Dimensions of Female Oppression in Margaret Oliphant’s ‘The Library Window’

In this essay, I study an extract [available at the bottom of the article] Margaret Oliphant’s short story ‘The Library Window’ (1896/ 1902), focusing on the manner in which the oppression of women in 19th century Scotland is manifested through spatiality, metaphor and genre. A multitude of feminist readings has been performed on the story (see i.e. Calder and Winston); this reading, however, strives to draw connections between the abovementioned aspects of the text and study the multidimensionality of expressing female oppression in the text. In my close reading of the short story, I omit page numbers in references as the online source used for the purposes of this analysis does not have them.

Spatial Manifestations of the Society

The guiding images of "The Library Window" are windows and their frames, spaces that permit access between spheres — a permeability emphasized by the female gaze of the narrator, whose voyeurism connects the domesticity of the aunt's house and the male learning of the college library. (Heller 24)

The construction of space in Oliphant’s short story can be seen as reflective of the late Victorian society and the woman’s role in it. The story’s setting creates a space divided into three parts: the domestic, the public and the imagined/ haunted. The protagonist spends her days confined to Aunt Mary’s home, in which she is observed by her and her visitors. This space seems not to give her any kind of stimulation, and she spends her days idly (as is expected of her). Across the street is the window, an imagined/ haunted space that the protagonist yearns for. The window offers objects of intrigue to her – a space filled with books and a man that is free to engage with academic work. While the protagonist is certainly drawn to the man, she seems equally interested in the space he inhabits and the active role that the man is free to take in his work (‘”Oh, can't you tell me what work he is doing … He never lifts his head as long as the light throws a shadow’”).

The story draws a strong contrast between the seemingly endless work of this man – a permission to be active and educate himself – and the protagonist. This imagined, or haunted, space gives her access to a space that she wishes to inhabit and, perhaps, a role that she wishes to be able to occupy in her own life. Indeed, it has been suggested that a library in Late-Victorian fiction can be read as a representation of ‘the scholar’s essential self’ (Cook 107), in which case the reader can access knowledge regarding the character through their bookshelf (Cook112). Here, the protagonist seems to project her dreams into the imagined/ haunted space. She cannot, however, quite see the titles in the library, suggesting that she has no access to education that in turn would enable her to imagine her dream-library clearly. It is worth noting that a private library also suggests ownership of property and is thus indicative of financial security.

Separating these two spaces is the street, perhaps reflective of the society and public life. Thus, the protagonist’s reality and dream space are divided by the society that keeps women imprisoned in domestic life and allows men to be active and educated. There is, however, some interaction between the haunted and public spaces, i.e. when the spectral man opens the haunted window and the people on the street hear him (Oliphant). This suggests that the boundaries between these spaces are not entirely unbreachable; that perhaps, the imagined can engage and challenge the society and its gendered oppression.

 

The Vocabulary of ‘Seeing’ and the Vision of Progression

As Calder notes, ‘Lighting is an essential tool in her [Oliphant’s] exposure of degrees of perception’ (501). In this particular story, there is metaphoric interplay of light and darkness (i.e. in ‘I sat alone in the dark which was not dark, but quite clear light’ [Oliphant]), which seems to be connected to the act of seeing and being seen. Indeed, the verb ‘to see’ is reiterated eleven times in this extract, albeit in different tenses. This focus is further underlined by use of synonyms such as ‘to watch’, ‘ to look’ and additionally, words related to seeing such as ‘vision’, ‘sight’ and ‘eyes’.  While the focus is on the visual, it seems to carry a metaphorical meaning related to seeing and being seen in the story.

Mr Pitmilly, for example, is in his discomfort described as not being able to see the window (‘he was an old man, and there was no vision in him’). Janet, though young, is similarly incapable of seeing, as the protagonist notes that ‘not even a girl such a myself, with the light in her eyes, would understand’. The protagonist is distressed about being the only one able to see the window (‘none of them, none of them!’), though later, some people outside seem to hear the opening of the spectre window. This suggests that she is the only one who can imagine an alternative space in which women have rights, autonomy, and are freer to take a more active role.

It has been suggested that other characters are ‘blinded by patriarchal ideologies’ (Winston 62). Mr Pitmilly is hindered by his age (Oliphant) and Aunt Mary and her friends are not quite able to decide on whether the window is real or not (Calder 489). She does, however, admit having considered the view in the window as a description of something that will never happen (Winston 57). Janet, her aunt’s servant, though a young woman herself, seems frightened (Oliphant) – perhaps she would be able to see but she is too scared to open her eyes to the space challenging the gender norms that she, too, is confined to. Janet’s inability to see the reflection has been linked to lack of privilege and social class (Winston 58). The reluctance to acknowledge a better future could also signify a psychological coping mechanism of the oppressed – after all, the window is a mere spectre, vision, or hallucination. Indeed, the protagonist later notes that nothing in her life quite compares to the experience, and thus, ‘her life returns to narrow conventionality’ (Calder 490). As Calder notes, ‘the window may suggest opportunities of looking out into another, bigger world, but is only an illusion of opportunity’ (500).

The metaphorical in/ability to see suggests that the societal views affect people’s capacity of regarding and challenging gender norms and female oppression. Furthermore, it is worth noting that there is some repetition of words related to ‘hearing’ as well, and it can be argued that they are used to communicate a similar message.

 

Haunted Female Sexuality

Towards the end of the story, it is revealed that the ghost originates from a time when the protagonist’s ancestor tried to get a man’s attention but he was more interested in his books than her, resulting in her brothers murdering him. The woman has been read as ‘a thwarted mistress’ (Schor 108) but also as someone who expressed interest and was rejected (Winston 55). Considering the time frame and how the ancestor’s brothers murdered the man suggests that the interest expressed by the female ancestor was deemed inappropriate. While the relationship between these two characters remains somewhat ambiguous to the reader, its sexual dimension is undoubtable. Indeed, the sexual aspect of the protagonist’s experience is recognised by most scholars (Vaninskaya).

The protagonist’s description of what she is experiencing can certainly be read as sexual attraction, as in ’I watched him with such a melting heart, with such a deep satisfaction’ – ‘a melting heart’ (Oliphant) might suggest an emotional yearning whereas ‘a deep satisfaction’ certainly carries sexual connotations, at least to the contemporary reader. Furthermore, the intensity of the experience becomes clear to the reader in ‘I watched him as if I could not breathe--my heart in my throat, my eyes upon him’. Here, the experience is certainly a physical one. Thus, it seems the spectre is reproducing the sexual aspect of attraction experienced by the protagonist’s ancestor in the other women of the family. This seems to cause them to almost lose touch with reality and drift into an imagined world (‘as if it were in another world’) and shun from social interaction (‘I was glad when he went away, as he could not see anything’. Indeed, the people around her are distressed – perhaps, they are both concerned for her health and her modesty. It seems that the haunting is a punishment, and the women of the family – not the men who murdered him – are subjected to it. It logically follows, then, that the woman is considered responsible for the violence committed by the men – all because of daring to express sexual desire. This can be seen as a representation of how unacceptable it was seen for a woman to express sexual interest during the Victorian period.

‘The Library Window’ presents a picture of how female sexuality was weaponised against women, demonised, and perhaps even used as justification for confining women into a passive role and to the domestic sphere. Indeed, Oliphant’s stories often study women confined to domesticity (Calder 486), and ‘The Library Window’ puts the spotlight on female sexuality breaching the boundaries of the domestic. The tragedy that follows suggests that in the Victorian world, female sexuality was seen as something that needed to be contained by all means. It is furthermore worth mentioning that the manner in which the woman is punished eloquently portrays the manner in which the oppressed can be guilted into thinking she is responsible for her own oppression. In ‘The Library Window’ this effect is magnified as the actions of one woman have consequences that reach over generations.  Oliphant’s use of the ghost story is thus intricately connected to its subject matter; one can draw clear connections to the intensity of the haunting and the all-consuming nature of oppression.

 

To Conclude: The Multiple dimensions of Female Oppression

In ‘The Library Window’, female oppression is expressed spatially, metaphorically and through genre, and in the haunting, all these aspects are combined. The spatial manifestations of the society, the tension between seeing and not being able/ refusing to see, and the intrusive sexual attraction caused by the spectral window and its inhabitant all communicate the complexity of the issue. Indeed, the multidimensional aspect to the haunting well describes the all-consuming manner of female oppression in late Victorian Scotland – the haunting seeps into every aspect of the protagonist’s life and gradually possesses her completely. The story can be seen both as feminist societal critique and a character study of a woman living in the Victorian society. It must, however, be noted that that the story completely disregards people of colour, and, as typical of the time, presents a middle-class, white, hetero- and cis-normative picture of oppression, excluding a wide variety of female experiences of the time. It is also worth noting that this essay merely studies three dimensions of oppression in the story; this reading should be juxtaposed to those done by i.e. Winton (2006) and Williams (1995) in order to obtain a more conclusive picture of the matter. It would additionally be beneficial to further study the wider variety of dimensions through which gender-based discrimination is manifested in the story in order to gain an understanding of the complexity of Oliphant’s treatment of the issue.

 

Bibliography

Calder, Jenni. ‘Through Mrs Oliphant’s Library Window.’ Women’s Writing, vol. 10, no. 3, pp. 485-502.

Cook, Daniel. ‘Bodies of Scholarship: Witnessing the Library in Late-Victorian Fiction.’ Victorian Literature and Culture, vol 37, no. 1, 2011, pp. 107-125.

Heller, Tamar. ‘Textual Seductions: Women's Reading and Writing in Margaret Oliphant's “The Library Window.”’ Victorian Literature and Culture, vol. 25, no. 1, 1997, pp. 23–37. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/25058371. Accessed 17 Feb. 2020.

Oliphant, Margaret. ‘The Library Window’, 1896. Project Gutenberg Australiahttp://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks06/0606171h.html. Accessed 17 Sept 2020.

Schor, Ester. ‘The Haunted Interpreter in Oliphant’s Supernatural Fiction.’ Margaret Oliphant: Critical Essays on a Gentle Subversive. Associated University Presses, 1995, pp. 90-110.

Vaninskaya, Anna. ‘Women Writers and Fantasy: Margaret Oliphant and Marion Angus’ [lecture] Chrystal Macmillan Building. 30 Jan. 2020.

Williams, Merryn. ‘Feminist or Antifeminist? Oliphant and the Woman Question.’ Margaret Oliphant: Critical Essays on a Gentle Subversive. Associated University Presses, 1995, pp. 90-110.

Winston, Elizabeth. Afterword. ‘The Library Window’, by Margaret Oliphant. The University of Tampa Press, 2006, pp. 53-67.

 

The analysed extract from Margaret Oliphant's 'The Library Window':

I pulled Mr Pitmilly's arm before I let him go,--"You see, you see!" I cried. He gave me the most bewildered look, as if he would have liked to cry. He saw nothing! I was sure of that from his eyes. He was an old man, and there was no vision in him. If I had called up Janet, she would have seen it all. "My dear!" he said. "My dear!" waving his hands in a helpless way.

"He has been there all these nights," I cried, "and I thought you could tell me who he was and what he was doing; and that he might have taken me in to that room, and showed me, that I might tell papa. Papa would understand, he would like to hear. Oh, can't you tell me what work he is doing, Mr Pitmilly? He never lifts his head as long as the light throws a shadow, and then when it is like this he turns round and thinks, and takes a rest!"

Mr Pitmilly was trembling, whether it was with cold or I know not what. He said, with a shake in his voice, "My dear young lady--my dear--" and then stopped and looked at me as if he were going to cry. "It's peetiful, it's peetiful," he said; and then in another voice, "I am going across there again to bring your Aunt Mary home; do you understand, my poor little thing, my-- I am going to bring her home--you will be better when she is here." I was glad when he went away, as he could not see anything: and I sat alone in the dark which was not dark, but quite clear light--a light like nothing I ever saw. How clear it was in that room! not glaring like the gas and the voices, but so quiet, everything so visible, as if it were in another world. I heard a little rustle behind me, and there was Janet, standing staring at me with two big eyes wide open. She was only a little older than I was. I called to her, "Janet, come here, come here, and you will see him,--come here and see him!" impatient that she should be so shy and keep behind. "Oh, my bonnie young leddy!" she said, and burst out crying. I stamped my foot at her, in my indignation that she would not come, and she fled before me with a rustle and swing of haste, as if she were afraid. None of them, none of them! not even a girl like myself, with the sight in her eyes, would understand. I turned back again, and held out my hands to him sitting there, who was the only one that knew. "Oh," I said, "say something to me! I don't know who you are, or what you are: but you're lonely and so am I; and I only--feel for you. Say something to me!" I neither hoped that he would hear, nor expected any answer. How could he hear, with the street between us, and his window shut, and all the murmuring of the voices and the people standing about? But for one moment it seemed to me that there was only him and me in the whole world.

But I gasped with my breath, that had almost gone from me, when I saw him move in his chair! He had heard me, though I knew not how. He rose up, and I rose too, speechless, incapable of anything but this mechanical movement. He seemed to draw me as if I were a puppet moved by his will. He came forward to the window, and stood looking across at me. I was sure that he looked at me. At last he had seen me: at last he had found out that somebody, though only a girl, was watching him, looking for him, believing in him. I was in such trouble and commotion of mind and trembling, that I could not keep on my feet, but dropped kneeling on the window-seat, supporting myself against the window, feeling as if my heart were being drawn out of me. I cannot describe his face. It was all dim, yet there was a light on it: I think it must have been a smile; and as closely as I looked at him he looked at me. His hair was fair, and there was a little quiver about his lips. Then he put his hands upon the window to open it. It was stiff and hard to move; but at last he forced it open with a sound that echoed all along the street. I saw that the people heard it, and several looked up. As for me, I put my hands together, leaning with my face against the glass, drawn to him as if I could have gone out of myself, my heart out of my bosom, my eyes out of my head. He opened the window with a noise that was heard from the West Port to the Abbey. Could any one doubt that?

And then he leaned forward out of the window, looking out. There was not one in the street but must have seen him. He looked at me first, with a little wave of his hand, as if it were a salutation--yet not exactly that either, for I thought he waved me away; and then he looked up and down in the dim shining of the ending day, first to the east, to the old Abbey towers, and then to the west, along the broad line of the street where so many people were coming and going, but so little noise, all like enchanted folk in an enchanted place. I watched him with such a melting heart, with such a deep satisfaction as words could not say; for nobody could tell me now that he was not there,--nobody could say I was dreaming any more. I watched him as if I could not breathe--my heart in my throat, my eyes upon him. He looked up and down, and then he looked back to me. I was the first, and I was the last, though it was not for long: he did know, he did see, who it was that had recognised him and sympathised with him all the time. I was in a kind of rapture, yet stupor too; my look went with his look, following it as if I were his shadow; and then suddenly he was gone, and I saw him no more.

See the rest of the story here.