Oscar Wilde’s Presentation of Woman in ‘a Woman of No Importance’ in Comparison to John Fowle’s Veiws of Women in ‘the French Lieutenant’s Woman’ Essay
An exploration of Oscar Wilde’s presentation of women in ‘A Woman of No Importance’ in comparison to John Fowles’ views of women in ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’, in light of the view that Oscar Wilde has a more sympathetic view of woman in his time. In this essay I will be comparing Oscar Wilde’s play ‘A Woman of No Importance’ to John Fowles’ novel ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’. I will be exploring their differing views of woman in Victorian society.
Generally, woman were viewed as inferior to men, yet Wilde shows compassion for them in his writing, this can be seen through his kindness to Mrs Arbuthnot towards the end of the play. However, John Fowles, although much darker in his presentation of woman, portrays Sarah Woodruff as someone to be pitied and sympathized with, while using spiteful characters such as Mrs Poulteney to emphasize the virtue of others. Perhaps Fowles’ darker presentation of woman is because he is comparing 1960’s women to the ‘purer’ 1890’s women.
In the play ‘A Woman of No Importance’ Wilde presents woman to be fickle in nature and expresses typical Victorian views towards ‘outcast’ women. An example of this is the refined, upper class Lady Caroline’s snide comment to Lady Hunstanton about Mrs Allonby’s questionable activities with men other than her husband ‘Is that the only thing, Jane, Mrs Allonby allows to run away with her? ‘ There is a strong innuendo placed around the words ‘run away’ Wilde uses Lady Caroline’s out-spoken nature as a medium to mock and convey harsh Victorian morals and standards expected of woman in Victorian society.
He clearly shows how social/moral outcasts are scorned by Lady Caroline, a member of English aristocracy who will castrate any questionable woman in fear of being associated with them. The same is typical for Sarah Woodruff in Fowles’ ‘French Lieutenant’s Woman’ Ernestina, a rich merchant’s daughter who wants to climb up societies ladder through Charles, immediately shows discontent towards Woodruff as she stands as an outcast or a ‘ruined woman’ in their society ‘She is… A little mad. Let us turn. I don’t like to go near her’.
Fowles immediately presents Ernestina’s unsympathetic view to stir the readers thoughts and feelings of the reader to sympathize with Sarah’s situation. Similarly, Wilde also uses Hester to convey the harsh views about women who have sinned ‘If you met them in the street you would turn your head away. ‘ Wilde uses this raw, emotive language to show how those in Victorian Society with strong moral views would ignore those below them. However, I think that Wilde uses Hester in this regard because she is young and naive.
Towards the beginning of the play he places Hester’s view to be very ‘puritan’ and against anything viewed ‘wrong’ in the eyes of god. ‘Let them both be branded’ – The word ‘branded’ is used to convey the pain which women who have sinned were expected to endure in hell for their misconduct in life. Towards the end, however, he paints a much more sympathetic view through Hester’s eyes with her acceptance and even love of Mrs. Arbuthnot’s sin ‘You cannot honour me, unless she’s holier to you. In her all womanhood is martyred. – By stating Mrs Arbuthnot as a ‘Martyr’ Hester is showing great respect and admiration, as Mrs Arbuthnot is being seen as a sacrifice for a needed change in society’s view. She uses heavily religious terms to save the woman rather than condemning her. By showing this young character’s view change so dramatically Wilde shows how woman should be loved and sympathised with for their pains and troubles throughout life – not placed on an alter of shame. Also to be noted is the fact Lady Caroline is not featured in the end of the play.
So although Wilde shows a changing view he neglects the characters who would have most likely disagreed with Hester and shunned Mrs. Arbuthnot. This amplifies the juxtaposition of the play, at the beginning there was only negativity thrown towards outcast women, and now there is forgiveness and acceptance. Perversely, Fowles is very different in his development on the views of outcast women, Sarah is used as a martyr for woman’s freedom from moral judgment, but he shows no change of opinion towards her through general Victorian Society.
Throughout the novel she is referred to as ‘the French Loot’n’nt’s Hoer’, ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’ or ‘Tragedy. ‘ Fowles never once shows her in a positive light when looking at her from society’s point of view. However, when Fowles describes her personality she is presented as a ‘kind-hearted’ woman whose strengths lie in her ‘ability to classify other people’s worth’ – This is very much a trait seen in outcasts in other Victorian novels and plays; like Hester’s ability, bu having a fresh perspective, untainted by an English upbringing, to notice faults in English society in ‘A Woman of No Importance’.
Wilde focuses on the fragility of ruined woman using Mrs Arbuthnot, who is the only character in the play whose history is revealed; something which is used to thoroughly engage the audience, is shown to ‘Start’ near the beginning of the play due to having heard Hester condemning the English ‘Let all who have sinned be punished”. This entrance represents the fragility of fallen women due to Mrs Arbuthnot’s obvious bout of paranoia as she believes the topic of conversation might be her. Wilde uses this scene to show how vulnerable fallen woman were in Victorian society, and the difficulties they went through to hide their sin.
I think Wilde wants the audience to recognize this. Conversely, Fowles presents Sarah as being clearly distraught about her past ‘I have sinned’ but she refuses to hide it and rather, hides behind that as her identity through the beginning of the novel. Wilde also puts forward the notion that woman are viewed as objects in his play, Lady Caroline describes woman as ‘other people’s property’ insinuating that woman are owned by others like furniture. It is strange how Lady Caroline would be the one to say it however, as she puts forward quite a powerful image, and is an important figure of authority ‘John, you should have your muffler’.
The same effect is shown by the fact that woman have considerably more dialogue throughout the play than the few male characters. Perhaps Wilde is trying to show us that women did have power over men during the Victorian period, and they’re not as helpless and oppressed as they often were viewed stereotypically during that time period. Fowles, on the other hand, presents a much less personal view point, shown at Ma Terpsichore’s in which girls were ‘auctioned off’ to the highest bidder. He paints a harsh picture of the obvious inequality of men and women where bodies are ‘contorted’ and smiles ‘suggestive’.
Fowles uses Charles as a medium to convey his feelings towards the show ‘he was revolted’ to show how he has somewhat of a sympathetic view towards them, but the reality is placed in a much harsher manner than in Wilde’s ‘A Woman of No Importance’, through the use of powerful imagery and aggressive language. Fowles suggests a conflict of morals amongst woman by the use of Mrs Poulteny’s ‘obsession’ with ‘immorality’ and her subsequent use of Mrs Fairley to find faults in Sarah’s character, which she then takes amusement in having something ‘unpleasant to communicate’.
In the same way Wilde also shows conflict in opinion between woman with the presentation of two groups of woman; English aristocrats and the outcasts. In the play Mrs Arbuthnot and Hester are both presented differently from the higher class ladies. Hester, due to her different ethnicity, voices the faults in English society ‘It lies like a leper in purple’ – The powerful imagery of a ‘leper’ is used to stir disgust in the audience and is something the ladies do not take kindly to in the play. The conflict in opinion is especially apparent when Lady Caroline asks ‘Might I, dear Miss Worsley, ask for my cotton that is just behind you? This utter dismissal of Hester’s outburst presents Lady Caroline as ignorant and ethnocentric. These views challenge stereotypical expectations of higher classed Victorian woman which would dictate that they would have always acted respectfully towards others. I think both Wilde and Fowles use these conflicts to show how woman of any time or class would typically alienate woman with opinions differing from the general populace of their era. The ending of ‘A Woman of No Importance’ was brilliantly thought out as a biting satire.
It essentially created something of a future, a new lease of life for ‘fallen women’. It brought to light the idea that the wronged woman herself may not be at fault. The act of Mrs Arbuthnot striking Lord Illingworth with his own glove was far from a traditional, Victorian ending. However, the very act itself showed a sense of masculinity and power in woman that wasn’t revealed before. It’s such an unexpected act it lifts the veil of society’s expectations and shocks the audience into forming their own different opinion. A change of perception almost.
It is essentially the greatest gift Wilde could have given woman of this time. A sense of freedom created from seeing a condemned woman triumph over man and the oppressive society in which she is trapped. Overall, I think that Oscar Wilde has a more sympathetic view of women in his time by how he seeks a change of opinion, whereas Fowles maintains a harsher view towards outcast women throughout French Lieutenant’s and even leaves the supposed heroine female ambiguous as to whether she was truly virtuous or ruined, that I suppose we will never know.