Although the notion that love is a “woman’s whole existence” has been a powerful cultural myth, it is continually being challenged by women. Although women still play a role as lovers, their roles as mother, daughter, worker, and sister are also important as well. Today as well as in the past, love is important to women, yet it is not the only thing that they live for. If they do not have love, women are still able to live confidently and happily. Since women have more access to education and jobs now, they are more able to support themselves without relying on anyone else, especially a man, for financial and emotional support. These realities about women and their opportunities have contributed to challenging the notion that love is a “woman’s whole existence”. For over 200 years, British women novelists have especially addressed women’s abilities to sacrifice their love and consume themselves with things that are more important or at least, as important as love.
In the novels “Jane Eyre”, “The Mill on the Floss”, and “The Life and Loves of a She-Devil”, the British women writers have proven that love is not a “woman’s whole existence”. In all of these novels, the women characters have had to struggle against the temptation to give into love. The decision to renounce love have proven to be a wise choice for each of the women characters since it gave them the strength they needed to prevail over the many obstacles in their lives. Although it was difficult for the women characters to deny themselves of love, they were able to do so by drawing on such resources as their autonomy, intelligence, and family. Ultimately, by renouncing love and drawing on these resources, they were able to overcome the conflicts in their lives and become stronger women.
In Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre”, Jane temporarily renounces the love she has for Rochester after finding out that he already has a wife. In order to fight the temptation of being his lover and mistress, she relies on her autonomy, intelligence, and family. She demonstrates her autonomy when she leaves Thornfield and wanders into the world with only twenty shillings, the clothes on her body, and pieces of bread. By not bringing the jewelry that Rochester had given her and other valuable belongings, she is demonstrating that she can depend on herself for survival and does not need anyone else’s money to help her survive. The fact that she wanders out of Thornfield without any plans in mind, such as a proper destination, where she will get food, and whom she will seek shelter from also contribute to her autonomy. After leaving Thornfield, Jane makes use of her educational background and intelligence in order to support herself financially. By working as a school teacher at Morton, she is demonstrating that she can rely on her intellect and hard work instead of those of a man’s. Jane’s maternal cousins, John, Hannah, and Diana, also becomes a valuable resource to her after their union at Moorhouse. After enduring harsh treatment from the Reeds and having never met her mother’s side of the family for many years, Jane finds the warmth and comfort that she has been yearning for in her maternal cousins. In this way, she has succeeded in showing that romantic love is not a woman’s whole existence, and that a woman’s autonomy, intelligence, and family are also important elements in her life.
In George Eliot’s “The Mill on the Floss” the heroine, Maggie Tulliver, struggles against the temptation to love Stephen, her cousin’s fiancÃ?Â©. It was difficult for Maggie to renounce her love for Stephen as she often feels tempted to spend time with him, in such events as the boating trip, the walk outside of Lucy’s home, and the walk that took place during the Guests’ social gathering. During the struggle, she draws strength from her loyalties to her family members, particularly her duty to her brother, mother, and Lucy. For fear of ruining her reputation as well as the family name, she rejects Stephen’s marriage proposal. In this way, Maggie places greater importance on her obligations to her family than on her love for Stephen. After rejecting Stephen, Maggie does not show regret or remorse toward her rejection of Stephen; instead, she focuses on earning income to support herself and her family. By obtaining an employment as a governess for Dr. Kenn’s children, Maggie demonstrates that she, too, has the potential to contribute to the family’s earnings, even though she is a young woman and not a man. After all, up until that time, Tom was the only one earning income for the family. Maggie, thus, demonstrates that her dedication to her family and to her work is more important than loving a man.
Unlike Jane and Maggie, Ruth, the heroine in Fay Welden’s “The Life and Loves of a She-Devil”, triumphantly prevails over the idea of love without any remorse, temptations, or regrets. Up until she has been called a she-devil by Bobbo, Ruth has been extremely passive. She has permitted Bobbo to have an affair with other women, and has depended on him for such things as money and transportation. However, after enduring so much unhappiness in her marriage to Bobbo, she finally decides to seek revenge from him and his mistress, Mary Fisher. In order to do this, she had to rid herself of any compassion or love that she may have for humankind. In doing so she draws on her autonomy and intelligence for strength. Ruth’s autonomy is especially evident when she decides to leave her children and instead, place them under the care of Bobbo and Mary. Up until this decision, Ruth has always been a caring and affectionate mother to her children. Thus, the fact that she leaves her children as well as Bobbo shows that she is strong enough to sacrifice her love for her children and Bobbo. Ruth also demonstrates autonomy by taking on various identities and jobs, relocating to different areas, as well as skillfully adapting to the lifestyle that was required of each identity. Her ability to accomplish these things proves that she is ambitious and willing to do anything to succeed in her revenge. Ruth’s intelligence also becomes a valuable resource for her while she is carrying out her revenge. Through deception, she was able to transfer Bobbo’s clients’ money to her own personal account and make it appear as if Bobbo had embezzled that money from his clients. She also skillfully uses her charm, power of persuasion, and sex appeal to get others to facilitate her plan to ruin Bobbo and Mary Fisher. For example, in order to get Judge Bissop to give a harsh ruling in Bobbo’s alleged embezzlement case, she got the judge to trust her and even have sexual relationships with her. Other people that she had used to facilitate her revenge were Nurse Hopkins, Father Ferguson, Garcia, Mrs. Fisher, and Sarah. In the end, Ruth was successful in her revenge as Bobbo receives a prison sentence of 7 years and Mary Fisher loses her wealth, popularity, beauty, and her life. Overall, Ruth has succeeded in conquering the love that she has for Bobbo. By being autonomous and using her intelligence, she was able to exact revenge on Bobbo and Mary, the two people who had made her life miserable.
Through the heroines in their novels, Bronte, Eliot, and Welden challenges the cultural notion that love is a “woman’s whole existence” and proves that other elements may be more important or at least, as important as love. The heroines in their novels have shown that they can sacrifice love, and in doing so, ultimately make themselves stronger and even happier, to some extent. For one, because Jane had renounced her love for Rochester and depended on her own resources for survival, Jane has empowered herself as a woman. She has proven to herself as well as to Rochester that she can indeed live without the care, protection, and wealth provided by Rochester. After this realization, Jane is finally able to seek happiness and return to Rochester as his equal and most importantly, as his life partner. In this way, her renunciation of love has made her stronger and more confident in her own abilities. Maggie was also able to empower herself. By renouncing Stephen, she shows that love is not the only thing that a woman lives for. She shows that familial obligations and a woman’s ability to earn money are more important than giving into love. Although Maggie’s reputation becomes tarnished as people had believed that she had eloped with Stephen, Maggie rises above this setback and seeks comfort from her mother and her job. Ruth, on the other hand, is the most triumphant out of all three characters in renouncing love. By completely divesting herself of compassion, regrets, remorse, and temptation to give into love, she is able to empower herself and exert control over the lives of the people who had hurt her the most (Bobbo and Mary Fisher) as well as other people who proves to be beneficial to her quest for revenge. Overall, through the heroines in their novels, the British women novelist have successfully proven the notion that love is a “woman’s whole existence” false. In doing so, they are sending a message to society that women have the potential to become strong women who are able to live happy and financially secure lives without the help of anyone, except the help of their own personal resources.