Investigating Human Systems Of Domination English Literature Essay

Ecofeminism is a philosophical lens investigating human systems of domination. Francoise d’Eaubonne first created the term "ecofeminism" in 1974, arguing that "the destruction of the planet is due to the profit motive inherent in male power". [1] Ecofeminist theories have been developed diversely in different times, countries or social situations, yet all ecofeminist groups agree that male’s domination on female and nature are joined into male’s superiority in the binary of patriarchal ideology.

Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre and Charles Dickens’ Bleak House are among the most famous and significant British novels in the nineteenth century. In this paper, I will study the ecofeminist consciousness revealed in these three novels through discussing the images of female characters and nature, analyzing male domination on female and nature, as well as female and nature’s resistance, and finally pointing out the limitations of their ecofeminist concerns.

In Frankenstein, Frankenstein’s mother takes great effort to look after her sick father, and after getting married, she takes care of her husband and feeds her children tenderly. Her death transfers the caring duty to their adopted child Elizabeth, who attends to the household attentively and waits for her "cousin" Frankenstein, whom she loves deeply and sincerely. When Frankenstein is in his voyage frustrated by the Monster he created, Elizabeth’s letters can always alleviate his anxiety and agony. Her caring words full of sincere affection are rare things that can tranquilize his heart. The heroine Jane in Jane Eyre is the governess of Mr. Rochester’s ward Adele. Actually, Jane plays not only the role of a teacher teaching Adele knowledge, but at the same time, feeling "a conscientious solicitude for Adele’s welfare and progress", she takes good care of the little parentless girl, and the latter is "committed entirely to [her] care". [2] Jane plays the mother’s role, nursing Adele just as herself is "sa petite maman Anglaise", which means "her little English mother" in French. [3] In Bleak House, Esther is a great model of female caregiver. As the housekeeper of Bleak House, she arranges the household neatly and carefully, and takes care of her "Guardian" Mr. Jarndyce as well as her "cousins" Richard and Ada attentively. Not only nursing these people who can be equaled as her family, she also cares other people around her even strangers. She looks after her maid Charlie when the latter is severely sick, and keeps teaching her grammar. When she first visits Mrs. Jellyby, a woman too absorbed in her charitable cause to pay attention on her family, Esther nurses the little boy Peepy and also becomes the listener and advisor of Peepy’s sister Caddy, with whom she keeps a sincere friendship in her later life.

Those major female characters are all represented with the caring and nurturing ability, a typical quality of women. Since nature also maintains this biological ability, ecofeminism points out that thus nature and female have a kind of inherent affinity. The usual expression "Mother Nature" speaks for the affinity between the two with regard to their similar ability of life-giving, care-giving and nurturing. The images of nature in these three novels also exhibit this quality.

In Frankenstein, Mary Shelly shows nature’s caring and nurturing quality quite explicitly. When the Monster is abandoned by his creator Frankenstein, he learns how to survive and makes his way in the wood. Nature not only feeds him physically with air, water, fruits and vegetables; it also feeds him spiritually with its sunshine, breeze and any other lovely things, as the monster himself narrates, when he saw the most beautiful flowers and verdure, his "senses were gratified and refreshed by a thousand scents of delight, and a thousand sights of beauty". [4] The beauty and majesty of nature also soothes Frankenstein himself when he is desperate and agonized by his creation. When he takes his journey in those magnificent mountains, "these sublime and magnificent scenes afford [him] the greatest consolation", subdue and tranquillize his grief. [5] Nature functions in the similar way to soothe and comfort Jane Eyre several times. When Lowood is haunted by pestilence, Jane lives better rambling all day long in the wood where glows with flowers and fruits, enjoys "fully the beauties of the scene and season", and also enjoys the freedom body and soul "like gypsies". [6] When Jane runs away from Thornfield, she is lost in the moors and also loses the direction of life. Beset by starvation, tiredness and the pain in heart, she seeks protection and repose from nature. The crag and heath provides the place for her sleep, the bilberries appease her hunger, and the silence and serenity of the night tranquilize her heart. Charlotte Bronte praises nature’s caring quality so directly through Jane’s words "I have no relatives but the universal mother, Nature". [7] 

The closeness between female and nature is thus supported by their similar physiological function of reproduction and nurturing. It provides one ideological basis for men to place women and nature in the same position in the hierarchal system of patriarchal ideology. Patriarchal ideology, a conceptual framework "gives higher value, and more privileges and power to men than to women", regards women as weak, emotional, passive, and justifies a system of men’s domination on women. [8] It also perceives nature as submissive and inferior since men play an active role in exploring and changing the natural world while nature is the one to be imposed upon passively. Therefore female and nature are classified in the same submissive and subordinating category, and "women and nature became symbolically linked". [9] The ideas of biological closeness and symbolical affinity between female and nature reinforce each other, justifying the inferiority of female and nature and male superiority and domination.

In the patriarchal ideology, women relates to the domestic sphere, while men belong to the public sphere. [10] In Frankenstein, Elizabeth misses her deeply-loved cousin Frankenstein, yet she can neither go out to travel with him together, nor ask him boldly to come back home giving up his own pursuit; what she can do is nothing but waiting at home anxiously yet patiently and performing the duty of looking after the household.

This binary was intensified in the nineteenth century’s Britain due to a series of social and economic changes brought by Industrial Revolutions and Capitalism, which changed the mode of production and created a economic production system dominated by men, and made women’s lives even further limited. Since the workplace moved outside the home, male and female spheres of activity are clearly separated. Women were not only "excluded from waged labour, but their roles and responsibilities became increasingly restricted to the home, as new ideals of domesticity for women took shape". [11] The employments for women were quite limited; governess is one of the rare proper professions. However, this job was only for those girls coming from a somewhat decent background, like Jane Eyre and St. Rivers’ sisters Diana and Mary. Those from the lowest background had to choose to be servant, like Charlie and Guster in Bleak House. Economy was a powerful weapon to maintain women in the inferior position and under male domination.

Women’s physical disadvantage is another factor that gets them controlled by men. In Bleak House, Jenny and Liz, the two wives of brickmakers, are the victims of their abusive husbands’ violence. Their words and behaviors are so obedient because they know the slightest disagreement would cause beaten from their husbands. Besides violence control, women could be oppressed by means of confinement literally, just like Bertha in Jane Eyre, a woman (as her husband claims) identified by doctors as mad, and although (in her husband words) violent and strong herself, has still been chained miserably in the attic for several years.

In moral aspect, women were considered and required to be pure and void of sexual desire or pleasure. In the Victorian period, a good wife was "the Angel of the House", an image expected to "be devoted and submissive to her husband", and be "passive and powerless, meek, charming, graceful, sympathetic, self-sacrificing, pious, and above all—pure". [12] Once Mr. Rochester reveals his "mad" wife Bertha is "intemperate and unchaste". [13] In this case, a woman’s physical desire was identified as immorality and even madness. Bertha’s tragedy can be said as a tragedy of male oppression on female sexual desire. In Bleak House, Lady Deadlock’s giving birth to a baby before married was a horrible immoral scandal. Her child was taken away by her sister secretly, and she was told that the baby was dead. All her later life, though married a rich man, was totally unhappy and meaningless. When her secret was discovered by Mr. Tulkinghorn, a man who has misogyny and an embodiment of patriarchal ideology, she is like a poor leaf controlled in the man’s hand: "his shadow falls upon her and he darkens all before her", and she can feel "[n]o relief or security from him for a moment". [14] It is not Mr. Talkinghorn the man but the patriarchal social conventions and moral principles he represents suffocate and strangle Lady Deadlock. She chooses to end her own life because she is required by and also internalizes the patriarchal ideology to put her husband’s reputation always in the first place before her life.

Laws were another weapon for men to control women. They were set up by men for their own convenience and to rule women to conduct following men’s desire, as Mr. Talkinghorn claims shamelessly that " the law is so despotic here, that it interferes to prevent any of our good English citizens from being troubled, even by a lady’s visits, against his desire". [15] Men’s domination, exploration and oppression of women, no matter economically, physically or morally, were all justified and intensified by means of laws. Concerned women’s legal status at the 19th Century, it is mentioned:

In the eyes of the law, women did not exist as legal beings in their own right […] When married, all her property passed into the hands of her husband; anything she earned or inherited was his, and her earnings were paid directly to him. […]. Her husband could gain a separation from her on the grounds of her adultery, [while] she could not when he was the adulterer. […]. Husbands legally entitled to beat their wives, provided the stick was not thicker than his thumb. [16] 

Making their domination and women’s subordination legally, men reinforced their superiority. In Warren’s words, men through their up position over women gain "power" and "privileges", which are in turn served to "further increase their privileges and power". [17] 

These three novels expose, consciously or unconsciously, men’s domination and exploitation on women in patriarchal system, and they also touch the issue of humans’ domination and influences on nature and environment.

In human history, human beings get involved inevitably in the natural world and make use of it. The advancement and development foster men’s arrogance and anthropocentrism, an ideology in which nature is put in the inferior position. Men’s target has transferred from making use of nature to controlling and changing it. Rachel Carson points out that "the control of nature is a phase conceived in arrogance…it supposed that nature exists for the convenience of man". [18] The Industrial Revolutions in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in Britain largely enhanced human’s ability of interfering with nature. It changed "the image of nature from a living organism to a machine removed any scruples and limitations for exploitation". [19] With the advancement of machinery, science and technology, though admittedly people’s life has been improved greatly, many negative effects at the same time have been caused onto nature and the living environment.

In Frankenstein, the hero Frankenstein and the narrator Walton are the representatives of the modern man of science. Both of them are attracted by knowledge and driven to explore the natural world. Walton is fascinated by nature and sails on the sea to explore and conquer the unknown natural landscape. Frankenstein is appealed by science. Working on the mystery of life and death, he eventually manages to realize his idea of creating new life by electricity and galvanism. This unrealistic plot represents symbolically men’s hubris in science and reckless inventions: they desire to control life and death which is an ultimate law in nature and cannot be charged by men, who themselves are one part in nature. Here Mary Shelly shows her far-sighted concern on the modern science’s potential negative and dangerous effects. Later in the twentieth century, men did create life by clone and transgenic technologies, which, reckless and risky enough, interferes with the natural law since "once a foreign gene is in the plant, the gene becomes part of the entire ecosystem’, while "only little about the consequences from these interferences" are known. [20] 

Besides the problem of excessive exploration and exploitation, human’s activities towards nature fueled by science and technology have also brought about severe pollutions to the environment. After the Industrial Revolution, the enormous changes in producing mode and lifestyle, the development of transportation, mining technology, and refinement of metals all caused severe air and water pollutions. The fog caused by air pollution once has even become the mark of London. Dickens touches upon this issue in his writings. The fog in London appears several times in Bleak House. Mr. Guppy explains it to Esther as "a London Particular". [21] This bad environment was a severe detriment to people’s health. Remember that in Jane Eyre, the pestilence once spreading in Lowood and causing many deaths is bred by fog. [22] The fog lasted even in twentieth century. In 1953, the great smog once had caused 6,000 deaths and that 25,000 more people had claimed sickness benefits in London during that period. [23] 

Men’s exploitation of nature and domination of women share the same ideological root, as Ecofeminist philosophy holds "women’s subordination to men is only one among many forms of oppression", while "exploitation of nature… has the same structure". [24] Hence the key of resisting male domination lies in breaking the binary of hierarchal structure in patriarchal system and frustrating male self-centrism and sense of superiority, as Nhanenge claims "it is necessary to change patriarchal conceptual frameworks, if we want to eliminate domination, and become truly free". [25] Presenting resistances to male domination either from nature or from female, the three novels show their ecofeminist awareness.

The Monster in Frankenstein actually can be seen as a feminized spokesman of nature. For one thing, he is fed by nature after he is abandoned by his "father" the man of science Frankenstein. In this sense, nature is his mother and maintains his life, so he speaks for nature; for the other, he eats fruits and vegetables, and vegetarianism is often associated with the feminine in the binary thinking. Therefore, in this interpretation, the monster stands for the will of nature and female. His revenge to Frankenstein can be regarded as a challenge and resistance from both nature and female to the self-centered male’s domination and despotism. In the process of his revenge, he drags Frankenstein into the abyss of agony and remorse, and eventually consumes his life. The other representative of men of science Walton is also frustrated by nature. His exploring activity is impeded by the unexplored dangerous icy sea in the North Pole. Nature fights against him and fails his desire of dominating and conquering.

The resistance to male hubris and domination in Frankenstein is largely coming from nature, while in Jane Eyre it is more explicitly from the aspect of female. Bertha’s destroying the Thornfield and disabling Mr. Rochester by fire is a forceful fight against the patriarchal ideology. The building can be seen as a symbol of the male-centered industrial production, and it is also the emblem of confinement to women; while Mr. Rochester is a perfect model of patriarchal man who is strong, tough, feels superior, and holds initiative in relationship between man and women. Bertha’s destructive act with the help of fire, a natural image, can be interpreted as a rebellion and revenge from female joined and armed by nature to frustrate male superiority and domination in patriarchal ideology. Charlotte Bronte expresses her feminist resistance more directly through the famous declaration by Jane to Mr. Rochester:

Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong! --- I have as much soul as you, --- and full as much heart! And if God had gifted me with some beauty and much wealth, I should have made it as hard for you to leave me, as it is now for me to leave you. … we stood at God’s feet, equal, --- as we are! [26] 

In this impressive and resonant speech, Jane asserts her position as an equal being as man. She refuses to be treated as the inferior or subordinating. Disregarding the "custom" and "conventionalities" in the patriarchal society, she cherishes her soul and spirit which are as rich and strong as the "superior" men.

In Bleak House, the resistance to patriarchal ideology and male domination is embodied through Mademoiselle Hortense’s killing of Mr. Tulkinghorn. Tulkinghorn, the lawyer who is superior in economy and social class is the representative of patriarchal men. With a sense of superiority and a power of domination, Mr. Tulkinghorn put all his heart solely and coldly into protecting the reputation of his client Sir Deadlock and his old family, which is actually a protection of patriarchal male superiority and his own economic interest essentially. He hates and disdains women, as he says "… women were created to give trouble, the whole earth over". [27] He doesn’t keep, even doesn’t bother to keep his promise to Hortense of finding her another occupation of maiden, but instead threatens to put her into prison. Hortense’s revenge is a direct and ultimate fight from female to patriarchal male heartlessness and arrogance. Talkinghorn’s death can be interpreted as men at last pay the heavy price for their superiority and domination.

The ecofeminist awareness revealed in Frankenstein, Jane Eyre, and Bleak House was progressive and commendable in the industrializing nineteenth century, however, all their ecofeminist concerns are preliminary and have their own limitations in one way or another.

In the three novels, female resistances against male domination all cause the deaths of female characters. In Frankenstein, the feminized Monster’s revenge to male domination renders another female character become the innocent victim. Justine, the good servant girl and caregiver in Frankenstein’s family is made to be the scapegoat for the murder committed by the Monster, and finally sentenced to death by court, which is again a repressive apparatus dominated by men. In Jane Eyre, in destroying Thornfield and revenging to Mr. Rochester, the poor woman Bertha also sacrifices her own life in the fire. In Bleak House, although the patriarchal man Mr. Tulkinghorn is killed by Mademoiselle Hortense. The latter is also depicted as an evil character since she attempts to incriminate Lady Deadlock. This internal conflict between women hopelessly weakens the female resisting consciousness in this novel. Besides, Lady Deadlock also dies finally in order to protect her husband’s reputation from her own moral depravity, which is judged under the patriarchal ideology in her society.

Besides, the resisting consciousness can be incomplete and self-contradictory. In Frankenstein, the Arabian girl Safie resists her treachery father, disobeys his order, and runs away from him. This can be taken as a quite courageous challenge to the patriarchal system. Yet the significance of her resistance is largely undermined since the destination of her escape is the man she loves, later her husband. She runs from one patriarchal pole to another. Her resistance is blind and she can never escape from the patriarchal system. In Bleak House, Dickens depicts two female characters who are engaged in the charitable "cause": Mrs. Jellyby and Mrs. Pardiggle. The two women do not conform to the expected image of "the Angel in the House". They put their heart and soul into the charitable "cause" which is out of the domestic life. Before Mrs. Jellyby, Mr. Jelly lost almost all his patriarchal superiority and domination. In some sense, this can be interpreted as a kind of resistance and overthrow of the patriarchal ideology. However, Dickens writes with hyperbole the agony these two women incur to their families since they neglect to the domestic sphere. The image of women who try to work on something outside the domestic life presented by Dickens is absurd and abominable.

These limitations might result from the restriction by the strict hierarchy of patriarchal society at that time. Among the three novels, the most explicitly challenge to male superiority and domination might be Jane’s feminist consciousness, and it caused great stir and was criticized severely by those who internalized and defended the patriarchal ideology. The Quarterly’s reviewer Elizabeth Rigby remarked that "if the author [of Jane Eyre] were indeed a woman, she must have long forfeited the society of her own sex". [28] So it was indeed an audacious behavior to challenge patriarchal men’s superiority and to emphasize the equality between men and women at that time. Then those limitations are quite understandable and reasonable. From another perspective, they also imply how strictly the patriarchal ideology was functioned in their society, how solid it was rooted in people’s minds, and how difficult to challenge and resist against it.

The ecofeminist concerns revealed in the three great novels Frankenstein, Jane Eyre and Bleak House though limited are very remarkable. They reflect men’s exploitation of female and nature and also represent women’s and nature’s resistance through various perspectives in the common life in their society and time. Male domination on women and nature share the same binary ideological structure. The key of fighting against the binary system is to frustrate male sense of superiority and to break male domination by women and nature working together and protecting each other.

Work Cited

Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Limited, 1999.

"Coal: Nutty slack." Common Settings of 16 February 1953. 5 December 2011 <>.

Dickens, Charles. Bleak House. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Limited, 2001.

Minogue, Sally. "Introduction." Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Limited, 1999.

Nhanenge, Jytte. Ecofeminism: Towards Integrating the Concerns of Women, Poor People, and Nature into Development. Maryland: University Press of America, 2011.

"Separate Spheres Lecture." 15 Jan. 2013 < _lecture.pdf>.

Shelly, Mary. Frankenstein. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Limited, 1999.

"The Angel in the House." William Makepeace Thackeray Page. 2Mar. 2011. 15 Jan. 2013 <>.