The Elimination of Gender Roles and Expectations
The poems “Marriage” by Marianne Moore and “Home Burial” by Robert Frost demonstrate a clear separation between men and women. Equality between genders is a controversial issue today, but truly began to arise during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s when Modern American poetry was also on the rise. In these poems the social expectations, verbal conversations and even the written poetic structure of the poems all allude to a separation between the two genders. Many critics began to address the idea as to whether or not these works were intended to mock the idea of society’s inequalities or if they were demonstrating how they believed women should act, and be treated and viewed by society. The view of the poets can be clearly seen mirrored in these works. Whether it is their view on the unity of marriage or gender roles, it can be seen that the narrators of the works feel as though the expectations of both men and women are unjust and unfair. Moore takes the stance of whether or not woman can have and enjoy both marriage and independence, while Frost contemplates the idea of the “disturbed woman and the madman.” Both of Moore and Frost’s views are appropriately displayed within these texts through their writing style. While Moore chose to write “Marriage” in a more formal, lengthy and intelligent style, Frost chose to write “Home Burial” in a more story-like manner. Both poems seem to stress the idea of the inequalities between men and women. In “Marriage” it seems as though Moore believes that men have the upper hand in marriage, while Frost’s “Home Burial” seems to believe that women have the more dominant role in a relationship. The bigger issue that the poets seem to be trying to get across to their readers is that if society just eliminated the idea of gender roles and societal expectations, then there would be no conversation on what is right and wrong within the unity of marriage. If men and women did not feel as though they had to uphold a certain standard in order to be perceived as “appropriate” in the eyes of society, then the unity of marriage might be much more successful.
Marianne Moore’s “Marriage” is a lengthier poem containing main quotations and references. The entire poem contains a lot of history, which puts the poem into perspective about just how long these issues in the unity of marriage have been going on. The entire poem takes a stance on independence. The narrator in the poem, which is neither confirmed nor denied to be Moore herself, contemplates the idea of whether or not women can have and enjoy both marriage and freedom. Moore seems to believe that while the majority of people believe that marriage is a strain and she believes it to be a struggle. Marriage should not hold you back from your independence, it should support. While “Marriage” brings up the issues of marriages not being successful because they are blocking one from independence, Robert Frost’s “Home Burial” brings up the idea that maybe the inequalities of the marriage come from the unfair gender roles and expectations. This poem is written in a more story-like manner and is about a man and a woman who have lost their child. Throughout the duration of the poem the couple argues back and forth about the “proper” way to grieve over their loss. While the wife believes the man is being “selfish” and grieving in the wrong way, it seems as though the man feels like he is misunderstood. Whenever he does try to talk about how he feels he seems to get rejected by the woman. This back and forth between the two characters brings the up the issue of whether or not men and women can be truly happy within their marriage when there are society expectations or their gender roles that they must uphold. It is hard for the couple to please one another when they are too busy trying to please society first.
Many critics argue that Moore believed that men had the dominant role in a relationship, and because of this she had to choose between marriage and freedom. David Bergman states in his criticism “Marianne Moore and the Problem of ‘Marriage’” that ,
A woman must choose between two paths – the path of intelligence and usefulness or the path of wifely and motherly sacrifice. Each path is valuable and should be encouraged by society since each leads to social well-being, but the paths are mutually exclusive. The woman who attempts to raise children and pursue a career will in the end make a botch of both. (Bergman 142)
Bergman argues that Moore believes that a woman must choice one of two options; education or family. He argues that Moore believed both to be equally great in value, but because of societies expectations there is no way for a woman to do both at once. Bergman states that if a woman is to choose both she would only end up failing. He believes that Moore feels as though women are not capable of success in both fields at the one time. It could be argued that Moore actually does feel as though women can succeed in both fields, but the only reason she has yet to succeed in both are because of the societal barriers holding her back. This can be seen later in Bergman’s criticism when he states that, “she believed that women were equals – not superiors- of men, and needed merely the removal of barriers in order to show their true aptitude” (Bergman 144). The critic states here that Moore believes that if society would simply remove the barriers that separate men and woman than the genders could be viewed as equals. She does not believe that men are better than women, but that they are capable of all the same things.
Similar personal views can be seen reflected into Frost’s “Home Burial”. Frost’s views, like Moore’s, are about equality between the genders. But unlike Moore, Frost seems to argue that women are actually more dominant then men in marriage. Katherine Kearns argues in “The Place Is The Asylum” that Frost is playing with the idea of the “disturbed woman” and “mad man.” He states that Frost believed that women were powerful beings but they can only be truly powerful once they escape the “asylum,” also known as their household. Kearns states that, “The wife is in the process of leaving the house, crossing the threshold from marital asylum into freedom. The house is suffocating her” (Kearns 194). Kearns is discussing in this passage how Frost’s views have been demonstrated in “Home Burial”. The wife feels as though the only way she can be free of her wifely and motherly duties is to leave her house and begin a new life. The power of the decisions that are to be made within the marriage have been left up to the wife, leaving none for the husband. It could also be argued that the husband has just as much power because he can leave just as easily as the wife can. The fate of the relationship is in both of their hands, not just one. Even though the fate of the relationship relies on both partners, it seems as though Frost is posing the question of would either partner have to leave, if there were not societal expectation to pull them apart? The husband in “Home Burial” does not feel justified in leaving because he does not feel as though the wife did anything wrong, according to societal gender role expectations, but she has. She has denied the husband rights to his own feelings and she has denied him understanding because he is a man and she feels he must grieve a certain way. The woman has all the power in the relationship because it is the man that has “done wrong”, so it is acceptable for her to leave, whereas for him it is not.
An important issue that both poets faced was getting the issues to come across in the poems as something of great importance. Both writers realized that how they wrote their poems was just as important as what they were writing about. This is most likely why, unlike Frost, Moore wrote her poem in a more serious and conversational tone. In Heather White’s “Morals, Manners, and Marriage” she states that “if she was to be taken seriously as a critic it would be in the persuasive power of her speech, whether she was speaking… establishing oneself as a woman talking high culture” (White 493). By this White meant that according to Moore this was a male dominated society, there for she had to make it known that she was just as good as any male poet. This was best done through her conversational and powerful tone. She is arguing that Moore understood that the style in which she wrote was just as important as what she was writing about if she wanted her views to be taken seriously as a female writer. Moore knew that she was a talented writer, it was just a matter of getting everyone else to take her as seriously in her works as she believed she deserved to be.
On this basis I will then read “Marriage” to elucidate her understanding of conversational style as a response to her demands of herself to be rigorously and unapologetically true to her gift for invention as well as responsible for the clarity and moral force of her work. (White 490)
White argues that without Moore’s perfected writing style her points would never get across to her audience. The critic believes that it is with this style of writing that Moore stays true to her talents as a writer and this is what makes “Marriage” so popular in the movement for equality.
Frost took a different approach to grabbing his reader’s attentions. As an established and respected male poet he decided to take a more artistic stand when writing “Home Burial”. The meaning behind this text is slightly more difficult to discover and requires much more analytical analysis because unlike Moore, who clearly stated the point she was trying to make in her work, Frost’s argument can get easily lost within the playful story-like structure of “Home Burial”. Katherine Kearns’ “The Place and the Asylum” points out some of the symbols that help to shape Frost’s argument towards equality that are often missed due to their commonality in everyday life. They often get overlooked.
Their houses embody them so that symbolically every threshold is sexually charged; “cellar holes” become pits that represent female sexuality, birth, death, and the grave, and attics are minds filled with the bones of old lovers. Frost’s men can no more fulfill their women than they can fill the houses with life and children. (Kearns 191)
Kearns is explaining here how Frost uses the symbol of a house to describe how men cannot fulfill a woman’s needs. The death of the child in marriage represents the females lost sexuality and how because of this the man in the relationship is now inadequate for his wife/lover/mother.
Marianne Moore begins “Marriage” by comparing marriage to an “enterprise” (Anthology of Modern American Poetry 323). An enterprise is this case could be one of two things, “a project or undertaking, typically one that is difficult or requires effort,” (Dictionary.com) or “a business or company” (Dictionary.com). Both definitions set the tone for the entire poem. Whether Moore meant that marriage was a “project” that most struggled with, or that it is more of a business than a unity is unknown but both, in her eyes, are the true version of marriage. By using the term “enterprise,” no matter the real definition that Moore intended for it, it is clear that people are being deceived when they believe that marriage is the unity between two people that love one another and that once the vows have been said they can live “happily ever after”. This word sets the mood for the entirety of the poem because now the reader no longer sees marriage in such a happy light, they are much more skeptical. Moore then follows this up with the repetition of the word “one” (Anthology of Modern American Poetry 324), alluding to the fact that in a marriage there cannot be a two, that each person functions better singularly. In Andrew Epstein’s “Encyclopedia of American Poetry: The Twentieth Century” he argued that,
She feared [Moore] that marriage artificially binds two complex, changing, and often incompatible beings into a false and impossible unity. Furthermore, because of the power dynamics in a patriarchal society, Moore felt that such a bond can severely constrain a woman’s potential, particularly if the woman is a free thinking, creative artist.
Epstein is describing how Moore’s own personal feelings about women having to choose between motherly duties and individual freedom were projected into “Marriage”. She feels as though a marriage between a man and a woman holds the woman back from her true potential because once she is married she is expected to behave like a wife and a mother, not as an individual. This can be seen in the poem on lines 31-34,
“’I should like to be alone’;
to which the visitor replies,
‘I should like to be alone;
why not be alone together?’” (Anthology of Modern American Poetry 324)
Although the female wants to be alone, societal expectations are suggesting that the couple would be better off together. Notice that visitor replies that the two could be “alone together”. This statement contradicts itself, within a successful marriage neither of the two partners should ever feel nor truly be alone. It could be argued that the partners would feel alone while together because neither of the two are being truly recognized. In lines 83-86 she states that,
“forgetting that there is in woman
a quality of mind
which as an instinctive manifestation
is unsafe,” (Anthology of Modern American Poetry 326)
Here the narrator states that it is unsafe for one to forget that a woman is an individual with a powerful mind and the capability of doing everything that a man could do. Moore demonstrates how often time a woman can get lost within her marriage when she introduces the two lead roles of the poem. Epstein states that,
Moore quickly introduces two opposed archetypal beings, Eve and Adam, who dominate the poem and serve as vehicles for her ironic commentary on the battle of the sexes. Both are portrayed with a mixture of positive and negative terms: they are beautiful yet flawed, “alive with words” yet thoroughly narcissistic. At the center of the poem is a heated dialogue between this generic “He” and “She,” a vicious conversation that highlights the strife between the genders, in which Moore clearly critiques male domination and misogyny. (Epstein)
Moore saw men as the dominant ones in a relationship which is why she believed women were better off alone if they could not be viewed as equals. She takes a very bold stance by demonstrating this using Adam and Eve, two very well-known and looked up to figures in history. She uses these two to not only be understood by almost every reader of her poem, but to also make the reader question everything that they believe to be true about marriage. These two very iconic people set an example for marriage, one that Moore challenges in her poem. She states in marriage that
“Men are monopolists
of ‘stars, garters, buttons
and other shining baubles’-
unfit to be the guardians
of another person’s happiness” (Anthology of Modern American Poetry 329)
By this she means that a woman cannot rely on a man to be happy because they are often times too self-righteous. This can also be seen when she states that “he loves himself so much, / he can permit himself” (Anthology of Modern American Poetry 330). Since men are so self-centered, they cannot give their whole self to someone else. Due to this he loves himself more than he could ever love any woman or make her happy. Moore states that the men, or he in the novel will “stumble” over marriage (Anthology of Modern American Poetry 327) and because of this she also states that “’a wife is a coffin,’” (Anthology of Modern American Poetry 329). It could be argued that by this she means that Men do not understand marriage or how to make a woman truly happy. If a woman is not truly happy she mind as well be dead, this is why he compares being a wife to a coffin. The reason for this might be because of social expectations that he, as a husband, puts on her as a wife. He expects a wife to be patient, caring, tender and kind, but when she is not he does not get what he expected he feels that he is bound to this person that he does not know or understand. She demonstrates this in lines 184-185 when she states, “impatience is the mark of independence, / not of bondage” (Anthology of Modern American Poetry 328). This is a quote that Moore uses when talking about Dianna, who was impatient. She was viewed as someone who could not wed because of impatience, but in reality this was just a sign of independence and many people misconstrued that. All of these qualities are what drive a marriage apart. If society rid itself of its expectations and allowed room for women to excel both as a mother and in her independence then and only then can a marriage be truly successful. Moore closes off her poem by stating that in a marriage people are “opposed each to the other, not to unity,” (Anthology of Modern American Poetry 331).
Like Moore, Frost argues that the expectations of society take a toll on a relationship. Although it does not seem like Frost is completely arguing that he is “anti-marriage” it is clear that he is arguing that there is an inequality between men and women. Robert Faggen starts of his criticism, “Robert Frost and the Challenge of Darwin” by stating that, “the gender hierarchy of civilized and uncivilized, ordered and chaotic, male and female, becomes remarkably fluid” (Faggen). By this he means that there is a gender hierarchy in the poem. The poem alludes to the fact that in the house a woman is viewed as superior. But due to the gender roles that dictate who they are supposed to be and how they are supposed to act it does not matter how “chaotic” they get, it is second nature and becomes unconscious behavior. These gender expectations of grief are quickly put into place in the poem during lines 36-38, “He said twice over before he knew himself: / ’Can’t a man speak of his own child he’s lost?’ / ’Not you! … I don’t know rightly whether any man can.’” (Anthology of Modern American Poetry 113). Amy, the wife, is refusing to accept her husband’s ways of grieving, but then denies him the right to grieve the way she feels to be acceptable. Like Faggen argued, the gender roles have become so fluid that the husband feels he has to grieve in an a way that Amy believes to be “inconsiderate,” but also so fluid that even when he offers her the compassion and consideration she wants, she denies it to him. She states that a “no man” can grieve in that manner. It is repeated many times throughout the poem that, “A man can’t speak of his own child that’s dead.’” (Anthology of Modern American Poetry 114). This seems to be a common thing. This repetitive statement allows the reader to question that if a man cannot grieve in the same way as a woman, then what else can a man not do that a woman can? Faggen later states that,
Amy refuses to conform to manly and scientific conceptions of the limits of grief, and her war with her husband is an attempt to make the world conform to her standards and accept her authority… Her husband must realize that failure to meet her demands will result in the dissolution of the home and his concern for furthering his people.
This criticism furthers the idea of how and why the gender roles that society has set for the couple will only break apart their marriage. The demands of the wife are what place her as the superior in the eyes of the husband, because if he does not comply she has the power to put an end to their marriage. The narrator states that, “A man must partly give up being a man / With women-folk” (Anthology of Modern American Poetry 114). Just as much as Moore believes that a woman cannot truly be herself when tied down to a man, Frost believes that a man cannot truly be himself either. Neither partner can truly be themselves within a relationship due to the expectations that society has placed onto each gender. They cannot be true to themselves or each other while also pleasing themselves, each other and society.
While both poets seem to be proposing different arguments, their central theme is the same. With gender role expectations set upon relationships from society it is difficult for that relationship or marriage to thrive, grow and succeed. Women are constantly being held back from their freedom and education in order to be a wife and mother to please men, while the men are being held back from exposing their true feelings and paternal instincts while in a domestic environment. Since each partner within the relationship are being held back, the unity can never be true to itself because each person is not true to themselves. There should be no gender hierarchy or fluidity to the expectations. Each person should be allowed to live freely when in a relationship, marriage, or solitude without the pressures of society. It is clear that both poets believe that no person should have to choose one way of life. Every person is entitled to and should be both free and domestic.
Bergman, David. “Marianne Moore and the Problem of ‘Marriage’”. American Literature 60.2 (1988): 241–254. Web.
Epstein, Andrew. “Encyclopedia of American Poetry: The Twentieth Century.” Modern American Poetry. Routledge, 2001. Web. 20 Nov. 2015.
Faggen, Robert. “Robert Frost and the Challenge of Darwin.” Modern American Poetry. University of Michigan, 1997. Web. 20 Nov. 2015.
Kearns, Katherine. “”the Place Is the Asylum”: Women and Nature in Robert Frost’s Poetry”. American Literature 59.2 (1987): 190–210. Web.
Nelson, Cary. Anthology of Modern American Poetry. 2nd ed. Vol. 1. New York: Oxford UP, 2000. Print.
White, Heather Cass. “Morals, Manners, and “marriage”: Marianne Moore’s Art of Conversation”. Twentieth Century Literature 45.4 (1999): 488–510. Web.
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