Struggle of Women Heroines

In both novels “Portrait of a Lady” by Henry James and “The Age of Innocence” by Edith Wharton, we see female heroines combating the “Old World” vs the “New World” on values and culture regarding marriage and women. The different relationships of lovers and marriages are used to represent the greater issues in societies and the shift of women’s freedom.

“Portrait of a Lady” combats the conflict between society and individualism through Isabel Archer, a woman who must decide between her desire for independence and the demands of married women in society.

The novel is set during the nineteenth century, a time in which there was a shift in writing from spiritual to the harsh realities of society. James discusses the perception of marriages and freedom and demonstrates a revolutionary idea of a new role of women and how easily it is to be influenced by society.

Isabel’s first suitor, the son of a wealthy Boston mill owner, is named Caspar Goodwood the age of innocence.

Isabel refuses his marriage proposal due to her strong commitment to her independence and the idea that marriage is a trap from freedom. Isabel says, “I like him extremely; I‘m very free to admit that. But I don‘t wish to marry anyone just now”, (James, 103) which indicates how she is taking responsibility in making her own choices about marriage. Freedom for Isabel was the ability to make choices, especially about marriage, something women did not have or do at the time.

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Very rarely did women have the ability to be financially and socially independent from men. Most times a husband or male relative will provide support for them. They, instead, were to represent a feminine role dedicated to the domestic life of motherhood and family.

Isabel believes that marriage will impede her freedom. Her ideas of liberty and her dreams are then forgotten after she marries Osmond. Gilbert Osmond is a man who treats her as an object and is using her for her money. In doing this, Henry James is breaking the societal ideals that all men are capable and responsible for stability. If a man fails to take over their expected role he is seen as incompetent and lazy. Instead, Henry breaks “Old Age” traditional ideals and presents Isabel, a woman, as the source of stability an idea unheard of at the time.

In marrying Osmond, Isabel falls back into the Victorian society customs. Other characters even take notice of Isabel’s change. Henrietta exerts her influence to prevent Isabel from being further influenced by the “Old World” culture, “She is not the bright American girl she was. She is taking a different view and turning away from her old ideals. I want to save those ideas”, (James, 109). She thinks Isabel is changing her values and sees the shift of persona in Isabel, she even states, “Well, I don‘t care; you have changed. You are not the girl you were a few short weeks ago and Mr. Goodwood will see it. I expect him here any day” (James, 92).

Shortly after a year into her marriage Isabel and Osmond despise each other and she must choose whether to honor her vows and keep her social propriety or leave her marriage and attempt a happy independent life. The chance for Isabel to leave her marriage is turned down because she feels that the bond of marriage means she can’t do absolutely as she pleases, she now has responsibilities to own up to. Thus, she passes up this opportunity for happiness and returns to a loveless marriage in Rome.

Much like Isabel, Ellen Olenska in “The Age of Innocence” brehusbandaks societal norms in the novel. Olenska represents experience, the opposite of innocence. She was already married, and thus she is no longer a virgin. Olenska reveals her struggle within her marriage in which her husband commits infidelity and abused her. Often women did not travel for pleasure or to learn and to experience. Like Isabel, Olenska has traveled widely, which makes both characters wise and knowledgeable. Automatically Olenska is described differently than those around her. Her style of dress and her manners are exotic to New York eyes, especially in her interactions with men. In elitist’s minds, a man’s infidelity is not a violation of the code yet a woman abandoning her husband under any circumstances is. Although Archer is initially irritated by the negative social repercussions of Ellen’s lack of innocence, it soon becomes one of the characteristics that most attracts him to her. Ellen’s experience allows Archer to meet her as an equal, whereas he must hide parts of himself to protect May, his wife, and often feels that he can’t have sincere discussions with her.

Both Isabel and May are motivated by what society believes their social duty is, to remain loyal to their husbands to belong to the high, intellectual, and respectful elite. Despite knowing that Archer has fallen for Ellen, May would never leave him or allow him to leave her. May is committed to traditions, propriety, and hierarchy and would never allow for a scandal to break its societal image. If they both fail to do so, they will be socially outcasted and singled out. Isabel, despite not truly loving her husband, still returns from America to him. She views her marriage as a charity to Osmond, something to dedicate her life to in which she conforms to conventional ideas at the time. Both Isabel and May’s decisions reveal the influence society and culture have an important influence in married women’s decisions.

In both novels’ family is a unifying principle where members are expected to exhibit loyalty to their relations. Families must keep all members in line with societal expectations and norms. When scandal does occur, they must remain in a unified front unbreaking a perfect image. In “Age of Innocence” the Wellands and Archers still support and take in Ellen although they disapprove of her way of life. Archer also falls back in line with societal order so that he is not a rogue to society and his pregnant wife.

Considering the social and political context of the time, both authors expose a truth that was not commonly spoken at this time; that women are flawed, and they make mistakes. This is shown with another character Madame Merle. Madam Merle portrays Osmond as an ideal man for Isabel and deceives her into marrying him. Henry James reveals that not all women are innocent and display loyalty but are capable of deception, lying, greed, and lack of sexual innocence. In “Age of Innocence” it becomes clear that May’s innocence is partly an act. For example, Archer eventually realizes that she knows of his feelings for Ellen, and she has intentionally made it impossible for him and Ellen to run off together. Even so, May never acknowledges what she knows or what she’s done; instead, she maintains the illusion that Archer has successfully concealed his affair. This is what society demands, and she never strays from its path.

In conclusion, we see all characters fall into societal norms and expectations and never completely break them. Archer is forced to fall back into line with society to avoid being a complete scoundrel by abandoning his pregnant wife. May continues to play the ideal female role as a wife and mother. Isabel chooses not to leave her married life for freedom and true love. Despite all characters having different opinions and views on the traditional culture, none manage to escape it. All fall back into societal expectations showing the power that culture and hierarchy have on society and families.

Sound and The Fury

“Sound and the Fury”, by William Faulkner is a four-part novel, and unlike most novels, it has four different narrators. Benji, Quentin, Jason, and the Voice in the Sky capture the death of the Compson family and reveals the breakup of hierarchies. The Voice in the Sky is an omniscient narrator in the final section of the novel. Most readers would refer to this section as Dilsey’s section because it follows her actions closely, however, the narrator’s voice isn’t hers. Breaking up the novel into four narratives allows us to view that all the Compson children are special and different. All children have different perspectives on their families, lives, and sorrows. The different narrators allow for the revelation of a women’s role and importance in Southern conservative society.

Readers are introduced to the novel through Benjy. Due to his mental disability, his thoughts are hard to understand. It is difficult to distinguish between the past and present in which his mind jumps from one period to another and he has no sense of time. Although readers may be confused, Benjy’s narrative creates suspense for the novel, a puzzle that readers must sort out to understand the Compson family. This allows Faulkner to connect past and present events. Readers begin to see a pattern in which he mostly focuses on Caddy through his narrative. For Benjy, Caddy was a motherly figure. Benjy counts on her to care for him and is obsessed with her purity. For example, ‘Caddy was all wet and muddy behind, and I started to cry’ (Faulkner 19). The mud on her underwear prefigures Caddy’s later promiscuity which Benjy can sense but not explain to his audience. He also realizes whenever something is fallen out of pattern and is different from Caddy it sends him into chaos. Benjy notices a difference in Caddy’s perfume which disturbs him greatly because he pieces together that she has lost her innocence.

Quentin, the second narrator is obsessed with time. Quentin’s father gave him a watch which increases his obsession. The watch is his family heritage which only contributes to his guilt and horror in Caddy’s loss of virginity and her sins. He only sees how his family has fallen in which Caddy’s loss of virginity is a sign of loss of family honor. Southern values are heavily expressed in this section which we can see with his obsession with the past. His want to commit incest with Caddy does not stem from lust but to preserve her for himself forever. Quentin’s struggle to reconcile and preserve Caddy’s actions with his own traditional Southern value system reflects Faulkner’s broader concern with the fight between traditional values and the modern world. In Quentin’s inability to uphold these traditional views he feels as if a sense of order is slipping away. He is unable to escape his preoccupation with time and attempts to break the watch to alleviate his obsession. Quentin has a tragic ending in which his obsessions lead him to commit suicide.

Faulkner sets the tone of Jason’s narrative from the first sentence, “Once a bitch always a bitch, what I say” (Faulkner, ). Jason, the third narrator is shown as the most untrustworthy, sadistic, and bitter Compson. Jason Compson is the head of his family after his father’s death. In contrast to his brothers, his narration has a logical stream of consciousness and is clear and precise which can show his lack of emotion and care. His obsession for Caddy is hatred and not love nor lust. His relationship with Caddy degenerated into financial terms. When Caddy loses her virginity, Jason views her at fault for losing his job at the bank, however, doesn’t appreciate that without her he wouldn’t have even had a job offer in the first place.

The three first narrators share an obsession with Caddy. Benjy counts on her to take care of him and is obsessed with her purity; Quentin, likewise, has an obsession with her purity, which facilitates a borderline incestuous desire; and Jason becomes obsessed with narratives here, as she is the reason he loses his brass-ring job at the bank. All three cling to the ideas of what Caddy has lost for them and her innocence being the key.

The fourth section, the omniscient narrator, differentiates from the other narrators. Faulkner doesn’t allow Dilsey to have her voice and didn’t allow for a woman to inhabit the experiences of a woman. All women in the novel are talked about, yet, we never spend time in timenarrativestheir heads in which we can see their thoughts and emotions. Rather, we spend the novel in men’s heads and narrative.

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Struggle of Women Heroines. (2022, May 08). Retrieved from

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