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To build upon Myra Jehlen’s theory that ‘femininity’
is not a natural state of existence, and is merely an act portrayed by female
characters in literature to suit the patriarchy, this essay will split
femininity into two sections by which to explore: sexual femininity and
cultural (imposed) femininity.  The
conventional and prevailing portrayal of the ‘feminine’ characteristics can be
seen throughout literature, yet this essay will investigate examples of ‘displayed’
femininity where the result of the ‘performance’ is negative or brings about
trouble, hence confirming the unnatural nature of ‘enforced’ femininity.

In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, women are characterised as weak, submissive and acquiescent.
It is true that there are only two female characters in this play – Gertrude;
the Queen, and Ophelia; Hamlet’s love interest. Both ladies play a passive role
in the play’s action, but they are extremely important in exposing the play’s
themes – in particular Hamlet’s misogyny. Gertrude is introduced as the
archetype of the feminine queen, strong and with a stiff upper lip in turbulent
times. She is, however, wholly dependent on men, or so it would seem, a trait
that Jehlen would associate with the performance. She lives in the shadow of
two kings. Her first husband – Old Hamlet was murdered and yet “within a
month”, she married her brother-in-law, Claudius. Claudius and Gertrude make an
unlikely couple to an audience aware of the former’s deceit. It would appear
that their marriage is arranged for convenience rather than love, confirming
this idea of ‘performance’ for two reasons. Firstly, the appearance of strength
and unity is most important in the up keep of a respectable ‘feminine’
performance, but moreover the Queen can not be left to fend for herself given
the portrayal of women in Shakespeare as below or as possessions of the male,
hence the new marriage is rushed through in order to preserve the dignity of
the ‘performance’. Such a performance convinces an audience that she is an apt
queen – even Claudius notes that she is “the imperial jointress to this war
like state”. However, Gertrude does little to prove this statement. She is too
weak to challenge Claudius and is most certainly not his equal. Gertrude’s role
as the Queen of Denmark is overshadowed and undermines by Claudius’ deceit and
treachery. Shakespeare uses Gertrude to show the fickleness
of women and it is in this way that one can see the dichotomous nature of the
Jacobean version of feminine performance. The way Shakespeare creates Gertrude’s
character is wholly unnatural, or at least conflicted. She attempts to ‘keep
face’ and protect the state as a strong leader yet is continuously undermined
and punished as a result.  Women are
characterised in a one dimensional manner – they cannot live without a man and
constantly need one in their lives. Gertrude’s “o’er hasty marriage” to Claudius
exemplifies this. Gertrude’s passivity in action is what allows her to be
dominated and controlled by the men in her life, but she is also somewhat
ignorant and oblivious to her surroundings. According to Hamlet, she played the
part of the grieving widow well – “she followed my poor father’s body, like
Niobe, all tears”. However, because she got over her husband’s death so soon,
she also expects Hamlet to do the same. As a queen, Gertrude is ineffectual and
as a mother, she is insensitive and blind to her son’s distress. She asks
Hamlet; “why seems it so particular with thee?” to which he replies “seems
madam, nay it is, I know not seems”. Gertrude cannot understand why Hamlet
persists with his melancholic demeanour, given she herself has buried such
emotions by turning to ‘performance’.

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Ophelia, like Gertrude is a woman who is led and
controlled by the men in her life. She is described by her brother Laertes as
“a sweet sister and a kind maid”, words which hammer home the most conventional
of feminine conditions. Ophelia’s primary role is to showcase Hamlet’s internal
conflict. She is the embodiment of his desire to be a progressive and forward
thinking Prince, yet also a traditional upholder of the patriarchy, one which
would subject Ophelia to control and ‘performance’ However, to an audience,
Ophelia is a completely innocent and obedient young woman, such is effectiveness
and nature of her ‘feminine’ act in the early stages of the play. Out of all the
characters, she is the one who cast in the most one dimensional manner. Ophelia
has the potential to be a tragic heroine, to overcome her father’s control and
gain Hamlet’s love, but due to her submission and conformity, she is merely a tragic representation of the downfall’s of
performed femininity, ironically as a result of her intended performance.
It is notable that Gertrude – a woman- announces Ophelia’s death, elucidating
women’s ability to empathise with each other over the struggles of ‘keeping up
appearances’, especially in theatre where the physical action of the
performance is two-fold in nature. Ophelia kills herself because of the men in
her life – her father is dead and her love for Hamlet is unrequited. She can not
function without a man and therefore acts as the negative example and
justification for Gertrude’s remarriage. Something undertaken merely to prevent
insanity and the inability to ‘perform’ any longer.

Jacobean theatre to Victorian American literature, the obvious parallels and
theme of ‘femininity’ as an unnatural act are evident. In The Awakening by Kate Chopin one can investigate the character of Edna
in order to piece together Chopin’s views of the society around her.  Jane Le Marquand, in writing upon the
influence of Chopin’s short story writing on her final novel, places her
writings as a new feminist voice, on which comes as a response to European
work. Notably, Kate Chopin grew up in a progressive household and was less
familiar with the typical marital ‘performance’ that European Victorian
literary trends tended to embody. She found a slightly different sense of
femininity in New Orleans and used this to construct The Awakening as very gender-aware, conscious of the pitfalls of
feminine performance. This set her apart as a unique and potent writer in a
literary period that, more often than not, stuck to patriarchal norms and the
conventional performances of ‘femininity’. To make it clear that The Awakening is novel that is aware of
these stereotypes, Chopin often presents this archetype of the Victorian woman and
then offers the antithesis. The “model” can be seen as Madame Ratignolle
or perhaps another “domestic goddess” and the antithesis of her is most commonly

like a poignant reminder of the willingness of Victorian European literature to
conform to the stereotypical portrayal of femininity and to contrast Edna’s
rebelliousness in societal affairs, Chopin uses a number of brief scenes, that
are direct reminders of how far the protagonist, Edna, has strayed from her
assigned duties as wife and mother as well as, on a much grander scale, the
conventions of Victorian society. More often than not these reminders are
expressed through portholes into the world of Madame Ratignolle who is, quite
obviously, the perfect symbol of Victorian femininity in Chopin’s story.
Through these contrasts in domestic duty and the extent to which the two
contrasting women realise their supposed domestic “duty” the finer points of
Victorian femininity, social obligation and structure, and relationships with and
towards men are more fully developed. Yet, The Awakening concentrates, as per
the title, on Edna’s awakening or rebirth into her “true” self, an
intention to halt her ‘performance’ o femininity and live organically,
confirming the title statement of this essay whereby performed and perceived
femininity is unnatural. Marquand continues, “Chopin undermines patriarchy
by endowing the Other, the woman, with an individual identity and a sense of
self, a sense of self to which the letters she leaves behind give voice. The
‘official’ version of her life, that constructed by the men around her, is
challenged and overthrown by the woman of the story.” It is the use of the word
“official” that is most fitting for this essay. Marquand identifies within
Chopin’s writings the idea that a woman leads two lives, that in her private
space, be that hellish or heavenly, and that existence which is “official”
because it is the traditional feminine performance the patriarchy agrees with.

To continue with this, but in a contrasting example,  Eve is separated from God, her dependent and
male influence alongside Adam and consequently enters a state of internal
‘hell’ as she loses touch with her feminine performance, when committing the
original sin in Book IX of Milton’s Paradise Lost. Yet before this, Milton’s
Pre-Lapsarian Eve is not the demonic character that seeks liberty, nor is she a
servile girl to the patriarchal Adam. On the contrary, she, as the God’s
creature, is intelligent, elegant, beautiful, and yet innocent. Even Satan, who
is trying to tempt Eve, is overwhelmed by her divine beauty, Eve’s virtue is
not only free from hellish rebelliousness, but she also has, unconsciously, the
power to dispel evil, making him “stupidly good” for a period. This
pre-lapsarian representation does not display Milton’s ideological affiliations
with the Marriage body or his misogynistic tendency. Through a decision with
devastating effects, Eve’s choice to eat the apple is strictly her own, an
independent decision not influenced by Adam. 
Confirming her reasoning and rationale, Eve tells Satan: ‘The rest we
live / Law to ourselves: our reason is our law’. Eve’s firm belief that ‘our
reason is our law’ justifies her actions as uniquely hers, not deemed correct
by Adam, God, or even Satan. In the Bible, Genesis describes the seduction of
Eve as, ‘And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it
was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took
of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and
he did eat’ (Gen 3.6). Milton, however, shows Eve’s seduction as a fight
between two intelligent minds. Therefore, Eve is much more than a foolish, vane
woman who reacted quickly to temptation. Eve actively enters herself into a state
of separation and God, by choosing knowledge not enlightenment; Eve accepts
“internal hell” as her new state. This is confirmed by the aforementioned
definition of this private state, where God is not present and the sin is
irreversible. In relation to our notion of femininity as a ‘performance’, Eve
is perhaps the earliest example in literature. She fundamentally wants to keep
up good, womanly appearances for her husband, but also battles this internal desire
to be free, hence alluding to Jehlen’s statement that conforming to performed
femininity is not a natural state of being. To continue, A feminist reading would denote Eve, feeling
the lack of gender equality, asserts her individuality by separating from Adam
and eating the apple for her own benefit. Though she is ‘wisest, virtuousest,
discreetest, best’ according to Adam, Adam later tells her that she is unable
or unsafe without his protection and Eve, rebellious in a nature similar to
Edna of The Awakening, is not deterred by Adam’s revelations, yet in fact
further pushed to exert her independence anyway that she can, even if it is
misguided or rash. When Eve suggests that she and Adam work separately, Adam
immediately rejects the idea by saying: ‘The wife where danger or dishonor
lurks / Safest and seemliest be her husband stays / Who guards her or with her
the worst endures’. Adam, enacting his position as a protector, tells her that
she would be safest nearest him. This not only denies Eve her independence, but
also tells Eve that she is in need of protecting, degrading and restricting her.
Jeanie Grant Liebert says, “She was not privileged with an opportunity for
self-exploration or prompted to identify and express the ‘spirit within’
her’.  Moreover, triggered by the dichotomy of ruler and ruled, Eve
displays her agency by rebelling against her ruler: Adam.” It is in this way
one can view Eve as a rebel against the patriarchy, perhaps confirmed by Adam’s
belief that ‘nothing lovelier can be found / in woman than to study household
good / And good works in her husband to promote’.

            In sum, via the women of Hamlet,
Edna and Madame Ratignolle in The Awakening


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