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Feminism In Elizabeth Barrett Browning English Literature Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 3861 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Through a detailed analysis of the writings of Victorian era female poet, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, this essay exposes the underlying themes of feminism in the author’s works. The essay makes specific reference to two of Barrett Browning’s most noteworthy poems, “Aurora Leigh”, a directly biographical piece, and “The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point”, not officially an autobiographical piece. The essay reveals the theme of feminism through an examination of key aspects of Barrett Browning, including: the inner conflict resulting from the struggle to choose between female identity and accomplished author, the comparisons made between the oppressive practice of slavery and the poor treatment of Victorian women, and the importance of female autonomy prevalent in the poems of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. All of these aspects come together together in the essay and Elizabeth Barrett Browning is successfully able to shed light on the oppressive treatment of women living in the Victorian period.

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Through her writings that often surround cruel female oppression, Victorian era poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning expresses feminist views in her works. Though often done subtly and indirectly, Barrett Browning uses her poems as a medium to express her aversion towards Victorian era female oppression that manifested itself in areas such as societal expectations and lack of independence. Despite the fact that few pieces by Barrett Browning are said to be truly biographical, one could suggest that numerous other poems by Barrett Browning depict her life as a woman living the Victorian period, as well as the lives of women in general living in the Victorian period. Through the analysis of two of Barrett Browning’s works in particular, “Aurora Leigh” and “The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point”, one can clearly see areas of Barrett Browning’s own life being expressed in her writing. Aspects of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s life that are most visibly expressed in her writing include her inner turmoil between wanting to be a poet, and yet also wanting to maintain her femininity. Also visible is her condemning view of slavery, and how she likens the practice of slavery to the then treatment of women. And finally visible is her belief in the importance of women gaining independence from men. Through a detailed analysis of Barrett Browning’s work with a particular focus on “Aurora Leigh” and “The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point”, one can see how the works reflect Barrett Browning’s own lifetime experiences and opinions regarding female rights. The works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning depict her aversion towards the misogynistic Victorian era society.

Numerous works by Elizabeth Barrett Browning reflect the inner conflict that existed in her life. This inner turmoil is made very apparent in “Aurora Leigh”. Barrett Browning often depicts this conflict between wanting to become a poet and yet also wanting to possess femininity through a use of symbolism. As the scholar Dorothy Mermin observes, “A woman who tried to be a poet within this structure would seem to be taking the part of a man” (Mermin, 715). In saying this, Shires asserts the notion that Barrett Browning, and by transference Aurora, is torn between wanting to be a poet and still wanting to fulfill her role as the archetypical Victorian woman. The conflict between a woman wanting to assert herself in any male-dominated field while still maintaining a feminine identity would have been felt by many Victorian women, not just Elizabeth Barrett Browning as a poet. Barrett Browning uses figurative imagery to help convey this inner turmoil within both “Aurora Leigh” and also “The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point. In the first book of “Aurora Leigh”, Barrett Browning writes of being sent to England to live at her aunt’s house, where she strives to lead the life of a proper lady that her aunt avidly advocates. However, when she describes the lifestyle of her aunt, she describes it as being “caged”: “She had lived a sort of cage-bird life, born in a cage … I, alas, a wild bird scarcely fledged, was brought to her cage” (p. 13). Cages, used to entrap animals, act as a universal symbol for oppression, entrapment, and control. In this way Barrett Browning suggests that the life that was regarded as being most fit for the Victorian era women was something she viewed as being oppressive and constricting. Furthermore, by using the word “cage”, Barrett Browning implies that the lives the women led were no better than an animal’s life. Through creating this image, Barrett Browning is making a statement about her rejection to conform and become, essentially, a domesticated pet. The narrator’s rejection of her aunt’s lifestyle does not necessarily convey Barrett Browning’s internal turmoil to the reader, but it does show her strong opinions against the expectations of Victorian women. As Barrett Browning’s description of her upbringing with her aunt continues in book two of the poem, her inner conflict is again described through her use of symbolism. As the narrator celebrates her twentieth birthday, she makes the ultimate statement about her conflict between her identity as an artist and her femininity. She claims that she does not feel complete as either an artist or a woman, though the resources for her to achieve either one or the other are available to her. “Woman and artist-either incomplete, both credulous of completion. There I held the whole creation in my little cup” (p. 38). Clearly, Aurora feels she is incapable of becoming both a writer and a real woman in her Victorian society, and thus she feels she is forced to choose one or the other. By writing that she “held the whole creation” in her teacup, a personal item, Barrett Browning implies that the personal decision was, literally, in her own hands. In this way, the teacup itself is symbolic of Aurora’s, and thus Barrett Browning’s, inner conflict and moreover expresses just how ultimately personal the choice between artist and woman is. And as Zonana states, in the poem Aurora undergoes a “…transformation into a poet who reconciles being a woman with being an artist” (Zonana, 242). Through these examples, it becomes visible to the reader that the use of figurative imagery in “Aurora Leigh” plays an important role in depicting the internal struggle within both Aurora Leigh and Elizabeth Barrett Browning with regards to personal identity.

The theme of inner conflict is also visible in her poem “The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point”. Just as in “Aurora Leigh”, the conflicts present in the text can be related to Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s own life and internal struggle. There are many parallels that can be drawn from the “runaway slave” within the text, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. This provides reason to believe that the poem may purposely, yet indirectly, reflect some of the happenings that Barrett Browning experienced as a Victorian woman. This poem tells the story of a black female slave, a dichotomy to the proper white female discussed in “Aurora Leigh”, however “The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point” as well depicts Barrett Browning’s struggle with her identity as an author and as a woman. In stanza eighteen of “The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point”, the narrator observes the baby she bore her master. She cannot help but see her master when looking at her infant child’s white face in contrast to her own: “My own, own child! I could not bear to look in his face, it was so white. … For the child wanted his liberty– Ha, ha! He wanted the master-right” (18, 1-7). The narrator continues: “I saw a look that made me mad… The master’s look, that used to fall on my soul like his lash…or worse! And so, to save it from my curse, I twisted it round in my shawl” (21, 3-7). In a response to “The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point”, Tricia Lootens states: “Better, she suggests, to be whipped than to have one’s soul (implicitly) stripped bare; better to kill one’s child than to curse him. Even in violence, soul trumps flesh: classic EBB” (Lootens, 497). Stated simply, Lootens asserts that in the work of Barrett Browning, the worth of one’s soul is greater than one’s flesh. Flesh is valueless without soul. Knowing the value that Barrett Browning places on the human spirit, these lines signify the author’s turmoil. The narrator kills her own child – children being a flesh embodiment of a woman’s femininity – to spare the child’s spirit. In this way, the action of the runaway slave in Barrett Browning’s writing represents the feelings of the author; the spirit, or the artistic desires of her spirit, is worth sacrificing the flesh, or her femininity, for. As the text progresses to stanza twenty-six, where the narrator describes the act of burying her child under nightfall:

My little body, kerchiefed fast, I bore it on through the forest… on: And when I felt it was tired at last, I scooped a hole beneath the moon.

Through the forest-tops the angels far, With a white sharp finger from

every star, Did point and mock at what was done. (26, 1-7)

This passage exposes much more than just the notion that society will chastise the narrator for killing her own child, hence her burying under the cover of nightfall, but further that even the angels above with their “white sharp” fingers will blame or “point and mock” her for her act. Just as the angels in heaven harshly judge the narrator for killing her child, the Victorian society would judge Elizabeth Barrett Browning, or any Victorian woman, who shirked her stereotypical social responsibility as a woman.

Another theme used by Elizabeth Barrett Browning to expose the ill treatment of Victorian era women is slavery. Elizabeth Barrett Browning was notoriously opposed to the slavery that existed during the Victorian period, and this is reflected in several of her works. Perhaps one of the factors that inspired this resentment towards the practice of slavery was a sense of understanding from Barrett Browning that developed from her experience with the oppression of Victorian women; the plight of slaves and women would have been felt similarly in the era. This may provide an explanation to Barrett Browning’s focus on slavery – she was able to sympathize. Within “Aurora Leigh” there are links made between the practice of slavery and female oppression. Dalley describes “Aurora Leigh” as being written with the purpose of denying Victorian era gender roles: “EBB clearly conceived of Aurora Leigh as a challenge to the “conventional tradition[s]” governing women’s behavior because it openly discusses the plight of women and calls for changes to existing laws governing marriage and property, and attitudes governing women’s work for money” (Dalley, 526). Within “Aurora Leigh”, the idea of slavery and its similarity to the oppression of women becomes most evident in book two. As Aurora describes to her cousin Romney why she denies the concept of marriage, the connection between slavery and female oppression becomes lucid: “…Am I proved too weak to stand alone, yet strong enough to bear such leaners on my shoulder? Poor to think, yet rich enough to sympathise with thought? Incompetent to sing as blackbirds can?” (p. 48). In this passage, Aurora appears to have some of the inferiorities that the oppressed blacks were thought to posses – mental inferiority and weakness. By subtly making this correlation, Barrett Browning likens the oppressed woman to an oppressed slave. She suggests that a wife was to a husband as a slave was to a master. Both the woman and the slave required the supposed superior man to compensate for their inherent shortcomings. This passage is important in that it depicts Barrett Browning’s opinions towards slavery while also addressing her opinion of sexism, while effectively correlating the two. Later in the poem, again to Romney, Aurora states:

We sew, sew, prick our fingers, dull our sight, Producing what? A pair of slippers, sir, To put on when you’re weary-or a stoolTo tumble over and vex you . . ‘curse that stool!’ Or else at best, a cushion where you lean (p. 206).

Aurora’s statement directly draws a comparison between being a Victorian era woman and being a slave. Through Aurora, Barrett Browning suggests that a man does not desire a wife as an equal companion in life, but rather to act as an aid to him in his life, while the wife gains little from the marriage. This thankless job of assistance is also what was expected of slaves. Both act as a mere tool to facilitate a man’s life. In this passage, Aurora recognizes that in her patriarchal society, women were little more than tools to convenience their husband. These words spoken by Elizabeth Barrett Browning show that women were capable of realizing that they were being wronged and taken advantage of, which meant that they were not as mentally incapable as they were portrayed and thought to be. And moreover, they liken the treatment that the Victorian era women faced to the unethical treatment of slaves.

Through the fact that “The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point” centres on a female slave, there are many areas that display Barrett Browning’s opinion towards the practice. However, in certain instances, Barrett Browning glorifies the choices made by the narrator which demonstrates her hatred for slavery, and further demonstrates that she desires to escape the “slavery” of her gender. In the final stanzas of the poem, the narrator describes that the men are hunting her, knowing they will soon capture her, she literally laughs at the thought of her own demise: “My face is black, but it glares with a scorn which they dare not meet by day. Ha!-in their stead, their hunter sons! Ha, ha! They are on me-they hunt in a ring! Keep off! I brave you all at once” (29-30, 6-3). In these lines, Barrett Browning conveys the absolute fearlessness and strength of the narrator. The tone of the passage, through its liberal use of punctuation and literal use of laughter, becomes excited and maniacal, and in a sense seems to glorify the narrator and her defiance. Perhaps Barrett Browning created this effect of glorification of the narrator because she, as a woman, would want to see the narrator courageously defy and overcome her oppressors. By laughing in the face of her oppressors hunting her, the narrator can take control of the situation and remove any satisfaction that her killers may get from her death. After having killed her child, and now letting herself die, she will be reunited with her child in a place where racial or gender-based oppression does not exist. This implies the notion that by glorifying the narrator and her final actions in the closing of the poem, Barrett Browning suggests that the narrator, wronged as she may have been by the men, was not only able to overcome, but furthermore triumph over her life’s obstacles. This furthers the idea that Barrett Browning wishes to see the oppressed overcome their oppressors. Again, in the last stanza of the poem, Barrett Browning depicts the narrator as bravely awaiting her death, “I am floated along, as if I should die of liberty’s exquisite pain. In the name of the white child waiting for me in the death-dark where we may kiss and agree” (36, 3-6). In writing these lines in such a way, Barrett Browning creates a seeming sense of duty in the narrator, suggesting that to defend one’s position or gender should be honourable. By including the narrator’s jovial mood towards her demise, Barrett Browning makes the statement that the oppressed woman was able to take actions into her own hands, and by her dissatisfying reaction, rob her oppressors of any satisfaction. In this way, Barrett Browning glorifies the bold action of the narrator so as to glorify the action of opposing her oppressors. Through this poem, Barrett Browning not only demonstrates her opposition to slavery, she also demonstrates its relation to the treatment of women, suggesting that fighting against either is an honourable act.

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Finally, the theme of women’s autonomy is prevalent in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s works. Women’s independence is a central theme in “Aurora Leigh” and in fact, acts as a driving force in not only the actions of Aurora, but in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s own life. The desire for female autonomy is visible in “Aurora Leigh” when Aurora marks herself as a writer by crowning herself with ivy. As Aurora crowns herself, she discusses the need to prove herself worthy: “The worthiest poets have remained uncrowned till death has bleached their foreheads to the bone; and so with me it must be unless I prove unworthy of the grand adversity, and certainly I would not fail so much.” (p.38). Although there is not explicit mention of what the “grand adversity” is, it is very likely the mere fact that Aurora, and of course Barrett Browning herself, were females in a misogynistic period. As previously mentioned, women in the Victorian era would be little more than the chattels of their husbands. For a Victorian woman to become a prominent poet, she would need to break free of the constraints placed on her by a misogynistic society. It is evident that both Aurora and Elizabeth Barrett Browning felt that in order to achieve their desires, they had to overcome the domineering masculine influence in their lives. This theme of female independence is visible in “Aurora Leigh” as Aurora explains to her cousin, Romney, why she cannot marry him.

You misconceive the question like a man, who sees a woman

as the complement of his sex merely. You forget too much that

every creature, female as the male, stands single in responsible

act and thought (p. 51).

In writing this passage, Barrett Browning states that women, just as much as men, possess individual thought and actions, despite the opposing opinion of Victorian men such as Romney who believe that women are simply extensions of their husbands. Barrett Browning suggests that if women are not granted even the most basic of liberties from their patriarchal society, then they will never achieve independence unless they boldly act out against their Victorian gender constraints.

While the theme of female independence is slightly less conspicuous in “The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point”, it is nevertheless alluded to in several instances. The mere fact that the poem centres on a female slave who yearns for freedom from her master instils in the piece an intrinsic theme of the need for female sovereignty. In many lines of the poem, the narrator discusses the oppression of the black slaves and especially black, female flaves, and through this description links to the oppression of Victorian period women can be drawn, as both are treated as chattels of their “master”. Despite the fact that the narrator is talking about black slaves in the following passage, parallels can be drawn to oppressed females: “But we who are dark, we are dark! Ah, God, we have no stars! About our souls in care and cark our blackness shuts like prison bars.” (6, 1-4). In this excerpt, the narrator explains that due to their “blackness”, or their skin colour, they are automatically regarded as being lesser than their white masters. Of course, not only did the black slaves have no control over their skin colour, but furthermore it is irrelevant to their mental and physical capabilities as a human. Just as the slaves were judged as being inferior because of their race, women were also assumed to be ultimately inferior to men based on their gender, an inherent and irrelevant feature of their identity. The femininity of women was falsely equated to, by men, frivolous unintelligence. Elizabeth Barrett Browning would have been familiar with this entrapment that she wrote about, not only from experiencing life as a Victorian woman, but also due to her chronic illness that often limited her actions. The concept of female independence becomes visible again as the poem nears the end: “I am not mad: I am black. I see you staring in my face-I know you, staring, shrinking back, Ye are born of the Washington-race, and this is the free America:” (32, 1-5). By mentioning George Washington and “the free America”, Barrett Browning draws explicit attention to the point that America is a country founded on freedom, and it becomes emphasized just how horribly the slaves, and in a similar way women, were treated in the gloriously “free” country, and just how un-“free” their lives really were. In this passage, Barrett Browning insinuates that no nation can ever be free until all of its people are free. Within “The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point”, just as the slaves were oppressed by their masters in the “free” country of America, Elizabeth Barrett Browning was oppressed by her civilized yet patriarchal, Victorian society.

Through indepth analysis of key themes in the poetic works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning with a particular focus on the autobiographical “Aurora Leig” and non-biographical “The runaway slave at Pilgrim’s Point”, it becomes lucid that Barrett Browning uses her writing to express her own experiences and opinions towards the unjust Victorian treatment of women. Firstly, these experiences and opinions are displayed through Barrett Browning’s use of interal struggle between the identity of poet and woman. Also, she expresses herself through her fierce opposition to slavery visible in both poems. Finally she achieves this purpose through the importance of individual independence that is portrayed in her poems. When all of these elements of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poetry are examined individually, it is clear that Barrett Browning uses her poetry as a medium to express her experiences and opinions towards the ill treatment of Victorian era women.


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