Compare and contrast the representation of femininity in Pygmalion and Wide Sargasso Sea

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C. Youngman


Compare and contrast the representation of femininity in Pygmalion and Wide Sargasso Sea

This paper will attempt to compare and contrast the representations of femininity in the novel Wide Sargasso Sea (WSS) and the play Pygmalion. It will investigate any ways in which the works reflect or challenge commonly held social representations of femininity, and will compare and contrast each representation of femininity and then investigate any themes. It will also consider the counterpoint of masculine representation, and lastly the limitations of a comparison between two texts of different disciplines.

These two titles were products of very different cultures; Pygmalion was written in 1912 by the thoroughly British Bernard Shaw, a self-proclaimed feminist, while WSS was written in 1966 by Jean Rhys, a Caribbean Creole (like her main characters) who immigrated to England in her teens. These texts were not intended to be textbooks, or represent any views other than the authors, but by comparing these texts we may find how the ideas of femininity have changed in the intervening years. Shaw’s feminism might be expected to have influenced his portrayal of the female characters in his work, so the reader should be aware of a possible feminist subtext. WSS is set in the Caribbean of the 1830’s, and was written for a primarily English audience. The author might therefore be expected to emphasise or exaggerate certain aspects of the story to increase the dramatic effect of alienation between the reader and the faraway subject and so the depictions may not be entirely accurate.

Both of these works manifest stereotypes of passive women and male figures of authority, as might be expected from works set around the Victorian period.  Pygmalion reflects these beliefs to a degree, as Eliza is dominated by the male characters, and especially Professor Higgins, during the three acts of the play. Her own father reflects Victorian values in that he feels able to sell her to Higgins, without her knowledge or consent.

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However, the play challenges these beliefs by having Eliza leave and stand up to Higgins during the last two acts. The play was also rather daring for the day in casting a common flower girl as the heroine, and refusing the play a conventional romantic ending in which the heroine marries the hero. Class and gender are inseparable, as evidenced by Higgins’ continued reference to the ‘gutter’ Eliza came from. There is also the suggestion that the only thing separating the flower girl from the duchess is their educations.

WSS mostly reflects Victorian female stereotypes, as the women are treated ...

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