Comparative essay practice
Question : Literature often explores “the battle of the sexes”. Paying close attention to the causes and consequences of gender conflict, discuss this theme in two works you have read.
“Nobody will ever win the battle of the sexes. There’s too much fraternizing with the enemy.” said Henry Kissinger. As far as the historians have ever been able to go back in time, men and women have never experienced complete equality. They have always fought an everlasting war — but still, a lot of men tend to endlessly end up in a woman’s arms, and vice-versa. In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde uses Lord Henry’s witty epigrams to demonstrate that soulmates do not exist, there are only two different sexes paradoxically destroying each other with their good intentions. On the other hand, in Sweet Bird of Youth by Tennessee Williams, the playwright uses the impossible and toxic love between Chance Wayne and Heavenly Finley to show how gender expectations imposed by society strongly contribute to the battle of the sexes.
Firstly, in The Picture of Dorian Gray, Wilde utilizes irony and cynicism to express how women and men are complementary but incompatible, and are meant to eventually fail having healthy relationships due to gender expectations.
Indeed, through Lord Henry’s affirmations, the writer creates a parallel between men’s idleness and frivolity and women’s excessive seriousness and willingness to take care of their husbands : “Women love us for our defects. If we have enough of them, they will forgive us everything, even our intellects.”. This paradox means that at a time when women were only expected to stay at home and be pretty, being a good wife was the best achievement they could make. This is why they were always looking for a husband with many issues in the hope of changing him to make him a better person, so that society could recognize them as good wives. The fact that Wilde is using the terms “even our intellects” suggests that women do not have the same wisdom as men and should be jealous of their husbands for being smart, but if they have enough defects to make a balance they can be forgiven. This is the reason why Lord Henry also says “Women have no appreciation of good looks; at least, good women have not.” : this means that only good-looking women do not care about whether their husband is beautiful or not because they would like him to envy them for their beauty, which to the eyes of society was one of their most valuable possessions.
In addition, in the Victorian society, separation was considered a woman’s failure to take good care of her husband, which is why the fairer sex clung to the idea of an eternal relationship : “Always ! […] women are so fond of using it. They spoil every romance by trying to make it last forever. […] The only difference between a caprice and a long-life passion is that the caprice lasts a little longer.”. Here Wilde once again uses a paradox with an antithesis by opposing the terms ‘caprice’ and ‘long-life romance’ to explain that if a woman is aware that her relationship is a caprice, she will not spoil it by unnaturally trying too hard to make it last forever, but would rather savour the present moment; on the contrary, if a woman intends to spend the rest of her life with a man, she will become too clingy and eventually lose him.
But the character of Lord Henry also exposes unrealistic expectations for males : “A man can be happy with a woman, as long as he does not love her.”. Through this epigram, Wilde reveals that men during Victorian times could never fall in love with their partner, because they ended up trying to become a better person on their own to please their sweetheart; but women, as stated before, looked for a husband with defects. If a man was able to improve his behavior by himself, then his partner had no longer a purpose in that relationship and started to lose interest.
Here Oscar Wilde tries to demonstrate that heterosexual couples can only last if none of the partners have actual feelings for one another. This paradox represents the quintessential battle of the sexes : in order to keep control over the relationship, one must always remain cold, because love is the beginning of weakness. Falling in love is like giving the enemy the right to break you into pieces : once you give them your heart, you become vulnerable. This is why Sybil Vane eventually commits suicide; she gives too much of her love and becomes clingy and devoted, which disappoints Dorian Gray who does not hesitate to destroy her with his words. In a way, Dorian wins the war of the sexes, because he is the last one standing, the one who resisted the most.
This point of view can be interpreted as a manifestation of Wilde’s homosexuality : indeed, saying men and women cannot be soulmates because of their differences suggests that love can only be healthy when there is no rivalry — which, following this theory, can only be accomplished through a homosexual relationship. That being said, there seems to be an underlying love triangle between Basil Hallward, Dorian Gray and Lord Henry, which can represent the writer’s pulsions and desires despite the Victorian law against queer people, which explains Henry’s epigram : “The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it.”. If a man stops worrying about gender expectations and starts loving other men, his lust is satisfied and he is no longer frustrated. In other words : gender conflicts can only be solved by homosexuality.
On the other hand, in Sweet Bird of Youth, Tennessee Williams uses Boss Finley’s attempts to censor his daughter’s love for Chance Wayne to demonstrate how gender expectations are responsible for the gap between both sexes and is reinforcing gender conflicts.
Indeed, when Chance still had “his girl in St Cloud”, he gave her a sexual disease because of his work as a gigolo and that led her to be operated by Dr. Scudder, her future husband, which made her sterile and took away the one thing that made her a woman to the patriarchal society : her ability to have babies. The rumor of the loss of her innocence soon spread and gave her a bad reputation based on slut shaming. Boss Finley, Heavenly’s conservative and white supremacist father, finds this unacceptable as it ternishes his own reputation — he therefore wants to take complete control of his daughter, from her love to her clothes : “You’re going to be wearing the stainless white of a virgin, with a Youth for Tom Finley button on one shoulder and a corsage of lilies on the other. You’re going to be on the speaker’s platform with me, you on one side of me and Tom Junior on the other, to scotch these rumors about your corruption.” In this quote, the color white symbolizes purity, which is supposed to be the most precious thing a woman can possess; it is immaculate, free from any red blood stain which represents fertility and sensuality. Lilies are also a symbol of purity and youth, especially if they are white, which is implied by Boss Finley. This is extremely representative of the battle of the sexes, as Heavenly’s father does not hesitate to use his daughter and psychologically harm her in order to impose his power as a man. To his eyes — the eyes of a politician, who represents society — women are not to be respected, but to be blamed for men’s mistakes : this is why he qualifies the loss of his daughter’s virginity as her “corruption”, as if making love only involved one person.
This is what Heavenly is trying to protest against, in vain : “Papa, there was a time when you could have saved me, by letting me marry a boy that was still young and clean, but instead you drove him away, drove him out of St. Cloud. And when he came back, you took me out of St. Cloud, and tried to force me to marry a fifty-year-old money bag that you wanted something out of […] and then another, another, all of them ones that you wanted something out of. […] Papa, you married for love, why wouldn’t you let me do it, while I was alive, and the boy still clean, still decent ?”. Here Tennessee uses hyperbole to describe how heavily gender expectations weigh on Heavenly’s shoulders : she refers to her youth as the time when she was “alive”, implying that she is now dead. Several interpretations can be made : either society considers her not worthy of being alive now that she cannot give birth to another living being anymore, or she thinks of herself as dead inside because the flame of love can no longer burn in her heart. In both cases, this increases Heavenly’s resentment, which contributes to her willingness to fight against men to obtain the right to control her own life.
The character of Chance Wayne is also a victim of gender expectations, as he is blamed for being a pervert because of his work as a gigolo. Generally speaking, a man who is able to seduce dozens of girls into sleeping with him is often glorified, and almost never treated like a whore. But in that case, Chance is actually a whore, selling his body to women instead of the opposite; since he is giving himself to the “weaker sex”, as one might say, he becomes vulnerable and less manly — Boss Finley even considers him less worthy of marrying his daughter Heavenly. The fact that Chance is also sincerely and deeply in love with his sweetheart also represents a danger for Boss : indeed, there would be no interest of any kind in that marriage, only sincere affection, which would make it difficult for Heavenly’s father to remain in control of the situation with manipulation. In an arranged marriage, the father often decides everything, but in a true-love marriage, the couple does not care about parents and can even run away if it is necessary to find happiness.
In fact, Chance is even driven mad by love, and is therefore losing the war of the sexes because he is too lost in it. But still, he is not directly fighting the love of his life, but the gender role that has been assigned to her and that keeps her from being happy ever after with him. This is why Tennessee Williams writes : “Princess, the great difference between people in this world is not between the rich and the poor or the good and the evil, the biggest of all differences in this world is between the ones that had or have pleasure in love and those that haven’t and hadn’t any pleasure in love, but just watched it with envy, sick envy.”. Here Chance can be identified to the two categories : he indeed once had pleasure in love, but does not anymore and is therefore the one watching with “sick envy”. The use of this expression shows that he is intoxicated by love, and that it is the reason for his madness, like a disease : this suggests that according to Tennessee Williams, the battle of the sexes might be happening because of toxic gender expectations, with only one deadly weapon : love.
In conclusion, both Oscar Wilde and Tennessee Williams present heterosexual love as unhealthy because of the resentment that men and women feel towards each other, due to gender expectations. In both The Picture of Dorian Gray and Sweet Bird of Youth, falling in love is pictured as dangerous because it makes people vulnerable and makes them succumb to the other sex. According to both authors, there cannot be a true and sound relationship if there is still a balance of powers. To achieve happiness in a couple, there are only three solutions : either both partners do not feel love for each other, or they are homosexuals — or, society must achieve gender equality, which sadly seems like a difficult task.