Victim-Blaming and Sexual Transgressions in “The Woman in White”

“Her ‘misfortune’. In what sense was she using the word? … In a sense which might show it to be the too common and too customary motive that has led many a woman to interpose anonymous hindrances on the marriage of the man who has ruined her? …. ‘There is another misfortune,’ I said, ‘to which a woman may be liable, and by which she may suffer life-long sorrow and shame. … The misfortune of believing too innocently in her own virtue, and in the faith and honor of the man she loves'” (Collins 101).

It’s easy to dismiss Victorian attitudes toward female sexuality as prudish and repressive, but this is an oversimplification and a misunderstanding of Victorian sexual mores. In an era when treatment for “hysteria” (a “disease” of the “womb”) involved giving women orgasms, sexuality – even female sexuality – is far more polyvalent and complicated than simply repressed and ignored. In The Woman in White, Anne Catherick’s “misfortune” is not actually sexual, but the way Walter Hartright immediately concludes that it is reveals common Victorian trends of thinking about sex and about women having sex.

The premarital sexual liaison that Hartright attributes to Anne’s misfortune he refers to as “the too common and too customary motive.” Common and customary are close to synonyms, except that “common” carries a connotation of inferiority, poverty, vulgarity, low class status. Although the man in the situation is the one committing the action – “ruining” the woman – the woman’s response is “common,” not merely frequent but vulgar, lower-class. It’s a way of blaming the victim: although the man receives the blame and the agency for the sexual part of the affair, the woman’s response and the consequences are her fault, endowed with negative qualities specifically connected to the woman.

As well, the woman “interposes anonymous hindrances” on her “ruiner’s” marriage. “Interpose” doesn’t carry any distinctly negative connotation but in conjunction with “anonymous” and “hindrance,” the phrase as a whole takes on a sinister quality, suggesting venom or malice on the woman’s part, as she performs deeds meant to prevent the man’s marriage. This marriage would legitimize and validate for good the man’s social and sexual status: as a male with the potential for socially endorsed progeny, his position in society would be confirmed.

However, Walter’s inner monologue doesn’t contain an actual accusation of a woman involved in premarital sex. What he says to Anne, however – the outward expression of his thoughts – does contain an accusation: the woman is “liable” to misfortune because she may “believe too innocently in her own virtue” (101). She believes too innocently, and it’s this, her own surplus of innocence, is what gets her into trouble. The man may have no “faith and honour,” but it’s still the woman’s fault for being “too innocent” and for not having enough virtue.

In this situation the woman is unmistakably the victim. She engages in sex or sexual activities, possibly without consent or understanding; she ends up with “life-long sorrow and shame.” Yet Hartright blames her for her own “misfortune,” and he doesn’t give her any possible agency for engaging in an affair with full consent to and desire for a sexual relationship. Here, as in so many situations, women can’t win: if they don’t understand what’s happening, they “believed too innocently” and had too little virtue. There is not even the possibility of their engaging with their own sexuality in any self-realized way.

One thought on “Victim-Blaming and Sexual Transgressions in “The Woman in White””

  1. I really love (/hate. I mean, come on, Walter) the idea that Anne can be blamed for her own innocence. The point you make that women cannot win no matter what is so representative of that double bind that women so often face. When she “believes too innocently” it can be assumed that she wasn’t protective enough of herself, placing the blame on her. This is also interesting when compared with how desperately Anne tries to convince Walter that she hasn’t done anything wrong by walking by herself late at night. She doesn’t want to seem guilty when she’s asking for help – and by being “guilty” we can assume she means prostituting herself. It seems like guilt and innocence are almost inseparable from sexuality, always having euphemistic connotations under the surface.

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