The Evolution of the Role of Women in Modern Literature

Categories: LiteratureWomen

In the late 19th Century and early 20th Century, Western society had developed a form of philosophical thinking that embraced issues of gender, class structure, helplessness and the crumbling of reliability. Because of such issues in society of gender, particularly the female, naturally the movement was seen to focus, both favourably and adversely, on the woman as an individual. A woman’s intelligence, opinion and decision had always been inferior in comparison to the man’s. Arguably, up until then, women were simply defined by their male counterpart, in what was generally a male-orientated society.

In 1851, Schopenhauer wrote that a woman’s “life should flow by more quietly, trivially, gently than the man’s without being essentially happier,” and viewed the female as the “weaker sex” (Schopenhauer 1851).

Though such opinions have evolved in recent years, and women are seen more favourably, it is crucial to the context of Modernism that the regard and esteem in which women were held was minor.

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More intrigued by the influence of personalities, instead of gender, Robert Louis Stevenson produced Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which primarily dealt with the Modernist ideology of the civilised and uncivilised version of the same person. Yet, one can argue that the exclusion of women in the novel is as of equal importance when examining the text from a Modernist reading. The novel can be interpreted as a continuation of the gender problems at the time and may have given rise to fascination of female counterpart through the presentation of the male-centered culture.

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Stevenson’s plot shows no relationship between men and women. Instead, there is only the relationship between a man and his two identities, and this is perhaps why the character of Dr Jekyll avoids any sort of interactive relationship with a woman. In the introduction to his novel, Stevenson wrote that “Man is not truly one, but truly two” (Stevenson 2010, p. 95). A contemporary audience may be of the view that the latter half of the man is usually a partner in a civic relationship, yet Stevenson portrays Dr. Jekyll as being completed by Mr. Hyde. It may be that, for Jekyll, his second personality is sufficient, and the absence of a woman is therefore suitable.

Moreover, this statement can be applied universally to both genders, with a certainty that the human has a twofold sense of identity. The female characters in the novel appear briefly and lacking in dimension; a vivid description, or any background information is lacking. They are usually set against a lower class background; with the exception of the landlady, the majority of other females in the novel are maids at Jekyll’s house. Stevenson is also ruthless in the portrayal of the first female we meet; the little girl who Hyde knocks down is not only poor and shoved aside by a higher class, but she is also trampled on and frightened by the experience. Symbolically, this could stand to mirror the social attitude that existed at the time; it is not a male who is trampled on, it is a female, and no remorse is shown.

The one-dimensional character of the maid is said to be “living alone in a house not far from the river” (Stevenson 2010, p. 32). It is interesting that the author should provide the additional information of her living status, and one may wish to read into the fact that it is a female who does not live with anyone else. It can be read again as an attempt on Stevenson’s behalf to exclude any form of relationship between a man and a women in the novel, and not only do we see the maid as living alone, but she also has one duty to fulfil, and that is to serve.

Yet the minor presentation of the maid does play a more important role in the story; witnessing the murder of Sir Danvers Carew, she “recognise in him (the murderer) a certain Mr. Hyde” (Stevenson 2010, p. 33). The female here is crucial to the investigation into Hyde, but if seen in the light of a late Victorian reading, where women were expected only to serve and support the figure of the man, she is the cause of his investigation, and her role from a man’s point of view is therefore let down. In addition, there is no effort to give the character a name; in a novel where all male characters are given names and titles, the female is simply referred to by her occupation, further downgrading the role of women. It is not surprising that women should play a minor role in another Modernist novel, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

Published in episodes for a magazine in 1899, attitudes towards female were still very much Victorian. Marlow himself was of the opinion that “they live in a world of their own, and there had never been anything like it, and never can be” (Conrad 2010, p. 18). He is also of the view that women “should be out of it. We must help them to stay in that beautiful world of their own, lest ours gets worse.” (Conrad 2010, p. 76). Marlowe’s observations and opinions appear to deny women any sense of intellect or identity, and in a sense marginalises their role in the world. Yet perhaps we are to understand Marlowe’s criticism as a positive one; women do not behold the evil that men do, and therefore it is best to exclude them from such experiences during his travels in Africa. Despite this, Conrad can’t seem to keep women away from the world of darkness; it would make sense for the author, like Stevenson, to omit the female from what is otherwise a male dominated society, yet they appear during some of the most important moments.

During a trip to fill out the paperwork, Marlowe sees two women “knitting black wool” and apparently “guarding the door of Darkness” (Conrad 2010, p. 15). The women in this scene are far from the “beautiful world” (Conrad 2010, p. 76) that Marlowe idealises for them; they are indirectly part of the evil that was to follow. Like the women in Strange case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, they go unnamed. This is the case for all of the women in the novel; they are referred to as the ‘intended’, ‘mistress’ or ‘aunt’. Although women characters may seem undeveloped and one-dimensional, they never appear to be weak.

Kurtz’s mistress has a striking presence, and despite being described as a savage, her appearance remains vivid in the reader’s mind. She gives the impression that she is fearless, and the reader can admire her ability to retaliate; she screams in rage at the Russian, who is evidently terrified at the presence of a powerful woman. Her race and gender does not seem to impact her influence on others; we learn that “she talked like a fury to Kurtz for an hour” (Conrad 2010, p. 98) in an effort to land the Russian in trouble. Here, we can only reserve praise for such a woman; despite her colonial status and diminished gender, she has a clear sense of identity and does not refrain from voicing her angers.

In many ways, Kurtz’s Intended is a complete contrast to his mistress. Physically, she is fair and often associated with the image of heaven. In Belgium, she remains loyal to Kurtz, and is pitied for the faithfulness she has in a man who has found a mistress. It is questionable whether perhaps she would have reacted having known that Kurtz was in the sexual company of another woman, though it is likely that in her idealized womanhood, she would remain silent. Perhaps it was Conrad’s idea to contrast two women in such an extreme manner; one is the typical idea of a Victorian woman, while the other has a stronger influence yet is less civilised. It is clear that female has its own significance to the plot. Their qualities are admirable; loyal, patient, loving, and perhaps this is why Marlowe was of the view that women should remain in their own beautiful world.

Despite their minor role and involvement in the development of the story, these qualities can be seen as a cure to the darkness Marlowe and Kurtz experience. On the other hand, they also represent a frightful insight into the imperial world; the two women knitting in black wool are clearly symbolic of the darkness that imperialism carries with it. With their black threads, they can be understood to be weaving the polluted journey that Marlowe was to embark on. Their obscurity is presented by Marlowe himself, who states that “not many of those she looked at ever saw her again” (Conrad 2010, p. 15).

This contradiction in the presentation of women in Heart of Darkness is true to the ambivalence that was felt by both the male and female modernist writers. While male writers feared the destruction that a sudden cultural change would bring (egalitarianism empowering the woman), female writers were fearful of the punishment for such a change. Writers such as Virginia Woolf were to be considered the ‘New Woman’; an independently educated and sexually liberated woman who had become more oriented with a productive life as opposed to a life at home. It is therefore fair to say that, in Modern Literature, the role of women was varied. For female writers, the foundations had been set but more development was required in order to meet the standing of male writers. In novels, women were presented as one-dimensional, with a secondary significance to the story.

In Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, women play a minor role, yet the maid is crucial to the plot. In this sense, one may argue that despite their secondary appearance, women do have a part in the novel, and are not simply put in place by the author to please the other gender, but because women may be seen to have a purpose in society. This is not the case in Conrad’s writing; the presentation of Kurtz’s Intended is very much a reminder of the Victorian woman. Yet in fairness Conrad does give Kurtz’s mistress a far more vocal personality – she is not the ideal woman of the time, and can even be read as a role reversal between her and Kurtz. She attempts to manipulate her lover, and does not fear raising her voice at him. In essence, she is a female character that was much unseen in periods leading up to Modernism. An increasing interest in the female was apparent in contemporaries of Modernism.

A woman’s opinion had become worthwhile, as supported by the collective essays of Virginia Woolf, and a shift had undoubtedly been experienced in their social standing. Arguably, this shift was still weak, and society remained very much male-dominated. Although the powerful presence of female writers was at the founding of Modernism, “the reactive misogyny so apparent in much male-authored Modernism continues in many quarters to produce a sense of Modernism as a masculinist movement” (Levenson 2003, p. 176).


  1. Conrad, Joseph. (2010) Heart of Darkness. London: Bibliolis Books ltd.
  2. Levenson, Michael (2003). The Cambridge Companion to Modernism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  3. Schopenhauer, Arthur. (1851) On Women. Internet:
  4. Stevenson, Robert Louis (2010) Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. London: Bibliolis Books ltd.

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The Evolution of the Role of Women in Modern Literature. (2021, Sep 23). Retrieved from

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