill.” [2] 

Such attention to his stalwart body and lithe hands alludes to a professional skilfulness as well as physical strength. The tender description of “supple” hands could suggest a connotation of a softer and compassionate demeanour, uncharacteristic of the stereotypical ideal of masculinity. Evidence of this can be seen later in the novel through Adam’s bashful manner when in the presence of women, particularly Hetty. As opposed to the corrupt and economically exploitative portrayal of the middle class man, Adam is described with a more sensitive masculinity. In a contrasting depiction of a male character of similar age, Arthur Donnithorne is described with an initial description from the opinion of the local people, referring only to his military merit and his lavish dress. The narrator, suggests egotism and a concern for outward appearance effectively through such objective opinion. Eliot depicts a soldier “more intensely a captain than all the young gentlemen of the same rank” [3] inferring great military masculinity. This, however, is greatly undermined when the narrator continues, notably observing that he was “only a captain in the Loamshire Militia” [4] damaging his social position in the eye of the reader and consequently the degree of his masculinity. The honour and value Donnithorne holds in society is based upon an unreliable assumption by the local working class members of the community. The exaggerated respect which the local people give him serves as a suggestion to the reader that other qualities he may have are overestimated. The novel form condemns the worth of his masculinity effectively with an invention of objectivity within the social structure. In a persuasive and forthcoming tone, the narrator proves, to an extent, that Arthur Donnithorne is to be regarded as conceited and of a deceitful and manipulative disposition.

Throughout Charlotte Bronte’s novel, Jane Eyre meets only one man who does not conform to the patriarchal notion of a woman’s confinement and suppression. Other than Rochester, John Reed, Mr Brocklehurst and St John Rivers each portray an almost satirical embodiment of Victorian tradition and masculinity. Through a series of threats and physical force, Jane is constantly repressed by authoritative masculinity; assuming dominance as a natural right over her socially inferior female being. Bronte presents a notion of shared experiences between the writer and reader, a key characteristic of the realist novel form. Through the autobiographical, first person structure, the realistic nature of the text helps to draw the reader into the life experiences of Jane from a young child to a married woman enabling the slight parodying description of the men in the novel to become more convincing. Each male character presents a different interpretation of authoritative masculinity. The “large and stout” [5] John Reed is a young boy able to demand Jane’s obedience due to social superiority. Demanding to be addressed as “Master Reed” his masculinity is represented as an unfounded right stemming from his wealth and family. Both Mr Brocklehurst and St John Rivers assert an imposing image, Brocklehurst “towering over Jane like a “black pillar” [6] and St. John Rivers similarly appearing as “a tall figure all white as a glacier”. [7] Forming a phallic symbol of oppression, both men represent a threatening image, heightening their masculinity by destructing the limited independence of an already oppressed young woman. [8] It is of notable significance that Jane’s interaction with men throughout the novel always involves some level of dishonesty from the male persona. Spanning from a childish claim of bad behaviour to Rochester’s cross dressing and attempted bigamy; the masculine characters are a constant representation of conceit and dishonesty. This acts not only as a criticism of the unquestionable patriarchal power subjected onto women during the Victorian era, but also creates trust between the narrator and reader.

Similarly, women are oppressed in Eliot’s “Adam Bede” but in a representation of being a prize which is to be won by the dominant male figures in the community. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick argues in “Between Men” that a key issue within the gender division seen in “Adam Bede” “is a transaction of honour between men over the dead, discredited, or disempowered body of a woman” [9] In a triangular style relationship involving a single female prize, Kosofsky suggests a “transaction of honour” between the two men which emphasises the social opinion of patriarchal marriage and the competitive nature of masculinity in the community. Eliot’s contrasting presentations of masculinity represent the changing interpretations of male perfection. The varying male characters consequently invite the reader to form their own definition of true manliness. Arthur Donnithorne is the man who is consequently discredited as the manifestation of masculinity, representing the Victorian English gentleman and epitomising military pride.

In a contrast to the patriarchal marriage typical of the Victorian age Jane Eyre represents masculinity in a reversal of marital roles. Set in an era of restricted and undeviating sexual values, Bronte reflects Victorian concepts of masculinity by creating an interesting tension involving Rochester’s romantic desire for Jane and the masculine Victorian narrative. “Both men and women were subject at mid-century to the constraints imposed by binary organisation of difference and the foregrounding of sexual nature…Men and women were subject to the different kinds of ideological constraint”. [10] Rochester not only refuses the expected role of his wife as a Victorian woman but rebels from his social role expected of a husband and master.

The reversal of roles is illustrated in a stark contrast of empowerment from Jane and Rochester’s first meeting. Having thought to have encountered a Gytrash, a mythical “lion-like creature with long hair and a huge head” [11] , Jane is soon introduced to Rochester on horseback, breaking the “spell at once”. [12] The image of a “great dog” [13] coming towards Jane is described with greater mythological and masterful expectation that the reality of Rochester. Bronte demystifies and emasculates Rochester further when he is seen to fall to the ground after his horse slips on ice. Having literally ‘fallen from his pedestal’ with a “clattering tumble” [14] Jane becomes the equal of her new male acquaintance with authority to oversee his recovery. Bronte creates a narrative between the characters with equality. Rochester is represented as a man not consumed with reinforcing his status as the master of Thornfield. Without need to confine Jane to her social role by imposing his wealth and authority, Rochester snubs the patriarchal traditions of the Victorian age and gives Jane independence within their relationship as a consequence. This presents an example of the evolving masculinity of men in the 20th Century.

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A similar example of role reversal is demonstrated in Rochester’s impersonation of a female gypsy. Jane narrates the occasion with cynicism, “a ceremony followed, in dumb show, in which it was easy to recognise the pantomime of marriage” [15] indicating the negative opinion of Victorian marriage values. Continuing the notion of assured shared experience between reader and narrator, the novel creates a trust, adding reliability to the representation of Rochester’s masculinity. As the gender roles become increasingly confused, Jane and Rochester lose inhibitions of Victorian moral values and talk openly. Rochester tries to trick Jane into admitting feelings for him which he feels he can only do via the disguise of a female. Through the inversion of social rank and gender, Rochester chooses to emasculate himself and become her equal. On first reading, it

“may be seen as a semi-conscious effort to reduce (his) sexual advantage his masculinity gives him (by putting on a woman’s clothes he puts on a woman’s weakness), both he and Jane realise the hollowness of such a ruse.” [16] 

Jane admits that she can see through Rochester’s disguise alluding to her mutual facade of a typically Victorian puritanical governess. The construct of gender in this novel is explored with particular attention to Rochester. His charades and role playing as a way to grow close to Jane represent a lack of mastery over her and lack of masculinity.

Critical of the military values of manliness and morality, Eliot represents masculinity with an unusual soldier figure, Arthur Donnithorne. Written at the time of the Crimean War, the novel explores the changing popular views of officers and common soldiers. Donnithorne is portrayed as a proud man who wears his regimentals to appear at his most masculine; however his appearance is contrasted by a presentation of being a sham of an officer. The reader is approached by a strange contradiction of morality and male honour. Though respected for his discipline and charisma, the reader doubt the value of his qualities as he evolves into a weak and sexually immoral character. In a patronising and uncomfortably demeaning manner, Donnithorne addresses Hetty as a “little frightened bird! Little tearful rose! Silly pet!” [17] His pet-names for his beloved expose chauvinistic and superior ideals of his masculinity and the child-like, “silly” roles he believes are for women. The seduction of Hetty alludes to an image often associated with the British Army Officer. Often thought of as sexually dangerous in the eyes of common working folk, men of the military were often approached with caution, gaining a reputation for seducing and misleading young women. Acknowledged to be more morally lenient than civilians, Arthur Donnithorne is represented as a man similar to these stereotypes, presenting masculinity which is to be given less regard than those of the working class men such as that of the Bede brothers. The role of the realist novel form in the representation of Arthur Donnithorne’s masculinity is effective through the persuasive tone in which the reader is lead to distrust his character. By objectifying his introduction into the novel, the reader is lead to believe the general consensus of public opinion with more trust than if it were the opinion of just one fellow character or the narrator. The attention given to his materialism and fixation with outward appearance is characteristic of realism. The significant detail of his rank and clothing give a sense of his priorities, suggesting a superficial and shallow nature.

Both Eliot and Bronte allow for their respective male characters to evolve and form coherent, final conclusions typical of the realist novel form. Both concluding in the dynamic union of men and women, the novels evidently portray very different male personas allowing for femininity and for re-established social order in the changing values of Victorian society.


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