The world always tends to play rough with people, especially if those people are women. From thousands of years of patriarchy, to double standards down to every single human behavior, women feel the brunt of society in a way men don’t. They are quieted, shushed, and told to act prim and proper in the eyes of everybody who doubts them, longing to put them in their place. But from Pulitzer-prize winning historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich came the words, “Well-behaved women seldom make history.” In Charles Dickens’s and Jane Austen’s novels, it’s revealed that this quote holds true — the only way to achieve your goals is to faithfully follow them. In A Tale of Two Cities and Pride and Prejudice, respectfully, Madame Defarge and Elizabeth Bennet are two women who refuse to let society prevent them from getting what they want.
Madame Defarge, driven by hatred, rebels against the upper class during the French Revolution to see the aristocracy crumble — no matter how long or what it takes. Early on, she is defined by her quiet yet ever-present aura. But it’s soon made clear that she plays as great of a role in the revolution as her husband. Before the Revolution, women took a side step to let men claim the larger roles in society, such as jobs and matters outside the house. As tense and brutal as it was, this period of time allowed common women to go beyond the family. It let them fight for their rights alongside men. After discussing plans, Madame Defarge and her husband Monsieur Defarge close their wine shop for the night, and debate with each other about when the lightning of the revolution will finally strike. But as Monsieur Defarge looks to the pessimistic side of things, Madame sharply shows him the way: “‘Nothing that we do, is done in vain. I believe, with all my soul, that we shall see the triumph. But even not…show me the neck of an aristocrat and tyrant…’” (TOTC 138). In this very line, Madame’s true colors show themselves: a ruthless woman, plotting every way she can to get a taste of blood. She is the picture of a driven revolutionary who will wait until the time is right. But her motivation doesn’t stop at just ideals — Madame Defarge carries through with her beliefs, putting them into action.
When Lucie’s husband, Charles Darnay, has been taken by the French and thrown in prison wrongfully, she pleads to Madame Defarge for help. But Madame Defarge turns her no kind eye at her peril: “‘All our lives we have seen our sister-women suffer, in themselves and in their children…Is it likely that the trouble of one wife and mother would be much to us now?’” (TOTC 208). There’s no difficulty in saying the conditions then were bleak, with ordinary people suffering left and right. Madame Defarge believes Lucie is selfish for requesting personal attention to her case, mild out of many. But beyond that, most importantly, Madame believes interfering with Lucie’s personal matters will deflect attention from her goal of leading the French aristocracy to their demise. Unknown to the reader at the time, Madame Defarge holds a deep, painful grudge against Darnay’s family, the Evremondes, for what they did to hers. Her sister was raped by Darnay’s father and uncle, and her immediate family soon fell dead, one after another like stones. From the first page where Madame Defarge makes her stand as a revolutionary to the last breath of her life, hate against the Evremondes and all they stand for permeate her life. As Darnay is about to die at the hands of the guillotine, Madame Defarge doesn’t stop once to consider the injustice his wife and child face: “But, imbued from her childhood with a brooding sense of wrong, and an inveterate hatred of a class, opportunity had developed her into a tigress. She was absolutely without pity. If she had ever had the virtue in her, it had quite gone out of her” (TOTC 281). From what Madame Defarge knew before her death, she was successful in ending the Evremonde lineage with Darnay, and obtaining her own revenge. It didn’t matter if Darnay had denounced what his uncle and father did, had changed his name, or vowed to be good of heart and action. Madame Defarge, through her burning hate, had never spared him a chance, and left his fate sealed. Yet Charles Darnay was saved by Sydney Carton, a man who held no obligation to him, but instead cherished his wife. Carton died in his place. To quote the wise words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., hate cannot be driven out by hate — only love can do that.
In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet strays away from strict social norms to be herself and to find her own happy future. A modern-day viewer may find the etiquette code of Regency England as foreign, outlandish, and downright restrictive. That’s because for women like Elizabeth Bennet, whose very survival was pinned on getting married to a well-off man, it was such. She receives a nauseatingly-entitled proposal from Mr. Collins, the man that will inherit her father’s property when he dies. Struggling to find a way to turn away his annoying persistence, she speaks for herself: “Do not consider me now as an elegant female, intending to play you, but as a rational creature, speaking the truth from her heart” (PP 106). Her independence and self-advocacy shock Mr. Collins, as they would many men in their time. Indeed, it does — Mr. Collins turns away with a tarnished image of Elizabeth’s reputation, and her mother is furious at her declining what could be her only proposal. Elizabeth had remained proudly content at her small victory, continuing to wait until she settled for the right man. Another gentleman came into her life — the wealthy Mr. Darcy, widely viewed as rude, self-centered, and snobbish. Elizabeth hates him for it after they start off on the wrong foot, as he is everything she goes against. Mishap after mishap leads to a letter clarifying all the false wrongs Elizabeth believed about him. She reacts, “‘How despicably I have acted…I, who have prided myself on my discernment…valued myself on my abilities…But vanity, not love, has been my folly…I have courted prepossession and ignorance…Till this moment I never knew myself’” (PP 201). Her ego and pride had hit a wall. From her not only rebelling against what was expected of women, and instead acting in the exact opposite, Elizabeth encountered a major misunderstanding. She was wrongly biased against Mr. Darcy, and learned an important lesson in being human. Falling into societal expectations isn’t always a bad thing for women, and it can save the time when it costs sympathy with another human being. A compromise could be settled with herself. Without warning, Lady Catherine, Mr. Darcy’s conservative aunt, takes a carriage to her house to immediately call off a supposed proposal between the two of them. Elizabeth knows better than to repeat the same rash mistakes she made with Darcy, even if Lady Catherine
has nothing good to say. She cooly responds to the Lady’s accusations, and insults of her being a lower status: “I am only resolved to act in that manner, which will, in my own opinion, constitute my happiness, without reference to you, or to any person so wholly unconnected with me” (PP 338). She is not bound by her status to reject Mr. Darcy’s proposal — that Elizabeth would have understood very early on. Now, she knows to simply prioritize herself regardless of the odds…with grace. In the intricacy of Regency life, she has found her version of freedom.
Both Madame Defarge and Elizabeth found very unlike definitions of success from their vastly different lives. One paved the way through revolution, blood, and death, and the other through creation and empathy. When women rebel and take charge of their own destinies, it simply means that more people are shaping the world. It doesn’t matter whether these changes happen at a small level or on a grander scale, or who you happen to be. Achieving one’s goals and purpose against what society can dictate is the most empowering way to live.