‘In Arcadia and The French Lieutenant’s Woman the female characters challenge traditional gender stereotypes through their presentation as more intellectually curious, capable and liberated than men.” To what extent do you agree?
The playwright ‘Arcadia’, written by Tom Stoppard and the novel ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman (TFLW), written by John Fowles both can be considered feminist tests that tackle the issue of misogyny as well as sexism, with both pieces of texts exploring the challenges that women have had to face in history. Unlike Arcadia, Fowles’ ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman surrounds the troubles of how women were viewed in the Victorian era, whereas ‘Arcadia’ follows the aspects of objectifications of learning and a woman’s ability to simply do what men were able to. With characters that are set to define periodically set standards of women, Thomasina, Hannah, and Sarah help readers explore the capabilities of women in their allocated time periods. These characters are presented to be more intellectually curious, capable, and liberated than men, challenging the traditional gender stereotypes reinforced into society.
The characters involved in these texts all challenge the stereotypes of women enforced into society given their time period. Thomasina and Hannah both belong in the playwright of ‘Arcadia’ (set in the early 1800s and then ‘the present’), with both characters being more invested into their own knowledge than to be with a man, which troubles their situation due to societal pressures. Similarly, Sarah Woodruff (who belongs to the novel ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’) has challenges that come from society that reflects her role of being a lone woman who is seen as a ‘whore’ and outcast. In ‘Arcadia’, societal expectations reflect the expectation of women to favour and yearn to be a wife, and then to ultimately have their life’s purpose to raise children for the man. This plays into the discouraging response from both Thomasina and Hannah as they both would rather prolong their studies and work than to sacrifice and essentially throw their intelligence away to play a role rather than their own person. Thomasina is discouraged to continue to study as if she were ‘too educated’, it may reduce the chance of her being wedded which plays into the insecurities of men having females being greater than them in both society and in relationships. This relates to how Hannah is also expected to marry, despite having found satisfaction in her own work. She believes that marriage is suffocating, and how she wants to abandon the idea of being a simple wife who pleases her male partner in all aspects in life. This shows how despite the quite long time period jump, society’s deeply entrenched and rooted expectations of women had been carried along and applied to Hannah. In Fowles’ ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’, Sarah did not fit the periodic standard of a woman much like the female characters in ‘Arcadia’. Sarah doesn’t conform with societal standards of being a ‘home body’ (being set in the Victorian era) and instead to an extent seeks loneliness and wants to be an outcast. This goes against the strong Victorian expectation for women to be there for their husband to raise the children and to take care of the home, much like what Hannah is experiencing and what Thomasina had been pressured to execute. Sarah also states “I am nothing, I am hardly human anymore. I am the French Lieutenant’s whore”, after explaining to Charles of the false story she had created in order to push against the agenda of female reputation and to combat against the ‘lose — lose’ situation that female face in society.
Both texts also tackle the implementation and agenda of sexualization and objectification of women. In ‘Arcadia’, the thought and conversation regarding Cleopatra sparked by Septimus (the male tutor of Thomasina) triggers Thomasina’s opiniated response that deters from any admiration of Cleopatra. Thomasina had believed that Cleopatra was built on sexual desires, and that sex was the most notable thing about the historical figure. This relates to not only Thomasina’s knowledge of objectification and desire for a better purpose at such a young age, but also relates to how some females only gain notoriety due to their bodies or sexual presence. In Hannah’s case, she had found satisfaction in her work and had stated “Chaps sometimes wanted to marry me, and I don’t know a worse bargain. Available sex against not being allowed to fart in bed”. This quote freely and directly expresses how women are treated in society and their expected roles that have been deeply entrenched in misogyny history. The quote refers to Hannah through a male gaze, however, is said by a woman. She essentially displays herself as an object (for sex) and then relates her situation to a realistic approach that isn’t really accepted in society to be done by women as it may be seen as masculine (farting in bed). This helps readers see Hannah as an independent and strong woman, who clearly sways from societal expectations set in the time period. In a different comparison to ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’, it is displayed that the sexual desires and sexualization of things were so heavily suppressed in the Victorian era, despite the population being so involved in sexual activities themselves. This poses a strong hypocritical insight from society, which displays Sarah wanting ‘easy sex’ as a whore whilst in contrast if a man were to want ‘cheap sex’ it would be normalized. This plays into the way the sexualization and objectification of women is thrown in so casually in ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’, which helps promote the feministic aspect of the novel as it shows that men and women are really no different, and instead society’s roles create a fictional insight on reputation due to gender.
The women presented in the stories of ‘Arcadia’ and ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’ all seem to be more capable and liberated than the men presented in the story. In ‘Arcadia’, Septimus is presented as a supporter of feminism. Being the tutor of Thomasina, he is a supporter of women and does not necessarily judge how women conduct themselves sexually and genuinely doesn’t mind. He simply respects women, as such men should do. Charles is another male character who supports women and doesn’t necessarily judge, as he also seeks to capture Sarah’s love despite being engaged to society’s ‘perfect woman’. The women presented in these stories all are presented in a way where stories do not particularly depict woman — smart, in control, and in the case of Sarah, manipulative (to an extent). ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’ displays Sarah as being manipulative in order to gain Charles’s trust, which ultimately plays into the theme of the woman character being the smarter one and outsmarting the foolish male. In comparison to ‘Arcadia’, both female characters Hannah and Thomasina are no strangers to intelligence, with Stoppard making it clear from the beginning that these characters were intelligent and (on the way to or are) successful, formally and continuing to normalize the intelligence of woman and further disapproving of the negative outlook of women being just an ‘accessory’ to men. As these women do not conform to societal standards, they are much more liberated than their male characters even though the system is built for them. It shows that, yes, woman can manipulate for their own personal gain much like how men have been for centuries, and yes, woman can be smart too and it doesn’t have to be a special occurrence.
To conclude, I do agree that the female characters in both Tom Stoppard’s ‘Arcadia’ and John Fowles’ ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’ do challenge traditional gender stereotypes through their presentation as being more intellectually curious, capable, and liberated than men. Sarah Woodruff, Thomasina, and Hannah all represent an idealistic woman who combats against gender stereotypes, and despite the different settings and time periods, all convey the same message that women are simply mistreated by society and that the patriarchy constantly puts unrealistic expectations on the female gender.
O. (2020, October 21). Feminism in The French Lieutenants Woman and Arcadia. Medium. https://medium.com/@lehanjayatilake/feminism-in-the-french-lieutenants-woman-and-arcadia-18b600db78d1
Thomasina Coverly Character Analysis in Arcadia. SparkNotes. https://www.sparknotes.com/drama/arcadia/character/thomasina-coverly/
Fowles, J. (n.d.). Sexuality and Gender Theme in The French Lieutenant’s Woman. LitCharts. https://www.litcharts.com/lit/the-french-lieutenant-s-woman/themes/sexuality-and-gender
Fowles, J. (1969). The French Lieutenant’s Women (Ninth Printing ed.). Little Brown & Co.
Fleming, J. (2009). Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia (Modern Theatre Guides) (0 ed.). Continuum.