Millwood’s Masculinity and Barnwell’s Femininity in George Lillo’s
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Millwood’s Masculinity and Barnwell’s Femininity in George Lillo’s
May 30, 2007
Millwood’s Masculinity and Barnwell’s Femininity in George Lillo’s
The London Merchant
George Lillo’s play The London Merchant tells the story of a prostitute who seduces naïve George Barnwell in order to take advantage of him. She uses him for money and eventually, Barnwell is accused of murder because of his involvement with Millwood. While in jail, Barnwell has a reawakening when visited by Trueman and Thorowgood. Although Millwood is the leading female character in George Lillo’s play “The London Merchant,” she actually takes on a patriarchal role progressing from a physical “male” position, to a mental “male” attitude. In doing so, she feminizes George Barnwell, and causes his ultimate downfall, which in turn, allows her to take revenge on all the men that have done her wrong.
In the beginning of the story, Millwood uses her femininity in the initial seduction, but assumes the role of man in her relationship with George, in turn, feminizing him. Millwood methodically plans how to ensnare George, and she makes sure that she just happens to bump into him, after watching him for some time. She realizes that he will never make the first move, so she must be the aggressor, the role that the man usually fulfills. When relaying their first meeting to her maid Lucy, Millwood says, “Having long had a design on him, and meeting him yesterday, I made full stop and, gazing wishfully on his face, asked him his name…I begged his pardon for the freedom I had taken and told him that he was the person I had long wished to see…” (Lillo 17). Millwood physically places herself at the right place at the right time, so that she can initiate a relationship with George. Because of this initial step, Millwood begins to place herself in the role of male aggressor and by doing so, she feminizes George. If Millwood is the man, then he must be the woman. Millwood invites George over and “He swallowed the bait” (17).
When George arrives, Millwood continues to assume the role of male aggressor, forcing herself physically on George. She acts surprised that he is there, and when he suggests, “I fear I am too bold—“ Millwood answers, “Alas, sir, all my apprehensions proceed from my fears of your thinking me so” (18). However, her intentions are to be bold, so that she can trap him and have him under her control. Continuing with her aggressive position, Millwood invites Barnwell to sit down beside her and she “accidentally” lays her hand on his leg. Here, Millwood feminizes Barnwell not only by the fact that Millwood is once again the physical aggressor between the two of them, but also by his reaction to her touching him. He says to himself, “Her disorder is so great she don’t perceive she has laid her hand on mine” (18). This also reveals Barnwell’s naiveté, which is usually a feminine characteristic. In addition, Barnwell’s innocence and purity, which are feminine qualities, are exemplified when Millwood, very forwardly asks him about love. Barnwell responds, “If you mean the love of women, I have not thought of it all. My youth and circumstances make such thoughts improper in me yet” (19). This is a very feminine answer in that it is something that one would expect a young woman to say. It is very humorous that George claims never to have thought of women before because women are usually the object of men’s desires, but it seems that George does not have these desires, or does not express them, because he thinks it improper. But of course, George is the object of Millwood’s desire, putting him into the female role in their relationship. Barnwell’s reaction to Millwood’s interest in him also displays his naiveté. He says, “Oh, Heavens! She loves me, worthless as I am” (21). He has no suspicions that her intentions may not be true, and falls for her seduction easily.
Not only does Millwood put herself into role of being the male aggressor, but she also expresses her wishes to become male physically, or bodily. When Millwood finds out that George has a male companion that he loves and cares for, she wishes that she too, could be male, so that she might also be loved by and live with Barnwell. She says, “What have I lost by being a woman! I hate my sex, myself! Had I been a man, I might perhaps, have been as happy in your friendship as he who now enjoys it” (20). Millwood not only wishes to become a man, but she also denounces the female sex, making her even more patriarchal in nature. Once she has said this to George, his feminine naiveté is further displayed. He says to himself, “How strange, and yet how kind, her words and actions are!” (20). However, George’s instincts are telling him to leave, but her power is greater than his instinct. When he tries to leave, Millwood takes control of the situation, again becoming the dominant male, and she makes a daring move. She makes him stay by crying, which appeals to Barnwell’s sympathies, another feminine characteristic that he possesses. Because George stays the night with Millwood, he misses an appointment with his master. Upon returning to his apartment, Barnwell laments his sins and vows not to see Millwood again.
However, Millwood will not allow that to happen, and once again exercises her dominant male position over Barnwell, by appealing to his feminine characteristic of sympathy, or guilt. Millwood visits George and tells him that the man who supports her will no longer do so because she entertained George. When he inquires about where she will go, Lucy, Millwood’s servant, tells him that she has nowhere to go. At first, it seems that Barnwell is going to end it with Millwood, but she knows what she is doing, and by making him fell guilty, he falls for her plan. She knows it is working when Barnwell says to her with concern, “To be exposed to all the rigors of the various seasons, the summer’s parching heat and winter’s cold, unhoused to wander friendless through the un- hospitable world in misery and want, attended with fear and danger, and pursued by malice and revenge. Whould’st thou endure all this for me, and can I do nothing, nothing to prevent it?” (37). It works, and Millwood tells him that if she pays her debt to the man then she will be free. Then, the innocent George Barnwell takes money from his master and gives it to her.
Because Millwood devises the plan to trap George and to take his money in the first place, she immediately begins to take on the role of all the men that she has ever known. In addition, she feels that if she can conquer Barnwell and ruin him, then she will be getting revenge on all the men that did her wrong. When Millwood explains her intentions to her servant Lucy, she justifies her actions claiming that she is only treating men the way they treat women. She says, “Men, however generous or sincere to one another, are all selfish hypocrites in their affairs with us. We are no otherwise esteemed or regard by them but as we contribute to their satisfaction” (13). Millwood justifies her intentions by claiming that men do it daily, so why shouldn’t she? Millwood puts herself in the role of the man by wanting to act as they act. She does just that by carrying through with her plan. After George steals from his master, he says, “What drew me from my youthful innocence to stain my then unspotted soul, but cursed love? What fills my eyes with tears, my soul with torture never felt on this side death before? Why, love, love, love!” (47). These are all very romantic notions and all things that one would expect to hear from a woman, but it is because of his feminine quality that Millwood is able to dominate Barnwell so easily.
Millwood knows that he is completely under her control. After the theft that George commits, he returns to Millwood because he can no longer live with his master. However, George is no good to Millwood if he does not have money, so Millwood tells him that he must kill his uncle and take his money. Lucy tells another servant about Millwood’s request, and the servant is shocked. Lucy says, “She[Millwood] was no sooner possessed of the last dear purchase of his ruin but her avarice, insatiate as the grave, demands this horrid sacrifice” (46). At this point, Millwood crosses the line and completely assumes the role of the man, as she knows it.
George murders his uncle and returns to Millwood fearing for his life. Millwood is very unsympathetic and says to him, “Then it seems you are afraid of your own shadow or what’s less than a shadow, your conscience” (57). Once again, Millwood feminizes George by pointing out his weakness and calling him a coward, another characteristic usually attributed to women. Furthermore, when Millwood realizes that he did not take any treasures or money from the uncle, she is furious with him. She says to him, “Whining, preposterous, canting villain! To murder your uncle, rob him of life…then fear to take what he no longer wanted, and bring to me your penury and guilt!” (58). Millwood’s insensitive and selfish nature further demonstrates her patriarchal tendencies, those attributes being typically designated to men. While George is crying and repenting, she realizes that she might soon be found out, and calls the police to have George arrested because he is no good to her if he does not have any money.
After George is arrested, his master, Thorowgood shows up at Millwood’s home, having heard about her scheme from her servants, Lucy and Blunt. Thorowgood confronts her, and Millwood’s masculine role is continued. She does not succumb to Thorowgood like a weak woman, but instead, she talks back to him, giving him a story of her own. She tries to blame Lucy, but Thorowgood does not fall for it, and once the police show up, and secure Millwood, a screaming match ensues between her and Thorowgood. Millwood embraces her masculinity to the utmost when Thorowgood calls her “deceitful, cruel, bloody woman!” and she tells him, “Thou canst not call me that!” (64). Millwood has reached the epitome of manhood, declaring that she not be called a woman. Millwood tells Thorowgood that she is only behaving in the way that men behave, in the ways that men have treated her. She tells him, “Men of all degrees and all profession I have known, yet found no difference but in their several capacities. All were alike wicked to their utmost of their power. In pride, contention, avarice, cruelty and revenge…” (65). Now Millwood has fully taken on the role as man as she knows it, and by ruining George Barnwell’s life, she is taking revenge on all the “men” of the world. Millwood screams at Thorowgood, “I hate you all! I know you, and expect no mercy—nay I ask for none. I have done nothing that I am sorry for” (65). She intends to “to take it like a man,” unlike George, who cries and repents in jail. In her last speech to Thorowgood, Millwood justifies her actions by telling them, “The judge who condemns the poor man for being a thief had been a thief himself, had he been. Thus, you go on deceiving and being deceived, harassing, plaguing, and destroying one another, but women are your universal prey” (66). By becoming the man, and feminizing Barnwell, Millwood makes him her “universal prey.”
Thorowgood has Millwood arrested, and she is treated no differently than George. She is taken to jail and they are both sentenced to death. However, George repents and believes he has been forgiven and will go to heaven, whereas, Millwood refuses to do so. When discussing the trial, George is described as pitiful “with many tears and interrupting sobs he confessed and aggravated his offenses,” portraying him as emotional and feminine (67). Where as, Millwood “loudly insisted upon her innocence and made an artful and a bold defense but finding all in vain…how did she curse herself, poor Barnwell, us, her judges, all mankind!” as if she is a loud and boisterous man (67). At the end, when they are in the gallows, George is very emotional and he begs Millwood to repent. But Millwood refuses saying, “Away, I will not hear thee! I tell thee, youth, I am by Heaven devoted a dreadful instance of its power to punish” (85). Millwood and Barnwell are both hanged, and Millwood is punished just as equally Barnwell, as if she was a man. Finally, Millwood makes her final transformation, encompassing everything male, as she hangs next to a man, equal in punishment.
George Lillo wrote his play, The London Merchant, in a time when Literature was transforming from Restoration to Sentimental. He encompasses this sentimentality in George Barnwell, thus feminizing him. However, Millwood, the main female character, takes on the role of man, in her pursuit to take revenge on all the men that did her wrong. She does not possess any of the characteristics that are normally attributed to women; therefore, she becomes masculine and insensitive.
Bentley, Gerald E, and George Lillo. The London Merchant. The Development of English Drama: An Anthology, Appleton-Century-Crofts, Inc, 1950, pp. 555–585.
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