Setting, Characterization, And Symbolism In Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre And Willa Cather’s My Antonia
In Literature, all its components and aspects connect individuals with broader ideas and truths of society. According to French author and critic, Charles Nodier, “literature is the expression of society.” This quotation underscores the fact that through literary works such as novels, societal issues can be explored. In Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre and Willa Cather’s My Ántonia, two different societies are presented where gender ideology is crucial in identifying gender roles, which allows for the exploration of societal issues, ideas and truths of the society that literature offers. Gender Ideology is an aspect of society that exists due to the part it plays in differentiating the ascribed roles between men and women. This conventional system of thought is constructed based on culture. According to American psychologist and author, Kate Millet, “sex is determined biologically whereas gender is culturally/socially/psychologically constructed through stereotyping and historical conditioning.”(Mari Mikkola). Each society carries out a social convention in which it chooses roles for each gender, one being considered more dominant than the other. However, the established dominant gender ideology is not always respected and preserved. Therefore, through the exploration of the setting, characterization, and symbolism in Charlotte Brontë’sJane Eyre and Willa Cather’s My Antonia novel, how each author supports and challenges the dominant gender ideologies male dominance or patriarchy (masculinity) of each respective society in their own way.
Notably, the setting of each novel is crucial in representing the societal dominant gender. American novelist, Eudora Welty, emphasizes the importance of setting by acknowledging, “Fiction depends for its life on place.” This quotation highlights that setting provides the context of the story being told in the novel for better understanding by the reader. In Charlotte Brontë’sJane Eyre her fictional story is set in England during the 19th-century Victorian era (1847)in which patriarchy was seen as the dominant gender ideology in England’s history and a period in which women were oppressed. During the time period, the society promoted masculinity while demonstrating the marginality of women. Males had to displayed dominance and superiority over their things, home, women, and children. Such behavioral patterns were portrayed as strict and passed down from males from generation to generation. Therefore, through the setting, Brontëhas reinforced the dominant gender ideology in her text.
However, the setting in Willa Cather’s novel My Ántonia’s text doesn’t strictly support the dominant gender ideology of patriarchy but shows attempts to deter away from it. Willa Cather’s novel My Ántonia’s was written in (1918) the late 19th century America. In the late 19th and early 20th century America, a new image of womanhood emerged that began to shape public views and understandings of women’s role in society causing the emergence of the term “New Woman”. According to Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History the New Woman represented “a generation of women who came of age between 1890 and 1920 and challenged gender norms and structures by asserting a new public presence through work, education, entertainment, and politics, while also denoting a distinctly modern appearance that contrasted with Victorian ideals.” The New Woman image provided women with opportunities to negotiate new social roles and to promote ideas of equality and freedom that would later become mainstream. This by itself acts as a major move from the oppressive conditions that surrounded women, in a male-dominated during the 19th century. Despite male-dominance being a stronghold ideology in societies around the world, feminism was making small strides in an attempt to break that structure down. Hence, the setting in Cather has challenged the dominant gender ideology of her text, by showing some movement towards the shattering of dominant gender ideology of patriarchy in America in the late 19th and early 20th century towards the ideology of the “New Woman”.
Through characterization, the authors Charlotte Brontë and Willa Cather challenge and reinforces the dominant gender ideologies of the role of women in their respective societies. According to Armenian author, Leon Surmelian, the role of characterization is to give ‘insight into human nature.’ In Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre she depicts stereotypical males and females roles of the 19th-century Victorian era, but she also displays how one’s gender can be altered. The Victorian era was a period of oppression for women, in which a patriarchal system dominated England’s history. In Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre she challenges dominant gender ideologies of patriarchy in the Victorian society during the 19th century through the characterization of her protagonist Jane Eyre and Bertha Mason. According to Deborah Gorham “The Victorian Girl and the Feminine” (1982), “The ideal woman was to be dependent on men and submissive to them, and she would have a life restricted to the confines of home. She would be innocent, pure, gentle and self- sacrificing. Possessing no ambitious strivings, she would be free of any trace of anger or hostility. More emotional than man, she was also more capable of self-renunciation.” In Charlotte Brontë’s text, her protagonist Jane Eyre is a rebellious woman in a world that demanded obedience from her sex and class making her the complete opposite of the ideal woman of the Victorian era as she displayed a strong sense of self, in which an aura of confidence and ambition surrounds her. According to Living Well Counseling Service “A sense of self is defined as the way a person thinks about and views his or her traits, beliefs, and purpose within the world.” In the text, Jane struggles continuously to achieve equality and to overcome oppression in both class and gender in a patriarchal dominated society. She can be seen as the voice of women as well as a woman who was ahead of her time, she was not a modern feminist in the sense of claiming her feminist ideals in the streets, but she expressed these ideas through speech and action. From the very first encounter with Jane, the reader is brought face to face with the fire of confidence and ambition within her. At a very young age, Jane has had an unbreakable spirit and a desire to speak the truth. Jane defies the patriarchal dominated societies ideal role of women by being outspoken, in which she speaks out each time when she feels that she is treated unfairly, it does not matter if it is her aunt, her bullying cousin, the cruel headmaster of the school, or even the man she loves, Jane remains resilient. James outspoken and righteous nature can be highlighted before her removal to Lowood Institution in which she confronts her cruel Aunt with the words; “How dare I, Mrs. Reed? How dare I? Because it is the truth…I will tell anyone who asks me questions this exact tale. People think you are a good woman, but you are bad, hard-hearted.You are deceitful.” (Bronte Chapter 4) From this moment, the reader is aware of Jane’s “unwomanly” tendency to stand up for herself and be strong. Jane Eyre’s gesture of talking back was totally improper for women, especially one who was poor, they were expected to submissively accept their deal in life. Jane, however, could not have kept quiet and merely accept her condition. At the end of her discourse with her aunt, she feels her soul begin ‘to expand, to exult, with the strangest sense of freedom, of triumph, I ever felt… as if an invisible bond had burst and that I had struggled out into unhoped-for liberty’ (Bronte Chapter 5) this shows Janes discovery of sense self of freedom by speaking out. Therefore, it is clear that Brontë’ challenges dominant gender ideologies of patriarchy in Victorian era through Jane’s “unwomanly” characteristics of being a nonconformist to society’s ideology by refusing to suppress her emotions and her innate desires and displaying an altered gender characteristic in which she takes on the characteristics of the stereotypical males of the 19th century Victorian era of being assertive and self-assured by speaking out to her oppressors.
Moreover, Jane also challenges the gender ideologies of how women should behave in a dominated patriarchal society, not only by being outspoken but also in her relationship with Edward Rochester, in which Jane does not conform to society’s ideology of women being dependent and submissive to men. This can be highlighted when Jane does not consider herself inferior to Rochester because of her class or gender when he summons her as his wife to stay at his side after his deceit. Jane, however, puts him in “his place” highlighting that they are both equal. “Do you think I am an automaton? a machine without feelings?… Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong — I have as much soul as you, — and full as much heart…I am not talking to you now through the medium of custom, conventionalities, nor even of mortal flesh; — it is my spirit that addresses your spirit; just as if both had passed through the grave, and we stood at God’s feet, equal, — as we are. (Bronte Chapter 23) Through Jane’s action, the reader can see she is not willing to limit herself to patriarchal ideals of the Victorian women of being dependent and controlled by her husband and being limited only to marriage, role as wife, child bearer and household duties. Hence, she seeks to attain her own money in order to not conform to society’s belief that women should be dependent on men which allows for the control of women. It should be noted that Jane only marries Rochester after she attains financial independence. Furthermore, Jane challenges the dominant gender ideologies of patriarchy in the Victorian era, in which she does not conform to society’s belief of marriage. Jane views marriage is a sort of entrapment that will make her lose both her independence and her true self. That is the reason why she cannot accept marriage as a mere convention and why she also refuses St. John Rivers, her cousin’s proposal. Therefore, it is clear that Brontë’ challenges dominant gender ideologies of patriarchy in the Victorian era as she depicts woman very different from the culturally desirable “submissive woman.” but more dominant, in which Jane is independent, assertive and self-assured by speaking out in moments when her independence and freedom is being opposed. As well as by showing a woman, Jane’s, ability to be financially independent, going against society’s idea of marriage only among one’s class and deciding on her own who she marries.
Additionally, Brontë’s challenges dominant gender ideologies of patriarchy in the Victorian era of women confining, being obedient and submissive to men through the characterization of Bertha. Even though Bertha Mason is insane, she is a provocative symbol of how married women can be repressed and controlled by their husbands during the 19th century. Bertha attempts to protest against her husband Rochester who tries to physically and mentally control her to reinforce the ideology of male dominance and female subordination to them. However, she lashes out against the forces that try to make her conform. Therefore, it can be said that Charlotte Brontë challenges the dominant patriarchal society in the Victorian era by painting a picture of women as equal to men in intelligence and strength and denounces the persecution that women suffered at the hands of a society that placed faith in a belief that men were emotionally, socially and intellectually superior to Victorian women. Through the characterization of her protagonist Jane Eyre. Jane’s strong character, her will, and her desire for independence and equality were staunchly unfeminine according to the standards of the time, dismissing the ideology of patriarchy.
On the other hand, in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre she reinforces dominant gender ideologies patriarchy in the Victorian era through the characterization of the male figures that Jane fights against in patriarchal domination society, who believe women to be inferior to men and try to treat them as such. Three central male figures that reinforce dominant gender ideologies of the Victorian society during the 19th century are Mr. Brocklehurst, Edward Rochester, and St. John Rivers. All three are misogynistic on some level. Each tries to keep Jane in a submissive position, where she is unable to express her own thoughts and feelings as well as other female characters such as Helen. Helen Burns is one many female figures that reinforce the dominant ideology on the ways women should behave and perform as she chose to conform to “submission” forced onto her by Miss Miller, Lowood institution and Mr. Brocklehurst. This is evoked in the line ‘it is far better to endure pain patiently’ (Brontë chapter 6) as revealed in the tolerance of Helen Burns. Moreover, Mr. Brocklehurst the hypocritical master of the Lowood Institution also acts as a reinforcement of the dominant gender ideology Edward Rochester is a reinforcement of gender roles as he tries to repress and controlled his wife Bertha Mason by keeping her locked away. Rochester’s attempts to physically and mentally control Bertha acts as a symbol of male power over women in the Victorian era and demonstrates the extent of the patriarchy in its society. In addition, it can be said that Janes does eventually reinforces dominant gender ideologies of the role of women during the Victorian era in that she conforms to the ideology that women should be married and bear children when she marries Rochester at the end of the novel.
Furthermore, In Willa Cather’s novel My Ántonia, she depicts the new gender ideology of 20th century America West through denoting a distinctly modern appearance that contrasted with Victorian ideals. Cather reinforces the dominant gender ideology of patriarchy in the 19th century through Ántonia brother Ambrosch Shimerda while challenging it through the characterization of her protagonist Ántonia, Lena Lingard and Mrs. Gardener. In Cather’s text, she swaps traditional gender roles of both men and women, in which the novel’s women are its strongest characters and men are its weakest. In the text, readers see the apparent reversal of stereotypical gender roles when women take control of families, earn money, call the shots, and even do fieldwork with the men. Cather’s challenge of dominant gender ideologies of patriarchy in the American West can be highlighted through the characterization of Mrs. Gardener who takes on a male dominant role of running a business. “Mrs. Gardener who ran the business and looked after everything. Her husband stood at the desk and welcomed incoming travelers” (Cather BK2 Chapter 7) through this description of Mrs. and Mr. Gardener’s work readers are aware that she operates her own business and while the husband takes on the domestic work of the business, which was usually done by women during the late 19th and early 20th century America. Willa Cather also goes on challenging the dominant gender ideologies of the patriarchy of women being dependent on men by turning the wheel having men be dependent on women. This is seen when Tiny Soderball traveled up north during the gold rush and ran a hotel-like business. “There she sometimes fed a hundred and fifty people a day. Miners came in on snowshoes from their placer claims 20 miles away to buy fresh bread from her, and paid for it in gold” (Cather, 193). Through this, we see a swap in gender roles where all of these men are dependent on a woman to provide them food and shelter instead of the other way around.
Moreover, Cather further challenges the dominant gender ideologies of patriarch through her protagonist Ántonia Shimerdas. In which Ántonia takes on “unwomanly” characteristics of being a nonconformist to society’s ideology of the typical female role, this can be seen on the prairie, after her father dies, she insists on working in the fields with the men, taking on the characteristics of the stereotypical male.“She wore the boots her father/…She kept her sleeves rolled up and her arms and throat were burned as brown as a sailor’s. Her neck came up strongly out of her shoulders, like the bole of a tree out of the turf. One sees that draught-horse neck among the peasant women in all old countries.” (Cather BK1 17) During the time period, Ántonia’s work on the farm was not deemed fit for women to do. This concept of Ántonia pushing gender expectations and equality is furthered by direct characterization of her physical descriptions and orations by Jim, in which he depicts her with highly male qualities. Jim states “beads of perspiration used to gather on her upper lip like a little mustache,” (Cather 19) likening her physical characteristics to that of a man when she does a man’s labor. Ántonia’s iterations of how she likes working outdoors more than in the house and how she “I like to be like a man” (Cather 19) reinforces her unnatural “masculinity.” Therefore, it is clear that Ántonia’s desire to be like a man challenges the traditional female gender roles in the late 19th century where women were seen as being limited to household activities.
Ántonia’s also goes on to challenge the dominant gender ideology of her society through her nature of being outspoken. This gesture of talking back and being disobedient was totally improper for women, especially one who was poor and an immigrant she was expected to merely accept her lot in life. Ántonia’s refusal of being obedient and controllable is made it clear when Ántonia is working as a housekeeper for the Harlings and Mrs. Harling gives her an ultimatum to either quit dancing or find another place to work. However, Ántonia chooses to quit, “Then I’ll leave, Mrs. Harling/…I can take care of myself! I’m a lot stronger than Cutter is. The works nothing; I can have every evening, and be out a lot in the afternoon” From this moment, the reader is aware of Ántonia’s ability to stand up for herself and be strong. As well as her willingness to stand up against anyone who seeks to stop her from expressing herself and being an independent woman. In today’s modern society this may be seen as a teenage rebellion however the year this novel was written gender roles were far more significant and women were expected to be respectful and obedient. Therefore, it is clear that Cather challenges the dominant gender ideologies of patriarchy as the women of her novel take on “unwomanly” characteristics of being a nonconformist to society’s ideology of the ideal American women. As these women and Antonia are more rebellious and individualistic compared to the women of their time like Ms. Harling and Mrs. Burden. They also take on the characteristics of the stereotypical males of the late 19th century of being assertive and self-assured by speaking out and going against the dominant ideology of patriarchy, along with Antonia’s physical features that aid in the effect of challenging patriarchal views of women.
Likewise, Cather also challenges gender roles not only through her female characters but also through the characterization of her protagonist and narrator Jim. Jim’s lack of masculinity is yet another variance from gender norms and proceeds to further the feminist cause of the novel. There are a few ways in which Jimmy differs from traditional male expectations. The first is that as he is growing up he does not seek out the companionship of other male children instead he is constantly surrounded by female companions. “People said there must be something queer about a boy who showed no interest in girls of his own age, but who could be lively enough when he was with Tony and Lena or the three Marys” (Cather BK2 chapter 12) From this readers are aware of Jim has no male friends and was only enthusiastic around female companions. Throughout the text there are no mentions of Jim attempting to befriend other boys like Ambrosch, instead, he spends most of his time with Antonia, her sister, and the hired girls. This highlights the possibility that Jim found he had more in common with the girls his age than other boys. Therefore, it can be said that Willa Cather challenges dominant gender ideologies of patriarchy in the late 19th century and early 20th century by denounces that women particularly migrant women were subordinate to men by making women of her text socially and intellectually superior in different life trajectories and allowing their female strength be rewarded in which they end up as successful, happy adults.
In addition, to setting and characterization, the authors Charlotte Bronte and Willa Cather challenge and reinforces the dominant gender ideologies of their respective societies through the use of symbolism. In Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre she houses, rooms, and enclosures throughout the novel to symbolize the patriarchal structures within society that inhibit or negate the possibility of female liberty. The red-room can be viewed as a symbol of the reinforcement of dominant gender ideologies of male domination and supremacy over women, the ideal roles women of the Victorian era must conform to and what Jane must overcome in her struggles to find freedom, happiness, and a sense of belonging. The terrors of the red room make her confined to the ideologies. Lowood Institution can also represent another suffocating enclosure that reinforcement of dominant gender ideologies of male domination and supremacy over women, the ideal roles women of the Victorian era must conform to and what Jane must overcome in her struggles to find freedom, happiness, and a sense of belonging. As the institution employs an array of brutal techniques to enforce the suppression of emotions, innate desire and submission into the girls, ranging from beatings to the withholding of food, water, and rest to ensure they conform to dominant gender ideologies. In Willa Cather text My Ántonia the hired girls can be viewed as a symbol of the challenging of gender ideologies in which they break the stereotypes of being girls that stay at home and get an education but take on jobs to earn money for their families unlike local American women of a higher class who have a lives restricted to the confines of home and children.
In conclusion, through the use of various elements, the authors did equally demonstrate support and opposition to the dominant gender ideologies of each respective society. Charlotte Brontë dealt with prominent male ideologies that existed in Victorian-era England, through opposition mainly through characterization and symbolism. Whilst Willa Cather presented more of opposition towards traditional gender ideologies but through characterization. Therefore, it can be said through the exploration of the setting, characterization, and symbolism in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre and Willa Cather’s My Ántonia texts, each author supports and challenges the dominant gender ideologies male dominance or patriarchy (masculinity) of each respective society in their own way.
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