“A failure” ?

Feminist theory in Mary Wollstonecraft’s fictional The Wrongs of Woman : or, Maria

“A failure” ?

The Wrongs of Woman : or, Maria has often been judged harshly. Gary Kelly states about both Mary and Wrongs : “The conclusion must be that both of these novels are failures”. Harriet Jump writes that “The Wrongs of Woman cannot be called anything but a failure as it stands” and judges it as being “didactic”. Margaret Walters states : “…the basic situation [in Wrongs] is both melodramatic and schematic”1. I want to argue that these points of criticism are in fact the novel’s major points of interest as they contribute to making the genre of the novel suitable for voicing feminist ideas and are integral to Wollstonecraft’s new discourse of feminist writing2. Walters — like the other critics — need not have judged these features as failures, as they result from Wollstonecraft’s intention to appeal to the emotions (“melodramatic”) and her desire to generalize and politicize the personal in theoretical form (“schematic”). Thus, I propose a re-reading of the generic aspects of Wrongs which reveals that it is Wollstonecraft’s deliberate use of theory in the fictional text that could lead to the impression of the novel being “didactic”, “schematic” or even a “failure”. However, in order to voice feminist ideas explicitly, such a mixture of theory and fiction proves to be necessary in order to transgress and subvert gendered genres designed to deny women writers participation in theoretical (philosophical or political) discourses.

Gendered genres, gendered topics and the problems of writing feminist texts

Genres have at least until the beginning of the 20th century been classified as “gendered”. Especially in the 18th century, learned discourses, which included all kinds of theoretical and abstract writing, were the prerogative of men. Thus, the general separation between “masculine” discourses as rational, authoritative and theoretical and “feminine”3 discourses as emotional, unstructured and tending towards the fictional not only guided the expectations of the readers, but also the public book market and with that the authors themselves.

Kelly draws attention to the fact that in the 18th century

…print culture and literature were divided by gender distinctions. The learned discourses and noble genres were conventionally reserved for men, both as practitioners and readers, and included theoretical and abstract writing such as philosophy, science… controversial writing such as political polemics or theoretical disputations. … By contrast, most women writers kept to kinds of writing that could be seen as extension of women’s domestic range of education and experience.
(Kelly 1996 : 9-10)

Examples for sanctioned women’s texts were practical topics such as educational writings and of course prose fiction, “seen in the later eighteenth century as the women’s genre” (10). Here, the connection between gendered genres, theory and fiction and the gendered division between public and private spheres becomes obvious.

The gendering of writing and discourse is usually not addressed by male writers. The reason for this is obvious : whereas female authors had to deal with explicit gender restrictions in writing, male authors were not subject to those restrictions. While feminist women writers were faced with the problem of expressing feminist attitudes, which attacked the basis of patriarchal society and were therefore vigorously opposed, male writers generally did not deal with contents of such explosive force for the patriarchal order4. “Male writing” has never been defined as such ; since it was regarded as the norm, it has not been thematised in a prescriptive sense. Texts by women writers, by contrast, were generally judged according to gendered norms of female propriety and patriarchal views about women’s intellectual inabilities. In this context, writing a feminist text becomes a double impossibility.

Since genres were categorized, for women, according to gender boundaries and binaries, the question of the “masculine” and “feminine” discourses contained in these genres is intertwined with the mixture of theory and fiction. Feminist discourse is naturally philosophical and political and thus theoretical. Feminist contents are therefore inevitably linked to a deconstruction and transgression of these generic boundaries. If voicing feminist theses and demands depends on the participation in theoretical political or philosophical discourse, and if these discourses are not considered suitable for women writers, how can feminism be written at all ?

Wollstonecraft’s connection of theory and fiction leads to an undermining of established structures by taking up existing discourses and transforming them in a feminist way. I want to show with Mary Wollstonecraft that in order to explicitly utter feminist ideas and demands, a modification in genre and discourse is necessary which has to be seen as the prerequisite for making such explosive subject matters heard.

Fiction and its advantages

Wrongs cannot only be considered as taking up ideas out of Vindication. In fact, Wollstonecraft’s intention was to write her novel as a sequel to Vindication. In a “Note” in Vindication, Wollstonecraft announces a second volume : “Many subjects, which I have cursorily alluded to, call for particular investigation, especially the laws relative to women, and the consideration of their peculiar duties. These will furnish ample matter for a second volume, which in due time will be published, to elucidate some of the sentiments, and complete many of the sketches begun in the first” (90). Wrongs has rightly been regarded as that second volume : “The Wrongs of Woman, although using the novel form, can be taken as the promised second volume of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, on the ’partial laws’ of England” (Jordan 221). However, the central reason for choosing the genre of the novel and more precisely the novel combined with theoretical parts has not yet been explored, and this poses the question of how those feminist ideas can be expressed in fiction. Why did Wollstonecraft not just write a sequel treatise to Vindication ?

I want to ask a question that appears at first glance to be rather general : how does fiction work in the novel ? However, this question will help to explore the merits of fiction for women writers and for feminist discourses. After that, we have to deal with the question : how does theory work in Wrongs ? With the help of these steps, it will be possible to address the central question : why does Wollstonecraft combine theoretical and fictional elements in Wrongs ? And what does this have to do with feminist writing ?

The choice to write fiction has several advantages that Wollstonecraft exploits in Wrongs and which I will analyze later. First, consequences of patriarchal oppression can be illustrated using the concrete examples of different women’s lives and situations. Illustration not only serves the purpose of making clear and indeed visible what abstract theses might not bring across, but subsequently, illustration also triggers an appeal to the emotions of the reader and the possibility of a compassionate identification with the characters. Second, fiction can produce a complex exploration of the mechanisms of patriarchy. Those are not straightforward, so that such complex issues as conflicting demands and ambivalences of the characters can be discussed without streamlining internal conflicts, as would be required of a logical and argumentatively linear treatise. Since women have often become victims of “masculine” textual authority voiced as prescriptive instructions (e.g. guidebooks, medical treatises), it is no wonder that female authors were critical of the prescriptive impact of theoretical discourses. For this reason, the constant feminist questioning of the authoritarian truth claim of theory leads to experiments with fictionality, which opens possibilities for multiple voices (Bakhtin’s “heteroglossia”)5 and equivocal explorations instead of dogmatic truths. The third point consists of giving women voices of their own with which they can make themselves heard — even if these women are fictional characters.

Advantage of fiction I : Illustration and appeal to the emotions

The beginning of the novel already addresses the emotions of the reader by describing the situation of Maria’s suffering in the madhouse in which she is imprisoned. The madhouse and Maria’s place in it serve as an exposition establishing connections between this Gothic experience of patriarchal persecution, confinement, sensibility and one woman’s particular fate :

Surprise, astonishment, that bordered on distraction, seemed to have suspended her faculties, till, waking by degrees to a keen sense of anguish, a whirlwind of rage and indignation roused her torpid pulse. One recollection with frightful velocity following another, threatened to fire her brain, and make her a fit companion for the terrific inhabitants, whose groans and shrieks were no unsubstantial sounds of whistling winds, or startled birds, modulated by a romantic fancy, which amuse while they affright ; but such tones of misery as carry a dreadful certainty directly to the heart. What effect must they then have produced on one, true to the touch of sympathy, and tortured by maternal apprehensions !

Maria’s emotions are central to this passage. They set the scene by creating an understanding and subsequent empathy for Maria’s situation and feelings. It becomes clear that she is the victim who wavers between acute paralysis and rage at her condition. The abuse that Maria has suffered and that she now recollects threaten to drive her insane, a condition from which, as becomes clear in the novel, women suffer most often, since their madness is caused by the general “wrongs of women”. The description of Maria’s emotions is connected to a description of the Gothic madhouse. A poetological reflection distances the novel from “romantic fancy” in telling the reader that Maria’s suffering as well as her surroundings are real — too real to evoke romantic stylizations. Maria’s suffering is thus emphasized, while at the same time the intended reception of the novel is mentioned : to appeal to the emotions. This is achieved by the illustration of the gruesome circumstances and by utilizing the language of sensibility (“What effect…”). Whereas it becomes clear later that Maria to a certain degree stands for abused women in general, in this exposition the focus lies on her character. Her presentation as a mother separated from her child directly appeals to the emotions (“…but who would watch her [Maria’s daughter] with a mother’s tenderness, a mother’s self-denial ?” 75) by illustrating the effects of gender-specific oppression. The injustice of the wrongs done to women by men are thus rendered more visible by fictional illustration, and are presented as even more serious by showing Maria as the victim who suffers doubly, since she herself is characterized by “a mother’s tenderness” and by her sensibility, her “touch of sympathy”. However, apart from arousing compassion in the readers and offering the possibility for identification with the protagonist — an identification that might of course also be potentially dangerous, since its status is that of the victim — the novel also forces the readers to take a critical step back and reflect rationally on the protagonist.

Advantage of fiction II : Exploration of the topic by contrasting voices : Maria and the narrator

Henry Darnford’s response to Maria’s memoirs is designed partly to parallel the hoped for response of the reader : to become aware of women’s situation and try to ameliorate it. But the reaction of the reader is soon altered from compassion with Maria to distance and reflection about her — an instance of “doublevoicedness”. Maria falls for Henry without guarding against possible deception and despite her negative experiences with men. Thus, the narrator makes it clear that Maria has only seemingly learned from her story :

There was one peculiarity in Maria’s mind : she was more anxious not to deceive, than to guard against deception ; and had rather trust without sufficient reason, than be forever the prey of doubt… We see what we wish, and make a world of our own — and, though reality may sometimes open a door to misery, yet the moments of happiness procured by the imagination, may, without a paradox, be reckoned among the solid comforts of life.

Again and again it is stated that Maria is also a victim of her romantic fancy and her sensibility. Her blind idealization of Henry is revealed and critically commented on by the narrator. Thus Maria’s passion for Henry is criticized as the result of her being “shut up from human intercourse, and compelled to view nothing but the prison of vexed spirits…” (86). The dangers of “reveries” and of the imagination are illustrated by the narrator’s reference to Pygmalion : “Pygmalion formed an ivory maid, and longed for an informing soul. She, on the contrary, combined all the qualities of a hero’s mind, and fate presented a statue in which she might enshrine them” (99). It goes without saying that Maria’s life with Henry cannot be a happy one (192), since by her idealization of him Maria is unable to get to know the “real” Henry.

As has become clear, the novel functions by illustration which appeals to the reader’s emotions. Contrary to the assumption that it should be possible for the reader to completely identify with the female protagonist, Wrongs prevents this by having the narrator comment on Maria, expose her faults and elucidate the significance of situations she herself cannot fathom6. The narrator thus displays an alternating distance to and an identification with Maria7. The novel combines these two conflicting voices without solving the contradiction. This tension, even though problematic for a “coherent” perspective on the protagonist, turns out to be productive to the reader by stimulating both emotional and rational reactions to women’s situation.

Advantage of fiction III : Multivoiced structure of the novel

The address to the “heart” is multiplied by the multivoiced nature of the novel on the level of the characters. Whereas the exposition is given by the voice of the narrator, later Maria herself narrates the story of her life and her growing feminist awareness to Jemima, who in turns tells her about her own experiences of abuse and exploitation. Even the fellow prisoner Henry, with whom Maria falls in love, is given a voice and narrates his story of the reformed rake (94-98). By this multivocality, the reader is confronted with several versions of patriarchy and the direct experience of sexual politics. While it proves to be difficult to claim a subject position and a voice for the feminist woman writer in theoretical genres such as the treatise, in Wrongs it is significant that due to the multivoiced characteristics of fiction women are given a voice which would otherwise go unheard — in Wrongs even women as different as the refined middle-class woman Maria and the working-class Jemima. Each character gets the chance to tell her own individual story and thus create an awareness in the reader of the universality of patriarchal oppression, but also of each individual process of intellectual and emotional development.

Most of the points that Wollstonecraft problematises in Vindication can be found in Jemima’s life. Jemima, however, narrates her story not by a simple enumeration, but works with different rhetorical devices and turns out to be a good story-teller. Here, the “advantages” of fiction and of a specific oral tradition preserved in it — a tradition which would ordinarily also go unheard in scientific discourse — are most obvious. She constantly engages the listeners and readers by presenting situations to imagine : “Behold me then in the street, utterly destitute ! Whither could I creep for shelter ?” (108). She thereby addresses the visual imagination of the listeners and draws the reader deeper into her story by creating an understanding of her situation and compassion for her suffering. However, Jemima directs the reader’s imagination in a clever way, which becomes most noticeable when she refuses to further describe her experiences : “’I shall not,’ interrupted Jemima, ’lead your imagination into all the scenes of wretchedness and depravity, which I was condemned to view ; or mark the different stages of my debasing misery” (109). This refusal to continue narrating is clearly a device to highlight just how much Jemima has suffered. It could also hint at the greater and more severe ills that working-class women have to endure, since the details of the lowest possible “milieu” in society could not be understood by a middle-class woman such as Maria or by the even more privileged Henry. This implies that Jemima spares them — and the reader — by omitting what they cannot imagine, let alone stomach.

What all three narratives convey is the problematic and life-changing influence of unequal sexual politics. I choose the term sexual politics deliberately in this context, since I want to draw attention to the political, thus theoretical, implication of these subjective narratives. Wollstonecraft connects the private and the public sphere in Wrongs by linking the personal and political through a connection of theory and fiction.

Theory and its advantages

To the reader of this essay my previous analysis could seem sufficient : sufficiently feminist, sufficiently political. So why, for Wollstonecraft, was this form and rendering of feminist ideas not sufficient ? Here it is important to remember the force of gendered genres and of a gendered reception. Since the novel was regarded as suitable for the emotional rendering of female experience, which by definition was not accorded public and political importance, it is more than questionable whether Wrongs without the theoretical elements, which I will be discussing now, would have been received as politically relevant and feminist. As long as narrated experiences are regarded as only those of the characters involved, they clearly remain on a private and subjective level and cannot serve a general wider political purpose. The reader is still free to read these wrongs as singular experiences of special individuals, who could just be too unlucky or very rare, and therefore read Wrongs only as a fictional “story” without “real” political relevance to all women.

Those who judge Wrongs as “didactic” and “schematic” refer to theoretical passages and insets within the fictional text. In this context, I want to define theoretical elements in the fictional text as parts which, although they are uttered by different speakers and characters, are similar to the voice and argumentation of Wollstonecraft’s theoretical treatise A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. In addition, feminist arguments are theoretical if they transcend the plot and the individual situation of the protagonist by possessing a larger degree of abstraction and general significance. I use “theory” as designating a system of rules or principles held as an explanation of facts8.

Theory, as will become clear, is inserted on different communication levels in the novel : it can be found in the frame consisting of the “Author’s Preface” and of Godwin’s “Conclusion”, on the level of narration (uttered and summarized by the narrator) and in the words of the fictional characters Maria and Jemima.

Wollstonecraft’s stated intentions : Theory over fiction

From the beginning, Wollstonecraft’s intentions are to place Wrongs in a more general context and to write about women as a group, thus giving her novel the kind of sociological depth demanded by a theoretical exposition. William Godwin had Wrongs published after Wollstonecraft’s death and arranged an “Author’s Preface” by including extracts from Wollstonecraft’s letters and also wrote the “Conclusion, By the Editor”. The preface comprises her intentions and exposes her aesthetics : “In writing this novel, I have rather endeavoured to pourtray passions than manners” (73). Thus her intention on the one hand is to depict the emotions of those living within patriarchy and to appeal to the emotions of her readers. On the other hand, however, and here her intended mixture of fiction and theory is already indicated, her aim is also to show facts and circumstances constituting the “wrongs of women” :

In many instances I could have made the incidents more dramatic, would I have sacrificed my main object, the desire of exhibiting the misery and oppression, peculiar to women, that arise out of the partial laws and customs of society. In the invention of the story, this view restrained my fancy ; and the history ought rather to be considered, as of woman, than of an individual.

This clearly indicates that although her intention is to appeal also to the emotions, she deliberately subjects fiction to theory, “fancy” and dramatic incidents to the analysis of the “partial laws and customs of society”, the private and personal to the political, fictional examples to generalized theory on feminist issues. Apart from that, her intention is not to write on a single individual, but on women and women’s situation in general and thus on the problem in society at large – to “show the wrongs of different classes of women” (74).

Feminist awareness by theoretical abstraction

How, then, does theory function in the novel ? In her treatise Vindication, Wollstonecraft uses abstract theses and generalizations from which she sometimes deduces special examples. In Wrongs, she induces the situation of womankind in general from the special cases of Maria, Jemima and the other women mentioned. The reader is urged to draw a moral from the story for the whole of womankind and reach a conscious awareness of the oppression of women rather than merely identifying with one case. In the course of the plot, the protagonist Maria herself is inspired to generalize from her own life and thus extricate herself from her personal web of misery and oppression. She reaches an awareness of her situation as that of a prototypical woman in patriarchy instead of one of individual suffering : “My present situation gave a new turn to my reflection … ’Had an evil genius cast a spell at my birth ; or a demon stalked out of chaos, to perplex my understanding, and enchain my will, with delusive prejudices ?’ I pursued this train of thinking ; it led me out of myself, to expatiate on the misery peculiar to my sex” (165). Here, the emancipatory potential of regarding her situation in a more general light is only hinted at. However, the change in vocabulary and thought is noticeable : “to expatiate” on her situation is different to lamenting it (“Had an evil genius…”) and finally leads her — and the reader ? — not only to an understanding of society’s sexual politics, but also to her own mental emancipation. At this stage, Maria progresses mentally from victim to heroine as she experiences her own power (consisting of determination and resistance) and is able to leave behind her self-pity by generalizing from her life. In the following, her intellect wins over her emotions. This newly-gained consciousness finally results in action, when the formerly passive Maria defends herself in front of the court (195).

The personal is political : fiction and theory

Maria is led to theoretical political explorations and statements not only by generalizing from her own situation, she also reaches a more comprehensive political awareness from examples of women she knows and so makes clear that the private is already political. When Jemima’s narrative is briefly interrupted, Maria emphasizes this connection : “’But pray go on,’ [Maria] addressing Jemima, ’though your narrative gives rise to the most painful reflections on the present state of society.’” (115). The reader is challenged to not only to feel compassion for her, but also to link this life to the general situation of women in an act of “consciousness-raising”. Maria as listener embodies the ideal reader and exemplifies ideal reactions, since she is able to generalize from the personal situation and link it to those of all women. Jemima herself repeatedly draws attention to the fact that her situation is political and that it can be traced back to her oppression as a woman. Not only is the personal also public and the fictional theoretically relevant, but the theoretical and public is explicitly to be treated in a feminist manner. Jemima herself is aware that her situation cannot only be explained by her personal bad luck, but by her being a woman : “yet you will allow me to observe, that this was a wretchedness of situation peculiar to my sex” (115).

Maria and Jemima both draw attention to the fact that their experiences have to regarded as representative and theoretically/politically relevant and thus have to be treated in a feminist way. The narrator’s voice confirms this, since the narrator also takes Maria’s experiences as a basis from which to tackle the general problems of patriarchy : “Thinking of Jemima’s peculiar fate and her own, she was led to consider the oppressed state of women” (120). Transcending the “peculiar fate”, the subjective experiences of both herself and of Jemima here clearly lead to a more general theoretical reflection and they represent an act of “consciousness-raising” which uses the fictional depiction of particular characters and their lives as its point of departure.

What, then, are the “advantages” of theory for feminist writing and arguments ? Theory requires a thesis, clear statements, a position from which demands can be made and changes initiated. Only by regarding Maria’s and Jemima’s situations not simply as personal unfortunate stories, but by inducing the general situation of women in patriarchal society and thus analyzing the political implication and the structure of women’s oppression, can a feminist awareness be created. Without explicitly theoretising feminism, readings of Maria’s and Jemima’s stories could remain on the individual level, while only theory makes it possible to recognize the universal phenomenon of women’s oppression.

Combining theory and fiction : the development of a feminist discourse

By these experiments in combining theory and fiction in Wrongs, Wollstonecraft initiates a dialogue between politics and fiction while the disruption of the generic boundaries at the same time mirrors the disruptive potential of the feminist contents. In light of the necessary connections between theory and fiction, Wollstonecraft can be regarded not only as the first feminist writer who provided an exceptionally comprehensive and explicit feminist program, but she is equally the first to transform gendered genres and gendered discourses for feminist purposes, which in turn makes the public and explicit transmission of feminist contents possible at all.

Wollstonecraft’s explicit use of theory in her fiction can be contrasted with novels by other women writers at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th century who wrote pure fiction without feminist theory. Well-known examples include Elizabeth Inchbald’s A Simple Story (1791), Mary Robinson’s Walsingham (1797), or Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda (1801). What these novels have in common is that their plots could be termed feminist, since it would be possible to base a general theory of women’s oppression as well as feminist demands on the characters’ individual experiences. However, none of these novels explicitly does this. Instead, they leave it open whether a feminist message is implied or whether they only narrate the personal story of individuals. Presenting an individual woman’s situation, even if it is governed by gender-specific oppression, is not automatically feminist. Wrongs, on the other hand, shows that the renunciation of theoretical elements would have hindered the introduction of feminist concerns from the exemplary and private sphere to the political, philosophical and public sphere.

With Wrongs, Mary Wollstonecraft is the first writer to transform gendered genres for feminist purposes. Her mixture of fiction with theory for the first time makes it possible to convey explicit feminist points without resorting to the male-dominated theoretical treatise. Subsequent feminist women writers have directly or indirectly profited from her experimentation with and de-gendering of genre. Both those women writers who have read Wollstonecraft (cf. Harriet Martineau, Olive Schreiner and Virginia Woolf) and those who cannot directly be linked to her thoughts (cf. post-structuralist authors such as Hélène Cixous and Monique Wittig) had to make use of different mixtures of theory and fiction for transmitting feminist ideas. Even if these combinations vary and are constantly experimented with, Wollstonecraft certainly is the first to blend feminist theoretical theses and arguments with fictional scenes. How then is Wrongs a “failure” ? It can be regarded as a failure to correspond to normative gendered genres and discourses. For feminist writing it is a milestone.

  1. 1Kelly, Introduction xx ; Jump 145, 132 ; Walters 327.
  2. 2The term “feminism” has only been in use since 1894/5. Positions and attitudes that advocate the rights of women and largely believe in the equality of the sexes have, of course, also been held before that time. It is in order to refer to such positions that I use this term.
  3. 3Watkins for example argues that “From its inception to the present day, the novel has been a feminised genre in terms of readership, authorship, content and narrative structure” (2). Benstock / Ferriss / Woods give several reasons for the novel becoming a genre associated with women : “The new novel form, however, provided women with a relatively untried genre, one that stressed the realities of domestic and social life … With its emphasis on social realism, novel writing also was not predicated on a classical education. As a result, women, who had traditionally been denied such training in classical literature and philosophy, were no longer disadvantaged” (39-40).
  4. 4There are very few male exceptions who have explicitly developed feminist arguments over the centuries, such as François Poulain de la Barre or John Stuart Mill.
  5. 5Bakhtin 291. For a specifically feminist context see Yaeger. She regards the form of the novel as suitable for the exploration of anti-patriarchal attitudes : “the novel is a form women choose because its multivoicedness allows the interruption and interrogation of the dominant culture. The novel’s polyvocality gives the writer an opportunity to interrupt the speech practices, the ordinary patriarchal assumptions of everyday life” (31).
  6. 6Harasym, among others, justly states that “In the treatment of the self in Maria or the rongs of Women, there is a sharp contrast between Maria’s first-person autobiographical memories and the third-person narrative discourse which criticizes and censors Maria’s actions, and draws social and political conclusions about the unjust treatment of women” (164).
  7. 7Poovey draws attention to the “uncertain perspective of the novel’s omniscient narrator” (112) that changes from the position of “detached, critical observer to emotional participant” (113).
  8. 8One general meaning of “theory” given in the Oxford English Dictionary is “a scheme or system of ideas or statements held as an explanation or account of a group of facts or phenomena… a statement of what are held to be the general laws, principles, or causes of something known or observed”.