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The mirror image: the representation of social roles for women in novels by Charlotte Brontë, Kate Chopin, Edith Wharton and Jean Rhys

19 May 2011

PhD ceremony: Ms. G.E. Muda, 16.15 uur, Academiegebouw, Broerstraat 5, Groningen

Title: The mirror image: the representation of social roles for women in novels by Charlotte Brontë, Kate Chopin, Edith Wharton and Jean Rhys

Promotor(s): prof. H.E. Wilcox, prof. E.J. Korthals Altes

Faculty: Arts

 

Throughout literary history women have made use of stereotypical images to represent women in their work. The most notable images in the nineteenth century were the ‘Angel in the House’ and the ‘Monster’. Yet, rather than using these images as a stereotype, woman writers during the period 1849-1930 employed them to write novels with a double layer of meaning. On the one hand, these stories present a narrative that seems to confirm traditional role expectations in relation to women, but on the other hand the stories also question these roles and present alternatives. It is especially through the mirroring of the ‘angel’ and ‘monster’ images that women have achieved this ambiguity (and, possibly, subversion). By representing and mirroring both socially acceptable and deviant behavior, female authors were able to depict the still repressive tendencies of patriarchy.

Liesbeth Muda’s research in this context has been twofold. First, she wanted to examine how exactly woman writers used these images in their texts. For this purpose, she selected four novels by four distinct female authors, Shirley by Charlotte Brontë, The Awakening by Kate Chopin, The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton, and After Leaving Mr Mackenzie by Jean Rhys. Both the likeness and the differences in the use of the various images make these novels interesting case studies. A conceptual frame and an examination of the contemporary social context presented the basis for this examination; the four novels were subsequently examined to test Muda’s theses.

Through the use of such narrative techniques, contemporary readers obtained a clear impression of the valid norms and social roles for women, but they were also presented with alternatives. The second part of Muda’s research consists of an examination of the contemporary reviews that were published immediately after the appearance of each novel. A thorough examination of such contemporary reviews shows that the early readers did indeed pick up the various layers of meaning in these novels and that the use of the mirroring technique worked well as a consciousness-raising device.

 

Last modified:15 September 2017 3.41 p.m.

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