The Promise of an Ambiguous Self: Eradicating an Essentialist Femininity through Deceit in the Victorian Novel


In this study, I explore the extent to which Victorian women participate in the creation of their own stereotypical representations, how these representations are often misinterpreted as essential femininity, and, furthermore, how women resist these claims even as they conform to them. In his Rhetoric of Motives, Kenneth Burke insists that the ''individual person strives to form himself in accordance with the communicative norms that match the cooperative ways of his society" and "in order to act upon himself persuasively, he must variously resort to images and ideas that are formative" (39). In other words, I am suggesting that if women are to benefit from a society that assigns them certain roles or attributes, they must, unfortunately, play the part-even if they must conceal, fool, or lie to do it In order to examine the dynamics of women writing themselves in patriarchal Victorian England, and moreover, to perceive how the image of the vacuous “Angel in the House" has been able to sustain itself, I examine a series of works composed by women throughout the era: Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South (1855), George Eliot's Daniel Deronda (1876) Charlotte Bronte’s Villette (1852), and Sarah Grand's The Heavenly Twins (1893). I offer a model by which to dissect the elusive constructions of language-based identities and uncover parallels between the communicative relationships of heroines and other characters in a novel, an author and her audience, and lastly, a woman and her society at large--the woman in each case possessing a voice that may be potentially repudiated, but that may also deceive, manipulate, and control. Ultimately, it is the points of resistance, the mistranslated messages (both within and outside of the texts), the agonizing cries of suffocation-subtle or silent-that necessitate reexamination and feminist critique.


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Thesis Completion





Jones, Anna Maria


Bachelor of Arts (B.A.)


College of Arts and Sciences



Degree Program

English Literature


Arts and Sciences -- Dissertations, Academic; Dissertations, Academic -- Arts and Sciences; Bronte, Charlotte -- 1816-1855 -- Characters -- Women; Eliot, George -- 1819-1880 -- Characters -- Women; Femininity in literature; Gaskell, Elizabeth Cleghorn -- 1810-1865 -- Characters -- Women; Grand, Sarah -- Characters -- Women







Access Status

Open Access

Length of Campus-only Access


Document Type

Honors in the Major Thesis

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