Jane Austen, an English noveli…
Jane Austen, an English novelist widely recognized for her six major novels, realistically explores several issues in English society, constructing plots with a particular focus on women’s oppressions and gender roles. Oscar Wilde, an Irish poet, playwright as well as a spokesman of aestheticism, similarly provokes the conventional notions of sex and gender in his society through his creative works. This essay will attempt to discuss, ‘to what extent do literary works challenge the sexual or gender norms of their own times and societies and what forms and techniques are deployed in such a challenge’ in four main themes: education, power dynamics, marriage, and aestheticism in Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen and The Importance of being Earnest by Oscar Wilde, both published in the 19th century.
During the Victorian Era men and women’s roles and behaviours in British society were well defined. Much differentiated from the earlier centuries when women were allowed to help in the family business while also attending their domestic duties, the 19th century confined their daily responsibilities to overseeing the domestic duties, now mostly carried out by servants. Women, however, received an education as a preparation for their role of ‘Angel in the House’. This entails to the formation of the roles of the two sexes. It supports that the husband is the head of the household and the moral leader of the family while the wife is to fulfil the role of a domestic paragon. Instead of attracting a husband through their domestic abilities, middle-class girls were introduced to accomplishments.
In Pride and Prejudice, Caroline Bingley, a slightly arrogant character, confidently lists the common extent of skills required by any young lady who considers herself accomplished:
A woman must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing
dancing, and the modern languages, to deserve the world; and besides
all this, she must possess a certain something in her air and manner of
walking, the tone of her voice, her address and expressions, or the word
will be but half deserved (1813, p39).
As Miss Bingley emphasizes, it was important for a well-educated girl to soften her erudition with a graceful and feminine manner and not devote themselves too enthusiastically to intellectual pursuits and consequently threatening men’s natural intellectual superiority.
The Importance of Being Earnest similarly highlights the significance of a considerable level of female education. Miss Prism, Cecily’s governor, is illustrated as a cultivated woman. Oscar Wilde attempts to humorously and cleverly represent the limitations of educated women who despite their advantages, had to accept the mere job of a governess. Miss Prism’s second occupation is novel writing- she even wrote a three-volume novel. The fact that she confused a baby and a manuscript, symbolizes the confusion of gender roles as women started to value their intellectual capacity and supposedly neglect their families. Moreover, Wilde, using the element of comedy and irony to challenge the gender norms of the Victorian era, writes the words of Lady Bracknell, “education produces no effect” (2018, p12) which state the limited rights women had in education, and juxtaposes with the male role she represents.
Both Jane Austen and Oscar Wilde made brilliant use of their characters to create great controversy among society’s standards. In both works males and females are allowed to choose their spouses. In Pride and Prejudice Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth made their own decision to marry each other, the first battling against society’s expectations and the second, refusing two proposals to her mother’s dismay. In The Importance of Being Earnest the two couples of Jack and Gwendolen, Algernon and Cecily, in a like manner decide to get married, until Lady Augusta Bracknell attempts to prevent it. This leads to a remarkable example of gender dynamics represented in both works.
James Thompson suggests, “Prospective mates are chosen as if they were objects, as if marriage itself is not a relation between people, but rather assumes, ‘the fantastic form of a relation between things’ (…) In Jane Austen, marriage is never fully represented as an institution, but rather is represented only as an individual practice…”
Elizabeth was certainly allowed to deny Mr. Collins while on the other hand, her father was surely able to force her into marrying him. Her free will is also evident when he tells her, his opinion doesn’t matter as long as she loves Mr. Darcy: “We all know [Mr. Darcy] to be a proud, unpleasant sort of man; but this would be nothing if you really liked him… I have given him my consent… I now give it to you…” (1996, p356). At this point, it’s perfectly clear that Mrs. Bennet was the one obsessed over marrying off her daughters and providing them with the support of a good husband.
Lady Augusta Bracknell, mirroring Victorian upper-class negativity, shows similar traits to Mrs. Bennet’s, as she considers marriage an alliance of property and support. Her husband appears to be absent of most occasions, which gives her a powerful, controlling and demanding role, apparent in the third act where she is the one making questions and as it seems, the only one having the correct answer. However, not only Lady Bracknell reverses the gender role stereotypes by controlling the opposite sex. In the play, Cecily and Gwendolyn have a conversation about male domesticity, expressing the belief that home seems to me to be the proper sphere for the man.
An important note would be that Gwendolyn admires Ernest in a more innocent way than Cecily does Algernon. The pair bends the rules of conventional morality as they interact under no supervision- without chaperones. In Pride and Prejudice Lydia Bennet’s disgraceful behaviour as she run off with Wickham brought shame to her family and though Cecily did no such thing, both women challenged the conventional notions of sex and gender.
Sexual relations out of wedlock were strictly forbidden. In volume I, Chapter 14 of Austen’s book, the Bennet family is said to own a copy of Sermons for Young Women by James Fordyce. Fordyce, instructs women to follow a certain behaviour and lifestyle that does not include throwing away themselves to man they are not married to. Likewise, in Oscar Wilde’s play Mrs. Prism, while having a conversation with Dr. Chasuble about marriage, advices him to marry because according to her words, an unmarried man is either a temptation or a womanthrope.
Marriage, obviously, was a crucial aspect of a woman’s life. As Le Faye says, “Respectable young women could have no profession except matrimony, hence girls were expected to marry as soon as possible after they made their debut into society in their late teens”. The two works though, suggest that marriage is as important for women as it is for men.
The first line of Pride and Prejudice reads how “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife” (1813, p.1). That famous line introduces one of the main topics of the book, the constant emphasis given on marriage. Upon Mr. Bingley’s arrival, Mrs. Bennet is found in distress. Her main worry is for her daughters to settle into a marriage and Mr. Bingley appears to be suitable with his gentlemanly nature, to fulfil the role of a husband. At this point, the male sex is objectified under the ironic tone of Jane Austen’s deeper truth. She criticizes society’s tendency to oppress individuals, mainly women, by forcing upon them social expectations, now applying to the opposite sex; a single man is going to marry. The use of irony attempts to emphasize the point of the story, which challenges the sexual and gender norms of the overwhelming Victorian society.
In addition, the undoubtedly high number of balls that the characters attend has its own purpose. In hopes to mingle with each other, men and women meet in a public and consequently controlled environment for the prospect of engagement, sometimes for their own benefit. For instance, in the case of Charlotte and Mr. Collins, she is eager to improve her social status. Could the views on marriage in the early 19th century be contradictory between social expectations and love?
The conventional notions of sex and gender are greatly challenged in both books in a number of ways. Not only focusing on the intellectual pursuits and the social norms, we are provided with characters who support their personal beliefs and mild revolutionary ideas, by the way their approach of aestheticism.
In Pride and Prejudice Fitzwilliam Darcy is described as “fine, tall person, handsome features, noble mien” (1813, p.12), characteristics that contradict his initial behaviour. However, as Mr. Darcy is proved to be distant and private, it’s only logical that he wouldn’t choose to attract attention with an elaborate attire. In her book, Austen fairly describes her characters, though talks little of their appearance. The novel does rely more on dialogue rather than description, addressing Jane Bennet as the most beautiful Bennet sister and Elizabeth Bennet, the second. Of course, the looks of women would set a matter of comparison and played an important role in sending them off to marriage.
A major figure in the movement of aestheticism is no other than Oscar Wilde, who popularized the symbol of the ‘dandy’. The dandy, is a man who pays great and excessive attention to his appearance as well as his lifestyle, simultaneously using his cleverness and wickedness in a charming way to point out society’s hypocrisy and double standards. The characters of Algernon and Jack are examples of this figure. When Algernon dresses up as Ernest and when Jack dresses in mourning clothes, they show the foolishly pretentious, theatrical and extravagant nature of the dandy.
Moreover, Algernon is dressed unreasonably like a dandy when he greets his ‘little cousin’ Cecily, who is excited to meet her ‘wicked cousin Ernest’. She tells him that Jack will not be back until Monday because he is buying traveling clothes to take with him to Australia. This news surprises and disappoints Algernon, who suggests that Cecily ‘reform’ him instead.
One might notice the similarities between Jack and Algernon, also between Gwendolen and Cecily. The two males are both handsome bachelors around the same age, pretending to be ‘Ernest’. In the same way, the two women appear to have a lot of things in common; they are both young, beautiful girls who desire to get married, specifically infatuated with the name ‘Ernest’. Their resemblance is certainly not coincidental.
“There is no sense in The important of Being Earnest in which character could be described in terms of uniqueness and individuality. The figures that populate the play are personalities in Oscar Wilde’s terms, not characters. This idea of characterisation is one of the sources of the play’s social satire. Good society is no guarantee here for goodness in the people who inhabit it. Furthermore, in this version of character, Oscar Wilde also attacks the ideals of romantic love. If, after all, the lovers are interchangeable, the ideal of falling in love with a particular individual is clearly overthrown. The pairings are not a matter of choice or instinct towards a unique beloved. In this avowedly artificial structure, Oscar Wilde is showing us that the ideal of romantic love is itself artificial, a social construction- perhaps even a game.” (Robbins, 1999, p45).
Pride and Prejudice originally published in 1813, and The Importance of Being Earnest first published in 1898, confront the society of the 19th century by challenging the formation of gender roles. Remarkably setting up themes of education, marriage, aesthetics and power dynamics, proves the social pressure on males and females to act according the society’s moral and values. The two literary works undoubtedly challenge the sexual and gender norms of their own times by presenting a brave truth defending the two sexes against the social expectations of proper behaviour.