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In the late 1960’s and 1970’s, the social construction of gender became a heated topic of debate amongst feminist theorists. The argument that the patriarchal values embedded in American culture (rather than purely biological factors), were responsible for constructing masculine and feminine roles in society, met intense criticism. Prior to the introduction of gender construction theory, many of the theories regarding gender were based on the idea that biological factors alone determined the roles of men and women in society. During the 1960’s and 1970’s, however, a rift formed between those whose thoughts about gender roles evolved and those who stuck to the belief that the traditional roles of men and women should remain intact.In Ragtime, a novel written in the mid-nineteen seventies amidst this controversial debate, E.L. Doctorow uses the revolutionary theory of Gender Construction to explore masculinity and femininity in the early nineteen hundreds and it’s affect on both the fictional and non-fictional characters of his work. Perhaps not the main subject of the novel, his characterization of the females (specifically Evelyn Nesbit and Mother) as victims of their femininity, is integral to the plot.
The comparison and contrast of Evelyn and Mother and their feelings toward the importance of their appearance, their sexuality, and their relationships with men reveals how the patriarchal construction of gender in early twentieth century American culture restricted women to purely “feminine” roles which oppressed their ability to become independent members of society. From a young age, Evelyn’s mother taught her that she could use her beauty as a tool to propel herself into upper-class society. Because of her mother’s insistence that she use her beauty to secure herself an advantageous marriage, Evelyn agrees to take a vacation with Harry K. Thaw, one of the wealthiest men in the country, and finds herself semi-trapped in an abusive situation. Only when she realizes that her beauty may be sacrificed if Harry continues physically abusing her, does she decide that “their relationship had gone beyond its tacit understanding” (Doctorow 23) and she demands to be sent home. Evelyn values her appearance only because she sees that her beauty is a trait that is highly admired by the men in her life. The reaction she receives from her audience of admirers determines her self-worth and since she can control her appearance, she feels like she has power over that part of her life. Yet, she soon realizes that her beauty, like her power over men, only lasts temporarily. For the first time, she begins to doubt whether she can continue to rely on her beauty when, “she looks [looked] in the mirror and sees [saw] the unmistakable lineaments of womanhood coming in to her girlish face”(Doctorow 88). Evelyn has never tried to accomplish anything on her own without using her looks to her advantage. She has no idea what will happen to her once her beauty begins to fade and men are no longer willing to pay for her to live like an aristocrat. Her beauty becomes a disadvantage to her because she realizes that that the control she thought she had over her life never existed. She kept up her appearance solely for the pleasure of the men in her life and it dawns on her, when she sees the evidence of aging on her face that her life was in the control of those men all along.
In her article about the social factors that lead women to be come dependent on men, Carol Gilligan states her beliefs about how women are raised to believe that “intimacy goes along with identity” and that “the female comes to know herself as she is known, through her relationships with others” (12). In Evelyn’s case, she has become accustomed to having a flock of admirers obsessed with her beauty. She defines herself through their treatment of her as a defenseless, simple, and delicate object because she has been raised to believe that it is their opinion of her and not her own, that matters. In this way, Evelyn creates her own femininity through the patriarchal perspective of the men in her life.
Although Mother and Evelyn Nesbit appear to come from entirely different backgrounds, their reliance on their appearance to secure their prospective futures is similar in that they each use Western notions of femininity to attract possible spouses. Mother, for example, is described as having “golden hair which she wore up in the style of the day”(Doctorow 68). Although Mother is already married when this description of her is presented within the text, Doctorow makes it clear that she is still aware of current social views about the roles of women in the household because despite the security in already having a family and a home, Mother continues to follow current trends. When Father goes on his long trip, Mother is finally able to break slightly free from the social restrictions that control her when her husband is present and she decides not to “take time to put her hair up but let it hang to her shoulders all day”(Doctorow 234). Mother’s femininity is a show that she puts on for her husband and for the public so that they will believe that she is a proper woman. She wears her hair up tightly on her head when she thinks anyone might be looking because wearing it down on her shoulders suggests a certain boldness that women like Mother were not supposed to have. Mother has been “trained” to be the embodiment of the perfect wife through the strict social restrictions that have shaped her femininity. Nevertheless, she finds that her temporary escape from those restrictions (letting her hair down) reveals to her a beauty about herself that has nothing to do with her feminine appearance. In this way, “Mother seems to become, simply through practical experience, a working example of the abstract doctrines of women’s liberation”(Morris 91). Although Mother never makes any radical moves to free herself from the husband she never loved, she does seem to make changes in her life that make her happier and she is able to reject some of her restrictive feminine roles so that she can search for ways to become more independent.
Although Evelyn takes immense amounts of pleasure in the attention she receives from men, her sexuality, because it is framed entirely by her views of masculinity and femininity, is a part of her that is for the men in her life rather than for herself. During her first sexual experience with Harry K. Thaw, “he pulls [pulled] off her robe throws [threw] her across the bed and applies [applied] a dog whip to her buttocks and the backs of her thighs”(Doctorow 23). Evelyn’s sexuality has been formed by her beliefs about her role as a woman. Because she is believed to be the epitome of femininity, she does not feel like she is allowed to have a sexuality of her own. Like in the case with Harry Thaw, her body is a sexual tool for male pleasure rather than for her own. Even when she finally lets go of the stigmas that repress her sexual desires and allows herself to feel sexual pleasure, her exploration of her own sexuality is interrupted by Younger Brother as he, “falls [fell] into the room… and spurts of jism trace [traced] the air like bullets and finally settle [settled] over Evelyn”(Doctorow 63-64). Once again, Evelyn is forced to come to the realization that men’s sexuality’s constantly overshadows her own. While she is able to take one step forward toward finding what may lead to her own pleasure, she is blocked by the invisible social restrictions that keep her from viewing herself as an individual rather than an object. In an interview with Doctorow, he discusses his preoccupation with sex as power that reveals why Evelyn is unable to truly realize her own sexuality. Doctorow states that he is “using sex as a metaphor for political relations, or helplessly annotating what passes for sex in a society that suffers paternalistic distortions”(121). Because Evelyn will never be able to overcome the social forces that appoint her as a second class citizen, her notions about her own sexuality will similarly remain unaffected. Evelyn is too entrenched in the patriarchal social structure and it’s “paternalistic distortions” to even realize that her sexuality is affected by it.
Similarly to Evelyn, mother represses her sexual desires and allows her husband to use her body solely for his own pleasure. Before Father leaves on a long trip, she allows him to have sex with her but she “shuts [shut] her eyes and holds [held] her hands over her ears”(Doctorow 12) until he finishes. For Mother(and Evelyn), sex is a duty to be performed for their husbands; not an act to be enjoyed by both parties. “Feminine” women such as Mother are not supposed to have sexual desires of their own because sexual urges are seen as masculine behavior. Yet, as the times change in front of Mother’s eyes, she begins to long for independence from her restrictive, traditional marriage and regards sex with her husband as an “intrusion, not as in the old days but with some awareness of her own, some sort of expectation on the skin that pounds [pounded] from her”(Doctorow 249). After Father leaves on his long journey, Mother seeks to find herself as an individual rather than as a wife and mother. Unlike Evelyn, she is able to look at her life differently during her husband’s absence because she takes the time to read and learn about the social movements taking place in the United States at the time.
While Evelyn simply replaces her husband with new men that will take care of her, Mother realizes that she should not have to define herself in relation to her husband and somewhat distances herself from Father when he returns. While Evelyn feels powerful in her awareness of the affect that her beauty has on men, her marriage to Harry K. Thaw ruins her illusion of control over him and over her own life. When Harry commits murder and is put on trial, Evelyn realizes that her livelihood depends entirely on her ability to characterize herself and her husband as perfect examples of feminine and masculine nature. When she testifies on his behalf she portrays “Harry as the victim of an irrepressible urge to find honor for himself and his young bride. She performs [performed] flawlessly”(Doctorow 85). Evelyn takes the stand prepared to present herself as the epitome of womanhood. As the victim of rape perpetrated by the murdered man, Evelyn pretends that her potential to become a proper woman was destroyed. The only way to regain her honor, in her husbands eyes, was to kill the man who “ruined” his wife. When presented with this story, the jury is apt to agree that Harry was simply fulfilling his masculine role in protecting his young bride and gender is effectively used by the defendant as the reason behind his “uncontrollable” act of manliness. Although Evelyn seems to be aware that the idea that Harry couldn’t control himself because of his masculine character traits is ridiculous, she continues to see herself as a victim of her femininity and does not attempt to step outside of her gender role.
After Harry, she continues to depend on men and simply turns her attentions to Mother’s younger brother because, “It was a characteristic of Evelyn that she could not resist someone who was so strongly attracted to her”(Doctorow 83). Evelyn does not believe that she is capable of living her life without having someone who will take care of her. She was raised to believe that as a woman, she is too fragile and mentally incompetent to accomplish anything other than becoming a beautiful wife. After her affair with Younger Brother, Evelyn disappears from the story as quickly as she was introduced. In his article about Doctorow’s use of gender in his works, Marshall Gentry states, “Several of Doctorow’s major female characters nearly disappear by the end of their novels, as if they must be hidden from view so that their flaws too, may be hidden”(514). Unlike Mother, Evelyn never seems to make any progress towards becoming an individual and this is her major character flaw. By ending Evelyn’s story in the middle of the novel, Doctorow hides Evelyn’s flaws by never mentioning (except for a quick sentence at the end) that Evelyn never became the independent woman that Mother did and was unable to find happiness for herself.
In contrast to Evelyn, Mother married a man with a similar background to her own. Mother’s belief in the inferiority of her sex when she first married father, however, mirrors Evelyn’s beliefs and leads them both to the conclusion that they must remain dependent on men. After years of being married to Father, Mother realizes that the reality of her marriage is not the romantic fairy tale she once believed it would be. While looking at her husband she sees that, “whereas once, in his courtship, Father might have embodied the infinite possibilities of loving, he had aged and gone dull”(Doctorow 250). Mother knows that while she is dependent on Father for her livelihood, she made the wrong decision when she married him for social rather than romantic reasons. Although she is unhappy in her marriage, “Mother does not, as more radical women might, attempt to live independently, but she is receptive to social changes that give her access to a more rewarding life”(Tokarczyk 4). Mother is unwilling to break up her family so that she can be independent because she does not see the sense in doing so. Father provided for her in every way that he knew how and Mother knows that it is not his fault that he does not understand her now that she has changed.
Like mother once was, Father was raised to believe that he should exert his masculinity in his marriage and he is entirely unaware of how he could participate in a relationship that was not defined by it’s masculine and feminine characteristics. When Father dies, however, Mother is free to choose a man who she feels is her equal rather than her superior and she finds that man and “accepts [accepted] him without hesitation. She loved to be with him. They both relished in the traits of character in the other”(Doctorow 319). Instead of distinguishing gender roles in their relationship, mother and her new husband simply admire each other’s traits without having to name them as either masculine or feminine. Mother has found someone who loves her for who she is now, rather than “proper” woman she used to try to be, and unlike Evelyn, she does not disappear from the novel but thrives at the end in her successful marriage and the start of her new life.
Both Evelyn and Mother began their lives under the impression that their feminine natures would determine the outcome of the rest of their lives, yet only Mother is able to finally escape this notion and find her identity outside of her femininity. Evelyn is exposed to new ways of living and thinking but she is unwilling or unable to change her habits enough so that she can live a life that does not revolve around the men in her life. The contrast between these two women becomes evident when their beliefs about the importance of their appearance, their sexuality, and their relationships with men are analyzed. In all of these areas of their lives, Evelyn never changes in any of her beliefs while mother evolves completely. Although neither character is ever completely freed from the social restrictions that oppressed the women of their time, it is with the acknowledgement of the possibility of social change that mother finds happiness in her life.
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