Both the Wrongs of Woman and Maria (1798) by Mary Wollstonecraft and Ann Radcliffe’s The Italian (1797) reflect particular social perspectives of women at different stages in the then changing cultural environment of the eighteenth century.
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The woman has to reconsider the limiting identity that the patriarchal society has accorded her and form alliances that will ensure that she overturns the social order. The main heroines in the two novels seek to subvert the social order of the sublime patriarchy by claiming more liberalized identities and forging alliances, however, in different ways.
This paper argues that political consciousness and positive reconstruction of social identities are essential steps towards the liberalization of the woman in the eighteenth century as portrayed in the two novels. The liberalization of the woman, therefore, depends upon the active participation of the woman in the endeavor rather than reliance on other social forces to bring about change.
A good number of playwrights have devoted their lives into addressing the subject of femininity. Mary Wollstonecraft is an epitome of such people based on the way she represents a feminine subjectivity in her novel that is overt and radically political.
The memoirs of Maria to her daughter disclose the “circumstances which, during her childhood, occurred to fashion her mind” (Wollstonecraft 123). Maria’s subjectivity becomes politicized the moment it is revealed to her that her identity is arbitrated by her position as subordinated to the networks that shape her social existence according to Wollstonecraft’s background in enlightenment and sentimental philosophies explored in the text.
As a child, Maria was forced into “continual restraint in the most trivial matters; [and] unconditional submission to orders which… [she] soon discovered to be unreasonable, because they were inconsistent and contradictory” (Wollstonecraft 125).
Maria comes to the realization that her constrained identity is the result of an artificial social creation. This comes when she contrasts “the unnatural restraint of (her family’s) fire side to the “Volatized humors” that are often enjoyed in the natural world, which she terms as ‘a paradise of open air and freedom” (Wollstonecraft 126).
Maria’s liberally educated uncle teaches her to how to trust and consequently act upon the subjective perceptions that are in constant attack from the tyrannical other. She narrates: “He inculcated, with great warmth, self-respect, and a lofty consciousness of acting right, independent of the censure or applause of the world; nay, he almost taught me to brave, and even despise its censure, when convinced of the rectitude of my own intentions!” (Wollstonecraft 128).
She, as a result, develops a class transcendent relationship with the fallen Jemima due to their common experiences as females. “Thinking of Jemima’s peculiar fate and her own, [Maria] was led to consider the oppressed state of women and to lament that she had given birth to a daughter” (Wollstonecraft 120).
According to Wollstonecraft, the community could be formed without any reference to class but through drawing together people who share similar sentiments and subjective experiences that have shaped them in a similar manner.
The intent of the people should be to change their relationship to the oppressive social power that limits their expression. Both Maria’s memoirs intended to warn her daughter about the dangers of living in a state of constraint; “not always appearing what you are” (Wollstonecraft 124).
Jemima’s awakening to “long estranged feminine emotions…enabled her to “alleviate the sufferings of a wretched mother in her power” (Wollstonecraft 80). They reveal that the two women are forging a relationship against the tyrannical authorities that have downtrodden them.
Rather than considering themselves as victims of the oppression, they consider themselves obstacles in the way of the oppressors. They seek to become independent and active speakers of their own desires rather than the passive markers of masculinity exchangeable for pleasure and profit.
The redefinition of their identities allows the formation of a moral social bond as observed by Maria in her memory of the woman who assisted her in her effort to elude Venables. She says “True sensibility, the sensibility which is the auxiliary of virtue, and the soul of genius, is in society so occupied with the feelings of others, as scarcely to regard its own sensations” (Wollstonecraft 176).
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Radcliffe’s hero in The Italian just like Maria in The Wrongs of Woman has been conditioned by her upbringing to react to particular manifestations of self worth. Bianchi’s industrious morality defined Ellena’s perceptions as well as prepared her to discover the “dignity of virtuous independence in others but which she cannot identify in herself.
“Vivaldi was not a figure to pass unobserved when seen, and Ellena had been struck by the spirit and dignity of his air, and by his countenance, so frank, noble, and full of that kind of expression which announces the energies of the soul” (Radcliffe 9).
According to Burke, “The passion caused by the principal and sublime in nature, when those causes operate most powerfully, is astonishment: and astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its emotions are suspended, with some degree of horror” (35).
Ellena was conditioned to discover these qualities of Vivaldi due to the preconceived notions of the sublime that she had. On the part of Vivaldi, his appreciation of Ellena’s qualities did not rely on preconceived notions acquired through upbringing.
It rather relied upon sensuality, although it was mostly his “respectful timidity… mingled with his admiration…which kept him” (Radcliffe 7) from telling her outright of his fascination with her “countenance, which he fancied must express all the sensibility of character that the modulation of her tones indicated” (Radcliffe 5).
As Burke claims, when the sublime before them has objects of beauty, love and competency, there is an accompanying sense of melting and languor (38).
The two like-spirited individuals in The Italian are not drawn together by similar oppressive experiences, as it is the case in Wollstonecraft’s The Wrongs of Woman. The bond in this case comes in because of the intuitive and mutual recognition of the authentic self-identity after being exposed to the false or misleading social identity categories.
The Italian, as a result, discloses that the desire for true affiliation takes one through an inward journey to the realization of the ideal self.
The influence of the eighteenth-century anxiety on individualism and the patriarchal structure of the society becomes defused as Vivaldi tries to bring about his imagined society into being “and confirms in him the presence of those masculine and public attributes” of political consciousness and positive reconstruction (Radcliffe 12).
For both Maria and Ellena, the first step that they make towards their restoration as women in the society is the recognition of their oppressed identities and the reformation of these identities. The eighteenth century woman had been conditioned through her upbringing to embrace her oppressed state.
Through observing the life situations of others (Jemima and Vivaldi), both Maria and Ellena gain a different perspective to their conditions as informed through a process of enlightenment.
As it is revealed through memoirs of Maria to her daughter in The Wrongs of Woman, and Ellena’s sentiments about her upbringing in The Italian, the woman is conditioned from a tender age to embrace the social order, and be subjected to the male. It is, therefore, through political consciousness and positive reconstruction of her identity that she is able to act upon the oppressive constraints.
Based on the expositions made in the paper, it suffices to declare the issues associated with the sublime as ones that elevate men to positions of power and reduces the women to mere subjects.
In case of a woman, she has to be aware the societal hierarchy and by adopting a redefined identity as a result of consciousness be able to create relationships either based on common subjective experiences as in the case of Maria and Jemima in The Wrongs of Woman or Maria or through the force of love as in The Italian.
The representation of women in the two texts reflects the ideas of the authors who are renowned feminists in an effort to create awareness on the repression of women and enlighten the women on the necessary steps to take in the struggle for their liberation. As depicted through the two texts, women ought to view themselves as obstacles to the oppressors rather than victims of the oppressive patriarchal societies.
Burke, Edmund. On the Sublime and Beautiful. Vol. XXIV, Part 2. New York: P.F. Collier& Son, 2001. Print.
Radcliffe, Ann. The Italian. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992. Print.
Wollstonecraft, Mary. Maria, or the Wrongs of Woman. New York: W.W. Norton &Company, 1975. Print.