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Under all her saucy satire, provoked chiefly by her divination that her friends thought of him as a desirable match for her, [Gwendolen] felt something very far from indifference as to the impression she would make on [Grandcourt]. (10.32)
Gwendolen usually feels like she's not just in control of herself, but everyone else around her, too. It's interesting, then, to see how startled she is when she worries about the kind of impression that she'll make on Grandcourt.
Gwendolen found a relief for herself by thus changing the situation: not that the tête-à-tête was quite disagreeable to her; but while it lasted she apparently could not get rid of the unwonted flush in her cheeks and the sense of surprise which made her feel less mistress of herself than usual. And this Mr. Grandcourt, who seemed to feel his own importance more than he did hers—a sort of unreasonableness that few of us can tolerate—must not take for granted that he was of great moment to her, or that because others speculated on him as a desirable match she held herself altogether at his beck. (11.37)
Grandcourt seems to take away Gwendolen's sense of power over situations, even when they first meet and she thinks she's still sassy and in control. She feels "less mistress of herself than usual," meaning that she doesn't feel like her usual shot-caller self.
"Will you do me the honour—the next—or another quadrille?"
"I should have been very happy," said Gwendolen, looking at her card, "but I am engaged for the next to Mr. Clintock.—and I perceive that I am doomed for every quadrille: I have not one to dispose of." She was not sorry to punish Mr. Grandcourt's tardiness, yet at the same time she would have liked to dance with him. She gave him a charming smile as she looked up to deliver her answer, and he stood still looking down at her with no smile at all. (11.86-87)
Here we see Gwendolen trying to manipulate Grandcourt. She's totally playing games with him, and we can see that it's sort of working.
Gwendolen did not turn her eyes on him: it seemed to her a long while that she was first blushing, and then turning pale, but to Grandcourt's rate of judgment she answered soon enough, with the lightest flute-tone and a careless movement of the head, "Oh, I am not sure that I want to be taken care of: if I chose to risk breaking my neck, I should like to be at liberty to do it." (13.18)
Here we see a power struggle between Gwendolen and Grandcourt before they're married – even if it is slightly flirtatious. Grandcourt wants to be the big strong guy to take care of her, and Gwendolen wants to have the freedom to make her own mistakes and take care of herself.
The questioning then, was whether [Gwendolen] should take a particular man as a husband. The inmost fold of her questioning now, was whether she need take a husband at all—whether she could not achieve substantiality for herself and know gratified ambition without bondage. (23.9)
Throughout the novel, Gwendolen seems to view marriage as a kind of prison sentence in which a woman is no longer in control of herself. Her thought of marriage as "bondage" in this instance is just another example of that way of thinking.
"I desire to be independent," said Gwendolen, deeply stung and confusedly apprehending some scorn for herself in Klesmer's words. "That was my reason for asking whether I could not get an immediate engagement. Of course I cannot know how things go on about theatres. But I thought that I could have made myself independent. I have no money, and I will not accept help from any one." (23.57)
As per usual, Gwendolen wants to be in control of herself. In many cases, that means shying away from marriage. In this case, it means supporting herself financially. She's really disappointed, then, when Klesmer tells her she doesn't have the talent to make it on the stage.
The sudden change of the situation was bewildering. A few minutes before she was looking along an inescapable path of repulsive monotony, with hopeless inward rebellion against the imperious lot which left her no choice: and lo, now, a moment of choice was come. Yet—was it triumph she felt most or terror? Impossible for Gwendolen not to feel some triumph in a tribute to her power at a time when she was first tasting the bitterness of insignificance: again she seemed to be getting a sort of empire over her own life. But how to use it? Here came the terror. (26.22)
So, after Gwendolen has been really sassy and mean to Grandcourt, he still wants to marry her. On one hand, she should feel like totally hot stuff. On the other hand, it seems like she is a pawn in his game. Even though she has the power to choose, it seems like Grandcourt is doing the choosing for her.
"Your father was different. Unlike me—all lovingness and affection. I knew I could rule him; and I made him secretly promise me, before I married him, that he would put no hindrance in the way of my being an artist." (51.40)
Daniel's mother's attitude towards her marriage sounds creepily like Gwendolen's, doesn't it? Both of them have sought power in marriage; the catch is, only one of them actually got it.
In taking his wife with him on a yachting expedition, Grandcourt had no intention to get rid of her; on the contrary, he wanted to feel more securely that she was his to do as she liked with, and to make her feel it also. (54.2)
Grandcourt makes Gwendolen go yachting with him so he can show her what's what. Bad move, Grandcourt…
"I saw him sink, and my heart gave a leap as if it were going out of me. I think I did not move. I kept my hands tight. It was long enough for me to be glad, and yet to think it was no use—he would come up again. And he was come—farther off—the boat had moved. It was all like lightning. 'The rope!' he called out in a voice—not his own—I hear it now—and I stooped for the rope—I felt I must—I felt sure he could swim, and he would come back whether or not, and I dreaded him. That was in my mind—he would come back. But he was gone down again, and I had the rope in my hand—no, there he was again—his face above the water—and he cried again—and I held my hand, and my heart said, 'Die!'—and he sank; and I felt 'It is done—I am wicked, I am lost!'—and I had the rope in my hand—I don't know what I thought—I was leaping away from myself—I would have saved him then. I was leaping from my crime, and there it was—close to me as I fell—there was the dead face—dead, dead. It can never be altered. That was what happened. That was what I did. You know it all. It can never be altered." (56.50)
Whoa. Deep breath, Gwen. Here, Gwendolen feels powerless to change a moment in the past in which she felt great power. She thinks it was technically in her power to save Grandcourt's life and she chose not to. Still, who can be sure that she would have been able to? Interestingly, this exercise of "power" has left her a blabbering mess.
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