Subjugation of Women as Fear of Female Power

In A Great and Terrible Beauty, author Libba Bray writes about a world in which women and girls are second-class citizens. Gemma and her friends are constantly reminded to follow the rules meekly lest they lose their chance at attracting a husband. When Gemma asks her brother, Tom, the qualities of a good wife, he says:

Above all, she should keep [her husband’s] name above scandal and never call attention to herself.

Throughout the book, there is a constant suggestion that girls who are disobedient may be doomed to never marry. Their parents and teachers—and, to some degree, the girls themselves—regard this eventuality as the ultimate failure.

Bray suggests that society subjugates women not because they are weak but because they are strong. When Gemma and her friends are caught entering the gypsy camp at night, Felicity approaches the men there proudly, and “they stare at her in awe, the goddess.” Seeing this, Gemma suddenly thinks she knows why women are forced to behave according to rigid standards: “It’s not that they want to protect us; it’s that they fear us.” In this moment, Bray portrays the female gender as a sort of sleeping giant, capable of power that rivals or exceeds the power of men.

The point about female power is limited somewhat by Bray’s assumption that the root of this power is beauty. Throughout the book, beauty causes men to act awestruck and submissive. By the end, all the pretty girls end take a measure of control over their real lives. Felicity finds access to power that allows her to kill a deer. Pippa, in a backward way, avoids a forced marriage and chooses love. Gemma begins to understand herself, accepts her power to recreate the Order, and takes tentative steps toward a forbidden relationship. The only girl who does not achieve such success is Ann, who is repeatedly described as ugly and overweight. Ann impresses her teacher...

(The entire section is 828 words.)