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Woman and desire

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I've been reading War and Peace with some help of shmoop.com


Here's a part of their character analysis regarding Natasha. "You know what else is pretty darned progressive about this character? Natasha is a woman who's actually shown to have a normally functioning sex drive. Maybe we've been reading too much Dickens around here, but boy, is it refreshing to see a young woman in fiction shown to like boys – and later, men – and not have that be some kind of horrible demonic thing that condemns her to a life of misery and prostitution. You think we're exaggerating? Have you read any Trollope recently?"


Once I read that I started wonder when women's stoic virtue started. In Iliad, Helen was an adulterer but all forgiven by her husband after costing sack of Troy while men had to fight heroically for their immortal fame.


Do you think most fallen women in 19c novels who had quite miserable endings came from the religious values in middle ages?


It seems women in Tolstoy novels are more livelier than somewhat restrained women in British novels.


I wonder how heroins' virtues have changed over time and what traits were praised by writers in each period and/or country.


I know some people in this forum have good knowledge in literature. It would be greatly appreciated if anyone enlightens my ignorance. Thank you!

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Can you narrow down your question a bit? I am confused as to what exactly you are asking, it seems too broad to even begin to consider it, LOL. :001_smile:


Are you interested exclusively in the 19th century novels, or in literature more generally? In representation of women as such, or specifically of their sexuality? And where do Medieval religious values enter the picture? And why Medieval?

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I also tend to think we miss when we categorize this as Puritan. Everything I've ever read about this particular bent in English literature says this is a Victorian artifact. (I have read that we refer to chicken parts as light and dark because the Victorians couldn't bring themselves to use breast and leg. I've also read they put skirts on curvy table legs for modesty.) As to whether it is religious in nature, you must ask were the previous time periods less or more religious than the Victorian age?


Also, I don't think the heroine in Anna Karenina quite follows the pattern that you are saying Tolstoy heroines follow.


Similarly I think the role of Helen in the Iliad is very small and in the Iliad itself we don't see her husband take her back with open arms as Troy does not fall until the Odyssey ends. If you wish to assess Greek culture and women and men, I'd suggest you need to get a bigger picture than the Iliad. You could certainly start with the companion Odyssey.


C.S. Lewis says in The Allegory of Love that romantic love in ancient literature "seldom rises above the levels of merry s*nsuality or domestic comfort, except to be treated as tragic madness." As I run the list of ancient literature in my head, I find this pretty accurate. In the Odyssey we have domestic comfort and Penelope contrasted to Calysto and Circe's merry s*nsuality. In later pieces I come to Medea who certainly runs to tragic madness as does Carthage's queen (who's name, I'm afraid, escapes my memory).

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From what I have read (probably in What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew: From Fox Hunting to Whist-the Facts of Daily Life in Nineteenth-Century England by Daniel Pool), there was a religious revival of sorts in England in the nineteenth century. People felt that the Anglican Church had become too liberal. In a book by J.M. Barrie (the author of Peter Pan) called The Little Minister, he refers to the lack of piety of the Anglican priest in his hometown. Most of the sexual morality codes (particularly for woman) became stricter in the nineteenth century. If you look at pictures of the dresses of women from the late eighteenth century (ie. the period that Jane Austen was writting about), you'll see that they were quite revealing of the female body. Later that would have been taboo.


Even here in the United States, a significient number of women were pregnant when they married at the time of the American Revolution (including Benjamin Franklin's sister; indeed, Benjamin Franklin himself fathered several children out of wedlock).

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