Role of Women in British Literature

Gothic literature has been notorious for the patriarchy in which it entails, as well as the violence that is continuously enacted on the female characters. In the different novels we have read this semester the role of women has been depicted gothic manner, but each in it’s own different way. Some authors completely disregard women in their works, while others include them to have characters that reinforce the status quo of the female being an educator and nurturer. Despite the differences, each work reflects some sense of the roles that women played during the time in which it was written.

During the 17th century women played a very minimal role in society, and the literature of this time period confirms that stigma. Dr. Faustus is one such example, as no women characters are depicted and if they are, they are brought to light in the most degrading of manners. When Dr. Faustus summons Mephastophilis to fetch him a wife he says, “Nay sweet Mephstophilis, fetch me one for I will have one” (Marlowe, 19).

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Faustus has a “sinfully inordinate desire, not merely for a consort, but specifically for a wife” (Tate, 264) and that is the first thing he demands from Mephistopheles after signing away his soul.

He only wants a wife to be “wanton and lascivious” and Mephistopheles responds with “why a wife, rather than a lover? ” (Tate, 264) Dr. Faustus assumes that women are there for his taking, to be at his beckon call. Because women are objectified, Mephastophilis returns with a devil dressed as a woman and refers to her as a “hot whore” (Marlowe, 73).

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This novel also confirms the idea that only women are judged fro being promiscuous, because although men may behave in a similar manner, they do not receive negative titles for it.

The only women mentioned in Marlowe’s play are Helen of Troy, the wife of Alexander the Great, and the devil woman that Dr. Faustus takes as a wife. Each of them have very insignificant roles and are only introduced into the story to physically satisfy Dr. Faustus as an object, not for intellectual stimulation. They don’t talk much because the male characters are uninterested in what they may have to say. In Dr. Faustus, women are the antithesis of men and receive no respect, only being treated as objects and not actual people.

Mary Shelly continually portrays the women in Frankenstein as having the classic passive role found in English society of that time. Almost all the female. characters in this novel play a passive role, typical for the gothic female, except for Safie. Mary Shelly describes the women as dependent upon the male characters that surround them, and their sole purpose is to serve and obey their men. Mellor talks about how inside the home women are either kept as a pet, like Elizabeth, or they work as child care providers and nurses, Caroline, Elizabeth, Margaret and servants, like Justine (Shelly, 221).

They are not intellectuals, or viewed on the same level as the men of society. Justine, who is accused of murdering William Frankenstein, is executed although she is innocent because she is completely helpless when it comes to proving her innocence. Margaret Saville is depicted as a passive listener because she continually listens to Victor’s worries and concerns without expressing any feelings of her own. Safie is the only woman in the novel that is depicted with the slightest bit of independence.

She does not obey the rules of her religion or her father’s demands to go back to Constantintople so she is seen as similar to the monster, but still managing to gain acceptance in society. However when Safie flees the De Lacey household “the alternative female role-model of an independent, well-educated, self-supporting” woman is lost in the novel (Shelly, 223). But “one of the deepest horrors of this novel is Frankenstein’s implicit goal of creating a society for men only” since Frankenstein “eliminated the female’s primary biological function” of reproduction (Mellor, 220).

This shows the utter lack of importance that females play in the early British society. In Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart the women of the pre-colonial Ibo society are portrayed as second-class citizens who must always submit to the men. “Polygny is the common model of marriage” (Powell, 171), which breeds a male supremacy that Achebe exhibits in scenes when the wives question authority of male figures, and they often get beaten. The women are viewed as property of their husbands, only being useful for procreation and completing duties of the ousehold, such as cooking and rearing the children. The worthlessness of women can also be seen through the insult that men take when they are referred to as women. For example, Unoka, Okonkwo’s father, is called a woman because of his laziness, and being an untitled man (Achbe, 36).

Okonkwo also finds him to be unsuccessful because he only had one wife and he is driven to be a more successful man than his father, and he finds masculinity in conquering and subduing his wives. Powell, 171) Title less men are not viewed with the same respect as those who hold a title, as seen when Okonkwo tells Osugo that “this meeting is for me” (Achebe, 28) and therefore, he is not welcome. There is also a sense of antithesis in the role of women in this novel. Despite being viewed in a negative light by the men of the Ibo village, the women do play an important role in the education of children and in the Ibo religion. Women often perform the role of the priestess, like Chielo, “the priestess of Agbala, the Oracle of the hill and the Caves” (Achebe, 49) and her authority as spiritual leader is never questioned.

This is seen when she demands to see Ezinma, Ekwefi’s daughter, and although Okonkwo begs her to wait until morning she tells him “Beware, Okonkwo! ” (Achebe, 101) and he obeys. Another interesting role that the female plays can be seen when Ani, is described as playing “a greater part in the life of the people than any other deity” (Achebe, 36). In a society that devalues women, it is hard to believe that their most important deity is female.

Although at first it seems women play a minimal role in the Ibo society, after reading further, Chinua Achebe makes it clear that they are an integral part of society through their roles as educators and spiritual leaders. From these novels it is clear to see that women were viewed quite differently in past decades from the way they are viewed in today’s society. They were often oppressed and viewed as inferior to men. Each author exhibits this oppression in different ways, whether it be through oppression, enforcing the status quo of society or polygny, they show that women were not seen in the same light as men.

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Role of Women in British Literature. (2020, Jun 02). Retrieved from

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