Shifting Gender Norms: The Ideal Woman in Story of an African Farm
The true genius of The Story of an African Farm is not in the unusual way it is constructed, although critic Patricia Murphy praises author Olive Schreiner’s non-linear, feminine time in the novel and the ways cyclical time influences the story’s development - Shifting Gender Norms: The Ideal Woman in Story of an African Farm introduction. Neither does the novel’s true achievement lie in its artistic allegories, though Schreiner is commended for her mythological uses of South Africa’s landscape (Marquard, 294), and for the meaningful “Hunter Tale” told by Waldo’s stranger in the novel’s center (“Politics of Power,” 585).
The most remarkable, complex aspect of the work has to be the way that it attempts to define gender norms for women, enlarging their potential role in society to equal the scope of a man’s station. This facet of Schreiner’s best-known book is the reason that she has become famous as, “a feminist who hated being a woman” (Showalter, 195), and the reason that African Farm has endured as an early feminist manifesto.
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Like other novels written by women in the mid-to-late nineteenth century, Schreiner’s book attempts to expose the precarious position in society in which women of the time found themselves. Schreiner does not have a single character embody all the roles and positions of women; using three women characters, Schreiner successfully captures the whole spectrum of possibility for women of the time.
These three characters, with their different attitudes and relationships with men, embody Showalter’s three stages of women novelists (feminine, feminist, female): Tant’ Sannie, the monstrous epitome of the traditional Victorian woman, imitating and internalizing the prevailing standards for women; Emily, who in her attitude towards marriage protests against traditional Victorian standards and advocates new values; and Lyndall, the primary heroine, who seeks her own place in the world unhindered by society’s values. She serves as a model for what is known as the “new woman.
True, Showalter writes A Literature of Their Own 90 years after African Farm is published, and her ideas best apply to women novelists in the nineteenth century. Regardless, her are well suited to serve as clarification of the differences between Schreiner’s characters-to chronicle the development of the feminine through the feminist to the female phase. Another idea that may be used in place of Showalter’s is Mikhail Bahktin’s negotiation of language from centralization to decentralization (“Discourse,” 344)-termed “regressive” to “dominant” to “emergent” in class.
To loosely apply this theory, each of African Farm’s women characters must occupy a Bahktinian term: Tant’ Sannie as regressive woman of the past, Em as dominant woman remaining in the present moment, and the ahead-of-her time Lyndall as the emergent spirit of woman. Of course, applying this theory to these female characters requires accepting each of them as the embodiment of a different social ideal of the Victorian woman. Indeed, as I do see them as such embodiments, Bahktin’s labels fit. Similarly Michel de Certeau writes of the containment and subversion of an idea or practice to explain the shift of roles and their meaning (POEL, xiii).
Identifying Tant’ Sannie as the Victorian ideal, then having Em as her containment and subversion (usurping her role and changing it), followed again by the containment and subversion of Em-as-ideal by Lyndall, makes for another way to look at the relationship of these characters. Although I choose to apply Showalter’s terms for this study it is important that my readers know that I do so merely as illustration-what is important is not the terms I use, but the relationships of the characters in the novel.
The point of this paper is to demonstrate how The Story of an African Farm contributes to the dialogue about gender norms-especially the roles of women in society-taking place in 19th century novels. Established Role for Women: In order to best understand all that Lyndall represents for Schreiner it is necessary to first explore what this new woman is a reaction against. Tant’ Sannie, the Boer woman who is stepmother to Em and owner of the African farm, seems to exemplify the standard ideal for a woman in Victorian England.
Nancy Paxton says that she is “a caricature of the ‘natural’ and ‘instinctive’ Wordsworthian mother idealized by Victorian novelists and normalized by social Darwinists” (569), and although I agree with her, I tend to see her as more than a mother caricaturized. I expand her role from idealized mother to that of the ideal Victorian woman, still noting that Schreiner certainly sets her as such to critique the stereotype. Tant’ Sannie is tough and harsh, fit to survive on a farm in the colony-perhaps better suited to survive than the husbands she outlives.
She is a mother figure to the three protagonists of the novel, but a mother without any semblance of tenderness. In fact, she is the only character in the book that successfully gives birth, although her dealings with her own child are still devoid of tenderness (226-7). She is also the only character whom we see successfully married in the course of the novel, but to call her relationship with Little Piet a success is to have decidedly low standards for a relationship. He is young and would rather court his deceased wife’s younger sister, but is bound to a promise he made to seek a “fat woman” for his next bride (148).
The shortcomings of the relationship remain unnoticed by Sannie, to whom nothing matters aside from the power she will gain and wield once she is again wed. Married a total of three times, she is a woman of property accumulated through the only channels available for a Victorian woman to gain land-through marriage and inheritance. She is a feared woman who is financially independent, although she must always leech her money and authority from the husbands she outlasts. In this novel she is the best example of a woman of power, insofar as a woman of the day could appropriate power through normal social channels.
As Showalter’s feminine, Tant’ Sannie is the internalization of the standards for a Victorian woman to achieve social success. Patricia Murphy says of her, “… Sannie reigns and is emblematic of cultural values [passed] across generations” (91), an observation with which I agree. In her social rank, her motherhood, her financial status and her position as wife, she is the standard to be imitated. Culturally she supports Western ideals, such as ideals of beauty and culture. This is most effectively shown in the novel by the posted fashion sheet that she keeps pasted at the foot of her bed (11).
In her religious beliefs, too, she embodies the sentiments that a woman of the time should, deferring her understanding to the level of superstition. For example, she is very wary of ghosts, a fact that explains why she has taken on “proper” care for her dead husband’s children, despite her disregard for them (10), and she is highly concerned with maintaining the status quo in all matters, regarding innovations that she does not understand as sin (228). Also, her views of marriage are those accepted at the time.
Marriage is simply a contract between two people; there is no concept of emotion involved in the decision to wed. Sannie interviews suitors, judging the fitness of any potential match on monetary and property bases; she says, “men know where sheep and good looks and money in the bank are to be found” (145), explaining why she has received seven suitors in one month. The person that she is-loud, difficult, snoring-has nothing to do with the proposals she receives. Basically, Sannie is completely a product of 19th century society.
Gerald Monsman sees much in common between her and Bonaparte Blenkins, writing, “Tant’ Sannie like Blenkins is a figure whose concerns center on materialistic values; like him she approaches marriage as primarily an economic and social institution, secondarily as an erotic relationship, and not at all as a relation of affection and loyalty” (“Politics of Power,” 592). I acknowledge the similarities between these two characters, but note that in their relationship Schreiner still creates sympathy for Sannie over Blenkins, as he is a man without scruples.
Sannie is still what Lyndall describes as a parasite, leeching her power, financial and otherwise, from the men she marries only to bury them, “one after another, and folds her hands resignedly… and she looks for another” (140). Actually, the very beliefs that give her success in the scope of Victorian society are the very things that allow con man Bonaparte Blenkins-perhaps standing in the novel for all men in society-to gradually win her over and temporarily usurp power from her.
He takes advantage of her religious superstitions and her social preconceptions to climb through the society of the farm from a vagabond/visitor to the master of the land and potential husband for Sannie. Schreiner notes that “there was only one thing on earth for which Tant’ Sannie had a profound reverence which exercised a subduing influence over her, which made her for the time a better woman-that thing was new, shining black cloth” (31). Taking Otto’s black suit, Blenkins creates the illusion in Sannie’s mind that he is both truly pious and of superior social standing.
Because of her lack of education, her mistaken reverence for those high in social standing, and her superstitious religious beliefs-even her search for a replacement husband serves to blind her to his designs-she is easy prey for the jackal Bonaparte. Allegorically, then, this vulnerability of Sannie in her role to be duped by men demonstrates the limitations of all Victorian women who play by the rules. She eventually reclaims her authority after Blenkins jilts her, but not until after the con man has taken her for quite a ride.
Interestingly, Lyndall-our new woman-is never deceived by Blenkins, nor does she ever regard him as anything more than a trial to be gotten through. How different would the novel be if Sannie were more endowed with intellect? Improvements on the Standard: By simply reading the novel it is clear that there is much less that may be said about Em than about Tant’ Sannie. Throughout the work Em is the silent companion, only raising her voice when expressing emotions.
Going back to Showalter’s terms, Sannie (the feminine) is a response only to society as it exists. She is an imitation of patriarchal power gained through appropriation of the masculine models that men have allowed. She is the starting point, then, against which Em and then Lyndall shall be defined. Returning again to Showalter’s trilogy of female identity, Em would be feminist. This is not to say that she actively protests any aspect of society-Em is not the independent, aggressive type-she fits Showalter’s term because she advocates new values.
These values are not obvious in every sphere of her life; her religion is undefined, representing no departure from tradition, and her thoughts about women are not noticeably different than those Sannie embodies. Neither is she particularly ahead of her time mentally. When compared with the intelligence of Waldo or Lyndall, it is clear that she is no equal. As illustration, early in the novel Lyndall energetically relates the story of Napoleon to Em and Waldo. Em is the only member of her audience who is unmoved by the exiled emperor’s fate.
Waldo entertains thoughts about the limitations of books to convey the truth of a life, while Em responds, “It’s a very nice story, but the end is sad” (13). She is emblematic of the present time and is able to make due with whatever situation her life presents to her. As non-intellectual and traditional as most of her views are, in the areas of love and marriage she clearly represents a departure from the position contained in Sannie. She takes a more romantic view of love and marriage, and is much more true to her feelings than her stepmother.
For example, Gregory Rose comes to the farm and wins Em’s love, not with money but with his personality. He proposes to her based entirely on his love for her, “Oh, Em, I love you better than all the world besides! ” He continues, “… if you are not my wife I cannot live. I have never loved another woman and never shall! ” (125). The question he poses to Em to ask for her hand is not a question of finance or title, but a question of emotional attachment. Em is the most complacent woman in the novel-nearly a perfect “angel in the house.
She decides to accept Rose’s proposal, bending her life to his will. Schreiner explains Em’s tendency to support her fianci??e without regard to her own desires, saying, “Her idea of love was only service” (127). Even as domineered by others as Em is with this concept of love, she is still far more modern than Sannie, who does not allow any notion of love enter into a marriage relationship. Em is a woman, then, who believes in her self and in love, and she is unwilling to settle for anything less that she deserves.
As representative of women who begin to depart from the parasitic relation to men that Sannie exemplifies, Em has come a long way towards knowing herself and fulfilling her needs. Em shows further advances relating to love-as well as her rebellion from the leech-like “needing” of a man-when she breaks her engagement to Gregory. Despite his avowal to never love another woman, his all-enduring love for Em fades when he finally meets Lyndall. With her “elfin-like beauty” (2) and worldly wisdom, Lyndall is obviously the kind of woman with whom men are often smitten.
Although Lyndall ignores Gregory’s attentions, Em cannot. Slowly through the course of the work Em perceives Gregory’s mixed feelings; she “sat long alone in the dark” (164) contemplating their relationship and future marriage. In what is arguably her most decisive and perhaps non-angel-of-the-house act in the novel, Em suddenly releases Gregory from the engagement saying, “I think, Gregory, it would be better if you and I were never to be married” (164). Of course, Gregory feigns surprise, all the while not questioning her reasoning.
He says, “You women never do know the state of your own minds for two days together” (164), placing the blame on Em for her change of heart. Ironically, the truth is that it is Gregory who has changed, not knowing his own mind, or knowing it but deceiving Em and himself as to his intentions. The relationship of Em and Gregory demonstrates some of the perils that women like Em (Showalter’s feminists) face in relationships. When a relationship is based solely on something as indefinable as romantic love the risk is always present that one party in the relationship feels more than the other.
The fact that Em chooses not to marry Gregory because of his feelings for her cousin and that she is comfortable with her place in the world-on the farm-alone or with a husband shows how far she has developed as a person. This development is especially noticeable when Em is compared to Tant’ Sannie, with her unyielding appetite for her next spouse. Sannie says to Em, “If a woman’s got a baby and a husband she’s got the best things the Lord can give to her” (227), clearly voicing her Victorian ideas of the limited place for a woman in the world.
Younger and more open to change, Em does not make the oppressive, black-or-white statements that Sannie does. She merely states that “Perhaps it [marriage] might not suit all people, at all times, as well as it suits you, Tant’ Sannie” (227). Em, according to this statement, is more concerned with what works for each individual-emotionally and socially-rather than what society dictates. Likewise, Em also stands out from Tant’ Sannie’s model of women in her relationships with other women. While Sannie seems to constantly compete with the women she is around, Em actually loves Lyndall, who is her closest competition for attention.
Sannie either rules over other women, like her Hottentot maid, or she competes with them. The episode in which she chastises Em for the new method she uses to make soap reveals her position (227); as the epitome of woman empowered by Victorian society she is very interested in policing other women. Fortunately, Em listens to her rant about the coming plague from God without heeding, wondering only of the changed, enlivened state Sannie has achieved. The New Woman: Of the three women characters in Schreiner’s novel the most outspoken and dominant is Lyndall.
In both her ideas and actions she represents such a change from Sannie mentality that the two are polar opposites in everything but anatomy. Where Sannie is superstitious about religion Lyndall is skeptical (143). While Sannie is motivated by holdings and money, Lyndall is an orphan without prospects of inheritance and the love she chooses is about anything but finance. Ultimately, while Sannie is interested in completely holding her place in 19th century society-never stepping an inch outside of her place-Lyndall is interested in somehow attaining the freedom and education in her life that society denies women and reserves for men.
Lyndall is, according to Paxton, a rebel, fighting against “the ignorance and provinciality of her adoptive family” (570) as well as against the patriarchal forces of religion and constructed morality in use at the time to keep women subject to male society. Showalter calls Lyndall “the first wholly serious feminist heroine in the English novel” (199), and she is referred to by other critics as the best example of the new woman (Monsman, “Schreiner’s Story,” 262).
Murphy goes so far as to accuse Lyndall of being masculine as opposed to Waldo as feminine, and although I disagree with the habit of labeling strong women as man-like, I totally agree about the blurring of traditional gender roles (90). Lyndall represents a new attitude for women of the time, able to think for herself and act upon her thoughts without regard to anyone. She goes do far as to not only advocate new values, as Em does, but also completely personify the self-realized woman, which is why I again employ Showalter’s terms and call her female.
Lyndall’s difficulties and her subsequent death are not caused by her self-discovery, but are the result of her new self when it runs against society. The thoughts that she wrestles with and her resolution of them are what make her innovative; it is her path that leads to despair for her. What else but death could be in store for a woman so ahead of her time who finds herself unsuited for the life that society demands she live? Even as a child Lyndall displays remarkable courage and intelligence. Her sensibilities are simply those of an adult from the start of the novel.
Paxton attributes this quality to her condition as an orphan, as that position somehow loosens society’s grip on an individual. Regardless of why she is free to develop as she does, eventually subverting traditional ideas of womanhood, Lyndall is outstanding. First, of all the people on the farm, only the young Lyndall immediately sees through Blenkins’ stories of wealth and position. She questions her gullible uncle about the lies Blenkins passes for truth, only to be chastised for her critical observations (19). Still, the child remains unconvinced of Blenkins’ honesty, despite her uncle’s reassurances; “I think he is a liar.
Goodnight, Uncle Otto” (9), she says as she leaves the cabin where the stranger, Blenkins, sleeps. Later, after Blenkins is allowed to tutor the children, Lyndall is the one who recognizes his ignorance and protests by not attending his lessons (37). Em tells Waldo and us that Lyndall “always does what she says” (37), which turns out to be very true. Another scene that reveals something of Lyndall’s remarkable strength of character comes when Sannie evicts Otto from the farm based on false information given to her by Blenkins.
In order to prevent Em from following Otto to his cabin, Sannie sets forth a string of curses, “which convulsed the Hottentot, so low were its images” (49). Here Lyndall adopts the demeanor of an adult, proudly beaconing Em to go inside, stating, “We will not stay to hear such language. ” In a rage, Sannie responds to the girl’s usurpation of power by grabbing Em and proceeding to hit her. I should here note that Schreiner explains why Em is punished for Lyndall’s impertinence, writing, “She [Sannie] had struck Lyndall once years before, and had never done it again, so she took Em” (49).
I think this small statement reveals a lot about Lyndall’s strength, even as a girl. Clearly Sannie considers her something of a challenge, if not beyond control totally. What happens next is remarkable; in a single action Lyndall defies Sannie’s sovereignty, while at the same time demonstrating her powerful allegiance to Em: For one instant Lyndall looked on, then she laid her small fingers upon the Boer woman’s arm. With the exertion of half its strength Tant’ Sannie might have flung the girl back upon the stones.
It was not the power of the slight fingers, tightly though they clinched her broad wrist-so tightly that at bedtime the marks were still there-but the Boer woman looked into the clear eyes and at the quivering white lips, and with a half-surprised curse, relaxed her hold (49-50). This encounter is a clear struggle for power between the established feminine concept and the emergent female ideal. Schreiner does not mention what is in the clear eyes that cause Sannie to relax her power, but in the next Lyndall scene it becomes clear that Lyndall’s strength comes from within herself and from the way she sees her place in the world.
After Blenkins and Sannie lock Em and Lyndall into their room to prevent them from bidding Otto farewell, Lyndall again takes action and tries to break herself and Em out. She tries several things, such as breaking windows, trying to cut through the wooden shutters, stopping only short of burning down the house (50-51). Again, this scene demonstrates what an amazing opponent to the limits of society Lyndall really is. She is locked in a cell by the powers that exist, and despite the consequences-the possibility of her own death and certainly at the expense of the house-she uses almost everything in her power to escape her confines.
Only the failing flame of her match keeps her from finally lighting the fire. After all hope fails, she simply goes to bed, asking Em to cease wailing; “Perhaps you will find that it helps; I never heard that howling helped anyone” (51). Lyndall is determined to do all in her power to reach her goal, a characteristic of her that will surface again in the novel. Her willingness to assume the place of power, all the while refusing to give in to an emotional response, sets Lyndall apart from Both Sannie and Em’s model for women’s behavior.
Again Lyndall squares off against the adults of the farm, Blenkins and Sannie, this time over their treatment of Waldo. Wishing to assert his power over the farm after Otto’s death, Blenkins has tormented young Waldo, breaking the youth’s machine (65), burning his book (71), and finally accusing the boy of stealing, all in order to punish him and assert his authority. Blenkins does just that, horsewhipping Waldo for the crime he has not committed and locking him in the shed for the night. To this Em responds by crying, telling Lyndall, “I think they want to kill him” (82).
Lyndall calmly decides on her actions, then rises up, goes and gets the keys to the shed in full view of the adults, and goes to release Waldo. Sannie and Blenkins, astounded by this affront to their power, can do nothing to stop her. They “looked at each other, talking, while Lyndall walked to the fuel house with the key, her underlip bitten in” (82). Again she has faced the existing powers and defies them. Here the power is incarnate as adults; later the power she comes against is patriarchal authority.
After returning from boarding school, Lyndall has clear knowledge of what society expects of her as a woman, and the notion that she somehow does not fit within its bounds. Her position as a new woman against the old model, represented by Sannie, is suggested when she notices her old candle in her room, still casting the same shadow after her absence of four years. She ponders, “Strange… to find that the candle standing on the dressing table still cast the shadow of an old crone’s head in the corner, beyond the clothes horse” (130). I see the crone’s head as being the same old position of women that Lyndall has outgrown fully at this point.
Later, her monologues to Waldo about the arbitrariness of society and the roles of women touch on many issues nineteenth century women had to face regularly: education, dignity, marriage, and motherhood to name some. It is through these talks that Lyndall expounds with such vehemence against the injustices of repressed women, and Schreiner comes closest to just completely taking the stage for her beliefs. Lyndall has already rebuked Em for assuming she would be engaged, saying, “I am not in so great a hurry to put my neck beneath any man’s foot; and I do not so greatly admire the crying of babies” (131).
This simply gives a taste of the thoughts that consume Lyndall upon her return from school, which she detests as a place that breeds ignorance (135). She begins by familiarizing Waldo with some of the points that men and women are debating about the “woman question” at the time. These points, according to Richard M. Rive, are Schreiner’s actual refutations of reasons men were giving for not allowing women to vote, be educated as men were, and for limiting the jobs women could hold (236-238).
Lyndall points out that she believes there are no men who would like to be women, and she is speaking of physically and socially, so cross-dressing Gregory does not count. Lyndall rejects each argument made by the men-that changing women’s roles would bring about the destruction of marriage and family (140), that women need no education to raise and educate children (139), that equality will bring about the death of love (140), and that women can choose not to marry if the institution and its laws that favor men do not suit them (139-140)-all with common sense. Of course that which I call common sense in 2001 was ahead of its time in 1883.
Lyndall also speaks about the nature of power in society and its unfair division between the sexes (138). What is important here, although each argument she makes is clear and accurate, it that Lyndall, our female and new woman, is expressing her angst at possessing the potential as great as any man but being denied her natural place by arbitrary society. She complains: What would knowledge help me? I once heard an old man say that he never saw an intellect help a woman so much as a pretty ankle; and it was the truth. They begin to shape us to our cursed end when we are tiny things in shoes and socks.
We sit with our little feet drawn up under us in the window and look out at the boys in their happy play. We want to go. Then a loving hand is laid on us: “Little one, you cannot go,” they say, “your face will burn, and your nice white dress be spoiled. ” (135). That, according to the new woman, is how the loving hand of society imprisons females; all the while claiming it is for their own good. Never would Em even think about the place women are made to occupy in society. Neither would Tant’ Sannie abandon her parasitic lifestyle to reach for power of her own making.
But neither of hose ladies is as in tune to their autonomous identities as Lyndall is when she returns to the farm. Lyndall’s chosen battleground is the field of marriage. She is sought after by both foolish Gregory and the possessive and powerful stranger, and is truly wooed by neither. In her discussion with Gregory at the kopje she speaks of two different possibilities for male/female love: the abusive Kaffir who physically mistreats his wife to maintain his dominance over her, and the “love that begins in the head, and goes down to the heart, and grows slowly; but it lasts until death, and asks less than it gives” (170).
Ultimately, Lyndall rejects marriage totally, attempting to maintain her own power as an equal in her relationships. But before she runs away with her mysterious lover, she thinks of marrying Gregory because she will be able to ignore him, rule him, and maintain her power despite him (173). This sounds very much like Tant’ Sannie’s idea of the marriage union. Still, Lyndall recognizes that this way of empowering herself is not for her and flees with the stranger on the condition that they not marry (179).
This is the last we encounter her directly as Schreiner has her die after an illness from childbirth. She has done the unthinkable in choosing to completely reject the role of woman that society offers based on her own self-knowledge-that role would not fit her. She instead decides to take her chances in the unknown, outside of society in the effort of forging a new way for women to retain self-respect and power. The Story of an African Farm is not a perfect novel.
Schreiner biographer Clayton Cherry notes that many 19th century critics claimed to make no sense of its non-linear narrative and disliked its didacticism (29). For its supposed flaws it is a novel filled with white feathers from the bird of truth in Waldo’s hunter’s story. The character Lyndall is a prototypical female straight from Elaine Showalter’s theory of 19th century women novelists, but more importantly she has come to be regarded as a model for females that followed her. Looking at her from inside the novel, set against the other women of the work, her status of new woman is undeniable.
The courage that she shows in departing from her prescribed “place in society” is one of the aspects of this book that makes it inspirational. African Farm is an important work that directly deals with the issues that women of the 19th century actually faced. By creating three characters that embody different ideals of womanhood Schreiner demonstrates how society’s “gender norms” may be made to shift to fit women, rather than women having to shift to fit roles. The genius of the novel is in the complex way “right” behavior for both men and women is called into question.