Virgins, wives and whores in the eighteenth century ironic myths.
Juvenal, Satire VI
William Hogarth's prints titled "A Harlot's Progress", Alexander Pope's Rape of the Lock and John Gay's Beggar's Opera create mock-heroic or mock-romantic worlds, in which women are cast as virgins, wives or whores in general. Under the apparent moralizing tone of satirical language, these works tend to reflect the evil face of the prostitute both in the virgin and the wife as an archetypal double. To understand how Moll, Belinda and Polly become such duplicitous signs, it is essential to understand how satirical language makes use of mythical understanding.
As Northrop Frye explains in Anatomy of Criticism, satire arises out of an ironic tension between the mythical idealistic and the realistic forms of experience: "As structure, the central principle of ironic myth is best approached as a parody of romance: the application of romantic-mythical forms to a more realistic content which fits them in unexpected ways" (223). In the works we analyze, the idealized experience initially evoked in the reader's mind clashes with a realistic world teeming with actual problems of the eighteenth century society. As a result, the author's or the artist's attitude towards his characters involve an implicit moral standard, or sometimes, double standard against which the innocence of the female characters are measured. As Frye explains, "satire is irony which is structurally close to the comic: the comic struggle of two societies, one normal and the other absurd, is reflected in its double focus of morality and fantasy" (224).
Roland Barthes uses different terms to describe the same phenomenon: myth is the second order of speech and it is parasitic upon the first one, that is, the ordinary language we use, therefore it is a sort of "metalanguage" (115). To understand the signification process of this metalanguage, we need a whole set of values: history, geography, morality, literature etc. Myth is by no means limited to verbal language. Even objects and pictures can speak to us if we know their language. Pictures, Barthes contends, "become a kind of writing as soon as they are meaningful: like writing, they call for a lexis" (110). In Hogarth's prints, for example, similar details are used in different prints to complement the message carried out in the series of prints as a whole. As a result, small details in a single picture work like certain words that emphasize the meaning in a sentence.
To make better sense of how satire works in general, we can say that it is a realistic check on mythical understanding. While all the value systems implied by an idealistic worldview act as the first order of "speech", the second order of satirical speech subverts this first order through displacement. For example, when the typical heroine of a romance, who is supposed to be superior to others and to the environment finds herself in an ironic myth, she has to come to terms with the unsavory truth that she is not fortune's favorite. The romantic heroine gradually becomes the parody of her own image. All the supernatural powers she is supposed to have and the magical encounters which would lead her out of harm's way in a typical romance turn against her, only to lay bare worldly vices and follies of a common, antiheroic, anti-romantic individual. This is what happens to all of the three female characters that we analyze in this study.
Satires involving aristocratic characters work as anti-romantic agents of disenchantment that project the world not as it should be, but as it is. This, however, does not always work on women's behalf. As Mc Creery (The Satirical Gaze) explains, of the five thousand satirical visual prints held by the British Museum dated between 1760 and 1800, approximately two thousand deal with women: Prints of women as men's sexual partners form by far the largest category, which includes images of wives, courtesans, and especially prostitutes. "Both the prostitute and the artist" Mc Creery claims, "used the women's beauty and expression to attract customers-the prostitute through her gaze, the artist through the print" (41).
The painter and print-maker, William Hogarth, portrays cheats, delusions, dead conventions and false ideals, to which lower classes women were subject. As Riding remarks, his representations of London urban life were "more ambitious than the typically scatological disorderliness evoked in cheap satires", and they bore little resemblance to the idealized "genteel perspective views of the city" (16). His approach towards common life involved a deep individualized understanding of personal drama, revitalized by ironic humor. In a series of six paintings and prints titled "A Harlot' Progress", completed in 1732, Hogarth dramatizes the downfall of Moll Hackabout, a young country virgin drawn to the vanity of bourgeois lifestyle and the false promises of a loose life lurking in the back streets of London. 1200 copies of the prints of this series were sold at the time (Hogarth 26) As Brewer and Bullough explain, "[a]t a time when it was considered improper to talk about the sexuality of proper women, men could put all their fantasies on to the prostitute or courtesan. English society at the time tolerated men having a variety of sexual experiences and partners, but not women" (16).
The first three plates of Hogarth's "A Harlot's Progress" series illustrate best the irony of the romantic myth of a country woman achieving wealth and happiness in the upper class world of the city. Moll's aspiration to a life of fashionable dresses, furniture and servants makes her fall prey first to a bawd and a rake. In Plate I (1) Moll is portrayed as a young maid who has just arrived from country to London. While she is looking for a job, probably as a servant, she is approached by a brothel keeper. The dark spots on this woman's face implies that she has syphilis, which can be found on the face appearing as patches.
Behind Moll, a clergyman is busy looking at the address on a letter, and his horse disturbs a pile of pots and pans while trying to find something to eat. In many of his prints, Hogarth uses animals to symbolize human psychology. While the clergyman turns his back on prostitution and the criminal activities taking place before him, Moll, like the clergyman's horse behind her, initiates her own downfall as she is also searching for a means of survival. The tumbling of kitchenware acts as a symbol for the initiation of turbulence in Moll's life in the next plate. In the right hand corner a wealthy rake, with hands in his pockets, is observing Moll intently. Moll appears to be the whitest figure in the scene, and the imminent death of her innocence is represented through a limp, white bird in the lower right-hand corner of the picture. The full blown rose on Moll's dress contrasts with the modesty and simplicity of her country attire and perhaps it signals Moll's evil side, her eagerness to become a part of her corrupt surroundings.
Hogarth's attitude towards Moll's downfall moves from possible sympathy towards satirical condemnation through his employment of mockery in the second picture of the series. Here, Moll is depicted as the kept mistress of a wealthy Jew. He seems to have interrupted a love scene between Moll and her aristocratic young lover, who is trying to sneak out of the room in the background with the help of a maidservant. In the lower left corner, Hogarth creates a mirror image of Moll's bodily posture in the figure of a chimpanzee dressed in women's clothes. The resemblance between the facial expressions of the chimpanzee and the Jew is also striking. The figure of the chimpanzee draws the onlooker's attention to the discrepancy between reality and appearance. Despite all her efforts, Moll cannot become anything but a poor imitation of an aristocratic lady, and all her love affairs are doomed to fail, since she needs men's money to finance her life style. The white mask on the table to the left seems to point to the fact that Moll has now taken off her mask of innocence to take part in a loose life involving servants, lovers and luxury.
In Plate III Moll finds herself in Drury Lane (2) (The word "Drury" is etched on the pewter pots), the most notorious street for prostitution in the eighteenth century, in much worse surroundings than those depicted in the previous plate. Now, she is obviously involved in a life of crime as well as prostitution. She is holding a watch in her hand which might have been given to her by a famous criminal, John Dalton, whose name is written on the wig box standing on the screen above the bed. The gentlemen at the door are a band of constables who have come to arrest her (3). The most striking satirical image in the picture is the cat on heat displaying its rear end to the viewer. Hogarth mocks the animal instincts of sex unchecked by morality embodied in prostitutes like Moll. From this point onward, Moll finds herself in a much lower condition than the one she began in. In prison, she is forced to do menial work which reinforces her original class identity. The last two scenes from her life show her suffering from syphilis in a destitute condition, without even a bed to die on.
While Hogarth's Moll is a satire of the type of woman devoured by the glitter and grandeur of a class to which she does not belong, the rightful members of this class become the target of satire in Pope's mock epic The Rape of the Lock. According to Koehler "Mock genres continually defamiliarize both their lofty and low planes, acting as an endlessly prolific source of disruption and thus of attention" (67). As Koehler further explains, mock heroics demand a "parallel processing of diverse and discordant stimuli" (67) from the reader. The reader has to take into account both high and lowly aspects of the subject treated, or, both the first literal order of common speech and the mythical order of meta-reflective ironic speech of. Highborn lords and ladies with lowborn aims are a constant resource of mock genres. Well- bred lords pursue not only common maids like Moll, but also gentle belles like Belinda. In his dedicatory preface to The Rape of the Lock, Pope states that his poem is intended to "divert" young ladies who know how to laugh at their own "little unguarded follies". He draws a mock parallel between the ancient poets and the modern ladies, both of whom tend to make an event of high grandeur out of something trivial. Pope bases "The Rape of the Lock" on an actual quarrel that took place between two Catholic families over a lock of hair. A twenty-one year old gentleman called Lord Petre cut a lock from Arabella Fermor's hair, which made her quite indignant. Pope addresses "The Rape of the Lock" to Arabella Fermor who is represented as Belinda in the poem. While Pope politely asks her to "laugh at" her own follies alongside those of womankind in general in his address, he seems to undermine the metaphorical significance of Arabella's losing of her locks, which he associates with the loss of her virginity in the poem: "What wonder then, fair nymph! thy hairs should feel, The conqu'ring force of unresisted steel?" (III. 177-8).
In "The Rape of the Lock", Belinda is portrayed as an aristocratic, foolish but admirable lady lost in self-love. To imply that vanity is the guiding principle in the lives of women of the higher classes, Pope chooses Rosicrucian sylphs, the inhabitants of air, as the protective and guiding spirits for her. The roots of vanity, symbolized by air, are so deeply rooted in a woman's world that they continue to exist even after death: "Think not, when Women's transient Breath is fled, That all her Vanities are at once dead" (I. 51-2). Love of courtly balls, midnight masquerades, music, dancing, "the glance by day and the whisper in the dark" (I. 74) swell women's "Prospects and Exalts their pride" (I. 80). They are easily "tainted" by the outward appearance of "garters and stars", the emblems of knighthood. Belinda has all the characteristics of contemporary vanity: she is enchanted by the romantic tokens of "billet-doux, wounds, charms and ardors" (I. 119). She can only use her "cosmetic powers" to fight with the outdated conventions of a love code.
However, Belinda is doomed by Pope to be defeated from the very beginning: "This Nymph, to the destruction of mankind, /Nourish'd two Locks, which graceful hung behind/In equal curls" (II. 19-21). The woman's locks, symbolizing her virginal beauty, are regarded as a threat to mankind in general. This mock heroic comment has a double edge: on the one hand it trivializes Belinda's imminent loss of her locks, and on the other it sees female sexuality "nourish'd" by woman as a destructive force for "mankind". The Baron who resembles a hero from French Romances, aspires to have the bright locks Belinda has and the speaker wonders "whether the Nymph shall break Diana's vow/or some frail China jar receive a Flaw" (II. 1045). Like Moll, Belinda has two faces: innocent virgin and destructive femme fatale.
Belinda, with her ironic "Thirst of Fame", normally associated with an epic hero, encounters the Baron on the field of her own vanity, the card game Ombre. After a careful analysis of the actual game and the cards played in the poem, Baker (70) suggests that Belinda might have deliberately bid the wrong card in the game, which further suggests that she actually wants to play a losing game, which might symbolize her sexual hypocrisy. After the loss of her "lock" to the Baron, Belinda comforts herself by defaming her own sex: "Yet am not I the first mistaken Maid, By love of Courts to num'rous Ills betrayed" (IV. 151-2). Like Hogarth's Moll, she is characterized as a vain and stupidly credulous woman who courts her own destruction: after she loses one of her locks, the other lock "the fatal shears demands/and tempts once more thy sacrilegious hands" (IV. 173-4). So, Belinda fulfills Pope's earlier prophecy in the poem: "maids turn'd bottles, call aloud for corks" (IV 54). However, her story lacks the dramatic quality Moll's story has. We know that unlike Moll, who is threatened by destitution and disease, Belinda only has her virginity and her reputation to lose, which could probably be compensated by her high social status.
In John Gay's Beggar's Opera we have a different type of woman, Polly, who upholds romantic ideals of love, however, these ideals become a travesty of their romantic counterparts in London crime scenes. The play was one of the first examples of popular drama: the ballad opera, and it was performed more than any other play in the eighteenth century. Through this play, Gay burlesques the plot conventions and formal properties of Italian opera replacing Italian arias with popular English ballads. As Dugaw explains, ballads were more than forms of lyric expression for the eighteenth century society: "They were journalistic, both informing people about the news of the day and satirically commenting upon it" (45). Swift (Letter to Pope in McIntosh) calls The Beggar's Opera a "pastoral ridicule" among "whores and thieves" in Newgate, the most infamous prison in London. In the highly materialistic world of the eighteenth century, a woman is seen as a commodity, a step to be used to rise on the social ladder. The play satirizes the materialistic logic which reduces marriages to a financial contract between the partners. The thief taker Mr Peachum's wife sings: "A Wife is like a Guinea in Gold,/Stampt with the Name of her Spouse;/Now here, now there; is bought, or is sold;/And is current in every House" (Gay 154). In the criminal world of London, wife pandering, especially for divorce, was not an unusual practice (4). However, Gay indirectly draws attention to the materialistic basis for all of the marriages of his day.
Although the eighteenth society tolerated men having all sorts of illicit sexual experiences, "women were depicted as fundamentally untrustworthy and devious, and ruled by their ungovernable sexuality. These stereotypes were considerably reinforced with the performance and publication of John Gay's The Beggar's Opera" (Shoemaker 80). Women are categorized under three groups: virgins, wives and whores in the play. The commonplace logic is voiced in Air 4 (153):
If love the virgin's heart invade, How, like a moth, the simple maid Still plays about the flame! If soon she be not made a wife, Her honor's singed, and then for life She is-what I dare not name
Actually Gay dares to name those women over and over again. Frye claims that literary attacks should rise above the level of personal hatred because we have limited vocabulary to express our displeasure of a person (224). Calling a woman "a bitch", Frye notes, affords us limited satisfaction. However, Gay, for example, has a very wide range of vocabulary to describe a woman of uneasy virtue. Besides his all too frequent use of such pejorative words as "hussy", "slut", "wench", and "whore", we have different last names for the female characters which all mean "prostitute" (5): Molly Lay, Dolly Trull, and Betty Doxy. The leading female character, Polly, is called a "whore" and a "slut" by her own parents because she says she is in love with a highwayman called Macheath, and wants to marry him. The parents believe that highwaymen are "very good to their whores, but they are devils to their wives" (152). Molly seems to represent the ideal of romantic love in the play, but not for romantic reasons. She thinks a woman should refuse to marry for money not to be "thrown upon the common" (which means to become a prostitute), because she knows that "Virgins are like the fair flower in its lustre" (156) but
When once plucked 'tis no longer alluring, To Covent Garden 'tis sent (as yet sweet), There fades, and shrinks, and grows past all enduring, Rots, stinks, and dies, and is trod under feet (156).
Her logic here implies that when a rich husband loses interest in her wife after marriage, she might find herself without enough means to live by, and the only way out for a woman of her surroundings seems to be prostitution in Covent Garden.
The vices embodied by the lower classes are used as a tool to satirize the commonplace values of the time on a broader scale. The characters constantly try to justify the moral basis of their behaviour by generalizing it to the society as a whole. When her mother asks Polly about how she is going to make a living in the future, she answers: "like other women, upon the industry of my husband" (161). In order to defend her secret marriage to Macheath she says "I did not marry him (as 'tis the fashion) coolly and deliberately, for honor or money-but I love him" (138). But the man she loves comes to think that "[w]omen are decoy ducks; who can trust them! Beats, jades, jilts, harpies, furies, whores!" (174). Despite Macheaths' pronounced hatred of women and of marriage, Polly refuses to change her views until the end of the play when she realizes that her husband Macheath is actually a womanizer and has six or seven wives. Macheath advises his wives to go to the Indies if they want to buy a husband, or husbands for themselves. This ironic advice presupposes that women can only act like men in a place "elsewhere", in the native lands of dark-skinned slaves whom they can have as sexual partners because in the New World buying, selling, prostituting and killing slaves is the key to a life freed from the burden of all sorts of labor.
At the end of the play, Polly's romantic ideals are doomed to fail because she has to survive in a world based upon on the low principles of beggars, convicts and thieves. In the last scene, the play is given an ironic happy ending in order to "comply with the taste of the town". Macheath is saved from hanging and presents different partners to all of his wives to dance to the final air. He admits that he wants to marry Polly: "I take Polly for mine- and for life, you slut, for we were really married. As for the rest-But, at present, keep your own secret" (206). But the final air subverts the ending once more:
Thus I stand like the Turk, with his doxies around From all sides their glances his passion confound For black, brown and fair, his inconstancy burns, And the different beauties subdue him by turns Each calls for her charms, to provoke his desires: Though willing to all; with but one he retires But think of this maxim, and put off your sorrow, The wretch of to-day maybe happy to-morrow (206)
A Turk with a harem becomes a symbol for unchecked sexuality. The beauty of different willing women around Macheath is a constant source of temptation and flattery for the male ego. While Macheath seems to take Polly for a wife, he insinuates that he is going to continue sleeping with his other "wives". Here, women become obedient objects of male sexual desire once more and they do not protest against being treated as women in a Harem.
As parody turns into satire in the selected examples above, mockery gradually becomes a form of attack. The question is, are the eighteenth century writers and artists actually moralizing, or do they willingly take part in the perverse pleasure of verbal and pictorial abuse of women? Is this attitude a part of the patriarchal perverse pleasure of discourse on perverse pleasure? (6) For Pope, the perverse fantasy is rape, for Gay it is the Turkish harem, and for Hogarth it is sex with a prostitute. No matter whether a woman is of high or low birth she seems to have no other option than being designated a virgin, a wife, or a prostitute from the male point of view. Although the words virgin, wife and whore have opposing connotations in the ordinary language we use, the ironic language of the eighteenth century satire subverts the images of women in such a way that there occurs an implicit metaphorical connection between these three words as signs. Surprisingly, a woman's being a virgin does not guarantee her virtue, because under her pretended mask of chastity she is supposed to desire sex inwardly and she does not even protest a rape until it is "too late" as implied in Pope's poem. In the works we analyze, the romantic idealistic image of the virginal Madonna metamorphoses into credulous wife Eve desiring and building up her own destruction. As Dijkstra observes, a woman could be "too weak a creature to be able to sustain man's lofty dreams of her material sainthood" (4) from the self- righteous male viewpoint.
Baker, Oliver. R. "Ombre in Alexander Pope's 'The Rape of the Lock'". The Explicator 70.1 (2012): 67-70.
Barthes, Roland. Mythologies. trans. Annette Lavers. New York: Noonday Press, 1957.
Brewer, Gwen, Vern Bullough. "Women, Pornography, and Prostitution in Eighteenth Century Britain". Sexuality & Culture 9.1 (2005): 14-27.
Dijkstra, Bram. Idols of Perversity. New York: Oxford UP, 1986.
Dugaw, Dianne. "High change in 'Change Alley': Popular Ballads and Emergent Capitalism in the Eighteenth Century Ballads". Eighteenth Century Life 22.2 (1998):43-58.
Gay, John. The Beggar's Opera. The Beggar's Opera and Other Eighteenth Century Plays. London: Everyman, 1993.
Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1990.
Hogarth, William. Engravings by Hogarth. Shesgreen, Sean. ed. New York: Dover, 1973.
Koehler, Margaret. "The Filter of Attention and Indissoluble Attractors in EighteenthCentury Mock-Heroic Poetry". Modern Philology 108.1 (2010): 65-88.
Mc Creery, Cindy. The Satirical Gaze: Prints of Women in Late Eighteenth-Century England. London: Oxford UP, 2004.
McIntosh, William. "Handel Walpole and Gay: The Aims of Beggar's Opera". Eighteenth Century Studies 7.4 (1974): 415-433.
Pope, Alexander. "Rape of the Lock". Aubrey Williams. ed. Poetry and Prose of Alexander Pope. Boston: Riverside, 1969. 78-119.
Shoemaker, Robert B. "Print and the Female Voice: Representations of Women's Crime in London, 1690-1735". Gender & History 22.1 (2010): 75-91.
Riding, Christine. "Hogarth's London: Satire and the Street". History Today 57.2 (2007): 12-20.
Trusler, John. William Hogarth: Works of William Hogarth in a Series of Engranvings, 1812. Google Book Search. Web. 21 Oct. 2013.
Swift, Jonathan. "From a letter to Pope". d. August 1716, in McIntosh 1974.
(1) Hogarth's paintings involved scenes that represented actual events and characters from contemporary life. Moll is met by Elizabeth 'Mother' Needham, a notorious brothel keeper who died in 1730 after being brutally assaulted by the London crowd as she stood in a pillory. In the background stands Colonel Francis Charteris, an infamous Scottish rake nicknamed 'The RapeMaster General of Britain. Behind him is John Gourlay, a pimp whom he was wont to company. In March 1730 Charteris was convicted of the rape of a maidservant in his employ (Trusler 1812, Shesgreen 1973).
(2) Sir Richard Steele in The Tatler (No. 46) gives a picture of Drury Lane: "There is near Covent Garden a street known by the name of Drury, which, before the days of Christianity, was purchased by the Queen of Paphos, and is the only part of Great Britain where the tenure of vassalage is still in being. All that long course of building is under particular districts or ladyships, after the manner of lordships in other parts, over which matrons of known abilities preside, and have, for the support of their age and infirmities, certain taxes paid out of the rewards for the amorous labours of the young" (http://www.gutenberg.org/files/13645/13645h/13645-h.htm#number46).
(3) The gentleman fondling his moustache has been identified as Sir John Gonson, "a type of the perennial harlot prosecutors whose righteousness is only equalled by their compulsiveness" (Hogarth 20).
(4) See Wilputte, Earla A. "Wife Pandering in Three Eighteenth-Century Plays". Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 38.3 (1998): 447-464.
(5) Random House Dictionary (2013).
(6) In The History of Sexuality (New York: Random House, 1978) Michel Foucault traces the origins of Western obsession with building up a complex discourse around the topic of sexuality while trying to suppress it through various medical and religious institutions at the same time: "Toward the beginning of the eighteenth century, there emerged a political, economic, and technical incitement to talk about sex" (24).
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|Date:||Mar 22, 2014|
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