As a subgenre of crime fiction, a detective fiction involves a mysterious tale where an investigator; usually an amateur or professional, investigates a grave crime, which in most cases is murder (Sceats & Cunnigham, 2014). Deceptive fiction brings about curiosity to know what happens next and the next cause of action. In such fiction, women characters are usually displayed as victims or femme fatale. However, women who participate in the detective work also appear in the genre. According to Sceats & Cunnigham (2014), the history of detective fiction dates back in the golden ages and most works in the same has been attributed to women. However, their works have been played down, and those of their male counterparts have been praised and honored. Despite that, their good work remains, and are appreciated in secret even if it does not happen often (Sceats & Cunnigham, 2014). One of those great works is Strong Poison by Dorothy Sayers. In this paper, one female character in the fiction known as Harriet Vane (Dorothy Sayers) who doubles as an actor as well as the writer of the fiction will be analyzed. Specifically, this paper will examine how gender roles are defined in the text. Additionally, it will investigate the extent to which that definition is flexible, the limitations this definition of femininity might create, and how gender influences the way that the women are perceived. Furthermore, the paper will analyze whether Dorothy Sayers play into/subvert to gender stereotypes. More importantly, it will be the core purpose of this paper to discuss the relationship of the female character with the male characters in the novel and the extent to which Harriet Vanes role is official or unofficial.
The detective fiction of Strong Poison by Dorothy Sayers is a genre that portrays the mysterious author Harriet Vane as a murderer who took the life of her husband. In this regard, she is tried by the jury but spared the sentence due to the presence of a friend of Lord Peter Wimsey, Miss Climpson. Lord Wimsey is the person who pleads the innocence of Dorothy, which spares her the hung sentence. He visits Harriet Vane in prison and declares to her the conviction of innocence (Sayers, 2006). Afterward, he confesses to her about his undying love and that how he wishes to marry her. Harriet, being a confident woman, politely but firmly declines the offer by Lord Peter Wimsey. Later, Lord Wimsey proves to the court about how the deceased was poisoned by another person by an arsenic poison. Harriet is set free, but she still declines the marriage offer from Lord Wimsey. Lord Peter, being who he was, convinces Charles Parker to propose to the sister of Harriet, Mary (Van Vliet, 2012).
From this genre, the role of women is defined. According to Sims (2010), Femininity is the quality of being a woman and exhibiting those behaviors and characters that are more often than not associated with the women. From the reaction of Harriet to the marriage proposal by Lord Peter Wimsey, women are seen to be bold and principled. In this regard, Harriet declines to the offer of marriage despite the fact that she was in prison, and the only person who could help her was Lord Wimsey. Additionally, women are displayed as weaker parties where crime is placed on Harriet although she had nothing to do with it (Sceats & Cunnigham, 2014). Although his lover went to her residence to reconcile with her, she nevertheless did not poison her; however, being the last person that met with him, it was assumed that she was the one who was responsible for the murder. This shows how the female gender is associated with naivety. As such, they are not able to defend themselves even if crimes are squarely placed on their shoulders- even if they had nothing to do with the purported crimes. The acting of Harriet Vane as the accused in the present case is contrary to the conventional nature of deceptive fiction where women are more often the victims than the perpetrators. As such, there is a paradigm shift in the role of women in detective fiction. Women can also star in acting as the perpetrators other than the victims. Moreover, the determination of the female gender is displayed. Although Harriet Vane was facing a mountainous task of saving herself from the grave charge of murder, she did not desert her principles for the sake of freedom.
The definition of femininity that is displayed in the text of Strong Poison can be extended to show how the role of women has evolved over time. In often, women play the role of victims in deceptive fiction (Sceats & Cunnigham, 2014). As such, their role is not central to any genre. However, in the current state, Harriet Vane plays as the lead character who is the perpetrator of the crime that is the subject of the investigation. As such, the equality of feminine and masculine genders has been displayed. Additionally, the firm and honest response of Harriet to the marriage proposal by Lord Wimsey can be extended to mean that women cannot be swayed into submitting to things that they do not like. The lack of naivety by Harriet can be extended to mean that women, just as men, are entitled to their opinions and choices. The education that Harriet Vane had shows how women are geniuses in pursuit of success. In the golden age of detective fiction, women rose up in writing their genres. However, the exceptional characteristics of Harriet Vane in the style clearly show that fair play had started coming into the field of deceptive fiction.
The definition of femininity in the text might create several problems. In this regard, other characters in the text do not possess the same boldness that Harriet Vane had. Notably, the case of Harriet was just an isolated one of how some of the women in the society have taken the challenge of playing the traditional role of men. Therefore, there might be a misunderstanding about the nature of equality. Although Harriet was bold and firm, the other male characters nevertheless, used her as a person who can be influenced. The conflict between the heart and mind of the female gender should not be ignored. In this regard, Harriet is seen as confused on whether to marry Lord Wimsey out of passion or no to do so because she did not want to. Additionally, the definition of women as firm can be problematic because of the prosecution of Harriet that was based on suspicions. Although there were other people, who could be held culpable of the death of Harriets lover, only Harriet was picked up and prosecuted for the same. Therefore, the mistreatment of women as well, as how they are taken as weak and naive cannot be entirely ignored.
The perception of Harriet in the genre is influenced by the fact that she is female. Although she possesses great education and is a principled woman, that did not stop Lord Wimsey from taking her predicaments for granted and proposing to her. If Harriet were a male person, things maybe, would have been different. In the first place, she would not have been charged without evidence and prosecuted for a crime that she did not commit. Additionally, she would not have been viewed as a naive person. In the golden era of deceptive fiction, being a woman meant that an individual was obliged to behave in a particular manner. Despite her level of education, Harriet was not viewed differently from other women. This influence of being a woman leads to her being taken out of prison by Lord Wimsey since he had the hope of marrying her. Being female, gave Lord Wimsey hope that once she helped her, she would appreciate by accepting his proposal for marriage. Her femininity, therefore, gives her freedom, which would have taken long, if it were the case of a male. Being female and having differences with her deceased husband was the main reason as to why she was accused of murder. Therefore, the perceptions that are made on Harriet Vane in the genre are based on gender. Opposite sex would have been treated differently.
Harriet Vane does not play into or subvert to gender stereotypes. This can be seen from the way that she reacts to the advances of Lord Wimsey. Being female required her to be naive and submissive, however, she defied the gender tag and stood her ground that she would not marry her suitors. Additionally, it was the expectation of Lord Wimsey that she would buy her love by enabling her to get freedom from the jail. However, when she got out, she maintained her earlier stance that she was not going to marry him. Despite all clues pointing to her as the murderer of her husband, she did not despair but believed that she would be vindicated in the end. Women are expected to give into the persistent demands of their lovers. However, Harriet was not that type as she was wary of the effects of love having had issues with her deceased lover. These characteristics and behavior of Harriet Vane lead to the conclusion that she did not give into the gender stereotypes.
The relationship of Harriet with the other male characters in the novel such as Lord Wimsey and her deceased husband can be described as fair play. In this regard, Harriet did not submit to the wishes and advances of her male characters. This can be succinctly seen when Philip Boyes openly disapproves marriage but takes Harriet to leave with her against her will. She later broke up her relationship when she realized that she was going against her principles. Therefore, the relationship between her and the male characters is not only based on equality but also principles. According to Scott-Zechlin (2013), This is a shift from the traditional relationships where men were the heads while women were supposed to be support characters. In the resent case, they are equal and, therefore, take the center role in the detective fiction.
The role of Harriet Vane in the text is to a larger extent official. This is inferred from her central role as the subject of the detective fiction. Being the mysterious author, she draws all attention from her relationship with the deceased, to her time in jail as well as her involvement with Lord Wimsey. In the genre, the perpetrator is an official role as the story is built around him/her (Scott-Zechlin, 2013). Additionally, the author forms a very critical part of the novel, as he/she is the epicenter of the detection. As such, it is proper and correct to infer that the role of Harriet Vane in the strong poison is official and critical to the development of the story.
To conclude, a deceptive fiction is a mysterious investigation for major crimes such as murder. In the novel, Strong Poison by Dorothy layers, Lord Peter meets Harriet Vane, who is the author of the fiction. Harriet is arrest on grounds that she poisoned her husband with arsenic poison, which led to his death. However, the presence of Lord Wimsey saves her, as she is proved innocent of the crime. Later, the right perpetrator is caught and prosecuted. This novel provides a paradigm shift from the traditional role of female characters in detective fiction. In this regard, their role has been elevated, as Harriet is the perpetrator in the novel. Before, women played the role of the victims. Femininity through the character of Harriet Vane is defined as a concept that involves boldness and firmness. Her female gender influences the way Lord Wimsey treats her. However, Harriet did not subvert to gender stereotypes as she turns down the several marriage offers by Lord Wimsey. Her relationship with male characters is that of equality, as she does not display any female naivety.
Andersson, V. (2006). Genre Conventions and Plot Structure in Dorothy L. Sayers'" Strong Poison".
Sayers, D. L. (2006). Strong Poison. 1930.
Sceats, S., & Cunnigham, G. (2014). Image and power: women in fiction in the twentieth century. Routledge.
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