Analysis of the Portrayal of Women in Oscar Wilde’s Novel The Picture of Dorian Gray and Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

June 22, 2022 by Essay Writer

Both Wilde and Tolstoy exemplify how either women conforming, or subverting expectations can lead to their demise as they are the subordinate gender, therefore no matter their actions, they usually are self-destructive. However, Wilde does this to signify the social reforms needed to stop women leading lives of blind trust and highlight the double standards of society, whereas Tolstoy wants to reiterate traditional standards and how the destruction of females will come about ignoring their ‘separate sphere’ in late nineteenth century society.

Wildes portrayal of Margaret Devereux subverts contemporary expectations of women of a high class as she “made all the men frantic by running away with a penniless young fellow – a mere nobody” further defying the norms by being “an extraordinarily beautiful girl”. Margarets character parallels Sybil Vane, to underpin the constrictions made by society for women, making them unhappy and succumb to the pressures of society, consequently ending in their demise as a lonely widow or dead. The adjective ‘penniless’ insinuates that the man she chose to marry was financially incapable to look after her as the beliefs of the late nineteenth century exemplifies the idea that men are the breadwinners, which was perpetuated through religion and ignorance, and that women need men to be able to lead a comfortable life.

Wildes choice of the word ‘penniless’ also exemplifies the societal disgust for destitute and unfortunate men, as they were lazy and undeserving in the eyes of the patriarchy, trapping rich impressionable women for their own needs. Not only does the character of Margaret still run away with the ‘penniless young fellow’, but also confuses the ‘frantic men’ as to why she would do such a thing as she does not gain a better reputation or a better future from marriage with him, which is proven as her child, Dorian, is the punishment of this unfavourable marriage, as he goes on a downwards spiral due to his immorality, which can be argued to be caused by his mother’s perceived immorality due to her subversion of societies standards. The noun ‘nobody’ indicates a person lacking influence, status and reputation, therefore solidifying the confusion of ’frantic men’ as it was a common belief that women either marry their social equals or the social superiors.

The view that women could not make a choice for themselves stemmed from the idea that men were able to manipulate women easily because they were deemed less intelligent then men, hence considered more vulnerable to the tricks of beggarly males. Furthermore, her vulnerability is highlighted through her being an “extraordinarily beautiful girl” as Wilde objectifies her to make her more sympathetic to readers and victimises her so the other characters within the novel blame the man she willingly eloped with rather than blaming her for deposing societal expectations. The noun ‘girl’ has a semantic field of youth, gentleness and frailty, making Margarets more masculine subversion from contemporary female standards even more shocking as her life was already good as she was more than conventionally attractive and wealthy than others. Wilde often switched roles for both genders as he attempted to bewilder his contemporary readers just as he did with his social circles, masculinising women like Margaret by allowing her character to marry who she wanted to first, due to “Wilde [being] an aesthete [and touched] on areas only dominated by women” (Muriqi) to reiterate the lack of conformity to gender ideals throughout the novel by both men and women, contrasting to Tolstoys conservative portrayals of female characters.

Tolstoys traditionalist representation of Annas perversion from female identity by refusing to have children, foreshadows her eventual death as she refuses to bestow life, which was considered a miracle that only women could perform. Through this ominous juxtaposition, Tolstoy cements this perceived corruption from female identity through the stark comparison of Annas relationship with Seryozha (her son) in the beginning of the novel as “she kept fretting over leaving him” to ‘wishing’ to “have no more children” after giving birth to Annie. This uncomfortable jump from a motherly figure to ‘Anna smil[ing]’ telling Dolly she does not want children, forebodes her eminent end as it was caused by the infidelity Anna chose to commit. Anna choosing to ‘have no more children’ solidifies Tolstoys desire to send a warning to the contemporary readers for trying to undo traditional expectations, that only negativity will befall them if they do not follow the unspoken rules. The verb ‘wish’ demonstrates Annas strong desire to aim to have no more children, portraying the unnaturalness of her choice to no longer conceive. The use of the determiner ‘no’ also emphasises Annas full subversion from female identity set out by Tolstoy as he often throughout the novel made it known to the readers that children were a great way of determining correct judgement as they are not corrupt, unlike adults. The parallelism from ‘fretting’ over Seryozha to refusing to have no more children, typifies Tolstoys purposeful destruction of Anna caused by her adulterous desire of Vronsky.

The female role was cemented in Europe as the domestic age, embodied by Queen Victoria, representing the type of femininity which was centred on the idea of motherhood, family and respectability(). The fact that motherhood and respectability was intertwined together during this period puts emphasis on the fact that due to Annas subversion, her rejection from society was inevitable, thus making her death inevitable, which Tolstoy crafted to make Anna more dislikeable to the readers as she was the opposite of what he thought a woman should be. Alternatively, more modern readers are much more sympathetic to Annas situation, as we read it with more modern perspectives changed due to the many feminist movements and both the World Wars such as Whiting, who commented that Tolstoy writes “sympathetic females characters whose lives were depicted as severely inhibited by social restrictions”. But Annas diversion from the type of femininity, allowed Tolstoy to villainise Anna to justify her untimely death.

The subtle subjugation of Sybil Vane by Dorian accentuates how all successful women must conform to societal expectations to fit in with the status quo of the late nineteenth century. The irony that Dorian “taught [Sybil] what reality really is”, exemplifies how male influence on talented female character are usually destructive and foreshadows her downfall as she places her trust with a man who is being negatively influenced by another man. The verb ‘taught’ belittles Sybil as she is made to sound childlike, vulnerable and unintelligent, as well as having connotations of a student/teacher relationship, in which Dorian takes the dominant role of teacher. The noun ‘reality’ suggests that Sybil almost worships Dorian as this godlike figure due to him teaching her what “reality really is” as reality means the state of being real and giving her a meaning as she “saw through the hollowness, the sham, the silliness of the empty pageant in which [she] had always played.” The cumulative nouns illustrate how much Dorian has influenced Sybil and how useless she felt after meeting him, proving the idea that Sybil wanted to conform to societal standards but was expected to subvert by Dorian.

This confusion in what Dorian desired leads to her eventual suicide as Dorian rejects her due to her now being inferior as she loses the only thing that drew Dorian to her; her skill of acting. This makes ‘the empty pageant in which [she] had always played’ her true reality if she followed Dorians line of thought and truly understood him. Her unquestioned loyalty to Dorian makes it seem as if she puts him on a very high pedestal, hinting at the concept that Henrys influence of Dorian is quickly affecting Sybil as she rejects the Christian traditional values and adopts the values of hedonism (by leaving her job) and the core beliefs of the Decadent movement; self-indulgence. This rejection of Christian ideals and embracement of a more sinful outlook parallels her physical actions as she rejects the sinful pursue of theatre to marry Dorian. The juxtaposition of these action highlights Wildes own style of philosophy; in which everything should be the opposite ‘for arts sake’, reinforcing the idea that Sybil must conform for the greater purpose of the novel to be fulfilled. Alternatively, Lind argues that Wilde was making a social commentary on gender and society through “Sibyl’s passivity and inability to act or perform, which may be considered a male role (working and earning an income), that ‘kills’ Dorian’s love”. By trying to conform, Sybil cements her own death due to Wilde criticising the societal expectations.

On the other hand, Anna Karenina conforms to societal expectations by accepting the initial social codes forced upon her in her early years during socialisation, foreboding Anna’s future rejection of the societal duties that women lived by in the late nineteenth century. She sates that “the only happy marriages [she] know[s of are] marriages of prudence.’ The noun ‘prudence’ has connotations of sagacity, judgement and wariness, completely juxtaposing her recklessness further on in the novel. Tolstoy uses the phrase ‘the only happy marriages’ to reference the opening lines of the novel; “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”, foreshadowing her own unhappy marriage to Alexei and then her relationship to Vronsky. Moreover, the adjective ‘happy’ has implications of convenience rather than contentment, therefore suggesting that marriage should be about furthering your position in society rather than making you joyous, which Anna does the opposite of when she leaves Alexei for Vronsky. This would have been a common thought in the late nineteenth century, as ‘women were considered physically weaker yet morally superior to men’. ‘A marriage of prudence’ would have been considered morally correct as peoples place in society would have been thought to reflect the persons attitude in general.

Whiting comments that “Tolstoy emphatically believed that a woman’s sole purpose should be that of having children and being a mother” mirroring the underlying theme of ‘the only happy marriages [Anna] knows are marriages if prudence’ but criticises him by saying that “his fictionalized female characters reveal that this most ‘blessed’ job is what robs a young, lovely girl of the charm that won the heart of her husband.” This feminist reading suggests that the only reason that Anna has such a melancholy death was because she was forced to conform and be married to someone 20 years older than her who barely has anything in common with her, which was why she began searching elsewhere for validation and her adultery was caused through societal pressure to do what she was expected and not what she wanted.

Wilde puts emphasis on how Dorian thought he loves the aesthetic of Sybil, rather than her as her own woman, foreshadowing the reason for Dorians eventual downfall: importance he places on appearances and his strong need to fulfil his every desire. Dorian prefers the artificial representation of Sybil as he exclaims “how little [Sybil] can know of love, if [she] say[s] it mar[red her] art! Without [her] art, [she is] nothing!” The adjective ‘little’ emphasises how much Dorian trivialises Sybils opinions on the topic of love due to her usefulness only lying in her talent for acting, because ‘without her art, she is nothing’. The verb ‘mar’ accentuates his revulsion to the idea that something as superfluous as love can affect something as great as her art, which was the only reason her wished to marry her for. The preposition “without” conveys how her and her art are one and each without the other have no meaning, hinting to the idea that her conventional attractiveness also has a reason for being more likeable than Sybil herself. However, if the 15% of matching text is one continuous block this could still be considered plagiarism. A high percentage would probably be anything over 25% (Yellow, orange or red).

The fact that Wildes choice to intertwine the words ‘love’ and ’art’ are intriguing, as Dorian chastises Sybil for thinking that art is exclusive from love and vice versa. This interlink highlights how Dorian also perceives love as an aesthetic, rather than an emotion and that as an aesthete, any forms of love in his life must relate back to appearances and different forms of art. The Aesthetic movement placed importance on visual quality over anything else and art was created to evoke a mood rather than having any actual meaning behind it. Dorian is criticised by Kidd “because of Dorian’s very shallow attraction to Sibyl, [as] she and her history (her reality) matter nothing to him; he would rather keep watching the characters she acts out on stage.” Dorian cares not for Sybil or her soul, just her appearance that comes along with her art.

Tolstoys character of Alexis Karenin fortifies the early bourgeoisie male ideology of a virtuous, normal-looking façade of a relationship, rather than trying to fix the issue in the relationship internally. Alexis tells Anna that “in return [of conducting herself so that neither the world nor the servants can reproach her, she] will enjoy all the privileges of a faithful wife without fulfilling her duties”, shaming her at the same time of asking her to lie to society to save face. Alexis prefers the artificial representation of Anna as it not only makes him look like he is in power, but by Anna not ruining her reputation also does not damage his own image in society as a cuckold and submissive to his wife.

However, Moynihan argues that “Alexei is scandalised by Anna’s adulterous affair, her rejection of social norms, duty, religion; but he is also deeply wounded and resentful, wavering between divorcing her and forgiving her,” sympathising more with Alexis than most modern readers. The verb “enjoy” has a lexical field of adoration, joyousness and pleasure, emphasising how Alexis thinks that taking pleasure in her reputation society is much more rewarding than being happy and in love, hinting to the mindset of the late nineteenth century as people would have just began thinking that pleasure and presentation of yourself in society are equally as important, due to the Aesthetic and Decadent movement, whereas the noun ‘privileges’ suggests that Anna has been granted a special right and that she should be grateful for it as she is not a ‘faithful wife’.

The fact that Anna should ‘enjoy all the privileges of a faithful wife’ could refer to the problem of entitled wealthy people as they care more about themselves and their own stature than the others and how their actions affect those around them (in this case Alexis neglects to emotionally satisfy Anna, therefore she commits adultery) foreboding all their demises. The choice of the adjective ‘faithful’ used by Alexis to describe an ideal wife is symbolic of Tolstoy as he vehemently attempts to reinstall and perpetuate traditional values throughout the novel against the ever-growing differences in between the older and younger generations. The preposition ‘without’ holds implications that Anna is lazy and undeserving as she does not have to commit to wifely duties, but may reap the rewards of one who does accentuating how men prefer false representations of the significant others as this would help them stay afloat in society, contrasting to the noun ‘duties’ which suggests her moral obligations and loyalty to Alexis, even if she does not love him, because they are married and he should be the dominant in the relationship.

In conclusion, whilst both Tolstoy and Wilde attempt to make their female characters parallel their male counterparts to identify the issues in society, Tolstoy imposes his traditionalist view, whereas Wilde enforces his Aesthetic perspective of doing things that please you for the sake of it.


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