Masterpieces of Women's Literature Seduction and Betrayal Analysis

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 713

Hardwick’s interest in the public and private lives of women manifests itself throughout Seduction and Betrayal, as does her special understanding of the many difficulties that have to be overcome by the successful woman writer. Most of these difficulties have to do with the position of women in the family and in society under the rule of patriarchy. In her first essay, “The Brontës,” Hardwick discusses how Anne, Charlotte, and Emily Brontë developed their literary talents and careers in the face of particular challenges: poverty, illness, and lack of love.

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The lives of Ibsen’s women figures are of interest to Hardwick, much as if these characters had been creatures of flesh and blood. Willingly suspending her knowledge that Ibsen’s women are not real human beings, she submits them to the kind of careful psychological analysis that might have been appropriate in a biographical essay. Hardwick also goes beyond the Ibsen characters themselves to the real people who inspired them, noting, for example, the connection between Ibsen’s young German friend Emilie Bardach and the siren Hilde Wangel in The Master Builder (1892).

Hardwick’s discussion of the character Nora Helmer in A Doll’s House is an excellent example of how a consideration of both the literary figure and the human model behind her can be helpful. After offering a close, clear, concise, and insightful reading of the play, Hardwick poses the question of how the impressions of Nora which are given in the first act can be reconciled with the picture of Nora which is presented in the final act of the drama. The problem is, says Hardwick, that Nora seems to have developed too far and too fast. Hardwick points out, however, that the woman who served as the model for Nora in real life was well known to Ibsen as a resourceful and intelligent person, and she holds that Nora Helmer should therefore be regarded as someone who, from the very beginning, is a highly capable person. When the interpreter shifts the accent from Nora’s development to the way in which she is forced to hide her true abilities, both Nora’s character and Ibsen’s drama come across as being highly unified.

Hardwick’s reading of Hedda Gabler rivals that of A Doll’s House in importance. Hardwick feels a need to censure Hedda, but she is also aware of the role that this bored and unmotivated protagonist has played in the cultural development that has taken place since the publication of the drama. Hedda, says Hardwick, is much more of a cultural prophecy than is Nora, because numerous literary characters created after Ibsen created her are her spiritual descendants.

The third and final section on Ibsen is devoted to a discussion of the love triangle in the play Rosmersholm. Its female protagonist, Rebecca West, is a strong woman who, unfortunately, is lacking in scruples. In the end, however, her destructive bent turns self-destructive, and her suicide, says Hardwick, is a logical consequence of the way she has chosen to live.

Hardwick continues her meditations on the theme of self-destruction in the next segment of her book, “Victims and Victors.” Zelda Fitzgerald, Sylvia Plath, and Virginia Woolf were all tormented human beings whose sufferings, it seems, were prerequisites to their work. These are heroic women, and their defeats add to their heroism. In her discussion of Virginia Woolf, Hardwick also devotes considerable attention to the sexual experimentation of the members of the Bloomsbury group, the group of intellectuals among whom Woolf lived and worked.

As a contrast to the specifically modern tribulations of Fitzgerald, Plath, and Woolf, Hardwick details the life situations of Dorothy Wordsworth and Jane Carlyle, who essentially sacrificed their lives and possible careers for, respectively, a brother and a husband. Hardwick regards Dorothy Wordsworth as utterly dependent on others because there was no other way open to her, whereas Jane Carlyle’s ironic and ambivalent bent makes her a very interesting representative of the Victorian wife.

Hardwick rounds off her volume with her essay “Seduction and Betrayal,” which is largely a study of illicit sex in literature. She concludes that since innocence no longer has any social value, seduction has lost its tragic potential and sex has become useless as literary material.

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