Women in Literature from 1600-1800’s


Strong female characters always attracted attention of writers and inspired creation of numerous masterpieces. Women’s inborn power that was demonstrated by strong, bold, confident character, sexuality, and incredible brilliance fascinated a great number of writers. The period of 1600-1800’s was marked by the appearance of several outstanding works of literature, such as Samuel Richardson’s Pamela: Or Virtue Rewarded and Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock. The authors showed their understanding of gender at different ages and developmental levels. These works were read and admired by the public, the litterateurs, and the professional moralists.

Literary artists always tended to find an answer for the main questions of human existence. They investigated the gender approach in sciences and came to the conclusion, that not only biological differences between men and women are important but also the difference in social statuses, roles, and other aspects of life. The notions of dominance and power are maintained in society by gender roles and relations. Therefore, the position of a woman is always described as oppressed and miserable.

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Writers and poets of the period of 1600-1800’s wrote much about the status of women in the society. Women, sexuality, and marriage began to change dramatically in the period of 17th-18th centuries. During that period, the belief that men and women were opposite sexes, different in kind rather than degree, reinforced in almost all spheres of life.

Women’s Beauty as a Key to Power in Pamela: Or, Virtue Rewarded

Samuel Richardson was a British novelist who dilated the dramatic possibilities of the novel by inventing and usage of the letter form. Pamela: Or, Virtue Rewarded (1740) and Clarissa: Or the History of a Young Lady (1748) are good examples of his epistolary novels. He spent 50 years in poverty and eventually became a prosperous writer. He was accused of verbose and sentimental writing manner, but his expressiveness of details, his psychological perspicacity into women, and his dramatic technique have brought him a prominent place among British novelists. In his works, Samuel Richardson tried to reproduce contradictory aspects of the ideology of gender, including male and female roles, powers, rights, and responsibilities. The author wanted to create “a new sort of writing that might possibly turn young people into a course of reading different from the pomp and parade of romance-writing” (Warner 1998, p. 202).

The novel Pamela: Or, Virtue Rewarded was a huge success. Samuel Richardson not only introduced a fashion for the epistolary novel but also emphasized women power and role discriminations which were to become pre-dominant in society for a long period of time. This novel showed the contrast between male domination, with its implied sensuality, and female restraint and submission, with its emphasis on virtue symbolized by virginity (Carter & MacRae 2001).

The author described a dominant male as a provider and master and a female as a victim of the men’s dominance. Female self-sufficiency is depicted by the creation of a woman’s role of a mistress of a social circle. Thus, the female role is established in relation to male roles, and any deviation is seen as both socially and morally reprehensible (Carter & MacRae 2001).

The novel Pamela: Or, Virtue Rewarded describes the life story of a young girl named Pamela, whose master, Mr. B, flirts and makes unwelcomed advances towards the girl. Pamela’s parents warn her that Mr. B may destroy her virtue, but the girl always behaves herself with ease and freedom addressing the readers: “I was willing you should have a taste of my freedom with you” (Richardson 2009, p. 714). Far away from her parents, tired and imprisoned by her master, she broods over committing suicide. Pamela tries to mould a personal identity that balances conflicting claims of authority (Blewett 2001). She is a person of purity and niceness and a faithful daughter to her impoverished parents, Mr. and Mrs. Andrews. Pamela writes to them a number of letters and asserts that she will defend her purity at all costs. She has a subordinated role of adolescent woman and servant who poses contradicting claims against a mature male aristocrat.

Pamela, the protagonist of the novel, is involved in one episode after another precisely to evoke emotion – both the readers’ and her own. The ‘virtue rewarded’ in the subtitle is the subject of the novel and the key to the protagonist’s change of social class thanks to her virgin personality. Being brought up in poverty, Pamela compels readers to observe the situation from inside and feel the life in poverty: “I would have given my life for a farthing” (Richardson 2009, p. 38). The fact that she is wounded physically and emotionally forces the readers not only to think and sympathize with her but also to discover her endurance and, therefore, her strength of mind: “I was in-great pain to say something” (Richardson 2009, p. 144).

The use of highly emotional language also influences the readers. Pamela, though being from a poor family, speaks eloquently and expressively: “It is a thousand pities that such worthy hearts should not have better luck in the world! And wonders, that you, my father, was forced to go to such hard labour. But this is more pride to me, that I am come of such honest parents, than if I had been born a lady” (Richardson 2009, p. 20). Her manner of expressing thoughts derives emotions from the reader due to her unique ability to create a sentimental response in others.

According to Regis (2011), this story is the first romance novel and the first best seller owing to the sentimental character of its main heroine. Pamela, intelligent, beautiful, and morally upright, makes the readers feel happy or feel that something is wrong, and evokes emotions of love or hate. Her character inspired fervent supporters, who came to be called ‘pamelists’. Moreover, babies— and, eventually, their several times great-granddaughters—were named after the heroine.

The novel Pamela: Or, Virtue Rewarded, perhaps apocryphal, caused a real cultural revolution, because even nineteenth-century English villagers gathered and read it aloud: “At length, when the happy turn of fortune arrived which brings the hero and heroine together, and this actually set the church bells ringing” (Regis 2011, p. 64). The happy ending of a romance novel, the marriage between Pamela and her employer, shows the victory of female gender over the male.

Samuel Richardson idealized notion of female chastity and explored the inner depths of human psychology. Myer (1986) states that Richardson is conscious that he sees the sexes with an egalitarian eye, which means that he is interested in the feministic view of women of his time. All in all, it is a story of the gender relations, courtship, betrothal, wedding, and triumph of a young innocent girl, and the whole novel relies on emotional response from their readers and characters.

The Effect of Sensitivity in The Rape of the Lock

Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock is a great example of sentimental writing and one of the most famous English-language works of the mock-epic, a style applying the elevated diction and vocabulary of epic poetry to low or ridiculous subjects (Black, Conolly & Flint 2008). It is a perfect and humorous satire on the aristocratic society of Britain. The poem sets Pope’s fragile culture against the superior culture, which is evoked in his parody of epic devices. The action of the poem begins early in the morning with awakening of the residents of a wealthy household. Belinda, the protagonist of the story, arises to prepare for the day’s social activities. The author satirizes the ineptitude late rising of aristocratic woman by Belinda.

After dressing and smartening up, she drives to Hampton Court Palace, where the rich are gathering for a party. Hampton Court Palace is presented in the poem as the scene of rape. Later on, Baron, an admirer of Belinda’s, appears. He has the only intent to rape of the lock by cutting off one of the curls of hair that hung down her neck. The author figures the theft of Belinda’s hair as a sexual violation, describing the Baron’s actions as a rape: “The adventurous Baron the bright locks admired, he saw, he wished, and to the prize aspired. Resolved to win, he meditates the way, by force to ravish, or by fraud betray” (Pope 2006, p. 32). Cutting the lock is like an absurd and sin, as it can be compared with losing virginity.

By using burlesque, mockery, and irony, Pope perfectly reveals the gender and social inequality of the society. Belinda is a pretty girl, admired for her courage, outstanding achievements, and noble qualities. The way the author describes the girl makes the readers sympathize with her. Her beauty is glorified through the whole poem: “On her white breast a sparkling cross she wore, which Jews might kiss, and infidels adore” (Pope 2006, p. 32). The readers immediately fall in love with her: “Love in these labyrinths his slaves detains, and mighty hearts are held in slender chains” (Pope 2006, p. 32). Moreover, semiotic analysis of the name of Belinda shows that her name derives from Latin word ‘bellus, meaning ‘lovely to behold’. Pope highlights Belinda’s beauty through comparison with the bright sun: “Sol through white curtains shot a timorous ray, and opened those eyes that must eclipse the day” (Pope 2006, p. 27).

Pope investigates the phenomenon of ‘dressing room’ and shows the disjunction between face painting and poetry as tools for the representation of women. Belinda is like the goddess, but she puts on her divinity at her dressing table. The question that Pope raises is how the poetic rendering of a beautiful woman at her dressing table challenges or displaces her ability to fashion herself through face painting.

The hombre card-game, which is described in the poem, shows Belinda’s moral and enduring values. She declares herself as a challenger and hopes to defeat her opponent, the baron. This fact evokes the desire for revenge, and the readers immediately identify themselves with Belinda. Belinda possesses a superb skill in playing the game.

During the game, Belinda obtains real power over the players, and this makes the readers feel satisfied with her. Later, as Rumbold (1989) states, a game of cards provokes ambiguous warmth and the hubris of her challenge. It is a sign of a markedly unfeminine desire for fame and conquest: “Belinda now whom Thirst of Fame invites, burns to encounter two adventurous Knights, at Ombre singly to decide their Doom, and swells her Breast with Conquests yet to come” (Pope 2006, p. 37). This increases her self-importance and instigates her vanity: “Favours to none, to all she smiles extends oft she rejects, but never once offends” (Pope 2006, p. 32).

The author shows the parallel between the lines describing Belinda’s toilette and the Baron’s respect. These lines indicate the idealized images of these characters – Belinda as a goddess and the Baron as a hero. Pope pours ridicule on the Baron not only as a poor parody of an epic hero but also for adopting an affected position as a courteous lover. The card game takes the form of a miniature war in which each side advances, retreats, and takes prisoners on “the Velvet Plain”, purifying human hostility and becoming a sexual confrontation.

The Baron indecently cuts Belinda’s tress and rejects to return it. In this situation, the Baron, the antagonist of the poem, appears as a master of the whole world. Here the author puts the gender question and describes males as proprietors. The girl’s beauty and charm are now in his hands, and this reveals his male desire. Belinda has to make her choice whether to recover power and authority or suffer a death in social medium. Belinda can turn the ‘rape’ into the purest chastity if she leaves childish games and a desire for omnipotence and makes a reasonable choice. Pope clarifies the nature of that choice in his portrait of the fashionable upper-class sickness, the spleen.


Literary writers of 1600-1800s portrayed women as victims of men’s dominance. They satirized the society as a whole in ways that are still relevant to contemporary world. Though being under pressure, female characters managed to overcome the difficulties and advance in the social scale. The heroines of Richardson’s Pamela: Or Virtue Rewarded and Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock were ideal and mighty people who obtained their power in difficult and painful way. Both Pamela and Belinda, though burdened with troubles, managed to survive in the cruel world and establish their authority. Richardson and Pope revealed all the negative points of gender inequality and showed the women’s sensuality and hidden gift to stir strong and sincere emotions. Men and women’s roles in society have come quite a long way, but still, women’s ability to create a sentimental response in others represents the only real power that they have.

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