William Blake’s Oothoon: Feminist or Fool?
William Blake’s Visions of the Daughters of Albion was written a year after Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women, a detailed article pushing for women’s education while critiquing the male dominated society. Wollstonecraft’s very modern ideas were considered radical at the time and served as inspiration for Blake’s heroine in Visions. Oothoon is complicated character whose monologues beautifully express modern ideas of love free from possession while her contradicting language makes it hard to define her. By giving a character like Oothoon such a complex voice Blake not only adds dimension to his work but also makes the reader question what being a woman means to this indefinable heroine.
What makes Oothoon such a strong character is how she responds to situations she has no control over. After being raped by Bromion she is tied to him and as a punishment by her love Theotormon. Despite this double punishment she does not act as a victim. She challenges the idea that’s destroying her love Theotormon, the idea that she is forever tainted. In a moment that most reflects the ideas of Wollstonecraft’s Vindication Oothoon challenges the traditional patriarchal structure and says,
“What are his nets & gins & traps. & how does he surround him
With cold floods of abstraction, and with forests of solitude,
To build him castles and high spires. where kings & priests may dwell.
Till she who burns with youth. and knows no fixed lot; is bound
In spells of law to one she loaths: and must she drag the chain
Of life, in weary lust” (Blake, plate 5:18-23)!
This monologue, especially the last three lines, harks back to Wollstonecraft’s argument of reason and education for women. It highlights the limits placed on women by men so neatly, a perfect argument for Oothoon whose so subject to the will of the men.
Unfortunately Oothoon does not get a response. Oothoon has no dialogue with the men. The poem is almost completely made up of separate monologues except for the very beginning where Oothoon talks to the flower nymph who sparks the idea of eternal purity of virgin joys. It’s also interesting to look at the language of the different characters. Bromion, who represents tyranny and terror in the poem, uses a very simple and possessive language, especially when talking about the rape.
“Bromion spake. behold this harlot here on Bromions bed
And let the jealous dolphins sport around the lovely maid
Thy soft American plains are mine, and mine thy north & south” (Blake, plate 1:19-22):
Bromion represents possessiveness of tyranny and the narrow mindedness that comes from thinking that women without their virginity are whores or “harlots.” He is the epitome of everything Oothoon speaks against and his brief harsh language reflects that. Oothoon’s language in comparison is very complex and maybe because of its complexities that makes it hard for the Theotormon and Bromion to listen or even respond to her.
Oothoon’s monologues introduce very complicated yet beautiful ideas. What many seem to see as a problem in Oothoon’s language is what they perceive as an emphasis on sex and emotion as opposed to reason. In the article “Blake’s Oothoon: The Dilemmas of Marginality” James A. W. Heffernan argues that Oothoon’s language isn’t as contradicting and out of control as some may read. Heffernan says, “Oothoon’s language is not irrational or disorganized; it is rigorously controlled by her imagination, which is at once intellectual and emotional, critically acute and ‘open to joy and to delight’ (6.22). What makes her marginal is precisely her resistance to classification, her refusal to be polarized. Straddling the line between defiant assertion and helpless submission…” (Heffernan, 6). It’s easy to see that using both “intellectual and emotional” language to prove her point Oothoon is misunderstood by readers and not heard at all by Theotormon and Bromion. This is exemplified in the poems most notorious passage when Oothoon, in a desperate appeal to Theotormon, says what she can do to erase his woe. She says,
“But silken nets and traps of adamant will Oothoon spread,
And catch for thee girls of mild silver, or of furious gold:
I’ll lie beside thee on a bank & view their wanton play
In lovely copulation bliss on bliss with Theotormon:
Red as the rosy morning, lustful as the first born beam,
Oothoon shall view his dear delight, nor e’er with jealous cloud
Come in the heaven of generous love; nor selfish blightings bring” (Blake, plate 7:23-29).
A critique of this passage that Heffernan brought up was by Michael Cooke who argues that when Oothoon offers to catch girls for Theotormon what she’s doing is that she, “makes ‘prostitutes replace the rapist Bromion at the third corner of the triangle, and Theotormon becomes the advantaged male where she herself had been the victimized female’” (Heffernan, 4). For that reason this passage makes many feminists question Oothoon as a representation of a strong feminist model. Heffernan argues that this isn’t a simple submission to Theotormon but more of an expression of love free of possession. “Outrageous as this sounds- and it is meant to sound outrageous, I believe- this impassioned statement can be read as the expression of an extraordinarily liberated sensuality. It defies both jealousy and the possessiveness of fixed refentiality…” (Heffernan, 11). Perhaps this is an emotional plea as opposed to a serious way of washing away her lovers sorrow. It’s a way for Oothoon to show Theotormon that she can delight in his happiness, free from envy.
Oothoon remains an interesting character throughout the poem. She can’t be pegged down as anything specific. Although some of her early monologues speak to a feminist point of view she’s not simply a feminist nor is she simply a victim or a whore. Although Oothoon isn’t heard in Visions by her male captors she’s still heard by the reader and in the end she remains open to love and life’s gifts despite her trials and in that way she definitely doesn’t lose.
Blake, William. The Longman Anthology of British Literature (Fifth Edition) The Romantics and their Contemporaries, Volume 2A. Pgs.217-24. Edited by Damrosch, David; Dettmar, Kevin J.H; Wolfson, Susan; Manning, Peter. Pearson. 2012
Heffernan, James A. W. “Blake’s Oothoon: The Dilemmas of Marginality.” Studies in Romanticism. 30.1 (1991): n. page. Web. 25 Feb. 2014. <http://0-www.jstor.org.library.uark.edu/stable/25600877>.
Blake, William. Frontispiece to “Visions of the Daughters of Albion.” 1795. Tate. <http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/blake-frontispiece-to-visions-of-the-daughters-of-albion-n03373> Relief etching, ink and watercolour on paper. 25 Feb. 2014