Gazing at Female Power

Venus, the goddess of love, is featured in several of Michael Field’s poems including “Venus and Mars” where she is depicted alongside the God of War and some satyrs.  The poem brings up questions of female power and specifically challenges the mission of objectivity stated in the preface of “Sight and Song.”  Michael Field begins the poem by describing Venus “in her sovereign place” seated in nature watching Mars who is naked and unconscious (8).  The choice to classify Venus as a sovereign in nature shows how Michael Field is claiming that female power is a natural thing.  In the painting, Venus is fully clothed and awake while Mars is unconscious due to Venus’s beauty and sexuality.  By stating that Venus is in her sovereign place and so is Mars, then in a way Michael Field is claiming that Venus has power and control over Mars in both a sexual way and a natural way.

Later in the poem, Michael Field goes on to emphasize female power by describing Venus as “lone and sadder than the dawn, too wise to weep” (75-76). Venus has seen the work that her kiss has done to Mars and feels upset that she is now bound to sexually please him. However, in spite of her sadness, Michael Field describes Venus as too intelligent of a woman to weep.  This moment challenges the stereotype of women being too emotional or more prone to crying more than men.  By describing Venus, a beacon of femininity and female sexuality, as a strong person who will not allow herself to weep in spite of her true feelings, Michael Field is making a claim about women being more than just the stereotypes that the late 19thcentury British society has given them. Furthermore, the very end of the poem states that Venus is “a cold enchantress doomed to please her victims one by one” (83-84).  Venus’s victims, as portrayed by Mars, are all men and by marking her as a magical enchantress, Michael Field is claiming that she has a duty to please men, but at the same time holds a certain amount of power over them.

The preface of “Sight and Song” states that Michael Field has the intention of providing an objective understanding of the paintings and claims that the gazer can read the poems, which are said to not contain any personal messages or poetic opinions, in order to better understand the painting.  Reading more about Michael Field’s life in biographical literature such as Marion Thain and Ana Parejo Vadillo’s “Michael Field, The Poet” allows one to see that the claim of eliminating subjectivity within Sight and Song is a complete lie.  Michael Field was actually the pseudonym for two women, Katharine Bradley and Edith Cooper. The women chose to publish under the name Michael Field because they knew that they would not be taken seriously if the public knew they were women writers.  This fact speaks to the presence of female power in many of the poems but particularly in “Venus and Mars.”  Two women made a choice to use a male name in order to conform to societal norms but chose to still publish their work even though they were women and were not supposed to stray from the domestic sphere.  Michael Field’s choices are a form of female resistance against societal norms of the fin de siècle, just like Venus’s decision to not cry and her classification as an enchantress over men she is doomed to please is a form of female resistance.  Michael Field argues in the preface that they are not trying to impose any of their personal opinions or messages within their poems about art, but in fact are doing the opposite of that and using the poems as a mechanism for social resistance. The gazer of “Venus and Mars” is not simply reading the poem or looking at the painting without any subjective thoughts, they are actually reading Michael Field’s attempt to encourage female power and agency in the face of social barriers.

Indulgence in Beauty

The Picture of Dorian Graydepicts both the raging aestheticism and decadence that permeated the late 19thcentury.  The story centers on a painting of Dorian Gray, a young man whose beauty captures everyone’s attention.  Basil Hallward, the painter of Dorian Gray, states, “he is all my art to me now…there is nothing that Art cannot express, and I know that the work I have done, since I met Dorian Gray, is good work, is the best work of my life” (16).  At this point in the story, Basil describes meeting Dorian Gray and being so fascinated and enamored with his presence that he feels he must paint him in order to capture all of his beauty.  Basil describing Dorian as “all my art” signifies an obsession that again revolves around Dorian’s beauty and physical appearance. Later, when Basil states that “there is nothing that Art cannot express,” he is making the claim that Art, which is what his life revolves around, is capable of capturing and expressing all things, even the indescribable beauty of Dorian Gray.  Basil feels that it is his duty to paint Dorian for the sake of Art.

The idea of “art for art’s sake” that is on full display in The Picture of Dorian Gray also appears in Carolyn Burdett’s article “Aestheticism and Decadence.” On aestheticism, Burdett writes, “Art had nothing to do with morality.  Instead, art was primarily about the elevation of taste and the pure pursuit of beauty” (Burdett 2014).  Using this text and specific quote as a lens for The Picture of Dorian Gray,it becomes clear that Basil is an aesthete who is primarily concerned with grasping the beauties of life and reproducing it into art.  Basil is not concerned with the fact that he has developed an obsession with Dorian and acts possessive over him when Harry wants to get to know Dorian as well.  He was willing to destroy his masterpiece when Harry and Dorian began to argue over who got to keep the painting and asked, “what is it but canvas and colour?” (35).  Basil does not fall into the category of decadence like Harry because he is primarily interested in Dorian’s beauty not the painting itself.  He is solely concerned with creating a beautiful portrait of a beautiful person because that is his duty as an artist.

Lionel Johnson’s poem “The Decadent’s Lyric” can also be used as a lens for understanding The Picture of Dorian Gray.  Johnson begins the poem by talking about the “very joy of shame” or the excitement gained in doing something wrong.  In the novel, there is a moment when Dorian is pouring tea for Basil and Harry and is being objectified by the two men.  Wilde writes, “Dorian Gray went over and poured out the tea.  The two men sauntered languidly to the table and examined what was under the covers” (36).  Johnson’s poem speaks to the aspect of selfishness in decadence, such as investing in expensive material items merely for their beauty as Harry does. While it is understood that it is often wrong to be selfish, decadence argues that selfishness is justified because one is appreciating beauty and art.  Selfishness is enjoyable even though it is understood as shameful.  In this scene, Basil and Harry are objectifying Dorian, who can be viewed as a beautiful item, as he pours the tea. While they understand that it is wrong to do so because Dorian is a much younger man and their actions could be viewed as homoerotic, the men stare at Dorian anyway because he is so beautiful. This moment is yet another example of how both decadence and aestheticism are at work in the novel.

Bloodthirsty Resistance

While there are many passages in Dracula that are filled with sexual undertones, the section where Mina describes the Count forcing her to drink his blood is one that comes across as very explicitly sexual.  Mina states, “When the blood began to spurt out, he took my hands in one of his, holding them tight, and with the other seized my neck and pressed my mouth to the wound, so that I must either suffocate or swallow some of the-Oh my God” (307).  Blood has many different meanings within the novel, yet in this scene the most obvious interpretation of it seems to be semen.  This scene reads as very sexually violent and nonconsensual especially with the use of words such as, “seized,” “pressed,” and “suffocate.”  Dracula is forcing Mina to become a vampire but making her drink his own blood, in a way he is converting, or corrupting her.  Throughout the novel, both Mina and Lucy are described as pure, innocent, and wholesome beings.  In this particular moment, Dracula can be seen as someone disrupting Mina’s purity and innocence especially when Mina herself cannot even bear to tell the men that she was forced to swallow some of Dracula’s blood.  By doing this, Dracula has permanently violated and altered Mina and she can no longer be perceived as virtuous, innocent, or entirely human.

Carol Senf’s article “Dracula: The Unseen Face in the Mirror” focuses on how the main English characters and Dracula are similar rather than different.  She brings up the point that the novel never includes a chapter told from Dracula’s perspective and she questions the belief that Dracula is the only villain in the story. Senf particularly analyzes Dracula’s role as a sexual threat and what his thirst for blood can be interpreted as. In the scene above, it appears that Dracula is a violent individual who wants to corrupt the pure, innocent human body with blood, which in this instance seems to represent either semen or some kind of poison.  Senf writes, “his thirst for blood and the manner in which he satisfies this thirst can be interpreted as sexual desire which fails to observe any of society’s attempts to control it” (428).  The scene above does express Dracula’s sexual desire because he wants Mina to drink his blood that is coming out of the wound in his chest, which he opened himself. Dracula himself does not want to drink his own blood, but instead wants to convert Mina to a vampire so that she too will share this sexual desire and thirst for blood, which is such a stark deviation from her purity.  Dracula uses his thirst for blood as an act of defiance and particularly in the scene with Mina, uses her as a mechanism for blatantly destroying the societal norms that Mina so clearly embodies.  Senf’s challenge that Dracula may not be the only villain in the novel is also on display here because he himself is not drinking human blood, Mina is.  If Dracula uses his sexual desire to combat a society that condemns his sexuality, then maybe he is not the true villain and those who support such a society are.

The New Degenerate Woman in Dracula

Sally Ledger and Roger Luckhurst’s introduction “Reading the ‘Fin de Siècle’” offers an overview of many moving parts of the late 19thcentury.  Throughout the introduction, the authors describe how the time period embodied an “ambivalence of modernity,” where technological and social advances were accompanied by moments of decline and disaster.  Ledger and Luckhurst specifically discuss the evolution of the New Woman, as well as ideas of degenerates, and how sexually active women function in both of those.  In Dracula, Lucy Westenra is an example in which ideas about female sexuality and female independence have moments of coinciding and conflicting with each other during the late 19thcentury. Analyzing Lucy through Ledger and Luckhurst’s introduction to the fin de siècle and specifically through their descriptions of the New Woman and degenerates, allows one to see the comparisons and conflicts within the changes of the advancing new century or what Ledger and Luckhurst call the ambivalence of modernity.

In Dracula,Lucy Westenra is introduced through Mina Harker’s letters and journal entries. While Lucy later goes on to respond to the letters, keep a journal herself, and appear in other characters’ narratives, she appears first and foremost in the intimate written exchanges between her and Mina, her best friend of many years.  That being said, Lucy and Mina’s letters are very detailed and honest because of their close friendship.  Through her exchanges with Mina, it becomes clear that Lucy embodies the double coded idea of the New Woman as described by Ledger and Luckhurst. She encompasses “an image of sexual freedom and assertions of female independence,” but also “dangers of sexual degeneracy” (Ledger and Luckhurst 17).  In one pivotal letter to Mina, Lucy describes how she was proposed to by three different men in a single day.  After describing how she had to reject two of the men, Lucy writes to Mina, “Why can’t they let a girl marry three men, or as many as want her, and save all this trouble?” (Stoker 67).  Lucy exercises the female independence and sexual freedom of the New Woman when she declines two of her suitors, as well as when she proposes this radical idea of marrying more than one man, more specifically as many men that desire her. Yet at the same time, she embodies the role of “the degenerate” as described by Ledger and Luckhurst, or the person who is moving “backwards” in the face of so much technological and social advancement.  One of the roles that Ledger and Luckhurst list when describing the idea of “the degenerate” in their introduction is the sexually active woman.  A woman being sexually active is indicative of a lack of control or giving into instinctual almost animalistic tendencies.  While it can be assumed that Lucy is not sexually active because she has not married yet, her statement about wanting to marry more than one man classifies her as both a sexually free and independent New Woman, but also a degenerate who should be condemned for halting the advancement of society and giving in to instinctual urges.  Lucy’s double classification emphasizes what Ledger and Luckhurst call the ambivalence of modernity, or the contradictions that exist within the push for expansion.

Merely a few lines prior to her claim for wanting multiple husbands, Lucy contradicted the idea of the New Woman by emphasizing the stereotype of female weakness and traditional gender roles of women.  She wrote to Mina, “I suppose that we women are such cowards that we think a man will save us from fears, and we marry him” (Stoker 66).  Lucy is lumping herself, Mina, and all women into a stereotype of weakness as a result of their sex.  She builds on the stereotype of female weakness and inferiority by arguing that she, and all women, marry men because they are too afraid to deal with life and their fears on their own.  Lucy paints herself as vulnerable and in need of male protection.  Lucy’s claim not only contradicts her later statement about wanting to marry multiple men, but also contradicts the sentence that directly follows, “I know now what I would do if I were a man and wanted to make a girl love me” (Stoker 66).  Stoker has written two consecutive sentences that both confirm and challenge traditional gender roles in the late 19thcentury.  In one sentence, Lucy lumps herself into a stereotype of female inferiority, and in the following sentence, she challenges traditional gender roles by imagining her behavior if she was a man.  Analyzing these two statements through Ledger and Luckhurst’s introduction to the fin de siècle allows one to see the ambivalence of modernity functioning in a novel written during the time period.

Orientalism and Othering in The Island of Dr. Moreau

“They wore turbans, too, and thereunder peered out their elfin faces at me, faces with protruding lower jaws and bright eyes” (17).

When he firsts arrives on the island, Prendick immediately notices the differences between himself and the residents of the island of Dr. Moreau.  Specifically, he focuses on the features of the islanders’ faces, describing their heads, jaws, and eyes.  The first thing that Prendick notices about the islanders is that they are wearing turbans. Prendick combines the observation of the islanders’ turbans with the pronoun “they” and by doing so immediately “others” the islanders as different from himself.  The use of the pronouns “they” and “their” separates the islanders from Prendick in a racial sense.  Prendick views the islanders as others because they are wearing turbans and he is not. A well-known form of “othering” is Orientalism, which is the belief that the East, including Middle Eastern countries, is fundamentally different and therefore inferior from the West.  When talking about Orientalism and describing the East, westerners will often times use the word “backwards” to describe Middle Eastern and Asian countries.  Describing a country and its people as “backwards” signals that that country is unnatural or not normal because it has cultural practices, religions, and in this case people with physical appearances that are not identical to those in the West.  Prendick notices that the islanders are wearing turbans and have different shaped faces than himself, Montgomery, and Dr. Moreau and therefore separates himself because they differ from the white westerners that he perceives as normal and natural.  By implying that something is unnatural signals at its inferiority, which is a key part of Orientalism.  Prendick views himself as superior and the islanders as inferior simply because they look different from him as well as Montgomery and Dr. Moreau, who all hail from Western Europe.

Another way in which Prendick classifies the islanders as others in the context of Orientalism is by describing their faces as deformed and “elfin.”  “Elfin” can be interpreted as appearing similar to an elf, which is universally known as a mythical and magical creature.  In myths and fairytales, elves are often portrayed as cheerful woodland or water creatures who act as sidekicks or comedic relief.  Elves are not the protagonists in stories, and often assist the hero or heroine in achieving their goals.  They are never the characters in stories who save the day, or battle a monster, or even find true love.  Elves are frequently viewed as incapable of anything heroic and are thus perceived as delicate and submissive creatures who are not on the same level as human beings. Prendick’s description of the islanders as “elfin” suggests that he does not view them as human beings like himself, Montgomery, and Dr. Moreau.  Furthermore, Prendick describes the islanders’ “faces with protruding lower jaws and bright eyes.”  Merely mentioning these differences in the islanders’ facial structure and likening the islanders to mythical, non-human creatures affirms that Prendick is practicing aspects of Orientalism and othering the islanders as inferior, less than human creatures.