Persuasion (1817)

While reading, I found Lady Russell’s role in Jane Austen’s Persuasion to be ambiguous and sometimes confusing. When she was first introduced I thought that she would act as a good substitute mother for Anne but as the book continued I found that her motives were not as clear as I originally thought and that, though Anne respects and loves Lady Russell, the only way she can be happy is by ignoring her mentors advice. Susan Peck MacDonald attempts to fit Lady Russell into her theory that “there are three kinds of mothers in Austen’s novels- dead mothers, absent mothers, and flawed (perhaps even obnoxious) mothers” (61). Since Anne already has a dead mother, she suggests that Lady Russell is a flawed mother. I agree with MacDonald and by looking at Lady Russell from this perspective, Lady Russell’s character makes a little more sense.

Lady Russell has no children of her own and is “of a steady age and character, and well provided for, [had] no thought of a second marriage” (Austen 4) and so she seems like she would be an appropriate mother-figure for Anne. Before Lady Elliot’s death, Lady Russell was her best friend and advisor; the narrator also tells us that after the death of Lady Elliot, Anne is left with no ally within her family and Lady Russell tries to take her mother’s place in instructing her and giving her advice. The family respects her and to Lady Russell, Anne is a “highly valued god-daughter, favorite and friend” (Austen 5). However, seven years before the novel takes place, Lady Russell advised Anne to break her engagement to Wentworth because he was in the Navy and did not have a fortune yet. Lady Russell is known by many people to be “able to persuade a person of anything” (Austen 79), but it seems that her advice to Anne was mistaken because within a few years Wentworth made rank and money.Her mistake doesn’t necessarily make her a bad mother-figure, but her ability to persuade Anne of anything become detrimental to Anne’s well-being.

The only marriage that Lady Russell does support is the match between Anne Elliot and her cousin William Elliot. She attempts to persuade Anne into believing this would be the best match for Anne because “the idea of becoming what [Anne’s] mother had been; of having the precious name ‘Lady Elliot’ first revived in herself; of being restored to Kellynch, calling it [Anne’s] home again, her home forever was a charm which [Anne] could not immediately forget” (Austen 123). Here, Lady Russell’s motives, for the first time, are questionable. As MacDonald says Anne “Lady Russell’s inadequacy as a mother substitute is just this- that she would have Anne slavishly copy the past” (Austen 67). There is also something creepy about Lady Russell attempting to mold Anne after her birth-mother. Lady Russell is being selfish and instead of advising Anne to do what is best for her, I felt that Lady Russell was trying to groom Anne to become not only the next Lady Elliot but also her best friend. However, Anne’s “judgment…was against Elliot” (Austen 123), and when Mrs. Smith reveals the truth about Elliot, Anne’s first instinct is that she must confer with Lady Russell about this new development.

At the end of the novel when she decides to marry Captain Wentworth despite the advice she had received from her mentor years earlier, but she still feels that “only one among them, whose opposition of feeling could excite any serious anxiety, was Lady Russell. Anne knew that Lady Russell must be suffering some pain in understanding and relinquishing Mr. Elliot, and be making some struggles to become truly acquainted with, and do justice to Captain Wentworth” (Austen 195). Anne still respects the opinion of her godmother even though “there was nothing less for Lady Russell to do than admit that she had been pretty completely wrong” (Austen 195). MacDonald sums up and explains this phenomenon by noting that “Lady Russell has tried to take the place of Anne’s mother in the courtship process, and the resultant doubling of the motherly role allows the mother herself- and motherhood- not to be denigrated while at the same time Anne must reject her substitute mother’s view of who Anne should marry” (65).

At first I thought it would be impossible to fit Lady Russell into MacDonald’s dead, absent, or flawed mother categories, but MacDonald further says that “Anne is like the other Austen heroines who become stronger from having to struggle either without their mother’s help or in spite of obstacles caused by a mother or her substitute” (65). After reading MacDonald’s article I agree that Lady Russell is trying to fill the role of mother for Anne even if she is not very successful. She gives bad advice to Anne twice in the story and waywardly pushes Anne towards emulating her birth-mother. Though I can forgive Lady Russell for misreading Wentworth and Elliot, I can not forgive her for selfishly trying to turn Anne into a second Lady Elliot. Lady Russell’s bad advice makes her a weak mother and even a flawed mother in MacDonald’s words.

[Note: The MacDonald article I am referring to is called “Jane Austen and the Tradition of the Absent Mother” and can be found in The Lost Tradition: Mothers and Daughters in Literature (1980).]


Summer (1917)

Mansfield Park (1814)

In Austen’s Mansfield Park, Fanny Price introduced to the reader as a shy and relatively uneducated young girl. But quickly after she befriends her cousin Edmond she quickly becomes a bibliophile. Edmond originally shows affection and concern for her by providing her with the materials to write to her brother William, and this action builds a last relationship between the two cousins that finally results in their marriage at the end of the book. But Fanny’s previous suitor, Henry Crawford, has an interest in books and plays as well and may have finally convinced Fanny to marry him if he had not run away with her cousin.

When Fanny first arrives to Mansfield Park, the family (especially her female cousins) is quick to point out her shortcomings. Julia and Maria “could not but hold her cheap on finding that she had but two sashes and had never learnt French” (15) and even their mother Lady Bertram assumes that she is “stupid at learning” (20). Only Edmond “knew her to be clever, to have a quick apprehension as well as good sense, and a fondness for reading” (22). Though the three female cousins shared a governess, Fanny’s education would have been lacking without the help of Edmond who “recommended the books… encouraged her tastes and corrected her judgment” (22).

During her stay in Portsmouth, Fanny finds that there are no books in her family’s house and Susan, unlike herself, “had no cousin Edmond to direct her thoughts or fix her principals” (369). As Susan and Fanny begin spending more time together, at first they just talk but after a while Fanny’s desire for books become so “potent and simulative” that she became “a renter, a chuser of books” (370). While Fanny is in Portsmouth she also longs for Edmond, but doesn’t even receive a letter.

Though Fanny claims that she has nothing in common with Henry Crawford, they do share an interest in books. One of Fanny’s duties is reading aloud to Lady Bertram and when Henry and Edmond interrupt her reading one evening, Henry takes over reading King Henry the Eighth. Everyone is so impressed by his reading and Henry humbly insists that he hasn’t picked up the play since he was 15, but “it will be a favorite I believe from this hour” (312). He even impressed Fanny until “the book was closed, and the charm was broken” (312). He further succeeds in impressing her by discussing the merits of Shakespeare and the ability to read aloud. The discussion turns back to theatre when Lady Bertram suggests that Henry should build a theatre at his house in Norfolk. Henry replies “with quickness, ‘No, no, that will never be. Your Ladyship is quite mistaken. No theatre at Everingham! Oh! No.’ – And he looked at Fanny with an expressive smile, which evidently meant, ‘that lady will never allow a theatre at Everingham’” (313). In this scene, and also in Henry’s subsequent trip to Portsmouth to visit Fanny, Austen shows that Henry is making every effort to show Fanny that they do have things in common.

Fanny admits that near the end of the novel that Henry’s behavior was improving and I think that if Henry had not eloped with Maria, Fanny would have eventually married him. Though Fanny had been in love with Edmond all along, without scandal hitting the Bertram family, Fanny would not have been able to marry Edmond. In the very first chapter of the novel, Sir Thomas vocalizes his fear that one of his sons might fall in love with Fanny. He is worried for two reasons though: the first being “of cousins in love” (7), and the second being that if one of his sons did marry Fanny, they would sacrifice a more lucrative marriage match. Between Tom falling ill and Maria and Julie eloping, Sir Thomas probably gave up on Edmond marrying well. Though Fanny and Edmond are happy at the end of the novel, I have a hard time believing that their marriage is the best outcome for everyone in the novel.


Song of Solomon (1977)

“Pretty woman, [Guitar] thought. Pretty little black-skinned woman. Who wanted to kill for love, die for love. The pride. The conceit of those doormat women amazed him” (Morrison 306).

Morrison mentions in the forward of the book that “the challenge of Song of Solomon was to manage that was for me a radical shift in imagination from a female locus to a male one. To de-domesticate the landscape that had so far been the site of my work” (Morrison xii), but do the women in the novel suffer from this change of focus? Morrison has created a diverse and complicated set of female characters for this novel that does not rely on stereotypical characterizations of women.

Within the Dead Family I see 4 main types of women in the novel. We have the women who are domesticated and held down by men in their family (Ruth, Corinthians, and Magdalena), the woman who is strong and empowered (Pilate), the woman who has nothing going for her but luck (Reba), and the woman who lives on the love of others (Hagar).

The sisters Corinthian and Lena, perhaps since they are wealthy African Americans, are educated and intelligent. Though these women are oppressed, Morrison gives them the ability to recognize it. Lena confronts Milkman in the hallway one night after he “defended” their mother by hitting Macon. She says that in that action he was not protecting her, he was “taking over, letting [them] know [he] had the right to tell her... what to do” (Morrison 216). Even Ruth let’s Milkman know that she is being oppressed and censored by her husband. She tells her son “I am not a strange woman. I am a small woman” (Morrison 124) as she tries to explain her side of the story and her attachment to her father. In a truly male dominated novel, the women would not be given a chance to defend and explain themselves to this extent. However, these three women are weak women; they can not stand up to Macon and will never leave his house.

The reason I started with a quote from Guitar about Hagar is because I think her matriarchal family is very interesting. Both Pilate and her daughter Reba each refused to marry the men who fathered their children. Pilate has come to terms with the fact that she can’t stay with a man because she has no naval, but why doesn’t Reba marry? In the novel, the survival of this family of women depends on two things: the sale of wine and luck. During their first visit, the women tell Guitar and Milkman that “Reba wins things. She ain’t never lost nothing” (Morrison 45), and the exploitation of this luck has been keeping the family fed. But Reba’s “luck” also pays for Hagar’s manic makeover when Reba sells the diamond ring she won so that Hagar can go shopping.

What is Morrison is trying to say about feminism through Hagar’s actions? Guitar calls her a “doormat woman” (Morrison 306), but I don’t think she started out that way. She admits to Milkman that she is waiting for “Prince Charming” (Morrison 97) but then makes love to her 17 year old cousin. Years down the road by the time Milkman is 31, Hagar isn’t as in control of their relationship as she was in the beginning (Morrison 98). Earlier, Hagar said “every woman’s not as strong as she is” (Morrison 96) and that she has no weaknesses. But now her weakness is that she is afraid of being alone and this weakness eventually kills her. Guitar suggests though that the fault is not on Milkman’s shoulders because women like Hagar “were always women who had been spoiled children” (Morrison 306). Guitar tries to persuade her not to believe that “belong” is a dangerous word (Morrison 306). But Hagar ignores him and instead tries to give herself a physical makeover that she thinks will make Milkman love her. This makeover would require her to give up some of the things that make her a strong African American women, and fittingly she dies before she can complete the transformation.

For a novel that supposedly is focused on a man’s journey to self discovery, Morrison still does not reject or forget the women. Though this novel is supposed to illustrate “a radical shift in imagination from a female locus to a male one” (Morrison xii), the author does not make her women suffer the punishment of being superficial or flat characters. Morrison also notes in her foreword that “Milkman summons a conundrum: that without ever leaving the ground [women] could fly” (Morrison xiv). I thought at first that Morrison was suggesting that since the women in the novel are strong and complex, they do not need to travel anywhere (in literal sense) to find self enlightenment. But Milkman’s mother and sisters are never empowered and Hagar is dead by the end of the novel because, instead of bettering herself, she tries to become the woman that Milkman would want. So the conundrum I face is what is Morrison trying to say about women in this novel?

Roman Fever (1934)

Edith Wharton’s “Roman Fever” very simply centers on a single conversation between two middle-aged women, Grace Ansley and Alida Slade. Early in the story, Alida wonders aloud about what Rome has meant to tourists who have come there over the years: “To our grandmother’s Roman fever; to our mother’s sentimental dangers… to our daughters, no more dangers than the middle of Main Street” (15). She defines Rome for three generations of women, except her own. The conversation between the two women reveals a lot about their past, but the setting and how they interact with it reveals more about the two women.

From the beginning, Wharton presents a contrast between the two friends in appearance and personality. Alida is called the “dark lady” (12), while Grace is the “smaller, paler one” (9). However, years after marrying and living“opposite each other-actually as well as figuratively- for years” (12), the two women find themselves again in Rome in similar situations. Both women have been widowed and are at the end of their lives as desirable lovers. The time of day when this conversation takes place- late afternoon and dusk- also corresponds with the age of the women. When their waiter suggests that the two women can enjoy the moonlight on the terrace together, Alida believes the reference to be “out-of-place and unwelcome” (11) because moonlight is sentimental and for lovers. But it is acceptable that their daughters are enjoying a moonlit airplane ride with their young men.

Finding themselves faced with the realization that the next generation of young, sentimental girls has taken possession of the moonlight, the women also find themselves looking down at the ruins of the Palatine and the Forum that act as another reminder of their own youth. Both women at first seem satisfied sitting quietly “with the same expression of vague but benevolent approval” (9)on their faces while looking at the ruins before them. But Alida soon finds “her eyes ranging from the ruins… [to] the outlying immensity of the Colosseum” (16) .The “immensity” that Alida sees in the Colosseum represents not just it’s size, but also the size of the deception she used to manipulate and punish her friend years before for falling in love with Delphin, Alida’sfiancĂ©e. However, where Alida sees “immensity,” Grace sees the “wreckage of passion and splendor at her feet” (17), indicating that the two women have very different perspectives of Rome and what it means to them. While looking at the ruins of the Roman Empire they each must realize that it is like looking at the ruins of their own lives.

Like the Romans before them, in their youth Alida and Grace used the Coliseum as a battleground for Delphin. For years, Alida had thought that she came out of this battle victorious, but by the end of their conversation she realizes that her attacks had backfired. As a result, Grace gave birth to the “dynamic” (17) daughter that Alida had always wanted. For Grace, the landscape in front of her represents passion, and though she didn’t get to marry Delphin, she did get to take a piece of him away from Alida.This accounts for Grace’s self-satisfied perspective of the ruins that lay “at her feet” (17) as if she owns them.