A Level Coursework: Spring 2011
Two books I love, and I’m still fairly proud of this essay. I’d appreciate any comments though.
Compare and Contrast the presentation of women in Possession by A.S. Byatt and Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier
Rebecca and Possession both explore the issue of feminism, and the authors present women as having a dual identity; the angel and the devil. The novels deal with women who are repressed and searching for happiness, and they draw attention to the fact that powerful women are often condemned. Women who have power or influence are presented as intrinsically bad whereas those with no power are presented as victims. Both writers comment on the difficult position of women who have no stable or defined position in a male dominated society. Even though there is a significant gap in the time they were written – Rebecca was published in 1938 and Possession in 1990 – they cover similar themes, suggesting that women remain trapped and enclosed, partly by themselves and partly through society’s attitudes and expectations.
The narrative method is important in the presentation of female characters in both novels. Rebecca is written in the first person, forcing the reader to sympathise and empathise with the narrator. For example when the narrator learns her husband is a murderer she is actually relieved, because it means he never loved Rebecca. She says ‘my heart was light like a feather floating in the air’, a simile which conveys her sense of release and freedom. The soft alliterative sounds of ‘feather floating’ emphasise her newfound peace, and since we share her liberation we suspend our moral judgement. Although this use of first person narrative undoubtedly gives us a biased viewpoint, it is central to the novel which explores the female psyche, and feelings of insecurity, inadequacy and the search for self identity, which tragically in Rebecca is never found.
In contrast, Byatt uses a complex structure which allows many different characters’ voices to be heard. She gives her characters a voice not only through dialogue and extracts of the characters’ writings, but in the case of the 19th century characters, through letters, journals and poems. For example, one of Christabel’s poems describes how women are enclosed, it is their ‘doom’ to ‘Drag a Long Life out / In a Dark Room’. The use of the verb ‘Drag’ implies that life is painful, boring and a struggle and the alliteration of ‘Long Life’ emphasises this and makes the words sound longer, giving the poem a resigned tone. The ‘Dark Room’ could be a metaphor for her state of mind but it also represents how many Victorian women were treated as a dispensable part of society.
The authors’ choice of names for their female characters also highlights their perspective on the role of women. In Possession, the names Maud Bailey and Christabel La Motte are a play on words with the Motte and Bailey fortress, indicating their defensive nature and subtly likening them to stereotypical medieval princesses, or damsels in distress. The narrator of Rebecca is never given a first name, typifying her feelings of unimportance and her lack of identity compared to the powerful Rebecca, whose name lives on long after her death. We only know her as Mrs de Winter, suggesting that she derives her status from her husband, and although we are told that her first name is ‘lovely and unusual’, it was her father who chose it, implying that she is only seen in relation to men.
Throughout both novels, women are presented as having a dual nature. When Byatt first introduces Maud she is described as an unapproachable ‘remote’ figure who is ‘distantly scornful’ whereas later on we learn she is vulnerable and hides her femininity by covering her hair. She is linked to the colours ‘green and white’, suggestive of her feminine nature and purity. Her gold hair links her to the stereotypical princess, but her remoteness makes her seem initially proud. Conversely, Rebecca’s hair is a symbol of her evilness. It is described as a ‘rope’, which the narrator dreams is coiled around her husband’s neck, suggesting that women are ensnaring and dangerous to men, but despite our condemnation of Rebecca, she is sublime and inspires awe and admiration. Rebecca has a dual nature – she is portrayed as the perfect woman then we discover she is an evil temptress in comparison to her foil (the narrator) who is likened to the innocent heroine ‘Cinderella’. In both novels, women are described as monsters or evil magic beings. For example, Rebecca’s hair ‘twisted like a snake’, suggesting she is insidious and sly through the simile and serpent imagery. In Christabel’s poem the Fairy Melusine has a serpent tail, similarly presenting women as being dangerous and a threat to men. It also links to the story of the Fall in the Bible, in which a snake is to blame for man’s downfall, implying that women are the cause of man’s misfortune. Christabel writes that ‘All men shrink / from dire Medusa’ and there are references to mythological monsters such as the ‘siren’ and the ‘sphinx’, all of which have connotations with evil, danger and temptation. Ellen Ash comments that the Fairy Melusine is ‘beautiful and terrible and tragic’, which could be said for the lives of many of the women in both novels. Both Byatt and Du Maurier are therefore challenging how women are viewed in society, and the incompatible coexistence of virtue and evil.
The authors also present older women differently to younger women, drawing attention to how women are judged by their looks. In Possession, Christabel changes from a ‘princess in the thicket’ to an ‘old witch in a turret’ or ‘a spinster in a fairy tale’. As the character ages her view of herself changes, she is seen as dangerous. Towards the end of the novel, Byatt simply describes Ellen Ash as ‘the old woman’ who in her youth was seen as ‘a princess’. Her age now defines her, whereas she used to be admired and coveted. Byatt airs her feminist views through Beatrice Nest, who believes that there is ‘an age at which…one becomes a witch’. This shows how Byatt wants her reader to reassess their judgements of old women, since age should not be seen as threatening. In Rebecca Du Maurier describes the elderly Mrs Danvers as ‘tall and gaunt’. She has no redeeming feature and inspires fear in the reader, being the stereotypical witch who psychologically terrorises the narrator who likens their relationship to a sinister game in which she is ‘playing ‘Old Witch’ with Mrs Danvers.’ Mrs Danvers has a malign and almost supernatural hold over the narrator and her physical description consolidates this impression. Her ‘hollow eyes’ and ‘skull’s face’ link her to evil, creating a sinister impression. Later on she is described as having the ‘face of an exulting devil’, reinforcing this view, but Du Maurier also sympathetically portrays her as ‘an old woman who was ill and tired’, when she has been crying, drawing attention to the tragedy of old age.
Few of the women in either novel have any real power or control over their fate, and those that do are either portrayed as evil or as androgynous or sexless. Byatt initially presents Maud as cold with a ‘frigid voice’, which gives her some control; it pushes Roland away from her and ensures that she remains autonomous. In Rebecca Beatrice Lacy is described in a masculine way as being ‘tall, broad shouldered’, someone who ‘shook hands very firmly’, and this gender blurring affects her treatment; she is seen as equal to the male characters. As a bisexual, Du Maurier is exploring the concepts of male and female and by mixing characteristics of each sex challenges our views on women. Even Rebecca is described as having ‘all the courage and spirit of a boy’, implying that women are inferior to men. Of course, Rebecca is a powerful, compelling character but her power is derived from her beauty and unconventional behaviour. Mrs Danvers proudly says of her ‘She was never one to stand mute and still and be wronged’, portraying Rebecca as rebellious and determinately strong. She is presented as a threatening character, like the oppressive Leonora in Possession who is described by the misogynist and stereotypically British Sir George as an ‘unspeakable female’, using her gender as an insult. If however, they were men they would be seen as more acceptable.
On the other hand, there are women with no control or power. In Possession Val and Blanche both describe themselves negatively as ‘superfluous’, and the narrator of Rebecca describes herself as a ‘second rate person’ and refers to her ‘own dull self’. The name ‘Blanche’ suggests a white, shadowy, ghostlike character who cannot make a real mark on society. These women are portrayed as subservient, downtrodden nonentities, who have been repressed by their societies, which span many different years. This shows how throughout the ages women have suffered under repressive males. All three women are also unable to help themselves, Val has to be rescued from her dull life by Euan, and Blanche’s escape is suicide. The narrator of Rebecca also contemplates suicide, suggesting that many women are so repressed that they see death as their only way out. The main difference between the texts is that in Possession, Val and Maud break out of their entrapment through finding love whereas the narrator of Rebecca is doomed to living a half-life looking after her husband in self-imposed exile.
Byatt and Du Maurier both use houses to present their female characters and symbolise their repression, and none of the characters are able to fully enjoy life by shutting it out. Christabel describes houses as being ‘so strong – so square’ ‘making a Warmth inside the Winds’ which indicates that it is a refuge from the world, and the soft consonant sounds of ‘Warmth’ and ‘Winds’ consolidate this impression. Yet the fact that the walls can ‘break outwards with a rush’ implies that this fragile safety is deceptive. Maud describes her flat as a ‘bright safe box’ showing she feels secure when she is enclosed and isolated but Roland likens it to a ‘surgeon’s waiting room’, suggesting it is impersonal and that Maud is living an unfulfilled life. The women’s resource centre is at ‘Tennyson Tower’, suggestive not only of its feminist qualities but also physically representing that women are still enclosed and shut away in their towers, and the alliteration draws attention to this. In Rebecca, Manderly has an ‘iron gate’ with a ‘padlock and chain’ immediately linking it to a prison. The house is also personified as being ‘secretive and silent’, and this alliterative description makes the atmosphere claustrophobic and threatening. The name ‘Manderly’ suggests that it is a male environment, run on male terms, and that women have no place there. For the narrator of Rebecca, the house symbolises her entrapment and it is only when it is destroyed that she begins to feel free, even though the memory of Rebecca never really leaves her. Christabel and Mrs de Winter both find comfort in gardens, the narrator of Rebecca says she ‘preferred the rose-garden … to the sounds of the sea’, suggesting she wants contrived, regulated, cultivated safety as opposed to the destructive power of the real world. In Possession Ash similarly describes Christabel’s garden as having ‘stiff tall Roses like a thicket of sentinels’. This rose imagery symbolises the women; they are simultaneously beautiful and delicate and defensive and thorny.
Both novels present women as repressed and in need. Byatt has a more romantic and optimistic outlook, since Maud and Roland find a happy contentment, balancing their individual needs whereas Rebecca is more gothicly tragic and the protagonist never finds a happy ending. The authors present women as needing love to be happy and fulfilled; it is only when Val finds Euan, and Maud and Roland become a couple that either woman finds absolute fulfilment, implying that they need men for happiness. However, the authors could be leading their readers to question why women are still viewed in relation to men and why independent women are seen as a threat by men even in modern society.