Wollstonecraft’s Sense and The Senseless: An Impossible Solution


Being an influential writer of thought during the time of the French Revolution was a task of dedication and strong political, economical, and social conviction in and of itself. Mary Wollstonecraft, through her searingly confrontational writing appealed to liberal thinkers in encouragement of the Revolution as well as specifically women during the late seventeenth century who were willing to demand a change for their rights. The societal structure in France prior to the Revolution was one of strict confines of monarchy rule through a designated hierarchy, religion and state (forcefully) placed together as a governing system, as well as class structures.  For liberal writers and thinkers of enlightenment, the revolution was a time of opportunity as “the triumph of the intellectuals of the eighteenth century was the victory won by rationalism over religion and the substitution of a lay morality” (Green, 21)) The The art of fanciful and decorated letter writing was a fashionable practice for women(specifically elite or upper class) and not yet truly with the intent of serious educational training or purpose, began in the late seventeenth century. Wollstonecraft however, chose to set herself apart as an unconventional 17th century woman in most aspects of her life, but particularly her writing and unheard of ideals for women. While many ladies during Wollstonecraft’s writing career concerned themselves with embodying a graceful and proper feminine image and obtaining a satisfactory marriage, Wollstonecraft concerned herself with radical notions of equality and liberation for the less wealthy. The romantic social constructions of women during her adult life made Wollstonecraft’s fire-ball and no-nonsense tone all the more shocking and vital as she claimed, “I shall be employed about things, not words! And anxious to render my sex more respectable members of society, I shall try to avoid that flowery diction which has slided from essays into novels, and from novels into familiar letters and conversations.” (Goodman,333) The French Revolution, although a battle for the liberation of rights for the middle and lower class, also provided an outlet for an uprising for other areas of change such as breaking unjust traditions of hierarchical succession as well as educational empowerment. In conjunction to conveying her strong standpoints on subjects such as poverty, authority, and romanticism, she directly attacks the writings of Edmund Burke in “Reflections of the Rights of Men”. The seventeenth to eighteenth century France was a society of extreme class difference, beginning with a standard of hierarchical importance. As heirs were appointed through a strict birthright to the royal thrown, so the high-status members of society were similarly granted with a right to property and separate social standard. This system seemed to disgust Wollstonecraft, and transparently so through her work “A Vindication of The Rights of Man”. To Wollstonecraft, society as a whole was unable to grasp the true meaning of justice and economic equality as she held an idea of human freedoms of the time in a light such as “Liberty, in this simple, unsophisticated sense, I acknowledge, is a fair idea that has never yet received a form in the various governments that have been established on our bounteous globe..” (Wollstonecraft, 123.) The social class structure and conform of “manners before morals” was an elemental establishment of underlying discourse of many problems Wollstonecraft saw in members of society in need of reform such as military, high status political or industrial positions, as well as the wealthy. The image created in her work is one of a class of people who often appear concerned with the formalities and proper etiquette of aiding those in poverty, but truly causing the system of helping the low status citizens to fall to their knees by being enabled to actually help themselves. Wollstonecraft eloquently enraptures her distaste for the seeming hypocrisy of vanity placed before humane through acknowledging that (in an interpretively metaphorical sense) “the ivy is beautiful, but, when it insidiously destroys the trunk from which it receives support, who would not grub it up?” (Wollstonecraft, 124.) With stemming notions during the late seventeenth century such as beauty, feminine weakness, grandeur, and courtly chivalry from period ideals of romanticism, Wollstonecraft was not impressed or seduced by the possible ease of a life tailored to the “frailties” of a woman. Wollstonecraft presents romanticism and the idea of chivalry as a kind of coloring to cover the true darkness of the actuality of the situation for the middle class leading up to and during the Revolution. Wollstonecraft bravely dares readers to explore their surrounding without “rose colored glasses” and emphasizes the freedom in sense as “In modern poetry the understanding and memory often fabricate the pretended effusions of the heart, and romance destroys all simplicity; which, in works of taste, is but a synonymous word for truth.” The realization of the actuality of turmoil and poverty during the Revolution was (especially to Wollstonecraft) difficult to obtain while juxtaposed with such an appearance orientated and romanticized society. Opposed to Burke’s view of importance of maintaining hierarchical order and aiding those impoverished through proper religious conduct, Wollstonecraft puts immense value on intention. Here again, Wollstonecraft emphasis on the need for actual sense and not romanticized senselessness to truly create revolutionary change by examining the actual conditions of the people who are being negatively affected. As it was common for middle class or lower status citizens to lose their jobs, especially with signs of radicalism or revolt, during the late seventeenth century, inflaming an increase in poverty. Many high society citizens reacted through a “charitable display” of providing alms when convicted rather than attempting to re-create jobs for those living in poverty. To Wollstonecraft, sense seems to embody a meaning of granting each human being, male or female, with the right to empower their own selves through self- initiative (hard work or education.) As this did not change during the Wollstonecraft’s time of writing, she left her influential footprint enraged and unbelieving that a society would knowingly choose to live in a state where “Man preys on man; and you mourn for the empty pageant of a name, when slavery flaps her wings, and the sick heart retires to die in lonely wilds, far from the abodes of men. (Wollstonecraft, 130) Although the conservative thinkers may have won the actual intellectual outcome battle of the French Revolution, Mary Wollstonecraft’s defiant refusal to relent her sense, in the truest form, continues to inspire thinkers of enlightenment and change.


Wollstonecraft, Mary. A Vindication of the Rights of Men. The Longman Anthology British Literature.


Green. French Novelists From the Revolution to Proust.


Goodman, Dena. Becoming a Woman In the Age of Letters.