Sexuality And The Presentation Of Women English Literature Essay

Women in the Victorian era were considered to obey their husband and conform to the social norms such as keeping the body pure. A woman who didn’t keep her sexual passions in check was thought to have lost her way and would ultimately become shunned by her society. Women were presented as objects that men could own thus creating the image of men being the dominant sex.

James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ addresses the concepts of the Victorian women and presents us the influence of sexual morality upon the characters within the novel. When we are first introduced to Gerty MacDowell, there is a lot of emphasis upon her surrounds. It becomes apparent that romantic novels have influenced her view on the idealistic view of life, which she is evidently longing for. Her narrative describes her appearance in detail, defining her natural good looks as ‘beautiful by all who knew her’ [1] and the attention she spends on upholding her appearance. ‘smiling at the lovely reflection which the mirror gave back to her’ (p. 262). From her beauty and femininity stems her ideas about herself, appearing to be shallow and obsessed with attracting the opposite sex.

Gerty MacDowell’s bleak financial prospects motivate her need to attract a suitable husband. Growing up her house was plagued by domestic violence and alcoholism, ‘her own father, a prey to the fumes of intoxication, forgot himself completely’ (p. 265). This fuels her need to find an upstanding father figure to replace that which she had in her youth. However it could be argued that the reason that she is still longing for a man is that she cannot bring herself to trust any man, as her father was the only man in her life with which she could take an example from.

Had her father only avoided the clothes of the demon drink… she might now be rolling in her carriage, second to none… but [alcoholism] had cast its shadow over her childhood. (p. 265)

This suggests that Gerty’s view of men could become warped through the actions of her father, exposing her to the cruelty of adult life while still a child. Her childhood wasn’t filtered from the horror of adult life, thus resulting in an inability to be in a fulfilling relationship. Despite her upbringing and witnessing her father succumb to the ‘demon drink’ (p. 265) Gerty still tries to hold on to what society has told her to be, the ‘sterling good daughter’ (p. 265) she believes she ought to be. In spite of this the view of Gerty portrayed to the reader is one that the society has created; she has concealed her own feelings and truths that may be unpleasant.

she had even witnessed in the home circle deeds of violence caused by intemperance and had seen her own father… forget himself completely for if there was one thing of all things that Gerty knew it was the man who lifts his hand to a woman… be branded the lowest of the low. (p. 265)

It becomes clear that Gerty’s childhood was riddled with violence additionally has strong feelings about her father and idealistic views of men as whole, however she is deluded by the rules of society to feel and say what she actually feels further shrouding areas of reality she believes she should not face. [2] 

Although she knows that marriage is her only escape from her life as it is, however not only does her background psychologically hold her back from engaging in relationships, as Maria Luddy suggest, the current state of women in Ireland also hinders her longing for marriage. From 1901-1911 female celibacy levels doubled, indicating an increasing view of a poor catholic women. [3] However this doesn’t stop her from seeking a husband that can provide for her and fill the void that her father was unable to fill, she longs for an older man with ‘hair slightly flecked with grey’ (p. 263). That can ‘take her in his sheltering arms.’ (p. 263). She actively desires a man that can replace the father figure that she never had when growing up, she requires the security that can only be found in a loving father. [4] 

Gerty conforms to the idealistic view of women in classic Hollywood cinema, simply as an object to be gazed and viewed by a controlling male stare. ‘he was eyeing her as a snake eyes its prey.’ (p. 269) The objectification becomes apparent with the exhibition she performs for Bloom, ‘[Holding a pose] lost in thought, gazing far away in the distance’ (p. 260). She allows herself to be used by the dominant male for a means of pleasure, emphasising how she separates herself from the typical innocent young girl. She is in fact in control of the situation while allowing the male to believe that she is oblivious to his viewings. ‘Gerty could see without looking that he never took his eyes off her.’ (p. 269) This artful performance simulates the method of the ‘Mutoscope’ that became very popular in the early 1900’s. This allowed people, mainly males, to view women while placing themselves in a dominant position having control over the wrench to cycle through the numerous women contained within the Mutoscope this reveals that she is not a victim of Bloom’s sexual desire but is in fact an expert in exploiting it. She is able to which roles, becoming the more dominant character, and take pleasure in his reaction which ‘set her tingling in every nerve’ (p. 269). rather than simply becoming an object to which he finds entertaining on face value. [5] 

Molly Bloom shows that she is a dominant character with the novel as well; however she creates this image differently than Gerty. Molly dominants the men that she engages in relationships with rather than with the general public of males, She is the principal individual in her relationships, taking on the dominant male role. On the day that her and Bloom were engages she ‘got him to propose’ (p. 525) and Blooms memory enhances this image of Molly’s dominance as he recalls that ‘she kissed me, I was kissed.’ (p. 505). Both of these incidences place Molly in the typical male role suggesting that the women actually control the men rather than the other way around. Her dominance isn’t limited to Bloom either, she recalls how she came to win Boylan by actively pursuing him, after she had set eyes upon and wanting him, by visiting the place she had first met him for ‘2 days after in the hope’ (p. 497).

those awful names with bottom in them Mrs Ramsbottom or some other kind of a bottom Mulvey I wouldnt go mad about either or suppose I divorced him Mrs Boylan my mother whoever she was might have given me a nicer name. (p. 510)

This presents the reader with an insight into the beliefs that Molly’s holds and how she perceives the world. She believes that she is entitled to sexual freedom and should be able to make her own choices in life and with relationships. This is further enforced through her actions of comparing both Bloom and Boylan, this comparison allows her to make a choice of which she considers to seek a relationship with.

Within John Fowles’ ‘The French Lieutenant’s women’ sexuality and the presentation of women differs to that of ‘Ulysses’. Whereas the women in ‘Ulysses’ are shown in control of the opposite sex, the women in ‘The French Lieutenant’s women’ ultimately seek to break from the patriarchal sexual and social dominance put upon them by the Victorian society. Sarah is a prime example of a woman trying to break free of the bonds that come with the notion of being a Victorian upper class lady ‘I wish to be what I am, not what a husband, however kind, however indulgent, must expect me to become in marriage.’ [6] Sarah’s love affair with the French Lieutenant and visits to the Undercliff create an aura of resentment around herself from the other women within the novel. She is in direct violation of the beliefs and rules of an upper class lady and is thus excluded by the citizens of Lyme. Sarah doesn’t allow herself to be confined by the sexual principles, permitting the rumours of sleeping with the French Lieutenant to circulate. ‘Given the veneer of a lady, she was made the perfect victim of a caste society’ (p. 50). This ultimately leads to Charles becoming curious about her, and eventually builds to Sarah leaving Charles after they both have sex. This shows that Sarah has control over Charles despite the rumours suggesting otherwise. However allowing the rumours to circulate has created the Victorian society, who attach great importance to the idea of virginity, to label her a whore and a fallen women. This shows how struggling against the sexual constraints can change a woman’s position to an upstanding member of society to an outcast shunned by the rest of the public. Towards the end of the novel Sarah appears as a new woman, refusing the bonds of marriage with Charles. This transformation sets her above the Victorian women and shows that she has broken free of the rules of the Victorian society and she can truly be free.

Similar to Gerty, Sarah appears to have control over the opposite sex without men knowing they are in fact being dominated rather than the other way around; both of their strategies consist of subtlety and not being forthright with their intentions, whereas Molly is shown to dominate men much more socially. The women in ‘Ulysses’ control the men in the novels while still being socially accepted, however Sarah is considered a sexual rebel and is excluded socially from other characters.

Ernestina on the other hand is the social norm of the Victorian era, she is used as a figure of the sexual restraints that women held. ‘Ernestina wanted a husband, wanted Charles to be that husband, wanted children; but the payment she vaguely divined she would have to make for them seemed excessive.’ (p. 30). She is the opposite of Sarah, conforming to the ideals of Victorian women, doing what is told of her by Charles and generally representing the morals of the Victorian women. The sexual repression that is channelled through Ernestina becomes reinforced by the notion that intercourse is considered beastly by the women of the era ‘She had once or twice seen animals couple; the violence haunted her mind.’ (p.30). This suggests that her sexual desires must be suppressed in order to keep her femininity intact and to be socially accepted by society. [7] 

Both ‘Ulysses’ and ‘The French Lieutenant’s Women’ portray the concepts of the morals of Victorian women in England, however in different ways they also show women’s desire to break free from the social norm. Gerty gains control over men through her sexual exhibition in which she allows Bloom to believe he is the dominant half whereas Gerty skilfully exploits his sexual desires for her own personal gain. Molly is less subtle and socially controls the men in her life. She actively dominates the relationships she engages in and is unashamed to show her dominance. However Sarah wishes to break free from society and no longer be suppressed by the morals held by the women of the Victorian era, much to the disgust of the fellow characters within the novel.