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Conceptions Of Femininity And Masculinity In The Woman In White

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In Victorian times, the roles that men and women played were tremendously different and particular. Women were seen as flighty, emotionally charged and dependent where as men were the dominant, aggressive, decision makers. Often the male's role in society was the more significant of the two, and women were seen as the inconsequential homemakers. In the novel The Woman in White, by Wilkie Collins, we see how the author uses the gender roles in order to add to the outrageously scandalous plots and themes through his eccentric characters. Two characters the author uses to portray these masculine and feminine distinctions are the characters of Marian Halcombe and Mr. Fairlie, and through these distinctions we can see how exactly the author challenges the traditional gender roles of that time.

The character of Mr. Fairlie is seen as a physically weak and childish invalid. The physical description given when Mr. Fairlie is first introduced describes him as having no facial hair, small, womanish feet, and other delicate features.

"His beardless face was thin, worn, and transparently pale, but not wrinkled...his eyes were a dim grayish blue, large [and] prominent...his hair was scanty, soft to look at, and of that light sandy color...his feet were effeminately small and were clad in buff-colored silk stockings, and little womanish bronze-leather slippers. Two rings adorned his delicate hands...he had a frail...over-refined look-- something singularly and unpleasantly delicate in its association with a man" (39).

Aside from his very feminine physical features, he is also described as having a weak stamina; "please don't bully me, I'm not strong enough" (160) and being an invalid; "My uncle, Mr. Fairlie...he is an invalid" (33). Many men of that time, and of that age, were strong, and robust. They were working laborious jobs, or mandating properties and businesses, and although Mr. Fairlie was heading the household he lived in, he neither bothered with, or cared about what went on beyond his study walls. He busied himself with feminine hobbies such as collecting art and coins, and was constantly in a very femininely nervous state; "In the wretched state of my nerves, loud sound of any kind is indescribable torture to me" (40).

In comparison with his niece, Laura Fairlie, who, in this novel, is portrayed as the perfect example of a Victorian woman, Mr. Fairlie seems to have many similar feminine qualities. His "usual aggravating state of mind and body" (159) is compared with Laura's nervous headaches; "My sister is in her own room, nursing that essentially feminine malady, a slight headache" (33). His childish mannerisms- "He absolutely whined and whimpered, at last, like a fretful child" (632)- are compared with Laura's childish mannerisms; "She made the confession very prettily and simply, and, with quaint, childish earnestness, drew the sketch book away close to her own side of the table" (51). From this we can see that the author's feminine description of Mr. Fairlie was not just coincidence, but that he was in-fact purposefully creating this character's identity as weak, and insignificant. He does this in order to carry out certain conflicts in the story without Mr. Fairlie's dominant male intervention, as well as to instill new ideas into his earliest readers that men may not always be the more significant of the two sexes.

The author then uses Marian Halcombe's character to play both a masculine and feminine role. Marian is constantly exercising and battling her male and female behaviors, and applying revolutionary conceptions to the novel of how women's roles were shifting in society. The masculine side of her character is definitely the more prevalent side throughout most of the novel, but the feminine side balances out her identity as being a Victorian woman.

The first descriptions of Marian's, like those of Mr. Fairlie, describe mostly her man-like qualities:

"...never was the fair promise of a lovely figure more strangely and startingly belied by the face and head that crowned it...the dark down on her upper lip was almost a moustache. She had a large, firm, masculine mouth and jaw; prominent, piercing, resolute brown eyes; and thick, coal black hair, growing unusually low down on her forehead....to be almost repelled by the masculine form and masculine look of the features....was to feel a sensation oddly akin to the helpless discomfort familiar to us all in sleep, when we cannot reconcile the anomalies and contradictions of a dream" (32).

This masculine description is accompanied by her statement that her tears "do not flow so easily as they ought-- they come almost like men's tears" (166), and that a womanish trait like crying was weak and miserable: "the tears-- miserable, weak woman's tears of vexation and rage-- started to my eyes" (183).

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