During the 19th century, gender was held as a crucial part of society. This can be evidenced by the fact that gender was used to define the place of both men and women in society and how they interacted with one another, as well as their surroundings. In most cases, women were restricted within their social or economic classes and were even more constrained when it came to their areas of expertise. It was these restrictions that hindered the growth of women in different societies, as they had limited opportunities to question the way society operated. The same case applies in the novel, “The Bleak House,” by Charles Dickens, where stereotypes against women are depicted. Nonetheless, although the portrayal of women in this text is specifically fictional, there are certain similarities and differences that apply to how women were depicted during the Victorian Era. Therefore, this paper will use logic to analyze the similarities and differences in the roles of women as portrayed in the Victorian Era and the Bleak House.
Throughout the Victorian era, women were portrayed as second-class citizens. According to most Victorians, the best place for women was entirely linked to the household environment and household chores such as getting married, having kids, raising them, and maintaining the well-being of their household, including their husbands. These were the main duties that women were expected to play within society, and those women who sought employment opportunities were viewed as undeserving compared to those who sacrificed their dreams for the welfare of their families (Barrett, 6-7). Likewise, at the beginning of the novel, the author points out that “Standing on a seat at the side of the hall, the better to peer into the curtained sanctuary, is a little mad old woman in a squeezed bonnet who is always in court, from its sitting to its rising,” (Dickens, 11). Although this woman has documents that she believes could help the court rule in her favor, no one cares to look into her plights no matter how often se visits the courthouse.
Also, during the Victorian era, women had to go through numerous incidences of harassment and taunting from men. Most of the women were exposed to heinous acts such as rape, sexual threats, and sexual harassment within their respective areas of work. These shortcomings were a common experience for women irrespective of their economic or social classes. This was mainly because men took advantage of the fact that they were viewed as inferior civilians (Barret, 8). Similarly, due to the fear of an unexpected outcome, lady Dedlock decided to hide that she bore an illegitimate child before being married to Sir Leicester Dedlock. Sir Dedlock is described as a gentleman of strict conscience, disdainful of all littleness and meanness and ready on the shortest notice to die any death, especially when integrity is involved” (Dickens, 19). Generally, this shows how women have an inferior place in society as opposed to men and especially those in the higher economic and social classes who have superior powers when it comes to addressing social issues.
In addition, during the Victorian era, there were no social achievements that were referenced to women. This is because in most social platforms or religious ones, such as the Western missionaries, women were not considered a crucial part of the religious sectors, and, therefore, their inclusion was rarely considered. This can be evidenced by the fact that most missionary memoirs focused on disproportionately low involvement of women characters throughout the religious biographies (Kommers, 5). Likewise, Esther Summerson describes her godmother as a stout Christian who “went to church times every Sunday, and to morning prayers on Wednesdays and Fridays” (Dickens, 29). However, her presence in her life as well as in the novel, is not well appreciated despite her playing a huge role in raising Esther. This is mainly because she limited Esther’s wants to interact with other girls even when she was invited to birthdays within her neighborhood. This clearly shows that women were given no opportunity to explore or make relative decisions that would be counted on in the future. Due to this, most women in this era were used to not passing similar cultures to young girls.
Also, during the Victorian era, socially deprived women were ill-treated and rejected by most church authorities. This is because most religious rights and privileges were inherited by men in Victorian societies. Unlike these men, women had no place in the religious set up in the Victorian era, and they only had to rely on the positions that their respective husbands occupied in their respective denominations. For this reason, women who came from socially deprived households had no chance of being represented in their respective churches, as their husbands were not accorded any rights and privileges that would at least favor them. Nonetheless, women who were considered “economically weak or poverty-stricken women were ridiculous folks and were the easy victims of rich and powerful subjects in society” (Saeed et al., 56). This shows that the Victorian era supported cruel social conventions without looking into the place of women and how these conventions would impact their social privileges and freedoms whatsoever. In other words, Victorian women had no voice and heavily relied on what their male counterparts justified as right.
Likewise, Dickens depicts the place of women in his novel as one that compels them to take every situation that faces them as part and parcel of their being. This means that they need not to complain even when they are faced with hardships of any kind. For instance, Esther and Ada are faced with neglect at one point in the novel, but when the guardian asks them how they have been, she answers that everything they have been through was for the best. “‘Of course, for the best. But here have Ada and I have been perfectly forlorn and miserable;” (Dickens, 730). Nonetheless, her thoughts express that she never liked the loneliness that she had to endure together with Ada. This shows that she told her guardian what he wanted to hear but not exactly how she was feeling exactly. This expresses how women have been left out and their well-being ignored even by those people who are close to them to the extent that it has become it is a normal encounter.
On the contrary, unmarried women during the Victorian era chose to be part of the missionaries. This is because they were given an opportunity to bring forth an appreciable amount of influence and particularly within the sphere of the mission. Unlike married women who were regarded as home builders, the missionary gave women an unanticipated dynamic as they were actively involved in missionary work. For instance, women were seen as influential figures who promoted ministry services; through preaching as part of the itinerary work in prisons, hospitals, asylums, and as teachers (Kommers, 6). On the other hand, as Oakley describes, Dickens describes women’s role as having an ambiguous nature. This is mainly because they do not have defined roles compared to unmarried Victorian women who served as missionaries. For instance, Esther is described as a housekeeper and, therefore, cannot come to work in the categories of wives or mistresses since her labor reference is not well defined (Danahay, 417). In general, unmarried women in the Victorian setup have duties that are discharged to them aside from child-rearing and taking care of households, as opposed to Dickens’s portrayal in his novel.
Also, unmarried Victorian women showcased obedience to call. This can be evidenced through their personal convictions, which illuminated their conviction to their respective paths of duty. That is, most women saw their responsibility as basic evangelism and, therefore, abided by practicing Christ’s teachings and made personal sacrifices for the wellbeing of others (Kommers, 9). However, this was not the case for Miss Barbary, Esther’s godmother, although she was a stout Christian and remained unmarried. Precisely, Miss Barbary is a hypocrite as she treats Esther with cruelty and does not bother how she feels despite her young age (Dickens, 29-32). Also, Barbary resents Esther for calling off his engagement with Mr. Boythorn. “Esther’s failure to engage Boythorn was met with her haughty spirit and quarrel” (Dickens, 900). These attributes present an opposite of what Christianity calls for, thus implying the difference that exists between Miss Barbary and unmarried women in the Victorian era. Similarly, religious women in Dickens are depicted as charlatans as they do not practice the Christian virtues preached.
To sum up, both the Victorian era and Dickens’ novel, “The Bleak House,” share similar characteristics in how women are portrayed. That is, both show that women were treated as second-class citizens whose well-being was put second after the interest of men. Also, the rights and privileges of women are defined by the ruling men class, who decide what women’s duties and responsibilities should be. For instance, women are seen as good caretakers of households through marriage or as perfect housekeepers when unmarried. Nonetheless, although their responsibilities are not wholly defined, they are restricted within a household setup while men explore external duties. The same case applies in a religious setup, as men are given the duty to control how church activities are conducted.
For this reason, changes in religious setup are influenced by men, and very few cases, if any, are connected to women. Therefore, women are treated as an inferior gender in both the Victorian era as well as in Dickens’s novel in aspects revolving around social and religious factors. Nevertheless, the portrayal of women in Victorian religious systems differs from that of Dickens’s novel. That is, while the Victorian era is comprised of women who have been given specific duties in missionary setups, women in the Bleak House only practice religious ways but do not necessarily have specific duties that allocated to them. Also, while women in these setups adhere to Christly ways as preached in their respective denominations, women in the novel act as hypocrites who only uphold Christly ways when necessary but also subject other individuals to cruel experiences.
Barrett, Kara L. “Victorian women and their working roles.” (2018).
Danahay, Martin A. “Housekeeping and hegemony in” Bleak House.”” Studies in the Novel 23.4 (1991): 416-431.
Dickens, Charles. Bleak house. Bradbury and Evans, 1853.
Kommers, J. “Attaining the correct balance: Exploring the challenges and spirituality of single women missionaries in the Victorian era.” In die Skriflig 54 (2020): 1-9.
Saeed, Nadia, et al. “Thomas Hardy: A Torchbearer of Feminism Representing Sufferings of Victorian Era Women.” International Journal of Applied Linguistics and English Literature 9.3 (2020): 55-61.