Evolving to Immortality or Becoming an Epic Lead



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Conclusion


In the introduction to this paper, I proposed that the process of becoming an epic lead involves the symbolic overcoming of obstacles and the achievement of a significant social status that is recognized by the community in a way that does not interfere with the character's own sense of morality. The protagonist of every novel discussed achieves a victory yet not all main characters become epic leads. Those who do achieve heroic status do so in vastly different ways and often awkwardly.

Maggie reaches for heroism through her relationships with Tom, Stephen, and Phillip in succession. Yet she finds herself in a lesser power position in relation to each of them. Through rejecting the marriage plot with Stephen, she secures a minor epic status as a martyr. But this self-sacrifice is unsatisfactory. She finds that she has rather than very little power, absolutely no power in the town once the scandal has occurred. She has become a dependent and a pariah. Maggie finds her final opportunity to act like an epic lead in the flood at the end of the novel. Only through the divine intervention of the narration, as penned by George Eliot, does this character who would otherwise have been stuck in place and time achieve epic status.

Lucy Snowe reaches for heroism through her relationship with Mlle. Beck, her successes as a teacher, and her tutelage under M. Paul. She eventually achieves epic status through a combination of success in employment, aspirations to become more like the formidable figure of Mlle. Beck, and a successful foray of the marriage plot. At the conclusion of the novel Lucy Snowe, rather than fully realizing her powers as an epic lead, is simply well on her way to becoming one.

The narrator of The Yellow Wallpaper does not become an epic lead because the moral confines of her society are too limiting for her to break out of them entirely. She is restricted from any outlet for action or imagination save one - the yellow wallpaper. She imagines a non-conforming image of herself into and finally out of the wallpaper. She evolves into a ghoulish crone, which is an expression of a form of gender within the limitations of the society. Rather than achieving a victory over the patriarchy through moral uprightness, she does the opposite, securing a metaphorical freedom from confinement and vanquishing her foes as symbolized by her husband's fainting in the final scene. Yet in the end she has become a crone, a creature of nightmares, rather than an empowered epic lead.

Orlando seeks epic status through attempting to write an epic story in which he is the main subject, yet is unsuccessful at obtaining any extraordinary status as a man. Orlando fights against the limitations that she encounters as a British female by reaching back to the power she had previously by donning the clothes of a man. When that fails, she attempts to secure the sort of power that was so easily available to women of the 19century, that is the power of a wife. Yet she discovers in turn that each of these forms of power are illusory, and returns to her dreams of literary fame. Orlando is disempowered as a female until the arrival of the 20th th century when she finally becomes an epic lead through publishing her work.

In The Bell Jar, Esther becomes an epic lead by means of a series of events that are the experience of the denial of an epic quest. She confronts death in many forms: her shock therapy, her suicide attempt, her loss of virginity, and again her shock therapy. She eventually emerges from the stifling confinement of the gender expectations of her culture, symbolized by the lifting of the bell jar. Yet she is fully aware that even having achieved epic status, she will continue to face the sort of chauvinism from which she had rebelled with her initial suicide. Now she has the weapons that she needs to overcome these obstacles. This is shown in the penultimate scene/sequence wherein she demands that the man to whom she had lost her virginity, Irwin, the mathematics professor, pay her emergency room bill. This event is configured as a distinct victory over the patriarchy. At the end of the novel, she is going to face the powers that be at the asylum for a final review. Yet the novel ends with the implication that she will become a person independent of the asylum system though it does not show her doing so. At the end, she has become an epic lead.

In Zami, Audre reaches for heroism in the form of self-empowerment, overcoming hardships and heartbreak to redefine herself. Her eventual achievement of a status as an epic lead is symbolized in her final redefinition of self, a renaming. Unlike Esther of The Bell Jar, Zami does not in any way give a concession to or admit to the power of the white patriarchy. Lorde constructs her conclusion in this way deliberately, while Plath, as a white woman of a certain era, felt secure enough in her position in society to paint her semi-autobiographical main character as an insecure, epic lead, indeed as a person who is not yet wholly empowered. Lorde's conclusion is the most triumphant of any of the novels. Her main character becomes an epic lead, both within the confines of and despite the hardships and restrictions of the society and economic situation into which she was born. This much cannot be said of Maggie, Lucy Snowe, the narrator of The Yellow Wallpaper, Orlando, or Esther.

As previously stated, not all main characters become epic leads. Gilman's narrator is the one character who is entirely unable to fulfill her dreams of heroism. While she achieves a small victory over the patriarchy, she is unable to succeed as an epic lead within the confines of her society. Lucy Snowe of Villette also ends her story somewhere short of heroic stature. Esther of The Bell Jar has overcome many obstacles to experience the epic quest and to reach an epiphany at the close of the novel. Yet she looks towards her future in the real world, i.e., the world outside of the asylum system, with some uneasiness, wondering how many college women like women of Belsize under glass jars. Maggie Tulliver becomes an epic lead by means of a narrative device that could almost be called cheating. It is not possible to assert that Maggie would have been able to achieve her final epic status within the confines of her world as established at the start of the novel. This is why Eliot feels the need to intervene on Maggie's behalf pointing out to all her readership that this character is perfectly capable of the heroism so frequently and wholly denied her. This reinforces Eliot's point that a woman of Maggie's time and place is denied epic adventures, while making Maggie's final act seem superhuman. Orlando also achieves epic status almost by cheating. She lives for two and a half centuries as a woman struggling until she reaches an age in which she can once again be as empowered as she was as a young lord. She finally achieves an epic status that she could not secure as a young man of privilege; her opinion and voice gain her respect that she could not buy as a young lord. In the 20th century, culture finally enables Orlando to overcome the confines of gender expectations to succeed in business and literature through publishing her work. Esther's eventual achievement of epic status is symbolized by the lifting of the bell jar. While she has emerged from the stifling confinement of gender expectations of her culture, she is aware that she will continue to be subject to the sort of chauvinism against which she has constantly rebelled. Lorde's main character, unlike the main characters of any of the other novels, becomes an epic lead both within the confines of and despite the hardships and restrictions of the society and economic situation into which she was born. While Lorde's triumphant ending seems somewhat contrived because of its determination to be victorious, it is perhaps along side Plath's conclusion represents the most realistic achievement of epic status of a main character. So Eliot, Brontë, Woolf, Plath, and Lorde have all proven that women of fiction can indeed overcome the patriarchy.



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Lee, Hermione. The Novels of Virginia Woolf, New York: Holmes and Meier Publishers, 1977.

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Additional Bibliography


Barnard, Caroline King. Sylvia Plath, Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1978.

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Lane, Gary. Sylvia Plath: New views on the poetry, Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979.

Morgan, Peter E. "A Subject to Redress: Ideology and the Cross-Dressed heroine in Aphra Behn's The Widow Ranter" as cited on the West Georgia web site syllabus.

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Newman, Charles. The Art of Sylvia Plath: A Symposium, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1970.

Reuben, Paul P. "Chapter 6: Late Nineteenth Century - Charlotte Perkins Gilman." PAL: Perspectives in American Literature- A Research and Reference Guide. URL:http://www.csustan.edu/english/reuben/pal/chap6/gilman.html

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