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ISSN: 0974-892X


January, 2017



Feminism: The Power and The Dilemma

Saptarshi Mallick, is pursuing his research on the Baptist Missionaries in Bengal.

Representations of Women in George Eliot’s Fiction by Dr Naina Dey is an extremely well researched account of women’s spaces in the male-dominated Victorian society where, being speechless, ‘women had to conform to a role, a set pattern of female stereotypes devised by men’ (Dey 2013: 5). She was pushed in to a domestic space, away from the ‘male’ public sphere, and hallowed as the ‘angel of the house’, her ‘sole function’ being ‘marriage and procreation’ (Dey 2013: 6). The Preface initiates the interrogation of the Victorian women’s position in Mary Ann Evans’s work (George Eliot) focussing on ‘the basic Victorian inhibitions regarding women and women writers’ (Dey 2013: 7) and the sexual audacity in Eliot’s novels. The author’s subtle delineation of Eliot’s male and the female characters establishes ‘the contrariness in Eliot’s treatment of the women characters’ (Dey 2013: 7) working on the dilemmas of feminism though she was never an ardent feminist. As a result she wrote on ‘women’s reacting against a male dominated society’ (Dey 2013: 8) along with her failing ‘to transcend the socially dictated constrictions’ (Dey 2013: 8) discouraging ‘the portrayal of the emancipated women’ (Dey 2013: 8). Dey validates Eliot’s attempts to free her women from the clutches of the stereotyped society, opening avenues for radical feminist interpretations involving the ‘nature of women and their social standing’ (Dey 2013: 8) in relation to other ‘feminist’ women writers.

The Introduction (Chapter 1) provides an account of the women writers of the nineteenth century and their portrayal of the patriarchal society coercing the ‘Feminized, the Faustian hero’ (Dey 2013: 18) who ‘becomes a militant adventuress, Eve, plucking the strange bright fruits that bring both knowledge and unhappiness’ (Dey 2013: 18). It records the feminist polemics advocating intellectual equality and education among women contributing to ‘the rise of the novel’ (Dey 2013: 18) through ‘the silences and exclusions of the female experience’ (Dey 2013: 22) which ‘provided ideological as well as financial encouragement for the growth of women’s writing’ (Dey 2013: 18) contributing to the development of fictional and non-fictional prose as ‘the instruments of struggle against male domination’ (Dey 2013: 19) exposing ‘the needs and uncertainties of the Victorian male’ (Dey 2013: 22). Chapter 1 views the nineteenth century as an important landmark for the social progress of women after a long ‘outer struggle for legal and political rights and the inner struggle of men and women coping with the demands of powerful but failing cultural stereotypes’ (Dey 2013: 22). De intellectually discusses Eliot’s conscious attempt to use a male pseudonym at a time when the text was considered to be male, in order to explore and establish before the readers, ‘women’s psychological tensions to subvert a patriarchal system’ (Dey 2013: 32), attempting an improvement of women’s condition in spite of her radical and progressive feminist ideas expressed through her letters.(1)

The men, women and their relationships in Eliot’s novels have been well explored in Chapter 2. Through the relationships of the characters, the author of this book establishes the intersection of ‘the society with the individual’ (Dey 2013: 34) along with the relationship of the various sections of the society (Dey 2013: 34), ‘depicting life in the pre-industrial England’ (Dey 2013: 35) masked by ‘nostalgic pastorals’ (Dey 2013: 34). With reference to The Mill on the Floss, Daniel Deronda and Middlemarch, Dey establishes an environment of patriarchal sexual politics where the woman, her voice and her will get coerced, unheard and unrecognised. The depiction of society in Eliot’s novels has been well commented on by Dey in her book. Society becomes an important character (2) playing an important role in determining characters’ lives, education, relationships and marraige. Dey sketches out the male and female characters of Eliot to the readers - where men lack the tragic- hero’s ‘magnitude and articulacy’ (Dey 2013: 38) and women are ‘unique of their prideful phallic fantasy’ (Dey 2013: 38), prompting her to stress, explore the ‘vulnerability of the characters’ (Dey 2013: 39) and the need to ‘cultivate the strength of will’ (Dey 2013: 39) for them to attain maturity through self-knowledge and discernment (3).

Dey in the next two chapters (Chapter 3 and Chapter 4) of her book concentrates solely on studying the male and female characters respectively. Chapter 3 deals with the general setting of Eliot’s novels in patriarchal Victorian England where her female characters suffer when they transgress the patriarchally constructed lakshman-rekha (4), but her male characters are weak and far from possessing any heroic quality. Dey states that they are victims of their fate and often fail to possess the Victorian male ‘embodiments of reason, virtue and absolute power’ (Dey 2013: 58). Dey exposes the imperfect world where women are ‘liable to suffer more than men from sexual indulgence’ (Dey 2013: 59). The chapter also addresses issues related to Married Women’s Property Act, women and higher education, the male and female spheres, the backwardness and superficiality of English attitudes to women (Dey 2013: 61) who were considered as the second sex. However, Dey’s meticulous research on Eliot’s major characters proves that Eliot had the power of a closer, precise observation of her characters as a result they are ‘not wholly good or bad’ (Dey 2013: 71).

Chapter 4 deals with the idea of the ‘Woman Question’ in Victorian England. The author here explores the different women characters inspiring women readers and writers, enabling them to understand their position in the society and develop themselves. Dey discusses the unrecognised, underdeveloped female genius with reference to Judith (5). It was never approved that women could posses a literary space, which, for a long time, was male dominated with patriarchal metaphors of literary creation and where a pen was thought to be exclusively possesed by males as ‘an instrument of generative power’ (Dey 2013: 75). The chapter discusses the societal constructions of body structure, chastity, the woman in order to render her inferior to man; women were identified as ‘mad’ when they transgressed seterotypes. The enriched discussion on the theme of women’s madness, due to ‘the conflict between artistic and domestic sensibilities’ (Dey 2013: 81) in this chapter reflects the author’s scientific research oriented perspective as she establishes and examines the various power structures with which the patriarchal society coerced the second sex. The chapter also discusses issues related to the freedom of women in the late 1860s (Dey 2013: 87) where the author interweaves Eliot’s life with the lives of her women characters. (6) The conclusion of this chapter deals with Eliot’s addressing ‘Woman Question’ in the Victorian England where Dey shows Eliot’s preference for ‘self-control’ (Dey 2013: 90) in her heroines who were made ‘to compromise and learn to control herself’ (Dey 2013: 91). Through her arguments Dey establishes that Eliot was never a Woolf or a Plath and ‘her irony continues to play significantly on the Maggies and Dorotheas and Gwendolens who have no social medium for their energies’ (Dey 2013: 93). Eliot was never an ardent feminist but her woman characters bear the power hidden in the realms of their heart which, if nurtured, could have flowered and gave vent to the hidden potential of the humanity. Nevertheless, Eliot’s novels, can be considered as avenues of modern feminist studies due to the presence of women characters who seem to possess an inherent dynamism hidden in them, reveal a ‘growing rift between the women and their worlds reflecting the society as the novelist herself found it – broken in twain!’ (Dey 2013: 94).

Chapter 5 discusses Eliot’s dual personality, like her women (7), caught in ‘angelic submission and monstrous assertion…in a male-dominated culture’ (Dey 2013: 98). Women’s contribution to improve life is well discussed here. De states that though Eliot is often accused for not endorsing ‘women’s rights’ (Dey 2013: 99) yet her women ‘no longer suffer in silence’ (Dey 2013: 100) though marriages lead to ‘the subordination of the women’s aims’ (Dey 2013: 102). De discusses the measures initiated during 1860s for women’s development; officially recognising woman’s individual identity. De’s illustrated discussion proves that Eliot’s women mothered the birth of the ‘New Woman’ (8) whose strength, intelligence and idependence broke the stereotypes though ‘Eliot never found any complete answer to the inner conflict, nevertheless she attempts to provide an honest account of the problems’ (Dey 2013: 107). De artistically finishes off with Eliot’s women desiring a self-development leading ‘loneliness and futility’ (Dey 2013: 113) and death which eradicates gender differences as in a dream world of fantasy.

End Notes:

  1. George Eliot’s letters to John Morley in Jeannette King’s Tragedy in the Victorian Novel, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978, p. 77.
  2. Society in George Eliot’s novels is like Egdon Heath of Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native.
  3. Self-knowledge and discernment in characters through maturity gives rise to self-development. Dey states that Eliot’s women possess a ‘deep feminine passion for goodness and learn to seek their goal in the ordinary tasks of womenhood’ but unlike Eliot they fail to transcend the barriers of gender and patriarchal structures. Dr Naina Dey in her Representations of Women in George Eliot’s Fiction, Germany: LAP Lambert Academic Publishing, 2013, p. 45.
  4. The word lakshman rekha comes from The Ramayana where Lakshman drew a line around the hut of Sita in the forest forbidding her not to cross it, lest she faces danger. She was abducted by Ravana after she crossed the line to give alms to Ravana in disguise of a saint. Henceforth feminists have believed that lakshman rekha is a patriarchal limitation imposed upon women. If women transgress this line/rekha then they are subjected to danger. The concept is patriarchally constructed and devised to coerce and punish women who break the stereotypes.
  5. Shakespeare’s sister in Virginia Woolf’s A Room Of One’s Own.
  6. With the solitary exception being Rosamund Vincey of Middlemarch as referred to by Dr Naina Dey in her Representations of Women in George Eliot’s Fiction, Germany: LAP Lambert Academic Publishing, 2013, p. 90.
  7. Here we refer to George Eliot’s associations with George Henry Lewes and her activities due to her strong social conscience. Dr Naina Dey in her Representations of Women in George Eliot’s Fiction, Germany: LAP Lambert Academic Publishing, 2013, p. 97.
  8. The New-Woman is their revolutionary girl-child.

Works Cited:
Dey, Naina. Representations of Women in George Eliot’s Fiction. Germany: LAP Lambert Academic Publishing, 2013.
King, Jeannette. Tragedy in the Victorian Novel. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978.
Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. New Delhi: UBS Publishers and Distributors Pvt. Limited, 2004.
----------. A Room of One’s Own, edited by Naina De, Kolkata: Indian Books View. 2011.