Analysis: Photograph 51 / My Brilliant Career

Analysis: Photograph 51 / My Brilliant Career

This week on our blog, Insight author Sue Sherman gives us her tips and pointers on how to compare Photograph 51 and My Brilliant Career.

A play about a Jewish female scientist at King’s College in the 1950s and a novel about an Australian country girl in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries might seem quite disparate, yet the protagonists in Anna Ziegler’s Photograph 51 and Miles Franklin’s My Brilliant Career have much in common.

In both texts, historical factors offer encouraging signs for these characters, at least at first glance. Rosalind Franklin arrives at King’s College after World War II, a time when traditionally male occupations were allocated to women, allowing them to work in positions previously prohibited to them. For Australians, Federation in 1901 raised questions about what might define a uniquely Australian identity, and young Sybylla Melvyn seeks to redefine herself by challenging traditional gender expectations. Both Rosalind and Sybylla were exceptional children: Rosalind, with her prodigious intellectual ability, was ‘always right’ while Sybylla’s ‘precocious’ literary skills were noted by teachers. Nevertheless, their pathways to success are blocked by guardians of patriarchal ideology.

Having been invited to lead a groundbreaking scientific project at King’s College, Rosalind is informed by Maurice Wilkins that she will be his ‘assistant’, a position she emphatically rejects. The male scientists join forces against Rosalind, refusing to recognise her doctoral qualifications, and belittling her by calling her ‘Miss Franklin’ (or ‘Rosy’) behind her back. She is also referred to as an ‘unspeakably difficult woman’. Adding to this unjust treatment of her, Wilkins presents Rosalind’s research work as his own at a conference, and Crick and Watson ignore her presentation at another conference and criticise her ‘hairstyle’ and ‘clothing’. Rosalind’s lack of interest in her appearance is an affront to these sexist men because it is a repudiation of the male gaze. Crick, in particular, regards women as sex objects and boasts of his sexual conquests. When Rosalind forcefully ejects Watson, who pushes his way into her office wanting access to her research data, the male scientists agree that she must be ‘crazy’. Finally, Rosalind is betrayed by her research assistant, Gosling, who hands photograph 51 to the other male scientists who then use it to help them win the Nobel prize.

Ziegler’s exposé of historical patriarchy strongly condemns the persecution and vilification of ‘the other’, whereby those who are not white, male and Christian are considered to be inferior and are ruthlessly excluded from positions of power and influence. In both Photograph 51 and My Brilliant Career, otherness in those who are clever, like Rosalind and Sybylla, is seen as a threat to the stability of the social hierarchy, and these characters are sought to be subjugated. In Photograph 51 specifically, Rosalind is demonised and isolated by the male scientists who are intimidated by her brilliance. Unlike Sybylla, Rosalind is isolated in a ruthlessly competitive, male-dominated environment, where she must compel herself to walk through the laboratory door every morning with the hope that ‘it’ll all be worth it’.

Sybylla Melvyn, too, faces criticism and rejection, but it is women who are her fiercest opponents. Lucy Melvyn is fearful that her ‘very plain’ daughter will become a ‘great, unwomanly tomboy’ and thus, unable to find a husband at a time when marriage is ‘a girl’s only proper sphere’. Lucy believes it is her religious ‘duty’ to curb her daughter’s ‘rebellious spirit’. Lucy is a captive to patriarchal values tied to her Christian faith, believing her strong-willed daughter to be a ‘she-devil’; she has grave concerns, too, about her daughter’s possible ‘insanity’. She scorns Sybylla’s ability to ride horses ‘as gamely as any of the big sunburnt bushmen’ as well as her dislike of traditionally womanly pursuits such as making dresses and cooking. Sybylla even questions herself, agonising over why ‘a new dress’ and ‘an occasional picnic’ are not ‘sufficient’ to fill her mind.

Unlike Rosalind, Sybylla becomes self-critical: she feels ‘ugly’ and unlovable, and unable to ‘conquer’ her ‘fate’ because she is ‘only a woman’. At Caddagat, however, Sybylla’s musical and dramatic skills are highly praised by Everard Grey (a sophisticated man about town). When he offers to have her properly trained for a ‘career on the stage’, Mrs Bossier exerts her patriarchal authority over both Everard and Sybylla by refusing her granddaughter an opportunity to fulfill her potential. Mrs Bossier equates actresses with prostitutes and describes them as ‘vile’ and ‘brazen’, while extolling the virtues of ‘good wives and mothers’ doing ‘what God intended’.

In twenty-first-century western societies, a commitment to gender equality is widely expected, even though there are still obstacles preventing women (and others facing societal discrimination) from fulfilling their potential. Nevertheless, the example set by Rosalind Franklin and Sybylla Melvyn has inspired generations of talented young women to challenge social inequality, defy ‘archaic male traditions’ and follow in the footsteps of these courageous young women.


Essay questions

  1. How do Anna Ziegler and Miles Franklin create sympathy for their long-suffering protagonists?
  2. Ultimately, Rosalind and Sybylla are unable to fulfill their potential. Are Ziegler and Franklin’s texts more depressing than uplifting?
  3. ‘Sybylla Melvyn is a “spoilt and petted tomboy” and Rosalind Franklin refuses to collaborate or compromise. They bring their troubles upon themselves.’ Discuss.
  4. How do Photograph 51 and My Brilliant Career reveal the power and pervasiveness of patriarchal ideology?
  5. ‘In Photograph 51 and My Brilliant Career all of the characters are motivated by self-interest.’ To what extent do you agree?

Need more help with comparing and analysing Photograph 51 and My Brilliant Career? Make sure you purchase our Insight Comparison Guide for these two texts! Written by Sue Sherman, the Photograph 51 / My Brilliant Career Comparison Guide features a detailed study of each text’s key features and a close analysis of their ideas, issues and themes. It also offers essay topics, a sample analysis of a topic and a complete sample response.

Insight Comparison Guides are produced by Insight Publications, an independent Australian educational publisher.

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