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Emma Woodhouse, Jane Austen’s titular main character, came as a surprise to many readers when Emma stepped forth into the world. Infuriatingly prideful, vain, and obstinate, she was distinct from the general body of female protagonists in 19th-century England. In other words, Emma’s character wasn’t dictated as a means to preach the virtues of womanhood, but rather, written in a way that is consistent with the story being told.
She views her surroundings and the people in it through the lens of her own wants, not taking into account the wills of others. A defining example of this is when she takes the reins of her friend Harriet Smith’s love life and manipulates her into declining Robert Martin, a man whom Harriet loves but falls short of Emma’s set of expectations. This controlling behavior doesn’t just pollute the inner lives of Harriet and Martin, but also herself; her evils of presumption all come down to her false perception of her own grandiosity.
This creates a character with a central moral flaw that allows for a fascinating and believable journey toward maturity.
She is depicted as human with her own thoughts, emotions, and desires—even if it means being wrong and foolish—as opposed to a stereotype based on how a patriarchal society believes women should be. This would sound super obvious to the modern reader, but it’s important to remember that this type of creative license hasn’t always been encouraged.
It is a universal truth that literature is impacted by the social and cultural prejudices of the times, for better or for worse. Best case scenarios produce harrowing, yet necessary, art, such as Moll Flanders, The Handmaid’s Tale, and The Color Purple; other cases use art to reflect ingrained ideals of womanhood, such as War and Peace and A Tale of Two Cities. Not to dispute that the latter two are masterpieces worthy of study, but it is still important to acknowledge that Tolstoy and Dickens, respectively, based Natasha Rostova and Lucie Manette off patriarchal influences of femininity. The history of fictional women is, unfortunately, brimming with that kind of influence.
While it is true that the first English novel by Samuel Richardson, Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded, does set the stage for a female character telling her own story—it was done at the expense of personal creativity. Pamela, an epistolary tale of a maidservant and her torrid, one-sided affair with her employer, is very much dictated by the dynamics of Richardson’s mid-1700s climate. Two conflicting forces: the feminist movement that was taking shape, and the traditionalists concerned about matters of morality—each of which impacted the story of Pamela from clashing angles.
Richardson focused on character as much as the sensibilities of his peers, even surrounding himself with a female advisory group. Perhaps that’s why Pamela is seen as feminist by some; the character is presented as more than a figment of the male fantasy, but rather as a thinking, feeling individual who is strong in her own right. However, the questions of morality and virtue that confront her in the course of her relationship with Mr. B (the employer who would’ve faced many sexual harassment lawsuits in the modern world) aren’t a matter of character conflict, but rather a reflection of the moral concerns from the reading masses.
The virtue “rewarded,” in this case, is marriage between Pamela and Mr. B. Never mind that he repeatedly manipulated her through lies and disguise, dismissed and exploited her boundaries, and essentially treated her as a prize to be won.
The patriarchal nature of the society of Pamela (both of the novel and character) demands that a symbolic union be made between the two, lest the feminine virtue attached to her character be marred by Mr. B’s sexual advances. This decision, no matter how much catharsis it brings to the contemporary reader of Richardson, doesn’t ring true to the feminist narrative of the story itself. Even more shameful, it limits the potential complexity of Pamela—while her search for independence may be seen as morally ambiguous back then, at least it does her character and her story justice.
But, at the end of the day, I believe that art outlasts everything, including the stones that cynics throw at it. After all, the master of the English language himself is still celebrated for the scope of his female characters. The women in Shakespeare’s plays come alive with the same vivid and scorching fire as the male characters: leading rich inner lives, confronting trials and tribulations, inhabiting spaces that allow for moral greyness. Lady Macbeth is shameless in her unwavering ambition; Juliet is unapologetic in experiencing a world-defying desire; Beatrice is delightful in her scorching wit; Rosalind is literally given the free range of a man; even Kate, who is stuck in a patriarchal narrative, has a fire inside her that can never truly be burned out.
These ladies defied the Elizabethan model of women being the weaker sex, forever confined to the shadows while their husbands take the spotlight. They are allowed to be just as lovesick and impetuous, witty and clever, terrible and ruthless—in other words, human. Because, in order for Shakespeare to frame the narrative in a way that fully brings his message to life, the female characters have to be treated with the same creative focus as the male characters. The character doesn’t follow the calling of external forces, but only that of the story. And, as a result, he became the greatest playwright (and arguably, storyteller) in the history of English literature.
In fact, some of the most acclaimed novels in literature famously involve female characters that remain morally complex.
Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre doesn’t follow the Gothic archetype of the helpless and innocent young woman; on the contrary, Jane is emotionally stronger than Rochester (her Byronic, tormented lover who comes with his own demons), inhabiting a clear-eyed wisdom that is very much conscious of her own happiness and well-being. When she discovers the existence of Rochester’s mad wife in the attic, she asserts her own will by leaving him despite his protests. She returns his love on her own terms, holds him accountable for his lies and mistakes, and decides to marry him once she’s in a self-determined place to do so (a sharp contrast to Pamela).
Now, it is true that Jane is complicated and easy to root for since the reader understands her tragic history through the confidential honesty of her narration. However, there are numerous fictional woman who aren’t as easy to support, and who are excellently written in their own right. Daisy of The Great Gatsby is a famous example; she is the driving force of the novel, bringing with her the same gilded carelessness that drove a former lover to his death and left others to clean up the blood. She is surrounded by others who are on par, or even more advanced, with her level of selfishness—the key difference being that she is female, and the best thing a girl can be in this world is a “beautiful little fool.” So she ducks behind white-lace femininity to hide the snake inside, a fictional expression of the real-world barriers that societies have placed on women when it comes to showing their true colors.
The relationship between the popularity and the moral strengths or weaknesses of a character are commonly connected, but not always. Emma may not be vastly understood, but she is rich in her moral conflicts; Pamela was popular among Richardson’s fans, but her complexity is arguably limited by societal expectations. The point is, women in fiction don’t have to be likable (or even respectable) to deserve a place at the table; after all, we don’t enter the realm of fiction with hopes of going to tea or making polite small talk with its characters. We want to feel, to burn, to die, and to be born again through the pages.
Unsurprisingly, moral conflicts are critical ingredients to this process. What we don’t begrudge morally subjective male characters for, such as Brutus and Oedipus, shouldn’t be held against the likes of, say, Medea and Merricat Blackwood. The ability to be blinded by one’s own narrative goes both ways.
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