No matter the era of society, people have always placed the two sexes in their own distinct roles that the society perceived and expected them to take part. Their personal identities and personalities were, in essence, set aside to satisfy society’s expectations. In the Victorian era, upper and middle class women were seen and judged without a sense of personality and or character; they followed whatever the male authorative figure in their specific family or relationship told them to do. Their actions were dictated not only by these male authorative figures, but also by the judgements of their peers, which were most often other women. Judgements flew around society all the time, no one ever wanted to be on the bad side of the that judgement, so women did whatever they had to do to be accepted. Since appearances always had to be kept up for women, this led to the idea that women were seen as objects or accessories to their men. In objection to these false ideals, writers began to speak out against them to bring attention to society of their wrong doings and unobtainable standards. The writers of “My Last Duchess”, “On the Western Circuit”, and “Mrs. Warren’s Profession” all use these false ideals of society to their advantage by implicating them into their themes of defining the supposed gender roles society has placed on them.
In Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess”(1842), Browning uses his writing to comment on the objectification of women faced in the 16th century from the male controlling and authoritative figures in society. He does this through the stereotypical, egotistical, haughty, and ignorant Duke of Ferrara. The opening line of the poem begins with the Duke showing a painting of his last duchess as he says, “That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall, Looking as if she were alive” (lines 1-2). The last Duchess is immortalized in the painting and is now solely seen as a decorative piece. This could be a metaphor for how women were seen as decorations or accessories to men. Rather than being seen as intelligent contributing persons to society they were stripped of their personalities and their main purpose became to keep up with the social standards, graces, and appearances of the time to make their husbands or suitor looked better. The Duke perceived the last Duchess as his own possession owned her and therefore had to abide by his ideals. When she failed to meet his standards and did not respect enough the Duke’s 900 year old name enough the Duke rid of her. The Duke said, “I gave commands, Then all smiles stopped together” (lines 45-46). The Duke’s name could represent his inflated ego, and when the last Duchess did not give enough respect to his ego she was punished. Duke says, “…, she thought, and cause enough for calling up that spot of joy, She had a heart…, too easily impressed; she liked whate’er she looked on, and her eyes went everywhere” (lines 20-24). The last Duchess was just a simple girl who enjoyed the simple pleasures of: seeing the sunset, riding her white mule, and walking through cherry boughs. When she was murdered this represented the Duke’s or the overall role the male controlling figures had. This shows how males can easily strip women of their power or sense of person.
In Thomas Hardy’s “On the Western Circuit”(1891), Hardy uses his work to bring attention the wrongful ideals the Victorian society possessed during the era. The objectification of women continues in the Victorian era when Charles Bradford Raye was standing along the Cathedral when he was easily distracted by the nearby fair where he rode on the roundabout. While on the carousel, Charles casually shopped for women. “At first it was difficult to catch a personality, but by and by the observer's eyes centred on the prettiest girl out of the several pretty ones revolving… Having finally selected her, this idle spectator studied her as well as he was able during each of her brief transits across his visual field” (page 2). Charles is objectifying women and judging them based off of their looks completely dismissing their personality and intellect. However, when Charles found out that Edith was the one who wrote the letters to him instead of Anna uncovering the truth that she was illiterate, this social unacceptance causes Charles to change Anna. Hardy uses this scenario as a simile to how a man’s role in Victorian society could be to have the ability to control women further stating that men have the ability as well to do whatever they please with no repercussions. The narrator says, “He felt sure that, with her powers of development, after a little private training in the social forms of London under his supervision, and a little help from a governess if necessary, she would make as good a professional man's wife as could be desired, even if he should rise to the woolsack. Many a Lord Chancellor's wife had been less intuitively a lady than she had shown herself to be in her lines to him” (page 11). Women were expected to conform to society’s standards which were mostly dictated by the male authoritative figures. This could have shown that males had the perceived dominant role. There was an equal amount of conformity that had to be done on both sides of the sexes. One of the ways the author does this is through the perception of marriage. “Edith Harnham led a lonely life. Influenced by the belief of the British parent that a bad marriage with its aversions is better than free womanhood with its interests, dignity, and leisure, she had consented to marry the elderly wine-merchant as a pis aller, at the age of seven-and-twenty…she had made a mistake… She was now clearly realizing that she had become possessed to the bottom of her soul with the image of a man to whom she was hardly so much as a name”(page 9). Edith had to conform by suppressing her feelings of the lack of love she felt for her current wind merchant husband. It was not socially accepted for a woman to marry older in that time period and Edith she was getting to old so she settled on unhappiness to please her parents. Meanwhile, Charles is apparently chained to Anna because he is the one who impregnated her and he cannot simply end things with her without it reflecting badly on him. He had to keep up his appearance of being honorable for his future career and having a wife who was a simple country illiterate girl that did not compliment him was not acceptable. As a whole, British society in this story is at fault morally because it stopped both of these characters for marrying for love because society told them it was right to only keep up with appearances and what society thought was right.
In Bernard Shaw’s “Mrs. Warren’s Profession”, Shaw writes a feminist play that has an underlying theme concerning gender roles and humorously flipping them. He uses his piece to show that these gender roles are everchanging and to bring about the concept of the New Woman. How the readers first see the male role changed is when Frank is introduced in the play. Frank is supposed to be perceived by the audience as lazy because he is living with his father because he has no job, no means to support himself, and is looking to marry Vivie so he could live off of her money. All of these characteristics could be seen as womanly because women in Victorian society usually did not have a job because it was not very socially accepted, and their parents or guardians would push them to marry people because of their social status as well as how much money they possessed. In counterpart, Vivie defies these stereotypical women’s roles. Vivie says, “I like working and getting paid for it. When I’m tired of working, I like a comfortable chair, a cigar, a little whisky, and a novel with a good detective story in it” (line 166-169). She wants to be independent of her mother; she wants to work for herself. Vivie is Shaw’s example of the New Woman, which is a concept that describes women who are trying to make a name for themselves without anyone’s help or funds. Vivie does not want her mother’s money when she finds out where it comes from. She does not care about society’s perception of her. Mrs. Warren says, “What is any respectable girl brought up to do but to catch some rich man’s fancy and get the benefit of his money by marrying him?-as if a marriage ceremony could make any difference in the right or wrong of the thing! Oh, the hypocrisy of the world makes me sick!” (line 656-661). Mrs. Warren also shares the same ideals as her daughter. Even though her business is scandalous and taboo nonetheless she put society’s perception and views aside to find a way to go into business for herself to provide for her daughter.