In Her Own Voice: Female Characters in 19th Century Literature

Byam Shaw [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The narrators of “Ligeia” (1838) and The Blithedale Romance (1852) are similar in their unreliability and their sex. These two center on female characters, yet they are written from a male point of view. It is difficult, near impossible, to judge a narrator as reliable when he speaks for others, but also when outside factors are affecting him as well.

So, how does a female character, under these conditions, gain her own voice? Is it possible for a female character to overtake a story which is being told by a male narrator? The answers to these questions must be explored individually, though there are similarities in both stories. One must also take into account the time period in which these stories were written and, thus, how a woman was typically perceived, not only in literature, but in general.  

First, to understand why the characters in “Ligeia” and The Blithedale Romance must work harder to speak for themselves, we must recognize the limitations of the narrator. The most obvious factor in the oppression of these female characters is that the narrators of both stories are male. This fact makes it impossible for the reader to trust either completely. Since a male narrator cannot possibly comprehend what any female character is truly thinking, feeling, or desiring, it is up to the characters to find a way of speaking for themselves.

Also, each narrator has an overwhelming outside factor pressing on his mind while telling his tale. In “Ligeia,” the narrator is constantly abusing drugs. His “wild visions, opium-engendered” call attention to the fact that anything he says may in fact be a figment of his own imagination (74). In The Blithedale Romance, the narrator seems pure and honest; however, his desire from the beginning is to write a story. Therefore, we know he is writing for an audience, which means he is choosing and changing words carefully to fit his scenes. He is even known to “attempt to sketch, mainly from fancy” stories which he later presents as fact (190).  

Edgar Allan Poe’s “Ligeia” is a tale of love, or rather, lust; it is a tale of obsession. The narrator falls for a beautiful, exotic woman who is not only striking in physical appearance, but in mental capacity. He writes, “I have spoken of the learning of Ligeia: it was immense – such as I have never known in a woman.” This praise, however, is only declared after Ligeia has been long deceased. The poor man does not realize until his wife has died what a true intellectual marvel she was, declaring that he “saw not then what I now clearly perceive, that the acquisitions of Ligeia were gigantic, astounding” (66). He was too obsessed with what a prize he had caught, with “how vast a triumph” he had achieved by taking her as his own, to appreciate what an incredible woman, indeed more learned than any man he has ever known, was she.

So, it is “in death only” that our narrator becomes “fully impressed with the strength of her affection” (67).  Impressed enough, it seems, that his twisted mind somehow creates a new Ligeia, a living Ligeia, from the body of his second wife. This is how Ligeia writes back to our dear, misunderstood narrator; she returns from the dead, by means of his simple mind, and becomes another sort of companion for him. The obsession, or as Margaret Fuller (Woman in the Nineteenth Century) may have called it, “idolatry,” takes the place of his original lust and of the “intellectual companionship” which their marriage was founded upon. Ligeia, who, for all her breath-taking qualities and accomplishments could not truly gain the respect of her husband, comes back from the dead (at least he thinks so) only after he has acknowledged the wonder that she was. 

Like “Ligeia,” Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance contains characters who take their women for granted, male characters who only comprehend the affect of women after it is too late. Take, for instance, the character Zenobia. At the start of the story, she is a vocal feminist who speaks up for other women, for equality and respect; however, these thoughts are immediately subdued by Hollingsworth when he says that woman “is the most admirable handiwork of God, in her true place and character. Her place is at a man’s side” (122). That Zenobia concedes to this idea seems preposterous at first, until one takes into consideration the time period this tale was written. It was, in fact, believed that a woman was required to do her man’s bidding. Had the story ended there, the male narrator would have had the last laugh. However, the story continues and, as in “Ligeia,” the suffocated female character eventually triumphs in death. Zenobia drowns herself, and the memory of her, the ghost of “a single murder” which should have never happened, haunts Hollingsworth throughout his lifetime (243). 

A second female character who is suppressed throughout The Blithedale Romance but eventually gains all that she hoped for is Priscilla. We know from the scene at the pulpit that Priscilla holds “entire acquiescence and unquestioning faith” in Hollingsworth (123). It is Priscilla’s wish to be united with Hollingsworth, and to have his love for all time. Though she speaks little throughout the story, her actions are enough to detail this for the reader. At the second visit to Eliot’s pulpit, it is pointed out that Hollingsworth stands “with Priscilla at his feet” (212). In the end, it is not Zenobia, though she does haunt him forever, who walks beside Hollingsworth, but Priscilla. She was not given a voice by Coverdale, the narrator, but she did, nevertheless, achieve her goal.

It is not difficult to understand why women were not given a voice in early American literature by male authors. First, due to rigid gender roles in American society, a male author would not understand a woman well enough to accurately speak through her, so he was bound to speak for her. Secondly, the mentality of the time period suggested that a woman should be subservient to man. However, the greatest writers, like Poe and Hawthorne, did find ways for their female characters to take back what was stolen from them, to speak without words, even if subtly.

This technique was genius because it allowed the literature to “fit in” with other contemporary works; however, perceptive readers could decipher the difference. Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe, in their tales The Blithedale Romance and “Ligeia,” were able to create female characters who gained their own voice in spite of unreliable male narrators, a feat not easily achieved in Nineteenth Century literature.

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Burgess, Adam. "In Her Own Voice: Female Characters in 19th Century Literature." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Burgess, Adam. (2020, August 26). In Her Own Voice: Female Characters in 19th Century Literature. Retrieved from Burgess, Adam. "In Her Own Voice: Female Characters in 19th Century Literature." ThoughtCo. (accessed January 27, 2021).