A Thousand Splendid Suns and Tess of the D’Urbervilles: Women Against Men Domination
In both ‘A Thousand Splendid Suns’ by Khaled Hosseini and ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’ by Thomas Hardy, the authors both use their own individual narratives to demonstrate the unjust position of females in their respective societies, be it in modern Afghanistan or Victorian England. Both novels similarly explore and condemn the prevalent patriarchy present in these societies, and question the inequitable social expectations of women that are reinforced differently by the covert and explicit tyrannical masculine characters within the novels. Both texts support the idea that the imbalance of power between men and women is one of the most persistent issues in literature. The authors themselves often take on an intrusive role as narrator to reinforce this idea of gender inequality, and one of the main aims of the novels is to directly inform both modern and past audiences of the gender imbalance, and ultimately elicit sympathy for the female characters in the novel. Despite the difference in culture and era, both the Victorian and 20th Century Afghanistan societies were focused heavily on patriarchy. In a similar way, both Hardy and Hosseini explore the expectations of female behaviour that is imposed upon women in their respective societies. The female characters in the novel, Tess, Mariam and Laila were forced to suffer, sacrifice and endure at the hand of their male superiors.
In ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’, it can be argued that Tess’ misfortune and strife is all rooted from a man, her very own father John Derbyfield. As a low income family, the Durbeyfield’s must work underclass manual labour jobs. John Derbyfield relies on his horse as a form of transports to support his job as a ‘haggler’. When Derbyfield gets too drunk and is unable to take the family horse to work, it is left to Tess to take the horse to make a delivery. Here the horse is killed accidentally, which inevitably leads to Tess’ having to find work. This sets off the chain of Tess’s tragedy, which can ultimately be traced back to her father. Marxist/Feminist inclusive critic John Goode (1990) writes in ‘Cultural Criticisms Within Thomas Hardy ‘s Tess of the D’Urbervilles’ – “The two sources of power in the novel are gender and class. Tess is finally made into a woman by violation and into a field woman by economic oppression”. Here, Goode suggests the unjust nature of Tess’s misfortune based not only on her gender, but her underclass position. This reinforces the point that contextually, females were the most socially inferior within the patriarchy, and Tess’ demise was inevitable based on her situation.
The most prevalent issue present in both texts is the double standards enforced by society between men and women. This hypocrisy is highlighted by Hardy through the confessions that Angel and Tess reveal post marriage. Here, Angel admits to Tess he has committed a sin, which in the eyes of a modern audience is equal to Tess’s. Tess forgives Angel immediately, yet due to Tess being a woman, Angel refused to forgive her sin and in turn, left Tess. Hardy relates this in the text when Angel simply calls his own sin a ‘folly’. Angel is trivialising his sin, suggesting that it isn’t of relevance and shouldn’t be taken notice of. This immediately reflects not only Angel’s attitude to his own sin, to which he feels he hasn’t completely done much wrong, but this additionally reflects how the Victorian society will view Angel’s sin. For men to have relations with women outside of marriage was more accepted socially, men were in power and were not shunned for engaging in this kind of activity out of wedlock. However, young Tess would receive the opposite treatment from society, and more than likely shunned by her community, which is reflected by the way in which Angel, reacts to her sin. It is apparent here that Angel falls victim to complying with societies idealistic expectations of women, which would have been heavily influenced by Christianity in Victorian England – women must remain a “pure, virgin woman”.
This attitude however is contradictory to what the bible teaches the Lord ’s Prayer gives readers a subtle reminded that Christianity is all about forgiveness and wants to remind the Victorian reader of the true moral values of Christianity. Up until this point in the novel, Angel refuses to see Tess for her flaws and continues to picture her as an idealised version of herself, calling her names such as ‘Artemis’ the goddess of chastity. This however is ironic as Artemis was the also the god of childbirth and fertility, yet this idea is rejected by Angel and he focuses on the idealistic notion of a woman remaining pure and chaste. The irony of the Bible being the cause of man’s downfall is clear here. Tess realises Angel is creating this image of herself and retaliates when she says to Angel ‘She who you love is not my real self’.
When Angel and Tess meet, Hardy makes a Biblical allusion when he compares Angel and Tess to Adam and Eve, which foreshadowed how fun is inevitable where a woman is to blame, when he says ‘as if they were Adam and Eve’. This simile could be Hardy be insinuating how Angel and Tess, like Adam and Eve were created by God to be together, which presents a sense of hope for the pair. However, in the story of Adam and Eve, Eve will eventually convince Adam to sin. This again relates back to the illusion that throughout history, it will always be the woman at fault in the relationship, which the Victorian high power men and women of society believe, which creates a definite sense of double standards created here, as there is a presumption women cannot be given a position of power like men can. In this passage, Tess is also referred to by Hardy as ‘Mary Magdalene’ who was a reformed prostitute and accepted by the Lord. This could be implemented by Hardy to introduce the idea of forgiveness and acceptance of women in society, as although Mary Magdalene had sinned, she was forgiven and accepted for whom she is. A social feminist critic would view the male characters in this novel as misogynistic, and this self-entitled hubris is backed up by the patriarchal nature and social constructs of society. For example, Angel is arrogant because he imposes this idea of womanhood on Tess, that purity and chastity is the most desirable and important thing for young woman to have. This is juxtaposed when he finds out about Tess’s sin, when he says the woman he has loved is “Another woman in your shape”. This highlights his hubris and how he has created an idealised version of Tess that is not her.
This idea of Angel’s ignorance began upon his first ever meeting with Tess. In this part of the novel, Tess must move through hedges and weeds to make her way to Angel. This is seen when she was ‘staining her hands with thistle-milk and slug-slime’. This ‘staining’ could be interpreted as metaphorical ‘staining’ as Tess has been through a lot before meeting angel, including being tainted by Alec D’Urberville. However, Angel refuses to see Tess’s ‘staining’ and sees an idyllic version of Tess from the outset. This is foreboding as to how Angel’s ignorance will create tragedy between the pair later in the novel.
This male domination over women reaches its peak when Alec rapes Tess. This is a true symbol of the little to no power women had, shown through Tess’s vulnerability. Alec proves this when after attempting to persuade Tess to sleep with him, he ‘settled the matter by clasping his arm around here as he desired’. Not only is he physically entrapping her through clasping his arm around her, but he establishes his power he ‘settles the matter’ ‘as he desired’, this is significant as to how men took control over women of the time and easily dominated inferior females. This male domination over women is also reflected in the sub characters of the novel. When Angel announces his love for Tess, Tess’s female friends Retty and Marian are both heartbroken. Results in ‘poor little Retty Priddle hev tried to drown herself’ and Marian becoming an alcoholic. This signifies the sheer dependence that woman of the era had towards dominant male characters.
The theme of double standards between men and women is also explored in A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini. This notion is introduced early in the novel when Nana warns Mariam of the double standard hypocrisy when she says “Like a compass needle that points north, a man’s accusing finger always finds a woman.’ In reference to this quote, Alan Marshall writes for the Telegraph in his critical review ‘The world through a mesh’ – “You don’t need to be a feminist to understand that women are always at the sharp end of repression.” This reflects the views of Hosseini on this issue and relates to how women are treated. The double standard between men are women are raised here as no matter whom is at fault, as nana said, a man’s accusing finger will always find a woman. This additionally foreshadows how Rasheed will take on this dominant role with Mariam in the future, and causes dramatic tension within the novel.
The key form of male domination over women present in the Afghani society highlighted in A Thousand Splendid Suns is the arranged marriage in Chapter Eight. Mariam’s marriage to Rasheed was arranged by a male who she wrongly trusted, Jalil, to marry, a man she had never met against her will. However, society’s strict standards of the attitude and propriety of women meant that Mariam was silenced. This treatment was not the same for men, sons would always be partnered with a suitor of their choice, and enforces the notion that marriage was not for love but for social satisfaction and image. Additionally, Mariam discovers that Rasheed possesses magazines featuring indecent images of women. This is shocking to Mariam as Rasheed preaches the expectations that women should remain pure yet he himself is impure through his objectification of women through the pornography. The idea of forced marriages continues in Tess of D’Urbervilles through Tess’s controversial marriages. Tess feels heavily inclined to marry both Angel due to his persistence and declarations of love, showering her in idealistic compliments and treating her like a goddess.
Then in another way, Tess feels like she must marry Alec due to her poor economic situation and his seducing prospect of money. This is reinforced by her own mother, when she arrives home, carrying Alec’s child, and her mother is horrified to find out Tess has not accepted to marry Alec. She states ‘Why didn’t ye think of doing some good for your family instead o’ thinking only of yourself?’. This highlights how a woman was not expected to do anything for self-gain or whatever they wished, but to serve men, their superiors. Tess’s mother wanting her to sacrifice her happiness and marry someone she does not love proves that a woman’s position in society was more important than true happiness. The oppression of women is apparent in the Afghanistan society through the extremist rules and regulations set out in society for woman to remain in order. From the very first introduction of Mariam in the novel, she recalls her Nana being named a ‘harami’ or bastard by her superior male, Jalil, for simply breaking piece of a tea set. It is immediately made apparent by Hosseini through this how women are treated not only with an unjust disrespect, but shamed for being inferior to their male counterparts. This sets a precedent for the theme of shame throughout A Thousand Splendid Suns, with the use of ‘harami’ being less of a cast off derogatory comment but a standpoint for how women are viewed in the eye of Afghani society, low status and undeserving of high levels respect.
Public expectations of female propriety are prevalent in the expectations of women within these novels. This is clear when it is stated “they want us to operate in burqa,’ A burqa is an outer garment worn by women in some Islamic traditions for the purpose of hiding a female’s body when out in public. This reference is a clear condemnation of Afghanistan’s extreme social regulations by Hosseini as the burqa is a symbol of imprisonment for Mariam. Another example of the unjust nature of the expectation of women in society is Jalil’s many legitimate wives. These wives reinforce the obscene cultural expectations and how the women are expected to be comfortable ‘sharing’ a male partner with other women. Due to their lower position in the patriarchy, women are not given a voice in society, yet women comply with these expectations and highlight the nature of an anti-feminist character in the novel.
The issue of relationship abuse is apparent throughout the both novels. Whereas Rasheed physical dominance over Mariam and Laila is explicit, Angel uses more subtle, mental dominance towards Tess. Rasheed physically abuses Mariam, in the most horrific of ways, such as when he uses domestic violence towards Mariam, making her chew pebbles for simply boiling rice too long. This is significant when he uses the imperative command ‘Put. These. In your mouth.’ He also puts a complete abusive hold over Mariam when she wants to escape Rasheed, when he says ‘You try this again and I will find you…And, when I do, there isn’t a court in this godforsaken country that will hold me accountable for what I will do.’ It could be argued that Angel also abuses Tess without even realising it, through being unrealistic in his expectations of Tess and forever trying to maintain an idealized ‘child of nature’ version of Tess and does not give her the respect of discovering who she really is, despite her attempts to reveal her own truth. No overt domination yet continuing expectations of Tess that is established by his status and Christian values established in his society.
Despite the overwhelming presentation of male dominance in both novels, both Hardy and Hosseini also offer moments of female empowerment at the very end of the texts. The first time any female empowerment comes into a Thousand Splendid Suns is when the unlikely friendship of Laila and Mariam develops. Both women were unable to settle their differences throughout the novel, yet there is a key turning point for the pair, as although Rasheed’s dominance over the woman was intended by him to pin the ladies against each other, the two women actually came together and formed a friendship. Hosseini presents the power of the feminine likeness that males in this novel did not possess. Through the exchange of peace offerings, Laila and Mariam are able to come to a new understanding. Mariam’s gift of girl clothes shows Laila that she no longer resents Laila and Aziza’s presence. Laila returns the favour by suggesting they ‘drink chai on the porch’. These exchanges are symbols for the change in their relationship. Their alienation from Rasheed no longer pits them against each other but unites them. They seal their friendship when the two ‘sinners have us a cup of chai in the yard’. They put this friendship to the test when they unite to try and escape Rasheed’s dominance. When this fails, Mariam and Laila successfully murder Rasheed by hitting him with a shovel. This finalises the juxtaposition between the beginning of the novel and the female empowerment present at the end. It is proof of the women coming together to stand up to violence and reject the domination of their abusive male.
The final theme of female empowerment is present in Tess of D’Urbervilles. In the beginning of the novel, Tess could be considered noble to take on the ‘adult role’ at the fault of her father or superior male, when he gets too drunk to go to work. The dispossession of country people was a common occurrence and forced young women like Tess into work. Additionally, Tess fails to react to her mother’s imposition that she must marry Alec even though he raped her. Here, she has stood up for her own morals and self-beliefs by refusing to conform to the social idealisations of the Victorian society. Finally, at the very end of the novel, like Laila and Mariam, Tess retaliates to her ongoing oppression and abuse by her superior male by stabbing Alec in the chest. This is the ultimate moment of female empowerment within the novel and is a true representation of how relentless abuse can lead to female empowerment.
Across these two endings, the accepted pattern of submissive women giving in to dominant men is interrupted, and Tess’s act in the eyes of Hardy is heroic. In conclusion, throughout both novels that both follow a very similar standpoint on the hypocrisy and double standards of women, both novels follow a redeeming ending for the female protagonists. However, it can be argued in Tess of the D’Urbervilles, she inevitably was caught and executed for her murder, by males. This can be viewed as a final act of male dominance over women, yet alternatively Tess retaliated against the domination and tragedy she endured through murdering Alec, her rapist. The pleasant ending for Mariam and Laila and their unlikely yet blossoming friendship leaves readers with a sense of redemption, alike the women featured in the novel, and the aim to inform both modern and past audiences of the gender imbalance had safely been achieved by both Hardy and Hosseini.
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