Romantic View of Women in 19th Century Literature

Faust

The Romantic period in English literature is usually considered to extend from 1798, when Wordsworth and Coleridge published their Lyrical Ballads, to 1832, when Sir Walter Scott died (Abrams et al. 1-3). The old regime in England took its stand in the face of revolutionary fervor based on the American and French Revolutions. For those who sympathized with the Revolution, they needed a new revolution directed against reason and toward something else, and that "something else" was imagination (Adams 363). Romanticism was a movement marked by a shift in feeling, a shift in sensibility, as well as a new concept of man's relation to the natural order and to Nature in particular. As with most movements, the perception that a group of poets exhibited this sort of shift in sensibility is something imposed after the fact by critics reading the works of Keats, Coleridge, and Wordsworth, among others, and finding that many of their sentiments and responses demonstrate a similarity in outlook different from the previous age. Romanticism was marked by certain attitudes, among them the following: 1) a growing interest in Nature and in the natural, primitive, and uncivilized manifestations of Nature; 2) a growing interest in scenery; 3) an association of human moods with the "moods" of Nature, leading to a subjective feeling for it and interpretation of it; 4) an emphasis on natural religion; 5) an emphasis on the need for spontaneity in thought and action and in the expression of thought; 6) more importance given to natural genius and the power of the imagination; 7) a tendency to exalt the individual and his or her needs and an emphasis on the need for a freer and more personal expression; and 8) the cult of the Noble Savage (Cuddon 814-815). Another aspect of the Romantic imagination was the tendency to see women in ethereal terms and to link the feminine with Nature, and as powerful as Nature was to these writers, the feminine was also seen in somewhat contradictory terms as a threat and a lure taking men away from their proper pursuit of the imagination.

In Goethe's Faust, the main character equates knowledge with happiness. When we first meet him, he is unhappy in spite of the knowledge he has acquired, and this is because the many disciplines he has mastered -- law, theology, medicine, philosophy -- have not given him the answers he wants. The area of knowledge he wants to master is metaphysics, and the problem he faces is an ancient one. This can be described as a variation on the mind-body problem, meaning how to separate the essence of the mind from the physical form that houses it. Faust believes that it is his earthly form that holds him back from learning all that he can about the universe and about the mysteries of life and death.

Faust also sees knowledge as attained through activity. He feels that much has been denied him in life and that true knowledge would be his if he were able to experience all those things he has not been able to experience to this time. His pact with Satan is phrased so that he will be given those opportunities he has so far been denied and so will be able to learn from them. For Faust, all this is to lead to the ultimate experience, the experience that will take him to the heights and signal the end of his earthly life and the beginning of his servitude to the devil. Knowledge for Faust leads to this ultimate experience and is itself the shape of that experience. Some knowledge is forbidden, and this is the knowledge Faust seeks in his quest for the ultimate.

Faust sees Gretchen, a maiden who matches his vision, and he pursues her as the ultimate experience. Martha is Gretchen's friend, and while Faust pursues Gretchen, the devil pursues Martha. Faust kills Gretchen's brother in a fight. Gretchen ends up in prison, and Faust wants to get her out, while the devil says she should stay there. Faust finally manages to make the devil take him to her cell, but he finds that she has been driven insane by all that has happened to her, including her brother's death, the poisoning of her mother, her pregnancy, the drowning of her baby, and the realization of the weight of her sins. She recognizes him and recovers,…