The Veil of Servitude, a comparative analysis of the treatment of woman in Victorian age literature
By Trudy A. Martinez
The beliefs of Evangelicals and the treatment of women in the Victorian Age echo the teachings of the Old Testament in the Holy Bible. In both belief and treatment, woman is an object preferred for her outer beauty or nurtured or cultivated as a servant for the pleasure or the benefit of man. For instance when a Victorian woman eventually marries to man, she is expected to become an extension of him in all respects: to become, in a sense, “bone of his bone” and “flesh of his flesh”. In principle, woman is envisioned “. . . to be [man’s] second self” (Bronte 281). Consequently, woman is suppressed: she loses her identity; man becomes her master; and her life evolves around a duty: “. . . to honour and obey him . . .” (Butler 87).
The pledge, “to honour and obey”, emerges as a villain and brings forth what appears as Butler’s purpose: exposing the reality of woman’s position in societal beliefs and customs. In The Way of All Flesh, as in the Victorian Age, the belief is woman’s “. . . first obedience to God lay in obedience to [her husband]”. Butler displays this concept through Theobald. For example, if Christiana does not hold true to her promise “. . . to honour and obey [Theobald]. . .” Theobald needs only to “. . . buy Milton’s prose works and read his pamphlet on divorce” and then follow through by getting a divorce (Butler 87-88). Divorce is a means of escape for man if woman is foolish enough to reject the male dominance imposed.
The peril of divorce forces the Victorian woman to comply with the wishes of her spouse for woman has no place within the society of man: she is hopelessly imprisoned; this aspect of woman’s existence is pictorially portrayed by Alfred Tennyson in his poem, Mariana. In the poem, Mariana’s feelings rightfully correspond with wasteland imagery:
“The broken sheds look sad and strange:
Uplifted was the clinking latch;
Weeded and worn the ancient thatch
Upon the lonely moated grange” (396).
Tennyson pictures Mariana dissipating in loneliness while she continually anticipates the return of her lover. Consequently, Mariana is seen as sexually frustrated with no purpose in life other than to wait for him. Her statement,
“. . . ‘my life is dreary,
He cometh not,’ . . .
. . . ‘I am aweary, aweary,
I would that I were dead!’’(396),
alludes to her being alone and isolated in a dream-like state with no hope of being free from the prison-like atmosphere that is created (396). Mariana, herself, sees no escape from her loneliness; this is evidenced through the parallel action of her rejection of life at both the beginning and end of the poem. Only Mariana’s final weeping, “. . . ‘I am aweary, aweary’” and her plea, “. . . Oh God, that I were dead.’”, displays a perception of an unyielding hope (398).
An unyielding hope is all Tennyson’s characterization of Mariana shares with the characterization of Jane in Bronte’s novel, Jane Eyre. Instead of just an unyielding hope of escape through death, Bronte offers a suggestive alternative that leans toward equality of the sexes; it is driven by the love and the passion of Jane and Rochester. Even though the story interestingly compels ideals similar to Tennyson’s, it goes beyond Tennyson’s scope by introducing a doctrine which very nearly represents the New Testament book, I Corinthians 6 verse 3. In this view, “. . . the husband [is to] render unto the wife due benevolence; and likewise also the wife unto the husband.” This verse stings with equality. And consequently, so does Jane Eyre when she says to Rochester: “it is my spirit that addresses your spirit; just as if both . . . [of us] . . . stood at God’s feet, equal as we are!”(281).
Equality is an issue that gains importance with Jane. It is the requisite that stimulates benevolence. Rochester accepts Jane’s desire for congruity because she stands firm in her ideals. She says, “. . . no net ensnares me: I am free . . . with an independent will . . . “(Bronte 282). But the same is not true for other women nor is equality accepted within society.
Bertha (a symbol of a married Victorian woman) reveals the degree of damage a lack of equality places upon women and even the need for love and happiness. Justifiably and symbolically Bertha rips her bridal veil in half. The ripping of the veil is not done out of jealousy. Instead, the ripping of the veil is a means of exposing the servitude, defilement, and deterioration of woman. As a hideous creation, Bertha, “. . . turned to the mirror . . .” a “reflection” of mood and feeling gives emphasis to the vampire-like quality of the Victorian marriage practice and the degradation of woman as a whole. The ripping of the “. . . princely [extravagant] . . .” bridal veil suggests a need for the separation of materialism from the marriage (Bronte 308). Hence, this seems justifiably reasonable, for after all, “. . . it was only the [extravagant] veil that was harmed” (Bronte 312).
For what other reason do Bertha’s violent actions leave Jane and her simple handmade veil untouched? The answer appears to be because Jane and her simple veil represent woman’s independent choice and the need for a necessary change in marriage creeds. Therefore, Bertha’s action of renting her own veil merely symbolizes and paves the way for the introduction of such a new marriage creed that will lift the veil of servitude from woman.
The lifting of the veil of servitude not only encompasses an equal and deep inspiring love and passion between both man and woman but also engages both man and woman’s attention towards a love for God. Conceivably then, Bertha may be seen as giving her life for a new creed for all women. Bronte provides an illusion that justifies this impression when she describes the room Mr. Mason occupies as he lay injured: “. . . the shadows darken . . . [then], under the hangings of the vast old [marriage] bed . . . rose an ebon crucifix and a dying Christ” (Bronte 237). The black crucifix exemplifies the suffering that evolves through a loveless marriage. Sequentially, death is its unison.
The marriage between Bertha and Rochester is an arrangement provided for by family. Hence, Bertha’s violent and seemingly revengeful attack upon Mr. Mason, her brother, gives reason whereby understanding is gained. Bertha like Mariana is hopelessly imprisoned (restrained even), wishing for death. How else is she to react to her grueling circumstance? Two such souls as Bertha and Rochester can never hope to achieve equality in marriage or share a sense of love and passion. They do not join in marriage as described in I Corinthians 6:3. Instead, their marriage is orchestrated by others for the sake of “the root of all evil”, money.
Money and the prestige that comes along with it are the forces Dickens perceives to have driven man down a path of unhappiness and guilt. Dickens presents Pip as a stereotypical male of society who is being torn between choice and class separation rules.
Conversely, woman is not typically given a choice. Most women are forced to accept their lot in life. Certainly, no one can blame Blanche Ingram for attempting to improve her rank in life by seeking to marry Rochester. It is true, money and material gain is important to her. All the same, she knows no better. In other words, she is the product of a male dominated society. Consequently, she does what is expected of her.
However, Dickens clearly demonstrates the male in the Victorian society has a choice. For instance, Pip knows what his choices are: either he can choose to pursue a woman with inner beauty like Biddy from the lower class level or one whose beauty is only skin deep like Estella from the upper class level. Accordingly, once Pip knows he has great expectations, his choice to pursue Estella for her material outer beauty and schooled charm predominates. In the eye of Dickens, the lower class woman is more loving and deserving whereas, the upper class woman is revengeful and even insensitive. Class separation places emphasis on the contrasts between Biddy and Estella. Estella acknowledges Pip’s change of heart and his choice when she says, “Since your change of fortune and prospects, you have changed your companions’ . . . ‘And necessarily,’ . . . ‘what was fit company for you once, would be quiet unfit for you now’”(Dickens 258). Still, Pip knew he has made an error in judgment because his personal guilt grows out of proportion, but he is unable to resist temptation. Consequently, Pip’s guilt continually reflects back to him when he thinks of home.
Yet, Estella feels no guilt or remorse: she is trained to be revengeful; she does not view her actions as such nor does she remember the cruel manner in which she treats Pip. When Pip questions her, Estella says, “I don’t remember”.
Pip reveals his astonishment when he replies, “Not remember that you made me cry?” Estella’s insensitivity “. . . made (Pip) cry again inwardly – and (Pip acknowledged to himself) that [this was] the sharpest crying of all” (Dickens 258-259).
Biddy’s tear, however, reflects an inward sorrow for Pip. Of course Pip has to admit, “If [he] could have settled down . . . [Biddy] and [he] and Joe would have wanted nothing . . . “(Dickens 155). Consequently, as Dickens emphasizes through Pip’s expectations, class separation is what separates man from the culmination of a love and happiness.
Bronte rejects the idea of separation of class as a reason where love is concerned. Therefore, in her novel, Jane comes to love Mr. Rochester and he likewise grows to love her. She is plain in looks and dress, like Biddy, so it is evident that her outer beauty is not what attracts Rochester to her. Naturally, each stands their own grounds at first. Then slowly they relinquish unto the other a benevolence that grows into passion and “. . . called [for] a paradise of union . . . “(Bronte 284). Hence, the Victorian Society perceives the story of Jane Eyre as shocking. Man and woman alike object to the passionate elements the novel presents. The outward show of passion (by woman) suggests a change in society, encompassing the lives of both man and woman. Was the male dominating Victorian society unnerved and checked by an arousing fear? Or was society’s reaction to the novel and outward manifestation of guilt?
A manifestation of guilt is not reflected in The Way of All Flesh. Instead of a manifestation of guilt, Butler clearly exposes and defines woman’s duty. Christina feels a sense of duty to her father. Therefore, once Theobald is brought to the rectory to help her ailing father, she and her four sisters “. . . played at cards for him’” as their father suggests in order to determine to whom will be given the opportunity to win him for their husband, as if he is a prize (Butler 73). Here Butler accentuates the gamble that is involved in the marriage practice. The sisters that present a threat to the winner of the card game are quickly removed from the household. Competition for love’s sake is not allowed. There is no love or passion, only a duty. Hence, immediately after their marriage, Theobald pursues male dominance. Christina relinquishes, begging forgiveness for defiance. Christina’s duty to her father merely transfers to her husband as if her duty is a legacy of worth. Therefore when Theobald “. . . kissed away her tears, and assured her that he knew she would be a good wife to him”. Christina “exclaimed . . . [out of necessity] ‘you are an angel.’ Theobald believed her” (Butler 89). Consequently from then on, a representation of false idolization is provided gratuitously for him by his wife and he expects her gratitude for his tolerance of her.
Jane, on the other hand, sees herself molding Rochester into a false idol. She admits to herself that she “. . . could not . . . see God for His creature: of whom [she] had made an idol” (Bronte 302). When knowledge of Rochester’s sin comes forth on the day they are to be wed, both are brought to crossroads. Both are made to bear the burden of their individual sins. Both are forced to separate just as the chestnut-tree symbolizes when it split down the center equally. But yet, their hearts linger and yearn to reunite. Even though Jane is not blameless in her own eyes, she is always searching for an answer. She is aware of the necessity of punishment and repentance. Inwardly, she is content. Nevertheless, Jane feels “degraded” as she “. . . [sunk] . . . on the scale of social existence”, she does not “. . . hate of despise herself . . . for these feelings’. Instead, she strives “to overcome them” (Bronte 385). She asks God to direct her (Bronte 386). She believes both her and Rochester “. . . were [equally] born to strive and endure . . . “(Bronte 343).
In contrast, endurance to St. John Rivers, an Evangelical, means self-denial. Equality is out of the question. Even with all his “Zealous . . . labors, blameless . . . life and habits, he . . . did not appear to enjoy . . . mental serenity . . . [or a] inward content” (Bronte 378). His life is like his sermons: “. . . compressed, condensed, controlled” (Bronte 378). He does not allow his own heart to be equally drawn toward love or passion. For instance, when Rosamond is near, he denies himself love by showing indifference to the pain he feels but the truth of his feelings can be seen:
“. . . his hands would tremble and his eye burn. He seemed to say, with his sad and resolute look . . . ‘I love you, and I know you prefer me . . . [but] my heart is already laid on . . . the fire . . . it will soon be . . . a sacrifice consumed’” (Bronte 393-394).
Consequently, a veil is placed over his heart ad over his life. The veil prevents him from seeing or reaping heavenly rewards. Therefore, instead of pursuing Rosamond for his wife, he seeks Jane, whom he does not love. St. John’s proposal leaves much to be desired:
“God and nature intended you for a missionary’s wife. It is not personal, but mental endowments . . . you are formed for labor, not for love. A missionary’s wife you must – shall be. You shall be mine: I claim you – not for pleasure, but for my Sovereign’s service’ (Bronte 423).
The differences between St. John and Jane are monumental. St. John treats earthly love as a sin of the flesh. Hence, he fears love and therefore, equality. His earthly sufferings are not derived from the punishment of sin. Instead, his torment ensues through the denial of love and equality. St. John thinks it is his duty to sacrifice (Bronte 443). As a result, he labors hard and long but never reaps earthly rewards. The veil of servitude he places over himself to hinder sin bars him from love. Like Mariana his spirit is in a prison-like environment; he is alone and withdrawn from sexuality; but in contrast to Tennyson’s Mariana, his prison is of his own making.
Jane, on the other hand, is a free spirit: she asks for equality and it is granted her; she seeks love and finds Rochester. She is unyielding to the temptation to marry for a reason other than love; and she cannot settle for servitude to man because her servitude is to God. Therefore, Jane earns equality and benevolence “because [she is her] husband’s life as fully as he [is her life]” (Bronte 475). Consequently and in my opinion, Bronte’s representation of woman in the Victorian Age is more relevant than that of Butler, who merely exposes the reality of woman’s position, or Tennyson who merely pictures woman wasting away in a prison-like atmosphere, or Dickens who blames class separation for man’s guilt when he errs in judgment. Bronte, however, not only presents realities but also alternatives; she contrasts the male who is wasting away with the female; and she also treats both male and female equally regardless of their class separation. Therefore, Bronte sees and anticipates society’s position from a male’s point of view as if she is playing a game of chess. As a result, in the end she seems to say, “Checkmate”.
Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. Penguin Classics. Q. D. Leavis Ed.
Penguin Books: New York. 1985.
Butler, Samuel. The Way of All Flesh. Penguin Classics. Edited by James Cochrane with an Introduction by Richard Hoggart. Penguin Books: New York. 1986.
Dickens, Charles. Great Expectations. Penguin Classics. Angus Calder Ed. Penguin Books: New York. 1985.
Tennyson, Alfred, Lord. “Mariana”. The Oxford Anthology of English Literature: Victorian Prose and Poetry. Edited by Lionel Trilling of Columbia University and Harold Bloom of Yale University. Oxford University Press: New York. 1973. 396-398.