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Written by Yang (Jenny) Bai
The oppression of women in the Victorian era
The Woman in White is the story of distressed damsels who are suffering from the abuse and persecution of men. Laura Fairlie and Anne Catherick are the damsels in distress who endured great physical and psychological pain under the tyranny of patriarchal society. Most people around them are indifferent to their suffering and plight. Laura’s uncle is unwilling to safeguard Laura’s property and marital happiness; while Anne’s mother is indifferent to her daughter’s imprisonment in the asylum. The story shows that women have little power to shape their life to their liking. Laura and Marian are denied of the chance of a higher education and could only content themselves in learning the feminine subjects of painting and music. They cannot venture outside of their house and seek useful employment in the wider world. They are secluded in domestic sphere under the guardianship of men, such as their uncle and their solicitor. They cannot freely choose their martial partners and have to comply with the wishes of their domineering fathers and uncles. Their mobility and freedom are constrained by the cumbersome Victorian style dresses consist in numerous petticoats, tight corsets and wide skirts. However, this world order arranged by men’ is totally dysfunctional. By obeying the wishes of men, Laura becomes trapped into the most disastrous marriage imaginable. Upon entering this wretched marriage, she is subjected to physical abuse, poison, imprisonment and the loss of her legal identity. In the story, Marian repeatedly rails against the injustice women suffer at the hands of men. Marian believes that women have to take matters into their hands to defend their interests, since the men around them are mostly dysfunctional, careless and cruel. Marian is a proto-feminist who deeply resents the tyranny and the injustice of the patriarchal order.
The emergence of the “New Woman”
This story is published in early 1860’s. At that time, the idea of the “new woman” is yet to be formed. Most middle and upper class women in the 1860’s are still confined in the domestic sphere, their main activities consist in child bearing, educating the children, organizing the household and socializing with friends. Women at that time are denied of the chances of a higher education. The New Woman is an unconventional figure who defies the oppressive patriarchal world order. A new woman challenges the conventional gender expectation and embraces the characteristics of the masculine. Marian Halcombe is thus a proto-feminist who perfectly embodies the characteristics which later would become the definition of the “New Woman”, She is acutely conscious of the injustice of patriarchy. She cares deeply about women’s rights and uses her courage, resolution and wit to protect women’s interests. Her masculine facial features, her “piercing and resolute” eyes and her “bright, frank, intelligent” expression challenge the characteristics of the conventional Victorian women. Her masculine features give rise to the concept of “Marian’s moustache”, suggesting the idea of a woman in possession of masculine characteristics. Marian’s physical characteristics reflect on the fact that she is capable of intellect, reasoning and perception. In short, she is a woman who possesses agency and power. Marian is not daunted by the rigid working of the patriarchal system. She is certain that “any woman who is sure of her own wits, is a match, at any time, for a man who is not sure of his own temper”. Marian believes that a woman in possession of her courage and strength could not be easily awed and oppressed by the men around them.
The decadence of civilization
The Victorian era was marked by great advancement in industry, science and aesthetic pursuit. In the 1860s, the Victorians are increasingly concerned about the decadence and the over-refinement of their society. The image of Mr. Frederick Fairlie perfectly embodies this anxiety. Mr. Fairlie is a wealthy man who idles away his days as an invalid, His only obsession lays in the appreciation of the aesthetic, which is reflected in his impressive collection of artwork. His character shows that wealth and civilization are creative of indolence, idleness and decadence. It shows that when civilization reaches its advanced stage, it tends to waste itself away through extreme refinement in taste. The obsession with aesthetic pursuit is a character of an advanced civilized society. Obsessive aesthetic pursuit among the well-to-do people can be harmful because it is not socially productive.
The mistreatment of the mentally challenged people during the Victorian era
Anne Catherick is described by many people in the story as being mentally underdeveloped and strange in her conduct. Mrs. Fairlie, Mrs. Clemens and Laura Fairlie all believed that there is something slightly abnormal in Anne’s emotional state. When Percival suspects that Anne is in possession of his secret, he takes advantage of Anne’s disturbed emotional state and imprisons her in the asylum. However, Walter Hartright believes there is nothing wild in her conduct, and therefore he believes that she should not be imprisoned in the asylum. Anne has suffered much in her life. She is an illegitimate child born to a tyrannical mother who does not care for her. She has suffered wrongful imprisonment in the asylum and great emotional tribulation. It is possible that Anne is emotionally unstable; but her unstable mind is more likely to be caused by her lifelong suffering and happiness, rather than any inherent mental illness in herself. In the story, most people are too hasty in dismissing Anne as a mentally ill patient, and thus fail to account for the factors of her unfortunate experience and upbringing. During the Victorian era, psychiatry was yet to be fully developed. During this period, society was cruel to people who manifest the symptoms of emotional unbalance .There were little attempts to understand the causes of these people’s suffering. Victorian society was eager to imprison these people in the interests of public security. The Victorians often tend to dismiss the emotionally distressed and the mentally underdeveloped as the insane, and use the means of imprisonment to seclude them from society, and thus simplifying their social problems. As Walter observes, there is in fact nothing abnormal and wild in Anne’s behavior; her speech is coherent, her manners are almost ladylike. Anne is distressed and nervous because she is in perpetual persecution of Percival; she is unhappy because she is cast out of her home and leads a rootless existence. Her anxiety is thus perfectly understandable, and has nothing to do with insanity. Even Laura Fairlie, who was in a perfectly sound mental state before her marriage, suffers a total mental breakdown after her imprisonment in the asylum. This shows that Anne’s emotional disturbance is accredited to the factors of external environment, such as abuse, unhappiness and imprisonment; rather than the inherent flaw of her mind.
The celebration of middle-class values
The so-called middle-class values are highly celebrated qualities during the Victorian period. Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert are fierce proponents of middle-class values. They believed that the aristocratic unproductiveness, indolence, vice and wantonness are not creative of a healthy society and a powerful country. The middle-class values are classified as industry, hard-work, honesty, modesty, and prudery. The Woman in White discredits the upper-class by creating three despicable upper-class characters, namely Sir Percival, Count Fosco and Mr. Frederick Fairlie. These three men are known for their laziness, unproductiveness, cruelty, vice, and dishonesty. Sir Percival fakes his parents’ marriage and usurps his father’s property. Count Fosco betrays his organization and uses various means of deception to achieve his evil ends. Mr. Fairlie is a lazy invalid who wastes his time through useless aesthetic pursuit, apart from amassing artwork, he can do nothing else. On the contrary, the characters of Walter Hartright and Marian Halcombe are middle-class figures. They are not in possession of great fortune or grand estate, but they are brave, resolute, capable, hard-working and virtuous. Walter and Marian are the saviors of Laura Fairlie. Most of the courageous undertakings in the book have been accomplished by these two characters. Walter’s marriage to the wealthy heiress Laura shows that the middle-class virtues bring their rewards. The fact that Percival, Fosco and Frederick Fairlie have all died by the end of the book shows that the indolent aristocratic lifestyles bring about their own punishment.
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