Searching for Equality in an Unequal World: Message and Historical Context in ‘Shirley’

July 5, 2019 by Essay Writer

Charlotte Brontë’s novel, “Shirley” was written in 1849. Although this novel is secondary in both quality and popularity, it addresses many social issues and dilemmas of Bronte’s time period, such as business, religion, and most importantly the gender inequality that females faced throughout the duration of the Victorian period. A majority of this story concerns two women, Shirley Keeldar, who is the main character, and Caroline Helstone, another very prominent character. These two women come from very diverse backgrounds and social standings and yet this is what leads them to deep conversations of the social issues of the 19th century. In Charlotte Brontë’s feministic piece, “Shirley,” the conversations between characters, the development of the main character, Shirly Keeldar, and the time in which the novel was published, all contribute to create Brontë’s feministic work.

“Shirley” is a novel that looks to promote and express what females of the 19th century are enduring and going through socially. This novel doesn’t undermine women’s issues but instead exemplifies them and expresses how things need to change in order for not only the livelihood of women to be increased, but for the betterment of society as a whole. One quote that exemplifies this theory is on page 164, “If men could see us as we really are, they would be a little amazed; but the cleverest, the acutest men are often under an illusion about women: they do not read them in a true light: they misapprehend them, both for good and evil: their good woman is a queer thing, half doll, half angel; their bad woman almost always a fiend,” (Brontë 164). This quote is powerful because it demonstrates how men view women affects everything. It communicates that how when men take the time to see women for who they really are they would be amazed, but men viewed women as overly good but lack substance or ability. This is also shown throughout the many talks that Shirley and Caroline have throughout the extensive novel. Caroline is a fairly poor woman who was raised by a male figure, her uncle.

On the opposite spectrum, Shirley is a woman who has received an inherited estate and an entire business. She is independent and has the economical ability and the social standing to live so, whereas Caroline is confined to dependency on her uncle. These two very different upbringings are expressed in the way that they live and also, in how they view their lives as females. The differing viewpoints are shown through this short conversation that takes place on page 171, “‘Caroline,’ demanded Miss Keeldar abruptly, ‘don’t you wish you had a profession – a trade?’ ‘I wish it fifty times a day. As it is, I often wonder what I came into the world for. I long to have something absorbing and compulsory to fill my head and hands and occupy my thoughts.’ ‘ [….] But hard labour and learned professions, they say, make women masculine, coarse, unwomanly.’” (171). This conversation directly addresses how females felt and were perceived in the 19th century. While also conveying how society viewed women who did have ambition and went after the profession in which they desired, as “masculine” and “coarse”. In order to pursue a career or perform a task that involved hard labor, women almost had to give up their femininity. This theme and idea continually appears throughout the novel that women are not seen for who they truly are but only for what men desire them to be and instead of pursuing careers and individual purposes, women sought to be married and to “woo” a man. A second aspect that shows that this is a feministic novel is the main character, Shirley, herself. Many critics believe that Bronte didn’t involve the main character in the story enough but her character, Shirley, still emanated many feministic viewpoints and barriers that women of that time period faced. Shirley’s background and upbringing allowed for her break the standards that society had set for women. For example, she grew up to a very wealthy family, who had hoped to bear a son to carry on the family name and to receive their property after their passing, however, after eight years of marriage they realized that Shirley was all that they would be able to bear, and they decided to grant her the same rights as they would a son. This was a transitional moment for Shirley’s life, because much of the Victorian Era was focused on gender separation and on social classes, meaning that often times women had to become a wife to a wealthy husband in order to achieve social standing and gain economic stability.

However, Shirley, didn’t need a husband to become economically stable or rise in social classes because she had property of her own in a society where traditionally women could not receive without a husband. Yet, despite financial stability and property of her own, it was still against societal standards to pursue a career, and she began to ponder her own life realizing this in her thought process on page 293, “‘I feel there is something wrong somewhere. I believe single women should have more to do – better chances of interesting and profitable occupation than they possess now [….] Look at the numerous families of the girls in this neighborhood […] the brothers of these girls are everyone in business or in professions; they have something to do. Their sisters have no earthly employment but household work and sewing, no earthly pleasure but an unprofitable visiting, and no hope, in all their life to come, of anything better. This stagnant state of things makes them decline in health. They are never well, and their minds and view shrink to wondrous narrowness,’” (293). With these thoughts, she began to criticize society itself, both men and women, conveying that it is degrading to women that the only respectable position that a woman can gain is the position of being a wife. And on the otherhand, that women degrade themselves by using methods to ensnare and entrap husbands, “‘The great wish, the sole aim of every one of them is to be married, by the majority will never marry; they will die as they now live. They scheme, they plot, they dress to ensnare husbands. The gentleman turn them into ridicule; they don’t want them; they hold them very cheap,’” (294). In this quote she indicates again the fact that men do not see the value of women, as expressed in the first quote, and also how women degrade themselves by pursuing only the materials and skills that make them worthy advocates of wifehood, and yet do not pursue talents or characteristics that will further them in life and make them people of value, not just women who merely look for and strive for a husband. Charlotte Brontë focuses on this theme and expands upon it throughout her novel, encouraging women to be more independent, pursue professions, and break the social expectations and restrictions placed upon women of the Victorian period. In order to express and show this in a relatable way, Brontë creates her main character Shirley, who faces social ridicule and goes through being pursued by many suitors, because society believes that she should not live on her own or manage a business of her own; nonetheless she does, and succeeds, sending a message to society that women can still be feminine and desirable while pursuing professions and dreams of their own.

Finally, as already mentioned above, the time period in which the author of “Shirley” lived, affected the production of this novel as well and helped shape it into the feministic novel that it is to this date. Charlotte Brontë for example, was a middle-class citizen, so although she grew up in a household that was well off, she still had to earn a living if she did not marry, and the only option for women was to be a governess or a house wife during the Victorian era, so she became a governess. Which led to her career in writing and increased her love for it, and although she was very much against marriage and violently opposed and rejected a proposal from the Rev. Nicholls, eventually, due to societal pressures, her opposition to the marriage weakened and despite her claims that she did not love him, they became married in 1854. This too was an additional issue that the Victorian time period faced – marrying for societal reasons or for financial stability, instead of for love. Marriage was logical and almost a necessity for women if they wanted to thrive in life and make a difference in the world around them. For this reason, Brontë’s works often exhibited independent women and women who married for love, which were two areas that were greatly frowned upon in the 19th century, and despite not being in an position to advocate for women’s rights outside of her writings, she was able to address the issue of gender inequality directly in this novel and showed the flaws in the thinking of society in which she dwelled.

“Shirley”, when taken as a whole, is a feministic work and compels readers to think about societal standards and gender differences. It allows for readers to not only see the flaws in Bronte’s time period but in their own time period as well. It pushes for readers to not only realize that changes need to occur but also that thought without action does not bring about reformation. The main character, Shirley, was blessed with a life in which she had the ability to live independently and she did so by acting with the grace and class of a proper lady. Yet, in the end, Shirley still marries Louis. This expresses how marriage is not wrong or weak, but instead considers the idea that when women become dependent upon it and that is their sole purpose for living, that is when women degrade themselves and cause themselves to be viewed as less than. Shirley marries a man outside of her social class and for love, and her friend Caroline, also marries for love, and a man outside of her class, Robert. This shows that women can still become married but not just to increase and uplift social and financial standings but for love, and additionally, women can marry outside of social standing. This is revolutionary and gives women value and purpose because they are no longer marrying for survival but instead for enjoyment and out of love. Lastly, this expresses how women do not have to be reliant on men but instead are responsible and in control their own livelihood and welfare.

In fact, the entire novel’s main idea can be summed up in the primary quote mentioned in this essay, “‘If men could see us as we really are, they would be a little amazed; but the cleverest, the acutest men are often under an illusion about women: they do not read them in a true light: they misapprehend them, both for good and evil: their good woman is a queer thing, half doll, half angel; their bad woman almost always a fiend,’” (164). Through the usage of character dialogue, the lifestyle, thoughts, and actions of the main character Shirley, and through the author’s own personal experience in the Victorian era, Charlotte Brontë’s novel, “Shirley”, directly addresses gender inequality creating a feminist piece of literature. She addresses that women are more than just perfect, peaceful creatures who pursue marriage alone and lack substance, but instead can pursue marriage not because they lack stability but because of love for another person. She proves that women can pursue professions and lives of their own while also retaining their femininity through the character of Shirley. Lastly, Brontë helps readers to see the worth in women and she conveys that women are so much more than just a backdrop to the lives of their male counter partners, but instead are a crucial, intricate, and vital piece of the world. Through the character of Shirley, she instills that women have a purpose and can live independently, can strive for greatness, and do not have to live in the confines that society places upon them, but instead can achieve, can grow, can create, and can take part in the world and its happenings all around them.

Works Cited

Brizee, Allen, J. Case Tompkins, Libby Chernouski, and Elizabeth Boyle. “Feminist Criticism (1960’s – Present).” Purdue OWL: Literary Theory and Schools of Criticism. N.p., 21 Apr. 2010. Web. 18 Apr. 2017. Bronte, Charlotte. Shirley. Ed. Margaret Lane. London: Everyman’s Library, 1908. Print. Cody, David. “Charlotte Bronte: A Brief Biography.” The Victorian Web. Hartwick College, 1987. Web. 18 Apr. 2017. Kirschen. “The Victorian Period.” The Victorian Period. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Apr. 2017. Writer, Leaf Group. “How to Write a Conclusion in a Critical Lens Essay.” The Pen and The Pad. The Pen and The Pad, 2017. Web. 18 Apr. 2017.

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