Compare and contrast the representation of femininity in Pygmalion and Wide Sargasso Sea

This paper will attempt to compare and contrast the representations of femininity in the novel Wide Sargasso Sea (WSS) and the play Pygmalion. It will investigate any ways in which the works reflect or challenge commonly held social representations of femininity, and will compare and contrast each representation of femininity and then investigate any themes. It will also consider the counterpoint of masculine representation, and lastly the limitations of a comparison between two texts of different disciplines.
These two titles were products of very different cultures; Pygmalion was written in 1912 by the thoroughly British Bernard Shaw, a self-proclaimed feminist, while WSS was written in 1966 by Jean Rhys, a Caribbean Creole (like her main characters) who immigrated to England in her teens. These texts were not intended to be textbooks, or represent any views other than the authors, but by comparing these texts we may find how the ideas of femininity have changed in the intervening years.
Shaw’s feminism might be expected to have influenced his portrayal of the female characters in his work, so the reader should be aware of a possible feminist subtext. WSS is set in the Caribbean of the 1830’s, and was written for a primarily English audience. The author might therefore be expected to emphasise or exaggerate certain aspects of the story to increase the dramatic effect of alienation between the reader and the faraway subject and so the depictions may not be entirely accurate.

Both of these works manifest stereotypes of passive women and male figures of authority, as might be expected from works set around the Victorian period. Pygmalion reflects these beliefs to a degree, as Eliza is dominated by the male characters, and especially Professor Higgins, during the three acts of the play. Her own father reflects Victorian values in that he feels able to sell her to Higgins, without her knowledge or consent. However, the play challenges these beliefs by having Eliza leave and stand up to Higgins during the last two acts.
The play was also rather daring for the day in casting a common flower girl as the heroine, and refusing the play a conventional romantic ending in which the heroine marries the hero. Class and gender are inseparable, as evidenced by Higgins’ continued reference to the ‘gutter’ Eliza came from. There is also the suggestion that the only thing separating the flower girl from the duchess is their educations. WSS mostly reflects Victorian female stereotypes, as the women are treated by the men as extensions of their property; Annette has to beg her husband for money, and Antoinette is forced to sign all her possessions over when she marries.
The few single women are portrayed as being ‘outsiders’ in various ways; Christophine is from a different island, and feared because she practices obeah; while Amelie, contemptuous of the white people she serves, is an outsider in their company. There are many different representations of femininity in these works, and I feel the best way the explore femininity in these works will be to analyse the female characters relationships, and will analyse first the ways the femininity of the main characters is represented in each.
In Pygmalion, Eliza’s femininity is highlighted firstly by her work; she is referred to in the play at first as simply ‘The Flower Girl’, and is shown to use her gender to exploit the presumed chivalrous nature of the men; she deceitfully tells Pickering she’s ‘short for my lodgings’, despite having previously said she could change half a crown. There are also repeated worries that Eliza is or could become a prostitute; Eliza herself recognises this, by her statements that she is ‘a good girl’.
After all, at the start of her training Eliza’s aim is to work in a flower shop, yet there is no obvious position ready for her, and when her training is complete she feels unable go back to selling flowers on street corners. Antoinette, the main female character in Wide Sargasso Sea, is represented as being somewhat submissive throughout the novel. The first part is told from her point of view, and is characterised by very little reference to her thoughts and feelings; she mostly seems to ‘go with the flow’.
For example, when the Coulibri estate is set on fire she barely reacts except to do as she’s told, and lets her family deal with it. After this, Antoinette is bullied and teased; she does not retaliate, but instead runs away as soon as she can. Antoinette’s vulnerability is the mirror image of the tough, practical Tia and sensible Christophine, which is an example of how femininity is depicted differently between the women of different races.
The white figures in the Caribbean are generally depicted as being somewhat out of place and cast off, while the black characters are part of a larger and more naturally-developed community – Antoinette is unable to make any real friends, as the white community has not been able to integrate with the black; whereas the local black settlement is almost able to turn the burning of the Coulibri estate into a village outing. This reflects a theme of ‘belonging’, either to a home or in society, and also a loss of that place.
For example, Annette is driven (or appears to be) insane after the loss of her family home. The first reference to Antoinette acting insane comes when she loses the sense of belonging to her estate; after her husband sleeps with the servant Amelie, he perceives her as having a ‘crazy laugh’. This sense of loss is analogous to Eliza’s loss of identity and social class, as by the end of her training she has effectively lost her previous identity. Eliza’s turning point in the story, where she starts to stand up to Higgins, comes just completing her training and winning Higgins’ bet.
This is the point where she would be starting her new life, and so it makes sense for her to break off from Higgins. Next I will study the various familial relationships between the female characters. I will begin by analysing the representation of motherhood, a strongly represented relationship in both works. The two main characters in each book each come from essentially single-parent families. In WSS, Antoinette is depicted as being rather attention-starved by her mother Annette, which might explain her hunger for affection with her husband later.
This seems similar to her husbands’ relationship with her father, whom he feels has disinherited him; but he reacts by masking his emotions, and seems to feel a loving relationship is unnatural. Antoinette does not display any real affection of her own towards her family, and never mentions playing with either her mother or her brother. Higgins seems to have had a similar relationship with his mother in Pygmalion, to whom he displays an almost infantile attachment. Eliza’s father seems to have dominated her at home, given his references to beating her;
A recurring theme in both works is the female characters’ dependence on men, and the expectation that the men will provide for them. Eliza is dependent on Professor Higgins for her transformation, and on Colonel Pickering for the money to open her flower shop later on. The women in Wide Sargasso Sea are mostly represented as being somewhat helpless, and there are many examples of the female characters being ‘saved’ by men or needing a male presence in their lives: for example, the family is only rescued from poverty when Annette marries Richard Mason, and later on, Antoinette is saved from bullies by her cousin Sandi.
So in Pygmalion, the female characters are mostly independent from men, while the opposite is true in WSS. However, So Pygmalion’s plot has a more obvious feminist subtext than WSS, which is indicative of the different representations of femininity in the cultures that made these texts. However, the way Higgins treats Eliza is anything but feministic; and Shaw seems to be biased in favour of his male characters; all the best lines seem reserved for Higgins. It could also be argued that the uncaring and abusive nature of the men in WSS demonstrate why Rhys felt it was important to protect the rights of women.
However, there are inherent limitations to an interdisciplinary approach such as this. A play is designed to be viewed in a very different way to a novel, and while WSS presents a concrete and defined world, Pygmalion as a play is open to interpretation. There are many different ways of performing the text that could destroy the delicate feminist subtext; for example, at the end of the film My Fair Lady, based on Pygmalion, Eliza quietly returns to Higgins, who asks her to fetch his slippers – the opposite of Shaw’s intentions.

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