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Sexual Economies In The House Of Mirth And In The Awakening

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1. Introduction

When we think of the Victorian times, the first images that come to our minds are probably those of female oppression by patriarchal society, of societal constraints with regard to female sexuality and freedom of expression, as well as of strict etiquette and virtuous habits of behavior. The prudish, sexually repressed Victorians guarded themselves against any temptation. Nevertheless, even in conservative marriages, the consummation of love and the creation of one's own home and family were inevitable. Sex and sexuality, therefore, were unavoidable issues for the Victorians. In fact, the proper ways to act within high society were taught by women themselves who wrote conduct manuals, ladies' magazines and novels (Benstock, 1994, p. 335). This female propriety concerned sexual matters, as well. On the other side, however, there were also women who decided not to conform to the social rules and boldly expressed their opinions. These women were in most of the cases writers or publicists, as writing was one of the very few activities that women were allowed to perform. Therefore, it is easy to see that the notions and values common in this period, like for instance Victorian sexual mores, chaste motherliness etc., wondered and outraged not only the 21st -century societies, but also many Victorians - both female and male.

In the first part of my paper, I will present/depict the general position of women in the late 19th c. - not only their traditional, socially accepted roles but also the new, rebellious ones. Then I am going to show Kate Chopin and Edith Wharton as two examples of Victorian womanhood, who suffered from the inner conflicts, tried to find their place in the society, and struggled for both physical and spiritual independence. The fourth part of the paper deals with Edith Wharton's novel and the portrayal of its female protagonist who is torn between the ideals of the materialist environment and her desire to love and be loved truly. In the next chapter, I am going to present the heroine of Kate Chopin's novel and her romantic struggle for autonomy. Finally, I will compare the two protagonists and will discuss their attitudes, inner development, and the motifs of their behaviors.

2. Situation of women during the Victorian Era

Although the year 1899 was marked by the early stages of feminist movement, the 19th-century attitudes still prevailed. There was a widespread belief that civilisation was only possible at the expense of repressing and regulating our natural sexual instincts.

Earlier on in the century, women were considered the weaker, dependent and more innocent sex. They had little or even no sexual appetite, often receiving all the sympathy and no blame for indiscretions. Men, on the other hand, represented the fallen, sinful, and lustful creatures, taking advantage of the fragility of women. However, this situation changed in the later half of the period; women had to bear responsibility, while men, slaves to their sexual appetites, could not really be blamed. A young lady was only worth as much as her chastity and appearance of complete innocence. Once she had an affair, she was the fallen woman, and nothing could reconcile that till she died (Lee, 1996).

In the capitalist culture with its double sexual standard, women were expected to be virgins before marriage and to stay faithful to their husbands afterwards. "Sexual economies" was the result of this structure of society and they determined gender relations (Benstock, 1994, p. 335). Herbert Spencer and other specialists constructed a stereotypical model according to which men were considered the active agents, who used (physical) energy in different areas, while women were sedentary, storing energy. Such beliefs were the basis for, or maybe arose from, the separation of spheres for men and women. Women had to work hard in order to keep a Victorian household warm, clean and fed. Their role as a wife and mother left them very little energy for other pursuits. Therefore, they were expected to stay at home in order to conserve their energy. It was a widespread belief in those times that men had greater independence and courage and were more intelligent than women. That is why they spent their days in the competitive public sphere, whereas women remained in the private sphere of tenderness, self-sacrifice, and love providing support for men and caring for the children. They were expected to organize parties and dinners to bring prestige to their husbands, also making it possible for them to meet new people and establish economically important relationships. They also had to devote their time to improve their various skills (needle-work, piano playing etc.) ( The husband was responsible for his wife and bound by law to protect her, while she was supposed to obey him. She did not even have a right to decide how many children they would have. The wife's personal property brought into the marriage was then owned by the husband, even in case of a divorce. People thought it unnecessary for women to attend university. It was even said that studying was against their nature and could make them ill (!). They were to stay an "ornament of society" and be subordinate to their husbands. Obedience was all that was required of them ( Young women wishing to marry well had to hide any intellectual or literary desires and ambitions (!). They were taught modern languages, painting, playing music etc. only in order to attract men. At the same time, men were gaining their superiority studying subjects like mathematics, physics, geography, Latin and many others, which constituted the indispensable foundation of high culture (Mermin and Tucker, p. 82).

The Victorian "ideal women" were considered pure and clean. As a result, their bodies were seen as temples which should not be adorned with make-up nor should they be used for such pleasurable things as sex. They were expected to abide by the rules concerning their clothes, make-up, speech, gestures etc., and to be respectable, modest, kind, benevolent and refined in their manners. They had only a decorative function. The reason for that was probably because a woman's body was considered to be the property of her husband, whom she was supposed to represent ( Therefore, social restrictions and expectations concerned not only women's behavior but also their appearance. Especially beautiful and charming women were accepted by the society.

Women faced enormous pressure of materialistic society to conform to the domestic expectations of marriage and motherhood. They were trained to become society matrons, i.e. their education was limited to playing music, painting, sewing, cooking etc. (Benstock,



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