Victorian Gender Roles: An Introductory Argument
By the late 18th century the divide between masculine and feminine had been well established (as a tribal war tradition which transferred to civilization in general), and while some character traits are static, others remained fluid. Each generation has nuances which portend to be either purely masculine or purely feminine, as such, any who exhibit these nuances are taken to be slanted towards that gender. In this way, it is possible for a woman to be masculine (or feminine) and it is possible for a man to be feminine (or masculine). Gender itself is fluid, while sex is static (at least it was in the 18th century before genital reassignment surgery allowed sex fluidity). Point in fact, gender reality is much more complex and has little to do with biological sex. There are three “naturally” existing sexes (male, female, hermaphrodite) and countless variations of gender (with hyper-masculinity and hyper-femininity idealized over more balanced inner androgyny). In a heterogeneous society, with a long standing tradition of constructed gender divides (based on the reality of sex differences), those people exhibiting characteristics of the opposite sex were subject to disrespect from self, family, and society. As technological advances freed more and more people from the confines of their immediate community long standing gender boundaries also began to be altered (women and men challenged and changed gender roles).
The gradual demasculinization came from a break down of the previous generation’s social norms and traditions acting in friction to the reality of each generation. Marriage and children worked in tandem with polarized social spheres based on sex divides. Homosocial areas included homes and workplaces (for women) and any place away from home (for men). Women were primarily around other women or male relatives. The men were in heterogeneous situations in the home and homosocial situations in the public sphere. The societal construct of gender included clear divides based on sex. The demasculinized radicals of the mid-1880’s inadvertently blurred the gender line by hanging on to the masculine mythos of the glory days–which were actually the bloody moments of initial feminization. Gender is a fluid expression of the individual personality which changes with the fluctuations of societal expectations regarding sex. People are not their gender, though they may be biologically male/female, society deems what behaviors are masculine or feminine. In the modern and recent past ideal type of society, men are masculine and women are feminine. The reality is that people are mixtures of both because they learn behavior from both.
Understanding the fluidity of gender is an important challenge for the 21st century reader delving into 18th century literature and history. Today, an undercurrent insists socially accepted gender be considered the gender that reflects biological sex; this undercurrent is remnant of a system put in place long before the 18th century. (Think of the countless generations who found themselves and their behaviors deemed erroneous based on societal suppositions regarding said behaviors). Though the societal expectations of the 18th century were more limiting in allowed expression, the advent of connecting technologies (railroads, steamships) brought together women and men in public spheres (Walkowitz, 46-7). The public reactions of the inhabitants of the 18th century were three-fold: rejection, acceptance, and neutrality. These reactions can be seen in the literature and written records of the time. The remainder of this paper will examine the (en)gendered transformations of Bill Southgate (Judith R. Walkowitz’s City of Dreadful Delight: Narratives of Sexual Danger in Late-Victorian London) and Dr. Henry Jekyll (Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde).
Walkowitz’s Bill Southgate: A Case Study
Walkowitz’s coverage of Bill Southgate consists of the bottom half of one paragraph. From this paragraph, I make a number of inferences. Bill’s transformation occurred over a ten year period (1887-1897). The climatic event which triggered Bill’s transformation was a series of demonstrations ruthlessly put down by professional militaries, specifically “Bloody Sunday.” Bill is described as “a quill-pen maker and ‘radical’ of the ‘Charles Bradlaugh school,’ [who] remembered these demonstrations, particularly ‘Bloody Sunday’ of 1887, as a short-lived but unique moment when he had helped to make history” (Walkowitz, 42). For Bill, “Bloody Sunday” acts as a transformative catalyst; as a “radical” he epitomized the hyper-masculine. The massacre of fellow radicals became the first instance of Bill’s feminization.
After so many years of social destruction from revolutions and wars, professionalized militaries coupled with military-driven advances in technologies and contrasted with the never ceasing reality of poverty, opened a gap between the weaponry of the military and that of the citizenry which allowed events like “Bloody Sunday” to become massacres rather than pitted fights. The erratic conditions of the 1789-1848 revolution/wars were still present in the intergenerational living memories of the people of the 1880’s. Bill’s generation, raised by parents with memories still fresh with the wounds of failed citizen resistance, passed on to their children character traits which reflected the wounds of the 1887 massacres; these brutal experiences left marks on those sympathetic to resistance.
If Walkowitz is taken at her word (and she is for the purposes of this paper), one can assume Walter Southgate heard stories, opinions, and politics espoused by his father which annoyed his mother. He also heard-and possibly saw-her response: “For Gawd’s sake Bill give it a rest” (42). (Walkowitz has given a footnote, however, I was unable to go look it up). Basically, Bill was “whipped” (to borrow a modern colloquialism): this condition resulted from having striven and near-achieved with no subsequent struggle to achieve (again). Bill was a radical who lived through a bloodbath. Regardless of whether Bill was on the frontlines, the fact that he was of like mind and comradeship offered a possibility of mixed emotions about surviving when so many of his comrades had fallen. In 1887, he would have been 10 years younger, more sturdy (physically and possibly emotionally), and in the prime of his life. He had reality and a fixed goal with hope to alter reality to a better state. The brutal massacre greatly impacted Bill. He saw that the public dissent ultimately lead to the massacre of citizens at the hands of professional military., as such his behavior altered.
If Bloody Sunday as a moment in history is at all comparable to the Oklahoma City bombing or, in a more recent and excessive case, of similar public sentiment as the WTC Bombing, then I feel safe in saying, while the affected society was not healed, the public atmosphere moved on. Meanwhile, men like Bill led their socially expected employed familial roles-marriage, procreation, and production-dictated by local, national, and religious traditions. These males were demasculinized first, in the public sphere by physical defeat at the hands of a paternalistic state–a condition likely to result in the desire for a safe outlet for political dissent or, a complete with drawl from the political sphere. Later, they were demasculinized by themselves and their spouses in the private spheres. Bringing politics into the home was a male driven domestication of politics that served to bring politics to women. In addition, women raised during technological advances such as rail service, department store shopping, and co-ed music halls would have the means to be independent, more so than past generations (46-7).
Bill’s wife expressed her opposition by telling him to “give it a rest” (42). Walter’s memory serves as a testimony to the decade long gender transition made by his father, Bill. It also testifies to perceived female demasculinization of a male authority figure during childhood domestic moments. In other words, his father’s choice to dissent privately rather than publicly opened the door for a chain of reactions crested only by common suffering under matronly wrath. Walter’s perceptions came only after Bill was painfully aware of the price of public dissent and noticeably changed his behavior to private dissent. Walter’s memory language makes the scene noteworthy because Walter’s generation would be the one raised immediately after rebellion was violently putdown. The hidden effects of the massacre were unknown; they would have been in process, as such the testimony of Walter acts as testament to the psychological transformations between Bill, the radical, and Bill, the father. Walter learned to praise the armed radical, while his father’s unarmed house politics taught the boy to object in private and conform in public. Nonconforming had deadly consequences and Bill was well aware of this, especially after Bloody Sunday. If Walter is taken as typical for his generation, then it is safe to assume, a generation of men were brought up hearing about revolution while ducking mother tyrants. The hostile male reaction to women exhibiting stereotypically masculine behavior was natural. Men sought atmospheres void of women and were insulted when women infiltrated those domains. Other men understood the reaction, but random hostile behavior was foreign to most women trained at home to expect cordiality from males.
Walter’s mother lashing out at Bill, “For Gawd’s sake,” left Walter with a vision of woman as the spiritual authority figure who controlled man. He was aware of the strict divides between the sexes enforced in his society and blurred in his home. He could have reacted in multiple ways, though I speculate based on language, he feared his mother and pitied his father, which evidences a clear gender transformation (at least in the Southgate home). The basic truth we can derive from the Walter Southgate example is that he was raised in the confines of society that reacted negatively to gender-blurred familial roles. Walter’s parental examples worked in interesting ways: the father memory is nostalgic, respectable, and a bit pitiful. The mother memory describes life under a matronly dictator, disrespectful of man, and hostile to domestic disruptions. These dynamic parental forces imprinted Walter’s memories in both positive and negative ways that manifest in Walter’s language (“radical” father and “linchpin” mother) (Walkowitz, 42).
Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde: A Fictional Case Study
The (pseudo) socially responsible doctor lived and interacted in a primarily homosocial atmosphere with little chance for exchange with females. According to Nabokov, Dr. Jekyll was far from the ideal representation of Victorian behavior (10) before he began experiments in separating his duality. I would challenge Nabokov to provide a living being who exemplified the ideal of Victorian behavior-it can’t be done-the fictional Utterson, Enfield, and Lanyon each fail. In this sense, for the 21st century reader, Dr. Jekyll’s pretransformational state is certainly an idealization of homosocial Victorian values. Jekyll represents the lure of focusing on achievement: work before marriage. He sets a goal of splitting evil from good and sets off a chain of events which (in retrospect) are horrifying, but as they happen are merely incidentals.
Jekyll looks on with the detached horror of one watching TV; as such, he feels the guilt of a witness, not the guilt of conscience. Jekyll is Hyde’s creator and companion. When Hyde is out-and-about, Jekyll is still present within the body. Neither fully goes away when the other is at the forefront. Jekyll, the domestic brewer, forces an unnatural division within himself that resembles the unnatural gender divisions found within society, neither sex goes away regardless who is at the forefront. Victorians lived with clear societal constructs based on class and sex. Jekyll’s bachelorhood and advanced age suggest a divergence from the social norm of marriage. His comradeship with fellows suggests a convergence with social norms in the form of bachelorhood. This acceptable social duality is based on expectations of a divide between the sexes until after marriage: if one did not marry, then one did not mix with the opposite sex.
Victorian habit still held the female domain as the private sphere and the male domain was the public sphere. The reality of sex-divided domains was being challenged and changed by women and men during this period in history. Jekyll (and men like him) lacked regular exchanges with women (at least, after they left their mothers). The isolation of Jekyll in homosocial circles offers a glimpse into the inner androgyny of personality: an isolated entity exhibits androgynous behavior. The pretransformational Jekyll (who created the ruffian Hyde) was already exhibiting feminization. With the segregation, Jekyll effectively cut himself off from socially acceptable outlets, he lost control in the domestic realm, while the hyper-masculinized Hyde lost control in the public realm.
Pretransformation Jekyll epitomizes the androgynous ideal of Victorian bachelorhood replete with homosocial divides tempered by heterogeneous social norms. The masculine split from the feminine, as exhibited in Jekyll becoming Hyde, is the culmination of efforts Jekyll made in the lab (home). Jekyll set a goal: the division of self into two separate identities, which implies the division of androgyny into polar opposites. He achieved his goal: transformation into Hyde, division of self. From the moment of achievement, Jekyll slowly began to disappear into Hyde. Ultimately, Jekyll could not disappear, though he could be absorbed. Hyde’s masculinity overwhelmed Jekyll’s feminine qualities (Nabokov 10-2). The creation of Hyde challenged Jekyll’s masculinity. The male creating a secondary life form places the male in the female role of creator. The transformation led Jekyll to transgress from balanced androgyny to separate feminized and masculinized personalities. The Hyde personality in its overwhelming of the Jekyll personality pushed the feminized Jekyll to lash out with a “gentle” suicide. Jekyll/Hyde’s last act of suicide is feminized in its inherent softness-he uses poison to slip off into death-traditionally, women poison. The brutality of Hyde’s crimes would call for a brutal death, but Hyde spares himself from the neck-snapping, eye-bulging, suffocation that lay in wait at the hangman’s noose. Jekyll’s feminine hand allows both to ease into death (Stevenson, 122-3).
The 21st century reader can draw conclusions about the changes in public and private spheres through the evidence of women and children in Stevenson’s fictional public sphere.
Both, the incident of Hyde running down a girl child (40) and later, the maid who lives by herself and witnesses the murder of Danvers (59), reinforce the changing role of women. The public sphere Hyde is hyper-masculinized as a brutal force, he is then contrasted with Jekyll, the shocked homebody. Hyde’s brutality is reminiscent of the brutalities seen in war. The masculine warrior figure is unfit for heterogeneous society. The horrified Jekyll persona seems ill-equipped to deal with the murderous Hyde, though it is Jekyll that both creates and destroys Hyde.
Merging Fact and Fiction: A Conclusion
Societal gender norms fluctuate as views on masculine and feminine traits change. The naturally occurring gender norm is actually a hybrid of both sexes-androgyny. To divide a person into two halves is interesting in hypothesis, but is not practical, since the intermingling of masculine and feminine create those who can weave in and out of heterogeneous/homogenous spheres in relative safety. The lack of heterogenic spheres outside the home intermixed with the homogeneous warrior cult, led society into a polarized realm where lines do not appear to blur. In reality, society is heterogeneous and individuals are androgynous (personality) regardless of their sex or expected gender roles.
Bill Southgate, radical turned husband, underwent significant transformation from young and idealistic to old and nostalgic; and from the hyper-masculinity of the brutal “Bloody Sunday” to the feminized husband chastised for bringing politics into the kitchen. Dr. Jekyll, scientist turned experiment, underwent transformation from old and nostalgic to young and idealistic (evil ideals are still ideals); and from effeminate bachelor to hyper-masculine barbarian. Jekyll relates directly to Bill Southgate as both are aged Victorian males who have been demasculinized. While Bill’s demasculinization is three part (self, family, society), Jekyll’s demasculinization appears to be one part (self), it also includes family and society pressures (left out of Stevenson’s novel). Jekyll’s motivation for bachelorhood remains outside the scope of the novel, we assume that by his actions and his profession, solitude is preferred. Jekyll uses his solitude to create a separate being that he can live vicariously through. Both idealized lost youth. Hyde enabled Jekyll to become youthful vitality and Walter enabled Bill to watch youthful vitality. The idealized version of radical Bill Southgate is tempered by Walter’s memories of Bill as an “armchair politician” (Walkowitz, 42). As a radical, Bill represented the androgynous turned hyper-masculine. Ten years later, Bill’s transformation had progressed into feminized longing for lost hyper-masculinity. As a result, Walter’s biting reality was submersed in gender androgyny combined with sex divides that idealized gender divides. Hyde did not deal with submersion, except when in the public sphere, which was undergoing change from a male domain to a heterogeneous sphere.
These men are transformed after shocks to their systems. Jekyll caused his initial shock when he first drank the Hyde potion. Bill caused his initial shock by joining the radicals. The climatic death of the fictional Carew is on par with the reality of the deaths of “Bloody Sunday,” and both are resultant from a series of continued shocks that culminated in bloodshed. The downward spiral of Jekyll is far exaggerated from the reality experienced by Bill (of course, Bill did not cleave his two halves, he attempted to blend them). These two characters grant significant insights into Victorian life by offering pieces of social information that gives the 21st century reader a glimpse into this past society. These two stories, one fact and the other 18th century contemporary fiction, act as a testament to the battle between balanced inner androgyny and the clear cut conflicting social construct of gender divides established to emulate the division of the sexes. Both men are products of misconception gone a wry, similarly, they are the byproduct of static bounds pushed to the brink by fluid humanity.
Stevenson, Robert Louis. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: With an Introductory Essay by Vladimir Nabokov. New York: New American Library. 1987.
Walkowitz, Judith R. City of Dreadful Delight: Narratives of Sexual Danger in Late-Victorian London. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1992.