An Analysis of the Demeaning Role of Women in The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton, Pygmalion by Bernard Shaw, and The Rape of Lucrece by William Shakespeare

The social commentary of literary texts can be explored through multiple analytical lenses to reveal different perspectives, One such lens is the feminist theory which examines the disparity between men and women and the role of women in society. Edith Wharton’s The House ofMirth, Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion and William Shakespeare’s The Rape ofLucrece all portray a female protagonist who is oppressed by men within their patriarchal societies. This oppression leads to a myriad of problems focused on these women, who resort to extreme measuresi including suicide~to solve these issues.

Through the objectification of women, gender inequality and the depiction of female agency, it can be seen that one of these problems is that women are being exploited for the sole purpose of fulfilling men’s desires. Women are often portrayed as sexualized objects that are subjected to men’s appetites, as illustrated in The Rape ofLucrece where Tarquin is obsessed with Lucrece, This obsession leads to her rape, which is metaphorically described as the conquering of a fortress.

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Tarquin’s objective is “to make the breach and enter this sweet city” (Luc. 469) by using a “rude ram to batter such an ivory wall” (Luc. 464). This comparison demonstrates the lack of regard he has for Lucrece as an autonomous human being. Nevertheless, he is not the only person responsible for the tragic outcome since this event is instigated by the group of noblemen showcasing their wives to one another as if they were possessions. The attitude held by these influential people towards women is clear when they say “the heavens had [Collatine] lent / In the possession of his beauteous mate” (Luc.

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17-18), They believe that even their gods sanction the act of treating women as possessions, which is reflective of their collective society. This belief is so strong that Lucrece’s status as an object cannot be escaped even with death, since both husband and father fight to mourn over her lifeless body, Lucretius declares, “‘She’s mine,’ ‘0 mine she is?” (Luc, 1795), to which Collatine replies, “she was only mine” (Luc. 1798). Their argument shows that their primary concern is to claim possession of her body, and not to express sorrow over her death. Collatine’s reason for claiming Lucrece as his own is for “[his] sorrow‘s interest“ (Luc. 1797), displaying how she is used to effectuate his emotional needs. After her death, she remains an object but is no longer sexualized, demonstrating that women are not solely objectified in a sexual manner. Eliza from Pygmalion is a prime example of such a non-sexualized object. The relationship between Eliza and Mr. Higgins is rife with conflicts where he attempts to bring her under his control, and his treatment of Eliza is summarized by Mrs. Pearce “as if [he was] picking up a pebble on the beach” (Pygmalion 30; act 2), lntrinsically, objects may be purchased and traded, and Eliza is no exception, Higgins buys her for five pounds from her father, Mr. Doolittle, and he reiterates this agreement to stress its importance when confronted by Doolittle later on. Additionally, she is used like an object exclusively for Higgins’s amusement.

He only agrees to teach Eliza because he wants to win a personal bet with Pickering, not because he wants to help her become a respectable lady in a flower shop. Higgins‘s selfishness pervades his speech; the most prominent example is when he says that she does “not [have] any feelings that we need to bother about” (Pygmalion 32; act 2) He also refers to her using derogatory terms before and after her transformation such as “baggage“ (Pygmalt’on 26; act 2), “squashed cabbage leaf” (Pygmalion 18, act 1) and “creature” (Pygmalion 80, act 4), As such, “[t]he woman character . . , is seen only as an object for experiment” (Llhua 41), and Higgins does not give credit to Eliza for helping him win the bet. Although Eliza and Lucrece encounter vastly different scenarios, they share the common experience of being objectified by men in order to accomplish the men’s goals. The portrayal of women as possessions highlights the gender inequality within society, leading to a misperceived inferiority of women In The House ofMirth, this inequality is epitomized by the discrepancy in marital expectations imposed on people based on gendert Lily Bart acknowledges this fact when she says, “i t t a girl must [marry], [while] a man may if he chooses” (Wharton 46; bk 1, ch. 1), Since men have the option of abstaining from marriage, they are free to choose the ideal wife, but the same cannot be said for women as they are compelled to find a husband, Therefore, women must forgo their own prospects in the interest of conforming to the social standard. Lily’s poor relationship decisions arise because “. . . [she] definitely clings to her traditional beliefs, especially those about her feminine qualities” (Leerabhandh 27) but also tries to break free from such traditionalistic views. Although she attempts to find a man who wants to marry her, she also pursues a marriage based on mutual love which produces this irreconcilable duality. Her conventional facet is represented by suitors like Percy Gryce, Simon Rosedale and George Dorset who are not interested in Lily because of love Gryce wants someone who shares his interest in Americana, and she is able to make “t t i all his senses flounder[] in a vague well-being . . ,” (Wharton 55; bk. 1, ch 2). Rosedale needs someone who can help him ascend in social ranking, and Lily has such ability prior to her strife with Bertha Dorset. George Dorset needs Lily in order to get rid of his cheating wife and views her as “, , . the only creature who could have saved [him]” (Wharton 284; bk, 2, ch 6).

However, all her efforts are laid to waste by her courtship of Selden because he does not have a strong need for her as a wife until it is too late, Therefore, Lily’s undoing is caused by her non-compliance with the established social restraint of pursuing a husband who benefits from the marriage. Women are also described as having inferior minds compared to men, as indicated in The Rape ofLucrece: For men have marble, women waxen minds, And therefore are they formed as marble willl The weak oppressed, th’impression of strange kinds Is formed in them by force, by fraud, or skill. (1240-1244) The description using marble and wax proves that men have the ability to shape a woman’s mind to their liking due to her weaker character, Tarquin is able to subdue Lucrece simply by mentioning his plan to destroy her reputation should she resist his actions Furthermore, he leaves part of his guilt for Lucrece to bear with the impression that she has partially caused her rape. This exposes another gender difference where women are always to blame regardless of their complicity Men are said to shift blame onto women in order to feign innocence, and “. t t those proud lords to blame / [m]ake weak-made women tenants to their shame” (Luci 1259» 1260). However, a woman’s weakness reveals one of her virtues, namely her consideration for others Even after her rape, Lucrece is able to detect and aptly respond to her maid’s distress; likewise, she contemplates the repercussions of her rape on Collatine. Thus, a paradox is revealed when examining the morality of both genders, which can be summarized as “man’s toughness proclaims his lesser worth and woman’s weakness her strength” (Laws 61), The stark contrasts between men and women attest to how women are treated poorly and ultimately serve to advance a man’s causes. Since women are often seen as submissive and weak compared to men, they do not have the power to make their own decisions. Lily Bart in The House ofMirth attempts to become an autonomous entity but is kept in check by the men she deals with Her failures are attributed to “[t]he New York upper class i . t [which] destroys a woman’s freedom because it chains her within the social conditioning of man‘s patriarchal authority” (Sanjak 12; ch 1} She asks Gus Trenor for financial advice assuming that it would be provided out of friendship, but is asked menacingly for compensation instead, He asserts that since he has paid, he should be “allowed to have a seat at [the] table” (Wharton 182; bk, 1, ch. 13), and she is obligated to settle her score with him.

As a result of this diatribe against her character, Lily chooses to live in poverty so her aunt’s legacy can be used to pay off her debt to Gus. Although she never sees or hears from him again, her decisions are heavily influenced by his power which undermines her ability to function freely. The lack of female agency is also apparent in Pygmolion, where Eliza is physically and psychologically dominated by Higgins to the point where she is enslaved to his intentions. The abuse starts upon her arrival at Higgins‘s home when he proposes to burn her clothes, wrap her in paper and then placed in a dustbin, all without her consent. He ignores her vehement objections because he is focused only on his own goal, which is to win his bet with Pickering. Eliza states that she has decided to leave on multiple occasions due to the poor treatment she is receiving, but Higgins finds a way to retain her each time, This is comparable to Mrs. Pearce’s circumstances where she has become fed up with his attitude and swearing, and wanted to quit being his housekeeper. However, she does not leave since “. . . she’s firmly persuaded that [Higgins is] an arbitrary overbearing bossing kind of person“ (Pygmalion 41, act 2), and his authoritarian approach keeps her in his grip. In such a way, he is able to utilize Mrs. Pearce and Eliza to complete demeaning chores such as fetching his slippers or cleaning up messes caused by his carelessness. To Higgins‘s surprise, Eliza fights back with her newfound knowledge which has given her an epiphany; she realizes that “. , t [she] had only to lift up [her] finger to be as good as [Higgins]” (Pygmalion 104, act 5). Higgins inadvertently gives her the power of free will while transforming her into his duchess, allowing her to decide to permanently leave Wimpole Street against his desires. This illustrates the fact that women are innately bound to men, but may gain autonomy from them through enlightenment, The various aspects of feminist criticism applied to The House ofMirth, Pygmalion and The Rape ofLucreCe demonstrate society‘s meagre respect for women. Due to certain gender roles that exist in society, they are treated as possessions and cannot choose to act as independent individuals. Unfortunately for two of the protagonists, Lily in The House ofMirth and Lucrece in The Rape ofLucrece, they are unsuccessful at resisting male oppression, resulting in their deaths. However, a woman may break free of these social norms on the rare occasion through determination and higher-level education, as exemplified by Eliza in Pygmulion‘ Consequently, not all hope is lost for women who want to be regarded as equals to their male counterparts.

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An Analysis of the Demeaning Role of Women in The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton, Pygmalion by Bernard Shaw, and The Rape of Lucrece by William Shakespeare. (2022, Jul 15). Retrieved from

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