Study Guide

Where Angels Fear to Tread Gender

By E. M. Forster

Gender

Italy is such a delightful place to live in if you happen to be a man. [...] In the democracy of the caffe or the street the great question of our life has been solved, and the brotherhood of man is a reality. But is accomplished at the expense of the sisterhood of women. Why should you not make friends with your neighbour at the theatre or in the train, when you know and he knows that feminine criticism and feminine insight and feminine prejudice will never come between you? (3.51)

After the honeymoon period of her marriage to Gino is over, Lilia quickly realizes that Italy is very different than England, especially regarding the status of their women. If you're a man living in Italy, you're all set—you can go anywhere, do anything, say anything you want. The men of Italy have created a "brotherhood" of sorts. Only men are allowed of course because women would just be in the way. This reeks a bit of sexism, if you ask us.

Meanwhile the women—they have, of course, their house and their church, with its admirable and frequent services, to which they are escorted by the maid. Otherwise they do not go out much, for it is not genteel to walk, and you are too poor to keep a carriage. Occasionally you will take them to the caffe or theatre, and immediately all your wonted acquaintance there desert you, except those few who are expecting and expected to marry into your family. It is all very sad. But one consolation emerges—life is very pleasant in Italy if you are a man. (3.52)

According to the narrator, women in Italy have very little personal freedom outside of the home. To her dismay, Lilia finds this out the hard way after she marries Gino and he refuses to allow her to take walks alone. Italian women are expected to stay at home, and if they do leave the house, they cannot go unaccompanied. Lilia is appalled by this ridiculous rule—and so are we!

As he lay thoughtful along the parapet, he realized for the first time the responsibilities of married life. He must save her from dangers, physical and social, for after all she was a woman. "And I," he reflected, "though I am young, am at all events a man, and know what is right."(3.53)

In Gino's eyes, women are clearly the weaker sex and they need to be protected from dangers. Gender roles in Italy are strictly delineated, with the men always knowing what's right, and the women expected to submissive to male authority. We do see occasional moments when Lilia stands up for herself and asserts her independence, but her successes are rare and short-lived.

"You must not go out alone," he said gently. "It is not safe. If you want to walk, Perfetta shall accompany you." […] "Very well," smiled Lilia, "very well"—as if she were addressing a solicitous kitten. But for all that she never took a solitary walk again, with one exception, till the day of her death. (3.56)

Lilia seems to straddle the line between what's expected of her as a wife and what she wants to do for herself. She talks to Gino as if he were a child, addressing him as she would a small kitten. But even though she babies him, she still agrees comply with Gino's order never to go out on her own. So Gino does end up maintaining his authority in the household, after all.

She began to see that she must assert herself, but she could not see how. Her self-confidence, which had overthrown Philip, had gradually oozed away. (4.2)

Lilia's attempts to assert her independence become less and less effective. Notice the irony in the fact that Lilia supports the household financially—since Gino has no job—yet she has no say over the simple matter of taking walks by herself. Conforming to gender roles in this novel is a recipe for unhappiness.

It was clear to Lilia at last that Gino had married her for money. But he had frightened her too much to leave any place for contempt. […] He stopped in the house for three days, positively ill with physical collapse. But for all his suffering he had tamed her, and she never threatened to cut off supplies again. (4.19)

Lilia's moment of triumph, when she finally accuses Gino of marrying her only for her money, is also her moment of defeat. She exposes Gino's weaknesses and shows him that he can't pull the wool over her eyes, but at the same time, she also knows that he has "tamed" her.

Perhaps he kept her even closer than convention demanded. But he was very young, and he could not bear it to be said of him that he did not know how to treat a lady—or to manage a wife. (4.20)

Gino is just as susceptible to social pressure as Lilia and the Herritons. He would be beyond embarrassed if people started thinking he couldn't handle his own wife. What we'd really like to do is get everyone in this novel enrolled in a course on "How To Stop Caring About What People Think."

Evidently she had the usual feminine incapacity for grasping philosophy. (5.75)


Okay, so we really take issue with this remark for obvious reasons. Who says women can't grasp philosophy? Clearly, the narrator hasn't read Hannah Arendt. Philip here is expressing the typical sexist view that women are too weak-minded to think deep thoughts.

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