Redefining Womanhood in Jane Austen’s "Pride and Prejudice"

Master's Thesis, 2016

70 Pages, Grade: 2.0



1. Introduction

2. A Brief History of Austen Criticism

3. Conduct Books and Mary Wollstonecraft’s Feminist Theories
3.1. The Ideal of Womanhood in Emile or on Education
3.2. The Ideal of Womanhood in Sermons to Young Women
3.3. The Ideal of Womanhood in A Father’s Legacy to His Daughters
3.4. Mary Wollstonecraft’s Feminist Theories

4. Pride and Prejudice as Anti-Conduct Book
4.1. Lack of Parental Influence in Moral Education
4.2. Sisterhood between Jane Bennet and Elizabeth Bennet
4.3. Marriage between Mr. Collins and Charlotte Lucas
4.4. Marriage between Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet

5. Conclusion

1. Introduction

There has been a wide range of critical comments about Jane Austen’s novels. Some critics tag Austen as a conservative moralist, who is “totally committed to her society and its values” (Monaghan 5). Other critics consider Austen a radical feminist, who subverts prevailing social structures and conventional wisdom. Between these extremely oppositional views stand critics like Tony Tanner who see Jane Austen as attempting to criticize “the ideological assumptions which ground her society and which may seem to constrain her fiction” (Tanner 5-6). In my thesis, I attempt to depict Austen as a moderate feminist, who argues for women’s moral and intellectual potential and affords the heroine the ability to take control of her own thoughts and actions. From my standpoint, Austen is relatively progressive in exposing the stupidity and failures of patriarchy without radically destroying social institutions, for instance marriage. In other words, Austen endeavors to subvert the instructions of conduct literature but at the same time her feminism is subjected to certain limitations because of her insistence on marriage as the reward acquired by her heroines.

In my opinion, Pride and Prejudice is the most representative embodiment of Austen’s feminist ideology among her six novels. Her female voice runs through this whole novel from beginning to end and makes it an anti-conduct book which challenges and rejects the predominantly accepted behavioral norms and standards. Not only on the heroine but also on the other characters it can be observed that Austen tries to struggle for women’s moral autonomy and rationality and at the same time expose the absurdity of blindly following the patriarchal code of conduct. As for the feminist significance of this novel, Looser states that “we might compile more evidence of Pride and Prejudice ’s being of consequence to the first wave of feminists, active in the years leading up to women’s suffrage” (Looser 177).

Virginia Woolf is an admirer of Austen, whose Pride and Prejudice according to her is worth reading because of its feminist implications yet without threatening male power and privilege. In The Female Imagination, Patricia Meyer Spacks conceives Austen to be a writer who creates her work from a feminist perspective. For example, she points out Elizabeth Bennet’s realizing “the positive advantages of maturity over childishness, even in a society whose rigidities offer protection to the continued immaturity characteristic of most of its members” (Spacks 155). Perceiving Austen’s challenge of patriarchy, Martin Amis states that “Elizabeth Bennet is Jane Austen with added spirit, with subversive passion” (Amis 101). That is to say, in Amis’ view, Pride and Prejudice reflects Austen’s feminist ideology and punishes those who marry for money in order to get rid of spinsterhood and achieve economic security in a patriarchal society like Charlotte Lucas. Deborah Kaplan’s Jane Austen among Women also treats Pride and Prejudice in light of feminist ideology. As she argues, “confident in conversation and sure of her opinions, Elizabeth does not hesitate to convey either her certainty or her views” (Kaplan 186).

To prove my thesis, I will first look at the history of Austen criticism. Concerning her ideological inclinations and loyalties, there are mainly three critical trends. Amidst the voices to argue for Austen’s essential conservatism are Alistair M. Duckworth, Marilyn Butler, and Mary Poovey. They look upon her as a staunch upholder of traditional social ideologies and values. Arguments for Austen’s enlightened feminism can be found in Margaret Kirkham’s reading of her. Kirkham makes efforts to find out similarities between Austen and Wollstonecraft in their fighting for women’s rights and power. For the understanding of Austen as a moderate feminist, torn between subversion and conformity, see Leroy W. Smith, Claudia L. Johnson and Alison G. Sulloway.

Then I will explore how conduct books teach women to behave properly and decently. Among the powerfully instructive conduct books are not only narrative fictions but also conduct manuals that straightforwardly indoctrinate women to be a socially desirable object in patriarchy. Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Emile or on Education (1762), James Fordyce’s Sermons to Young Women (1766), and John Gregory’s A Father’s Legacy to His Daughters (1774) are typical eighteenth-century conduct literary texts that aim to shape and reinforce the social norms as well as the prevalent ideology of femininity. Such conduct books not only offer a picture of the lived experience of women but also reproduce the dominant social ideology that restricts women to a subordinate role. In addition, in order to do my feminist analysis of various characters and plots in Pride and Prejudice, I will also examine Mary Wollstonecraft’s feminist theories in this part.

The reason why these three above-mentioned conduct books are chosen is because they are among the most authoritative ones in the late eighteenth century which aim to glorify feminine qualities such as gentleness, docility, modesty and servility. Regarding their broad influence, Wollstonecraft states that “these volumes are so frequently put into the hands of young people, I have taken more notice of them than strictly speaking, they deserve” (Wollstonecraft 103). Through stressing women’s weakness and social inferiority, male writers of these conduct books attempt to preserve patriarchal dominance and social order. Angered by the limitations imposed upon women, Wollstonecraft attacks “the books of instruction, written by men of genius”, in which women “are only considered as females, and not as a part of the human species” in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (ibid. 6-7). According to her, women and men are equal and should enjoy equal rights, i.e. education. They are not mere objects for male pleasure but the ones who have the capacity for critical thinking and rational judgement as well.

As for the correlation between Wollstonecraft and Austen, Leroy W. Smith addresses that “one distinctive link between Austen and Wollstonecraft is their questioning of popular assumptions about the ‘natural’ roles of each sex and about a ‘feminine’ way of knowing which precedes reason” (Smith 23). Like Smith, identifying strong connections between Austen’s attitudes toward women’s rights and Wollstonecraft’s, Kirkham casts Austen as a feminist author whose heroines are primarily engaged in moral interests and rational actions. As Kirkham states, “[Austen’s] viewpoint on the moral nature and status of women, female education, marriage, authority and the family […] is strikingly similar to that shown by Mary Wollstonecraft” (Kirkham xi).

Following the part of elaborating on conduct literature comes my feminist interpretation of Pride and Prejudice. Based on Wollstonecraft’s theories, I argue that Pride and Prejudice is in contrast with conduct literature. Specifically, in order to provide deep insights into Austen’s moderate feminism in this work, I divide the main part of textual analysis into four aspects. They are as follows: lack of parental influence in moral education, the intimate sisterhood between Jane Bennet and Elizabeth Bennet, the dependency-seeking marriage between Mr. Collins and Charlotte Lucas grounded on the latter’s prudence and desire for economic security and the equal marriage between Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet based on mutual respect and esteem. It is worth mentioning that in the first aspect, the marriage between Mr. Wickham and Lydia Bennet founded on sensuality and passions will also be dealt with and that in the second aspect, the postponed marriage between Mr. Bingley and Jane Bennet because of the former’s subjection to manipulation and the latter’s suppression of real affections will be interpreted as well.

All of these aspects reflect Austen’s contempt and disgust for conduct literature which according to her is used to domesticate women into their male associates’ objects and slaves. However, in Pride and Prejudice Austen does not totally discard the patriarchal institutions, for example marriage. The above-mentioned four couples enter into the conjugal state without any exception at all. Especially the couple of Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet go through several phases to finally choose each other as marital partners. To put it in a specific way, through Elizabeth Bennet’s progressively removing prejudice, making self-judgement and employing rationality, and Mr. Darcy’s giving up pride and improving his manners, they decide to devote themselves to the patriarchal institution of marriage. Alternatively, it can be said that Austen sees the marriage as a reward for their moral growth and improvement.

Last but not least I will give the summarization of Austen criticism in three main trends (assuming her to be conservative, radical or somewhere in between) and the generalization of the commonalities of the conduct books, i.e. Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Emile or on Education, James Fordyce’s Sermons to Young Women, and John Gregory’s A Father’s Legacy to His Daughters. Then in combination with Wollstonecraft’s radical theories, I will broadly point out the feminist embodiments, which violate and overturn the doctrines in conduct literature, in Pride and Prejudice. Based on these reevaluations and recapitulations, I will finally draw a comprehensive conclusion from my findings. The conclusion is that Pride and Prejudice is a counter-statement to conduct literature and that Austen is a moderate feminist who disagrees with the patriarchal constraints placed upon women but accepts the patriarchal institution of marriage as a desired state for her fictional characters.

2. A Brief History of Austen Criticism

Alistair M. Duckworth considers Austen a conservative writer who “looks with apprehension at a contemporary world of recklessness, innovation, mobility, and social disorder” (Morrison 52). Rather than at odds with the conventional values or ideals of her society, Austen is a staunch upholder of traditional social order and responsibilities. She both internalizes the prevalent values of her society and conforms to the dictates of convention. In The Improvement of the Estate Duckworth states that “it is incumbent upon the Austen heroine to support and maintain an inherited structure of values and behavior” (Duckworth 7). Placing Austen in the conservative camp, Duckworth emphasizes “a strain of cultural affirmation genuinely present in her novels” (ibid. 233).

In sharing Duckworth’s view of Austen as an essentially conservative writer, Marilyn Butler argues in Jane Austen and the War of Ideas that Austen’s “manner as a novelist is broadly that of the conservative Christian moralist of the 1790s” (Butler 164). In her view, Austen is principally concerned with upholding the conservative values and ideologies. She rebukes the kind of criticism that situates Austen within the subversive camp whose fundamental principle is to undermine the dominant norms and standards of traditional society. In other words, Butler intends to demonstrate “how Austen establishes clear moral grounds for judging her characters, and assessing how successful she is in achieving her moral ends through artistic means” (Mazzeno 104).

Butler is the first to emphasize the political significance of Austen’s works. She reads Austen’s moral outlook as “reflections of eighteenth-century philosophical enquiries into human nature, which had turned deeply political in their implications for readers during the French Revolution” (Hecimovich 103). According to Butler, Austen’s novels are anti-Jacobin – belonging to “a movement that defines itself by its opposition to revolution” (Butler 123). Butler correlates Austen’s mistrust of excessive individualism with her anti-Jacobin propaganda. Put more specifically, Butler believes that in Austen’s works “the key virtues are prudence and concern for the evidence; the vices are romanticism, self-indulgence, conceit, and, for Jane Austen, other subtle variations upon the broad anti-Jacobin target of individualism” (ibid. 122).

Focusing on her high suspicion of dangerous individualism, Butler presents Austen’s abhorrence and detestation towards revolutionary ideas. In Butler’s reading, Austen’s novels are less individualistic and radical than many critics of the time have thought. She believes that Austen “participates in a conservative reaction against more permissive, individualistic, and personally expressive novel types of earlier years” (ibid. xv). In her conclusion, Butler asserts that “Austen is ‘conservative in a sense no longer current’. Her ‘preconceived and inflexible’ morality leads her to identify errors firmly, even in figures one might be predisposed to like” (Mazzeno 105).

Like Butler, Mary Poovey describes Austen as fundamentally a social conservative. Nonetheless, she also points out Austen’s skeptical attitude toward patriarchy without the intension to break the established social order totally. In other words, she perceives Austen’s subtle negotiation between feminist claims and adherence to tradition. But through her resolving the ideological contradictions between insurgency and conformity, Poovey is inclined to emphasize Austen’s conservatism. Furthermore, similar to Butler, Poovey points out the political significance of Austen’s narratives. As she writes in The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer : Ideology as Style in the Works of Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley, and Jane Austen, “Jane Austen’s fundamental ideological position was conservative; her political sympathies were generally Tory” (Poovey 181).

In The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer, Poovey argues that “the period between 1775 and 1817, the years of Austen’s life, was punctuated by challenges to traditional hierarchy of English class society and, as a consequence, to conventional social roles and responsibilities” (ibid. 180). During these decades under the impact of the French Revolution, women began to struggle for individual desires in the private sphere and engage themselves at work for the enactment and implementation of moral reform. As Poovey claims, society’s expectations regarding the propriety of ladies ought to be reshaped and reformed yet without essentially altering traditional structures. Put alternatively, Austen “does not wholly reject either social institutions or the power of individual desire, she is able to imagine the possibility of both personal moral education and institutional reform” (ibid. 208). But actually for Poovey, Austen aesthetically resolves the conflict between female autonomy and patriarchy by contending that “Jane Austen turned her creative energies to the reformation of propriety in the hope of finding within its codes an acceptable form for a woman’s desires and a reinforcement for the social order she cherished” (ibid. 242). In other words, Austen is a basically conservative writer despite her endorsement of women’s individualistic desires in a limited sense.

As Poovey argues, Austen views the act of marriage as a romantic resolution of her compatibility with individualistic inclination. In other words, despite Austen’s moral realism, her celebration of marriage as the solution to the problem of female power or the reward for her heroines’ negotiation between personal power and social responsibility, as Poovey puts it, “[deflects] criticism from the social institutions they ultimately serve” (ibid. 239). Moreover, such a romantic resolution represents “an emotional intensity that ideally compensates for all the practical opportunities they are denied” (ibid. 237). Poovey regards Austen as a writer who sees marriage “as the ideal paradigm for the most perfect fusion between the individual and the society” (ibid. 203). In a word, setting marriage as the key feature of her works, Austen maintains patriarchal social order and structures.

Opposing Butler’s thesis that Austen should be viewed as a political reactionary who does “believe in the existence of different ideologies in which perceptions of the nature and role of women played an important part” – part of such ideologies being “a Tory women’s tradition […] that women were treated as an inferior class in a man’s world”, Margaret Kirkham in Jane Austen: Feminism and Fiction undertakes to place Austen in the context of rational feminism (Butler xxiii). Her thesis of this work is to stress women’s equality with men both morally and intellectually (akin to Wollstonecraft’s feminist tradition), while still focusing on adherence to certain traditional ideas of womanhood such as domesticity in the maintenance of social stability and national strength.

Kirkham argues that “[Austen’s] novels are the culmination of a line of development in thought and fiction which […] deserves to be called feminist since it was concerned with establishing […] the proper status of individual women as accountable beings” (Kirkham 3). Posing a significant challenge to most critics of her day who argue for a fundamentally conservative perspective in Austen’s works, Kirkham sets the heroines’ feminist ideologies, specifically their struggle for moral and intellectual equality with men, as the guiding principle of each novel. Ian Watt, in the introduction to his Collections of Critical Essays on Jane Austen, identifies the existing problem prevalent in Austen criticism: “the slightness of the matter and the authority of the manner” (Watt 12). Kirkham offers the resolution of such problem by “[changing] our historical perspective on the Austen novels and [considering] them in the context of eighteenth-century feminist ideas and of the Feminist Controversy of the turn of the eighteenth century” (Kirkham xxi). Concluding her discussion, Kirkham argues that Austen is a radical feminist, who employs irony to not only challenge but also bitterly criticize traditional standards of patriarchy, for those who can interpret such hidden feminist consciousness “beneath the surface of her highly polished stories” (Mazzeno 111).

Different from Kirkham, Leroy W. Smith offers a moderate feminist reading of Austen and her works in Jane Austen and the Drama of Woman. He perceives the coexistence of both conservative and radical elements in Austen’s works. According to Smith, Austen neither fully submits to the patriarchal system nor invariably advocates for female rebellion and insurrection. It is the mediated position on Austen criticism that he usually takes. Smith argues that although Austen critically points out the problems women encounter in a patriarchal society and the constraints forced upon them, “her dissatisfaction does not cause an open break with her society” (Smith 25).

Suggesting the similarities of thoughts between Wollstonecraft and Austen, Smith addresses that “the common cornerstone of both is that women are, or should be, rational beings and can be trained to think rationally” (ibid. 23). In addition, Smith also recognizes the close correlation between Simon de Beauvoir’s feminist awareness and Austen’s. As Alison G. Sulloway gives consent to Smith’s views, Austen defines a woman as de Beauvoir does, as a creature who cannot be free unless she is permitted to possess self-knowledge and self-respect, judge for herself and be true to herself in making judgements, and insist on being judges as an individual and not by a stereotype […] Both Austen and de Beauvior, says Smith, believe that woman has the reasoning power and potential for learning needed to break free from unreasonable external restraints and to move from ignorance and faulty perception to knowledge. (Sulloway 120)

Acknowledging the feminist elements in Austen’s works, Smith conceives “the woman’s quest for freedom and the perspective of her selfhood” as “an intense version of human experience in general” (Smith 9). Put alternatively, Austen criticizes the inequality between the sexes and protests against the severe repression and oppression placed upon women by a male society. According to Smith, Austen believes that the way for women to acquire freedom is through their self-awareness, self-knowledge and self-judgement. Identifying women in their own voice, “Austen viewed woman as a subject in her own right and gave us a woman’s idea of the female rather than a male’s” (ibid. 8). In other words, Austen goes beyond conventional gender role stereotypes which represent women as passive and submissive, and supports women in expressing their own thoughts and opinions. As Smith articulates, “the most important step [for Austen’s heroines] is to develop self-awareness and self-knowledge through self-evaluation” (ibid. 40).

Although Smith argues for her female protest, affirming that “at the heart of Austen’s fiction is the quest for freedom: each man or woman’s wish to choose his or her own acts and thereby become a person”, he is convinced that Austen does not utterly overthrow and smash the patriarchal system (ibid. 28). He disavows the claim that Austen is a radical feminist who discards all traditional patterns of behavior and customs. According to Smith, Austen is just “engaged in a ‘limited’ rebellion” (ibid. 25). Furthermore, Smith remarks that “mutual understanding, respect, and accommodation between her male and female principals” help soften the tension between them in a patriarchal society and therefore maintain the status quo (ibid. 45).

Like Butler, Johnson seeks to situate Austen within the political context, i.e. the Jacobin/anti-Jacobin debate over the French Revolution in Jane Austen: Women, Politics and the Novel. While Butler portrays Austen as an anti-Jacobin polemicist who insists on “a traditional conservative sense of national and familial identity in direct reaction to the spread of Enlightenment and Jacobin thinking into English political discourse”, Johnson, under the influence of Wollstonecraft’s radicalism, stresses Austen’s feminist attack on the social institutions and conservative ideologies of her time (Jones 3). As Johnson points out, Austen attempts to “dismantle myths propounded by anti-Jacobin novelists without seeming necessarily to imply a Jacobin wish to see society radically reconstituted” (Johnson xxv).

Although Johnson presents Austen’s claims of female power and subversion of dominant ideologies in her day, she does not locate Austen in the radical camp. Despite acknowledging affinities between Wollstonecraft and Austen, for example their common skepticism of conservative bias and their inclination to empower women, Johnson asserts that Austen does not align herself totally with Wollstonecraft, as she puts it, “no woman novelist, even among the most progressive, wished to be discredited by association with Mary Wollstonecraft” (ibid. xxiii). In other words, Austen neither wholly accepts nor rejects traditional social values and principles. Rather, she takes a standpoint somewhere between radicalism and conservatism. According to Johnson, when Austen makes efforts to propose her revolutionary feminist ideas, she also refers to Hannah More’s works to “advance the strictest programs for female subordination and the most repressive standards of female propriety” (ibid. 16). As she addresses, “the codes employed by the two opposing camps are not always so discrete and mutually exclusive” (ibid. xxii).

Below the surface of apparent conservatism embodied in Austen’s marriage plots is not her blind conformity and allegiance to patriarchal ideologies but as Johnson points out, it is “an imaginative experiment with conservative myths, and not a statement of faith in them” (ibid. 75). Moreover, it can be argued that such conservative myths not only legitimate female desires but also give women a real voice within the traditional society. In Johnson’s terms, “those myths become so transformed that they are made to accommodate what could otherwise be seen as subversive impulses and values, and in the process they themselves become the vehicles of incisive social criticism” (ibid.). In addition, to avoid a radical reading of Austen, Johnson employs irony to expose the limitations of patriarchy that keep women subordinate and dependent.

Having much in common with Johnson, Alison G. Sulloway perceives the parallels between Austen’s critical opinions on the woman question and Wollstonecraft’s. According to Sulloway, both Austen and Wollstonecraft launch an attack upon patriarchal privilege and emphasize women’s rights and power. As she says in Jane Austen and the Province of Womanhood, “by October of 1796, when Austen began ‘First Impressions’, [Wollstonecraft’s] A Vindication of the Rights of Woman had been flourishing as a ‘provocative and popular treatise’ for four years ” (Sulloway 49). She continues that “Austen absorbed many feminist theories and transmuted them into the less contentious, more discreet, and sometimes more light-hearted medium of fiction, even while she retained an abiding contempt for those ‘meaner considerations’” (ibid.).

Different from Wollstonecraft’s radical position on women’s rights, as Sulloway argues, Austen does not destroy traditional views of womanhood completely. Focusing much attention on Thomas Gisborne’s An Enquiry into the Duties of the Female Sex, Sulloway points out the existence of separate spheres and insists that female domesticity contributes to stabilizing and governing society. As she remarks, “in some unspecified way, woman’s segregated domesticity was supposed to compensate for man’s expanding universes and to forestall revolution both at home and overseas” (ibid. 4). On the one hand, Sulloway locates Austen’s works within the background of conduct literature which confirms conservative womanhood; on the other hand, she connects Austen with polemical feminist writers like Wollstonecraft who rebel against the restrictions imposed upon women’s rights and struggle for their equality and independence. In Sulloway’s words, “male conduct-book tracts for women usually heaped praise upon women who functioned according to the compensatory equation” and at the same time “each feminine attempt at reasonable legal and personal autonomy and reasonably civil treatment in the presses [was] greeted with more and more mockery throughout the Age of Reason” (ibid. 7-9). Situated somewhere between the conservative and subversive contexts of her time, Austen is seen as a moderate feminist (following Frances Burney and Maria Edgeworth) who neither completely challenges nor wholeheartedly respects feminine virtues (ibid. xx).

According to Sulloway, Austen expresses her hidden anger and contempt towards traditional male privilege and social injustice through her weapon of satire. Such satire exposes the limitations imposed on women’s moral and intellectual freedom by patriarchal society. In other words, challenges of widely accepted ideas about women’s inherently inferior and subordinate nature, which lie beneath the surface of Austen satire, are actually prevalent throughout Austen’s works. But Sulloway asserts that “only now have a few readers begun to recognize the explosive qualities embedded in her fiction” (ibid. xvii). As Sulloway remarks in Jane Austen and the Province of Womanhood, Austen’s satirical purposes may have been so obliquely that they have not been recognized for close to two centuries, but when she satirized male privileges and female disenfranchisements, her purpose were as insurrectionary as those of Mary Wollstonecraft and Wollstonecraft’s feminist colleagues of the 1790s and later […] [Austen is] a provincial Christian gentlewoman whose contempt for the overt and hidden ethical disjunctions at the heart of all satire politely but obsessively pieces destructive myths and assumptions about her own sex. (ibid. xvi-xvii)

3. Conduct Books and Mary Wollstonecraft’s Feminist Theories

In conduct books, a set of standards is established to arrive at the ideal of a reserved, meek, submissive and passive woman. It prescribes rather than describes codes of conduct for women in a patriarchal society. Women are told what they should and should not do in order to maintain the status quo. By conforming to these strict codes of conduct, women subject themselves to conventional norms and values. There is little doubt that conduct literature endeavors to perpetuate social codes within the patriarchal culture. In other words, conduct literature functions as moral instruction for female readers, as Poovey states in The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer, Conduct books and periodicals tell us more than what young girls growing up in this society might have been likely to read or hear about what they were or ought to be. For, as examples of the public discourse of middle-class society, these works themselves reproduce the system of values – the ideology – of this society. (Poovey xiii)

In other words, Poovey assumes that conduct literature plays a crucial part in establishing the dominant eighteenth-century feminine ideal and reinforcing the social order. According to her, conduct literature helps create socially acceptable female identity, i.e. femininity and provides “models for acceptable behavior, legitimate values, and even permissible thoughts” (ibid. xii-xiii).

3.1. The Ideal of Womanhood in Emile or on Education

In Emile or on Education, Rousseau creates the ideal woman Sophie – a product of the conventional ideology of femininity – who is weak, dependent, pliant, subjugated, irrational and ignorant of the world outside her home. As Emile’s perfect mate, Sophie is kept from knowledge and domesticated into a meek and docile wife possessing the art of pleasing her master. In Rousseau’s view, women are inherently inferior and submissive, educated solely to fulfill the desires of their husbands and maintain male dominance and supremacy. As Wollstonecraft summarizes Rousseau’s standpoint in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Rousseau declares that a woman should never, for a moment, feel herself independent, that she should be governed by fear to exercise her natural cunning, and made a coquettish slave in order to render her a more alluring object of desire, a sweeter companion to man, whenever he chooses to relax himself. He carries the arguments, which he pretends to draw from the indications of nature, still further, and insinuates that truth and fortitude, the corner stones of all human virtue, should be cultivated with certain restrictions, because, with respect to the female character, obedience is the grand lesson which ought to be impressed with unrelenting rigour. (Wollstonecraft 24)

Rousseau points out gender distinction, asserting that women are innately the physical and intellectual inferiors of men. In his words, “to search for abstract and speculative truths, for principles and axioms in science, for all that tends to wide generalisation, is beyond a woman’s grasp” (Rousseau 386). His ideal woman is limited to producing emotional responses and employing innately intellectual inferiority. Put alternatively, women, in Rousseau’s view, are naturally emotional creatures incapable of logical thinking while men are rational beings capable of exercising independent judgement and abstract reasoning. As Wollstonecraft claims, “[Rousseau] denies woman reason, shuts her out from knowledge, and turns her aside from truth” (Wollstonecraft 141). Or in Rousseau’s terms, “woman observes, and man reasons” (Rousseau 387).

He insists on the ideology of separate spheres and feminine domesticity. For example, he prefers the Athenian model in which women limit themselves within the private circle of family, endeavoring to run the household as mothers and wives. As he puts it, “when Greek women married, they disappeared from public life; within the four walls of their home they devoted themselves to the care of their household and family. This is the mode of life prescribed for women alike by nature and reason” (ibid. 396). That is to say, Rousseau advocates that women should be confined to the domestic sphere and denied any access to public opinion and discourse. In their conforming to the domestic ideal of womanhood, they reinforce gender-based norms and values, and internalize the dominant social expectations.

Besides that, he places emphasis on female education through which women learn to please men and become their friends and rational companions. For him, women’s major function is centered upon meeting their husbands’ desires and needs both physically and spiritually. In his words, “the whole education of women ought to relate to men. To please them, to be useful to them” (ibid. 365). Because their offering pleasure to men can preserve male power and privilege. To put it in a similar way, Rousseau perceives women’s education for male amusement to be of great importance in perpetuating the gender dichotomy and the status quo. As Wollstonecraft observes, “Rousseau, and most of the male writers who have followed his steps, have warmly inculcated that the whole tendency of female education ought to be directed to one point – to render them pleasing” (Wollstonecraft 27).

In addition, Rousseau highly criticizes female self-assertion which is according to him branded as an exclusively masculine behavior. In his words, “woman is worth more as woman and less as man” (Rousseau 363). He adds that “to cultivate the masculine virtues in women and to neglect their own is evidently to do them an injury […] do not try to make your daughter a good man in defiance of nature” (ibid. 364). Encouraging women’s self-assertion amounts to in fact empowering them and at the same time threatening men’s supremacy. Rousseau denies firmly any chance of women’s striving to challenge male dominance and authority. Strongly arguing against women’s self-assertion, he insists on the ideal of a dependent, docile and submissive womanhood. As he writes, “the bitterness and the stubbornness of women never do anything but increase the ills and the bad behavior of their husbands. Men feel that it is not with these weapons that women ought to conquer them” (ibid. 370).

However, Rousseau claims further that “heaven did not make women ingratiating and persuasive in order that they become shrewish. It did not make them weak in order that they be imperious. It did not give them so gentle a voice in order that they utter insults” (ibid.). In other words, he does not regard women as the totally inferior beings. Because according to him, women have the potential to exert power over men. Regarding Rousseau’s stance on the issue of female social position, Bloom clearly expresses his opinion in “Rousseau on the Equality of the Sexes”, [Rousseau] was one of the most powerful critics of the notion of original sin, and insisted on the natural goodness of man, especially his sexual desire – if sexism means insistence on essential differentiation of function between men and women both naturally and socially, then Rousseau was indeed a sexist. If on the other hand it means treating women as objects and subordinating them, he certainly was not a sexist. Rather he was concerned with enhancing the power of women over […] It is the relatedness, the harmonious relatedness of men and women, which he takes as the model and foundation of all human relatedness. (Bloom 71)

On the one hand, women are encouraged to fulfill their subservient roles so as to maintain the status quo; on the other hand, women ought to restrict their natural inclinations to become what men desire them to be. Nature makes women “arouse men’s senses and reawaken in the depth of their hearts the remains of ardors which are almost extinguished” (Rousseau 359). In their satisfying men’s desires and needs, they provide a pleasing and comfortable world to the privileged sex. Nevertheless, Rousseau conceives women to be dangerous because women can get control of their superior counterparts by making use of male sexual dependence on them. As he asserts, “men would finally be [women’s] victims and would see themselves dragged to death without ever being able to defend themselves” (ibid.). In other words, as long as women take up the weapons of their sexual availability, men are reduced to their manipulation and enslavement.

Therefore, Rousseau insists that modesty is a natural attribute of women and that women’s modesty acts as a brake to their unlimited desires (ibid.). Without modesty women are condemned as “guilty and depraved” because they reject “a sentiment natural to her sex” (ibid. 314). Actually, for Rousseau, feminine modesty is more a product of patriarchal culture than that of natural laws. Modesty helps stabilize not only male dominant status but also harmonious relationship between men and women. In other words, it is women’s self-control that contributes to fulfilling the male fantasy of power and authority.

As for the conventional female virtue of chastity, Rousseau believes that “a woman’s audacity is the sure sign of her shame; it is for having too much cause to blush that she blushes no more” (ibid. 318). In his view, women are obliged to remain chaste and virtuous so as to provide men an assurance of their property and social status. If a man chooses a wife who has lost her chastity, this woman’s bad reputation will impair his authority and influence in a patriarchal society. Rousseau argues that “honor and reputation [are] no less indispensable to [women] than chastity” (ibid. 361). According to him, women’s good reputation is more likely to exert considerable influence over the preservation of men’s social dignity than chastity itself. That is to say, it is thought better to enjoy a virtuous reputation but lose chastity than embrace chastity without virtuous reputation. As he states, “their honor is not only in their conduct but in their reputation; and it is not possible that a woman who consents to be regarded as disreputable can ever be decent […] what is thought of her is no less important to her than what she actually is” (ibid. 364-65). Therefore, women are unceasingly exhorted to keep both factually and apparently chaste. If they fail to be virtuous, they have the obligation to appear to be virtuous in order to safeguard men’s position in society. To put it in a similar way, in securing male supremacy, women’s pretending to be chaste does not function less effectually than being truly chaste.

For Rousseau, a man’s virtue is his reasonable judgement whereas a woman’s virtue mainly manifest itself in chastity. He creates the heroine of Emile who especially highlights her love of virtue. As he puts it, “because virtue constitutes woman’s glory […] She loves it as the only route of true happiness and because she sees only misery, abandonment, unhappiness, and ignominy in the life of a shameless woman” (ibid. 397). Furthermore, he instructs Sophie how to maintain a happy marriage by rightfully employing her chastity: “make yourself cherished by your favors and respected by your refusals, that he should honor the chastity of his wife without having to complain of her coldness” (ibid. 479).

3.2. The Ideal of Womanhood in Sermons to Young Women

In his Sermons to Young Women, Fordyce points out the separate spheres and the different responsibilities and duties allocated to men and women. For example, men enjoy total freedom in the public sphere such as “war, commerce, politics” whereas women are confined within the comparatively narrow family circle (Fordyce 137). In his view, it is both nature and the Almighty that determine gender identity and relationship. Because of the biological differences and divine ordination, women are assumed to play their roles as mothers and wives. They are expected to internalize the feminine qualities, like fragility, meekness, lack of reason, and modesty. In spite of their social classes, wealth accumulation and nations, women have the obligation to maintain the household and take care of their husbands and children. As Fordyce tells young women, I must remind you, that how much soever they may be now neglected by many women as below their notice, no height of rank or affluence can justify such neglect. The care of a household all ages and nations have agreed to consider an indispensable part of female employment, in every situation that admits it. (ibid. 106)

As to female fragility, Fordyce argues that it is one of women’s desirable attributes which men expect from them and is seen as the source of keeping male superiority. For him, physical weakness is an embodiment of women’s gentleness and softness and thus a great attraction for men. In his terms, what qualities men desire in women are “soft features, and a flowing voice, a form not robust, and a demeanour delicate and gentle” (ibid. 113). These feminine qualities enforced upon women reflect their male counterparts’ strong impulse to control and dominate them. Influenced by patriarchal ideology, women become meek and docile by willingly subjugating themselves to men for securing protection. It can be said that Fordyce places emphasis on women’s natural delicacy in order to reinforce the idea of femininity and affirm the privileged position of men in society.

According to Fordyce, a woman’s main duties are centered upon serving and pleasing men uncomplainingly. In his own words, women “might improve our pleasures and soothe our pains” (ibid. 104). Here Fordyce presupposes women to be inferior to men and establishes the unequal relationship between men and women through his use of the first-person pronoun ‘our’. To put it in a specific way, although his Sermons is especially dedicated to young women, by employing the term ‘our’, he highlights men’s dominant status in society and puts them in the subject position as opposed to women who are reduced to the position of object. In other words, presenting women as the inessential, Fordyce considers them a source of pleasure and comfort for their husbands. To please men is deemed to be women’s obligation in their everyday life. As he remarks, “your business chiefly is to read men, in order to make you agreeable and useful” (ibid. 138). However, Wollstonecraft disagrees with Fordyce’s insistence on women’s pleasing behavior. She demonstrates her deep abhorrence and aversion to Fordyce’s subjugation of women in her use of several rhetorical questions: “why are women to be thus bred up with a desire of conquest? […] Must they always be debased by being made to consider the sex of their companions? Must they be taught always to be pleasing?” (Wollstonecraft 128)

In order to offer pleasure to men, women are encouraged to possess virtues such as “soft compliance, and meek submission” (Fordyce 129). Cultivating these virtues in themselves, women can easily catch men’s attention and therefore acquire economic and physical protection from them. In Fordyce’s words, “the kindest and most submissive will be always preferred” (ibid. 19). Female unconditional subjection to men, which is the essential principle in women’s education, is deemed to be one of the behavioral norms and standards in patriarchal society, i.e. an idealized concept of true womanhood. Without aspiring to be submissive, women are condemned for their discarding the patriarchal culture. A woman with masculine attributes such as independence and dominance, in Fordyce’s eyes, “must be naturally an unamiable creature” (ibid. 53). Expressing his disgust over masculine women, he continues that “[a] young woman of better rank that throws off all the lovely softness of her nature, and emulates the daring intrepid temper of a man – how terrible!” (ibid.)

Fordyce does not expect women to turn into “metaphysicians, historians, speculative philosophers, or Learned Ladies of any kind” (ibid. 102). He resolutely objects to the cultivation of women’s rational judging and critical thinking skills, because such skills according to him are exclusively tied to their male counterparts. Any woman who possesses these masculine attributes is to be blamed for losing her feminine mildness, meekness and submissiveness. As Fordyce notes, he is frightened by such “Learned Ladies” who “should lose in softness what they gained in force” and whose “pursuit of such elevation should interfere a little with the plain duties and humble virtues of life” (ibid.102-03).

According to Fordyce, women rely merely upon their own emotions to understand the daily world around them, whereas men are capable of logical reasoning and rational judgement. As he asserts, women “depend not on a nice chain of reasoning, nor on the abstruse researches of science […] to feel their tendency, and experience their operation, a modest, susceptible, and affectionate mind is chiefly required” (ibid. 31-32). In other words, excluding them from intellectuality and rationality, Fordyce assumes women to be emotional and sentimental.

Furthermore, Fordyce suggests that female innate modesty can help women win much admiration and appreciation from men. The reason why women possess modesty and reserve are so highly praised is because these female attributes not only satisfy men’s expectations of ideal womanhood but also help preserve their privileged social position. Women are anticipated not only to serve and please men, but also at the same time to keep attractive to them and arouse their desires. In Fordyce’s view, the attributes of modesty and reserve enable women catch their male counterparts’ attention to the greatest extent. As he states, “the retiring graces have been always the most attractive” (ibid. 49). Besides, a modest woman is apt to “give each an opportunity of appearing to advantage, and thus to make all happy in their turn” (ibid. 126).


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Redefining Womanhood in Jane Austen’s "Pride and Prejudice"
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