A Comparative Study of Female Characters in King Lear, Crime and Punishment and To the Punishment
A heroine can be defined in two different ways: the first, as the principal female character in a novel; or in the second way, as a woman noted for a courageous action or significant accomplishment. The heroines of King Lear, Crime and Punishment and To the Lighthouse fit both these definitions. Cordelia, the good daughter and heroine in King Lear, refuses to insincerely flatter her father with fake professions of love and is consequentially disinherited. Despite this rejection, she still unconditionally loves her father and ultimately returns to save her father from her wicked sisters. Sonya is the heroine of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. She is extremely religious but more devoted to her family. To support her impoverished family, she sacrifices her body as well as her purity by becoming a prostitute. Providing optimism, hope and reassurance to all those around her, Mrs. Ramsay’s role in To the Lighthouse is to bring unity to her family and guests as the provider and caterer to others’ needs. Each of these characters are comparable in that they all embody both meanings of the term heroine; as principal female characters in each work, they are self-sacrificial for the benefits of others around them whom they love, truly a significant accomplishment.
In Shakespeare’s King Lear, Cordelia embodies a heroine through her actions when she selflessly returns to save King Lear from her sisters. Shakespeare characterizes Cordelia as devoted, kind, beautiful, and honest. However, it was this honesty that caused King Lear to disinherit her when she refused to sing him false praises by claiming, “I cannot heave/ my heart into my mouth. I love your majesty/ According to my bond, no more nor less.” (Act I.1. 91-93) Her honesty was perhaps her only fault. This honesty can be contrasted with that of Goneril and Regan, Cordelia’s sisters, who are neither honest nor loving, and who ruthlessly manipulate their father for their own ends. By refusing to take part in Lear’s love test at the beginning of the work, Cordelia establishes herself as a paradigm of virtue, and the apparent authenticity of her love for Lear makes clear the extent of the king’s error in banishing her. When Cordelia returns to rescue King Lear, he says,
“Be your tears wet? Yes, faith. I pray weep not.
If you have poison for me, I will drink it.
I know you do not love me; for your sisters
Have (as I do remember) done me wrong
You do have some cause, they have not.” (IV.7.74-78)
He believes she cannot possibly love him anymore because of his immense wrongdoing. Despite this incredible wrongdoing on King Lear’s part towards Cordelia, her love for him never ceases, nor does she begrudgingly hold his foolishness against him. She makes this clear upon leading France’s invasion into Britain for the sole reason of rescuing her father from the manipulation and mistreatment of Goneril and Regan. In the same scene when King Lear expects mistreatment from Cordelia, she says “No cause, no cause.” (IV.7.79) This is Cordelia’s reunion with King Lear, which indicates the restoration of order in the kingdom; but most importantly the triumph of love and forgiveness over hatred and spite. Ultimately Cordelia and King Lear are captured by Edmund when the French lose the war. Although King Lear hopes to spend time with her to crystallize their reconciliation, she is hanged by Edmund before anyone can begin to help. Thus, Cordelia ultimately gives her life to rescue her father, who unjustly treated her so cruelly, accordingly demonstrating her infinite self sacrifice for the sake of her father whom she dearly loved.
Dostoevsky depicts his heroine, Sonya, as the personification of purity and innocence, despite the fact that she has had to corrupt herself physically by becoming a prostitute to support her destitute family. Sonya is quiet, hesitant, and often frightened, but she is also extremely spiritual as well as committed to her stepmother and sisters. “We’re all one, we live as one,” Sonya says. She even loves her abusive stepmother. She tells Raskolnikov that
“She’s losing her mind, did you notice? She is; she keeps worrying like a little girl that everything should be done properly tomorrow, the meal and everything… then she wrings her hands, coughs up blood, cries and suddenly starts beating her head against the wall as if in despair. And then she gets comforted again; she keeps hoping in you; she says you’ll be her helper now, and that she’ll borrow a little money somewhere, and go back with me to town and start an institution for noble girls, and she’ll make me a supervisor, and a completely new, beautiful life will begin for us, and she kisses me, embraces me, comforts me, and she really believes it! (Dostoevsky 318)
Her self sacrifice for the sake of her family is made even more heartrending by the fact that it would not be necessary were her father able to control his drinking problem. However, it is through the death of her father that Raskolnikov is introduced. When Raskolnikov gives the family money for the funeral, she goes to his apartment to invite him, and there begins their strange relationship. She is not horrified by his crimes, but rather, concerned for his soul and mental well-being, so she urges him to confess. Raskolnikov thinks of her, at first, as a fellow transgressor, someone who has stepped over the line between morality and immorality, just as he has. However, there are crucial differences between their transgressions: she sins for the sake of others, whereas he sins for no one but himself; Raskolnikov’s soul is in turmoil, while Sonya’s is sheltered and secured in her religious faith. She demonstrates this when Raskolnikov asks her if she believes in God and she replies, “what would I be without God?” (Dostoevsky 323). Through her interactions with Raskolnikov, Sonya clearly becomes a Christ-figure because she represents the only way to salvation, which is through faith in God and suffering as a means of bearing the repercussions of one’s actions. Furthermore, Sonya’s devotion is remarkable when she follows Raskolnikov to Siberia for his hard labor. Patiently she waits for Raskolnikov to come to his own repentance, which he finally does at the end. Thus through the extreme measures Sonya takes to provide for her family as well as her gift of salvation to Raskolnikov, Sonya embodies a heroine through her great exhibition of unlimited faith and devotion.
Within To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf depicts Mrs. Ramsay from the very beginning of the novel not only as a woman of great thoughtfulness and tolerance but also as a protector. As the mother and central force maintaining the harmony of guests and family in their vacation home, her primary goal is to provide others with what they need most. For example, in the opening pages Mrs. Ramsay’s principal objective is to preserve her youngest son James’s sense of hope and wonder surrounding the lighthouse. Although she realizes, as perhaps James does himself, that Mr. Ramsay is correct in declaring that foul weather will ruin the next day’s voyage, she persists in assuring James that the trip is a possibility.
” ‘Perhaps you will wake up and find the sun shining and the birds singing,’ she said compassionately, smoothing the little boy’s hair, for her husband, with his caustic saying that it would not be fine, had dashed his spirits she could see. This going to the Lighthouse was a passion of his, she saw, and then, as if her husband had not said enough, with his caustic saying that it would not be fine tomorrow, this odious little man went and rubbed it in all over again.” (Woolf p 15)
She does not do this for the sake of raising her son’s expectations so that they will only be crushed, but rather because she realizes that the beauties and pleasures of this world are ephemeral and should be conserved, sheltered, and cultivated as much as possible. Mrs. Ramsay strives to protect James from the realism of his father as well as give him the hope and reassurance for which he longs. Mrs. Ramsay’s behavior is consistent with the rest of the guests staying in her house. She is so deeply committed to this that she behaves similarly to each of her guests, even those who do not deserve or appreciate her kindness. For example, before heading into town, she insists on asking Augustus Carmichael, whom she senses does not like her, if she can bring him anything to make his stay more comfortable. Similarly, she tolerates the discourteous manners of Charles Tansley, whose acidic attitude and uncomfortable manner threaten to disrupt the careful work she has done toward making a pleasant and inviting home, but more importantly a picturesque environment. Through her constant effort to please those around her, Mrs. Ramsay has no other identity. Thus, Mrs. Ramsay sacrifices her personality and character for the sake of comforting, caring and providing for those surrounding her.
When comparing these three heroines, it is self evident that each suffers a different magnitude of suffering for the benefit of their loved ones. Without question, Sonya suffers to the greatest extent. Her prostitution is not only the rape of her body, but also of her purity. Because she anchors her sole in religion, her damaged purity and spirituality is greater than the physical repercussions of her actions. Regardless, Sonya unrelentingly believes that God will absolve her of her sins because He will understand her cause. Second to Sonya is Cordelia, who ultimately gives her life to save her father. Cordelia would have had just cause to not return to save her father, but because she is the paradigm of virtue, she does just so. While she does ultimately end up dying during her invasion of England, she dies by hanging in a rather swift manner. This does not compare to the horrible, self-depreciating act of prostitution. Finally, there is Mrs. Ramsay who pales in comparison. Her acts are unquestionably self-sacrificial for the sake of other’s needs, however she does not truly or physically suffer. She has grown to love the dependence of others, and has in fact developed a dependency upon people needing her. Without this need, she would be lost. However, with these actions, she loses her own sense of character and identity in the process.
Crime and Punishment, King Lear and To the Lighthouse are all works of great literary merit; however, these three novels are works that could not come from more different genres. From acute Russian poverty to the treacherous, base and deceitful atmosphere of King Lear to the picturesque view of Mrs. Ramsay’s lighthouse, they are unified by their heroines who selflessly perform feats for their loved ones, with the only intention of helping them.
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