Role of Women in Classic Literature

 

Anyone who knows me knows that I am a huge bookworm. Books are my happy place. If we ever go out and you take me to a bookshop, I’ll be the happiest person on Earth. We won’t even have to buy anything. But I digress.

 

It’s safe to say I have read my fair share (and sometimes others’ share, too) of books. And while my tastes venture into all genres, I am partial to Classic Literature. There is just something about reliving societies gone-by through the eyes of someone who lived it. However, the point of this article isn’t to espouse the wonders of Classic Lit (though that deserves another article probably). What I want to do today is to draw parallels between certain trains of societal structure, specifically role of women in Classic Literature.

 

There are a lot of novels that can deal with this, some like Lady Chatterley’s Lover or The Scarlet Letter directly deal with a woman’s right to her sexuality in a puritan society, while others, like Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre, deal more subtly with the question of choice.

 

But none have left as much of an impact on me as the three novels I want to discuss in this space – Gone With The Wind (1936) by Margaret MitchelAnna Karenina (1878) by Leo Tolstoy and Chokher Bali (1914) by Rabindranath Tagore.  What do three novels written in vastly different times in three different countries have in common, right? Far more than I would have ever imagined before reading them.

 

For starters, all three are women-centric novels. Really, that much should have been obvious from the introduction. Set in the backdrop of civil unrest, all three novels portray changing times and a simmering (or sometimes outright) social revolution.

 

Gone With The Wind features the horror and misery of the American Civil War.Beginning in the deep South, the novel follows Scarlett O’Hara, the protagonist, as she goes from vast wealth and idle wanderings of youth to the realities of war and a rapidly losing Southern Confederacy.

 

Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina was written with the backdrop of the Bolshevik revolution, when the lower classes of Russia were only beginning to realize their own worth. Discussions of what exactly constitutes of ‘class’, changing notions of propriety and the attributes (or as I like to call them, restrictions) of upper class women are only some the issues this masterpiece touches upon.

 

And finally Chokher Bali is history most of us are familiar with. Set in Colonial-era Bengal, Chokher Bali embodied the social unrest and simmering political chaos just underneath the surface. The Sepoy Mutiny was over, but not everyone had yet chosen a side. Bengal had been partitioned and the society was still reeling from the shock. The drastic change underway meant an even stronger desire to cling to traditional ideals. Hence, even though practices likewidow re-marriage was legal,it carried unimaginable amounts of prejudice and risk of ostracisation.

 

In such times were born three women who vastly outshone the claustrophobic ‘values’ they were forced into.

 

 

Gone With The Wind

 

Scarlett O’Hara was born the spoilt daughter of an enormously wealthy plantation owner. A woman and belle of the high-class southern society, she is mostly interested in balls and is as unconcerned with politics and war, as befitting a lady of her social standing. She makes her displeasure evident when talk of war comes around, preferring instead to spend her time trying to securing her beaux Ashley’s proposal. To that effect, she even goes so far as to shout at him when he claims they wouldn’t be a good match, a distinctly ‘unladylike’ behavior as commented upon by Rhett Butler to Scarlett’s embarrassment. Yet, readers probably realized, this is the first glimpse we get of the true Scarlett.

 

 

When the call to war finally arrives, Scarlett, in a fit of spite accepts the marriage proposal of Charles Hamilton.In two months’ time, she is left a pregnant widow, her carefree life over.

 

The course of the Civil War is something we are all familiar with. Battles and the advancing Union army slowly ravaged the South. On the eve of Atlanta’s fall,a desperate Scarlett finding no doctor, assists Ashley’s wife in labour and helps her give birth to their son. They flee together and once again find themselves atTara, on the steps of Scarlett’s home, albeit a drastically changed home. Here, Scarlett finds her mother dead, her father a walking ghost, her sisters dying and little to no help left. The responsibility of the entire household is upon her. She is no more than 20 at this point.

 

Thus starts the life of struggle. The former socialite tills corn and works long hours in the fields.This is also the time when she first kills a man.If her character had to be defined in one instance, this would be a moment. She would rather murder and risk the consequences than let her home be sullied or her family suffer. At the end of the day, Scarlett O’Hara refuses to succumb to fate.

 

Over the course of the next few years, Scarlett chooses survival over society. She marries a man betrothed to her sister by charming him so that she could pay the extra taxes levied on her farm. She manages her husband’s store efficiently and even manages to raise profits enough to buy a sawmill. Where other women slowly make do by needle work and baking or washing, Scarlett refuses to conform. Shunning propriety she deals with all kinds of workmen because she knows she can manage the business better. Yet society won’t even allow her to legally own the business. How is that fair, I ask?

 

While passing a shantytown on her way back from the sawmill Scarlett is brutally attacked and nearly robbed by a white man and a recently liberated former slave. In the struggle, her gown is ripped and she is saved only by the timely arrival of Big Sam, a former slave and ‘family’ of the O’Haras. Outraged at this incident, members of the first Ku Klux Klan, her husband included, decide to take the law into their own hands and avenge her. In the ensuing chaos, her husband dies and Scarlett is blamed. Because as a woman, why on earth didn’t she stay at home? It doesn’t matter that she is the one putting food on the table, or that her business acumen rivals most learned people. She is, after all a woman…

 


Anna Karenina

 

Like Scarlett, Anna too was part of the upper echelon of society. She is a smart, passionate, beautiful, vivacious woman who is married off to a ‘respectable’ man twenty years her senior. They live comfortably together, but it is obvious neither is passionate about the marriage. Count Alexei Alexandrovich Karenin only loves his work.

 

Consequently, Anna’s whole life revolves around her son, till one fateful party where she meets Count Alexei Kirillovich Vronsky. Their passion is instant and both are deeply affected. Anna tries to resist by fleeing back to St. Petersburg, only to find Vronksy has followed her there.

 

Anna 1

 

Their illicit affair sets in a motion a chain of events that plunges Anna and Vronksy deeper into a web they cannot untangle. A further blow comes to Anna when she has to choose between her love and her son. Anna’s husband refuses to entertain the possibility of a divorce for fear of upheaval in his social standing and strives to keep their son from Anna. Unable to decide, Anna leaves with Vronksy but begins resenting her separation from her boy.

 

anna 2_with effectThe forced solitude and lack of society plagues Anna. Her relationship with Vronsky deteriorates when he too has to face the realities of a life in seclusion in foreign lands. However, Vronsky as a man, has the added advantage of being able to mingle if he so chooses and this knowledge plagues Anna who at times is both suspicious of Vronsky’s outings and outraged at her own suspicions. Her relationship with her newborn daughter (with Vronsky) too is affected by the circumstances.

 

The combined weight of guilt, fear and societal pressure make the tragic end an inevitable conclusion.

 

 

Chokher Bali

 

A convent-educated woman, Binodini is way ahead of her times. She is smart, cunning, well-spoken and multi-talented. But a simple ego-brush off by Mahin lands her widowed in a tiny hell-hole when Mahin binodini 1_with effect refuses to marry her on a whim. Bitter and enraged Binodini seeks to capture forcefully what she feels should have rightfully belonged to her, collateral damage be damned. And that begins a chain of events no one, not even Binodini can stop.

 

I can write pages about Binodini’s character. She is so real. She is a human woman, passionate and flawed. The archaic laws of a British era Bengal deprived her of an actual life. As a Bong living in the 21st century, I can hardly judge her for her decisions, hell I envy her strength. Just like Scarlett O’Hara, she is a woman I can relate to. Sadly Mahin is no Rhett Butler. (Jos Sedleyfrom Vanity Fair might be a better comparison, though that’s a story for another article).

 

The once-scorned woman proceeds to make him realize exactly what he lost when he shunned her so carelessly. Her seduction is slow and cunning. She befriends Mahin’s wife, Asha, a young girl barely out of her adolescence, and thus gains a place in their daily life. Binodini beguiles and charms Mahin with her wit. Much of the conversation leaves Asha perplexed and thus, in effect, Mahin and Binodini are left to converse on their own. Their affair begins in secret, but as with all things illicit, it doesn’t take long to seek the light. By the time Binodini achieves her goal, she realizes her former life is shattered and the consequences, she didn’t previously give a thought to, had effectively ripped her shelter and life from her.

 

Binodini 2

 

It is at this point that TV serials (yes, I am looking at you Zee Bangla), love to villain-ise her. Did she make a terrible decision, yes? Was her decision fuelled by rage? Absolutely. But her decision was not made in a vacuum. Here was a young woman who had the ability, learning and brains to be a force to be reckoned with. And society had locked her up in a room with nothing but her yearnings for company. Would it have been better if she had married Mahin, as had been the original promise made? Would it have been better if Mahin did not change his mind at the last minute and Binodini was not effectively compelled to marry a man, in no way her equal? We don’t know. But the fact remained that her current plight could have been entirely avoided by a single word from Mahin. Binodini, too, knew this. And thus all her anguish, her frustration focused on Mahin, hailing him as her tormentor. Her decision to tear him down, while not commendable, is at least understandable.

 

When the haze of rage lessens, she realizes what she has done. She leaves Kolkata and moves back to her squalor in the middle of a tiny village, but receives no respite. Mahin follows her there and the subsequent rumours make it impossible for her to stay. A woman with no means, she must turn to Mahin for her upkeep and she despises him for it. We can remember Anna’s desperation at her forced solitude, and Binodini is no better. She despises Mahin’s clinginess and his inability to decide what he wants. She despises him for showing up at her door. And she despises the fact that she must accept his help to survive.

 

Her guilt and desire to make amends leads her to Bihari,Mahin’s ever-loyal friend who had previously seen through Binodini’s intention. She realizes the true beauty of Bihari’s soul, but by then it’s too late. Even if Mahin’s jealousy couldn’t keep her away, even if her own scandal hadn’t ruined any social standing she had, even if she could actually embody society’s ideals of a ‘pure’ woman, she was still a widow, a woman not fit to be a bride. Not even true love can change the hypocrisy that is a civilized society. In the end, she had to let go, of her hate, her desire and her heart forever.

 

I love and hate the ending. I love that Binodini regained her dignity in her own eyes, and her sense of purpose. A woman as strong-willed as her could not live knowing how much she had wronged others, as she realized, albeit a little late. I really wish she could have had the happy ending, though. But I guess knowing she was loved, truly, would have to suffice. She knew marriage with Bihari was out of the question after her transgressions.

 

I think her decision to sacrifice her happiness is the crux of her entire character. There, we see the true Bindoni, a strong independent woman, forced to depend on others thanks to her times. In the end she does break the shackles free, and even if she couldn’t tie a garland of roses with her love, at least no ropes were bringing her down. She may have lost her way in her rage, but her moral compass re-asserts herself when she cannot harm the ever loyal Bihari, even by obeying his desire to marry her, knowing it would taint his reputation beyond redemption. That is her redemption.

 

And that brings to me, finally, to what resonated within me about these women. All these women were modern, when modern-ness was a sin, bold when boldness was cursed. None of them were without their faults, they made mistakes, they made decisions no good could come out of; but they did so because they had no other choice.

 

Would Scarlett have been forced to seduce and tempt her sister’s betrothed if she could have received a loan on her own merits and not be subject to the derision of being a woman with a “woman’s incapability of business” and the “propriety of being a widow”? Would Binodini have made the terrible decision to wreck the life of the person whose mere whim destroyed hers if she had simply been allowed to be? Would Anna have taken the drastic final step if she could have come out of the situation with her dignity left intact? Would she have been forced to give up her son if she could have just obtained a divorce? Would she have given up her life if she had a worth living?

 

Imagine for a moment what would have happened if some misguided Aunt had not decided to scheme and marry Anna off to Karenin? Or that we could have accepted that the woman fell in love. Imagine if the strikingly smart Binodini could have ventured on her own and did not have to live off Rajlakshmi’sconditional kindness, be confronted daily by the man whose one careless gesture was the reason for her destitution. In her place, could you have accepted the situation as it was?

 

At the end of the day, these women were strong, real, human beings. Society pushed them down, but they fought tooth and nail. Some like Scarlett, and Binodini, to some extent, survived, though not unscathed. Others succumbed to a more permanent peace. But none of them gave up without a fight. Maybe their fight ended, but others’ didn’t. And maybe that is why I relate so much to them. Because even now, a hundred years later, women are still dying by the hundreds for the same crime – being independent.

 

Yes, we call it honour killing, we say it is because they shamed the family, gave up ‘morality’ (who the hell even defines someone else’s morality?), because they stayed out too late, or went out too far. But at the crux of the matter, it was because they did what they wanted to. Because they believed they could.

 

A 100 years later, Binodini still lives, Anna still lives, Scarlett still lives, and it is up to us to not let them die this time.

 

 

 

 

Baisakhi

Feminist, atheist, foodie and self-proclaimed geek. I’m also a bit of an annoying cad, if my friends were to be believed. Fortunately, I do not believe them. I love reading and have been known to ignore people in favour of books. Sarcasm is my go-to response in all things nonsensical…so pretty much whenever any politician opens their mouth.

Oh, and I hate Snape.

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