Home » Women and Mourning in Literature

Women and Mourning in Literature

In English literature it is not unusual to encounter a character who is mourning a loved ones absence. A genre has arisen which explores this type of lamentation expressed exclusively by female characters- the frauenlieder. Often in the mode of poetry, these songs of separation evoke the heartache felt by the female mourner and evidence much of the cruel and unjust aspects of the society in which she lives. In the Old English poem Wulf And Eadwacer the female speaker laments the estrangement of her former lover.

In Joseph Conrads novella, Heart Of Darkness, Kurtz Intended, a woman whom Kurtz has not seen for quite some time because of his tenure within the African jungle, also mourns for her man. These two grieving women are hardly similar; in fact, each manifests her grief in a distinct, unequivocal manner that altogether distinguishes her character from the other, thus giving depth to, and insight into, the genre of mourning women. And with an examination of Grendels mother in the epic poem, Beowulf, one can see that the frauenlieder undergoes a shocking metamorphosis.

Grendels mother represents an atypical character in English literature: a female who laments in a very warlike fashion. This genre depicts women in similar situations who nonetheless express not a collective voice of suffering but rather individualized notes of pain. The speaker in Wulf And Eadwacer and Kurtz Intended do share similar circumstances. The object of each womans lamentation is a man who is separated from society. Wulf is in exile (Hope has wandered in exile, with Wulf line 9), presumably because of Eadwacers intrusion, and is forced to dwell on an island that belongs to bloody barbarians (line 6).

Kurtz is an ivory trader who is stationed deep in the heart of the Congo jungle, and news of his death exacerbates the Intendeds grief considerably; this is evident when Marlow, the storys narrator, visits Kurtzs intended and describes her appearance: She came forward, all in black, with a pale head, floating towards me in the dusk. She was in mourning. It was more than a year since his death, more than a year since the news came; she seemed as though she would remember and mourn for ever. (p. 91)

It is important to note that Marlow, a male narrator, is relating the tale. His views and prejudices have to be taken into account, and as a consequence of his telling the tale we do not hear the voice of Kurtz Intended directly, rather there is a filtering effect that takes place. Marlow makes assumptions about what the Intended thinks and feels when she is not talking: She carried her sorrowful head… recounts Marlow, … as though she would say, I- I alone know how to mourn for him as he deserves (91). This utterance is Marlows creation, not the Intendeds.

Marlow relates her part of their dialogue in subsequent passages, but again, is this a womans voice or a male-edited copy? In Wulf And Eadwacer a womans perspective is asserted (assuming that we discount the proposed interpretations of the speaker being a female dog or a wen) in the first-person. This is a distinct departure from the refracted females viewpoint represented in Conrads novella, but one must remember that virtually all Old English manuscripts were written, or at least transcribed, by monks, all of whom male.

So even if the writer of Wulf was in fact female, her text was proofread and most likely altered by subsequent male editors. Be that as it may, Wulf is unique nonetheless for its existence as a text with a female speaker. The speaker laments in the traditional tones of grief-drenched sorrow ( Oh my Wulf, it was hoping and longing for you/ That sickened me, starved for the sight of you, lines 13-14) for her estranged lover whom she cannot see because of the domination of Eadwacer, her captor husband, who presumably conquered her people and banished Wulf to the barbarian-ridden island.

The speaker mourns for a man who is apart from society, as does Kurtz Intended in Heart Of Darkness, but there is a significant difference between the two texts. The notion that the speaker knows full well what is going on around her, while Marlow intentionally lies to Kurtz intended and renders her oblivious to the true circumstances of Kurtz death, marks the fundamental distinction. Marlow ruefully reflects on his decision to keep her ignorant: I wonder, if I had rendered Kurtz that justice which was his due? Hadnt he said he wanted only justice? But I couldnt. I could not tell her.

It would have been too dark- too dark altogether…. (p. 94) The justice Marlow alludes to is Kurtz final statement before dying: the horror, the horror(p. 86). The horrors of imperialism, of mans tendency towards brutality- these possible interpretations are never introduced into the Intendeds consciousness, for Marlow tells her that Kurtz spoke her name before dying. Marlows logic for concealing the truth from her insinuates that she, being only a woman, would not be mentally or psychologically equipped to handle the grim circumstances surrounding Kurtz death, so he might as well salvage her sanity by keeping her blissfully unaware.

The Intended is left with a glorious but blatantly fictional memory of her man, and she speaks of Kurtz lovingly: Men looked up to him- goodness shone in every act, and He died as he lived,(93,94) she affirms reverently. The speaker in Wulf And Eadwacer harbors no such illusions about the reality of her plight. She knows that Eadwacer is a brutal force that has crushed her happiness by casting out her true love, Wulf. Another even more critical difference between the two female characters is evinced in the final, prophetic stanza of the poem: Listen, Eadwacer!

The wolf will carry Our wretched suckling to the shade of the wood. Its easy to smash what never existed, You and I together. (lines 16-19) The speaker defiantly judges their accursed relationship, she and Eadwacer, and affirms that it will not last in the long run. The female speakers voice is powerful and ominous in this final pronouncement, a phenomenon virtually non-existent in any other Old English poem concerning women. Kurtz Intended is ultimately portrayed as a helpless, sheltered woman protected and doted upon by a male-dominated society with no say of her own.

The speaker in Wulf, though resigned to accept the brutal circumstances that surround her, does not meekly accept her fate as the Intended is forced to do in Darkness but rather asserts her voice and condemns Eadwacers viciousness and subjugation. In the Old English epic, Beowulf, Grendels mother takes an even more active role in her lamentation. She avenges her sons death at the hands of the heroic Beowulf by entering the royal hall and killing one of Beowulfs warriors. Beowulf ultimately invades Grendels mothers watery abode and kills her after a fierce battle, but the important implication of the female avengers actions remains intact.

Grendels mother mourns the loss of her son in a passive manner (The mother of Grendel, a monstrous hag/ Brooded over her misery lines 1150-51) and she sets out with single-minded purpose to do something about it (But rabid and raging his mother resolved/ On a dreadful revenge for the death of her son lines 1169-70) It should be noted that Grendels mother is only nominally feminine, and is described in ghastly, inhuman terms: sea-troll (1386) she-wolf (1392) and monstrous hag(1150) lead the list of the mothers attributes.

Beowulf is another example of an Old English poem written by a man, though anonymously, and the mothers character is more like a male warriors character and less reminiscent of a female mourner. This is even more evident in Grendels mothers warlike actions and absence of voice. She is depicted as a sort of monster, though, and critics could point out that monsters do not typically speak. Then again, the monsters in many romance stories speak, so this theory does not hold much weight.

It may be that Grendels mother is a woman with many male attributes who was not granted the right to speak in the poem because her lamentation, decided the poet, should be in the form of fierce retribution and not spoken, human sorrow. The description (or lack thereof in the case of the speaker in Wulf) of the female mourners in all three texts, in both physical and character aspects, is an important indication of the view society had toward women. In Heart Of Darkness Kurtz Intended is described as having fair hair and being a pale visage(91).

Marlow sums up her character as being … guileless, profound, confident, and trustful(91) Grendels mothers physical description is described with epithets such as sea-troll and she-wolf (1386,92) and her character traits rabid and raging (1169) and greedy and grim (1386). It is interesting to read a description of her terrific entrance into the hall, for the poet tempers the severity of her terror: But the terror was less as the war-craft is weaker,/ A womans strength, than the might of a man (1174-75).

Despite her being a monstrous, awe-inspiring creature, she is, after all, a woman. And women, being the weaker sex, could not be considered as being as strong as the men, so the poet decides to explicitly state that the male Grendels terror was mightier and more terrifying than his mothers. When you consider that Beowulf had a much more strenuous battle with Grendels mother as opposed to Grendel himself (granted, Beowulf fought Grendels mother on her turf underwater) one might be justifiably hesitant to label Grendels mother as being weaker than her son.

Kurtz Intended is portrayed as a frail, gullible, weak woman, the classic feminine model that men in Victorian England felt the need to protect and keep ignorant of worldly affairs. She and Grendels mother are diametrically opposed characters: one is the traditional subordinate female who mourns her man and does nothing; the other is an unorthodox female who mourns by exacting revenge on those who killed her son. The speaker in Wulf And Eadwacer is not attributed a physical description. In the other texts the physical descriptions of females were expressed by male authors.

In Wulf, the speaker is female and perhaps it is more important for her to express her sorrow than to give a lengthy description of her physical traits. Her character is sorrowful but defiant, suffering yet unyielding. She voices a dark, miserable future for her captor husband Eadwacer; she accepts her fate but rebels against it by predicting the doom of their hated marriage at the hands of the wolf. The frauenlieder genre focuses on the mourning and suffering of female characters as they try to cope in their individual ways with the loss of a loved male character.

The similarity seems to end here when considering the various and divergent methods of coping expressed by Kurtz Intended from Heart Of Darkness, the female speaker from Wulf And Eadwacer, and Grendels mother from Beowulf. Wulfs speaker is the only character whose voice comes from the first person, though the poet may very well have been male. Her voice is powerfully prophetic, although constrained by circumstances. Grendels mother does not get to speak out in the poem, but her actions demonstrate a power that is equal to (if not greater than) the male characters in the tale, but we must remember that she is not so much human as she is beast.

Kurtz Intended is the most passive voice out of the three. Her thoughts and emotions are described by the male Marlow, a man who like the rest of male society seeks to shield their women from the dark realities of life outside of the domestic sphere she is accustomed to. She mourns and does not rebel, either passively like the Wulf speaker or actively like Grendels mother, to her fate, perhaps because she is so accustomed to being blissfully unaware that she does not know how to assert her voice. All three female characters mourn, nonetheless, and each exists among the many restrictions imposed on them by a male-dominated society.

Cite This Work

To export a reference to this essay please select a referencing style below:

Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.