Gender Roles and Virtue in Eliza Haywood's Fantomina

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In Eliza Haywood’s Fantomina, the story of a young girl experiencing attraction for the first time, unfolds into a scandalously messy web—the product of her naïveté and poor decisions. Or is it? The girl is known only by the pseudonyms she adopts throughout the piece, and those pseudonyms are chosen based on their likelihood to attract the object of her affection (and obsession). While the girl’s decisions are laughable, the logic behind her reasoning is actually sound, sharpening the humor of the situation into an ironic lance aimed at the heart of the aptly-named Beauplaisir.

Throughout the story, Fantomina and Beauplaisir embody comical gender roles, yet also suggest that power is a tangibly masculine dynamic that can be manipulated by women in an interpersonal context, but not, ultimately, subverted.

The social and gender roles Fantomina and Beauplaisir occupy are outlined from the onset of the story with little structural deviance. Fantomina, whose true name is never revealed throughout the course of the story, is described in the opening line as “a young lady of distinguished birth, beauty, wit, and spirit” (2740).

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Because we are not given her name, these characteristics serve as the only lens we have with which to consider Fantomina. We are also told that “she was young, a stranger to the world, and consequently to the dangers of it” (2740). The emphasis on Fantomina’s youth is also a frame for her naiveté—the dangers.”

that the narrator refers to are ostensibly the personal and private problems that Fantomina will encounter in her folly to extort constancy from Beauplaisir, yet although she apparently unites all that a genteel lady could hope for, she effectively demonstrates the uselessness of these attributions, employing them in role after failed role.

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Fantomina’s constancy is ironized by what her obsession with Beauplaisir drives her to do; to keep him interested in her, she constantly adopts a different role. “But he varied not so much from his sex as to be able to prolong desire to any great length after possession” (2745). Here, Haywood seems to suggest that Beauplaisir’s unfaithfulness is representative of all men, and that it is this gendered male quality that Fantomina becomes acutely attuned to.

Further, not only does Fantomina’s faithfulness become representative of all women, but so does her suffering. The narrator’s assertion that “he varied not so much” dismissively characterizes Beauplaisir’s actions as unsurprising, and subtly undercuts Beauplaisir’s power by identifying the source of his satisfaction: “possession” or sexual satisfaction. This expression of the narrator’s mature understanding of the situation serves to sympathize Fantomina’s increasingly desperate situation, while simultaneously suggesting that the physicality of men’s attraction to women ruins their ability to have interpersonal relationships with them.

The initial ruin of Fantomina’s virtue encapsulates the ruin of her situation, which, the narrator suggests, is the most important aspect of genteelness a lady can preserve.

She had discernment to foresee and avoid all those ills which might attend the loss of her reputation, but was wholly blind to those of the ruin of her virtue; and having managed her affairs so as to secure the one, grew perfectly easy with the remembrance she had forfeited the other.

That Fantomina’s failure to preserve her virtue is directly attributed to her decision to prioritize her reputation seems to suggest that Fantomina doesn’t understand that her virginity is proportionately valuable to her social status, that, more broadly, a woman’s virginity plays a crucial role in her ability to exercise influence over men, and that to “forfeit” virginity means to surrender any claim to a man’s heart (this is further evidenced by Beauplaisir’s faithlessness, heightened by the adieus in his letters: “Your most faithful” and “Your ever faithful” 2750-2751). Further, Fantomina’s decline in Beauplaisir’s favor transcends even the different roles she adopts for him. Thus, by emphasizing Fantomina’s preoccupation with her reputation instead, the narrator illustrates Fantomina’s fundamental misunderstanding and misappropriation of her attributes.

Although Fantomina’s obstinate role-playing does nothing but degrade her true status throughout the story, her actions are supported by what the narrator defines as an unfortunate quality of her true breeding: “…but with her sex’s modesty, she had not also thrown off another virtue equally valuable, though generally unfortunate, constancy” (2746).

Contextualized within Fantomina’s feelings for Beauplaisir, constancy is cast as a simultaneously valuable and unfortunate quality of all women, one that inevitably brings them personal grief, yet is socially esteemed by their female peers. Fantomina’s inability to “throw off” this “virtue” then, suggests that while she has been properly primed for genteel female society, she has discovered the true uselessness of the quality in a way that is both insupportable by her peers due to the loss of her virginity, yet evidentially supported by Beauplaisir’s faithlessness to her.

Ultimately, the story utilizes Fantomina’s adoption of different characters as a very real representation of the exploitable status of women in society, as well as their trained naïveté, even as they are raised to be above the pitfalls of socially “lower” women. Through Fantomina, Haywood crafts the every-woman, by making her embody every woman; the feelings and emotions experienced by Fantomina throughout her experience in playing different characters is actually meant to be representative of the entrapped feeling that women in Haywood’s world live with. That Fantomina’s mother absolves Beauplaisir of his complicity in her daughter’s ruin by not asking him to marry her (“The blame is wholly hers” 2758), underscores the duplicitous circumstances that young women were expected to navigate, while abstaining from truly experiencing.

Works Cited

  1. Haywood, Eliza. Fantomina; or, Love in a Maze. Norton Anthology of English Literature.
  2. Volume C. Eds. Lipking & Noggle. NY: WWNorton&Co. 2012.

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Gender Roles and Virtue in Eliza Haywood's Fantomina. (2022, Mar 30). Retrieved from

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