In the Victorian and 20th Century Afghanistan societies

In both ‘A Thousand Splendid
Suns’ by Khaled Hosseini and ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’ by Thomas Hardy, the
authors both use their own individual narratives to demonstrate the unjust
position of females in their respective societies, be it in modern Afghanistan or
Victorian England. Both novels similarly explore and condemn the prevalent
patriarchy present in these societies, and question the inequitable social
expectations of women that are reinforced differently by the covert and
explicit tyrannical masculine characters within the novels. Both texts support
the idea that the imbalance of power between men and women is one of the most
persistent issues in literature. The authors themselves often take on an
intrusive role as narrator to reinforce this idea of gender inequality, and one
of the main aims of the novels is to directly inform both modern and past
audiences of the gender imbalance, and ultimately elicit sympathy for the
female characters in the novel.

 

Despite the difference in
culture and era, both the Victorian and 20th Century Afghanistan
societies were focused heavily on patriarchy. In a similar way, both Hardy and
Hosseini explore the expectations of female behaviour that is imposed upon
women in their respective societies. The female characters in the novel, Tess,
Mariam and Laila were forced to suffer, sacrifice and endure at the hand of
their male counterparts. The first relevant issue present in both texts is the
double standards enforced by society between men and women. This hypocrisy is
highlighted by Hardy through the confessions that Angel and Tess reveal post
marriage. Here, Angel admits to Tess he has committed a sin, which in the eyes
of a modern audience is equal to Tess’s. Tess forgives Angel immediately, yet
due to Tess being a woman, Angel refused to forgive her sin and in turn, left
Tess. Hardy relates this in the text when Angel simply calls his own sin a
‘folly’. Angel is trivialising his sin, suggesting that it isn’t of relevance
and shouldn’t be taken notice of. This immediately reflects not only Angel’s
attitude to his own sin, to which he feels he hasn’t completely done much
wrong, but this additionally reflects how the Victorian society will view Angel’s
sin. For men to have relations with women outside of marriage was more accepted
socially, men were in power and were not shunned for engaging in this kind of
activity out of wedlock. However, young Tess would receive the opposite
treatment from society, and more than likely shunned by her community, which is
reflected by the way in which Angel reacts to her sin. It is apparent here that
Angel falls victim to complying with societies idealistic expectations of
women, which would have been heavily influenced by Christianity in Victorian
England – women must remain a “pure, virgin woman”. This attitude however is
contradictory to what the bible teaches the Lord ‘s Prayer gives readers a
subtle reminded that Christianity is all about forgiveness and wants to remind
the Victorian reader of the true moral values of Christianity. Up until this
point in the novel, Angel refuses to see Tess for her flaws and continues to
picture her as an idealised version of herself, calling her names such as
‘Artemis’ the goddess of chastity. This however is ironic as Artemis was the
also the god of childbirth and fertility, yet this idea is rejected by Angel
and he focuses on the idealistic notion of a woman remaining pure and chaste. The
irony of the Bible being the cause of man’s downfall is clear here. Tess
realises Angel is creating this image of herself and retaliates when she says
to Angel ‘She who you love is not my real self’.

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When Angel and Tess meet,
Hardy makes a Biblical allusion when he compares Angel and Tess to Adam and
Eve, which foreshadowed how fun is inevitable where a woman is to blame, when
he says ‘as if they were Adam and Eve’. This simile could be Hardy be
insinuating how Angel and Tess, like Adam and Eve were created by God to be
together, which presents a sense of hope for the pair. However, in the story of
Adam and Eve, Eve will eventually convince Adam to sin. This again relates back
to the illusion that throughout history, it will always be the woman at fault
in the relationship, which the Victorian high power men and women of society
believe, which creates a definite sense of double standards created here, as
there is a presumption women cannot be given a position of power like men can.
In this passage, Tess is also referred to by Hardy as ‘Mary Magdalene’ who was
a reformed prostitute and accepted by the Lord. This could be implemented by
Hardy to introduce the idea of forgiveness and acceptance of women in society,
as although Mary Magdalene had sinned, she was forgiven and accepted for whom
she is. A social feminist critic would view the male characters in this novel as
misogynistic, and this self-entitled hubris is backed up by the patriarchal
nature and social constructs of society.

 

This male domination over
women reaches its peak when Alec rapes Tess. This is a true symbol of the
little to no power women had, shown through Tess’s vulnerability. Alec proves
this when after attempting to persuade Tess to sleep with him, he ‘settled the
matter by clasping his arm around here as he desired’. Not only is he
physically entrapping her through clasping his arm around her, but he
establishes his power he ‘settles the matter’ ‘as he desired’, this is
significant as to how men took control over women of the time and easily
dominated inferior females. This male domination over women is also reflected
in the sub characters of the novel. When Angel announces his love for Tess, Tess’s
female friends Retty and Marion are both heartbroken. Results in ‘poor
little Retty Priddle hev tried to drown herself’ and Marian becoming an
alcoholic. This signifies the sheer dependence that woman of the era had
towards dominant male characters.

 

The theme of double
standards between men and women is also explored in A Thousand Splendid Suns,
through the relationship between Mariam and Rasheed. The first key form of male
domination over women present in the Afghani society is the arranged marriage
in Chapter Eight. Mariam was arranged by a male who she wrongly trusted, Jalil,
to marry Rasheed, a man she had never met, against her will. However, society’s
strict standards of the attitude and propriety of women meant that Mariam was
silenced. This treatment was not the same for men, sons would always be
partnered with a suitor of their choice, and enforces the notion that marriage
was not for love but for social satisfaction and image. Additionally, Mariam
discovers that Rasheed possesses magazines featuring indecent images of women.
This is shocking to Mariam as Rasheed preaches the expectations that women
should remain pure yet he himself is impure through his objectification of
women through the pornography. The idea of forced marriages continues in Tess
of D’Ubervilles through Tess’s controversial marriages. Tess feels heavily
inclined to marry both Angel due to his persistence and declarations of love,
showering her in idealistic compliments and treating her like a goddess.  Then in another way, Tess feels like she must
marry Alec due to her poor economic situation and his seducing prospect of
money. This is reinforced by her own mother, when she arrives home, carrying
Alec’s child, and her mother is horrified to find out Tess has not accepted to
marry Alec. She states ‘Why didn’t ye think of doing some good for your family
instead o’ thinking only of yourself?’. This highlights how a woman was not
expected to do anything for self-gain or whatever they wished, but to serve
men, their superiors. Tess’s mother wanting her to sacrifice her happiness and
marry someone she does not love proves that a woman’s position in society was
more important than true happiness.

 

 

The oppression of women is
apparent in the Afghanistan society through the extremist rules and regulations
set out in society for woman to remain in order. From the very first
introduction of Mariam in the novel, she recalls her Nana being named a ‘harami’
or bastard by her superior male, Jalil, for simply breaking piece of a tea set.
It is immediately made apparent by Hosseini through this how women are treated
not only with an unjust disrespect, but shamed for being inferior to their male
counterparts. This sets a precedent for the theme of shame throughout A
Thousand Splendid Suns, with the use of ‘harami’ being less of a cast off
derogatory comment but a standpoint for how women are viewed in the eye of
Afghani society, low status and undeserving of high levels respect.

 

Public expectations of
female propriety are prevalent in the expectations of women within these novels.
This is clear when it is stated “they want us to operate in
burqa,” this is a clear condemnation of Afghanistan’s extreme social
regulations by Hosseini.  Another example
of the unjust nature of the expectation of women in society is Jalil’s many legitimate
wives. These wives reinforce the obscene cultural expectations and how the
women are expected to be comfortable ‘sharing’ a male partner with other women.
Due to their lower position in the patriarchy, women are not given a voice in
society, yet women comply with these expectations and highlight the nature of
an anti-feminist character in the novel.

 

 

The issue of relationship
abuse is apparent throughout the both novels. Whereas Rasheed explicit physical
dominance compared to subtle mental domination of Angel. Rasheed physically
abuses Mariam, in the most horrific of ways, such as when he uses domestic
violence towards Mariam, making her chew pebbles for simply boiling rice too
long. This is significant when he uses the imperative command ‘Put. These. In
your mouth.’ He also puts a complete abusive hold over Mariam when she wants to
escape Rasheed, when he says “You try this again and I will find you…And,
when I do, there isn’t a court in this godforsaken country that will hold me
accountable for what I will do.”  It could be argued that Angel also
abuses Tess without even realising it, through being unrealistic in his
expectations of Tess and forever trying to maintain an idealized ‘child of
nature’ version of Tess and does not give her respect of discovering who she
really is, despite her attempts to come clean. No overt domination yet
continuing expectations of Tess that is established by his status and Christian
values established in his society.

 

 

Despite
the overwhelming presentation of male dominance in both novels, both Hardy and
Hosseini also offer moments of female empowerment at the very end of the texts.

The
first time any female empowerment comes into a Thousand Splendid Suns is when
the unlikely friendship of Laila and Mariam develops. Both women were unable to
settle their differences throughout the novel, yet there is a key turning point
for the pair, as although Rasheed’s dominance over the woman was intended by
him to pin the ladies against each other, the two women actually came together
and formed a friendship. Hosseini presents the power of the feminine likeness
that males in this novel did not possess. Through the exchange of peace
offerings, Laila and Mariam are able to come to a new understanding. Mariam’s
gift of girl clothes shows Laila that she no longer resents Laila and Aziza’s
presence. Laila returns the favour by suggesting they ‘drink chai on the porch’.
These exchanges are symbols for the change in their relationship. Their
alienation from Rasheed no longer pits them against each other but unites them.
They seal their friendship when the two ‘sinners have us a cup of chai in the
yard’. They put this friendship to the test when they unite to try and escape
Rasheed’s dominance. When this fails, Mariam and Laila successfully murder
Rasheed by hitting him with a shovel. This finalises the juxtaposition between
the beginning of the novel and the female empowerment present at the end. It is
proof of the women coming together to stand up to violence and reject the
domination of their abusive male.

 

The
final theme of female empowerment is present in Tess of D’Urbervilles. In the
beginning of the novel, Tess could be considered noble to take on the ‘adult
role’ at the fault of her father or superior male, when he gets too drunk to go
to work. The dispossession of country people was a common occurrence and forced
young women like Tess into work.  Additionally, Tess fails to react to her
mother’s imposition that she must marry Alec even though he raped her. Here,
she has stood up for her own morals and self-beliefs by refusing to conform to
the social idealisations of the Victorian society. Finally, at the very end of
the novel, like Laila and Mariam, Tess retaliates to her ongoing oppression and
abuse by her superior male by stabbing Alec in the chest. This is the ultimate
moment of female empowerment within the novel and is a true representation of
how relentless abuse can lead to female empowerment. Across
these two endings, the accepted pattern of submissive women giving in to
dominant men is interrupted, and Tess’s act in the eyes of Hardy is heroic.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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