The Obsessive Importance of Beauty

While reading Altick’s “The Nature of Art and its Place in Society”, I found Ruskin’s idea of beauty so directly affecting a man’s quality of life one of importance to The Woman in White. Altick notes that “Ruskin maintained that culture (as he conceived it) was a function, in the first instance, of the eyes” (Altick). One theme we’ve continually hit on while reading The Woman in White is the incredible attention given to women’s appearances and the value of their aesthetics. I would say that similar to how Ruskin believed a man’s happiness and spiritual devotion could be determined by the amount of beauty around him, the men in the Victorian era (or so it seems after reading this novel) based much of their lives around women’s appearances. Whether this means being attracted to a woman based on her appearance or acknowledging that her appearance can hint to social status, it’s clear that there is an obsession with physical descriptions and what they reveal about a woman and thus impact a man’s opinion of her.

Upon Waltar meeting Marian and Laura, he devotes entire pages to describing their outward appearances and his reaction to them. In the case of Marian, Waltar is immediately taken aback by her dark, man-like, and “ugly” features, which stand in such opposition to her “rare beauty of form” he had been appreciating a moment before (Collins 34). Marian even defines herself as “dark and ugly” while mentioning in the same line that her father was poor and she has nothing (Collins 34). Poverty and ugliness seem to be connected here, as wealth and beauty are connected in the case of Laura. Waltar describes Laura as a “fair, delicate girl”, and her light skin and feeble mannerisms were quite desirable. Ruskin’s idea of beauty fulfilling men (though he means art as beauty in his case) seems to reflect the intense detail given to appearance in the Victorian novel and how men, or certainly Waltar, are influenced greatly by outward beauty.

Ruskin also believes that public beauty, whether it be in the form of landscaping or architecture, is a reflection of the social health (Altick). He notes that the societal illness of the Victorian period can be seen through “the incongruously styled and hideously overornamented public and commercial buildings” (Altick). I wonder if the beauty of buildings and landscapes meant to inspire men and reflect a healthy society has been transferred to the beauty of women in the Victorian novel. After all, the beautiful Laura attains the affection of Waltar and represents money and social status, whereas the sickly Anne and “ugly” Marian have no marriage potential and no economic standing.



3 thoughts on “The Obsessive Importance of Beauty”

  1. I liked reading this as I also wrote my post about Ruskin’s ideas. Your comments on economic status were fascinating. That was not something I had connected to Ruskin’s points but I see how it relates to it. Your points about the architecture being shown through the women’s character’s in this story were also really clever. Homes can potentially show one’s economic status and through the beauty of the women in this story it is shown too. This is something I had not noticed and I like the idea! I wrote more about man’s reaction to having ‘ugliness’ around him and it seems like you wrote more about the cause. It was nice to see a different view of Ruskin’s opinions.

  2. This post reminded me of some of the thoughts I relayed in my post analyzing the two pages of description of Marian and Laura. I thought your comment on poverty being associated with ugliness and wealth being associated with beauty to be something very interesting. I recently read something in my Feminist Perspectives and Theories class titled “Stupidity Deconstructed” by Joanna Kadi. In this article, Kadi analyzes how society ties class/status with levels of intelligence, thus viewing the working class as inherently stupid and the upper-class as inherently smart. This connection between beauty and class, however, is something that I haven’t fully thought through yet. Once reading your point, however, I began to think about this being the case in a lot of different outlets. For example, one of my favorite movies as a kid was Pirates of the Caribbean. In the movie, when Jack travels to the town where many of the poor villagers live, the women are all dirty with messed up hair and a disheveled look about them. Elizabeth Swan, however, is considered the epitome of beauty and of course, is very rich. I am so intrigued by this and plan to study it further and look for other examples of this in the book as well.

  3. I wonder what it says about gender in The Woman in White that even Marian is obsessed with Laura. At first, this seems to hint that the book’s preoccupation with attractive women isn’t limited to the perceptions of men, but then again, Marian challenges gender roles about as much as a female character in a Victorian novel safely can. I can’t quite decide whether or not her attraction/attachment to Laura is simply another one of her masculine qualities, or if it is actually suggesting that both the women and men of this society share this association between beautiful women and societal health.

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