What are the roles of women in Beowulf, Othello, Paradise Lost, and Heart of Darkness?
In Beowulf and Paradise Lost, women are very powerful characters. Grendel's mother in Beowulf avenges her son's death by slaying Hrothgar's most beloved friend. The she-monster's power comes not from her brute strength but from her fierceness in battle: "The terror was less even by so much as is a woman's strength, the fierceness of a woman in fight." The poet who wrote Beowulf ascribes Grendel's mother's strength to her fierce devotion to her son and her commitment to avenging his death.
In Paradise Lost, Eve is a courageous character who defies Adam's ideas of what makes a good woman. In Book 9, Adam says, "for nothing lovelier can be found / In Woman, then to studie houshold good, / And good workes in her Husband to promote" (lines 232-234). In other words, Adam expects his wife to stay beside him and be good housewife. However, Eve has other ideas, and it is she who first savors the fruit of the tree of knowledge. As Milton describes this moment: "So saying, her rash hand in evil hour / Forth reaching to the Fruit, she pluck'd, she eat" (lines 780-781). Eve is described as "rash" and easily tempted, and Milton's epic, like the Bible, singles out Eve as the reason people fell from God's grace. However, Eve is also a powerful character who is far more inquisitive than the mild-mannered and boring Adam (who mainly follows rules).
In Othello and Heart of Darkness, women are portrayed as weak creatures who are at the mercy of men. Desdemona in Othello is under the control of men—whether her father or her husband, and she is submissive to them. Women in the play are generally likened to whores, and Desdemona, from the lewd city of Venice, is tarnished by the reputation of her city without regard to her personal virtues. In Heart of Darkness, Marlow, the narrator, visits Kurtz's fiancee at the end of the novella, and he finds her completely unaware of what Kurtz has been doing in Africa. She is still in mourning over a year after his death. Marlow falsely tells her that Kurtz's last words were her name, and she naively believes him. Women in the novella are portrayed as weak and innocent.