Moral Boundaries and Feminine Fulfillment: A discussion
Moral Boundaries and Feminine Fulfillment
The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth – Century Literary imagination by Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar used Bertha Mason, Mr. Rochester’s insane wife in Charlotte Brontë’s novel Jane Eyre, as an image of female representation in Victorian Literature of the 19th Century.
Gilbert and Gubar examined the perception according to which women writers in the 19th Century were restrained. Feminine characters were depicted as either “angelic” or “monstrous”. This duality had developed (and probably imitated) the tendency of male authors to portray their female protagonists and minor characters as either pure and virtuous or mad and rebellious.
Gilbert and Gubar claimed that women writers should, in the modern day, aspire to a higher level. To overcome a one dimensional and limited depiction of a persona is to annihilate these two opposed imageries, since neither of them enables an accurate representation of women.
The authoresses rely on Virginia Woolf’s self – description in Profession for Women. She confesses the need to relinquish the “feminine angel” in order to write something of value. According to Woolf, it is one of an authoresses’ duty.
Is there indeed an unwritten demand to embrace the “angel” in order to avoid falling into an abyss of becoming the diabolical monster? Are women truly required to excel as exemplary figures? If they are not the “perfect housewife” they are surely not deranged? Above all – is it really a question of gender? Cannot one find aggressive and cruel women in the home as well as in business world? Does one always have to act with sympathy towards a woman, even when circumstances present her as an unworthy “female angel”? Has it anything to do with her being subordinate or independent, domesticated or ambitious, obedient or rebellious?
Anton Chekhov’s story Anna on the Neck begins with the “moment after” the marriage ceremony of Anna and Alexeitch; a pathetic pretence of modesty disguising the miserliness of the wealthy and high positioned Alexeitch: ”Many people commended this, saying that Modest Alexeitch was a man high up in the service and no longer young, and that a noisy wedding might not have seemed quite suitable; and music is apt to sound dreary when a government official of fifty-two marries a girl who is only just eighteen. People said, too, that Modest Alexeitch, being a man of principle, had arranged this visit to the monastery expressly in order to make his young bride realize that even in marriage he put religion and morality above everything.”1
What kind of a wedding was this? no one was happy, no one plays, dances or eats. A wedding in which the bride and groom only sip one glass of champagne, change their clothes and drive hundred and fifty miles away to a place where they could deliberate the gravity of marital life and the fact that everthing should be carried out only from comittment and rationalistic judgment.
The groom, as already implied above, is a dreary, stingy clerk who considers himself to be a dignified official. A fat egocentric who does not believe one should move, unless to be obsequious to persons of a higher rank2. Alexeitch is smug, content with himself, with his carefully trimmed sideburns, his meticulous smooth shave and his easy, refined manner.
However, Anton Chekhov does not allow Alexeitch’s foppish exterior to baffle his readers: he underlines the nature of his character, when he describes “his clean-shaven, round, sharply defined chin looked like the heel of a foot. The most characteristic point in his face was the absence of moustache, the bare, freshly shaven place, which gradually passed into the fat cheeks, quivering like jelly.”3
Anna’s and Alexeitch’s wedding is a deal: Anna wants to rescue her family from starvation. Alexeitch simply needs pretty woman at his side4.
Anna’s father, Pyotr Leontyitch, is an alcoholic: there is hardly a moment in which he is not drunk, shivering and pale or a moment when he does not embarrass his two younger sons, Petya and Andrusha5. The desperate and tender way in which Petya and Andrusha try to prevent their drunken father from getting upset or from putting himself to shame is expressed with agonizing tenderness.
Pyotr Leontyitch began drinking only after his wife’s death. At the beginning he worked as an art teacher in the high school, but his addiction had ruined all. Petya and Andrusha had nothing to eat, nothing to wear – not even boots or galoshes in frozen Russia, where the temperatures drop to minus 50C bellow zero.
In his defense it should be argued that Pyotr Leontyitch tries his best to better his miserable state: “After dinner he usually dressed in his best. Pale, with a cut on his chin from shaving, craning his thin neck, he would stand for half an hour before the glass, prinking, combing his hair, twisting his black moustache, sprinkling himself with scent, tying his cravat in a bow; then he would put on his gloves and his top-hat, and go off to give his private lessons.”6
How different is this effort – long struggle of scrubbing, peeling and shedding of the hard mask of poverty, drunkenness and despair – from Alexeitch’s delicate self-pampering.
Yet, in spite it all reality remains wretched and hopeless.
In the past, Pyotr Leontyitch’s furniture had been foreclosed.
The shame was unbearable. Anna, Petya and Andrusha drowned in it. It flooded them like terrifying waves in a stormy ocean, threatening to overcome them.
As a result, Anna became the mother figure of the household. She had to take care of her father and attend to all domestic chores with no support. Above all she feared the uncertain future. Her father drank excessively and therefore was about to be fired from his job. He could possibly die, leaving her and her brothers orphans, all alone in the world.
Anna was only a young girl. She was indeed pretty, but even the compliments she received, flattering remarks which would had uplifted the spirit of any other girl, caused her great sorrow. These simple comments only reminded her how pitiful she looked, with “her cheap hat and the holes in her boots that were inked over”7. She was forever haunted by the sense that the entire world was looking at her, judging and examining, inspecting and condemning her.
Anna feels this way due to the fact that she perpetually criticizes herself, having no self-awareness. In fact, she does not even think her thoughts or feeling are worth having. It is quite possible that she does not acknowledge the existence of feelings or the fact she is allowed to have them.
She just does what is needed.
A genuine angel.
A wedding was therefore the next inevitable step.
Alexeitch was older and had the money and influence to prevent Pyotr Leontyitch from being dismissed from his occupation.
Anna does not love her husband. She is terrified at the thought that now, Alexeitch, as her husband, has the ability and authority to touch her, without her being able to repulse or refuse:
“Anna remembered what agony the wedding had been, when it had seemed to her that the priest, and the guests, and every one in church had been looking at her sorrowfully and asking why, why was she, such a sweet, nice girl, marrying such an elderly, uninteresting gentleman. Only that morning she was delighted that everything had been satisfactorily arranged, but at the time of the wedding, and now in the railway carriage, she felt cheated, guilty, and ridiculous. Here she had married a rich man and yet she had no money, her wedding-dress had been bought on credit, and when her father and brothers had been saying good-bye, she could see from their faces that they had not a farthing. Would they have any supper that day? And tomorrow? And for some reason it seemed to her that her father and the boys were sitting tonight hungry without her, and feeling the same misery as they had the day after their mother’s funeral.
“Oh, how unhappy I am!” she thought. “Why am I so unhappy?” “8
Alexeitch, who knows perfectly well how to groom and look after himself, denies Anna everything that was not considered a necessity: when he takes her out to the theater and she craves for a candy, he immediately shouts in protest, “but as it was awkward to leave the buffet without buying anything, (so) he would order some seltzer-water and drink the whole bottle himself, and tears would come into his eyes. And Anna hated him at such times.”9
So do the readers.
The “old” Anna would have probably considered the life of the “new” Anna as pure paradise: the “new” Anna was now forever exempted from anything concerned with domestic maintenance. However, like many other heroines in Anton Chekhov’s stories, the “new” Anna takes no joy in her new, comfortable life: “When Modest Alexevitch had gone to the office, Anna played the piano, or shed tears of depression, or lay down on a couch and read novels or looked through fashion papers.”10
At times she was required to accommodate Alexevitch’s colleague’s wives, “… ugly, tastelessly dressed women, as coarse as cooks – (whose) gossip would begin in the flat as tasteless and unattractive as the ladies themselves.”11
Anna was young and beautiful. She has exquisite taste. Although her rank was less than a cook, she was above these “high class ladies”, mainly thanks to her mother’s upbringing:
“Her mother had always dressed in the latest fashion and had always taken trouble over Anna, dressing her elegantly like a doll, and had taught her to speak French and dance the mazurka superbly… Like her mother, Anna could make a new dress out of an old one, clean gloves with benzene, hire jewels; and, like her mother, she knew how to screw up her eyes, lisp, assume graceful attitudes, fly into raptures when necessary, and throw a mournful and enigmatic look into her eyes. And from her father she had inherited the dark colour of her hair and eyes, her highly-strung nerves, and the habit of always making herself look her best.”12
The life of the “new” Anna seemed to offer her everything and nothing at the same time.
Nevertheless, Anna still possessed one true possession: a family who needed her. For this family Anna had married this man, who she cannot stand and whom she fears so much, she is unable to eat while he gulps enough food to satisfy ten men. Yet Anna’s old family looks at the “new” Anna with a new and resentful manner: “Her father and the boys looked at her in a peculiar way, as though just before she came in they had been blaming her for having married for money a tedious, wearisome man she did not love; her rustling skirts, her bracelets, and her general air of a married lady, offended them and made them uncomfortable. In her presence they felt a little embarrassed and did not know what to talk to her about; but yet they still loved her as before, and were not used to having dinner without her. She sat down with them to cabbage soup, porridge, and fried potatoes, smelling of mutton dripping…”13
The most ironic fact of all is that Anna’s loathed marriage took place in order for her to help her father and brothers, but this marriage was precisely the reason why she could not do so:
She could not help them financially since her husband watched so closely over her, counting her jewelry and making sure that nothing was sold. She even lessens her family’s meager portion when she partakes in their poor and coarse food. She felt unable to dine in her own home, in spite of plenty of delicious extensive meals. Her husband caused her to lose her appetite.
She could not provide her family with the moral support since her marriage caused them to feel alienated inferior and deprived.
“Anna bowed and her head certainly did not drop off, but it was agonizing. She did everything her husband wanted her to, and was furious with herself for having let him deceive her like the veriest idiot. She had only married him for his money, and yet she had less money now than before her marriage. In old days her father would sometimes give her twenty kopecks, but now she had not a farthing. To take money by stealth or ask for it, she could not; she was afraid of her husband, she trembled before him. She felt as though she had been afraid of him for years.”14
Anna is the most prominent representation of the “angelic” woman, free from any shred of selfishness. She excelled in the crafts of domestic life and beyond and sacrificed herself daily for her family.
What did she receive in return?
Nothing at all.
Therefore, according to Gilbert’s and Gubar’s premise, the “old” Anna must be murdered so that a new, better Anna can be born. However, this “new” version of Anna, the woman who has all the time in the world to fulfill herself, who is exempted from the need to help others, becomes her own worst enemy.
The “new” Anna wants to feel worthy.
When she and her husband get off at the train station, she attracts the attention of strange men, who devour her with their lustful eyes. The cheeriness of the encounter with joyful men makes Anna feel dizzy from a possible chance of happiness. For a moment she believes that maybe there is a world out there, waiting for her, in spite the great darkness that has overcast her life.
This belief intensifies and crystallizes in “the usual winter ball (which) take place on the twenty-ninth of December in the Hall of Nobility”15. Like Cinderella, Anna becomes the center of attention:
“When Anna, walking upstairs on her husband’s arm, heard the music and saw herself full length in the looking-glass in the full glow of the lights, there was a rush of joy in her heart, and she felt the same presentiment of happiness as in the moonlight at the station. She walked in proudly, confidently, for the first time feeling herself not a girl but a lady, and unconsciously imitating her mother in her walk and in her manner. And for the first time in her life she felt rich and free. Even her husband’s presence did not oppress her, for as she crossed the threshold of the hall she had guessed instinctively that the proximity of an old husband did not detract from her in the least, but, on the contrary, gave her that shade of piquant mystery that is so attractive to men.”16
A dream came true. A sweet reward long overdue after endless years of suffering, distress and sour hopes. Again like Cinderella, Anna is the most courted dancer, the witty cosmopolitan. She is the simple provincial girl, who is overwhelmed with the bright life of the big city and the attention showered on her. The influence of her beauty on men is intoxicating: they fell at her feet, enchanted with her captivating and delightful grace. Again she feels everyone staring at her, but what a pleasant this sublime sensation, to be in the center of attention, so admired, to envied. Even at the charity auction organized, she succeeded exceedingly well, charming the respectable men with their shiny polished suits, their excited manners and their adoring eyes: “Anna invited purchasers and got money out of them, firmly convinced by now that her smiles and glances could not fail to afford these people great pleasure. She realized now that she was created exclusively for this noisy, brilliant, laughing life, with its music, its dancers, its adorers, and her old terror of a force that was sweeping down upon her and menacing to crush her seemed to her ridiculous: she was afraid of no one now, and only regretted that her mother could not be there to rejoice at her success. Pyotr Leontyitch, pale by now but still steady on his legs, came up to the stall and asked for a glass of brandy. Anna turned crimson, expecting him to say something inappropriate (she was already ashamed of having such a poor and ordinary
Thus, a monster is born.
It was not born from the enthralling happiness, but from the remark mentioned in the brackets – apparently unimportant, marginal and almost unnoticeable. A remark that exposed, accidentally so it seems, that in this new moment Anna’s memories of her father’s shameful behavior are no longer sad. Now they are “inappropriate”.
Anna is no longer sorry for all the things her family had lost, for her thin and pale brothers and their ruined lives.
Anna is ashamed for having such a poor, ordinary father.
The old Anna had died. A new Anna was born. A glamorous Anna, Anna who lived only for herself, Anna who gathered strength from groveling men, Anna who controlled her husband, Anna who spent money for her own amusements and joy.
What about her father?
And her barefoot brothers?
“…Anna went on driving about with three horses, going out hunting with Artynov, playing in one-act dramas, going out to supper, and was more and more rarely with her own family; they dined now alone. Pyotr Leontyitch was drinking more heavily than ever; there was no money, and the harmonium had been sold long ago for debt. The boys did not let him go out alone in the street now, but looked after him for fear he might fall down; and whenever they met Anna driving in Staro-Kievsky Street with a pair of horses and Artynov on the box instead of a coachman, Pyotr Leontyitch took off his top-hat, and was about to shout to her, but Petya and Andrusha took him by the arm, and said imploringly: “You mustn’t, father. Hush, father!” “18
One must assume, or at least hope, that this is not the image Virginia Woolf had in mind when she suggested “kill the angel” who prevented woman from spreading her wings. However, one must take into consideration that this might be the result when someone decides to “murder” the thoughtful, devoted side of oneself.
A monster does not have to be a deranged woman, who burns down houses when no one listens to her.
A monster can also be one who believes that woman is such a privileged entity, that she must live solely for her own self.
If the word “woman” would have been replaced with the word “man” – could one still preach for such a liberated thought?
Indeed: Anna did not fulfill herself and therefore became one of those bored insignificant women who cause great harm. Yet the notion that people are only worthy when they are in their prime, when they are striving for the best even at the expense of everything else – kindness, thoughtfulness and caring for other people – has the same blind approach to reality.
If Anna had rebelled against her marriage her family’s condition would have remind the same but she might have been saved as a person. The sensation of bitterness and desolation, which later changed to an unrestrained sense of her own self-importance, was her downfall.
In the twenty-first century one should not be hasty to kill “the angel” along with “the monster”. In fact, one should not kill them at all as there is no such a thing as “an angel” and “a monster”. They are both only aspects of a complete character of a woman (or a man).