Though women are still burdened by many different paradoxical and unfair standards today, my knowledge of Victorian literature seems to indicate that intensely contradictory and unrealistic norms have always been imposed upon women. Within the works of Victorian literature that I have read, the female-identifying characters appear to either submit to these harsh expectations or defy them in any way that they can.
In one text I read this semester, Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, the heroine, Catherine, represents an atypical representation of women insofar as that she aims to improve the social situation of a man, Heathcliff, and also figures as the dominant force within her household and within her marriage to Edgar Linton. Furthermore, Catherine is portrayed as an extremely passionate individual who is free-spirited; who longs to roam the moors “hardy and free.” However, Catherine’s behavior is marked as decidedly unconventional for a young Victorian woman and she is therefore often criticized by her servant and childhood friend, Nelly. Catherine is emotional but fierce and is best characterized by her gripping intensity, especially when she is discussing her love for Heathcliff and for the environment in which she grew up. Overall, Catherine’s passionate persona is perceived as defying traditional gender norms and expectations, particularly through her free-spirited nature and desire to exercise her own agency in order to accomplish her own goals.
On the other hand, Reuben Sachs presents us with another female character who also expresses herself outside of the expectations Victorian society forced upon women: Judith Quixano. Though Judith differs vastly from Catherine, Judith still is not described as being accepted by Victorian society. Indeed, Judith is not entirely accepted within her own family circle, being that she lives with her cousins, whose fortune is far greater than hers. Moreover, Judith, due to her lack of family fortune, is unable to fully pursue her love interest, Reuben Sachs, and is not regarded as a true potential match by Reuben himself. Furthermore, Judith is not regarded by Reuben as a typical woman. Rather, Reuben lauds Judith’s lack of sentimentality and often praises her composed, apparently unfeeling demeanor. In order to cement this praise, Reuben compares Judith to the other women within the story, like Esther and Rose, who “fall in love several times a season” and “bewail” themselves throughout their “affairs de coeurs.” On the other hand, Reuben claims that Judith is “utterly free from such sentimental aberrations.”
Though Reuben praises Judith by pitting her against women, a move that demonstrates the inherent sexism of the era, he also chastises Judith for being so cold and unfeeling, especially towards him. Thus, Judith is constantly under scrutiny for failing to meet Victorian expectations for women. In the eyes of Reuben, Judith is at once better than her female counterparts and therefore atypically female through her rejection of sentimentality. However, Reuben also sees Judith as unwomanly in her lack of sensitivity, particularly towards Reuben himself. In this way, Judith’s character and the way in which Reuben views her demonstrate the paradoxical and unfair norms and expectations that Victorian society forced upon women.
Furthermore, when Catherine and Judith are considered simultaneously, the impossible and contradictory nature of Victorian society’s expectations becomes even clearer, as, though Catherine and Judith bear incredibly different, perhaps even opposite characterizations, both are viewed by society as agents that act and exist outside of the prescribed gender norms of the time. While Catherine and Judith certainly act outside of Victorian gender norms, they, in tandem, nevertheless provide an accurate depiction of all that a woman can be. Indeed, women can be as fierce and passionate as Catherine; however, they can also be as demure and unsentimental as Judith. Both Catherine and Judith prove, even in the face of harsh gender roles, that there is no one way to be a woman.