Married Vs. Available

Victorian Man and Woman

The code of Lily’s world decreed that a woman’s husband should be the only judge of her conduct:  she was technically above suspicion while she had the shelter of his approval, or even of his indifference.

In her novel, The House of Mirth, Edith Wharton allows her characters to make some interesting assertions about the proper behavior of women.  Foremost among these is an idea that we saw earlier in Daisy Miller: that married women are allowed much more freedom than single women, particularly when it comes to flirtation.

Despite no actual wrongdoing, Lily Bart is ousted from polite society for the perception afforded her behaviors only because she was a single woman.  Her initial shaky social footing results from unintentionally borrowing money from Gus Trenor.  The implied result of this transaction to the social elite is that Lily becomes a kind of kept mistress for Mr. Ternor.  This little social impropriety erodes her perceived sexual purity enough that Bertha Dorset is later able to seal her social fate by implying an affair between Lily and George Dorset.

For the characters of Wharton’s novel, there are certain social privileges associated with being married.  These include basically ignoring flirtatious behavior, or even extramarital affairs.  At one point a character comments about Lily, “When a girl’s as good-looking as that she’d better marry; then no questions are asked” (195).  This implies that Lily could flirt or be seen with as many men as she liked if she were married.  This seems like such fuzzy logic.  Just because a woman is married does not mean she is free from improprieties (think of Bertha Dorset).  So I guess I have a hard time understanding exactly why society no longer cares.  I suppose this inexplicable social constraint is exactly why Edith Wharton routinely emphasizes it throughout the novel.  Perhaps she wanted to draw attention to the ridiculousness of it, and how the pointless rule leads Lily down the path to ruin.

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Published in: on April 5, 2010 at 4:02 pm  Comments (5)  
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Femme Fatale

Smoking woman

I'm pretty sure a modern version of Jean would look just like this.

“I’ll not fail again if there is power in a woman’s wit and will!”

The fateful proclamation of the deceitful governess of Louisa May Alcott’s Behind a Mask foreshadows the determination with which Jean Muir pursues her goals of wealth, rank, and marriage. If one were to seek an example of a femme fatale, it would be hard to find a better.  Jean seems to possess an undefinable sway over men, and she leaves a trail of broken hearts in her wake.  The enchantress even confesses to one of her thralls, “I am a witch, and one day my disguise will drop away and you will see me as I am, old, ugly, bad and lost.  Beware of me in time.  I’ve warned you.  Now love me at your peril.”

Alcott portrays Jean as a paradox.  On one hand she is the perfect woman: demure, caring, selfless.  On the other hand, she coldly calculates the use of her womanly attributes to pursue power and men.  I can’t help but wonder if Alcott was insinuating that all women are behind a mask, that there is both beauty and ambition within all women and it should not be entirely condemned.   Despite her decidedly unwomanly pursuit of a titled gentleman to marry, Alcott is very careful not destroy our affection for Jean at the conclusion of the novel.  Even though Jean has seduced the younger Coventry gentlemen, deceived the entire family, and blinded the elderly John Coventry, we are left with the feeling that she genuinely cares for the older gentleman.  While her behavior was certainly beyond beastly for the 19th century woman, I cannot help but think that a modern woman might be accepted and possibly respected for the same maneuverings.

Ruth Nelson

Published in: on January 30, 2010 at 10:48 pm  Comments (2)  
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Wild Women

Mexican Senorita

"... for the love of a woman is beautiful at all times, whether she smiles under gilded canopies in her satin garments or weeps over a world-hated criminal alone and naked in the desert."

The women in John Rollin Ridge’s folkloric novel, Joaquin Murieta, do not sit idly by as the male banditos partake of all the adventure.  Ridge includes women in the novel as motivational, tempering, and even deadly forces.

Joaquin Murieta’s murderous spree across 1850’s California was initiated by the “ravishing” of his mistress, Rosita, at the hands of Americans.  This act is an ultimate affront to Joaquin as he not only loves his mistress, but also sees the respect of women as a mark of nobility and humanity.  Joaquin’s views on the treatment of women are further reinforced when one of Joaquin’s henchmen abducts a beautiful woman.  Joaquin’s rage over the barbarous abduction of the woman is abated when he learns that the man has gone to great lengths to preserve the woman’s chastity.   Joaquin’s response to the abduction of the woman is used by Ridge to make the bandit seem more noble, civilized, and respectable.

Women in the novel attain most of their goals through subtlety and feminine charms.  Most notably, one woman, Margarita, gains freedom from her abusive drunkard of a husband by murdering him.  But even this murder is done in a feminine manner; she drops hot lead in his ear while he sleeps and the death is attributed to too much liquor.  There is none of the gore and violence that tends to accompany murders committed by the males in the novel.  Margarita then provides such a display of grief that she is not even suspected in the mysterious death.  This short aside from Joaquin’s story seems in place only to enhance Ridge’s point that women are powerful and should not be treated poorly.

Other than the murderous Margarita, most of the women are sources of aid and support for the men of the novel.  They ride with their men, dress in men’s clothing, and nurse the wounded.  They are as hardy as the men themselves.  There are exceptions to this rule though.  The “American” female, Rosalie, stands in stark contrast to the capable Mexican women.  She is the woman, I mentioned earlier, who is abducted by one of Joaquin’s henchmen.  It seems that she cannot even stay conscious when faced with the slightest shock or adversity.

Why do you think that Ridge singled out Rosalie to be such a shrinking violet amid the thorned roses of Mexico?

~Ruth Nelson

Published in: on January 24, 2010 at 12:19 am  Comments (2)  
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