How gender is challenged by two different pieces of writing…

5 min readNov 21, 2021

Throughout history, gender stereotypes have slowly emerged to become a predominant feature of a multitude of societies despite literatures efforts to challenge such principals. Inspired by the historical context of the Victorian era, the novel, The French Lieutenants Woman seeks to explore how women can utilise the societal norms to push their agendas. Similarly, a play called Arcadia written by Tom Stoppard, inspired by the social context of the romantic era, explores women’s curiosity through education in comparison to men, contrasting to the social norms of the time. Both texts are similar as they both traverse into women’s capability to have roles different to those set by societies standards, challenging the gender roles set by traditional gender stereotypes. However, both texts also reveal the magnitude of restrictiveness their respected societal conventions have placed onto women, leading women to eventually conform out of fear.

Tom Stoppard

Both texts explore women’s ability to enforce their agendas by challenging the traditional stereotypes expected by women of their respective periods. The social setting of the Victorian era in The French Lieutenant’s Woman emphasises how Sarah can reject to conform towards the “cult of domesticity,” that was expected of her. Sarah does this by manipulating Charles to enforce her plans. By lying to Charles by saying that she, “could not marry [the sailor], so [she] married shame,” Sarah is unveiled to have the ability to construe elaborate lies to reach her personal goals. In this case, it would be to evoke empathy for her towards Charles. This idea is reaffirmed when the narrator acknowledges that Sarah’s relationship with Charles was, “not about love, but about possession and territory.” Due to the novel being a work of metafiction, the omnipotent narrator understands all the events that transpire throughout the novel thus confirming Sarah’s insincere intentions. Sarah’s control over Charles during the novel is encapsulated in the second ending when Charles, “begs [Sarah] to continue,” their relationship after they had parted ways. Doing so demonstrates that regardless of what Sarah does, she will always be in control of Charles’s actions. Similarly, the historical setting of early 1800s England, in Arcadia explores women’s capability to find meaning, leading them towards being more liberated than men. Young Thomasina is portrayed as being more intellectually curious than men when she recognises that when pudding is stirred, a trail is left, “but if you stir backward, the jam will not come together again.” Despite her young age, Thomasina is revealed to be relatively inquisitive towards the complex mathematical idea of the principal of entropy. Hannah also ignores the traditional roles set by society by justifying not being married despite the “available sex,” as she would not be able to, “fart in bed.” By doing so, she can devote herself to study on her own accord making her appear more liberated. Hannah calls her society, “a romantic sham.” Reveals that she is unfazed by any potential backlash thus making her appear more capable than certain men. Both Stoppard and Fowles portray women as independent to make women appear stronger despite the hardships of their respective times in history.

Do you think this was the sort of setting Stoppard was trying to illustrate?

Arcadia and The French Lieutenant’s Woman show how women’s roles in society can contrast towards the gender stereotypes, making them appear more liberated as well as capable than men. The French Lieutenant’s woman utilises characterization by highlighting Sarah’s refusal to become a part of Victorian society. Sarah tells Charles that she is, “not to be understood,” confusing Charles as woman were meant to be understood easily by society. As such, Sarah contrasts with what was required of her during the Victorian time. As the narrator discusses Sarah, he underscores that the characters need to defy what was expected of them, as this is when they “begin to live.” In doing so, the omnipotent narrator confirms Sarah’s refusal to uphold what was expected of her. Arcadia utilises characterization by portraying Thomasina as mathematically able, despite most Mathematicians being men, contrasting towards the gender roles. Thomasina’s mathematical curiosity is made evident when she questions that if there, “is an equation for the curve like a ball … why not a rose?” Hence Thomasina is portrayed to be capable of questioning the environment around her, defying her expectations and consequently the gender stereotypes. Despite her being younger than other mathematicians, Thomasina’s initial curiosity concerning mathematics translates into her advancing the science by finding a method where, “all the forms of nature give up their numerical secrets and draw themselves through number alone.” Therefore, Thomasina is portrayed to be more able than the men she was competing with. Both Stoppard and Fowles portray women as being able to contrast what was expected of them, giving women a sense of independence.

Arcadia has widely been known as the play that examines how sex and science intertwine

However, while Stoppard and Fowles both challenge the traditional gender stereotypes enforced by their societies, they also illustrate instances in which women are forced to conform to traditional gender roles out of fear. The French Lieutenant’s Woman utilises a linear structure to slowly reveal the changes in women’s role throughout the novel. While Sarah is talking to Charles, she says that he is, “educated to be something better,” acknowledging the injustice that women experience. Despite her mental strength, she is portrayed to have been conforming to the inequality throughout the novel. Ernestina follows the traditional roles expected of Victorian Woman by being frightened of the “pain and brutality [copulation] requires.” She believes that doing so would provide a long-lasting marriage to her husband. However, Ernestina’s husband, Charles growing disdain towards her is incrementally sculpted, eventually resulting in their separation. These events transpiring confirm that Ernestina had been complying with gender roles due to her fear of her husband leaving her, rather than for her benefit. Arcadia uses a non-linear structure to juxtapose the advancements made in female empowerment against the restrictions placed on females’ knowledge. Thomasina’s natural curiosity concerning intercourse is illustrated when she asks her tutor, “is it the same as love,” to which he replies, “it is much nicer than that,” squandering her initial curiosity. Thomasina’s change of emotion infers that she had accepted her tutor’s inability to provide her with a simple response due to its taboo nature. Septimus is told to, “keep [Thomasina] in ignorance,” showing that her mother, as well as her tutor, are actively attempting to limit her knowledge. Both texts acknowledge the restrictions that had been placed on women.

Due to this, it has been widely debated by critics whether The French Lieutenant’s woman is a feminist novel

Both Stoppard and Fowles explore how woman can utilise gender stereotypes in order to push their own agendas, making woman appear tougher, as well as how woman can contrast in comparison to what was expected of them of their respected time, making woman appear as more independent. However, both texts also acknowledge the magnitude of restriction that had been placed on woman.




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