How does Rossetti explore ideas about gender roles in ‘From the Antique’

How does Rossetti explore ideas about gender roles in ‘From the Antique’, ‘In the Round tower at Jhansi’, ‘No thank you, John’ and ‘Maude Clare’
‘Does it not appear as if the Bible was based upon understood unalterable distinction between men and women, their position, their duties, privileges?’: A question that Rossetti challenges throughout this collection, exploring how her characters conform or rebel against the expected gender roles that society abided by. Although, Rossetti seems to stand on the border regarding her perspective: did she to want to criticize the lack of equality between men and women in order to start a movement in society or did she simply want to express the possible limitations of gender and continue to hold on to her deeply religious prospects?
Rossetti highlights how undervalued women were within all walks of life during the Victorian period. This is evident from the first stanza of ‘From the Antique’ where the female persona stresses her desires through the repetition ‘I wish I wish I were a man’. The alliteration Rossetti has included in this line further emphasizes the speaker’s desperation for a change in society yet, it seems unclear whether this reflects Rossetti’s point of view, who was an anachronist, who believed women should only be respected not equally political. Rossetti even went to the extent of signing a petition against female suffrage therefore these actions she took contrast with the desperate tone of the dramatic monologue. Syntactically, Rossetti perhaps structured this line so the pronoun ‘I’ dominates the phrasing ironically as women were far from having dominance over men in Victorian society. Alternatively, this feeble perception of women differs to the female in ‘No thank you, John’ where she uses her rights to turn down a man who seems to value her very much as so do the audience as they seem to admire her independence. She asserts her unexpected authority in the blunt opening ‘I never said I loved you John’. The negative adverb ‘never’ creates a strong, adamant statement – unusual for a woman in a patriarchal society – and this confidence that’s she maintains contrasts to the meek and submissive feminine ideal of the time. She gains admiration and is valued by us – the modern readers – as she presents herself as a self-assured woman who will not be bullied into a relationship because a man or social convention more generally demands it. In spite of this, to consider a contemporary viewpoint, perhaps the speaker would be unvalued based on her supposed foolish decision to not get married and they may interpret from this unexpected, hyperbolic confidence that maybe the persona is trying to compensate for her ‘irrational’ decision that may haunt her beyond her refusal given the roles of women. To contrast further, in ‘Maude Clare’, despite being portrayed as majestic and confident with further connotations of beautiful and greatness as seen in the simile ‘Maude Clare was like a queen’, Rossetti succeeds at showing yet another female how they have become a victim of society’s conventions. Rossetti structures the ballad with each character having their own stanza for their dialogue perhaps highlighting the segregation and separation between different social classes. Yet to go into further depth, although Maude Clare has the most dialogue, Rossetti displays the harsh reality of the Victorian era through the absence of responses Maude gets from the other characters, showing how undervalued she has become simply being an unmarried, fallen women. Their lack of integration mimics the bitter dynamics between the different classes which is reluctant to change. She achieves through these poems at exhibiting women’s small and futile roles in society that scandalously Rossetti maybe believed that this was the correct place for women as she pursues the deeply religious beliefs of a devout Christian.
Rossetti criticizes stereotypical masculinity in her collection, sometimes portraying the man’s actions as heroic or emphasizing their underlining weaknesses. A courageous and brave male character is depicted in ‘The Round Tower at Jhansi’ where Skene is proven to be making sacrifices and protecting his wife. This interjection of speech “‘Will it hurt much? – ‘No, mine own:” reflects how Skene is quick to console and reassure his wife that he’ll be her safeguard. There seems to be more caesura used in the wife’s speech – who remains nameless, signifying how she loses her identity being married – than Skene’s dialogue which perhaps reflects how she is speaking fast with stutters and pauses to emphasize her heightened fear and angst that she has towards the Rebellion that’s approaching the tower. Subsequently, Skene seems to calm her with his assuring responses showing his protective masculine qualities. Maybe being a male, he acts before he thinks, believing the only way to deal with being outnumbered is to commit homicide and by killing her he knows she will not be subject to the horrors of being in a war situation. It’s difficult to interpret whether the sacrifices he makes is an act of agape for his wife or a spur of the moment blunder that he carries out to show his dominance. However, Thomas in ‘Maude Clare’ essentially is a critique of stereotypical masculinity. He doesn’t live up to the dominant role and seems to be overpowered by Maude Clare particularly when she approaches him and ‘he faltered in his place’. The verb ‘faltered’ has connotations of wavering and weakness suggesting he’s barely able to stutter Maude’s name or look in her direction. Nonetheless, Thomas still seems to maintain the highest status in the poem conveying to the audience how he doesn’t need to speak or project himself to hold the supremacy because he simply is a man whereas Maude Clare has to seek attention and speak out to even be considered as worthy and by the end of the ballad, she continues t be overlooked and seems to be branded with a permanent status of a fallen woman. In comparison, the speaker in ‘No thank you, John’ comments on the indignant and parochial attitude men had towards women in the Victorian era who didn’t comply with what they wanted. There appears to be an ongoing, imagined conversation through the poem; After she rejects his proposal, she seems to respond to the implied listener (John) with “I have no heart? -Perhaps I have not.” The use of the rhetorical question and echoing what is thought to be John’s reaction to her refusal shows the female speaker wit and fearlessness in standing up to him. You could argue that John fits the stereotypical masculine ideal; Denied of sexual pleasure, he ricochets the blame on to her yet, the speaker’s brilliance lies within her retaliations which achieve at blowing his ego: ‘I’d rather say no to fifty Johns than answer yes to you’ and showing off her unwavering bravery and resilience. Rossetti further exposes stereotypical masculinity through the speaker’s choice of lexis as she adopts a typically masculine voice: ‘Lets mar our pleasant days no more… Let us strike hands as hearty friends”. The semantic field of war and business terms paired with the imperatives suggests a meeting of equals which would not have been typical between men and women at the time. The speaker wants to prove that women can take on these so-called masculine qualities as well and don’t need to be dutiful to the men around them. Yet it’s questionable if Rossetti idolized these fiery, feminine character; it could be argued that she could empathize with both Maude Clare and the ‘No thank you john’ speaker as she turned down two proposals in her lifetimes and lived as a spinster. However, her Christian beliefs tended to set her against any radical questioning of the status quo at the time and Rossetti still seemed to be in favour of men having the higher status, following the guidelines of the Bible ‘The man is the head of the woman, the woman the glory of the man.’

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