This study investigates a thus far neglected aspect of Olive Schreiner’s feminism, namely her subversion of Victorian gender models in her early novels, Undine and The Story of an African Farm. In order to determine what is being subverted a brief outline is first provided of the nature of traditional male and female Victorian gender characteristics; thereafter, the key arguments of Gender Theory are provided, the cornerstone of which is that gender is a social construct and not determined by biology.
Analysis of Undine focusses on Schreiner’s eponymous heroine’s subversion of female gender roles, finding that Undine’s subversion is incomplete, due to her repeated lapses into conventional behaviour, seen mainly in her need to fulfil a role of service. In addition, details in Undine are linked to biographical aspects of Schreiner’s own life as many critics have made a link between Schreiner’s fiction and instances in her life.
In The Story of an African Farm attention is given to both female and male gender subversion. Female gender subversion is analysed in the character Lyndall who deviates from accepted female characteristics of women as meek and docile, while discussion also focusses on her more conventional cousin, Em, who by acting as her foil, highlights Lyndall’s subversiveness. Although in comparison to Undine, Lyndall shows great progress in her ability to free herself from traditional roles for women, she remains held back by her inability to break free from the idea that service to something was an inherent part of women’s natures. Finally, Schreiner’s most radical work regarding gender is found in connection with her male characters, Gregory Rose and Waldo. While Schreiner shows the constructed nature of male gender models in her characterisation of Gregory who identifies more with the female gender, Waldo avoids gender categories completely, aligning himself with neither femininity nor masculinity, by finding an “escape” from these artificial social constructs in the natural world.