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The Romantic era was a time of unprecedented change which transformed existing ways of thinking about individualism and idealism by working with the problems and potential benefits of the revolutionary spirit. These philosophic paradigms resonate in both Mary Wollstonecraft’s essay A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) and Percy Shelley’s poem, “Masque of Anarchy” (1819). Wollstonecraft addresses the problems associated with the existing social hierarchy and inequality in society to advocate social change and achieve an egalitarian socio – political system.
Wollstonecraft advocates freedom by challenging the existing social hierarchy to achieve social change and to achieve the Romantic ideal of an egalitarian socio-political system in which all individuals can equally contribute. The urban underclass directly influenced the National Constituent Assembly which formed after the 1789 French Revolution and influenced the revolutionary spirit. Wollstonecraft’s disdain towards the aristocracy is established through her assertive tone in, “to love God…appears to be the only worship useful…to acquire either virtue or knowledge.” She shows corrupt power thwarts civilisation and degrades those in power and those subjected to it through the metaphor, “he bends to power; he adores a dark cloud, which may…burst in angry, lawless fury.” Wollstonecraft compares corrupt power to the power men wield over women in the rhetorical question: “Why do they expect virtue from a slave?” She argues men maintain power over women by denying them an effective education through her assertive tone in “women are systematically degraded by receiving the trivial attentions.” Anne Mellor (1997), a contemporary scholar, asserts “upper and middle – class girls…were taught…to capture husbands, upon whom their financial welfare depended,” which reiterates the imbalance in power between genders created by the social hierarchy. Furthermore, her assertive tone in “till women are more rationally educated, the progress of human virtue and improvement in knowledge must receive continual checks” reaffirms the need for reform to create a utopian society where individuals all contribute. Wollstonecraft embodies the early Romantic revolutionary spirit by challenging patriarchal paradigms to advocate freedom.
Shelley’s “Masque of Anarchy” similarly advocates shifts in social realities to attain a society based on equality and freedom to achieve the Romantic ideal of egalitarianism. This poem was written in response to the 1819 Peterloo Massacre, which led to the mindless slaughter of fifteen innocent lives under the rule of the oppressive government, run by King George. Shelley portrays society to be bleak in the accumulation of “loom, and plough, and sword, and spade.” He personifies Anarchy to be, “a skeleton, upon a white horse splashed in blood” to suggest that it is irrational and emotionless. He criticises how aristocracy exploits the working class through the paradox, “what is freedom…that which slavery is…” Similarly, Wollstonecraft appeals to reason in the metaphor, “it may be impossible to convince them that the illegitimate power…. is a curse” to show the imbalance of power in society prevents individuals from pursuing virtue. Shelley alludes to the French Revolution in “leagued to quench thy flame in Gaul” which reinforces liberty, fraternity and equality, emphasising the need for social change. However, Shelley reveals society can recover through the imagery in, “a rushing of light of clouds and splendour, a sense of awakening…” which focus on idealistic views. He urges individuals to reject social divisions by wealth through the biblical allusion, “to the rich thou art a check…that he treads upon a snake…” Shelley advocates social revolution through the eruptive imagery in, “a volcano heard afar” symbolic of the need for social change to achieve an equitable society. Both Shelley and Wollstonecraft advocate freedom to envision an ideal egalitarian society, based on morality and equality, in which all individuals can contribute equally to society.
Wollstonecraft criticises inequality in society to inspire social progress and advocate individuality. The affirmation of universal human rights, endorsed by Enlightenment thinkers such as Voltaire and Rousseau, is the grounds on which Wollstonecraft argues females are the same as males. Wollstonecraft argues this liberal way of thinking in the metaphor “every individual is in this respect a world in itself.” She argues that insidious social conditioning has prevented women obtaining from basic rights such as rights to vote and own property through the personification in, “The mind, naturally weakened by depending on authority…” She asserts how a woman’s preoccupation with outward appearance is due to her lack of proper education through her assertive tone, “ignorance…render women very fond of dress.” Their lack of proper education has also taken their ambition, which prevents them from being functional members of society, suggested in her assertive tone in “produce all the vanity…to the exclusion of emulation and magnanimity.” However, she argues educating women will develop self–sufficiency through the assertive tone in, “the exercise of their understanding is necessary, there is no other foundation for independence and character.” Julia A Monroe (1928), a contemporary scholar, asserts “the problem as she saw it was not the system itself, but the fact that those ideals for financial independence and individual accomplishment did not apply to women” which reveals the Romantics advocated individuality. Wollstonecraft argues the need for individuality in women to better society through the juxtaposition in, “they could not be termed the sweet…but…more respectable members of society.” Wollstonecraft appeals to reason and virtue to advocate individuality and transform society’s ways of thinking so that all individuals are equally active participants in society.
Similarly, Shelley’s “The Masque of Anarchy” criticises the current political state and society to advocate a revolt and envisions a strengthened society based on the Romantic sentiment of individualism. The abolition of feudalism in 1789, one of the central events of the French Revolution, promoted individualism and egalitarianism. Shelley criticises the instability of authority in England, asserting that “He (anarchy) knew the place of our kings were rightly his,” thus undermining royal governance and suggesting that liberty of the individual triumphs over monarchy. He reinforces the unity between all individuals in the metaphor, “nurslings of one mighty Mother” which emphasises they are equal and therefore have equal rights. Shelley accentuates the importance of knowledge, over wealth, to allow individuals to contribute more efficiently to society in the accumulative list, “science, poetry, thought…” This reflects Wollstonecraft’s pragmatism as she urges society to exercise reason to attain virtue and therefore contribute productively to the well-being of the nation. He advocates for a social revolution through the powerful definition of freedom, “thou art clothes and fire and food…such starvation cannot be as in England” which urges individuals to free themselves from their oppressors. This is further established through the simile, “rise like lions after slumber in unvanquishable number” encouraging reformers to achieve individualism, by passive resistance in the face of tyranny. Ultimately, both Shelley and Wollstonecraft promote the radical ideas of individuality and equality, instigated by the French Revolution, to achieve an advanced society.
Thus, both Mary Wollstonecraft’s “A Vindication of the Rights of Women” and Percy Shelley’s “A Masque of Anarchy” explore the philosophical paradigms of the Romantic era. They show the Romantics were agents of social change and advocated for freedom and individuality to achieve an egalitarian society.
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