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The Roles Of Women In Fairytales English Literature Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 2702 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Compare and contrast your 3 texts in light of this comment, exploring how they endorse or challenge this view. The stereotypical image of women in fairy tales portrays them as weak, feeble and passive. However, many of these traditional fairy tales were Old Wive’s tales, such as those told by Marie-Jeanne L’ Heritier that featured sharp female protagonists who relied on wit rather than the stereotypical dashing prince to generate the ‘happy ending’. Therefore, it can be concluded that it was in fact the male counterparts who took the original stories; turning the characters into obedient and ‘subservient’ females. The idea of women being behind the true inspiration for modern fairy tales is furthered by Jack Zipes in his introduction to ‘Don’t Bet on the Prince’. By focusing on the ‘historical re-examination and rediscovery of matriarchal features in folk and fairy tales’, Zipes discusses how Jane Yolen, a gifted fairy tale writer ‘studied different European folk versions of Cinderella and established that the original heroine had never been “catatonic”‘.

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My argument is that all three texts revert to this traditional image of women in fairy tales that were designed to show them as independent, confident and intelligent. From my point of view ‘Goblin Market’ and ‘Great Expectations’ endorse the view that it is better for women to be subservient whilst ‘The Bloody Chamber’ challenges it. However, all three authors have used the fairy tale genre as a literary style, which suggests a means of escapism; a fantasy setting to explore ideas that are unachievable in the realms of the patriarchal world. As Helen Simpson states in her introduction to the 2006 version of ‘The Bloody Chamber’, the ‘metaphor of fantasy can be helpful when airing controversial subject matter’ and this is why the authors are able to push the boundaries and at the same time capture the reader’s attention through the use of magic realism.

Out of all three texts ‘The Bloody Chamber’ is the text with the most Feminist stance, mainly due to its context, as it was written during the 2nd wave of the Feminist movement in 1979. The female characters are daring and inquisitive; the Mother destroys the Marquis with a ‘single, irreproachable bullet’, showing her fierce effort and determination, without the need for male assistance. This links back to how this text is more aligned to traditional fairy tales that portrayed females as actively fighting for justice. It also explores the theme of maternal connection between mother and daughter; the scent of the ‘amniotic salinity of the ocean’ has obvious allusions to the womb, as if the protagonist’s mother is caressing her daughter as she arrives at the phallic castle, a traditional fairy tale image, with its ‘spiked gates’ foreshadowing the violence of the Marquis. In contrast, ‘The Goblin Market’ shows the two sisters as separate identities; from a psychoanalytic perspective, Lizzie can be perceived as the superego, as Lizzie in Hebrew means ‘God’s Oath’ which presents her as the sensible and pure; the voice of reason. Laura is viewed as the id because she is lured by temptation; she is ‘curious Laura’ who ‘chose to linger’. Critic Winston Weathers believes that the two sisters become ‘integrated’ when both of ‘them marry’; I see this integration as the incorporation of the sisters into the domestic Victorian world where women were viewed as Mothers and Wives and not to enjoy sexual pleasure. Whereas ‘Goblin Market’ is a perplexing, and at times daring, attempt to use escapism as a means of exploring the fantasies of Victorian women, ‘Great Expectations’ has been described by Harry Stone as an ‘exceedingly subtle fairy tale story’, yet I do not agree with this statement when looking at the portrayal of female characters, as they are described with great intensity; there is nothing ‘subtle’ about them. It is questionable why Dickens developed these characters with such force and, looking at Dickens’ novel from an intrinsic point of view, one can see that he was in a loveless marriage with his wife Catherine. I believe he created these caricatures of females to vent his frustrations. It can be argued that the perfect Victorian character of Biddy (who shows that it is better for women to be subservient) was created to echo Dickens’ own affair with the young Ellen Ternan, who he met in 1857, as the age gap between Joe and Biddy is around the same of that as Dickens and Ternan.

The ending of all three texts is evidence to how they either challenge or endorse the statement. With ‘The Bloody Chamber’, from a Feminist point of view it is clear how the decision for the young girl to lead a ‘quiet life’ is not based on money as an indicator of success; she leads a model life. Clearly, Carter challenges the idea that it is better for women to be subservient through how she has subverted the gender roles, showing how aspirations that are not based on wealth or marriage (the protagonist does not have ‘enormous wealth’ and is widowed) can bring the ‘happily ever after’ ending without the stereotypical dashing prince. Nevertheless, some Feminist critics have been sharp to comment on how, ‘[Carter] could go much further than she does’ (Patricia Duncker). Additionally, Duncker believes that the ‘formulaic structure’ of ‘The Bloody Chamber’ means that patriarchal power is re-instated rather than challenged and that Carter falls into an ‘infernal trap inherent in fairy tale’. I wholly disagree with this argument as I believe Carter has pushed the boundaries enough to challenge the idea that it is not better for women to be subservient. For example, I agree with critic Maria Tartar in ‘Secrets Behind The Door’, who adds that because Carter has focused on ‘The Bloody Chamber’ within the title rather than proceeding down the ‘well-worn paths of folkloric invention’ she has focused immediately upon the fight of women. This is because I see the chamber as symbolic for the womb and the suffering of childbirth that women endure and so the title immediately focuses on natural female power and strength. In contrast, the conclusion of ‘Great Expectations’ endorses the idea that it is better for women to be subservient through how Estella, who was once a ‘self-possessed’, ‘beautiful’ young girl, transforms into a character whose ‘freshness of her beauty’ has withered away: this is because of her abhorrence of men. Lastly, at the end of ‘Goblin Market’ the two sisters conform to Victorian values, Rossetti states that the women are both ‘wives’ and ‘with children of their own’ and the fruits are now restrictive like ‘honey to the throat’ rather than being ‘sweet to tongue and sound to eye’, portraying how an escape to domestic Utopia could only be achieved through the fantasy setting of Goblins and magical fruit. In both ‘Great Expectations’ and ‘Goblin Market’ there is a tone of disappointment; Estella is, by the end of the novel, a two dimensional character who has no ‘shadow’ parting ‘from her’ and the two sisters still live ‘beset with fears’ of the society they live in.

Concerning the force of male power in ‘Goblin Market’, the Goblin Men are equally as dominating as the Marquis in ‘The Bloody Chamber’; their shrill cries of ‘come buy’ are repeated to place the emphasis on economics in the poem. To illustrate Lizzie only gains bargaining power with her ‘silver coin’, that is to say when she steps into the male world of commerce. On the other hand, Laura provides a ‘precious golden lock’ and so is theoretically selling a part of her body to then become controlled by the Goblin Men; she has become a ‘fallen woman’ just like those Rossetti helped at St. Mary Magdalene Penitentiary in Highgate, a clear source of inspiration for her poem. In contrast, ‘Great Expectations’ features women as the more dominating characters but, again, by the end of the novel it is clear that these strong women would have been better to be subservient. Firstly, it is important to remember that Dickens’ wrote ‘Great Expectations’ as a serial novel, which is why he had to create these bold female characters; Miss Havisham has become a stereotypical image of a bitter woman and these vibrant characters helped to maintain the reader’s interest over a period of weeks and months. Yet the women who lose power were those who disobeyed men; Miss Havisham requests forgiveness; with her wedding dress setting alight and ‘falling in a black shower’ symbolic of her guilt. Dickens is commenting on how attempting to rise above the status of men was not ‘better for women’ as it resulted in discontent. Referring again to the conclusion of ‘Great Expectations’ Biddy is the only female character who is married and living in a house of domestic bliss, where the windows are ‘open and gay with flowers’ – an image of ‘happily ever after’ – this is because Biddy has conformed to the Victorian ideal of the ‘Angel in the House’, a term coined by Coventry Patmore in 1854. As a result she is subservient to men but still is viewed as admirable. Although the character of Jean-Yves in ‘The Bloody Chamber’ is a possessor of all the ideals of the ‘Angel in the House’; he is pious as a ‘chorister in the church’; he is powerless as he is ‘blind’ and he is graceful with ‘a gentle mouth’, he challenges the view that women are better to be subservient because now the protagonist and the piano-tuner are equal because of his feminine characteristics.

Another key theme that is important to the argument whether it is better for women to be subservient in fairy tales are the themes of imprisonment and corruption. Within ‘Goblin Market’ Laura is consumed totally into the patriarchal world and its corruption; the fruit is described as a narcotic, as she has ‘sunk eyes and faded mouth’. As the fruit is symbolic of male virility the fact that she craves the fruit suggests that she craves the role of men in her life and a desire for sexual pleasure. On the other hand, in ‘Great Expectations’ Miss Havisham’s Satis House is symbolic of resentment and grief; the brewery is ’empty and disused’ and the house has ‘iron bars to it’. This imagery of Satis House as a prison creates the idea of Miss Havisham as a witch; she has become this because she feels the need to hold onto the grief in her life. It can be argued that if she been subservient to men she may have fulfilled Propp’s ‘Princess’ character role as set out in his morphology, but instead of marrying the hero she clings onto the past in a state of decay. The critic Harry Stone commented on how ‘Satis house is a real English manor house and is a wild fairy tale nightmare’; this is the irony that Dickens intended, as ‘Satis’ means ‘enough’ in Latin, yet my interpretation is that Satis House is never ‘enough’ for Miss Havisham, it isn’t fulfilling and she only finds true happiness when she symbolically sets alight to her ‘faded bridal dress’. Obviously, there are strong connections between ‘Great Expectations’ and ‘The Bloody Chamber’ in terms of imprisonment, with Carter using a Gothic style to explore the ideas of violence, horror and doom. However, I feel Carter parodies the Gothic style to challenge the idea of it being better for women to be subservient, as the protagonist of the novel feels ‘no fear’ but curiosity when entering the chamber. Overall, this is why the protagonist continually challenges the idea that it is not better for women to be subservient; she is fully conscious of her situation and is aware of her own demise, something that Carter hints at through symbolism, such as the ‘ruby red choker’ to represent the method of death.

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Critic Terrence Holt believes that ‘Goblin Market attempts to imagine a position for women outside systems of power’, but it is it’s ‘language’ that means it ‘cannot escape from gender’. Exploring this idea, the main part of the poem where there is this fantasy world is where the language of the poem strengthens the power of the Goblins as the image of men. Rossetti categorically describes each goblin man as ‘one’, showing their strength in numbers and, like the Marquis in ‘The Bloody Chamber’, by not given them an identity they are viewed as more threatening. Holt’s idea of not being able to ‘escape from gender’ is evident with how Rossetti describes them as ‘goblin men’ when they are together and their actions are military like; they ‘turn’d and troop’d’ and ‘stood stock still’. The mono-syllabic words represent their male strength over the two young girls and contrasts sharply to the feeble description of Laura with her ‘gleaming neck’. Overall, it endorses the statement that it is better for women to be subservient because the goblin men are described as brothers, in solidarity and their mystery creates fear among the two young girls. On the other hand, Carter with ‘The Bloody Chamber’ immediately places the power and dominance with the young girl not only through the first person narrative but also because of how she parodies male erotic literature. The description of the ‘great pistons ceaselessly thrusting’ has allusions to sex and her method of travel is a phallic symbol. By parodying erotic literature, Carter is re-asserts how women can have female sexuality; this is also why Carter has portrayed the Marquis as Sado-Masochistic because it links the mysteries of the castle with sex itself; for example she goes to find a book to read but finds the picture of the ‘Reproof of Curiosity’. The young girl’s decision to disobey the Marquis is part of her journey from young girl to woman and in doing so she ends up happier and more contented than she ever would have been if she had been subservient to the Marquis.

In conclusion, the significance of the fairy tale style is undeniable with these three texts, as it ignites the creative imagination of all three writers, letting them explore and fantasise about females in situations that traditional literary genres could not allow. With ‘Great Expectations’ the use of the fairy tale is not as dominant as within the other two texts, yet this does not detract away from how important it is in endorsing how it is better for women to be subservient because the stereotypical ‘beautiful’ woman – Estella – ends up unhappy whilst Biddy, who is married and a pursuer of education, is seen as successful. Similarly, ‘Goblin Market’ on the surface appears to be a poem of women’s sexual liberation but the line between ‘magic realism’ and true reality is clear in the conclusion, suggesting that escaping the patriarchal world was not achievable in Victorian England. However, ‘The Bloody Chamber’ challenges this view vehemently as it subverts gender roles and has a Mother as a hero, with the landscape and vivid imagery of the fairy tale world allowing her to escape her imagination.


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