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Both Jane Eyre and Maggie Tulliver can be considered one of the first (if not the very first) feminist heroines in Victorian literature, in a society in which men were seen as the main jobholders in every family whereas women were relegated to work as housewives, whose main goals in life were to get married and become mothers, being dispossessed of ownership and other legal rights. Although it is true that both heroines approach their problems in a quite different way.
Jane is such a unique, extraordinary, strong and at the same time kind character who has her own feminist view on society and argues that men and women are not exceptionally different from each other. She is aware of the position of women in Victorian times with regard to men, and claims that they need much more involvement in society. Her position towards the female oppression issue is quite clear stated in the novel:
“we stood at God’s feet, equal, – as we are!” (Brontë 223)
Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel they
need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts, as much as their brothers
do they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men
would suffer and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say
that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to
playing on the piano and embroidering bags.
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.
In this second excerpt, Jane lists some of the tasks that women were relegated to do such as “making puddings” or “playing on the piano”. Moreover, she expresses how women feel and their desire for knowledge and to gain an equal status with men in a male dominant society.
The figure of Rochester, a Byronic hero, is quite important to understand Jane’s personal life, aspirations for marriage and independence. When they first meet, Rochester realizes that Jane is such a different and unique woman after asking her if she finds him handsome:
‘You examine me, Miss Eyre,’ said he: ‘do you think me handsome?’
I should, if I had deliberated, have replied to this question by something conventionally vague and polite but the answer somehow slipped from my tongue before I was aware — ‘No, sir.’
This proofs that, besides gender inequalities, Jane is a brave woman who is never afraid to speak her mind. Her sincere response to Rochester’s question shows how she is not afraid of him, explaining after, that, for her, handsome and masculine men are dangerous for women since they represent authority and power, which contrasts with women’s position in Victorian times, which are clearly inferior and powerless. She expresses her viewpoint on the matter without even care of what others, whether men or women, may think about her, which is what makes her a very unconventional Victorian woman a true woman.
However, despite being such a unique woman who is against social conventions, after falling in love with Rochester, she thinks herself not worthy enough of him and tries to persuade herself that a relationship between them is not possible, afraid of being deprived of her freedom if she marries him. She even calls marriage a catastrophe and the end of a woman’s freedom, which is another aspect that makes her quite different from Victorian women.
Besides all her thoughts on marriage, she finally accepts marrying Rochester after his wedding proposal. But, when planning the wedding, Rochester wants Jane to wear expensive jewellery and fancy dresses, elements that, for Jane, represent slavery as she sees them as a way of succumbing to male dominance and supports her idea of marriage as a loss of freedom for women.
At the end of the novel, and after knowing Rochester’s intentions after Jane discovered that he was already married with Bertha Mason, the madwoman in the attic, Jane proposes to Rochester, who is now transformed into a weak character (a beast) after surviving Bertha Mason’s fire. Jane assures him of her love and tells him that she will never leave him, she is now a powerful and independent woman and speaks directly to the reader about their marriage:
“Reader, I married him” (Bronte ASKLDFJLKAJSDÑL=)
This is Jane’s defiant conclusion to her rollercoaster story and reflects how she is the perfect picture of a feminist heroine, being the one who proposes marriage, something completely unconventional in Victorian times.
Moving from Charlotte Brontë’s “Jane Eyre”, in George Eliot’s “The Mill on the Floss” we are introduced to the character of Maggie Tulliver, a rebel and smart feminist heroine. In contrast to Jane Eyre, Maggie Tulliver has a family, but, as Jane, she is treated in a very unfair way due to the fact that she is just different from the rest of her family and does not follow her family standards, the Dodson’s standards.
The difference between men and women in Victorian society is also shown in the novel, her brother Tom is made to feel masculine, therefore powerful and intelligent according to Victorian society standards. On the other hand, Maggie, lives under the oppression of her family, dispossessed of the right of having an education and with the feeling that she is inferior to the rest. She is constantly being reminded that she is not enough and has to endure how her mother is constantly putting her down, the only one member of the family that does appreciate her is her father. But, even though he loves her and recognizes Maggie’s intelligence, he is not giving her the chance to have an education like her brother, Tom, has.
All these attitudes towards Maggie leads her to act rebelliously, for instance, by cutting her hair, and to fight for the inequalities she’s going through. She desires being loved, admired and accepted by her family. Her frustration is palliated by driving nails into a doll and through her imagination, imagining herself in a wonderful word where she is accepted and loved.
The real struggle for Maggie against male dominance appears once her father, who was the only family member who truly loved her, dies. At that time, her only wish was to be someone else because she thinks that, just by the fact that she is a generous person who wants to help everybody. But, in the end, she is not able to do nothing for the rest, as she is a powerless woman who cares too much for her father and her brother.
Her thoughts on women’s oppression are clearly stated in a argument she has with her brother, Tom, after he blames her for her meetings with Phillip:
“Because you are a man, Tom, and have power, and can do something in the world” (Eliot 312).
In this quote, Maggie expresses her feelings toward male dominance and the position of women in society and how powerless she feels in relation to men.
What makes Maggie such a unique character is her hunger for knowledge. She is a very talented and intelligent woman with a constant hunger for knowledge, but, as she is a woman, she is dispossessed of her right of having an education.
One of Maggie’s main dilemmas comes at the time when she decides to become a governess, which, unfortunately for her, will not help her sharing her intelligence as she would have liked. For many people, she should have allowed her brother Tom to take care of her, but she refuses to give in to male dominance, as she looks for becoming an independent woman without this sense of inferiority:
“I can’t live in dependence – I can’t live with my brother – though he is very good to me but that would be intolerable to me” (Eliot 369).
After her struggles dealing with female oppression in society, she falls into martyrdom as a way to escape. This self-renunciation leads her to deny everything she wants, she cannot live in a society that is not giving her what she wishes. It is quite interesting to understand what the ending of the novel represents and how do Tom and Maggie’s reconciliate. The two representations of gender opposites in Victorian times, remain undivided. Maggie, the powerless woman saves Tom, the dominant man from the flood, but, they end up dying together in the river.
As Dorothea Barrett states in “Vocation and Desire: George Eliot’s Heroines”, Maggie does not succumb to male coercion. She, as a feminist heroine is able to achieve a hard-won but at the same time an unrewarded victory. The fact that this victory is unrewarded is due to the fact that, even though she never renounces to her rebellious nature, she is never able to get the freedom she wishes but at the same time she is not giving up nor losing her faith in her fight against male control, there is always possibility for change in her beliefs.
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