Women, for many decades, had assigned roles in literature with authors following the rules of society that tell them how to portray females in their plays and other art forms. Women in literature were maidens or sirens, wives or prostitutes, and most heroines had to be pure, innocent, and virginal.
As the literary form known as the novel came into being, women started to be portrayed a little bit differently than before. One of the writers who took advantage of this was Eliza Haywood, whose short story Fantomina: Love in a Maze, helped break the rules of how women were portrayed in fiction by making its heroine a sexually curious young woman who desires a man sexually, a role only men had played previously in novels.
Several hundred years later, Edward Albee captured the changing gender roles in America after the Women’s Rights Movement and both World Wars, in a time that was beginning to push for social changes with the Civil Rights Movement and the First wave of Feminism. The cultivation of these ideas comes out in his most famous play: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf? where he challenges the typical stereotype of gender roles in a marriage. Both authors challenge the typical roles of women in literature by portraying their main female character as being the opposite of society’s expectations of what a woman should be, despite the fact that the time periods each author wrote in had a very different climate concerning the rights of women and the topics of sexuality and marriage.
Fantomina and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf center on two very different women, both of who are the exact opposite of society’s expectations for the role that they, as women, must play. They differ in how each author portrays these women and the time period each author wrote them in.
The unnamed heroine in Fantomina is filled with sexual desire for Beauplaisir, a man she disguises herself for to keep herself interesting for sexually. The heroine, whom for simplicity’s sake will be called Fantomina, was written in a time when women had very few rights and were basically property of their husbands or fathers. Fantomina disregards social roles of the time when she thinks: “Men…have no cause to scorn our easy weeping, wailing sex!” (Haywood 2754) Fantomina defies both of these rules by having no father mentioned, and no husband to speak of, and is instead subservient to her mother, Beauplaisir, and her own sexual desires. Despite this, she still believes she is in control of her own situation by doing “beyond what almost any woman but herself ever did” (Haywood 2745). Her new-found power in her sexuality makes her desire freedom as she never has before. She does not understand women’s desire to “make their life a hell, burning in fruitless expectations, and dreaming out their ways in hopes and fears, then wake at last to all the horror of despair” (Haywood 2751). Though eventually she tires of her taste of sexual freedom, having bitten off more than she can chew, by becoming bored with Beauplaisir: “she began to grow as weary of receiving his now insipid caresses as he was of offering them” (Haywood 2756). Even though she is, in the end, submissive to her mother’s control, Fantomina is the exact opposite of what society tells her to be by acting on her sexual urges and fulfilling her desires in a time when women were meant to be virgins before marriage.
Martha, the main female character of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf may be as lusty as Fantomina is, but besides their lusty dispositions, the two heroines are extremely different. Martha does not take no for an answer. She is loud and crude, while Fantomina is innocent and naïve. Martha is a middle-aged wife, while Fantomina is merely a young woman. Fantomina nearly worships her lover, Martha, on the other hand, calls her husband a “FLOP! A great big fat flop!” (Albee 84). When Albee was writing Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf, the idea woman was represented in the T.V. sitcom “Leave it to Beaver” character June Cleaver: she was the perfect wife, always in the kitchen, obedient, loving, and motherly. Martha is none of the above. Martha is abusive to her husband, she does not take orders, she is cruel to George, and she is childless, and the only time she steps foot in the kitchen is to pour herself another drink. George, her husband, even remarks on how Martha is constantly “ridiculing [him], tearing [him] down” (Albee 91). Martha even punches George during a humiliating boxing match, which counts as physical abuse, even if she does it as a jest. She threatens her husband when he tries to stand up to her: “I’ll make you sorry you made me want to marry you…I’ll make you regret the day you ever decided to come to this college. I’ll make you sorry you ever let yourself down” (Albee 173). Martha defies nearly every aspect of what the fifties’ and sixties’ society thought women should be.
Haywood wrote Fantomina centuries before Edward Albee was even born, long before the idea of women’s rights came into formation. This shows in her writing and plotting at the end of the story where Fantomina is forced to redeem herself after “sinning” and “degrading herself” with her lover by becoming a nun. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf? does not have a tacked-on ending and Martha never attempts to redeem herself for her actions, nor is she forced to by society. Albee wrote the character of Martha during a time when American societal and gender norms were beginning to be challenged. The Women’s Rights Movement had happened fifty years earlier, and the Feminist Movement was about to take place. Men had left for war only to return home to find that their wives had taken their place at the head of the household, becoming the breadwinner by themselves. Martha challenges the typical role of females in entertainment at the time by representing the male fear of what this “new, independent” woman could be: pushy, rude, and mean. Both writers use their heroines to challenge social norms, but for Haywood her story of Fantomina comes off as a cautionary tale of girls who give in to their sexual desires, while Albee directly challenges American society’s rules through the character of Martha.
Despite the differences between the two main characters and the time period both stories were written in, Albee’s play and Haywood’s story both feature two strong women who, perhaps unconsciously, attempt to defy stereotypical roles of women at the time their story is set. Fantomina does not succeed in her quest for lust and independence, as few women did at that time, while Martha, though she is independent, ends the play in tears, having been broken down—not by society as Fantomina was—but by her own treacherous womb, unable to conceive. Martha’s independent nature and her abusive behavior is shown to be a façade, something for her to hide behind so that she can forget about the pain she feels inside. Both characters were born too early; their personalities are those of twenty-first century women: free, independent, and able to do what they want when they want to. Neither fully succeeds in obtaining the freedom they want because someone or something inside of them pulls them back to their harsh, unfeeling reality. Society and its beliefs is a chain around their necks, pulling them back into the dark waters of obedience and silence and while Fantomina drowns in the watery grave society has made for her, others, like Martha, keep swimming, reaching for the light and the freedom that awaits for them above. These two characters, and others like them, have helped, in one way or another, pave the way for stronger, more iconic female characters to appear on the literary scene. By defying society’s rules of how a woman should be written, Haywood and Albee have, whether they meant to or not, shown that women in literature should not be simply labeled as Virgin Mary’s or Mary Magdalene’s, June Cleaver’s or terrible shrews—women in literature, like in life, can be as diverse as men are and should be.
Albee, Edward. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf? Signet, New York. 1983. Print.
Haywood, Eliza. Fantomina: Or, Love in a Maze. New York. Print.