Currently, the two most predominating topics in my head are gender roles and self sacrifice (most likely due to the fact that I am giving a presentation on gender roles in, oh, eight hours).
The Victorian era was immensely influenced by the Industrial Revolution. Through the innovations in technology, the accessibility of transportation, and the emergence of city life, people were forced to redefine society. During this time period, there was also a push to science-tize everything. In this chaotic and anxious society, people wanted to find order and structure. Up until this point, gender was seen as synonymous; there was one gender that was expressed in two different ways. However, the Victorian’s fascination with trying to categorize everything caused them to strive to create distinct categories of what is male and what is female.
‘Men’ were supposed to be dominant, the windows to education and the world, knowledgeable and educated in economic, political, and foreign affairs. ‘Men’ exhibited sexual restraint, were esteemed gentlemen and provided visibility in the public sphere. They were strong, brave, courageous, and patriotic. Women, on the other hand, were to be the complete opposite in order to complement the man; the theory is that between both man and woman, all aspects of the spectrum are filled and can exist as a cohesive unit.
‘Women’ were supposed to be ignorant, frail, innocent, and idle. They stayed at home, “raised” the kids (I use the term “raised” loosely, because of course, the rich people hired governesses to do this). The woman was supposed to be the sentimental, emotional center of the family, expected to digest and inherit her husband’s burdens, emotional strains, anxieties, aspirations, etc (basically, she was a dumping ground and was supposed to pretend like nothing even phased her).
Of course, human nature can never be defined into two distinct categories. As seen in Victorian literature and Victorian society, it is when we try to fulfill these extreme, unnatural gender roles that people’s psyches breakdown and they go into a perpetual “madness” (and probably get sent to the looney bin, or as the rich people call it, “The Grove”).
In Lady Audley’s Secret, we have the characters of Robert Audley and Lady Audley/Lucy Graham/Helen Talboys who both attempt to adhere to social customs that do not fit their unconscious desires and therefore, they end up going mad; Robert Audley clearly loves George Talboys, but since bromances were unheard of, he had to suppress his feelings, which results in his extreme fixation with discovering George Talboys ‘murderer’. Robert can’t be gay. He must be manly, a provider (except he never works anyways). But he is clearly gay. So he goes crazy. The same is such with Lady Audley/Lucy Graham/Helen Talboys. After George leaves her, she decides to change her identity and a governess in order to propel her into a higher social class. But, because this is unheard of, she must keep it a secret. This secret causes her to push George down a well, and then eventually lands her in the mental hospital (it really is a modern day soap opera).
Or, in King Solomon’s Mines, we have Captain Good who is the supreme image of masculine: strong, stalwart, dark, stout, beautiful, attractive white legs (and false teeth). And then, Foulata, the native girl he falls in love with, dies, and he loses it, and starts bawling like we would expect the poor, frail Marianne Dashwood to.
Or, in my most favorite, The Picture of Dorian Gray, we literally have Dorian Gray who has this fake assumption of what ‘love’ is; he falls in love with an actress, realizes that love is actually not what he thought it was at all, she dies/commits suicide, and he falls into the worst moral decline of all literary history (think Black Swan status).
The Victorians themselves were exposing the inadequacies and absurdness of living in this strict, socially constructed society. It’s unnatural to ask a man to never show his emotions and it is unnatural to ask a women to remain idle her whole life (as I have learned in my family, when intelligent women remain idle, that is when chaos and madness erupts). The more we force people to try to fit in some kind of box that actually doesn’t fit them, the more deviance and disruptions we get. No wonder there was an expanse in madhouses during this time.
But, I think towards the end of the era, the Victorians themselves started realizing these gender roles do not exactly work and they began ‘redefining’ (again) what it meant to be masculine, especially in regards to imperialism. I think the men started getting irritated with these unnatural roles, so they just fled the country and did ‘manly’ things, such as go on lion hunts, explore for lost treasure, and institute man-only colonies. Fleeing the country meant that they did not have to “accompany a frail lady across the street” or “get up out of your seat if a woman forgot to shut the door” or “pretend you don’t see a female acquaintance unless she acknowledges you first”. Screw that. Men want to be men. So, they went to foreign countries, where they could lust over native women, because those native women were not the respectable British ladies. They hung out with men, where they could belch, be boisterous, and drink lots of alcohol. Ultimately, they got away from this strict society and freed themselves from social constraints (but, of course, the women were still expected to stay home and remain idle/frail/pass out during lightning storms/”raise” the children).
As the Victorians expressed, fulfilling these extreme gender roles requires a good deal of self sacrifice on the part of the individual. While the individual really wants to jump on the girl and fornicate in the middle of the dance floor, he can’t because society says “that is bad”. While the individual really wants to belch at the table, he must find a way to suppress it (even if that means suffering from stomach pains) because society says so. If the individual would prefer to wear a dress instead of a suit and tie, he can’t because society dictates what is manly dress (although, some of the men’s fashions today are a bit questionable). The Victorians themselves were actually very noble in adhering to these gender roles, because it meant giving up something about themselves.
Among many other topics I have been contemplating during this study, self sacrifice has been one of significant concern, how I see myself fulfilling these gender roles, and to what extent am I willing to sacrifice myself as the individual to fulfill some of these roles.
I started imagining scenarios that would force me to compromise the self for someone/something else: if I had a baby out of wedlock, would I marry the dad–perhaps sacrifice myself and my own complete happiness–just so my child could grow up in a family unit? If I married someone who suffered from a traumatic brain injury and completely changed personalities, would I elect to stay with them “from death do us part”? Would I be willing to sacrifice my romantic visions of what love is for a more realistic version? I began thinking about all the times in my life that I played roles that did not fit me. I think, especially during our identity development, we have to play different parts and try on different hats in order to determine what fits us best. And, I started thinking about things I would be willing to sacrifice myself for (the betterment of something bigger than myself) and things I would not be willing to sacrifice myself for.
The very selfish conclusion that I came to is that I am not willing to sacrifice that much of myself anymore. I have already been there. I did it with dance team, I did it with a relationships. I played an unnatural role that did not fit me. I pretended to be the idle girlfriend who stayed at home, doted hand and foot on her boyfriend (like, literally, spent time cracking his toes and massaging his athlete-foot infested feet), put aside her entire life for him. It didn’t work for me and actually turned out to be quite a disaster/caused me immense anxiety issues. I tried to be the popular girl, who involved herself in trivial affairs, such as reality television and gossip magazines, got her nails done every other week, and shopped on her free time. That was too expensive of an endeavor for a very Dutch person like myself.
So, as my existential crisis rounds out and my Victorian literature class comes to an end, I am comforted by the fact that I am just me. I don’t fit any definite, prescribed gender roles (as someone once told me, “you are kind of like a guy”, although I never quite clarified what that meant), and I don’t really care to fit any of those specific gender roles either, because as seen by our characters, it is unnatural, it doesn’t work, and most likely, you will end up in the madhouse.