Uncovering Selfhood: Acquisition of Knowledge of the Self for Women in Victorian Literature and History

Plan Author

  • Jessica Stout, 2013

Fields of Concentration

Sample Courses

  • Tutorial: Creating the New Woman: Class, Education, and Ideals in Victorian England
  • Tutorial: Selected Female Novelists: Austen, Eliot, Woolf
  • Tutorial: 19th Century Feminism and Its Authors; Ricouer

Project Description

An examination of feminine identity to literature and history with a focus on the works of Jane Austen, George Elliot and Virginia Woolf.

Faculty Sponsors

Outside Evaluator

    • Jules Chametzky, Professor Emeritus of English, University of Massachusetts


Although many people associate feminism with the women’s liberation movement of the 1960’s and 70’s, its roots actually lie in the 19th century. From the publication of A Vindication of the Rights of Women in 1792 to the great mobilization of women during World War I, women made significant strides towards equality during the Victorian Era. This Plan looks at how women’s role in society evolved during the 19th century through the lens of four classic novels: Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Dickens’ Little Dorritt, Eliot’s Middlemarch, and Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway.

Austen’s Pride and Prejudice uses the classic marriage narrative to drive its plot, but subverts it by treating Elizabeth as the moral and intellectual equal of the male characters. Dickens examines women’s identity more obliquely in Little Dorrit, which illustrates how language is used to form identity and reinforce social constraints. The characters in George Eliot’s Middlemarch personify the struggle of Victorian women to educate themselves and develop identities beyond their relationships to men. Finally, Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway uses the relationship between the protagonist Clarissa Dalloway and her daughter Elizabeth to examine Victorian feminism’s transition into modernity.


“Until the late 18th century, British women were effectively silenced by the confines of their society; constrained by class and gender, their education, employment opportunities, and financial dependence were largely predetermined.”

“World War I marked the first time in history where women had the education, support, and opportunity to move beyond the home and into the workforce. The Great War necessitated rapid changes in gender roles to support the war effort, and industrialization made it possible for women to do many jobs they were previously thought incapable of doing.”

“Austen uses the marriage plot, a convention of her age, to articulate what she considered the essential steps and purpose of knowing oneself. Austen did not write about marriage as the central moment for her female characters; the focus was instead on the introspective journey of the character.”


“The most memorable part of Plan was the opportunity to work closely with my sponsors and build personal relationships with them. They invested time and energy in my work in a deep and meaningful way.”