Eighteenth Century

Gender Roles in She Stoops to Conquer

Oliver Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer and Jonathan Swift’s “The Lady’s Dressing Room” address the common theme of gender roles although in somewhat different ways; specifically, the play is certainly patriarchal, meaning male-dominated, yet there are indications of reversed gender roles, while the poem is not only patriarchal but also sexist.

Traditional gender roles are most easily identifiable in scenes concerning the courtship of Mr. Hastings and Miss Neville, and Mr. Marlow and Miss Hardcastle. However, predictably, the two people perpetuating the patriarchal custom are the fathers, Mr. Hardcastle and Sir Charles Marlow, which is unsurprising because their rhetoric indicates that arranged marriages were typical. For example, Mr. Hardcastle informs his daughter that, “I expect the young gentleman I have chosen to be your husband from town this very day” (Goldsmith 1.1.97-9). While he does assure her to “Depend on it, child, I’ll never control your choice,” he immediately attempts to guilt her by adding that Mr. Marlow is the son of a good friend (1.1.105-8). Similarly, Sir Charles has certain marital expectations of his son, though his are centered more on Mr. Marlow’s character than if he will marry his friend’s daughter. For example, after Miss Hardcastle describes the love and passion her suitor has for her alter ego he confesses, “. . . If I find [my son to] what you describe, all my happiness in him must have an end” (5.2.117-18). That is, Sir Charles is so concerned about the ways his son should behave with women, because he thinks it is the only way for him to marry a “good and virtuous girl” that, at first, he forgets about Miss Hardcastle (5.1.26). However, two scenes later, he anxiously asks, “What a situation am I in? If what you say appears, I shall then find a guilty son. If what he says be true, I shall then lose one that, of all others, I most wished for a daughter” (5.3.1-3). In other words, even though Sir Charles was temporarily more concerned about his son’s manners, his thoughts soon return to the arranged marriage. His word choice, particularly lose and wished, indicates that he was so confident in the arrangement that he had already begun to think of Kate as a daughter; therefore, if she did not become it, she would be lost and his wish would be unfulfilled.

Of the four younger characters, Miss Kate Hardcastle is the one who challenges the traditional gender norms the most, which is identifiable in her ironic interactions with Sir Charles in two ways. First, while he admires his son’s “modest and submissive” conversational skills, Kate is determined to “teach him a little confidence,” and later succeeds by asking Mr. Marlow, “Do you think I could ever catch at the confident address of a secure admirer?” (5.1.110, 2.1.472-73, 5.3.58-9). In other words, instead of complying with Sir Charles’ expectations of his son, she purposely pursues her original goal of instilling confidence in her suitor, which demonstrates her rejection of patriarchal English society. Second, Mr. Marlow’s newfound confidence comes from Kate’s intentional decision to “preserve the character in which I stooped to conquer” (4.1.239). That is, when she chooses once more to employ her alter ego that she deceptively created in order to win Mr. Marlow’s affections, it shows that she takes on the assertive, typically male role, while he bashfully slips into the submissive, typically female role.  

On the other hand, Swift’s hilarious yet undoubtedly chauvinist poem is only concerned with Strephon’s story that is told via the male poet’s perspective. While reading, I imagined the poet telling the story to a group of men while embarrassed Strephon only contributes twice. Specifically, when the poet asks, “Why, Strephon, will you tell the rest? / And must you needs describe the chest?” he does not answer, and, in fact, only participates in the poet’s near monologue twice when he says, “‘Those secrets of the hoary deep!’” and ‘“Oh! Celia, Celia, Celia shits!’” [Swift 69-70, 98, 118]. Therefore, we sensibly conclude that without the perspective of any women, the poem quickly turns into a one-sided sexist rant.

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8 thoughts on “Gender Roles in She Stoops to Conquer

  1. Amy, Im curious to see what you would think regarding Neville and Hastings and Ms. Hardcastle? who would you consider in control of this situation? Because in my point of view I feel like Ms. Hardcastle is because she is the one who controls the jewels and Mr Hardcastle in the end is the now who actually gives away the fact that Tony actually is older than they think he is in Neville’s defense.. Also Hastings I feel like is not as dominant as Neville. For example Neville almost chooses to wait for the jewels than choose a marriage with Hastings without them.

    • Hi Sarah – That’s a great question about how the dominant character changes throughout the play, especially between Miss Neville and Mr. Hastings. I totally agree that she is more dominant than her lover is, which we see in him, as you said, “obeying” her decision about the jewels (5.2.155). In addition, when Mr. Hastings and Mr. Marlow are fighting about the jewels and deception, she tells the latter to “Be pacified,” rather than praying and entreating him to as she does when she addresses both men later in the scene (4.1.390). To me, this shows that she has little reservation in taking charge during tense situations, even with other men.

      In the situation with Miss Neville, Mr. Hastings, and Mrs. Hardcastle, I think initially Mrs. Hardcastle has control when she refuses to give her niece her inheritance, but it changes when Tony tricks her into thinking the jewels have been stolen. However, since she ends up getting them back due to the miscommunication between Mr. Hastings and Mr. Marlow, I see how it can be argued that she had control.

      On the other hand, taking into account play as a whole, I think Mrs. Hardcastle isn’t dominant because Tony tricks her numerous times, she has no idea that Mr. Hastings and Miss Neville are planning to elope until she reads the secret letter, and, as you pointed out, Mr. Hardcastle makes an executive decision, so to speak, in defense of Miss Neville.

  2. Amy,
    I can’t wait to discuss Swift’s poem ‘The Lady’s Dressing Room’ with you. I think I read it slightly differently in terms of female subjectivity. You mention and undoubted chauvinism, but I wonder how you see Strephon being portrayed in the poem? Celia is certainly being microscopically analyzed, but does Strephon fare any better? I suppose I see him being made much more the dolt and the villain than Celia. What do you think — am I off base here?

    • Hi Krystal – That’s a great point about Strephon being much more of a dolt and a villain than Celia because the poet does criticize him for being too curious. For example, after rereading the poem, I can see how lines 119 to the end are especially critical because the narrator calls Strephon wretched and a rogue, and pities his “foul imagination,” yet at the same time thinks he deserves his punishment because, after all, Strephen chose to slyly snoop around Celia’s dressing room and chest [129, 13, 121].

      Additionally, I think I interpreted this story being told to a group of men (perhaps in a bar because of the subject?) because the poet addresses his audience in line 19: “Now listen while he next produces . . .” and tries to make Strephon contribute to the story in lines 69-70. Therefore, I wonder if subconsciously noticed Strephon being villainized more than Celia when I thought he was being embarrassed by the narrator. Thanks for proposing an alternate interpretation! 🙂

    • I didn’t really read it as all that chauvinistic and I felt that Strephon is portrayed as somewhat of a dolt (possibly for a different reason), but for some reason I took the poem as a surprisingly accurate laugh at human nature and the overall nature of infatuation. It sheds light on things we never want to consider (but are just facts of nature) when in the haze of the infatuation stage in pursuing another. I thought Strephon was not painted as more of villain than Celia, but instead a laughing stock for assuming she was anything but as human as the rest of them. Even though they all may not have been so infatuated with Celia I still read it as a humorous poke at the idea that at times people would rather think that the opposite sex doesn’t possess life’s lesser natural qualities.

      • CJ,
        great reading of infatuation here. I have to confess, part of what fascinates me so much about this poem is that essentially it wants to “boil” humanity down to the most basic, bodily functions. It’s almost as though the narrator of the poem is making fun of Strephon’s desire to render women as different — as “less human” than their male counterparts. It’s almost as thought Swift is making fun of men, ultimately forwarding the argument that: “everybody poops” 😉

  3. Pingback: RE: “Gender Roles in She Stoops to Conquer” « History and Literature of Georgian England

  4. Pingback: RE: “Gender Roles in She Stoops to Conquer” « History and Literature of Georgian England

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