The Dissonance of Victorian Gender Roles

Essay, 2021

8 Pages, Grade: 1,7

M. Amira (Author)


Table of Contents


The Dissonance ofVictorian Gender Roles: An Insight into Nineteenth-Century Society, Culture and Literature
Separate Spheres: Ideology and The Woman Question
Lady Audley as the Devil in the House
Jane Eyre as Epitome ofFemale Empowerment or Angel in the House?



The Dissonance of Victorian Gender Roles


The Victorian period is widely known for its strict adherence to moral conducts of behaviour and clear guidelines with regard to social expectations such as gender roles. But how can it be then that specifically these beliefs were characterized by a lack of uniformity and inherently contradictory in itself? To demonstrate this dissonance, it is important to first consider relevant social dynamics and developments that define this period and see in what relation they stand to nineteenth-century literature. In this context, the novels Jane Eyre (1847) by Charlotte Bronte and Lady Audley’s Secret (1862) by Mary Elizabeth Braddon serve as examples to investigate questions of gender and social hierarchy. In how far do these works reflect relevant socio-cultural topics and react to the Women Question as well as engage in the debate on gender roles with regard to the separate sphere ideology? In essence, this essay aims to provide an answer to these questions and in doing so, stress the complexity and controversy that surrounds Victorian gender roles and its inextricable interrelation with prevalent social dynamics and discourses.

The Dissonance of Victorian Gender Roles: An Insight into Nineteenth-Century Society, Culture and Literature

Separate Spheres Ideology and The Woman Question

Representations of gender in Victorian England were deeply interrelated with gendered concepts such as the angel in the house, the Woman Question, sperate spheres ideology and the ideal of womanhood and manliness. All these issues intersect in a dynamic relationship and are characterized by similarities as well as internal and external contradictions. Moreover, these constructs lie at the basis of relevant social dimensions that engage in questions of authority, power, control, equality, religion and nature.

The Victorian period was an era of social, technological and economic revolution and reconstruction. Industrialization and urbanization processes transformed working roles (Parker 13) and led to the gradual rise of the middle class. As a consequence, questions concerning gender roles emerged, especially with regard to a women’s place and essential role in society (Kirilloff et al. 823). The division of public sphere and domestic sphere provided the foundation for gender segregation in the eighteenth and nineteenth century and served as strict guide to gender roles and expectations. While men were assigned to the public sphere and engaged with issues of government, politics and business, women were restricted to their homes, occupied with tasks that revolved around the home and the family and were considered to fit their natural feminine strengths (Steinbach 12). This gender code defined the workings of society and perpetuated a conceptualization of gender roles through the notion of separate spheres. In this context, the ideal type of womanhood was represented in the image of the angel in the house, a role that basically accumulates all feminine qualities that were wished for and expected in a woman. Such gendered expectations involved selfless and moral behaviour (Parker 6), innocence, domestic affiliation, submissiveness, tenderness (Kirilloff et al. 822), being loving and even fertile (Showalter 209). Basically, characteristics that were ascribed to the female sex and female emotion and stood in contrast to male properties that connotated strength and authority such as reason, intellect and force (Showalter 209). Moreover, negative attributes also contributed to the image of the female nature. Hence, the belief that women needed to be tamed or their close association with the devil (Hanssons and Norberg 422) interlink with the assumption that women are more inclined towards petty vices such as jealousy, spitefulness or vanity (Parker 6). These presumed natural differences between men and women build the basis for the justification of gender inequality in society. It was claimed that due to women’s inherent biological weaknesses, they are inferior to men (Parker 7). The notion that the idea of a mental and physical difference between the genders could be merely a social construction was pushed through the Woman Question and took shape in the literary works of this period. Next to Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1972), which became the manifesto of feminism, John Stuart Mill ‘s liberal statement The Subjection of Woman (1861) challenged gender inequalities and defended women’s rights, especially with regard to the role of education (Parker 4). And although these works do not epitomise the predominant Zeitgeist of Victorian attitudes towards gender roles, they reflect the growing controversy about the Woman Question and the social dynamics that questioned the hierarchical ideal of the separate sphere ideology. These flourishing dynamics infiltrated the literary space and posed a serious threat to patriarchal concepts. The appearance of sensation novels in the mid of the nineteenth century further intensified the tensions about gender roles (Parker 20). Moreover, as Parker points out, the unease about the Woman Question was founded in a concern that regarded the approach of emancipation as problem rather than opportunity (6) since it directly attacked the social and natural order of middle-class Victorian society (20). The traditional roles within the family structure, which were most commonly defined through the separate sphere ideology, became unstable (Parker 13). This was the case because gender and class were deeply intertwined and mutually constitutive (Steinbach 826). What Elaine Showalter calls ‘the dilemma of the woman writer” (213) basically describes the partly suppressed and conservative and at the same time rebellious and progressive-egalitarian atmosphere that obtained the literary space in Victorian England. This applied especially to woman novelists who were not welcomed in the world of literature but provoked considerable reactions with their entrance. In this context, nineteenth-century literature does not only hold a mirror up to society, but it also serves as historical artefact of the time, or to quote Parker it “can be studied as a historical phenomenon” because “a work of literature is itself a social fact” (8).

While Victorian ideals about gender were by no means a fixed set of rules but rather characterized by its contradictory and fluid nature that had to be renegotiated and reaffirmed continuously (Steinbach 831), social dynamics influenced by questions of gender roles pervaded the layers of nineteenth-century society and caused internal and external instability. In how far this conflict is captured in the literary works of this period is about to be demonstrated in the passages to follow.

Lady Audley as the Devil in the House

The representation of emotions in male and especially female characters are of crucial significance in Victorian literature with regard to gender roles. Not only do they stand in close correlation to ideals of femininity and masculinity, but they also reveal a lot about social power relations within the novels and thus, within society at large.

Women in particular were facing contradictory and confining expectations in terms of societal norms regarding their display of emotions. These norms determined the classification of behaviour as either appropriate or transgressive, which, on a deeper level, mirrors social hierarchies as well as gender roles that existed back then (Hanssons and Norberg 441). In this context, Mary E. Braddon’s novel Lady Audley ’s Secret (1862) provides an interesting example of Victorian constructions of gender and authority. Despite the fact that Lady Audley’s Secret is a popular example of sensational writing, a genre which provoked strong reactions and was reputed to be dangerous, it portrays anger with regard to gender highly conventional (Hanssons and Norberg 453). Women were expected to not express unfeminine emotions such as anger, which, in most cases would even be interpreted as madness (Showalter 211). This was due to the fact that the relation between women and insanity was considered to be a fine line in the sense that a lack of emotional control was somehow integral to their nature. Men, on the other hand were portrayed as disciplined and emotionally moderate (Hanssons and Norberg 443). And even if their anger did surface, it was considered to be honest, healthy and justified (Hanssons and Norberg 444). The consonance between the physiological dimension and emotional dimension in women results in the transparency of their emotions. The characters in Lady Audley’s Secret reflect such views of gendered emotions. As for example when Lady Audley becomes angry “the pretty, roseate flush faded out from her cheeks, and left them waxen white, and angry flashes lightened in her blue eyes” (221). The same intensity of physical effect is depicted in Alicia when she was “slashing the skirt of her habit with her riding-whip. Her eyes sparkled with an angry flash, and a crimson glow burned under her clear brown skin“ (181). These displays of emotion differ from male representation of anger, which do not involve bodily effects in most cases. In contrast, the emotion is turned outwards (Hanssons and Norberg 445) which can be exemplified on George Talboys who, when he was mad with his wife, he “flew into a rage with [Helen], [himself], her father, the world, and everybody in it, and then rail[ed] out of the house” (28). On the other hand, the suppression of female anger is connected to dishonest, even deviant internal character traits (447). This contradictory construction points to the ambivalent nature of Victorian gender roles and the unattainable societal expectations towards women. Again, this can be seen in Lady Audley and her depiction as “dangerous and deviant” (Hanssons 446). The overall negative characterization of Lady Audley is not just implied by her death at the end of the novel but also suggested for example in the description of her appearance which “had something of the aspect of a beautiful fiend” (108).

Thus, female and male characters in Lady Audley ’s Secret illustrate social power relations within Victorian society through the display of their emotional behaviour. While Lady Audley deviates from and transgresses societal norms of feminine behaviour, the outcome of the novel suggests that her unconventionality and refusal to live up to gender role is what condemns her in the end. Nonetheless, her character and its involvement in anti-feminine qualities mirrors the relevance of the debate around gender roles in Victorian society and the growing resistance to follow such ideals.

Jane Eyre as Epitome of Female Empowerment or Angel in the House?

Today, Jane Eyre (1847) is widely considered to be one of the first feminist novels because of its portrayal of non-conventional behaviour with regard to gender roles. But does Jane Eyre really serve as representative for female empowerment or does she become another angel in the house that accepts her subordinate role within the separate sphere ideology as mother and wife?

Kirilloff et al. investigate in their analysis of characters in Jane Eyre the codification of behaviour into masculine and feminine actions on the basis of verbs of motion and in correlation to gendered spheres that were created in the Victorian era as result of the Woman Question. They highlight that it is important to bear in mind that the novel does not subvert Victorian social norms through its unconventional depiction of male and female behaviour, but rather reflects the character’s, and hence society’s struggle to conform to social authority in the context of shifting social dynamics (822). One of the most famous quotes from the novel refers to Jane’s internal monologue when she remarks that “Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel” (105). Jane criticises the gendered construction of emotional display which we could observe in Lady Audley ’s Secret. The social norm demands emotional moderation from women and if they do not conform to this norm their behaviour is regarded as transgressive and unfeminine. Jane further engages in the debate about women’s right for education since women, just as men, “ need exercise for their faculties” and thereby, she follows the egalitarian approach of Wollstonecraft and Mill that rejects the perception of mental differences between the sexes. On top of that, she concludes that “it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that [women] ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings. It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex.” Thus, Jane critiques that women are restricted to the private sphere and trivial tasks instead of being granted access to the intellectual sphere and therefore, more broadly questions the separate sphere ideology as well as the patriarchal family hierarchy. In another instance, Jane tells Mr. Rochester “I am not an angel... and I will not be one till I die” (258). This statement can be interpreted as reference to the angel of the house concept and Jane’s adherence to her independence. In this context, does the end of the novel imply then that her feminist ambitions died with her unconventional behaviour and, as critics imply, that she was reimprisoned by Victorian domestic ideals (Kirilloff et all. 842)? The novel does not give an answer to this question, however, its general involvement with these topics reflects the engagement of the text in the literary and social debate about Victorian gender roles and its significance for the question of gender identity.

Consequently, while the novel does not provide a satisfactory resolution with regard to female emancipation and the disentanglement from gender expectations in terms of a women’s place in the domestic sphere, Jane Eyre presents progressive approaches towards gender equality and social authority. Thereby, the novel not only mirrors the social anxieties around the question of gender identity but also contributes to the intensification of this controversy by pushing non- traditional beliefs about female qualities and thus, gender roles.


Overall, the nineteenth century was marked by conflicting and dynamic forces which debated the internal construction of society on a regular basis, in particular in connection to gender roles. The Woman Question stirred up discussions on fundamental social constructs such as the separation of spheres into domestic and public roles corresponding to male and female qualities. Moreover, the engagement with these social conditions not only questioned, but threatened traditional institutions such as the family and posed a danger to the hierarchical structure of the Victorian middle-class. Jane Eyre and Lady Audley ’s Secret can be studied in terms of these developments and read as documents in the debate of gender roles, specifically with the focus on female expectations. A closer look at Lady Audley ’s Secret illustrates the significance of gendered emotions and how the categorization of female anger as socially unacceptable reinforces the narrative of females as inferior to males and thus, perpetuates the separate sphere ideology. Similarly, Jane Eyre can be viewed as promoting the maintenance of the domestic sphere and family concept, however, it portrays also gender-reversed behaviour and feminist ideas. Thus, while both novels contain traits of conventional and conservative Victorian attitudes towards gendered behaviour and a women’s place in society, they also participate in the construction of non-conventional representations of femininity and therefore, correspond to the emerging shift towards egalitarian and progressive attitudes on gender roles. Moreover, both works can be considered to be relevant contributors to the literary corpus that influenced the social dynamics within Victorian society and more broadly, functioned as a match which sparked the fire that led to the inevitable reformation and rethinking of gender roles in Western culture and society.

Word Count: 2467


Braddon, Mary Elizabeth. Lady Audley’s Secret. Jonathan Ingram, 1862.

Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre, introduced by Margaret Lane, J. M. Dent and London: Everyman, 1847.

Hansson, Heidi, and Norberg, Cathrine. “Lady Audley's Secret, Gender and the Representation of Emotions.” Women's Writing, vol.20, no 4, 2013, pp.441-457.

Kirilloff, Gabi et al. “From a distance ‘You might mistake her for a man’: A closer reading of gender and character action in Jane Eyre, The Law and the Lady, and A Brilliant Women". Digital Scholarship in the Humanities, vol.33, no 4, 2018, pp.821-844.

Parker, Christopher, editor. Gender Roles and Sexuality in Victorian Literature. Hants: Scholar Press, 1995.

Showalter, Elaine. “Killing the Angel in the House: The Autonomy of Women Writers.” The Antioch Review, vol.50, no 1, 1992, pp.207-220.

Steinbach, Susie. “Can We still Use ‘ Separate Spheres’? British History 25 Years After Family Fortunes.” History Compass, vol.10, no 11, 2012


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The Dissonance of Victorian Gender Roles
Trinity College Dublin  (School of English)
Victorian Writing
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dissonance, victorian, gender, roles
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M. Amira (Author), 2021, The Dissonance of Victorian Gender Roles, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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