By Harmony Moura Burk

The portrayal of womanhood in literature situates the reader to always look, but never touch the characters before them. As untouchable beauties, chaste maids, and distressed virgins, women appeal to their male counterparts by remaining desirable, but they can never actualize this desire lest they become their own foils—the prostitute, the strumpet, the whore. Expectation dictates that women may either be desirable and sexless or sexual and repulsive—objects of love or objects of desire, never both.

Sigmund Freud named this phenomenon the Madonna-Whore Complex, in which women are divided into Madonnas (pure, nurturing, maternal) and Whores (tainted, depraved, sexual), resulting in a situation where men simultaneously want sexual partners who have lost their dignity and romantic partners whom they cannot sexualize. As fear of women’s sexuality and desire for control reinforce the Complex, men generate layers of resentment and disdain that they then direct towards women who step outside these polarizing standards.

This article is an ode to the women who fall somewhere between the lines, too flawed to be Madonnas and too intricate to only be two-dimensional Whores.

In other words, women either get to be a glamorous portrait or a seductive home-wrecker. If, understandably, they fall somewhere between those lines (a sexy lamp maybe?), then too bad. They’ll be assigned to one category or the other soon enough. Literature doesn’t stray far from these categories. From the early novel to modern dystopian fiction, the specter of the Complex always haunts female characters. Looking to Don Quixote by Miguel Cervantes, for instance, highlights an early form of courtship and chivalry which defined acceptable ways to interact with a woman depending on her status. Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice shares in that rule-making process as defined by social status and propriety, albeit with a distinctly feminine twist, but still judges any would-be rebels. In contrast to these reflections of modern society, we also see the Complex manifesting in books meant to challenge people’s sense of community and society, such as the modern Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. Still, despite the vast difference in genres, themes and time periods, all three books feature characters defined by their proximity to the Madonna and the Whore. This article is an ode to the women who fall somewhere between the lines, too flawed to be Madonnas and too intricate to only be two-dimensional Whores.

“O Virgin Undefiled, save him from the gulf of death” – Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce

The Madonna is the saint, the untouchable lady who’s simply not like other girls. She is the subject of courtly love letters and long-winded sonnets that never actually name her or describe her in anything more than the most generic terms. This is the shepherdess in pastoral poetry, the mythological goddess, the Greek Muses, or the lover in medieval ballads we view as heavenly, without equal to a point where the speaker seems to forget to tell us who, exactly, he’s talking about. Since she might be tainted by a man’s touch, she needs to be kept at arm’s length. Since she can’t show any qualities that might make her unworthy of her position as a nurturing, gentle soul, she can’t voice any opinions or do anything to challenge society around her, otherwise, she risks imperfections that would keep her from maintaining her Madonna status. Sometimes, she isn’t even present at all. 

Additionally, as the Madonna comes off as an angel or a goddess, she loses her human side, as humanity would make her equal to the other, less perfect, women around her. It’s no longer about how hot or smart she is, what she looks like, or even what she’s like as a lover—it’s about her detachment from “normal” people . As a result, she exists far above the rest, in the heads of knights and minstrels and people who daydream about Beyoncé. Because she couldn’t possibly be impure, she has no direct sex appeal and is beautiful in the way paintings are. 

A man gained respect by devoting himself to a woman. As long as that was achieved, nothing else mattered. The damsel may as well have never existed.

Unsurprisingly, the Madonna isn’t a figure that many women embody. She can’t be, otherwise she’d be common and flawed (the horror!). Literary depictions of women approach this issue one of two ways: one, the woman reflects efforts to achieve the perfect status demanded by the position of Madonna and becomes an unrealistic, over-stylized caricature or, two, the woman falls short and fails, making her more relatable but still incapable of truly achieving a respectable status. 


Illustration depicting “The Franklin’s Tale” by Geoffrey Chaucer

“Her name is Dulcinea, her country El Toboso, a village of La Mancha, her rank must be at least that of a princess, since she is my queen and lady, and her beauty superhuman, since all the impossible and fanciful attributes of beauty which the poets apply to their ladies are verified in her.” – Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes

In the novel Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes, the journeys of the chivalry-obsessed Don Quixote involve squires, horse-back travel, and alluring maidens. Though women play a supporting role, the novel highlights how medieval courtship turned women into objects and conquests, determining men’s worth by their status, and not by their individual identities and desires. A man gained respect by devoting himself to a woman. As long as that was achieved, nothing else mattered. The damsel may as well have never existed.

Cervantes’ version of the Madonna, Dulcinea del Toboso, is a step away from this idealized woman as she dares to have wants and desires—or, more accurately, Quixote thinks she does and structures his actions around them. Described as beautiful and without equal, Dulcinea inspires the titular knight on his quest for chivalry and respect. Despite many of Quixote’s actions revolving around her, she never appears once in the novel, or even directly affects the plot. In fact, when he thinks of her or asks for her memory to motivate him, it’s almost an act of prayer.Through the mere idea of Dulcinea, he achieves true chivalry and may go on gallivanting to his heart’s content. He needs her to become a knight, as she is the perfect example of a noble lady he can fight and pontificate over. At the same time, however, Quixote couldn’t possibly refer to her as attractive or express sexual desires for her—that would ruin his image of a courtly gentleman. He has to be unworthy of her affections in order for her to be worthy of his attention—otherwise there’s no point in his constant pining. In fact, he is so obsessed with promoting his image of a knight-errant in love that he spends hours at night thinking of her to imitate stories of knights pining after the object of their affections (which is about as unromantic as it sounds). The result is a strange, detached ghost of a woman who haunts the novel without ever actually showing herself, like a monster in a low-budget horror movie. Any closer to humanity and she risks becoming too common and too corruptible for Quixote’s purposes.


Adieu (1901), painting by Edmund Blair Leighton

“How Wickham and Lydia were to be supported in tolerable independence, she could not imagine. But how little of permanent happiness could belong to a couple who were only brought together because their passions were stronger than their virtue, she could easily conjecture.” – Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Most women exist in a strange middle ground between the Madonna and the Whore in which they manage, somehow, to hold the potential for both. This woman turns into a sort of Schrodinger’s Whore, in which she is pure and unblemished, yet she is always one wrong step away from completely ruining herself (and, often, her family). Picture Lydia Bennet. She is the youngest of five sisters within a family that placed extreme importance on marriage order. Mrs. Bennet spends most of the book searching for an adequate match for Jane, the eldest, and Lizzie entertains the thought of marriage only in relation to Jane already being paired off. Lydia, however, is on the backburner not because it’s not her turn yet. Her premature (in all senses of the word) elopement with the sneaky military officer George Wickham shows her refusal to embody the demure, patient younger sister role. She ignores the lines drawn around her, which in turn threatens the futures of all the Bennet sisters. Wickham takes advantage of her youthful openness and exploits it for his own gains precisely because he perceives her to be a woman who stepped out of bounds. In other words, Lydia is made vulnerable because she does not conform to social conventions of propriety and courtship. 

She held all the promise of becoming a Whore, yet she was saved by becoming a bride.

When the Bennet family and Darcy discover the elopement and endeavor to “fix” it, Lydia is simultaneously framed as both cluelessly childish and deliberately reckless. Elizabeth’s cutting judgement reprimands Lydia’s capitulation to desire and concessions to Wickham’s advances—regardless of the fact that Wickham was almost 30, and Lydia a mere 15. In the eyes of the Bennets, Lydia is to blame for the near-total collapse of their family’s social status. In fact, Elizabeth doesn’t even stop to consider that Lydia might just be a young teenager making bad decisions (though getting involved with a giant red flag of a man is probably a little worse than getting badly cut emo bangs and using dollar store hair dye). 

In society’s rule-book, before Lydia is a child, she is a woman, and as such she must guard her purity above all else, even despite the prevalence of predatory men. She and her family are only saved by the intervention of Mr. Darcy, whose efforts only work because of a massive bribe to properly marry each other and thus return to an acceptable relationship that allows her to maintain her unblemished status with minimized scandal.Lydia, however, isn’t even the recipient of the worst aspects of male judgement. Her high social class and youth act to cushion her from any true consequences for her actions, ultimately resulting only in the grim future that being Mrs. George Wickham incurs. She held all the promise of becoming a Whore, yet she was saved by becoming a bride. Marriage thus redeemed the union—making it acceptable before God—because it asserts a normal social order. On top of that, it ascertains monogamy and legitimacy, key factors in establishing a family. This promise of motherhood and normalcy “save” the Bennets from social ruin (even if it means Christmas is going to be real weird for a while).


An American family in 1939 – Credit: Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

“Strumpet! Strumpet!” – Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

No one does sexism like classic dystopian novels, but Brave New World manages to take it to a whole new level with the treatment of Lenina Crowne. Within the highly stratified class-based society of the novel, Lenina’s societal role is to provide sexual pleasure for the men around her. Her “education” consists, in part, largely of learning how to sterilize herself to prevent unwanted pregnancies so that her body can serve society’s pursuit of pleasure above all else. She echoes the mantra—“everyone belongs to everyone”—and views sex as a physcial experience akin to brushing teeth or taking out the trash. There are no emotions attached, nor is there direct stigma against her or other promiscuous women by Huxley’s dystopian society. Lenina represents the complete Whore, one who is sexually desired, but never emotionally.

The Whore is detached from society, like the Madonna, but she is ostracized and lacks dignity and safety.

When she meets John, the embodiment of “true” humanity who resists the mind-numbing drugs and brainwashing efforts that define Huxley’s dystopia, she is immediately enraptured by how strange he is. John, too, is enraptured, understanding her as the embodiment of the beloved in Shakespeare’s sonnets and the inspiring muse mentioned by ancient poets and philosophers. (John would be the kind of person to write notes app poetry about his crush and post weirdly specific but indirect comments on social media about them). That entrancement, however, quickly turns into disgust and rage the second she tries to sleep with him. Once the image of purity is scrubbed away, John cannot see her as anything but a strumpet. He reacts as if she were filthy, cringing away from her touch like it might corrupt him as well, and ultimately attacks her as a result. The next time John sees her, he loses control of himself and proceeds to brutally flog Lenina in public before ultimately turning his violence against himself for daring to be aroused and tempted. 

At this final stop on the continuum, Whore with a capital W, women are once again untouchable. This time, however, it’s not because they’re viewed as superior and heavenly. The Whore is untouchable because she is depraved, and any who touch her bring shame and disgust upon themselves. The Whore is detached from society, like the Madonna, but she is ostracized and lacks dignity and safety. She is subject to beatings, assault, death and debasement because she is no longer worthy of admiration. All the while, men will still pursue her as a sexual object. She will still be stared at and touched and her assailants will (for the most part) go unpunished. For her, there is no winning, only a game of survival.

“It’s kind of a double-edged sword, isn’t it?…Well, if you say you haven’t, you’re a prude. If you say you have, you’re a slut. It’s a trap.– Allison Reynolds, The Breakfast Club

If both the Madonna and the Whore are viewed as unhuman, be that superhuman or subhuman, then there really is no winning for women under the Madonna-Whore Complex. Being maternal, nurturing and “pure” means cutting off parts of your humanity so that men may place you on a pedestal and then refuse to ever let you down. If you go the other way and choose to openly pursue your desires, to have any hint of a sex drive, or even think about telling a man you’re attracted to him (consent is scary to men I guess), then you may as well sign off any hope for respect or affection. Perfect or worthless, kind or hot, capable of doing no wrong or not worth pursuing. There is no nuance; women are forced into these dichotomies and quickly defined by their relation to the figures of Madonna and Whore. Meanwhile, trying to find a way out and exhibiting traits of both just means being a reverse Hannah Montana and getting the worst of both worlds.

The solution, then, is to just stop caring. Women should express their desires as well as their reservations to whatever extent they please regardless of whether or not they will be labeled the Madonna or the Whore. Through this refusal, the game shifts back towards men and makes them responsible for overcoming their inability to simultaneously respect and be attracted to women. Redefining one’s own terms of womanhood reestablishes the human aspect of women both inside and outside literature.

Posted by:hothouselitjournal

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s