The Female Gender and Its Significance in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

In this essay, Wayne Tan explores critical issues of gender identity set within a parable of humanity’s confrontation and breaching of the limits of nature. Conventionally regarded as a conformist text to patriarchal themes, Tan offers new insights into Frankenstein’s construction of gendered roles. Here, Shelley rears contemporary gender doctrine on its head – far from the caregiving and child-rearing roles of women thus limiting them to the sidelines of society, it is precisely their indispensability that situates them center-stage. In “The Female Gender and Its Significance”, Tan elucidates women’s elevation to parity with men’s social roles, successfully setting the stage for the New Woman to break out of her socially-imposed limiting confines.

In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, issues of gender identity are explored through the creation of an unnatural monster set in an otherwise idyllic society. With its central characters that exemplify the idealized gender roles of the time, the creation of Frankenstein’s monster poses critical questions dealing with the social make-up of nineteenth-century British society. Particularly, the unusual nature of the monster’s birth as well as his subsequent experiences serve as counterpoint to foreground the significance of female gender roles in British society, and ultimately suggest that far from being merely companions to men, women instead play a central role in contributing to the stability of the prevailing social order.

From the outset, the presentation of the male gender in Frankenstein is marked by strong similarities with traditional male archetypes. Male characters display a detachment from domestic matters and in its place, possess an obsessive single-mindedness in the pursuit of their goals. As a “calm and philosophical” man who “delighted in investigating the facts relative to the actual world” (66), Victor Frankenstein epitomizes masculine attributes with his logical and composed nature, as well as a strong scientific bent well-suited for the male-centric field of natural philosophy. Indeed, Frankenstein’s “days and nights in vaults and charnel houses” where he “lost all soul or sensation but for this one pursuit” (78) attest to a focused, driven nature which borders on fanaticism. Throughout Frankenstein’s research, he also displays a careless neglect of his domestic and social obligations, and his confession of how he “knew [his] silence disquieted them” (81) underscores a certain selfishness through his constant indifference to those closest to him. Frankenstein’s monster similarly parallels his master’s obsessive nature through his own insular fixation on acquiring a mate and subsequently, on revenge. The lines, “I will work at your destruction, nor finish until I desolate your heart” (156), clearly denote the monster’s prodigious determination and the depth of his devotion to this aim, which he lives up to with the subsequent consecration of his life to the lifelong torment of Frankenstein. The monster as “a slave to these impulses” (218) thus counterparts Frankenstein’s zealous devotion to his work in the sense that both male characters’ impulses and passions inexorably spiral out of their control.  In this way, the presentation of the central male characters in Frankenstein typifies the male sex as exceedingly self-absorbed and single-minded, or in other words, as the embodiment of Victorian traits in their unreserved neglect of the domestic sphere.

By contrast, the female gender in Frankenstein is portrayed in a more sympathetic light and corresponds closely to Victorian ideals of women as familial care-givers. Elizabeth Lavenza is described as “docile and good tempered” (66), yet “gay and playful” (66); these seemingly paradoxical qualities underscore Elizabeth’s role as that of the model Victorian woman whose sole duty concerns tending to her husband and family. Throughout the novel, Elizabeth’s selfless nature is also evinced through how she “continually [endeavors] to contribute to the happiness of others, entirely forgetful of herself” (73) – the use of “entirely” here underscores the female gender’s complete relegation to the background of the Victorian social milieu. In addition, the phrase “gentle and affectionate disposition” further identifies Elizabeth with maternal qualities and entrenches her role as the primary care-giver for the family. This sense of altruistic benevolence is shared by Safie De Lacey; save for “some jewels and a small sum of money” (141) which provide for her escape, she renounces great luxury to reunite with her lover, Felix De Lacey. During the journey, Safie even nurses her attendant “with the utmost affection” (141); this reversal of the lord-servant relationship stresses Safie’s motherly compassion, which transcends both rank and station. The repetition of “affection” further calls attention to the common thread of a warm and tender disposition which is ubiquitous among the female characters in Frankenstein. In both description and action, Frankenstein’s female characters thus uniformly exhibit self-sacrificing, maternal traits that conform closely to the role of the Angel in the House, whose life is characterized by complete dedication to the needs of her household.

With its hyper-idealized portrayals of the female gender, Shelley goes further to explicate the significant influence of such maternal figures. Frankenstein himself professes that “no creature could have more tender parents than [he did]” (65), which suggests a childhood replete with parental care and attention; in contrast, his monster’s first experiences are characterized by his being “poor, helpless and miserable”, which conveys a marked poverty of maternal nourishment and nurture.  Tellingly, though the monster gains consciousness while physically mature, the lines “feeling pain invade me on all sides, I sat down and wept” (121) highlight the monster’s delayed recognition of his own powerlessness and a deferred grief which echoes an infant’s wailing and vulnerability upon emerging from the womb. Crucially, the perceived significance of a female nurturing presence is alluded to in the monster’s cry of how “no Eve soothed [his] sorrows, or shared [his] thoughts; [he] was alone” (145), which emphasizes not just the prolonged isolation of the monster from birth, but also specifically how “Eve”, or a necessarily female companion, will provide the affection which he desires. Because of the congruence of feminine gender roles with care-giving and affection, the monster’s declaration of how he is “malicious because [he is] miserable” (pg.156) and his bitter cry of “Shall each man… find a wife for his bosom… and I be alone” further undergird his actions as reactive responses indicative of an underlying desperation at the dearth of female tenderness and maternal figures in his life. The monster’s specific requests of female companionship for “the interchange of those sympathies” (156) when thus contextualized therefore stresses the patent importance of the female gender in its domestic roles of mother and nurturer. By contrast, there is a plethora of female characters that pervade Frankenstein’s supportive environment – though Frankenstein himself suffers great tragedy throughout the novel, Elizabeth constantly attempts to “chase away the fiend that lurked in [his] heart” (114), which encapsulates the prevalence of female companionship and its ameliorative effects on his life. Instead, the creature does not share the same luxuries. Though of course his cruelty cannot easily be reduced to a singular cause, the paucity of female presence nonetheless occludes all redemptive potential for the monster and in this way, cleaves a dichotomy between the narrative trajectories of him and his creator. Within the polarized gender dynamics that operate in the diegetic world of Frankenstein, the idea of nurture itself necessarily assumes a feminine dimension – from this perspective, his creature hence serves as a foil that suggests how the consequences of a poverty of female influence and maternal nurture are inadvertently the figurative molding and shaping of monsters.

While Frankenstein elucidates the marked importance of women as guiding, maternal figures in the family, the novel also explores the centrality of female gender roles as bulwarks of the social order. As alluded to earlier, one central question which features in the novel is whether it is the unnatural circumstances of the monster’s creation or his ensuing abandonment by Frankenstein which factors more for his monstrosity; however, if nature is understood to be an ideal state conducing to the optimal, in Frankenstein the importance of feminine care in ensuring societal stability thus underscores a false dichotomy between nature and nurture because of the contingence of social stability on contemporary female gender-roles. The creation of Frankenstein’s monster upends nature entirely through its circumvention of natural birth; indeed, Frankenstein’s pursuit of nature to “her hiding places” (81) emphasizes his unravelling of natural laws which were concealed for a reason. On an organic level, the artificial nature of the monster’s creation renders moot the biological imperative of the female gender; this theme is actualized through the monster’s systematic elimination of feminized characters in the novel, including biological males such as Henry Clerval whose spending of an entire winter “consumed in [Frankenstein’s] sick room” nonetheless recalls the maternal selflessness. During Frankenstein’s dream on the night of the creature’s creation, his vision of Elizabeth’s metamorphosis into “the corpse of [his] dead mother” (84) similarly constitutes a vivid metaphor for how the monster’s unnatural birth at once heralds both the physical and metaphysical deaths of the fairer sex. Yet, this seeming superfluity of the female sex is suggested to be ill-founded, for Frankenstein details the implicit consequences of such an alternate reality. Where once Elizabeth’s “gentle voice would soothe [Frankenstein] when transported by passion” (194), the scarcity of such feminine characters at the end of his life directly signifies the absence of mediating influences to temper his inhuman fury. Alongside the dearth of female nurturing and affection in the monster’s psyche, this thematic paucity of female influences culminates in a barren wasteland, with two masculine figures consumed in an endless game of cat-and-mouse, devoid of feminine influence and consequently simply the “prey of feelings unsatisfied, yet unquenched” (220). The juxtaposition and framing of this icy apocalyptic vision within Walton’s frequent correspondence with his sister further underscores the disparity between this speculative male-centric dystopia and the stable nineteenth-century society, with all its prevailing gender roles, to which Walton belongs. Hence, insofar as the monster’s creation may have sounded the death knell for the female sex on some level, Frankenstein’s ending illustrates the devastating inadequacy of this hypothetical new normal. The novel suggests that even without the biological imperative of the female sex, their social gender-roles as maternal nurturers are enshrined into the natural societal equilibrium, or nature itself, and in this way, on equal footing with the gendered roles of men.

At its core, Frankenstein is a parable which explores the manifest possibilities and consequences when humanity confronts and breaches the limits of nature. However, through imbuing its characters with conventionally gender-specific traits, Frankenstein illustrates that the female gender roles of nineteenth-century British society are not simply accessory to that of men; insofar as women are instrumental to the nurturing of children and loved ones, Shelley does not simply foreground their maternal significance but elevates its importance to parity with men’s social roles. Almost certainly, Frankenstein will not pass for a “feminist” text by today’s standards; yet, in presenting “the truth of the elementary principles of human nature” (49), Shelley goes so far as to surface the patchwork intricacies of female gender roles which had not yet been embedded in the public consciousness of the era. More crucially, Shelley rears contemporary gender doctrine on its head – far from the caregiving and child-rearing roles of women thus limiting them to the sidelines of society, it is precisely their indispensability that situates them center-stage. Through this recuperation of the female gender and its social significance, Shelley strongly echoes the thought of her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, who famously advocated for widespread women’s education in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, on largely similar grounds. While markedly essentialist, Shelley nonetheless critiques the ostensibly marginal contributions of women to the social order and paints an incisive reflection of the conditions of human nature and society more progressive than espoused at the time of its publication. The creation of Frankenstein’s monster and its inability to nullify female gender roles attests to the latter’s kaleidoscopic significance in both the domestic and social spheres – and ultimately pave the way for the New Woman to break out of these very limiting confines.

Works Cited

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. Ed. D.L. Macdonald and Kathleen Scherf. Broadview Press, 2012. Print.


WAYNE TAN graduated from UCLA and currently studies at the University of Oxford. He recently wrote essays on Thomas Hardy and Henry James back-to-back just to make the two arch-rivals turn in their graves.

Photo credit: Joanne Loo

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“You’ll weep shortly”: Diamonds and Pearls in The Duchess of Malfi

“Whether we fall by ambition, blood, or lust / Like diamonds we are cut with our own dust.” Marie-Therese Pang‘s essay considers John Webster’s seminal work, the Duchess of Malfi, from within the framework of cultural materialism. Pang navigates the complex web of female sexuality and symbolism through a comprehensive analysis of the jewels and precious stones that made up the rich panoply of Renaissance nobles at court. In interrogating “the striking visual imagery of jewellry”, Pang explores the seemingly intentional chaos and inconsistency of Webster’s work, shedding light on the ways in which he questions the materiality of the female body, and providing us with a gem of an article.

British cultural critic Raymond Williams coined the term “cultural materialism” in 1977, as an approach to studying of literature within the analytical frameworks of Marxist theory (2). Recent critical discourse surrounding the female body in The Duchess of Malfi draw attention to how the materialist approach in studying John Webster’s play informs a range of cultural discourses. Early Modern English Theater critics such as Sara Morrison (2013) emphasize the division of the Duchess’s ‘body natural’ and ‘body politic’ that ultimately end in the blazonic dismemberment of her body (78), whereas Sid Ray (2007) contends that the Duchess’s pregnancies unify her body natural and body politic, to ‘naturalize and legitimize female rule’ (28). Despite the disparate opinions on the materiality of the Duchess’s body, Webster’s use of a female as the focal point of dramatic action allows the feminine center to serve as a glimpse into the abundant social commentary with which the play is truly concerned.

In this essay, I wish to return to William’s fundamental idea of “cultural materialism” by interrogating how the material objects, specifically, the Duchess’s jewellery, can illuminate the socio-economic, political and cultural contexts of the play. Furthermore, the verbal and visual imagery of diamonds and pearls are also intrinsically tied to the Duchess’s identity, paralleling her rise and fall. I will develop the argument further by demonstrating how the materiality of the jewellery and the body intersect to simultaneously complicate and illuminate ideas of the Duchess’s body.

Material culture allows us to ‘investigate the values that have been attached by the people who originally made or used the object’ (Williams 10), as objects reflect and embody cultural beliefs. By drawing on the significance of jewellery in the early 17th century, it is possible to elucidate how the inherent and attached value of jewellery are tied to the Duchess’s identity, delineating her position as a female political figure. The stage directions in the footnotes state that ‘The Duchess will remove her jewellery and brush her hair in preparation for bed’ (III.ii.0). The visual imagery of jewellery on stage forms a part of her costume that closely identifies the social class and position of the Duchess. This is important in a highly stratified society where jewellery is not merely an accessory but a symbol of her position and power.

Acosta’s book, The naturall and morall historie of the East and West Indies (1604), draws on evidence then to conclude that diamonds were the most precious stone, and pearls were the second (250) where ‘none but royall persons were suffered to weare (pearles)’ (252). Hence, the Duchess’s jewellery is indicative of her aristocratic and royal associations. However, the removal of her jewellery in her private chamber also signals a separation of the political and domestic space, and by extent, a separation of her body politic and body natural. The duchess instructs Antonio to ‘Bring me the casket hither’ (III.ii.1). The jewellery is only worn during the day, when she is exposing her body politic as a ruler, but the removal of her jewellery at night signals her submission of her body natural to Antonio, as Antonio playfully asserts that his ‘rule is only in the night’ (3.2.7).

Although the striking visual imagery of jewellery parallels the height of the Duchess’s nobility and status as a ruler in the play, the verbal imagery of jewellery mirrors the Duchess’s fall from grace, leading towards her tragic death. The jewels represent beauty, which is dangerous in a world dominated by greed and the desire to possess. Diamonds and pearls were frequently used for trading in the early 17th century due to their rarity and economic value (Acosta 62). The materiality of the jewels and the trade value ascribed to the Duchess reduces her to her socio-economic worth, as a jewel to be possessed and traded. Her body natural is discounted, removing her intrinsic value and autonomy in a world where men conduct economic relations.

Ferdinand and the Cardinal’s discourse are staunchly aristocratic in the first scene, emphasizing the Duchess’s “high blood” (I.i.289) and noble birth. But then Ferdinand taunts her saying “they are most luxurious (lecherous)/ Will wed twice” (I.i.290-1) and that “Their livers are more spotted/ Than Laban’s sheep” (I.i.292-3). Such a harsh view on remarriage and emphasis on chastity is possibly due to the nature of Renaissance dynastic marriage, where a woman becomes an object of commerce that is passed from father to husband, sealing a bargain of greater or lesser economic significance (Sedgwick 38). The materiality of the Duchess’s body is seen as an object of trade to be owned by her father, brothers or husband. The lack of chastity of the Duchess’s body – or worse, the production of illegitimate children – would decrease her value as a trade article for her family. Thus, the argument over the marriage can be seen as a dynastic argument concerned with the Duchess’s body politic.

However, the Duchess herself problematizes the idea of women as trading objects by admitting to women’s value as something produced through social relations rather than an inherent trait. In response to Ferdinand’s assumption about her secretly libidinous nature, the Duchess claims that ‘Diamonds are most value/ They say, that have passed through most jewellers’ hands’ (I.ii.220-221). These words merely augment the brothers’ suspicions about her potential misconduct. The Duchess also uses the vague authority of “they say” rather than affirm her brothers or assert her own opinion even though she has created both metaphors. Ferdinand recognises the rebellion in her words and his harsh response ‘Whores, by that rule, are precious.’ (I.ii.222) wrenches away the authority she has assumed in creating her own comparison. Besides diamonds, the words “rings” and “jewel” in Webster’s plays commonly refer to chastity (Schuman 254), and the phrase ‘gem of chastity’ was equivalent to maidenhood (OED 2a). Hence, not only is the Duchess commodified through the socio-economic exchange, the Duchess’s “diamonds” (jewel) are used metonymously to describe her worth.

This problem is further amplified as the Duchess reinforces her sexual identity as central to the identity she gives herself. She points to the materiality of her body when wooing Antonio, saying “This is flesh, and blood, sir,/ Tis not the figure cut in alabaster/ Kneels at my husband’s tomb” (I.ii.375-77). The death of her first husband makes her sexually experienced to woo her steward, “like a widow […with] but half a blush” (I.ii.373-74). The Duchess is no doubt the “lusty widow” (I.i.331) Ferdinand accuses her of being, especially after she goes against her proclamation that she “(wi)ll never marry” (I.i.294). Although Ray argues that ‘the Duchess’s maternity does not hinder or compromise her authority but instead ratifies it’ (19), the Duchess’s maternal body highlights her erotic identity that removes her authority as a ruler in the eyes of the people. Delio reports that the Duchess is hailed as “a strumpet” (III.i.25), highlighting her lack of chastity and virtuous widowhood. She thus becomes unfit to wear the “coronet of state” of either “diamonds” or “pearls” (III.v.13-15).

In many of Queen Elizabeth’s portraits she is seen wearing this “heavenly” gem to symbolize her purity and virginity. Queen Elizabeth’s cultivation of her image as a virgin queen gave her power to rule, as “a body and an identity which had somehow successfully eluded successful appropriation by the masculine” (Berry 6). However, the Duchess cannot be aligned with the metaphoric jewel of chastity. The Duchess’s pregnancy during her rule undermines her body politic while privileging her body natural. The Duchess enters Act II visibly pregnant – “her stomach seethes, / The fins of her eyelids look most teeming blue, / She wanes i’th’cheek, and waxes fat i’th’flank” (II.i.65-68). This verbal and visual awareness of the Duchess’s pregnancy underlines the centrality of the Duchess’s erotic identity, implying an active sex life under the subjugation of a man.

Nevertheless, despite the crude reduction of the materiality of the Duchess’s body and clandestine marriage, Webster still presents the Duchess as spiritually pure.  In the final moments before her death, the Duchess rejects the jewellery as merely material objects, disassociating herself from this corporeal world and embracing the spiritual realm instead. Webster’s sympathetic tone towards the Duchess is overt as she maintains her dignity despite her imminent death.

What would it pleasure me, to have my throat cut
With diamonds? or to be smothered
With Cassia? or to be shot to death, with pearls? (IV.ii.212-214)

But here, the Duchess does not desire a ‘beautiful death’; rather, the Duchess is mocking pearls and diamonds as mere lumps of matter, no different from bullets or other weapons. The rhetorical questions she poses to Bosola clearly elucidate how she values jewels as worthless compared to human life.

Hence, the Duchess’s salvation comes from the rejection of the material world and the submission to the will of heaven. The Duchess prays for forgiveness for her brothers, “I have so much obedience in my blood,/ I wish it in their veins, to do them good” (4.2.165-66) and dismisses Bosola’s attempts to frighten her by questioning “Who would be afraid on’t,/ Knowing to meet such excellent company/ In th’other world?” (4.2.201-3). Cariola is deliberately placed as a juxtaposition of the Duchess, as she “bites and scratches” (IV.ii.241) and screams “I am not prepared for’t! I will not die!” (IV.ii.234).

In contrast, the Duchess does not cry out or beg for mercy as she welcomes death as a reunion. Her stoic dignity and courageousness portray the Duchess as a heroine, as Webster applies what has ‘traditionally been masculine, often martial, conceptions of heroism to his heroine’ (Pacheco and Johnson 113). Hence, the audience’s sympathies are aligned with the Duchess, despite the fact that her private life has transgressed the established order. Furthermore, the artistic function of the lines “I pray thee look thou giv’st my little boy/ Some syrup for his cold, and let the girl/ Say her prayers ere she sleep” (4.2.193-5) exposes her maternal tenderness and nurturing quality, and is heart-warming for the audience. Webster thus exploits orthodox notions of female virtue to authorize his protagonist.

The Duchess’s authority is further cemented through her association with light and goodness, distinguishing her from her brothers who are frequently associated with darkness and evil. This is featured even more prominently after the Duchess’s death. Upon seeing the Duchess’s dead body, Ferdinand says ‘Cover her face, mine eyes dazzle: she died young’ (IV.ii.254). Critics have praised this as the “climax of the play, the watershed, the dividing line” (Price 739). The power of this line is certainly amplified as Ferdinand expresses regret for the first time. Ferdinand condenses his agonies of remorse into abrupt, short phrases, in an almost matter-of-fact line. He attempts to remove himself from culpability of the Duchess’s death through the emotionally alienated “she died young”.

However, a closer analysis of this line reveals currents of deeper, understated emotion. At first glance, this line seems like a regular iambic pentameter with a feminine ending— however, the final light syllable is heavy, adding to the metrical chaos of the line, perhaps mirroring the chaos in the Duke’s own mind. The violent trochaic substitution, “dazzle”, also stands out as an anomaly. This could be interpreted as tears of remorse or that Ferdinand is temporarily blinded by the light of the Duchess’s radiance. Either way, the sight of the Duchess’s dead body causes Ferdinand to be physically affected, and this marks an involuntary reversal of power. The Duchess exerts control over Ferdinand physically and mentally, since her death also marks the start of his descend into madness. In contrast, Ferdinand possesses control over the Duchess’s material body, but the Duchess still retains her clarity of thought and speech, as the torture he inflicts on her “affrights not me” (IV.ii.162).

Ultimately, the play is less concerned with the Duchess’s purity than the consequences set in an Italian court rife with corruption. Whether the materiality of the Duchess’s body natural and body politic is seen to be divided or unified at the end of the play is still contestable, but analysing the play through cultural materialism allows jewels to illuminate the historical and political context in which the play is set. Webster calls the materiality of the female body into question by reinforcing typical early modern anxieties about the female sexual body that call for surveillance of it, while simultaneously offering a more revolutionary and ultimately heroic view of female sexuality. Like the Duchess’s body, the contradictory meaning of diamonds and pearls that signify purity and lust, illicit admiration and scorn, cannot be fully explicated. However, the troubling idea behind Webster’s imagery of diamonds and pearls remains – they signify sadness and eventually lead to destruction and death.

Works Cited and Further Reading

Acosta, José De (et al). The Naturall and Morall Historie of the East and West Indies.: Intreating of the Remarkeable Things of Heaven, of the Elements, Mettalls, Plants and Beasts Which Are Proper to That Country: Together with the Manners, Ceremonies, Lawes, Governements, and Warres of the Indians. London: Printed by Val, 1604. Print.

Berry, Philippa. Of Chastity and Power: Elizabethan Literature and the Unmarried Queen. London: Routledge, 1989. Print

Boyle, Robert. An Essay about the Origins Virtues of Gems. London, 1672. Print.

“gem, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2016. Web. 9 March 2016.

Karim-Cooper, Farah. ” The Duchess of Malfi: Darkness and Light.” BBC Arts. Web. 01 Mar. 2016. <http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/articles/37mmHnp3Pwf4TrT9GT8Ywtn/the-duchess-of-malfi-darkness-and-light>

Morrison, Sara. “Embodying the Blazon: Performing and Transforming Pain in Measure for Measure and The Duchess of Malfi” Ed. Deborah Uman and Sara Morrison. Staging the Blazon in Early Modern English Theater. Surrey: Ashgate, 2013. 67-84. Print.

Pacheco, Anita, and David Johnson. The Renaissance and Long Eighteenth Century. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2011. Print.

Price, Hereward T. “The Function of Imagery in Webster.” PMLA 70.4 (1955): 717. JSTOR. Web. 20 Feb. 2016.

Ray, Sid. “‘So Troubled with the Mother’: The Politics of Pregnancy in The Duchess of Malfi.” Performing Maternity in Early Modern England. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007. Print.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985. Print.

Webster, John, and Leah S. Marcus. The Duchess of Malfi. London: Arden Shakespeare, 2009. Print.

Williams, Raymond. Marxism and Literature. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1977. Print.

Whigham, Frank. “Sexual and Social Mobility in The Duchess of Malfi.” PMLA 100.2 (1985): 167. JSTOR. Web. 03 Mar. 2016.


MARIE-THERESE PANG is currently pursuing an MSc in Modern and Contemporary literature at the University of Edinburgh. She is particularly interested in postmodernism, contemporary American fiction, and any literature that is reflective of our social reality. When she is not struggling to finish her essays, she can be found wandering the aisles of Tesco or Sainsbury’s (grocery shopping makes her inexplicably happy). A huge fan of Korean dramas, musicals and a firm believer in the power of food and literature to bring people together.

Photo Credit: Jerome Lim

The Tragedy of Anakin, The Chosen One

“The Tragedy of Anakin, the Chosen One” traces the fall of Star Wars’ eponymous Anakin Skywalker – from an adolescent youngling, saddled with the weight of destiny and an intense dislike for sand, to a murderous lord of war feared across galaxies. Priya Ramesh’s essay examines the elements of Anakin’s journey through the archetypical framework of Aristotelian Tragedy, pitting them against those seen in William Shakespeare’s iconic “Othello” and “Hamlet”. Features and themes of tragedy are explored throughout all three works in this essay – light versus dark, rise and fall; reckoning and redemption.

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…

When reading for A Levels, a genre I particularly loved analysing and exploring was tragedy. Tragedy is often complex and involves characters with complex and layered personalities, as humans are in real life. The presentation of characters with understandable flaws and misgivings allows each reader to connect with a tragedy, and facilitates the portrayal of the human condition at its barest, replete with scars and overwhelming imperfections.

Tracing Tragedy

Tragedies are driven by the presence of a central ‘protagonist’ — a tragic hero. In some cases, the essence of a tragedy is that it shows the disintegration of the tragic hero’s world, compounded by his own actions. The hero is made to suffer and faces inner turmoil; his circumstances may sometimes cloud his judgment, leading him to make pernicious choices and find himself further mired in distress and misery, offering us a striking view of human frailty in the face of suffering.

The Aristotelian tragic hero is a widely-used skeleton for a tragic hero, and the Greek mythical character of Oedipus serves as a popular example. However, there is a character closer to our time, and to the pop culture sensibilities of our generation, who also exhibits the characteristics of an Aristotelian tragic hero – Anakin Skywalker, more popularly known as legendary über-villain Darth Vader.  If one views the entirety of the first two Star Wars trilogies (Episodes I-VI), the story could easily be described as ‘The Tragedy of Anakin, The Chosen One’.

We can establish the following as some of the crucial components of a tragic hero:

  • Noble in birth and character
  • Possesses a fatal/tragic flaw (hamartia)
  • Commits a terrible mistake, therefore suffering a fall from grace (peripeteia)
  • Pays a terrible price for it, gaining knowledge and insight (anagnorisis)
  • Accepts responsibility for actions
  • Dies with dignity but is ultimately redeemed

James Earl Jones, who provided the iconic booming voice of Darth Vader in the original trilogy, acted as Claudius in Hamlet and, more notably, the titular role in Othello. His comments on Othello in an essay, entitled ‘The Sun God’, could apply to Anakin too: “Hes more endowed with humanity than anyone elseand possessed of the desire to be better than anyone else: to be kinder, to be more just, to be more responsible than anybody else.It can thus be seen that Anakin Skywalker actually exhibits many parallels with characters such as Othello and Hamlet and may conform to the type of a tragic hero.

Nobility in Tragic Characters

Nobility in birth and character is one box to check in the Aristotelian framework for a tragic hero. In Star Wars, Anakin is not only of noble birth, he is immaculately conceived. In almost Christ-like fashion, born to a slave mother on the desert planet of Tatooine, Anakin had no father and was conceived from the ‘Force’ itself, making him the ‘Chosen One’ who will bring balance to the Force. Through the first meeting of Anakin with the travelling Jedi party of Qui-Gon Jinn, we also see that even as a child, he has a naturally good-natured character about him and even imparts ideal wisdom, as he reminds his mother that “the biggest problem in the universe is no one helps each other”.

This is similar to both Othello and Hamlet, since they are both considered to be of royal lineage. In the first few scenes of Act I of the respective plays, they show through their eloquent speech and wise behaviour that they are indeed noble characters. Hamlet is the Prince of Denmark and matriculates at the renowned Wittenberg University as a scholar. As Ophelia summarises, Hamlet possessed, “The courtier’s, soldier’s, scholar’s, eye, tongue, sword, / Th’ expectancy and rose of the fair state, / The glass of fashion and the mould of form, / Th’ observed of all observers, quite, quite down!” (3.1.151-155) which suggests that beyond his royal lineage, Hamlet was a well-rounded character who was the nation’s darling and acted as such.

Similarly, Othello’s actions in Act 1 assert that he is a man worthy of respect, especially as a black man rising through the ranks of a white city-state to be one of the most important members of its society. His confidence is charming, as he declares his noble background – “…I fetch my life and being / From men of royal siege” (1.2.21-22) – and orders his men to refrain from drawing their swords when encountering Brabantio and his entourage (1.2.59). The construction of this scene puts Othello on a pedestal akin to Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus tells his disciples to stow away their swords, when Judas, the back-stabbing disciple, arrives with Roman Legionaries to arrest him. Othello’s insistence that “(his) parts, (his) title and (his) perfect soul / Shall manifest (him) rightly” (1.2.31-32) suggest that even in the face of allegations, his reputation in Venetian society as a noble man precedes him. This is further dramatically shown by Shakespeare, since as they enter the Duke’s court in the following scene, the Duke notices Othello first and Brabantio is an afterthought — despite Othello being a Moor and Brabantio being a Venetian and senator. All in all, Othello shows himself to be ‘more fair than black’ (1.3.291), as put by the Duke.

Nobility is a crucial aspect as it shows that these heroes are of a higher nature than a common man and thus would generally be taken to be less susceptible to flaws. This, of course, is what amplifies the impact and magnitude of the impending downfall.

Hamartia – Analysing the Fear of Loss

For all there is to admire about these characters, each of them has one crucial character flaw — or hamartia — that amplifies the magnitude of their suffering and paves the way for their undoing.  In Episode I, Yoda already foreshadows a dark future for Anakin, when he says to him, “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering. I sense much fear in you.” The fear of loss, and his abject failure to cope with it, is arguably Anakin’s greatest flaw. After his mother is kidnapped and tortured by a species known as the Sandpeople, Anakin has recurrent premonitions about her death. And yet, he is too late to rescue her and can only watch as she dies. In a fit of cold-blooded rage, he slays the Sandpeople. Jedi work on principles of pacifism – never kill, and if one must, never do so without a just, society-serving cause. Anakin’s loss of cognizant decision-making in the face of loss and his choice to murder the Sandpeople serves as the first sign of his hamartia manifesting itself in action, leading to his fall from grace as a respected Jedi. Another aspect of Anakin’s fatal combination of flaws — his hubris — is seen with the imagined loss of his wife, Padmé. He screams, “One day, I will become the greatest Jedi ever. I will even learn how to stop people from dying.” When turned down for a promotion to be a Jedi Master, Anakin starts to believe that he is more powerful than the Jedi can imagine and that they are holding him back in achieving his full potential. He over-indulges in the notion of being the Chosen One and sets himself up to be the harbinger of justice and fairness to the galaxy.

Anakin’s inability to truly control his actions in the face of fear and/or loss is mirrored in Othello. Othello, despite his attempts as identifying as a Venetian or Christian, is still very much an outlier in his society and this may translate to fearing for his reputation upon hearing of Desdemona’s alleged infidelity. Othello’s inability to objectively think through this and separate facts from conjecture rises from his inability to make sense of a situation where he is to lose his reputation as a man for being cuckolded. This plunges the Moor into mental torment as Iago begins with a mere suggestion of an affair between Cassio and Desdemona. Othello’s inability to manoeuvre past nuanced fabrication means that he stakes everything on his ancient’s words. His reaction is at once extreme and exaggerated, as seen in “Farewell the tranquil mind, farewell content!” (3.3.351) and “Farewell: Othello’s occupation’s gone” (3.3.360).

Moreover, just as Anakin literally struggles between the light and the dark, Hamlet and Othello figuratively face the same conflict. For example, when Othello arrives to kill Desdemona, he does ‘with a light’ in the darkened bedroom, which dramatically poses him to be a self-perceived minister of justice. His complex gives rise to his declaration that “she must die, else she’ll betray more men” (5.2.6) as he eggs himself on to extinguish the ‘light’ of Desdemona’s life, which has inherent dramatic irony in contrasting how the symbolic light of justice is used to create an empty dark void where there was a life. This perhaps leads to the consideration of Othello’s self-indulgent delusion of his own role.

On the other hand, Hamlet’s tragic flaw is perhaps his very ability to analyse, at length, what happens around him, which gives rise to entertaining hesitation and ceaseless brooding over morality and mortality. A pensive young man who frequently indulges in lengthy soliloquies, Hamlet undergoes internal strife as he debates himself on the veracity of the Ghost, the ‘righteous’ act of punishing Claudius for murder and the fact that he himself would be deemed a sinner were he to commit the ultimate revenge in killing Claudius. Ultimately, despite taking up the responsibility of setting wrongs right in Denmark and protecting his father’s legacy, Hamlet weakens his nation’s position through his endless deliberation between rather unrestrained outbursts of violence.

Antagonists – Activating Hamartia

At the same time, the collapse of these three tragic protagonists is not completely unaided. There is an antagonist – a character in place to amplify the effects of their tragic flaw.

Anakin is constantly egged on by Palpatine, also known as Sith Lord Darth Sidious, who manipulates and activates  Anakin’s fear of loss:

Palpatine: You have much wisdom, Anakin. But if I were to die, all the knowledge you seek about the true nature of the Force will be lost with me. Learn the power of the Dark Side, Anakin. The power to save Padmé[Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith]

He thus manages to convince the Chosen One into leading the Jedi Purge — a genocide of all young children identified to have the potential to be Jedi — and helping to establish a neo-fascist rule of the Empire in the Galaxy. Palpatine’s influence is particularly seen in the confrontation between Anakin and (the second of two) Sith Lord Count Dooku in Episode III. In the previous episode, Dooku had chopped off Anakin’s hand in battle and here, Anakin overpowers him and holds him at lightsaber-point. Anakin hesitates as Jedi are not supposed to kill, as previously detailed, and yet, Sidious entices Anakin into acting on his rage and personal vendetta. Palpatine notes, “It is only natural. He cut off your arm, and you wanted revenge. It wasn’t the first time, Anakin. Remember what you told me about your mother and the Sand People” [Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith]. Palpatine’s role is reprised by the Ghost in Hamlet, who emotionally traps Hamlet by setting him expectations of his duty as a son and even a human, as seen in “If thou didst ever thy dear father love—…Revenge his foul and most unnatural mer” (1.5.23, 25) as well as “If thou hast nature in thee, bear it not” (1.5.81).

More similarities with Palpatine are to be drawn with Iago, who capitalises on his knowledge of Othello’s fears to drive him into destructive darkness and kill his love, as seen when he remarks that “the Moor already changes with my poison” (3.3.337). The effect of this is seen in the transformation of Othello’s language, especially in Act 4 and 5 when it breaks down into incoherent exclamations, such as in “Death and damnation! O!” (3.3.399) and “O blood, blood, blood!” (3.3.454). Furthermore, his speech begins to extensively mirror the vile nature-replete imagery of Iago’s soliloquies, such as “or keep it as a cistern for foul toads / To knot and gender in!” (4.2.61-62) which enhances the dramatic irony and tragedy of how Othello has fallen for Iago’s manipulation, just as Anakin’s delusions of grandeur in Episode III demonstrate how Palpatine has successfully entered his mind.

Peripeteia – Embodying the Evil They Despise

Eventually, through their own poor choices, as well as the presence of a key malignant influence, our heroes fall and this culminates in one defining moment of peripeteia.

Anakin’s ultimate moment of downfall is when he nearly chokes his wife Padmé to death, when she whimpers that she does not recognise him anymore (“Anakin, you are breaking my heart!”). Anakin’s peripeteia is heightened here as he becomes the very thing he swore to destroy and fatally chokes the very person he swore to save by learning the ways of the Dark Side.

As captured in his final monologue where he recognises himself as the ‘malignant Turk’ (5.2.351) – the dangerous enemy of the Venetian state – in defiance of his role as a protector of Venice, Othello too ends up becoming the enemy he has been sworn to defeat.

Similarly, Hamlet, who despises Claudius for committing murder, despises his own destiny for having to resort to murder (“The time is out of joint: O cursed spite / That ever I was born to set it right!” (1.5.189–190)). Ultimately, after his overly-pensive tendencies yields nothing but a negative spiral, his mind gives into the violence and resigns to the fact that ruthlessness may be the only way to go, as seen in “Oh, from this time forth, / My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth!” (4.4.65-66)

The harrowing element in the peripeteia is that the tragic heroes, once of noble intent and respectable stature, fall prey to their own flaws as well as circumstances and end up becoming the very evil they sought to destroy.

Anagnorisis – Final Moments of Reckoning

The presence of a moment of anagnorisis is also a common thread across all three tragic heroes’ stories, and one that contributes to deriving sympathy from the audience for the characters.

Devoid of any other acquaintances and indebted to Darth Sidious for saving him and enabling him to live on through his now-famous suit, Anakin becomes Darth Vader and resigns himself to serving the Empire. However, Vader’s moment of anagnorisis or awareness arrives at the end of Episode VI (Return of the Jedi), when he is wounded in a duel with his son, Luke, who will not flinch towards the Dark Side, despite Vader’s attempts to appeal to him. Vader sees his son — the last trained Jedi — be brutally electrocuted by Sidious and, in that moment, recognises that ‘there is still good in him(self)’, to borrow Luke’s words. Vader moves to do his part to redeem himself and kills Sidious, even though it injures him fatally, and he dies with dignity, re-becoming Anakin rather than remaining the machine that was Vader.

Othello’s final act of killing himself is comparable to this, as he attains awareness of the gravity of his actions and his violent rashness and decisively kills himself, wishing to be remembered as one who did ‘the state some service’ (5.2.351) and ‘one that loved not wisely, but too well’ (5.2.356). He seeks to do what he can to set things right and, in his view, what is ‘right’ is to uphold his state-sanctioned duty of removing anyone who threatens the order of Venice — in this case, himself. Just as Vader removes his mask to become Anakin again, Othello becomes eloquent and gifted in speech once again, reminiscent of what he was before the tragedy.

Hamlet’s anagnorisis occurs before the climatic sword-fighting scene, where he too is restored to his earlier self of calm after the tempestuous shifts in his mental state, as seen in his acknowledgement that “his madness is poor Hamlet’s enemy”. (5.2.226) At the end, he says, “if it (death) be now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now… the readiness is all.” (5.2.234-37) in which he finally relinquishes his incessant contemplation to free himself and act to kill Claudius, while embracing death himself, such that it allows Denmark under Fortinbras to start afresh.

Tragic Narrators – Remembering the Tragedy

Ultimately, just like how Horatio and Lodovico were on scene to record and relay the truth of Hamlet and Othello’s tragedies, Luke Skywalker’s presence ensures that Anakin’s final acts are not forgotten and facilitates catharsis, cementing his position as a tragic hero.

As one of the defining science-fiction franchises of the last century, Star Wars stands prominently in many of our memories. To understand now that there is a literary aspect to it perhaps sheds light on how literature, beyond the constraints of a syllabus and set texts, can be found in numerous realms of our lives and society. The Star Wars saga was a well-constructed tragedy sheathed in the action-packed TIE fighter chases and the incandescent glow of lightsabers, and, much like Shakesperean tragedies, serves to expose the harsh reality that even the most brave and most skilled of us are susceptible to unsettling downfall; their catharsis thus reminding us to take a good look at ourselves and assess our own fallibility.

 

Works cited:

Ashmore, J. (2006) Othello and Anakin. Lone Star College-North Harris English Department. Available from: http://www.lonestar.edu/18163.htm

Reeves, C.H. (1952) The Aristotelian Concept of the Tragic Hero. The American Journal of Philology, 73 (2), 172-188

Shakespeare, W., and E. A. J. Honigmann. (2001) Othello. London: Arden Shakespeare.

Shakespeare, W., Bate, J. and E. Rasmussen. (2008) Hamlet. New York: Modern Library.


Waiting to start university in fall, PRIYA RAMESH only first studied Literature while she was at Victoria Junior College but grew to treat her texts as gospel. When she isn’t nursing her existential despair by playing at being intellectual, she writes about football for FourFourTwo and The Guardian. She particularly enjoys works of dystopian fiction, is often prone to telling bad jokes, and could be an insect.

photo credit: vecteezy, Filipe de Carvalho

Gender Conflict

Addressing the potential misogyny of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, Goh Wee Kiat reflects on gender in the post-war period as it is presented in the play. While recognising the presence of conventional gender roles, this essay comes round to underscoring the growing power of women in Miller’s work.

In response to Arthur Miller’s first stage production of his play, After the Fall, in 1964, theatre reviewer Robert Brustein of American newspaper New Republic wrote, “a three and one half hour breach of taste, a confessional autobiography of embarrassing explicitness … there is a misogynistic strain in the play which the author does not seem to recognize … He has created a shameless piece of tabloid gossip, an act of exhibitionism which makes us all voyeurs … a wretched piece of dramatic writing.” Academic Terry Otten appears to agree, writing that “for many feminists and other gender-based critics, Miller is guilty of creating sexist texts, which demean or reduce female characters” (11). He quotes After the Fall, where the main female character, Maggie, appears to be a caricature of Marilyn Monroe (whom Miller married and divorced within a period of 5 years). Otten further explained that Death of a Salesman also makes a mockery of women, especially when Happy tells Biff, “There’s not a good woman in a thousand” (103). It seems that Miller does indeed celebrate male chauvinist ideals while women become inferior, insecure and bumbling characters.

However, is Miller’s writing really misogynistic? Through a discussion of another play, Miller’s All My Sons, this essay is a treatise against the stereotypical viewpoint of Miller’s plays (that Miller celebrates the phallocentric worldview of patriarchy). In All My Sons, while Miller does portray women in a post-Second World War domestic role, functioning as nothing but mere accompaniment to their capable husbands or as eye-candy for men, he subverts this power structure as the play progresses. As the work develops, the play’s women make the major decisions that direct the course of the play while the men slowly evolve to become passive receivers of the consequences of these decisions.

Let us first address how All My Sons might portray the conventional view of women being subservient to men. Firstly, Miller appears to set the women up as caricatures of domestic bliss and eye-candy that men appreciate, foregrounding the misogynistic culture of post-Second World War America. To provide some context, during the Second World War, women played a very important role by filling up the jobs that men used to hold, as the latter were shipped off to war. However, once the men came back after the war and took back their previous jobs, the women were relegated to domestic and child-bearing roles. In fact, according to historian Elaine Tyler May, due to the Great Depression, the Second World War and a possible nuclear holocaust in the late 1940s and early 1950s, “Americans turned to the family as a bastion of safety in an insecure world” (9), and women were even forced by government policies to perform domestic roles and bolster the family structure. In the play, however, when Lydia is first introduced, she calls out “Frank, the toaster …” (10) and displays distress over how “the toaster is off again” (10). As the conversation continues, Frank expresses exasperation towards Lydia, exclaiming, “I don’t know why you can’t learn to turn on a simple thing like a toaster?” (10) The obsession with a toaster and her inability to use it sets Lydia up as a bumbling housewife who does not have adequate cranial capacity to perform basic household duties. At the same time, Lydia’s attempts to fill this domestic role can also be seen when she wonders aloud why Annie is “not even married” while Lydia has already “got three babies” (11), insinuating that Annie is not doing her part in the national duty of building up the family according to the culture of the times.

After the Second World War, men were also seeking women to marry, and women became objects of desire. When Annie is first introduced in the play, she is termed “the beautiful girl” and a “wonderful thing” (9). Jim went on further to comment how “[t]he block can use a pretty girl” especially since “in the neighbourhood there’s not a damned thing to look at” (9). Interestingly, when Jim is commenting about a lack of beautiful women to look at, a juxtaposition is set up between Sue, “rounding forty, and overweight” (9) and the presumably beautiful, petite Annie. Miller is very clear in constructing an ideal of female beauty in this period. Through these two moments in the play, we can see that the play communicates the misogyny of postwar America, where women were reduced to domestic roles and objects for the male gaze.

Secondly, women in All My Sons are portrayed as emotionally insecure, further accentuating their image of being unstable. This is juxtaposed to the men as being emotionally stable and sufficiently reliable in making decisions for the household. This is particularly so in the role of Kate, also known as Mother. After witnessing a series of events that starts from the breaking of the apple tree and Annie’s arrival, she comments, “No more roses. It’s so funny … everything decides to happen at the same time. This month is his birthday; his tree blows down, Annie comes” (19). The use of punctuation like full stops, ellipsis and commas, accompanied with the short phrases, results in a jarring, staccato rhythm to Kate’s speech patterns, showing how she is unable to form coherent sentences. There is also a self-reflexivity to her presumed madness, as can be seen when she retorts to her family members that “you can see I’m not completely out of my mind” (19). This is in contrast to Joe Keller’s concerned instructions, telling Kate to “Sit down, take it easy”, and Chris’ direct questions – “Can I get you an aspirin?” (19). This parallels the earlier example of Lydia’s bumbling behaviour, demonstrating how women are unreliable. Through the presentation of Kate’s personality in opposition to Chris and Joe’s speech patterns, we can observe how women in the play are shown to be emotionally unstable and not reliable at all.

However, is this necessarily true of All My Sons? The truth is, women in the play are attributed with a larger role than that which is seen in the first half of the play. In fact, women slowly gain ground as important movers and shakers of the play as  it progresses.

One can see this in the slow disintegration of traditional masculinity, which reflects the shifting worldviews of post-Second World War in America. This can be seen in Joe’s changing speech patterns and Chris’ shame in being part of the American economy, especially when they confess to their respective women. Before Chris finds out about his crime, Joe confidently brags to everybody how he worked his way from being “the beast; the guy who sold cracked cylinder heads to the Army Air Force; the guy who made twenty-one P-40’s crash in Australia” to having “one of the best shops in the state again, a respected man again; bigger than ever” (30). This speech even wins the respect of Chris, who gives Joe the moniker of “Joe McGuts” (30). The grammatically proper sentences and the affirmative tone of this speech show Joe Keller’s confidence as a man of the household, and also as a businessman, all of which embody the self-made man of postwar America. However, when Chris finds out about Joe’s crime, Joe’s behavior becomes very unstable and insecure. In Act Three, he desperately asks Kate, “then what do I do? Tell me, talk to me, what do I do?” (76). The act of seeking advice from Kate is a turning point in Joe’s personality, given his position as a man who always found his own solutions to solve his problems. Chris, meanwhile, confesses to Annie how he had been severely affected by his experiences as a “command[er] of a company” (35) during the Second World War. He shares how seeing his men getting killed and everything “being destroyed” led to “one new thing”, a “kind of … responsibility” (35). He also mentions how he was “ashamed” (36) of being part of the rat race in America after the war. The hesitant ellipsis used when he mentioned about the responsibility and the shame he felt being part of the American economy after the war show how he is unable to participate in the economic exchange that exemplifies American masculinity. Joe’s failure to maintain his self-sufficiency after his crime is found out, and this, as well as Chris’ inability to participate in the larger American economy after the war, demonstrate the play’s portrayal of the disintegration of masculinity.

Furthermore, not only do women gain influence over the male characters through the making of major decisions for them, but in terms of the dramaturgy of the play, it is the female characters who dictate the major shifts of the play’s plot lines. An example of a woman who makes major decisions is Sue Bayliss. When confronting Ann about how “Chris makes people want to be better than it’s possible to be” (44), we can see how Sue is the influential person in the Bayliss family –she constantly talks Jim out of his idealism of going into “medical research” and advises him to stay as “a successful doctor”, because research only “pays twenty-five dollars a week” (44), and it does not earn enough for the family. Sue tops it off by saying that when she married Jim “[o]n [her] salary” (44), she had actually married down. In other words, it is Sue who chooses Jim, running contrary to a traditional notion of men choosing the women they marry. In addition to this suggestion of how women have the influence over men, two poignant moments of the play are dictated by the actions of the female characters. One is when Chris finds out about his father’s crime through Kate Keller. Desperate to prevent the marriage of Ann and Chris, she exclaims, “Your brother’s alive, darling, because if he’s dead, your father killed him” (68). This divulging of Joe’s secret leads Chris to change the relationship dynamics between father and son – where once Chris hero-worshipped Joe, he now interrogates his father with “deadly insistence” and “overwhelming fury” (69). Another instance is when Ann gives Larry’s suicide letter to Kate, alleging in accusatory fashion that the latter is the one “making [her] do this” (79). It is this letter that figuratively ‘kills’ Joe, as it eventually drives him to suicide. These two major shifts in the play are dictated by the decisions and actions of two women characters, Kate and Ann. From the above, we can see that the female characters not only have influence over the male characters, they also dictate how the larger play develops.

All in all, we can see that the claim of Miller being a misogynist and celebrating patriarchal phallocentrism is but a ruse to show the fallibility of post-war American masculinity and the oppression of women, particularly in All My Sons. By setting up male characters as strong and dependable only in the beginning of the play and slowly strengthening the female characters, Miller breaks down the stability of the male characters. Thus, we can see that Miller criticizes the patriarchy of post-war America and highlights the strength that women possess, comparing this to the men who are weak or obsessed with getting rich by any means possible.

Works Cited

Miller, A. (2009) All My Sons. England: Clays.

Otten, T. (2008) Linda Loman: ‘Attention must be paid’. In E. J. Sterling (ed.), Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (Dialogue). New York: Rodopi, 11-20.

Schwartz, S. (2005) The Moral of Arthur Miller: The real lessons of America’s most famous playwright. The Weekly Standard 10 (22). [Online]. Available from: http://www.discoverthenetworks.org/Articles/The%20Moral%20of%20Arthur%20Miller.htm

Tyler May, E. (2008) Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era. New York: Basic Books.


Goh Wee Kiat is a subject tutor of Literature in English at Tampines Junior College. He loves cycling, cute dogs and his books. Of all the books he consumes, he loves the sensuality of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, the childlike atmosphere of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and the lyricism of Christina Rosetti’s poems. He is an introspective person who likes to spend time reading books from ages past and musing about the wondrous things that God has done and will do in his life.

photocredit: vector.me

#foreveralone versus #togetherforever

Presentations of Marriage and Singlehood in The Duchess of Malfi, Act 3 Scene 2

Caroline Sng’s essay on The Duchess of Malfi approaches the text through a refreshingly atypical lens. Rather than emphasizing the literary technique of the playwright, Caroline explores Webster’s advocacy of a traditionalist view of marriage vis-à-vis singlehood and his clear positioning of marriage as preferable to singlehood. The 21st-century reader, approaching the text with “a modern sensibility and a feminist streak”, is presented with the challenge of Webster’s binary presentations of the worth of marriage and singlehood, and must confront the continued relevance (or irrelevance) of the playwright’s 17th-century ideology.

Set within the intimate confines of the Duchess’ bedchamber, this scene presents a conservative take on the views of marriage and singlehood that interestingly run counter to our modern sensibilities and values. In this day and age where choosing singlehood is a mark of one’s independence and empowerment, Webster sticks to a traditionalist stance and clearly positions marriage as a more preferable option to singlehood – even if this marriage is destined to be a passing, transient thing, bereft of longevity.

Webster presents the marriage union as one that is blissful and harmonious, and this is evinced by the Duchess and Antonio’s affectionate and playful banter in this scene. This is perhaps one of the rare moments of conjugal bliss that we would witness before the Aragonian brothers’ revenge takes center stage; an eventuality that would threaten the couple’s relationship and expose the fragility of their unorthodox marriage. Unlike the courtship scene that presents the Duchess in a position of power as she takes the initiative to woo Antonio, we see a more equal partnership between the two here as they relate with ease and comfort in their private roles as husband and wife.

The scene opens with the Duchess and Antonio indulging in flirtatious and amorous provocations as the Duchess playfully tells Antonio that he would “get no lodging here tonight”. Her denial of his entry into her bedchamber is refuted and challenged by Antonio who asserts that he “must persuade one”. This coy banter reveals the shift in power between the Duchess and Antonio in their private lives as the Duchess relates to him now as her husband and equal and not as a lowly courtier as social convention in the public sphere would dictate. Antonio’s confidence in his position as husband is displayed as he firmly states that he “must lie here”. The use of the imperative clearly shows his power and authority and this is further evinced when Antonio bids the Duchess to “sleep together”, an act that boasts of his boldness and his possession of her as the bed becomes a symbol of conjugal bliss and matrimony where two partners come together as one entity. The Duchess herself is not one to be outdone as she too boldly displays her passion and “stops his mouth” by kissing him not once, but twice. Their display of open affection in front of Cariola serves to show the blissful conjugal union that they both enjoy and this furthers Webster’s agenda of presenting their marriage as wholly fulfilled ­­- a means to sway the audience to align our sympathies to the couple as they face the castigation of the Aragonian brothers.

Webster does allude to this impending punishment and fracturing of marriage in the scene. The Duchess’ exclamation of “when were we so merry?” presents a bittersweet picture of temporal and transient bliss, as this marriage is short-lived. We see this being hinted at as the Duchess remarks that Antonio is the “lord of mis-rule” but alas, “only at night”. Antonio’s admission here is that his power and authority as husband are limited only to the bedchamber; the private abode of the Duchess under the secrecy and disguise of the night shows that he is neither recognized nor acknowledged as her equal outside this private sphere. The fact remains that their union is not sanctioned, and the social transgression of the Duchess’ private act of choosing a man for love as opposed to fulfilling her public role and its ensuing responsibilities puts this relationship in a precarious and dangerous position. The dangers and anxieties of the concealment of this union begin to unfold and unravel in the later part of the play, placing their relationship under threat. Yet even with the admission of a marriage doomed to fail, and with the foreshadowing of tragedy about to befall, Webster’s writing still seems to display a bias against singlehood.

Antonio is positioned as Webster’s mouthpiece as he exhorts the values and virtues of married life to Cariola through allusions to Greek myths and nature imagery. Antonio discourages a resolute Cariola from choosing singlehood, asking her to “forgo it” by alluding to stories of Greek figures in mythology such as Daphne who “became a fruitless bay-tree” because she rejected marriage. This image implies the barren emptiness of singlehood, a punishment that is a consequence of spurning love. He then alludes to Syrinx turning into a “pale empty reed” and Anaxarete “frozen into marble.” His retelling of their cruel fates serve as a cautionary tale to Cariola that the life of singlehood is hollow and cold; a fate that is in no way, shape or form, desirable. In contrast to the cruel fates of Daphne, Syrinx and Anaxarete, the married are likened to images of abundance and fertility as they are “transhap’d into the olive, pomegranate, mulberry, flowers, precious stones or eminent stars,” an implication that the married are rewarded and remembered as objects of beauty and value. These intertextual references and allusions demonstrate Webster’s intent to espouse the virtues of married life, especially considered against the desolate image of singlehood.

Webster’s bias is perhaps most clearly displayed through his depiction of characters that remain single. Cariola does not buy into Antonio’s “vain poetry” and she perhaps stands in clear juxtaposition and hence, opposition to the representation of the happy, blissful marriage that the Duchess and Antonio stand for. The disparaging remarks made by the Duchess in response to Antonio’s question about why “hard-favour’d ladies… keep worse-favour’d waiting-women/To attend them, and cannot endure fair ones” seem to be a veiled insult directed at Cariola’s lack of good looks. Her lack of desirability is referenced in the comparison of an “ill painter” with an “excellent picture-maker”. The insinuation here is that women who are favoured and desirable would not wish to keep fair and beautiful waiting women in employment as they would pose as a threat when their looks are compared. Thus, the disparaging remarks about Cariola’s lack of desirability serve to justify her vehement “never” in response to Antonio’s question of marriage: that she resolves to be single because unlike the Duchess, she does not have the alluring qualities to nab a good man. Tellingly, Cariola’s singlehood is not a choice – Webster robs her of any active agency to control the course of her love life; that she remains single is a passive byproduct of her superficial flaws, making her undesirable as a marriage partner. Clearly, we see Webster’s withering view of singlehood and how he posits the more preferable option: blissful marriage.

The Duchess of Malfi is most commonly read as a revenge tragedy and we seldom think about the nuggets of insight that it could provide us: in this instance, the presentation of love, marriage and singlehood in Jacobean times. It would perhaps be illuminating to read and make meaning from this text with new eyes, a modern sensibility and a feminist streak – do we accept Webster’s binary presentations on the worth of marriage and singlehood? Or is there more to the value of a character than a temporal union eventually split apart? The challenge for the twenty-first century student of The Duchess of Malfi therefore lies not only in identifying seventeenth century social commentary, but also in deciding whether those views should apply to our lives today as well.


CAROLINE SNG graduated from NUS FASS with a major in literature. She started her teaching career teaching literature at Victoria JC, where she taught Graham Swift’s Waterland – a book she can only describe as life-changing. She’s recently commenced teaching lit and language arts at Temasek JC, and professes a love for cats, a good latte and a good book.

And Lose the Name of Action

Ruth Tang‘s submission this month navigates the meta-narratives of Hamlet – exploring the layered spaces between the play-within-a-play, the concept of performance is considered against decaying dimensions of theatre. In questioning ‘what is death / but a costume-change?’ we are also asked – what is a terminus but a beginning? For it is the death of a King that sets into motion madness and murder, and it is the hesitation of a Prince from which springs the clashing ‘poison-tipped foils’ of vengeance.

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Unfold Yourself

Sovereignty and selfhood in ‘Hamlet’: Act I, Scene 1.   

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