Date of Award

10-22-2012

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Department

English

First Advisor

Christopher Orchard, Ph.D.

Second Advisor

Lingyan Yang, Ph.D.

Third Advisor

Kenneth Sherwood, Ph.D.

Abstract

Focusing on female characters in Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights and Anne Bronte's Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, this dissertation runs counter to orthodox criticism of Victorian literature that highlights a pattern of male dominance and female oppression, reflecting the widespread belief that women are victims of male hegemony and possess very little power in both their relationships and in their place in society. On the contrary, through their strong wills, purposes, and desires, female characters in these novels have considerable power in their own lives as well as in the lives of others. This power is both constructive, enabling self actualization and independence, and destructive in terms of negatively affecting relationships with male characters. Constructive power is demonstrated in both Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. In the former, the protagonist, Agnes, and the other female characters prove their economic independence and ability to make decisions independently of men. In The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Helen exemplifies women who are empowered to defy socially established laws and norms by leaving her husband, taking her child, posing as a widow and embarking on an artistic profession. The antithesis of this power is demonstrated in Wuthering Heights, where women such as Catherine and others manipulate men by exploiting their emotional needs, which ultimately leads to tragic ramifications. The dissertation draws on psychoanalytic feminist theory, exemplified through the work of Shoshana Felman, Jonathan Culler and Helen Cixous. Felman's argument that male supremacy is just "a sexual as well as a political fantasy," Culler's strong contention of the centrality of a woman's role in society and Cixous' belief in the existence of an inherent female bisexuality will be used to describe the female characters in these novels and their relations with men. Ultimately, the dissertation does not aim to debunk the idea of Victorian patriarchy and female oppression, but it does seek to provide a balanced view of the power relations governing the interpersonal relationships of men and women in the Bronte sisters' novels.

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