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Through an examination of Tess of the D’Urbervilles and The French Lieutenant’s Woman, discuss the role played by women in Victorian society.

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Introduction

Through an examination of Tess of the D'Urbervilles and The French Lieutenant's Woman, discuss the role played by women in Victorian society. One might expect women in Victorian society to be depicted as, stereotypically, pretty little ornaments to be owned by, in turn, their father and their husband, and that their future lives will continue along the same path, without significant input by themselves. Both Tess and The French Lieutenant's Woman have many female characters, which deviate to different extents from this portrayal. One difference in the two novels is in the number of main female characters in each. In Tess of the D'Urbervilles, there are principally two: Tess herself, whose progress through her life is chronicled throughout the novel, and Mercy Chant, who is a minor character. In The French Lieutenant's Woman, however, there are four important female characters: Ernestina, the woman due to marry Charles, Sarah, the eponymous heroine, Mrs. Poultney, a rich elderly woman and Mary, Ernestina's servant. 'Ernestina had just the right face for her age' tells us nearly all that we need to know about Charles' fianc�e. She is the stereotypical Victorian woman; I think that Charles describes her best when he says '[she is] a pretty little thing, yet a shallow little thing'. She does see that society's expectations for her are less than thrilling, although her wanting to be 'something exciting, like a dancer' shows us that her desires are strictly Victorian. ...read more.

Middle

Alec D'Urberville tries to help Tess' poor family in order to make her love him more. The fact that these two independent women are so poor means that the men who wish to own them actually find their task slightly easier. One of the most important differences between the two novels is the hundred-year time split. John Fowles, while writing The French Lieutenant's Woman, was able to judge and make decisions about Victorian society with the perspective gained by the passage of time. He could also draw parallels from the 1800s to his own time. In fact, one of the great ironies in Fowles' novel is that while Sarah is such an innately free spirit, she is born and trapped into this intolerant, hypocritical society. He leads the reader to believe that if only Sarah were born into the liberal age of the 1960s, her spirit would be fulfilled. In both of the novels, intellect is clearly a key factor to the structure. 'Born to be a farmer's wife but educated to be something...better' shows that although both Tess and Sarah have been born into very poor families, they have still been educated quite well. However, Ernestina, the rich businessman's daughter is evidently a lot less deep and mature in her thoughts than either Tess or Sarah. ...read more.

Conclusion

Ironically, this very simple and lusty relationship is frowned upon by ancient relics of Victorian society like Mrs. Poultney, and seen as 'against God's wishes'. In the novels there are both dominant and subservient female characters. Tess and Sarah both try to be dominant, but the constant pressure that the men in their respective novels put on them forces them to be more subservient. Ernestina and Mercy Chant are both very passive in their relationships, although, after Charles has left her, I think that Ernestina evolves into a much more dominant character. Ironically, it is the women who are more dominant who ultimately become victims in both novels. Since women in both books are described predominantly in terms of their connection with someone else, it is interesting to see whether their characters grow or diminish with this treatment. Ultimately Tess is a heroine whose life ends in tragedy and Sarah achieves a measure of satisfaction with her child but is far from being wholly content. In all cases but one the women lose their men, with unhappy results; only Mary finds happiness as she settles down with Sam, Charles' servant. So it seems that in both books we are led to believe that a woman's fate is inexorably sealed to the continuance or otherwise of her relationship with a man. Both authors appear to deny the possibility of a woman creating her own good fortune and happiness. ...read more.

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