The portrayal of women in nineteenth-century literature ran the gamut from oppression to liberation. Women have been thought of dependent and subordinate to men in the male-dominated societal landscape for ages and evidence of this can be found in several works. Nathaniel Hawthorne and Margaret Fuller were both influential literary figures in their time, and Hawthorne’s “The Birth-Mark” and Fuller’s “The Great Lawsuit” give readers insight to the role that women played in the nineteenth-century society. Hawthorne tells the story of a woman who becomes the victim of her husband, while Fuller takes on more of a “social justice” stance and attempts to inspire women to become independent and self-actualized.
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Birth-Mark” paints a picture of men and women’s respective roles in society. Georgiana, the main character’s wife, could be considered as the “perfect” wife, with such characteristics as beauty, passion, and above all, loyalty. She acted just as society dictated that a woman should: complete devotion and obedience to her husband. Georgiana had never seen her birthmark as an issue before, and many suitors “would have risked life for the privilege of pressing his lips to the mysterious hand” (695). Her husband, Aylmer, soon became disgusted with the mark, leading Georgiana to hate the mark as well. Georgiana states, that while the trial comes with inherent risk, “Danger means nothing to me; for life—while this hateful marks makes me the object of your horror and disgust—life is a burthen which I would fling down with joy” (697). Georgiana would welcome death to please her husband rather than to preserve her own health, and it ultimately becomes her undoing. Hawthorne’s writing directly parallels the role that a woman was expected to play towards her husband in this time period. Georgiana fully submits to her husbands will, and the only thing that she gains from her loyalty and complete trust is death. It can be gathered that the overarching meaning behind Hawthorne’s “The Birth-Mark” is that, while a sense of loyalty is an admirable trait, the downfall of a woman could very well be attributed to her at-all-costs devotion to her husband, and that women should not cast themselves aside to please men.
While Hawthorne’s “The Birth-Mark”, a work of fiction, makes its statement about the matter using symbolism, Margaret Fuller’s “The Great Lawsuit” is a powerful essay that tries to inspire women to fight for equality. She clearly describes the role that women were expected to play: the caretaker of the home and children. She gives examples of the constraints that society has placed on women, from controlling their educations and occupations, to setting the role they play in marriage. Fuller focuses much of this text to the fact a woman is able to do anything that a man can, and vice versa. Men are capable of taking care of the home, just as women can be breadwinners for the family. She also wishes that women were able to receive the same autonomy that is given to men. Fuller believes that society is stuck in its stodgy traditions by believing that women are subordinate to men, stating that “We are pleased that women should write and speak, …but silence for a hundred years would be as well, if that silence be from divine command, and not from man’s tradition” (809). She writes that, currently, men will not support this change because they are merely “under the slavery of habit” (812). Fuller clearly wrote this essay in effort to empower women to break away from the societal mindset that has passed down through history. “The Great Lawsuit” is often considered to be one of the first major works that sparked the feminist movement that still plays a part in today’s societal landscape. The way this essay describes women as capable beings deserving of their own freedoms was unheard-of at the time of its creation, and its subject matter is still relevant today.
Throughout history, women have been seen as inferior to men, and such was still the case in the nineteenth century. Evidence of this can be found in many literary works from the time period, like Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Birth-Mark” and Margaret Fuller’s “The Great Lawsuit.” While Hawthorne’s work is a fictional tale, it symbolizes the role that men and women are expected to play in a society. Fuller, however, is more focused on social reform with her essay by clearly laying out the injustices women have experienced, and how these issues can be eliminated in the future. These works raise important points that are still being discussed in today’s age, regarding equality between genders and the roles that women are expected to fulfill in a modern society.