How to survive the XIXth century as a woman?

What is the message of XIXth century-literature about unorthodox women? Actually most of them ended up in the cemetery.


Anna Karenina,  despite being a married aristocrat, indulges in a love affair. She is deterred from divorce by the pressure of social convictions. The community despises her because of the illegitimate cohabitation, in contrast her lover is free to participate in society. Growing increasingly paranoid, she throws herself under a train and dies.

Madame Bovary,  a doctor’s wife, finds her married life dull and motherhood a disappointment. Her lust for luxury results in an unsurmountable debt, which leads to her suicide.

Tess of the d’Urbervilles, after being raped gives birth to a child who soon dies. Later in her life, she and her spouse confess their past affairs. Although she forgives her spouse, the man can not. She finds shelter at her former abuser, which later impedes her reunion with her spouse once the man has accepted her past. She kills her actual partner in dispair, which results her execution.

These Russian, French and British classics, reflecting the culture of their age, have influenced vast audiences. In the depicted societies, women faced severe sexual double standards and they got viciously penalized for unconventional longings.

How could these heroines have avoided death?

First of all, Anna should have accepted that her duty was to live for others by setting aside her own wishes and interests. She defied the common knowledge suggesting that female character be in contrast to mannish self-will and government by self-control and that becoming wife at the altar emcompassed total and final submission to her husband.

Secondly, Madame Bovary was supposed to know that a woman’s mission was equal to a devoted wife and mother. Living in the XIXth century, she should have been aware of this dictum as higher education and professional work were closed to her. Besides ladies were usually supposed to conceal their mental capabilities.

Finally, Tess of the d’Urbervilles became victim to the public disdain because of losing virginity before marriage. Despite the abuse, she fell into the category of „fallen women” who threatened the respectable society by rejecting the value of purity. Ladies could seek marriage to become mothers instead of seeking sexual or emotional satisfaction.


I am wondering what our contemporary works will message to posterity.


Source: John Mill The subjection of women


  1. Cohabitation with the opposite sex is one of the most dangerous situation to get involved in for women. The numbers of abuse against women is staggering. If refrigerators had those numbers of failure, they would be banned.
    If I was a woman I would run away from most men like the clapper.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I’m a women’s sympathiser, and things are changing, but oh so very slowly, and the old male attitudes still prevail very deeply, in most societies and different cultures around the world…..

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Interesting questions to ponder this morning. I remember reading Kate Chopin’s The Awakening and Henry James’ Daisy Miller, having similar thoughts about society’s beliefs wreaking havoc on their ability to love or be loved. I still struggle with how difficult it was, not seeing it happen today on the same levels, annoyed women were treated in such a manner. Yet when you look at things with an acute eye, it’s definitely still happening. More books have happy endings for women now, but there’s always a painful and harsh reality that occurs before you get there.

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  4. Women have been treated like chattel for a long time. The advent of the plow, which favored men’s superior upper body strength, was the end of any kind of gender equity (previously, as gatherers, women had brought in at least as much food as the men, and more regularly).

    Once men stopped viewing women as equals, things go downhill quickly.

    Then comes the concept of property. Of owning land. Of men wanting to make sure their property went to their offspring.

    Now, not only are women viewed as property themselves, but they are the only means men have to insure that they have children. So her sexuality must be completely controlled.

    It’s a hard road to climb from here. It helps that physical strength no longer much matters when it comes to wealth generation. Look at Bill Gates. It also helps that so many women no longer die in childbirth. It helps more than we can control when we have children.

    But it’s still a long climb. Rape is still under reported and under prosecuted. Domestic violence is not treated as the crime it should be. And sexual harassment and discrimination is still rampant (take a look at Uber and all of Silicone Valley).

    We’ve come a long way, but we still have a long way to go. It’s worth the work.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. A very good post. And yes, the 19th century is so close, and yet so distant.
    Still, despite all that remains to be done, a lot has been achieved. My grandmother was born in the 19th century. French women were “granted” the right to vote in 1946. She was 56 when she could vote for the first time. My other grandmother never did, she died during WWII.
    When I went to College (Busines school) in the 70’s there were 15-20% of women. NO more. Now they are 55-60%.
    My grandmother’s sister wanted to be a Doctor, she couldn’t and “settled” for nursing. Died in WWI. My daughter is now the first doctor in the family, and women are taking “over” that profession. (Still too many men in power in the health system, but that will change)
    We’ve come a long way.

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  6. Yes, women’s suffrage was a very symbolic step. Nowadays I can see male cashiers at supermarkets, which was very uncommon 10 years ago. I often hear male middle-aged customers grumble about this while queuing. 🙂


  7. Being someone who strongly believes in feminist ideology my heart bleeds with sorrow whenever I witness females being oppressed in any way. Females are the creators & preservers of the society, they build up the society & nurture it with their unconditional love & support, yet they are victimized by the same society which they constructively create with their blood, sweat & tears. I’m glad that you raised this important issue, I sincerely hope that females are given the respect that they truly deserve & aren’t reduced to helpless victims of the insensitive society. Thanks for expressing & sharing sure strong thoughts! According to your convenience please do read some of my writings would love to know what you think about them 🙂

    Warm Regards,

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I reread Karenina recently and I must say I was thin on sympathy for her, but times are a-changing. Think of intrepid female journalists in war zones. I’m not made of that stuff, unfortunately. 🙂

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  9. Interesting. I have read all these novels many years ago, but we had to study Russian classics a lot since those times Latvia was still in the USSR. I don’t think such a character as Anna Karenina could survive, and if she had in that particular situation and in that particular country in that particular period of time, the end would not be better if she stayed alive. The despair and humiliation, as well as exclusion from her normal circle, a single fallen women would have hardly any chances to survive, unless she’d work as a prostitute. By the moral rules of those times in Russia she was already a prostitute, so, no honest man would actually want to seriously be in touch with her.
    It’s amazing how you analysed this, but the story was so famous just because of the specifics of her strong and fragile character. She wasn’t just any woman, but at the same time she represented the depressing reality of how bad a situation of women were. I actually believe to understand motives of Karenina, one really must understand a lot about Russian history and how even very educated women meant nothing much. It was a total patriarchate, and women could neither look for a job, nor obtain education, nor move 15 miles away from husband without his explicit permission.
    I don’t think it really compares to nowadays Canada, USA or Europe. I’ve never seen somebody having more freedom and rights than women have now.
    Private life is private and we all make choices.
    When we are talking about crimes against women, nowadays crimes are absolutely different, and most often take their origin in the very low moral standards, or should I say: we don’t have any clear moral anymore. A society where everything is allowed and nothing is taboo is at risk of moral degradation.

    Liked by 1 person

    • We had to read Russian classics at the age of 15-16. I think that the vast majority of teenager girls supposed this fiction to be a romantic love story. At the age of 30+, after working for 10 years, I reread it. I had to realise that it is far from a romantic love story, it is a realistic depiction of societies. At school these facts were only mentioned but not strongly enough (I think deliberately) to transfer the message about the real situation of women.
      You are right that nowadays the situation is far better. However, we should not conceil the fact that we are highly dependent on our employers even if we can choose them.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Surprisingly you may have thought that we have moved on from the past and learned to be forwardthinking but in a lot of Asian cultures, these behaviors are still very much frown upon of and women are still bound by duty as a daughter, a wife to follow traditional rules which are obsolete.

    Liked by 1 person

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