Why Does Classic Literature Kill Women?
“The death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world.” - Edgar Allen Poe (1846).
Ophelia by Sir John Everett Millais, 1851-2, Tate Britian.
Women always die in novels. It has been a fact that the death of a woman has dominated the classic literary since Greek mythology; Eurydice famously dies tragically in the arms of her beloved Orpheus.
Another myth tells the tale of Pygmalion, unlucky in love and unimpressed by real women, who asks Aphrodite to bring his statue to life so that he can marry it.
Both these stories lay the foundations of a female artistic ideal: the women are passive, visionless and voiceless.
These women only existed in the perception of the male - an extreme form of the male gaze - which, let’s just say it now, isn’t a condemnable act in and of itself. However, the multitude of works that have taken inspiration from these original myths create an uneasy and unsettling preoccupation with the death of women that has dominated literary culture ever since.
Women in classic literature are usually A) already dead before the story begins, B) going to die within the narrative or C) die to provide the climatic ending of the novel.
The death of the woman becomes an animal all of its own volition, women die as men carry on, mourning or scorning them as they do. It reflects the societal pressures placed on men throughout history and provides an outlet for the stifled male emotional spectrum.
"The death of the woman becomes an animal all of its own volition, women die as men carry on, mourning or scorning them as they do. It reflects the societal pressures placed on men throughout history and provides an outlet for the stifled male emotional spectrum."
It’s not solely a literary issue, though, art has also fell prey to necrophilic tendencies. Eurydice’s death is not the only one to be immortalised in paint. Ophelia’s corpse, from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, was famously laid to canvas by John Everett Millias and John William Waterhouse, forever pale and still, floating in reedy water. Coincidentally, one of the most popular lines in Shakespeare’s work - “Get thee to a nunnery” - is about Ophelia’s implied sexuality.
Later on, Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Lady of Shalott was depicted by Waterhouse (it appears he had pattern forming there), again the Lady is still, floating in water and although she appears to be alive, it is clear from Tennyson’s poem that she is in fact dead, making Waterhouse’s work take on an eerie, phantom-like quality. The Lady’s pale skin becomes almost translucent and she inquisitive gaze becomes distant and otherworldly - a symbol that we now see as gothically romantic, but there is a reason.
From the Romantic period to the Victorian era, death through long, debilitating illness was viewed as a mark of the upper class. The most sought after disease to meet your end by was tuberculosis, hence it’s inclusion in so many literary texts. Tuberculosis left the sufferer frail, pale and impossibly slim, if any of that sounds familiar that’s because these are also the traits regarded as romantic at the time. Delicate frailty, moonlight pale glistening skin, slimness and incapacity were the beauty standards for women for centuries, despite the fact that they were not achievable in the realm of mortals. These old school body goals and male emotional ineptitude come together to create a literary environment where women were doomed to death and suffering - all for love.
In Rebecca (1938), Mr. de Winter harbours such guilt for his femicide that he can barely function emotionally. The new Mrs. de Winter is not just severely neglected by her husband, but is scorned by her servants, left feeling insignificant and inferior to her predecessor, only to find that Maxim never loved Rebecca, but loathed her entirely to the point of murdering her out of jealousy (oops). Du Maurier called the novel a ‘study of female jealousy’, the novel is so perfectly manufactured as such that it remains resonant 80 years after its first edition was published - and honestly, who hasn’t felt that creeping feeling that someone’s ex is much better, smarter or prettier than you. A testament to the permanence of feminine suspicion with such power that in all the years since, it has never been out of print.
But Rebecca simultaneously finds itself orbiting the death of the woman. Du Maurier’s novel lays out two types of dead women: the women who are mourned and the women who are scorned. Rebecca is dead, she died before the novel started, but she finds herself into every line of the page and even sinks her claws into the title. The easiest argument to make is that Rebecca was murdered as a 19th century punishment for the promiscuity of women, a subject that is widely covered and there is no doubt over. Rebecca openly taunted her husband over her affairs as a way of maintaining dominance and autonomy in a time that women were simply not allowed to do so, leading up to her death. Rebecca is neither Eurydice nor Pygmalion’s bride. She is not mourned by her lover or sculpted by him, but comes into being fully formed and excellently wild.
"The easiest argument to make is that Rebecca was murdered as a 19th century punishment for the promiscuity of women, a subject that is widely covered and there is no doubt over."
Meanwhile, a new woman enters the fray. Pygmalion’s bride (to the fine point of neither of them having a name of their own), she is awakened from her death-like existence and made into something new: Mrs. de Winter. Her semi-homoerotic obsession with Rebecca begins almost immediately, she is picturing her dark hair, slender figure, pale but serene corpse, she herself ideates the death of her sister-wife. Rebecca is romanticised in death, not by her ex-husband, but by his new wife. She is possessed by the desire to know Rebecca, imagining her ghostly footsteps in her home at night, visiting the bed she slept in, touching the clothes that still bear her scent. Rebecca had to die because she embodied life: she demanded sexual and spiritual freedom, at the same time the new Mrs. de Winter represented the ideals of death: chaste, pure and passive. Rebecca might have died in Du Maurier’s novel, but she’s still more alive than the new Mrs. de Winter and that’s exactly how Maxim likes his women - dead. As Freud himself stated: "Where such men love they have no desire and where they desire they cannot love.” So, Du Maurier provides perhaps the most precise example of the Madonna/Whore complex in classic literature.
Classic literature’s death-sentence Madonna/Whore complex seeps through in Wuthering Heights (1847), too. While not sexually liberated, Cathy embodies the feminine wildness and freedom echoed by Rebecca nearly a century later. Whereas, Isabella remains faithful to societal expectations, until she opts for her own literary death by abandoning the hopeless case that is Heathcliff. Cathy’s death is mourned and Isabella’s is overlooked, a minor plot point.
Cathy’s death indicates a double-passing-of-states, within the world of Wuthering Heights, she passes from alive to dead, meanwhile in the universe of Heathcliff’s psychology, she is passing from object of affection, admiration and adoration to deity, a mover between worlds. Heathcliff’s emotional blockade combusts the moment that Cathy dies, she’s an emotional Dam Buster. Cathy must die because Heathcliff - mirroring most men in classic literature - is unable to express himself except in the face of anything other than tragedy. To have loved is to have lost, but Heathcliff never loved in the first place.
The perfection that Cathy could have been comes alive with her passing, she can no longer open her mouth to reject Heathcliff, so he appropriates her lifelessness, using it to his own ends and worshipping her in an unconditional way that he could not have possibly mustered when she was alive. Cathy is described as incredibly frail, even “bloodless”, but at the same time her beauty is compared to that of angels’, her disposition “in perfect peace”. Cathy dies young and leaves a beautiful corpse. Yet Emily Brontë additionally uses Cathy’s death as a catalyst, an omen that brings forth the real romance in Heathcliff. Cathy had to be sacrificed so that Heathcliff could, for lack of a better phrase, figure his shit out. Heathcliff’s record as a neglectful husband and father, caring little that his wife had left him and choosing obsession over reality left just one option: the murder of his desire. In killing his desire, Brontë transformed it into what Heathcliff had been looking for and lacking in for the entire novel: love. Brontë knew the character of Cathy would never accept Heathcliff willingly, so she took away her ability to consent. This makes Heathcliff duplicitous, taking on the both the roles of Mrs. de Winter - haunted by the ghosts of desire - and Maxim, a Pygmalion who needs women to be so malleable to his desires that he can only be attracted to corpses.
Although, Brontë steals from not one but two Greek myths, Heathcliff is also the tragic Orpheus, leading Cathy from Hades’ hideout back into the world of the living, the idealistic world where social standing doesn’t matter, only to look back at the last moment and lose her forever.
"Through the romanticism of female death, classic literature has turned a beauty standard into the epitome of romantic gestures."
Through the romanticism of female death, classic literature has turned a beauty standard into the epitome of romantic gestures. The predilection that a woman is ultimately more loveable when she cannot speak, move or resist might seem morally dubious when it’s stated in plain terms, but classic literature has turned the female death into something much more - an opportunity for men to be emotional that they could not have attained otherwise. Writers had to find ways around the societal constructs that burden their époques and sacrificing female characters so that the male ones may love, cry and mourn is a necessity in a world that does not prioritise the male emotional spectrum. We find these novels romantic - with their slackening and tightening on the reins of desire - because the men were allowed to show their true emotional depth, but only after the women were all dead and gone.
So, why does classic literature kill women? For romance of course!