Desire vs. Expectation in George Gissing’s The Odd Women

The Odd Women, by George Gissing, is a story that centers upon the decisions that people make in life and the outside factors that influence these decisions. Gissing looks at the situations of five different women and utilizes their lives to make observations about both the women themselves and the Victorian society in which they must live. Gissing’s decision to focus upon the lives and decisions of five women without husbands and his portrayal of their characters in a fully developed manner, indicates that he was certainly well ahead of his time in regards to feminine depictions in the period. The author incorporates some very unusual characters such as Mary Barfoot and Rhoda Nunn, who dedicate their lives to training young women in learning skills to support themselves. Their stated goal is to help free both sexes from whatever constraints they may find, including even institutions such as marriage. This is a radical departure from the typical subject matter and character portrayal in the period. The following excerpt from The Odd Women is a very good example of the ways that Gissing’s female characters reflect the realities of life within the structures and confines of Victorian era society:Her own future was more hopeful than theirs had ever been. She knew herself good-looking. Men had followed her in the street and tried to make her acquaintance. Some of the girls with whom she lived regarded her enviously, spitefully. But had she really the least chance of marrying a man whom she could respect – not to say love? (Gissing, p.38)In this quote we see that the character Monica has mixed feelings regarding her future. She acknowledges that she has good prospects in certain respects in that she is good-looking and does not lack attention from men or potential suitors. Yet, she is quite concerned that the expectations and constraints of the Victorian society in which she lives will overshadow any chance she has at real happiness. We can see that she is fearful that her society’s preconceived notions of gender construction and social class will adversely affect her ability to live the life she wants. Despite the appearance of having many options at hand, Monica realizes that society has largely dictated what many of her choices may be in the future. Indeed, even the most important choice one can make in life, choosing a husband or wife, may be dictated by societal expectations. This sentiment, as expressed here by Gissing’s Monica, serves to emphasize the futility that many women of the era felt in similar situations. Gissing is illustrating a stark divide between what women of the period want or desire on the one hand, and what society expects of them on the other. He further suggest that the ultimate tragedy of the predicament that these women find themselves in is that they are wholly aware of it as it is happening, yet powerless to do anything about it. Gissing shows how woman such as Monica may have the ability to see that they are being held hostage to society’s constraints, yet they also see no real way out. This leads to the feeling of emptiness and encroaching despair as evidenced by Monica. Monica’s situation reflects the fact that there were limited opportunities in certain areas for women of almost any class, from the lower classes to the very rich. Many women, despite hailing from a good family and obtaining a solid education, still have little or no chance to pursue the avenues that interest them. For example, women were for the most part discouraged from pursuing certain academic disciplines. Education in this period was certainly anything but equal among the sexes or classes. Young “gentlemen” would be educated at home by a private tutor until they were of age to attend Eton or Winchester or one of the elite schools of the day. Here the young man would receive a general education that resembled a liberal arts curriculum today, with an emphasis on the classics and humanities. He might then go on to Cambridge or Oxford for further study in a desired field. Conversely, a “lady’s” education was almost exclusively at home. There was the option of boarding school, but that was more to send the daughter away rather than prepare her for academic or professional pursuits. A concrete example of the disparity between the sexes throughout this period is evidenced by the very fact that women were not permitted to be university teachers as it was deemed to be a male discipline. If a wealthy young lady was fortunate enough, her family might “allow” her the opportunity to learn French, dancing, drawing, or musical pursuits. Yet, this was also more for show than anything else in a way. For example, the reason that a Father might give his daughter piano lessons was more to allow her to serenade guests to the home rather than for her own personal enjoyment. It is important to note that this period was very different than the modern era in many respects. Firstly, women of the Victorian era were far more dependent upon males for their ultimate support and well-being. There was really no way to “go it alone” for a women in this period. Women were dependent upon their husbands in this time and even their brothers. A woman needed to be on her brother’s good side in case her marriage faltered or she failed to find a husband. This is because a women needed a male for monetary support, and in place of a husband, a brother was next in line. This time period was also one in which it was very difficult for a women to establish a positive reputation, but quite easy to be labeled in a negative fashion. For example, even if a male family member did something wrong, it could significantly hurt a woman’s chance of receiving a marriage proposition just by the family affiliation. This was something that was often in the minds of women of the period, and it was not lost on them that at any moment they could be thrown into poverty without the aid of a man. During this period there was even a marked hostility towards women who did not fit the mold, so to speak. Those that chose to try to thwart tradition or societal expectations were deemed to be troublemakers or worse. William R. Greg was one such writer whose work “Why Are Women Redundant?” emphasized many of these notions. In one section Greg states that:The problem…appears to resolve itself into this: that there is an enormous and increasing number of single women in the nation, a number quite disproportionate and quite abnormal; a number which, positively and relatively, is indicative of an unwholesome social state. We must redress the balance. We must restore by an emigration of women that natural proportion between the sexes… (Greg, p.445)While Greg’s suggestion that women who could not find husbands in Victorian England be sent to colonies where men outnumbered them might be taken in jest, it surely illustrates an undercurrent of resentment or hostility towards this group. Some who have given a close look at Greg’s work have maintained that he had a more fully developed understanding of the female situation insofar as he made certain allowances for the “natural” tendency for there to be some women who need not marry (Marcus, p.209). Yet, overall there is little doubt that there was a clear expectation that women were to do what was expected of them in this regard as in all others. For the most part that often meant marrying with social and political considerations as a first concern, and personal happiness as an afterthought. This is something that is clearly emphasized in Gissing’s relatively sympathetic portrayal of his female characters and their predicaments.