The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox (2006) by Maggie O’Farrell presents the powerlessness of women through Esme’s fate in the institution after her refusal to conform to married life, and also via Kitty’s expectations to become a wife and mother (and thus not pursue further education). O’Farrell also uses Iris as an example of a character in the modern day who challenges this when having sexual relationships with her stepbrother and a married man. In contrast, Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) by Jean Rhys, perhaps driven by her own feminist agenda, presents female powerlessness in the context of the early 19th century, through the character of Antoinette, who is forced to marry an Englishman in order to be accepted by society. Rhys also contrasts her with Christophine, a black woman who lives alone and practises Obeah, a magic considered taboo. In both novels, patriarchal power controls all female characters in some respect, whether it is through money, marriage or freedom of expression.
Iris from The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox and Christophine from Wide Sargasso Sea are both examples of women who, it can be argued, have some power within society due to their decisions to rebel; both characters are unconventional portrayals of women, engaging in unorthodox behaviour and valuing their own interests and needs above conforming to the traditional expectations of women. Firstly, Iris has a sexual relationship with both a married man, Luke, and her stepbrother, Alex. This would be deemed wrong by society, as she has not undergone the traditional conventions of engaging in a marital relationship before a sexual one. Although views of marriage in the early 2000s had evolved rapidly from previous ones, women in the modern day are still expected to marry a respectable husband and to be faithful to him. Therefore, women who commit adultery are considered to be sinful and not respectable. Sexual encounters with a stepsibling could be interpreted as incest, even though they aren’t related by blood, and deemed immoral. Despite this, Iris has sexual encounters with both these men, showing her lack of regard for these views. Perhaps O’Farrell is implying that Iris has some power over these male characters through sex; Luke dishonours his wife on many occasions to be with her and Alex ignores their sibling status to have sexual intercourse with her. However, she must do these acts in secret, and expresses her guilt as she tells Luke, ‘I don’t want you to leave her on my account’ when he wants to tell his wife about her. The use of, ‘her’ as a term of address – as opposed to her name – suggests the idea of guilt as perhaps this is an attempt to completely depersonalise her to avoid feeling empathy for her. Also, Iris knows that having a sexual relationship with Alex is wrong as O’Farrell reveals in a stream of consciousness that she, ‘cannot imagine what Luke would say, how he would respond’, meaning she avoids telling people as she is aware of the negative reaction it would have. The fact that Iris knows what she is doing would not be accepted by society reveals that she is still under the influence of social expectations. Her freedom is still restricted, although much less than so than Antoinette in Wide Sargasso Sea or Esme and Kitty in The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox.
Similarly, Christophine is unconventional in how she lives alone and has children without a husband. Rhys creates a contrast in relation to independence between the newly married Antoinette and Christophine. Despite being a former slave, Christophine has the ability to live individually with a house and garden of her own and is free to leave a relationship if she pleases with her own belongings. She disapproves of Rochester’s control of Antoinette, telling her, ‘Three children I have… each one a different father, but no husband, I thank my God. I keep my money. I don’t give it to no worthless man.’ She clearly despises traditional marriage and male control, implied through the words, ‘I thank my God’ revealing just how strongly she feels about this. The religious imagery suggests she feels accepted by God, which is contrasting to popular Christian beliefs of God at the time (that he only approved of children within marriage). In the 1840s women were supposed to be completely dependent on men and all of their possessions went to their husband. The fact that Christophine rejects this shows she is not forced to conform to these expectations. She is also free to act how she pleases like Iris, practising Obeah, a faith that was deemed sinful and strange to people in this era, often associated wrongfully with witchcraft. But similarly to Iris, Christophine is also confined to secrecy; she must live away from civilization so that she is not frowned upon for her choices. Eventually Christophine is arrested for her obeah practices, rendering her helpless and unable to protect Antoinette from her fate in England. The consequences of Christophine’s behaviour are much more severe than Iris’s as in the 1930s women were treated much harsher than in recent times for being unconventional. She faces imprisonment simply for having a belief that is unknown and misunderstood by society. Therefore, despite the fact that both these characters are able to challenge society’s expectations of women, they do not succeed in overpowering it. Both Iris and Christophine are forced to hide themselves in order to avoid punishment for their actions, meaning they are still in many ways controlled by expectations and ultimately powerless in a patriarchal society.
Moreover, both Antoinette and Esme seek refuge from the pressures of patriarchy via nature and express themselves in ways which do not conform to society’s expectations of women. As a result, they are resented by their parents as they cannot understand them. For example, one of Esme’s first memories is when she was tied to a chair. Esme remembers being, ‘strapped to a chair, the binding tight across her middle’ during a meal where her mother has guests over. This literal restraint implies that Esme is trapped within a world she does not belong. The adjectives, ‘strapped’ and, ‘tight’ are both very aggressive and forceful words, usually associated with someone in prison or a victim of punishment. The fact that Esme is tethered to the chair via her mother’s scarf could symbolise how her mother chooses to restrict Esme, and that she believes in discipline over understanding and love. It is then explained that Esme, ‘loved the space under the table’. This is something most people wouldn’t be able to appreciate or understand, as underneath the table isn’t a place people are supposed to go. As Esme is a small child this behaviour isn’t particularly strange, and would be laughed at by most people in the modern day, however, in the 1930s behaviour like this would be treated as unusual. Members of society, especially those in the upper class, were all expected to follow a certain social etiquette, and their idea of ‘normality’ was for everyone to obtain impeccable manners. When all of the guests get up to look at something Esme remains trapped in her chair. The literal separation between Esme and all of the others who have left the table could be symbolic of how Esme will never fit into society. Esme then notices how, ‘lilies stand, proud and impassive, in a glass vase; the clock counts down seconds, a napkin slips to a chair’. The use of a list of adjectives allows the reader to have an insight into Esme’s thought process and we see how easily distracted but observant she is. The personification and natural imagery of the clock counting down and the lilies being proud and impassive could be foreshadowing the future negative events that happen to Esme as this is an unnatural view of the objects. It could also imply that Esme has a wild imagination as she is able to give human qualities to inanimate objects. In addition, Esme is discouraged by her father from continuing her education to university. In the 1930s, women weren’t expected to go into higher education, and limited to the private sphere, as shown through Kitty’s stream of consciousness, ‘I wasn’t to go to school. It wasn’t done, a girl my age. I was to stay and help with the house’. They were expected to maintain a good, clean household for their husband, cook for him and raise their children. Men, on the other hand, were able to continue education in order to attain a respectable job within the public sphere.
Likewise, ideals of traditional feminine etiquette are presented to Antoinette when she is a girl at the convent school. Miss Germaine and Helene de Plana demonstrate the traditional British female attributes that Antoinette is to learn and embody, including beauty, chastity and mild, even-tempered manners. Mother St. Justine praises the ‘poised’ and ‘imperturbable’ sisters, suggesting this is an ideal of womanhood and that Antoinette’s own hot and fiery nature is undesirable and to be suppressed. In fact, it is Antoinette’s passion that contributes to her implied madness and unfortunate fate. Antoinette’s love of nature and eccentric personality is also despised by Rochester, who claims that he ‘hated the mountains and the hills, the rivers and the rain. I hated the sunsets of whatever colour, I hated its beauty and its magic and the secret I would never know’ before deciding to take her to England. The repetition of ‘I hated’ depicts his passion and the listing technique reveals the extent of his dislike, as he wishes for his wife to be ‘normal’ and submissive as opposed to expressive. Rhys compares the garden at Coulibri Estate to the biblical Garden of Eden as it is vibrant and luxurious, but also holds a sense of loss of innocence. She claims that the garden has ‘gone wild,’ assaulting the senses and flowers are described as appearing slightly sinister, with one orchid being ‘snaky looking,’ arguably reflecting man’s decline into greed and sensuality due to the arrival of women in the bible story. This personification of nature is similar to how Esme describes it, revealing their similarly vivid imaginations. When she recalls going for a walk as a child, she says, ‘if the razor grass cut my legs and arms I would think, ‘It’s better than people’’ revealing how she too literally was separated from society. She despises others as she does not fit into their expectations and is therefore punished and shunned, just as Esme felt as a child. Her love of nature is again expressed as she recalls, ‘it was as if a door opened and I was somewhere else, something else. Not myself any longer’. It is clear that Antoinette prefers the natural world to society as it allows her to be free from judgement and alone to do what she wishes and be who she wants to be.
Both of the novels explore the idea of marriage as a patriarchal institution and demonstrate how it can be comparable to a business deal or a result of convenience rather than a product of romance and genuine love. For example, faced with the restraints of polite society, Esme rebels and Kitty conforms. Esme is a free spirit, living before her time, having no desire to be married off but wanting to go to university and be independent. Kitty is more conventional and is desperate to find a husband. We are given an insight into what married life is like for women through Kitty’s streams of consciousness, where she reveals snippets of her past. Also, as a punishment for Esme’s unusual behaviour, her mother decides that she ‘most certainly is’ going to the party. The finality of the adverb ‘certainly’ reveals how Esme will be given no say in the matter, and that she will be forced to marry James rather than falling in love with him. Her mother then ‘takes Esme’s arm and pulls her towards the dressing-table’. This physical image could also represent Esme’s powerlessness in the situation. The description of how she tells Esme to ‘Sit,’ and pushes Esme on to the stool’ again reinforces this idea, and could also suggest that Esme is being dehumanised as usually household pets are commanded to sit, hinting at the theme of ownership of women. Women in the 1930s were owned by their parents until they met a man to own them in marriage. The phrase, ‘marry her off to the Dalziel boy’ suggests her mother has no concern for Esme’s happiness, but is purely interested in getting rid of her and protecting their family’s image. James is from a respectable family and seems the only hope for Esme as a potential husband, making Esme’s mother desperate for them to marry as this was expected of women in this era. Her mother goes on to wonder if ‘a few months as James Dalziel’s wife’ will be enough to break your spirit’. Perhaps O’Farrell is attempting to suggest to the reader that marriage, and its patriarchal nature, would be oppressing enough to make even Esme, with her wild personality and imagination, be deemed ‘normal’.
Furthermore, the idea of women depending financially on men is also explored in Rhys’ novel. After the death of her first husband, it can be interpreted that Antoinette’s mother views her second marriage to Mr. Mason as escapism from her life at Coulibri and a chance to regain status in society. In the 1800s, upper and middle class men viewed marriage as an opportunity to increase their wealth by granting them access to their wives’ inheritance. With both Antoinette and her mother, womanhood is related to a kind of childlike dependence on the male characters, and it is this dependence that contributes to the demise of both these women. They both marry white Englishmen in the hope of becoming accepted members of society and no longer considered outsiders, but the men betray and either abandon them or hide them away. Antoinette, like Esme, is also given little influence on if or who she marries. She and Rochester have never previously met until this point and so hardly know each other, yet through the arrangement of Mr. Mason and Rochester’s family, it is decided that it would be best for them to marry. All a woman’s possessions and money were to be owned completely by their husband until the First Married Women’s Property Act of 1870. Without that money of her own, a married woman was economically powerless. Rochester was left with no inheritance, but he claims, ‘thirty thousand pounds have been paid to me without question or condition’ when he marries Antoinette, protecting him financially. This suggests that the marriage is more similar to a business deal than true love, as Rochester describes how, ‘I have not bought her, she has bought me, or so she thinks’. His blunt language could imply his lack of affection towards her and that his only interest is to, ‘never be a disgrace’ to his father. Antoinette has no option but to marry Rochester as otherwise, she is seen to have no future as a woman. Just like Esme, she would not have been expected to go into higher education or work. Marriage gives her a reason to live, as she is expected to look after her husband, home and future children, similar to how Kitty is desperate to find a husband as her only skills are within the household. Ultimately, both of these novels feature the protagonists who are forced to enter a patriarchal institution within marriage in order to continue. They are not given the option to become successful independently, suggesting that throughout time, women are restricted to very few options in life and are given virtually no freedom of choice.
Sex is used by male characters as a way to exert power over women in both novels. This occurs in The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox when James rapes Esme and in Wide Sargasso Sea when Rochester has sex with Amelie. James uses his physical force as he pushes Esme down on the floor and, ‘jammed a hand over her mouth’. The verb, ‘jammed’ is incredibly aggressive, revealing his lack of regard for Esme’s comfort whilst also highlighting his ability to silence Esme without her being able to stop him. Despite her efforts to equal his strength as she, ‘kicked’ and, ‘hit out at him’ Esme fails to have any impact on what happens. The final result of this incident is that Esme is so affected by what has happened she continually screams and is taken to the institution, showing the extreme outcomes of patriarchal power. Similarly, Rochester also uses sex to emotionally damage Antoinette. When engaging in adultery with Amelie, it can be argued that Rochester is fully aware of Antoinette’s ability to hear them, meaning that he intended to ‘break’ her so that he could have full control over her. This idea is highlighted when Christophine says to Rochester that he, ‘make love to her till she drunk with it’ and that, ‘all you want is to break her up’. This creates the idea that Rochester uses sex as a way to control Antoinette and not at all to pleasure her, like James with Esme. The result of this with Antoinette is similar in the fact she too becomes imprisoned, but in England with Rochester.
In addition, Kitty and her husband’s sexual relationship within their marriage is similarly as unhealthy, but in a complete different way. We see how she feels pressured to please her husband and have a baby with him, shown via her shock at him showing no interest in sex and repeatedly saying, ‘You must be tired’ despite her attempts at submitting. She does not understand sex as this topic would have been considered taboo to discuss with young girls, however knows that men usually expect this in a marriage. Her husband appears to be homosexual, which was considered sinful in the 1930s, meaning he too is forced into marriage due to society’s expectations. This incredibly unhealthy relationship demonstrates the effects of constraints and expectations of marriage at the time. Kitty even resorts to taking Esme’s baby as her own to conform to society’s expectations of women to become mothers.
The fates of both Antoinette and Esme share some parallels in relation to the limiting effects of patriarchy on women. Both women are physically trapped and kept away from the rest of the world due to their failures to conform. Esme is confined to a psychiatric hospital as a result of her extreme reaction to being raped and accumulation of her controversial behaviour. There she is denied the freedom to live how she wishes, and isn’t even allowed outside to see fresh air. She is also denied her identity, as the nurses refer to her as her birth name, ‘Euphemia’ and refuse to call her Esme, as she requests, concluding she is not in a stable state of mind. These cruel attitudes towards the mentally ill seem extremely apparent in the part of the novel set in the 1930s, however are also present in the modern day sections, as Alex calls Esme, ‘the mad old woman’ which is extremely dehumanising. Shanna Freeman explains that, ‘psychiatric care in the 1930s was still very limited. There was essentially no treatment for schizophrenic patients’. She also goes on to explain how nurses and doctors attempted to cure patients through harsh physical means as opposed to caring for and treating them. Esme lives in this depressing setting for over sixty years, and is not even granted freedom at the end of the novel, as we can only presume she will once again return to a new hospital or serve a prison sentence for avenging herself and killing her sister.
Antoinette on the other hand, is trapped in Rochester’s attic in England after her failure to become anglicised. Antoinette is denied her birth name by Rochester, a parallel to Esme not being called her preferred name. Rochester uses, ‘Annette’, ‘Marionette’ and most predominantly, ‘Bertha’ as a term of address for Antoinette, which depersonalises her. Similarly to Esme, Antoinette is also never to be released from this setting, and instead has to resort to suicide as a form of escapism. Rochester is not doing anything against the law in imprisoning his wife, whether she was mad or not. Married women who ran away from the family home could be forcibly returned to it. And so, as she too is still not free at the end of the novel, as her last opportunity to escape comes as she sets Thornfield on fire and dies, as we are to believe in Jane Eyre.
Women are presented as ultimately powerless in a patriarchal society in both novels, revealing how their limitations have not significantly altered over time. English law did not recognise women as independent entities at all until 1839, which is reflected in Wide Sargasso Sea while The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox explores how despite more laws and rights associated with female power being introduced, social attitudes towards women have hardly changed. The subjection of women to male authority is an important theme in both novels; Rhys illustrates the painfully limited role of women in Victorian society as Antoinette is unable to free herself from Rochester’s brutality due to her having no financial independence, whereas O’Farrell depicts how women in the 1960s were expected to conform to social etiquette and be submissive, and where considered unstable if they rebel as Esme does. In Wide Sargasso Sea, Rochester represents the ultimate in patriarchal tyrants, but other male characters in the novella also displays deep-seated feelings of misogyny, including Mr. Mason. Men such as Esme’s father, James and Alex embody the idea of a dominant male; however, in The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox it is Esme’s mother and women who work at the institute who enforce this on Esme, revealing how all members of society have become too familiar with this social system. With the possible exceptions of Christophine and Iris, men deprive all of the female characters in both texts of their agency, something Rhys and O’Farrell clearly find deplorable.