The writers involved in the readings we’ve had this semester seem to present the case that certain people, particularly women, are in a very vulnerable position in society. They are given few opportunities to support their own needs and frequently can be seen to depend upon men for their welfare. Without a man around, this is exceedingly difficult and, even with a man around, can be found to be strongly limiting. This vulnerability can be seen in stories like “Pictures” by Katherine Mansfield, “The Winters and the Palmleys” by Thomas Hardy and “The Biter Bit” by Wilkie Collins.
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In “Picture”, Miss Ada Moss is seen to be growing old and fat as she has to split the seams of her nightdress in order to fit into it and her legs are full of the blue knots of varicose veins. She was once a successful contralto singer, which is shown in the parade of good foods that float past her imagination, but she is now in dire straits since the advent of motion pictures. The story begins as she is confronted by her landlady that she absolutely must present her rent for the small, cold room she occupies and it is presumably not the first time the request has been made. “What with week in week out and first you’ve got it and then you haven’t, and then it’s another letter lost in the post or another manager down at Brighton but will be back on Tuesday for certain – I’m fair sick and tired and I won’t stand it no more,” the landlady says.
Miss Moss’s search for work is as unfruitful as her home cupboard, frequently finding herself attempting to compete with slim and beautiful younger women for parts in films that have little or nothing to offer. Finally, she ends up in a small, darkened café and meets up with a man. By the tone of their small conversation and mention of a particular ribbon that stands out from her otherwise dark clothing, it becomes clear that Miss Moss has resorted to selling herself as a prostitute as her only means of earning a meal and a bed to sleep in.
The women in Hardy’s story are barely better off. This story tells the tale of two good-looking women of the village who had always had a rivalry. When one woman married the man of both their dreams and had a son, the other woman was left to take what she could get, which took some time. The man she married was sickly and unimpressive and died within ten years of the marriage, leaving her with a sickly son who died after having run an errand for the wealthier first woman, now also a widow.
While it might be argued that Harriet was a strong woman because of her ability to refuse the attentions of Jack and that gentleman’s subsequent execution after stealing her letters, this was more an accidental occurrence that was quickly used by the poor woman, Mrs. Palmley, to finally get her revenge upon Mrs. Winter for having stolen the desirable man and frightening the sickly boy to death. If the women had had more options in life, perhaps such events would not have needed to take place. Not only was Mrs. Palmley limited in her options in life, but she was weak in her desires as she had nothing to live for but revenge on the woman she imagined caused all her grief.
Finally, in the story “The Biter Bit”, Mrs. Yatman is required to keep up her appearances in society despite her husband’s misfortunes, but is unable to pay for her requirements. If she had been able to take a position somewhere and earn money of her own, she probably would have done so in order to pay her dressmaker, but part of keeping up appearances meant not seeming to change anything outwardly. Knowing she could not expect any help from her husband, she elects to steal the money he’s withdrawn from the bank in order to avoid legal actions against her.
Although she is clever enough to keep the foolish detective Sharpin from suspecting her, she is immediately taken ill upon the discovery of the truth and, in the final notes to the story, has evidently been confined to bed after an attack of nerves just as was predicted by the more competent Sergeant Bulmer. Like Mrs. Palmley, Mrs. Yatman is weak in character as she cannot stand to economize in her clothing despite a fall in fortunes yet is also weak in opportunity as she does not have the option of going out to earn the money she needs in order to pay her bills.