It showing the extent of patriarchy, recognise the role

It is open to debate as to whether Rossetti’s female
characters can be seen as positive representations of femininity. Over the ages,
femininity has become associated with frailty, helplessness and innocence and
these have too often been regarded as endearing and desirable qualities. As a
movement, feminism seeks to eradicate these social and cultural constructs
surrounding female stereotypes and work towards gender equality. Charles Fourier, a
utopian socialist coined the word ‘féminisme’ in 1837, and as early as 1808 he had argued
that extending women’s rights was the general principle of all social
progress.  Feminist critics “revalue
women’s experience, examine representations of women in literature by men and
women, examine power relations … showing the extent of patriarchy, recognise the
role of language in making what is social and constructed seem transparent and ‘natural'”  As outlined in P. Barry’s Beginning Theory. Various poems by
Christina Rossetti feature women attempting to assert themselves in a
patriarchal society, and a feminist critical reading can identify strengths and
weaknesses in her representations. Written in the Victorian era, the strength
of her female characters is controversial. Rossetti focuses on women living in
patriarchal societies as the subject of multiple works; however we see women
finding control in their situations, holding the power.

On one hand, Jessie Cameron can arguably be considered
a positive representation of femininity in various different aspects.
Primarily, the constant repetition of her full name, especially as the only
full name in the poem establishes her immediately, and heightens her
significance as the most important character within the poem. This is
reinforced by the fact that Rossetti fails to provide a name for the man, which
was unusual for the male-centred society in which Victorian readers would have
lived. Jessie’s repeated full name distinguishes her as an individual woman,
and the permanence of the name is highlighted – Jessie will not change her name
for the sake of this man who is begging for her hand in marriage.

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Jessie wants to go her “own free way”, and this fact may
have surprised many Victorian readers who did not believe that women should
have their own agenda and ambition in life, and rather than doing as they
please they should accept an offer of marriage when it was given, whether or
not they loved the man. By saying she would rather be “free” than accept the
proposal of a man, Rossetti is potentially making a feminist criticism here of
society, that women have to give up their freedom for the sake of men, and is
challenging this as wrong through Jessie’s desire for free will; before 1870,
women were seen as the rightful property of their husbands, along with their
own possessions. They were taught that their role upon reaching adulthood was
to marry and bear children, with little choice over their own education.
Jessie’s willingness for more is a positive model for a female in literature in
this time. Jessie’s rejection of the status quo surrounds her with a
sense of female empowerment, further going against the expectations of a
Victorian society. By telling the man, ‘For me you’re not the man of men’,
Jessie suggests that remaining unmarried is not her plan, rather, it is meeting
a man she can love and who is superior to all other men in her eyes.

 

–         
(further analysis)

 

In the poem Cousin
Kate, there are both positive and negative representations of femininity
present. The narrator is outcast by society after being manipulated by the lord
and giving up her chastity to him, and the narrator is swiftly discarded by her
lover due to her ‘impurity’ after they engage in premarital sex, to be replaced
with Cousin Kate. Meanwhile, the male’s previous sexual relations are not
considered important by society. This is a topic often discussed within
feminism, and Rossetti highlights this issue in ‘Cousin Kate’ by telling it
from the perspective of the outcast woman as a form of protest. The Lord uses
the narrator “like a glove”, highlighting the flippant manner in which men may
seek to use women’s sexuality when it is useful and convenient for them however
discard and denounce it when they become bored and seek a ‘pure’ wife. The use
of “glove” depicts a crude image of how easily she was cast aside and this
simile comparing her with an object demonstrates her inferiority to him.

The narrator can debatably be seen as the positive portrayal
of femininity in some aspects, while Cousin Kate is her opposite. In the
Victorian era, men were widely considered superior physically and intellectually,
although women were still expected to have a higher sense of morality, with no
sexual desire, only to become a mother. The “unclean” narrator does not conform
to this, as she gives in to lust and sexual temptation, shown in “shameless
shameful life”, which may imply that she herself feels she has not sinned, but
through the misogynistic society’s eyes she has. The sibilance in this
line may reflect the serpent in the biblical story of Adam and Eve, who
convinces Eve to give in to temptation and eat the forbidden fruit. The
narrator gave in to temptation and is now being punished as an outcast. The
narrator’s engagement in sexual activity outside of marriage can be seen as a
positive portrayal of femininity as women’s sexual desire was seen as taboo yet
the narrator does as she pleases, ignoring society’s rules which was a rebellious
act.

The narrator claims later in the poem that is their roles
were reversed and if Kate “stood where I stand”, she “would have spit into his
face”. This gives the impression that the narrator values sisterhood before
personal gain and before the acceptance of a man, ignoring the misogynistic
views which society attempts to force upon her. This gives the narrator admirable
qualities in the reader’s eyes, evoking sympathy.

 Cousin Kate can be
seen as her opposite because she sees the narrator’s mistreatment, and rather
than protest against it, she uses it to her advantage and allows the lord to
bind her with his ring.

Another positive representation of femininity can be seen in
her life before the lord as “a cottage maiden”, “contented with her cottage
mates”. This is a demonstration of the ability of women to happily exist
independently of men

Alternatively, the narrator can be seen as a negative
representation of femininity, because she is left ruined by a man. This
reinforces the portrayal of women as weak and as though they need a man to look
after them and be content. “plaything” Competition between women.

This is spun on its head with the twist at the end of the
poem where it is revealed that the narrator fell pregnant with the lord’s child,
and ultimately gains the strength in the situation because of this. Women,
despite their mistreatment by society, are able to experience gift of
motherhood and this may be the most powerful position one can be in.