Coventry Patmore’s “The Angel in the House,” written in 1854, paints a picture of the ideal housewife that he models after his own wife, Emily. “The Angel in the House” created the standard for women’s behavior in the Victorian era (mid 1800s-1900s) by men, for their own pleasure and benefit. The title of the poem came to describe the domesticated and submissive woman that men craved during that era.
The most highly valued traits of the Angel is her devotion to her husband and her passive, graceful, self-sacrificing, and most importantly, pure nature. She has no aspirations outside of the house or the raising of her children. Her professional life simply does not exist. She obeys everything the husband tells her to do and she dedicates her life to making him happy; she exists to serve others. She has been reduced to the title of wife and mother with few distinguishable features besides these.
The poem begins with the line, “Man must be pleased; but him to please is woman’s pleasure…” This describes a woman who is happy to exist for the convenience of her husband, which cannot be an accurate reflection of the aspirations of all women in Victorian society. The reader must consider the perspective from which this poem was written and remember that women are being represented by a biased man who is guided by outdated and extremely sexist ideas.
Patmore continues by saying, “down the gulf of his condoled necessities, she casts her best, she flings herself.” The word “condoled” in this context means to express sympathy. “Down the gulf” is meant to represent the husband’s many necessities. Therefore, this line describes the amount of desires the husband feels he needs fulfilled, and how he expects her to disregard everything else and prioritize pleasing him first.
The poem continues by describing the relationship between the wife and the husband. He is cold and unforgiving towards her. When she expresses a desire to have more freedom, he shoots her down and manipulates her into believing that she is nothing more than an extension of him. He convinces her that his behavior towards her is a reflection of her performance in her tasks in the home. If he is abusive, he teaches her that it is her own fault. This makes her cry and beg him for forgiveness, which is when he feels he has established his dominance over her and the home.
The backbone of the ideal Victorian woman is a manipulative man who strips her of her freedoms until she must completely rely on him. A theme in the characteristics of the Angel is that men expect somewhat child-like behavior from her, such as being passive, powerless, obedient, and pure. This is a concerning trend and it leaves me with the question of why Victorian men wanted women that were suspiciously child-like.