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Victorian Literature: Masculinity and the Role of Women

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King Solomon’s Mines is a novel by the English Victorian writer Henry Rider Haggard which was published in 1885. The novel, which became a best seller in a short period of time, tells the story of a group of adventurous men leaded by Allan Quatermain on their quest to find Curtis’ brother, who had gone on an expedition in search of King Solomon’s mines. Many themes have been subject of study within King Solomon’s Mines pages, for example, the good versus the evil, the British imperialism, interracial relationships and the ones this essay aims for; masculinity and the role of women.

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The definition of masculinity varies among academics. For instance, The Cambridge Dictionary defines masculinity as “the characteristics that are traditionally thought to be typical of or suitable for men”. In other words, masculinity is a social construction and as Connell states “’Masculinity’ does not exist except in contrast with ‘feminity’. At the time King Solomon’s mines was written “There were two aspects to masculinity – that of a man strong, courageous, daring and willing to die in battle and that of a rational and logical man, not prone to impulsiveness or erratic behaviour” . These characteristics are depicted in the novel by Quatermain and Curtis.

Quatermain states at the very beginning that “At an age when other boys are at school I was earning my living as a trader in the old Colony. I have been trading, hunting, fighting, or exploring ever since”. These words describe Quatermain as a strong, brave and fearless man. As for the other aspect of masculinity referred by Reid, the rational and logical one; Quatermain also describes himself as a cautious and timid man:

“I am, as I think I have said, a cautious man, indeed a timid one, and this suggestion frightened me. It seemed to me that to undertake such a journey would be to go to certain death, and, putting other things aside, as I had a son to support, I could not afford to die just then.”

Again, the two aspects of masculinity are shown by Sir Henry. First we encounter the rational Henry when he addresses to Quatermain “I am going to tell you a story, and ask your advice, and perhaps your assistance” . As the journey is coming to an end he evolves and becomes a courageous man “Speaking personally, I had rather be killed fighting than any other way, and now that there seems little chance of our finding my poor brother, it makes the idea easier to me”

In addition, during the course of the story, Haggard constructs a masculine environment. Before the journey begins, Quatermain, Curtis and Good spend time doing manly activities such as talking about shooting, smoking a pipe and drinking whiskey. Also, when Quatermain accepts to accompany Curtis and Good and they start preparing for their journey Haggard uses almost one page to describe thoroughly the weapons and ammunition they are going to bring. Moreover, during their journey, Quatermain and the rest of the group have to confront starvation and for this reason they must hunt exotic animals such as giraffes and elephants.

In respect of the role of women in King Solomon’s Mines, only two women, Gagool and Foulata, are briefly mentioned at the very beginning by the narrator. Nonetheless, they will not appear again up until the half of the story:

“Fourth reason and last: Because I am going to tell the strangest story that I remember. It may seem a queer thing to say, especially considering that there is no woman in it—except Foulata. Stop, though! There is Gagaoola, if she was a woman, and not a fiend. But she was a hundred at least, and therefore not marriageable, so I don’t count her. At any rate, I can safely say that there is not a petticoat in the whole history.”

Despite the fact that King Solomon’s Mines only counts with two female characters and that they do not appear in the first half of the story they are highly relevant characters, especially Gagool. Moreover, each one of them serves for one purpose. Gagool is described as “the wise and terrible woman, who does not die”. Foulata, on the other hand, is the fairest Kukuana woman who is about to be sacrificed and after she is saved from an imminent death she becomes the nurse of her saviour, Sir Henry Curtis.

As Patteson states “Women do not usually figure as protagonist. Instead their function is to support, or to foil, the actions of male heroes in a variety of ways” . Moreover, traditionally, women have had a recurring role in Victorian literature, the angel in the house. The Angel in the House depicts the perfect middle-class woman of the Victorian period who is angelical, domestic and devoted to her husband. Moreover women that were willing to shift from the domestic sphere to the public sphere were badly seen by society; moving from the domestic to the public sphere meant challenging the hegemony, and therefore the patriarchy.

Even though Gagool and Foulata are not English they somehow embody the Victorian woman stereotype. Foulata could perfectly embody the perfect Angel in the House. Moreover if it had not been African and end up dead she could have married Sir Henry Curtis. On the contrary, Gagool reminds of a woman who has shifted from the domestic to the public sphere. She is a relevant figure among the Kukuanas, though despised. She has power and controls almost everything that takes place in Kukuana, as a matter of fact, it could be said that Gagool is in charge of the Kukuanas since Twala only seems to be Gagool’s puppet. As a consequence, Gagool is not only challenging the Patriarchy but she has already defeated it and the king has not even noticed it. However, when Quatermain arrives to Kukuana he and the rest of the group immediately acknowledge that the true power is in Gagool’s hands.

At this stage of the story the three male protagonists have already discovered that Umbopa, now Ignosi, is the true King of Kukuanaland and are planning to fight back Twala. Nevertheless, even though Twala is finally killed, Gagool the real threat is still alive. Quatermain, Curtis and Good are aware that Gagool has the power and know the threat posed by a woman with power; they are also well aware that she is challenging the patriarchy and therefore she must be killed too. Moreover, Gagool is dangerous and evil, which sets an excellent pretext for the protagonists’ willingness to kill her. However, they keep Gagool alive because she is the only one who knows where the diamonds are.

As stated previously in this essay, masculinity does not exist except in opposition to feminity; as Gagool is undergoing a traditionally manly role and challenging the status quo she must be defeated. In Reid’s words, “The masculinity of the three men, therefore, is reaffirmed in the destruction of Gagool and the threat of the New Woman is successfully quashed” . Surprisingly, Gagool is not killed by any of the protagonists; nonetheless, her fate is death likewise

In conclusion, King Solomon’s Mines is a novel that in the Victorian period could have been considered by Victorian readers to be a masculine novel, although as stated many times in this essay masculinity is a social construction and only exists in opposition to feminity. It is true that the story contains elements that could arouse more interest in men than in women. In addition, there is, still today, a distinction between novels for men and for women, although this tendency is slowly changing. However, action and adventure is one of the most popular genres of our times among people regardless of their gender. For this reason, it makes no sense to state that King Solomon’s Mines is nowadays an exclusively masculine novel.

As for the role of women in King Solomon’s Mines, there is a lack of female characters and Haggard focus more on the male characters than on the female ones. For instance, Quatermain, Curtis, Good and Ignosi evolve as their journey go on and have to face one difficulty after the other whereas women remain as flat characters. Gagool is evil and dies being evil and Foulata is docile and kind from the moment she appears till her death. Notwithstanding, Gagool and Foulata somehow embody two distinctive types of women of the Victorian period; the new woman and the Angel in the House respectively, although transferred to a different context, where England is changed for Kukuanaland in Africa.

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