Reading & Writing Bleak House

Miss Wisk: Champion of Women

Apr 01, 2012 by Lucy S Arnerich-Hatch in Esther

I thought it was really interesting that Miss Wisk would even exist as a character in this time period. Her ideas seemed part of the extreme end of the Feminist spectrum. In addition to seeing women as equal to men (hopefully not extreme at all), she thought that marriage would subject a woman to male oppression (and therefore heartily disapproved of Caddy and Prince's wedding). This is the kind of feminism that is commonly demonized by people who disagree with it. To those people, anything labeled feminist is female self-involvement and whining. They see the end goal as the superiority of females rather than males. This, of course, would create another set of problems entirely and wouldn't even the score so much as nuke the scoreboard and start over the other way around. Anyway, Miss Wisk's ideas made me think about whether marriage (as being semi-permanently attached to one other person) really is an act of oppression against females, or if the oppression comes from the disconnect between a Husband and a Wife.

Not only was Miss Wisk a fleeting character, she existed only in the context of the wedding. She has no substance outside of her Mission, so I guess she didn't have anything substantial to add to any conversation that didn't involve female oppression. She also presents an opportunity for Esther to state her own opinions on such things, if only in the way she presents them to us. It seems that Esther isn't of the same mind as Miss Wisk, but I think considering the times and her position, this isn't really ignorance. Technically, Esther does need a man. She has no money of her own, and depends on Jarndyce to feed and shelter her. If she gets married, she will depend on that man's income to feed and shelter her. Miss Wisk is being impractical for the time period she lives in, which I think is part of the joke. The dependence of poor people on the less poor is more of a class issue, and while the patriarchal inheritance system would contribute to that, Esther was an orphan. She had nothing to inherit, regardless of her sex. Her class also does not subject her to as much social pressure as if she was a young heiress, so any decision she made would be accepted by her friends and family. She is all at once a perfect wife and separate from the need to marry. 

From this same jump-off point, I thought about how the emergence of legal same-sex marriage is changing what we think about marriage now. Marriage used to be about business, making connections and ensuring the integrity of a name or bloodline. Then it became an age thing, making an adult decision to settle down permanently and build up from there. Recently it's more of a display of semi-serious affection, what with the frequency of divorce and the acceptance of relationships in many forms. Same sex-marriage brings up the more legal connotations again. Which partner will be expected to change their name? Which partner will be given leave from work to take care of a newborn child? Will heterosexual couples be expected to act as they have for centuries, or will everything be thrown out the window? Are these two kinds of marriages different, and what does it mean if they are treated differently? What does it mean that no partner will be expected to depend on the other? Have we progressed far enough that a perceived dependence has disappeared in one party of a heterosexual marriage?

I think this is all a bit jumbled but I really enjoyed that a book from ~140 years ago would bring up such a seemingly modern idea as feminism.

Poverty in Bleak House and Today

Apr 01, 2012 by Victoria L Day in Esther

The section about Jo in this Bleak House serial reading made me think a bit about some ideas we have been discussing in my anthropology class about poverty.  In my anthropology class, we are reading the book In Search of Respect by Phillipe Bourgois.  This book is Bourgois’s ethnographical account of his time spent among crack dealers in El Barrio.  One thing that Bourgois hits on a lot in his book is the idea of poverty as a structure, created by mainstream social institutions.  He often discusses how in order to restructure poverty; we need to restructure these institutions. 

            I feel that Bourgois’ ideas can be applied to Mr. Skimpole’s assessment of Jo’s illness.  Mr. Skimpole instantly tells Mr. Jarndyce to “turn [Jo] out” as “he’s not safe” (493).  While it is true that Jo’s illness is probably contagious and we learn that is contagious as it passes from Charley to Esther, Mr. Skimpole is ignoring the root of the problem.  Rather than take the time to cure Jo, to fix the problem of the illness, he recommends just letting the illness become someone else’s problem.  I think that it is significant that this advice comes from Mr. Skimpole.  Throughout the novel, Skimpole has been set up as an adult “child,” who goes through life worrying only about his own concerns.  I feel that to a large extent mainstream society acts as Mr. Skimpole.  There are tendencies in society to blame the victim and to believe that a particular hegemonic image is the actual reality.  For example, in Bourgois’ work he discusses how his friends thought he was crazy for living in El Barrio and believed that natives to El Barrio were violent people who did not want to work in the legal economy, when it is actually extremely difficult for people living there to get jobs in the legal economy.  Rather than restructure the job agencies and welfare offices that are not functioning as they should, mainstream society turns its back on El Barrio, in the same way that Skimpole turns his back on Jo.

            In fact, looking back, I feel the same could apply to when Jo was told to “move on.”  Again, there is an authority simply telling Jo to move, but not giving him the means to do so.  Jo, in this situation, is not the lazy or dumb figure that the authorities portray him to be.  He rather lacks the “social” or “cultural capital” to explain the message.  He does not “move on” not because he does not want to, but because he does not know how to do so….

            I feel that Dickens is using the structure of poverty to comment on society.  Throughout the course of the novel, we have been introduced to characters such as Jo and Charley who are clearly good, innocent children.  Yet despite their inherent pure nature, these children have been pushed aside by society and left to fend for themselves.  In much the same way that the structure of the Court of Chancery fails to help those at law, the mainstream society fails to help Jo and Charley – Jo who from the moment we meet him has been put down as a poor boy who is too uneducated to know the difference from right and wrong and Charley who though almost angelic, was ignored by society and used for her ability to work.  In the same way, Bourgois could comment on the structure of poverty today, citing the way mainstream society ignores the children of El Barrio, and the men and women there who are struggling to make ends meet.

Comparing Charity in Bleak House and Today

Apr 01, 2012 by Rachel Berlage in Esther

            In the section for this week, we see another example of Mrs. Jellyby choosing her charity over her family. In preparing for Caddy’s wedding, Esther tries to “imbue Mrs. Jellyby beforehand with some faint sense of the occasion,” but instead, Mrs. Jellyby puts her work before her children—Caddy’s mother “hold[s] Borrioboolan interviews by appointment,” while her children “tumbled down the house, as they had always been accustomed to do,” (402*) We have talked previously about how this charity work seems self-centered on Mrs. Jellyby’s part. I am reminded of Mr. Jarndyce’s quote in chapter 8: “there were two classes of charitable people: one, the people who did a little and made a great deal of noise; the other, the people who did a great deal and made no noise at all,” where Mrs. Jellyby represents the former (109-110).

            This made me think about how people view charity today. I recently studied the Rwandan Genocide of 1994 and one of the main criticisms of how the situation was handled internationally was that assistance (both from governments and NGOs) came reactively rather than proactively. While some groups “played dumb” about the situation in this African nation, the fact is that many scholars knew that the Genocide was going to happen and begged for assistance to stop it. The situation quickly escaladed and it is possible that it could have been avoided or at least tempered by intervention before the violence started—but no one wanted to get involved in the fray. However, after the dust settled and people began to realize the magnitude of what had happened, there was a cry for assistance to the country. For years after the Genocide, Rwanda has been the “darling” of international donors wanting to help rebuild because the nation has emerged into what appears to be a stable society, but ethnic tensions and repression remain.

            This is one situation that I think could have been helped if people viewed charity as something to do for its own sake, rather than with a “Mrs. Jellby” type attitude—treating charity as something to do because the cause is popular.


*I am using a different edition so my page numbers are off.

Lots of information on Rwanda if anyone is interested:

Esther and Ada

Mar 31, 2012 by Annavictoria Ellsworth in Esther

Something I’ve been noticing and thinking about in Esther’s narrative is the relationship between Esther and Ada.  I don’t know a lot about Victorian ideas on female friendship, but reading this text with modern eyes the relationship seems almost romantic.  Esther describes many incidents of physical contact between them, always refers to Ada in terms of affection, and positively harps on Ada’s physical beauty (and her other virtues, should they appear).  For instance on page 486 Esther writes  of Ada “This time my dear girl confidently answered ‘No,’ to, and shook the lovely golden head which , with its blooming flowers against the golden hair, was like the very Spring. ‘Much you know of East winds, my ugly darling,’ said I, kissing her in my admiration--I couldn’t help it.”  Esther finds Ada so attractive that she is compelled to touch her.  Esther also compares Ada (or at least her head) to the Spring, much Shakespeare to his beloved (and further Esther is compared to “sunshine and summer air”). I think it’s interesting that Esther calls Ada “my ugly darling” to her face right after she has internally eulogized Ada’s beauty.  Esther almost always refers to Ada with an endearment, such as the “my dear girl” at the beginning of the paragraph.  I noticed after discussing Miss Clack’s desire to dominate and own other people that these endearments generally start with “my.”  In particular, on page 481 Esther refers to Ada as “my beautiful pet” expressing not only her admiration, but also her possession of Ada.  

Further proofs of Esther’s affection for Ada, are the lengths Esther goes to protect Ada from illness in the last chapters.  While Esther is assumably secluding herself from everyone except Charley, one servant, and the doctor, the emphasis is placed on her separation from Ada.  She strolls with Mr Jarndyce while presumably contaminated with illness, but locks Ada out (499).  It is never stated why Ada must be so carefully protected.  Esther has said that Ada had a cold, which might imply that Ada would be more susceptible to or more at risk from the disease.  But that is not made explicit.  What is explicit is that Esther cares deeply for Ada.  

Esther's True Colors

Mar 31, 2012 by Maria E Whelan in Esther

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Indifferent Parenting

Mar 25, 2012 by Lauren L Williams in Esther

As children we want nothing but the approval of our parents from a young age. When we went outside to play we were filled with nothing but excitement when we discovered a new trick that we just had to show our parents. As we grew older, those new tricks turned to news that we eagerly wanted to share with our parents about the events going on in our lives to. In some cases we were given the verbal pat on the back that we were desperately craving, in other cases we were surprised that our parents did no approve, but were disappointed with what we had done. The only thing we received from them, was their scolding.

In Bleak House Caddy Jellyby went to her mother with the happy news of her engagement to Prince Turveydrop. Caddy hoped that something as happy as a marriage would finally win her the approval from her mother. However her mother chastised her, like she has done so many times throughout her life for not having “more sympathy with the destinies of the human race” (382) and for not mixing with the right people who do. Mrs. Jellyby’s lack of emotion to her daughter’s engagement shows that down she has never approved of anything that Caddy has done and that the only thing Caddy could do to win her approval would be to show an interest in the events that occur in Africa. In fact Mrs. Jellyby acted as if she is completely indifferent towards anything that Caddy does with her life including her feelings.

Who's That Narrator: Dickens or Esther

Mar 20, 2012 by Emma V Ginader in Esther

            The chapter 23 Title, Esther’s Narrative, gains significance as Esther takes on the omniscient narrator’s abilities to reflect on the status of the world around her and manipulate situations to create plot.   

         Like the omniscient narrator at the beginning of the novel, Esther criticizes the legal system of England. In the opening chapter of the novel, the narrator observes that the Court of Chancery in London has decayed to the point that it can no longer function or help solve legal problems. He declares that the courts are “decaying houses” and “that there is not an honorable man among its practitioners” (15). The narrator’s sentiments are mirrored by Esther’s believe that the “industry was all misdirected. I could not find that it led to anything, but the formation of delusive hopes” (269). An omniscient narrator must have the ability to critically think about their social surroundings and past judgment on it.  Because Esther is the only character in the novel that seems to process the society that she lives in, her intelligence gives her the power to shape the narrative that other characters in the novel cannot access.

         Esther exercises her narrative power by directing her friends to take action. By controlling her friends’ actions, she is able to shape the course of the plot. One of the ways Esther is able to create her views on society is that the other characters often tell her their secrets and plans for the future. For example, the Miss Jellby confesses to Esther that she plans to get married to Prince Turverydrop but hasn’t informed her mother or her future father-in-law about the plan. Similarly to how an omniscient narrator uses the hidden facts about characters to help control how the plot will play out, Esther urges Miss Jellby to tell the parents about the engagement because it is “wrong to marry without ma’s knowledge” (373). After hearing Esther’s opinion, Miss Jellby and Prince tell their parents about their engagement to varying degrees of success. As a result of their actions, the plot is moved forward.

         As a result of Esther taking on traits of the omniscient narrator, she becomes interchangeable with the omniscient narrator and thus Dickens himself.

Selfishness in Bleak House

Mar 18, 2012 by Andrea L Ray in Esther

I was equally amazed and horrified at the reaction of Mrs. Jellyby and Mr. Turveydrop to their childrens’ engagement. I believe that their reactions qualify them as two of the most self-centered people in the book.

            Mr. Turveydrop, upon hearing that his son is engaged is to begin sobbing. “An arrow launched at me by my own child!” he sobs pitifully (376). Turveydrop immediately takes the situation and turns it so that it concerns himself, and not his son or his son’s fiancée. He continues in such a manner that his son says, “…our first desire is to consider your comfort.” (377). Upon hearing this, Mr. Turveydrop invites his son and Miss Jelllyby to move into his house permanently, and they are “so overcome with thankfulness as if, instead of quartering himself upon them for the rest of his life, he were making some magnificent sacrifice in their favour.” (379). That line says a lot in particular about Mr. Turveydrop, who puts on such airs of deportment to inflate his own ego.

            Mrs. Jellyby, perpetually distracted by Africa, fails to even show any interest in her daughter’s news. Insulting her daughter for not caring about others, she is merely disappointed that Miss Jellyby showed no interest in Mr. Quale, who is a philanthropist like Mrs. Jellyby. “Now if I were not so happily engaged, Miss Summerson, this would distress and disappoint me. But I have so much to think of, in connexion with Borrioboola Gha, and it is so necessary that I should concentrate myself, that there is my remedy you see.” (381-382).

            Both characters are selfish in their own ways, Mr. Turveydrop in thinking of himself and Mrs. Jellyby only of Africa and her work in philanthropy, and it is interesting to see what effects their styles of selfishness have on their children. 

Parental Acceptance, An Obligation of Selfish Reaction

Mar 18, 2012 by Maria E Whelan in Esther

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Esther's Sense of Obligation

Mar 17, 2012 by Elizabeth J Schmitt in Esther

In Chapter 23, Esther's Narrative, I was particularly struck by the sense of obligation and commitment Esther has for so many characters. This quality was apparent in the first few chapters, and many posts were written about how devoted Esther was to Ada, and perhaps that Esther will not know what to do when Ada leaves Esther, as she will when she gets married. In this chapter, Esther not only takes on the burden of helping Ada, but coaching Miss Jellyby through telling Mr. Turveydrop's father about their engagement. Esther also acts as a confidante for Richard for his financial troubles, and at the end of the chapter, it seems that Esther will become a teacher and role model figure for Charley. In Chapter 24, Esther helps consult on Richard's decision to enlist. It seems that Esther is the lifeline for so many people, yet no one is looking out for Esther. At the beginning of Chapter 23, Esther notes that she feels a peculiar connection to Lady Dedlock, yet that Lady Dedlock seems so disconnected and unapproachable. Perhaps Esther wishes Lady Dedlock would take an interest in her? This comment made by Esther seems to lead readers to believe that Esther thinks there is more to Lady Dedlock than she lets on, and that maybe Esther questions why she feels connected to Lady Dedlock. 

Keeping Up Appearances - The Use of the Facade in Bleak House

Mar 05, 2012 by Andrea L Ray in Esther

I love the representation of Chesney Wold, the home of Lord and Lady Dedlock, and Bleak House, the home of Esther’s guardian Mr. Jarndyce. Although Bleak House is described as physically falling apart and not appearing at its best,  Esther makes it very clear that the house feels like a home – warm, friendly and happy, despite what it appears to be.

                Chesney Wold seems to be the opposite of Bleak House. When first arriving, Esther says, “It was a picturesque old house, in a fine park richly wooded….Oh, the solemn woods over which the light and shadow traveled, as if Heavenly wings were sweeping on benevolent errands through the summer air; the smooth green slopes, the glittering water, the gardens where the flowers were so symmetrically arranged in clusters of the richest colours. The house…seemed scarcely real in its light solidity and in the serene and peaceful hush that rested all around it...” (287).

                Although the house and village seem so beautiful, there is a hint of this image being a mirage, when Esther says that the house seemed scarcely real. Indeed, its image is unrealistic, because we know of the unhappiness which pervades the inside. We know that inside of the house, Lady Dedlock remains joyless, bound to her much older husband and stifled with boredom. From earlier explorations of Chesney Wold, we know it is not a happy place, but it does keep op the appearance of being one.

                We must contrast this with Bleak House, which is an old rambling house, perpetually surrounded by gray skies and watery weather, falling apart at the seams. Bleak House, however it may appear, retains a spirit and charm that make it a home, which we realize that Chesney Wold is lacking. The two houses make me wonder about the use of facades in this book – each presenting a face to the world that is not their true face at all. What characters might be doing the same thing?

Money Buys Social Positions

Mar 05, 2012 by Emma V Ginader in Esther

What person doesn’t want to live the luxurious lifestyle and have a higher social status in society?  In modern American culture, the ability to transcend one’s original social class into a higher class is a feasible reality due to the growth and availability of the consumer mass-produced goods. However, despite the fact that these equalitarian tools can improve many people’s life, if people are not careful with their money, they could end up falling in their social class. According to a 2007 Bloomberg article by Daniel Taub, 300,000 mortgages defaulted in 2007. The article also stated that it was estimated that approximately 1 million mortgage loans would default in the following year. Many economic analysts believed that one of the factors that led up to the economic crisis was when “the government played a role in stimulating demand for houses by proselytizing the benefits of home ownership for the well-being of individuals and families” (Schwartz, 20).[1] Investment companies and banks often gave out loans to individuals whom could not pay back the loans. Because of their actions, many ended up without a home or enough money to get by in life. To generalize, many of these people just wanted to pursue the American dream of owning a house and being economically and socially secure.

            This economic phenomenon is not new to human history. If a reader were to read Bleak House through a historic lens, the reader would find that the character of Richard Carstone embodies the human need to spend money that they don't really have in order to raise themselves socially in society. Carstone’s estate has been vaporized by the legal costs for the lawsuit, Jarndyce and Jarndyce. Despite his lack of proper revenue or stable career path, Carstone still wishes to “travel outside a circle” (Dickens, 270) and climb up the social and economic ladder. He further expresses his wish to social and economic upper movement when he decides to possibly study law because he “should be able to look after Ada’s interests, and my own interests” (Dickens 271).  Despite having little to no money, Carstone spends most of it on “the oddest little ornaments and luxuries for this [his] lodging” (Dickens 282). Like with many homeowners and money-lenders of this generation, he spends money he doesn’t have in order to possess the ideal social position in society.

[1] Origins of the Financial Market Crisis of 2008 by Anna J. Schwartz


Naming Esther

Mar 04, 2012 by Annavictoria Ellsworth in Esther

In my first post I talked the meanings that the names of different characters either evoke or carry. As I said then, Esther's name is a biblical name attached both to a pious queen and the morning star. Both these icons fit with Esther's virtuous personality and ability to bring hope with her where ever she goes.
I find it interesting that her name is being replaced with Dame Durden, little old woman, and the like. It seems to me that she is being de-sexualized in a way that she seems to find safe and comforting.  This might be why she is so jittery about her attraction to Allan Woodcourt; her attraction threatens the happy home she has made. Also, I can't imagine her godmother raised her to be particularly sex positive.
Speaking of Esther's godmother/aunt, Esther's birth secret is slipping its way into the center of the narrative, what with Mr Jarndyce exposing more of her past and the memories Esther finds stirred at seeing Lady Dedlock. It brought my focus to Esther’s last name. I doubt that Esther's last name is inherited from her parents, but rather like Evelina her surname is hers alone. What does the name Summerson say about Esther? Is she in some sense a child of summer? Is it significant that our story is currently in summer?

The Mysterious Mr. Woodcourt

Mar 03, 2012 by Bailly S Morse in Esther

Esther, a girl who narrates Bleak House with a sense of purpose and assuredness in her writing, is rarely flustered. But one character who does cause her befuddlement is Mr. Woodcourt. He is that “dark surgeon” whom she was first introduced to in an earlier chapter, at which time she fumbles noticeably over her words. She recounts, “I have forgotten to mention--at least I have not mentioned--that Mr. Woodcourt was the same dark surgeon whom we had met at Mr. Badger’s [...] Or, that when they were all gone, I said to Ada, ‘Now, my darling, let us have a little talk about Richard!’ Ada laughed and said---But I don’t think it matters what my darling said. She was always merry” (237). This quotation makes several things apparent to begin with. She obviously did not forget to mention Mr. Woodcourt, as she plainly mentions him here. Also, her confusion seems to have to do with her feelings for Mr. Woodcourt, as Ada teases her about this, Esther too embarrassed to mention the exact exchange to the reader.

This initial interaction is expanded in Chapter 17 of Esther’s Narrative. She reports that “we had a visitor next day. Mr. Allan Woodcourt came. He was to take leave of us” (277) in order to be a doctor in China. She finishes, almost regretfully, that “he was going to be away a long, long time” (277). We see an expansion of Esther’s feelings for Mr. Woodcourt, which can be described as fond, even infatuated, as the scene continues. 

Esther continues her narration about Woodcourt, mentioning his income, that “it was not lucrative to a young practitioner” (277). This would be a concern for her if she was considering having a connection to him in the future, regarding how they would make a life together. She also mentions that “he was seven years older than I” (277) but that she herself doesn’t really understand why that’s significant, although the reader can see that she is considering whether they would be a good match. When she says “we thought it a pity he should go away,” (277) she really seems to meant that she thought it a pity. 

When Woodcourt comes, he brings his mother, who goes into a long explanation of their pedigree and how her son should marry someone with a great blood line (278). Esther, seeming hopeful, “half fancied, and with pain--but, what an idle fancy to suppose that she could think or care what [Esther’s birth] was!” (278). Again, Esther’s concern stems from her apparent attraction to Mr. Woodcourt. 

A little time later, we see just how he feels about her. Caddy comes, baring a small nosegay with her, full of beautiful flowers. Ada and Esther tease that it looks like “that sort of thing” (280) that a lover might give someone. When Caddy gives them to a surprised Esther, explaining they were from a gentleman going on a long voyage, Ada jokes with her that “they look very, very like that sort of thing” (280). This makes it apparent that Mr. Woodcourt admires Esther as much as she does him, as these flowers indicate an affection that he has for her. The reader is left wishing that Mr. Woodcourt was not going on so long a voyage, that he might stay and woo the rather flustered Esther. 

"Pen and Ink": Does Writing Help or Hinder the 19th Century Woman?

Feb 26, 2012 by Emma V Ginader in Esther

            “I am only pen and ink to her,” (221) relates Miss Jellby to Esther and Ada on why she is leaving her mother to get married to Mr. Prince Turveydrop. While female protagonists in earlier novels, like Pamela, use writing as a method to sort through the social hierarchy and achieve a better internal understanding of themselves, Miss Jellby’s writing restricts her thinking abilities and cultivation as an individual away from society because her mother uses Miss Jellby as her personal secretary. 

            In the novel Pamela by Samuel Richardson, the titular character is a servant girl trapped by her lustful master in his far away estate, separated from anyone who could help her. The only form of free will she has left is writing letters to her parents about her situation. Through her letters, Pamela is able to navigate her social predicament and critique her master’s actions as corrupt and malicious. Pamela grows as an individual and becomes able to distinguish herself from other people’s moral codes and personal goals.

            Miss Jellby, on the other hand, doesn’t use writing as a method of personal escape. Her writing is instead used a tool by her mother to direct “letters about Africa” (56). Writing, a typically independent enterprise that requires free thought and expression, is perverted by Mrs. Jellby to shrill out propaganda in aid of a popular cause instead of aiding her disastrous home life. Writing, instead of cultivating her inner personhood, diminishes it because she “can’t do anything hardly, except write. I’m always writing for Ma” (60). What is made more tragic is the subtlety of Miss Jellby possessing a great intelligent than what her mother allows her to cultivate. At one point, Miss Jellby recognizes that her father will leave their family once he goes bankrupt because they are “nothing but bills, dirt, waste, noise, tumbles down-stairs, confusion, and wretchedness” (219). Through the character of Miss Jellby, Dickens shows that education can be exploited by the modern culture and driven away from any deep and meaningful thought.

            Interestingly, though her mother has limited her ability to think by writing, Miss Jellby is able to empower herself and her fiancé through her writing. During a conservation with Esther, Miss Jellby reveals that her fiancé doesn’t know how to write very well because “he had passed his whole life in the dancing-school, and had nothing but to teach and fag” (231). Due to his lack of education, she plans to “write letters enough for both” (231). Like Pamela, Miss Jellby is able to use her writing as a tool to empower herself as a woman in a patriarchal society. While Miss Jellby is not able to use her writing as a tool to create her own interior space like Pamela uses her writing, both women are able to use their writing to empower themselves in a patriarchal society.