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Discuss The Ways In Which Women Novelists Or Poets Challenge The “natural” Roles Of Women. Essay, Research Paper

Before I can discuss the way in which these novelist challenge the ‘natural´ roles of women it is, for me, necessary to have some idea of what has been considered the ‘natural´ roles of women.

I have chosen for my example to use the ideals set down in an article from an organization called ‘The Cult of Domesticity and True Womanhood´. This organization was prevalent in the nineteenth century. It published many articles on what it called ‘A new ideal of womanhood´ and the ‘cult of domesticity´. Its ideals were aimed at the new middle class, where the female of the household did not need to work or make what was needed for the survival of the family. One of its main aims was to create the opinion that it should be men who supported the family. They explained this by saying,

“Men alone should support the family. The world of work, the public sphere, was a rough world, where a man did what he had to in order to succeed, that it was full of temptation, violence and trouble. A woman who ventured out into such a world could easily fall prey to it, for women were weak and delicate creatures. A woman´s place was therefore in the private sphere, in the home, where she took charge of all that went on.”

(The Cult of Domesticity and true womanhood) The cult of Domesticity and true womanhood published articles in women´s magazines, advice books, and religious journals, newspapers in fact just about everywhere where a woman might have read it, in popular culture.

‘The ideal of womanhood had four essential parts, – four characteristics any good and proper woman should cultivate: piety, purity, domesticity, and submissiveness´.

(The Cult)

The actual reasons and explanations of the four essential parts were quite a lengthy read but the general synopses of them are as follows,


The modern young woman was considered a new Eve, working with God to bring about a world without sin, through her suffering pure and passionless love. Religion was a good cure for the restless mind and could be undertaken in a woman´s rightful place, the home.


Without sexual purity a female was not a woman. A fallen female was considered unworthy of the love of other women and unfit company.


Probably the most feminine of all virtues. (This was the one sphere that no man entered.) Women were to be passive bystanders, submitting to fate, to duty, to God, and of course to men.


A woman´s place was in the home. A woman´s role or vocation in life was to be busy at those morally uplifting tasks that would fulfil her piety and purity. This is of course only a general view of womanhood, but one, which will hopefully prove to be a reasonable working model. The novelists that I shall consider are Kate Chopin, and her novel The Awakening and Marilynne Robinson and her novel Housekeeping. In both novels the central characters for me, do not conform to the above stated ideals of womanhood. However, in both novels there are characters that do, even if only in part, appear to be closer to the above ideals of natural womanhood. Does the author, use the more stereotypical ideals of womanhood to highlight the deviation of the stereotypical, submissive natural woman. Do these female characters find it necessary to conform to someone else´s ideals of what is considered womanhood, or do they accept and celebrate their differences. Are the roles of womanhood depicted within these novels projected as unchanging or does the author give the reader hope of a more independent, less regimented ideal of womanhood. The opening lines of The Awakening tell of a Parrot, a bird, kept in a cage, to many this would appear natural. However, if we consider that whilst caged the bird is denied any freedom, it can be seen as unnatural the bird is imprisoned. For me as the reader I found this birds plight, to be one and the same of Edna Pontellier. For the ‘natural´ woman, the home is where she belongs, but just as in the case of the bird, she feels trapped and imprisoned denied of her freedom. However the start of Housekeeping is very different, Ruth is giving the reader a factual unemotional account of how she got where she is, she does not however disclose the information of where she is. She tells the reader of the successive females that have in previous years been her mother substitute. I would like to consider these ‘mother figures´ first. As surely a mother or mother figure must fall into the parameters of a ‘natural´ woman. After all ‘mothering´ is a domesticated role. The Grandmother, from the first introduction this female character would appear to fall into the pre-defined field of ‘natural´ womanhood. She is domesticated, sewing and baking and providing all that was needed to run the home and she did not venture into the public sphere of work. There is no hint of any inappropriate behaviour. The two sisters of the Grandmother Misses Lily and Nona Foster, transgress slightly from the ‘natural´ ideals of womanhood. They are spinsters, never married, never bore a child, but they are still domesticated. However, with the introduction of Mrs Sylvia Fisher, the reader does see a complete and utter different form of woman. It is with this character that Marilynne Robinson challenges the views of what is a ‘natural´ woman. Although it is never mentioned whether Sylvie works, which I doubt, she does exist in the public sphere. Sylvie is a vagrant. Prior to coming to Fingerbone to care for Ruthie and her sister she lived on the trains travelling from one place to another no pre-planned journey, no agenda. Vagrancy is today still associated more with men, certainly a challenge to the conception of natural women. Through out the novel there are episodes that do challenge the ideas of natural women. Sylvie is female but she does not adhere to any of the socially accepted ideas. The main one I would presume to be domesticated although there is never any mention of Sylvie going. Sylvie having any religious beliefs or attending church. It is her lack of domesticity that is most evident, her ability not to conform to the roles of housewife and mother. Robinson pays particular attention to highlighting the deterioration of the home. She says,

“The tables and chairs and cupboards and doors had been painted a rich white, layer on layer, year after year, but now the last layer had ripened to the yellow of turning cream. Everywhere the paint was chipped and marred. A great shadow of soot loomed up the wall and across the ceiling above the stove, and the stovepipe and cupboard tops were thickly felted with dust. Most disspiriting , perhaps, was the curtain on Lucille´s side of the table, which had been half consumed by fire once when a birthday cake had been set too close to it. Sylvie had beaten out the flames with a back issue of Good Housekeeping.

(Housekeeping P.101)

How ironic that fire was extinguished with a copy of Good Housekeeping, when it is obvious that the house is has degenerated so far from any possible thought or connection with good house keeping. The local women are depicted in the more commonly accepted role of natural women, they bring home cooked food and hand made socks etc… for the girls, who it would appear are considered lacking in the conventional way. They lived differently to the rest of the village children. Throughout this novel Robinson uses this type of polemic difference to highlight the challenges to the ‘natural´ role of women. Another example would be the maternal instincts of Sylvie. When she arrived to ‘care´ for Ruthie and Lucille she did not automatically assume the position of matriarch. This is expressed with the lack of dominance over the girls, when they play truant she merely sends in letters to school telling half truths, she appears, to me, as a sisterly figure rather than a mother substitute. This is dramatically highlighted when Lucille chooses to leave the home and live with one of her teachers. Lucille, noticing the differences between her unconventional life and the more traditional one of her peers starts to rebel. It is not surprising that it is the ‘Home Economics´ teacher, Miss Royce that Lucille goes to live with, for she represents the complete opposite of Sylvie. However, Robinson does emphasize the femininity of this character Sylvie, with her use of the associations with the moon, a traditional symbol of the female with its 28-day cycle echoing that of a woman, also the mythical association of water. A woman is fluid, she leaks, she cries, she lactates. Never the less although these are long standing associations they do not depict the ‘natural´ role of womanhood. It is the associations of the main female character in Chopin´s novel The Awakening that in my opinion connects these two novels. It is not accidental that Edna Pontellier, spends much of her time in the sea, and her first awakening or moment of epiphany is in the moonlight.

“Edna [Pontellier] awakens to the possibilities as well as the problems of ‘her position in the universe´ not only because she finds herself enclosed in ‘woman´s sphere´ but also because she has come to spend the summer in what is in a sense a female colony… Outside patriarchal culture, beyond the limits and limitations of the city where men make history, on a shore that marks the margin where nature intersects with culture.

(The Awakening Page 25)

Edna is discontent, until this moment I concluded that she had, in all probability, adhered to the social expectations of ‘natural´ womanhood´. It was during the time of this novel that the ‘Cult of Domesticity and true womanhood´ where at the pinnacle of their success. Chopin uses the character of Edna to show an alternative form of womanhood. Edna´s transformation does not happen over night. Her recognition of her self as an individual is a slow journey down a troubled path. Chopin uses characters that display the ideals set down by the cult of true womanhood to heighten the differences found in Edna. Chopin uses small events and grandiose affairs to create the alternative woman. Also using a juxtapositional plot within Mademoiselle Reiz to emphasize the theory of female otherness. One of the first examples of Edna removing her self from the submissive and maternal role of ‘natural´ womanhood is detailed as follows.

Mr Pontellier returned to his wife with the information that Raol [their son] had a high fever and needed looking after… Mr Pontellier was too well acquainted with fever symptoms to be mistaken… Edna, at first refused to attend the child, but after a verbal onslaught from her husband she did in fact confirm her suspicions and discover that the child was fine. However, it was after this relatively minor episode that she had her first awakening, but at the time she was unable to comprehend the profound consequences on her life. It was not until her return home that all became evident, although her time on grand Isle did see many more changes. Including the awakening of her sensual and sexual self with her affair with Robert Lebrun. Her sexual power continued when she returned home, with her husband´s absence she participates in a second affair this time with Alcee Arobin. It might be worth considering here that,

“When Kate Chopin turned to an American heroine abroad – that is, abroad in the still largely French Louisiana – she made use of one progressive aspect of each of the two worlds: the Yankee female emancipationism in the spiritual field, and Gallic openness about woman´s sensuous awakening. Breaking the usual pattern, she contrasts Edna not with a dark haired, sinful temptress, but with an eminently respectable Latin wife and mother. The Creole and undoubtedly Catholic Adelle is a striking illustration of patriarchal ideal of submissive female who writes her history only through her family.

(Kate Chopin A Critical Biography) Edna has set herself free from the severe restraints forced upon a ‘natural´ woman she has found her sexual self. The first change in her that was evident to all in her social circle was after her return to New Orleans. Edna no longer continued with her traditional Tuesday afternoons.

“Tuesday being Mrs. Pontellier´s reception day – there was a constant stream of callers…”

(The Awakening Page 100)

Edna, made the conscious decision to break the tradition of the Tuesday afternoon, much to the shock and dismay of her husband, who exclaimed,

“Why, my dear, I should think you´d understand by this time that people don´t do such things; we´ve got to observe les convenances if we ever expect to get on and keep up with the procession.”

(The Awakening P.101)

Another small event within today´s standards but a major occurrence within her life. Her husband tried to exert his dominance within the patriarchal society. However, Edna was no longer submissive, she did not return to the traditional Tuesday soire. Edna found a deep if somewhat unconventional friendship with Mademoiselle Reisz. A friendship that started on Grande Isle but did not develop into a dependency for Edna until her return. In my opinion she saw in Mlle. Reisz the freedom from the oppressive and socially constructed ideals of womanhood. Mlle. Reisz, was, not married; she did not take part in the social aspect of female life living somewhat reclusive lifestyle in an attic apartment who through her own choice was a social outcast. It was to this independent woman that only she could fully understand what Edna was going through and more importantly, not judge her, when Edna discusses her need for independence with Mlle. Reisz she endeavors to justify herself by saying, “The house, the money that provides for it, are not mine”: “Edna´s has a need for independence socially, economically, and emotionally. However, it did not matter in the cult of true womanhood if the woman was financially secure. She needed to fulfill all the social requirements of womanhood to be considered a ‘natural´ woman.” In conclusion, we have seen two very different central characters with in these novels. Both of which ‘choose´ to live their lives outside of the boundaries of what has been called ‘natural womanhood´. It has been said that Chopin has produced,

“What one might call, for want of a better term, female moral art in works that focus relentlessly on the dialectics of social relations and the position of women therein. Her work stands as a clear link between nineteenth and twentieth-century literary and cultural sensibilities as well as a critique of social theories and practices.

(Verging on the Abyss)

Both authors question and challenge the ideals of the role of natural womanhood by offering representations of females which criticize the social structures within the individual characters experience of reality. They call into question the thoughts of maternity, submissiveness and purity but also and perhaps more importantly they question the ways in which other women act towards this different form of womanhood. In Robinson´s Housekeeping Sylvie and Ruthie are ostracized, Sylvie is taken to court over her suitability to care for Ruthie, however Sylvie and Ruthie move, they avoid the case, they go to the male dominant world of vagrancy, where ironically enough they are more welcome. In Chopin´s ‘The Awakening´ Edna declare to Robert Lebrun,

“I have got into a habit of expressing myself. It doesn´t matter to me, and you may think me unwomanly if you like”.

(The Awakening 165)

At the end of this novel Edna, proves for me that she has cast off the garments of the notion of ‘natural womanhood´ as she cast off her clothes and stood naked in the open air just prior to entering the ocean for the last time. Whilst walking to the beach she says,

“It doesn´t matter about Leonce Pontellier – but Rauol and Etienne! She understood now clearly what she had meant long ago when she said to Adele Ratignolle that she would give up the unessential, but she would never sacrifice herself for her children.

(The Awakening P.175)

She realized that her life could not continue in the way that she was happy, but she could not return to the role of natural womanhood. She saved herself with her death. Both characters ‘opt´ out of society, they are unable to fulfil the notion of ‘natural womanhood´ one chooses death the other, although rumoured to be dead, chooses a life removed from society, the life of vagrancy, where although still a male dominated way of life, she is accepted.


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