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Samuel Johnson's views on women : from his works. Stacey, Iris

Abstract

An examination of Samuel Johnson’s essays and his tragedy, Irene, and his Oriental tale, Rasselas, reveals that his concept of womanhood and his views on the education of woman and her role in society amount to a thorough-going criticism of the established views of eighteenth-century society. His views are in advance of those of his age. Johnson viewed the question of woman with that same practical good sense which he had brought to bear on literary criticism. It was important he said "to distinguish nature from custom: or that which is established because it was right, from that which is right only because it is established." Johnson thought that, so far as women were concerned, custom had dictated views and attitudes which reason denied. Because society's concept of womanhood emphasized the physical and Johnson’s, the mental, there was little agreement about her education and her role in the home. Johnson's views on women will be drawn from his works rather than from comments recorded by his biographers, James Boswell, Mrs. Thrale, or Sir John Hawkins, or from remarks made in the diaries and letters of Fanny Burney and Hannah More. With the exception of excerpts in Chapter V, comments made by others will be used only as substantiating evidence. In Chapter V, I have found it necessary to draw heavily on comments made by others simply because Johnson passed few remarks about anyone he knew — man or woman. Chapter I sets forth eighteenth-century views on women from the viewpoint of society and from that of such men of letters as Addison, Steele, Pope, Defoe, Swift, and Johnson. The next two chapters will follow a chronological order; the discussion of Johnson’s views on the education of women will precede his views on marriage and the woman's role in the home. The fourth chapter, a discussion of Johnson's figure of womanhood from Irene and Rasselas can be considered as a summation of Chapters II and III, for these two works are really, a comprehensive study of what Johnson had said about the education of women and their role in society in his Rambler, Idler, and Adventurer. This chapter will also include an analysis of Johnson's female characters as women. The purpose of the concluding chapter is to show that Johnson's estimation of womankind and his views on the education of women and their role in society are not to be taken lightly. Many men express one opinion about women but really believe something quite different. But not Johnson. He chose his female friends for those same qualities he said in his works were becoming womanhood. In life he treated them as he had written of them — with respect and without condescension.

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