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The Role of Men & Women in English Literature

Updated on November 28, 2016

Angela Leighton argues that during the Victorian period women were objects to be seen and not heard and because Browning uses the double visions of Marian Erle and Aurora Leigh, the readers are allowed to view how women were oppressed in a male dominating society and it gives the women a voice. Browning uses a 'coin' to symbolize this double vision within the poem. Leighton shows how Aurora Leigh is an epic poem that displays how men use their economic power and sexual power to try to control women and manipulate them into a marriage they don't want. In the poem the readers view Romney as a man who desires his women to be 'mere' objects that they are meant to be looked at, and should be more like statues other than women with ideas. The article points at Romney's offering the wreath to Aurora as showing he doesn't want women to trouble themselves with the 'headaches' life has to offer. He wants Aurora to sit back and let the man deal with thinking and ideas, and her only job is to stay in the house and be domestic. One interesting point Leighton makes is that Browning's poem is one of escape, from both "the material home and the Palace of art where, as a woman, she risks becoming a permanent fixture" or statue. Leighton also points out that Romney's blinding has allowed him to finally see the truth, and allows him to accept Aurora as a woman and a poet.

Angela Leighton

The essay also mentions how most believed women should have been kept in the 'home' in order to prevent 'change'. The 'home' suggests women as property only to be taken off of their shelves (out of their homes) when their men see fit. It's a form of keeping women on a lower level as men so that the men are superior and dominant over them. In the poem Romney makes 4 proposals, 2 of those are to each of his loves, Aurora and Marian. He offers them a marriage-ring which acts as a symbol of male power. In a male society men use money and sex as a form of control and power. They try to blackmail women by throwing money at them in order to get them to agree to marriage. They also use sex to show their dominance over women. In Browning's poem we get 2 images of this kind of dominance. In book 2 lines 539-541, Romney is telling Aurora that she should come take care of his house, and be the little wife she should be and he will reward her with "the current coin / which men give women". This could hint at how Romney could use sex as a form of payment to Aurora for being his little wife. The "current coin", as Leighton suggests, is a marriage, but it could also be about sex. In a man's mind he dominates the sex, it makes him feel manly and powerful. Another image of the "coin" is when Marian is describing her rape: "And finds there, bedded in her flesh / Because of the extremity of the shock, / Some coin of price!" (6.679-681). This refers to her rape as prostitution. The man forced himself on her then if that wasn't degrading enough he throws money at her as if he bought her body for his own personal use. The "current coin" and the "coin of price" are both symbols of how women are victimized in a male dominating society. The "coin" represents the 2 points of view from the leading women in the poem, Aurora and Marian. The coin helps the readers view the different sides of oppression and shows them that oppression has more than one face.

Aurora Leigh's Dismissal of Romney ("The Tryst") by Arthur Hughes
Aurora Leigh's Dismissal of Romney ("The Tryst") by Arthur Hughes | Source

Leighton points out that the male power is often described as animal like and develops the potently physical connotations of rape. Rape is another form of men oppressing and dominating women. Most of the men who rape women feel inadequate and only rape in order to be in control and further break a woman physically and spiritually. Leighton suggests that Marian's rape is also compared with the idea of beating down the lower-class. Browning uses the rape as a metaphor for how the upper-class deprives the lower-class of many rights. Leighton writes in her essay: "Rape is a part of a system of law which has little to do with wedding rings, but which does have something to do with class, power and specifically with 'men'". Marian's rape is composed of images of violence, male power, and money that are seen throughout the entire poem.

The women in Aurora Leigh are constantly oppressed by men and their laws. Marian Erle addresses this system of oppression when she gives her speech of her rights as a mother.

'Mine, mine,' she said. 'I have as sure a right
As any glad proud mother in the world,
Who sets her darling down to cut his teeth
Upon her church-ring. If she talks of law,
I talk of law! I claim my mother-dues
By law,- the law which now is paramount,-
The common law, by which the poor and weak
Are trodden underfoot by vicious men,
And loathed for ever after by the good.' (6.661-669)

According to Leighton, "her self-defence consists in making a deliberate connection between the church law of marriage and, punningly, the 'common law' of oppression, between legalisation of motherhood in a 'church-ring' and legalisation of poverty in an establishes system."

Leighton's article allows us readers to dive deeper into the issues of women and men. It brings up ideas of oppression and power and how men abuse the rights of women by trying to constantly keep them down. This issue also mirrors how the upper class treats the lower class, and how they degrade their rights in order to stay superior and to keep them down.

Interesting video discussing the Economy of Women in Aurora Leigh.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning


Gender Roles: Aurora Leigh

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    • Brittany Kussman profile image

      Brittany Kussman 3 years ago from St. Louis, MO

      That's very interesting I have never read her article though. Many of the work I have read from writers of the Victorian period suggets that the men clearly didn't want their women to have a voice, so maybe what your article suggets could be the reason for that. But once again I have not read the article I will have to look that up. Thanks for the read and the comment it really got me thinking more on this idea. Clearly not all women were silenced and seen as objects.

    • unverm profile image

      unverm 3 years ago

      Thank you very much Brittany, you are reflecting that during Victorian period women were objects to be seen not to be heard. I'm reading Margaret Aston's essay about segregation in church and she says that during Victorian period church goers, including women too, have gained special seats, firstly priests, then lay men, then women. What do you think about this in the light of women were objects to be seen not to be heard? Thank you again for this bright hub.