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Virginia Woolf Essay, Research Paper
It was common for women writers to address the so-called woman question in
their works during the 19th and 20th centuries. This is true of one of the
well-known authors, Virginia Woolf, whose life spanned from the end of the
Victorian to the start of the modern era. She was born in 1882 to Leslie
Stephen, a man of prominence during the Victorian era, and she was primarily
self-educated in his vast library. Woolf was one of the artists that helped
start the famous Bloomsbury Group where many writers gathered to discuss their
belief in the importance of the arts in society at the time. In 1912 she married
Leonard Woolf, a member of the group as well as a remarkable supporter of her
writing ability. She published many novels and essays pertaining to women?s
issues, one being Mrs. Dalloway in 1925. Following that, she published two
well-acclaimed works, To the Lighthouse and A Room of Ones Own. She developed a
distinctive style that includes stream of consciousness and a poetic rhythm in a
prose form. She fought against traditional Aristotelian plot and created an
experimental style. She, in an essay on Modern fiction, wrote:
The writer seems constrained, not by his own free will but by some powerful
and unscrupulous tyrant who has him in thrall, to provide plot, to provide
comedy, tragedy, love interest, and an air of probability embalming the whole so
impeccable that if all his figures were to come to life they would find
themselves dressed down to the last button of their coats in the latest fashion
of the hour. The tyrant is obeyed; the novel is done to a turn. But sometimes,
more and more often as time goes by, we suspect a momentary doubt, a spasm of
rebellion, as the pages fill themselves in this customary way. Is life like
this? Must novels be like this?
Woolf was admired for her contributions to literary criticism. However, she
fell victim to a lifetime of mental illness and thus committed suicide in 1941.
Although Woolf is not alive today, her works are still highly acclaimed and
helped define feminism in the 20th century.
During the 19th century women?s roles where strongly defined by their
marriage. The idea was that women stay dependent on a man: first as a daughter
then as a wife. They fell into a self-effacing role that entailed almost
complete subordination to their husband, children, or even guest and friends.
Coventry Patmore conveys the popular sentiment of the time in his poem Angel in
the House. Patmore describes woman as a flower, delicate and meek, and sings
praises for these simple and delicate features. As much is said by what is not
written about the characteristics of a woman, such as her intellect or her
political insight. Interestingly Woolf later attacks the concept of the angel in
the house through her essay Professions for Women. After describing the angel as
?immensely charming? and ?utterly unselfish? she claims to have
encountered the for-mentioned creature while writing a review for a novel by a
popular male author of that time. In order to review honestly without conceding
to the better graces fit for a woman of the time, she ?caught her by the
throat? and did her best to kill the angel. Afterward Woolf claims, ?Killing
the Angel in the House was part of the occupation of a woman writer.?
Women were to be the moral overseers of men. The man, who faced the secular
vulgarities of the world, was to have his moral anchor as woman. Sarah Stickney
Ellis, a popular essayist and educator of the mid 19th century wrote that in
women?s ?hands the high and holy duty of cherishing and protecting the minor
morals of life, from whence springs all that is elevated in purpose and glorious
action.? Women were to be the lighthouse unto man, whom without would be
dashed upon the rocks of sedition.
Women of the 19th and early 20th century were often impeded from a scholastic
education. They usually depended upon friends or themselves for any education
beyond the domestic type. As stated earlier, even Woolf received her education
in her father?s elaborate library collection. Many women believed that if
education was equal to that of a man they could realize accomplishments equal to
man. Mary Wollstonecraft pleaded the case in her Vindication of the Rights of
Women attempting to convince, by proving women equal to men, that women deserve
an equal education. She argues, ?If a woman be allowed to have an immortal
soul, she must have, as the employment of life, an understanding to improve.?
Women?s roles beyond the home were almost non-existent except for factory
worker, seamstress or nun. Women were little more than domestic attendants and
child bearers in most cases. Many women including Florence Nightingale lamented
on the lack of opportunity for women. She writes, ?The intercourse of man and
woman?how frivolous, how unworthy it is! Can we call that a true vocation of
woman?her high career?? Virginia Woolf herself, in A Room of One?s Own,
encourages women to move away from the space defined by men and begin anew in a
time of great opportunity for women. She also stated in her essay Professions
for Women that, ?the cheapness of writing paper is, of course, the reason why
women have succeeded as writers before they have succeeded in the other
professions,? noting that women writers are not necessarily given the same
respect as men, but that it is easier to come by than other careers.
Woolf was a proponent of the concept of the androgyny of the mind. She
believed that the perfect mind could see issues through male and female eyes. A
mind that had the ability to empathize with the opposite sex was advanced beyond
that of those that could only see one point of view. She argues her point when
I went on amateurishly to sketch a plan of the soul so that in each of us two
powers preside, one male, one female; and in the man?s brain, the man
predominates over the woman, and in the woman?s brain, the woman predominated
over the man. The normal and comfortable state of being is that when the two
live in harmony together, spiritually cooperating. If one is a man, still the
woman part of the brain must have effect; and a woman also must have intercourse
with the man in her.
The struggle for women’s equality in Great Britain started long before the
turn of the twentieth century. The ideal woman at the turn of the century was to
maintain a composed facade, a delicate and demure manner, and distaste for all
things violent. Since early times women have been uniquely viewed as a creative
source of human life. Historically, however, they have been considered not only
intellectually inferior to men but also a major source of temptation and evil.
Woolf confronts several of these issues in her novel Mrs. Dalloway just as many
other women writers did in literature at the time.
Through the development of the characters, Woolf touches on education,
marriage and the sense of moral virtue expected of a woman. For instance, take
the passage when Clarissa referred to herself saying:
Not that she thought herself clever, or much out of the ordinary. How she had
got through life on the few twigs of knowledge Fraulein Daniels gave them she
could not think. She knew nothing; no language, no history; she scarcely read a
book now, except memoirs in bed.
She realizes that she lacks a good education and later credits Sally as the
soul that sheds light on her sheltered life at Bourton. Peter?s character, a
previous suitor to Clarissa, reveals the educational standing of women at the
He hadn?t blamed her for minding the fact, since in those days a girl
brought up as she was, knew nothing; but it was her manner that annoyed him;
timid; hard; something arrogant; unimaginative; prudish. ?The death of the
Peter clearly knew that Clarissa was missing out on the many wonders that
life offered. However, it was unheard of for a woman to receive the education
equal to that of a man.
Clarissa recognizes her duty as a woman when she refers to herself as ?flowers
of darkness? during a time when she feels abandoned by Richard. While Clarissa
was aware that she was to be the fruitful flower in the marriage, she also
realizes that something was missing. However, she knows that life could be worse
without ?Richard her husband, who was the foundation of it all.? Richard is
a conservative man of the Victorian era unlike Peter, much more a product of
modern times. Peter cannot help but lament Clarissa?s marriage to Richard
saying, ?there?s nothing in the world so bad for some women as marriage and
having a Conservative husband, like the admirable Richard.? Peter is willing
to give Clarissa a life of ?freedom? with him and realizes that his ?demands
upon her were absurd.? He expects things of Clarissa that she, as a woman of
the Victorian day, is not willing to accept. This point is most powerfully
depicted in the parallel between Clarissa and the young shell shocked Septimus.
It is in the juxtaposition of these two characters that one comes to recognize
the bleak situation in which Clarissa stands. Septimus? eventual suicide is
analogous to Clarissa?s choice to marry Richard. Even when Clarissa steps out
onto the balcony to ponder Septimus? suicide it seems that her choice to be
happy is a sort of suicide. ?She felt somehow very like him?the young man
who had killed himself. She felt glad that he had done it; thrown it away.?
Peter later verbalizes a woman?s dependency on a man and notes that women
?attach themselves to places; and their fathers?a woman?s always proud of
her father.? This pride and attachment is eventually transferred to the
husband. While Clarissa at one point felt this attachment, she comes to feel
entrapped in her marriage to Richard when she states:
With twice his wits, she had to see things through his eyes?one of the
tragedies of married life. With a mind of her own, she must always be quoting
Richard?as if one couldn?t know to a tittle what Richard thought by reading
the Morning Post of a morning! These parties for example were all for him, or
for her idea of him.
Clarissa sees that she has no say for herself and is at Richard?s beckon
call at the cost of any self identity. To tolerate this distaste for marriage
she fills her life with parties, something she truly loves, to get her through
As we are a doomed race, chained to a sinking ship as the whole thing is a
bad joke, let us, at any rate, do our part; mitigate the sufferings of our
fellow-prisoners; decorate the dungeon with flowers and air-cushions; be as
decent as we possibly can.
Upholding her duty as a consummate hostess, Clarissa claims her only gift is
knowing people almost in instinct. Since it was not expected of women to work,
they filled their lives with other unnecessary duties, such as that of parties.
Clarissa was doomed to be the ?perfect hostess? which Peter referred to as
?something maternal? on many an occasion. She acted as if she did not fancy
the idea of this perfect mannered hostess as a young woman, but quickly resigned
to the social instinct when she was betrothed to Richard. Peter knew, had
Clarissa led a life with him, she would be leading the life of a ?capable
woman going about her business.?
Clarissa first experiences androgyny of the mind when she feels something
lacking in her life which began as this feeling that was ?warm which broke up
surfaces and rippled the cold contact of man and woman, or of women together,?
Clarissa dimly perceived that she had felt what a man feels. While she knew it
was only momentarily, it was enough to bring this sudden revelation to her life.
Clarissa later has a truly intimate moment with Sally on the porch at Bourton.
Clarissa had always noticed a ?purity? in Sally, however, it was when Sally
kissed Clarissa that she felt the emotions a man would feel flow through her
She felt that she had been given a present, wrapped up, and told just to keep
it, not to look at it?a diamond, something infinitely precious, wrapped up,
which, as they walked (up and down, up and down), she uncovered, or the radiance
burnt through, the revelation, the religious feeling!
Looking at the affects of aging, the psychological impacts of World War I,
the role of friendships, how people view the past and the complexity of human
emotions, Woolf makes the reader question what really is important in our lives.
The descriptions put you in the world of Mrs. Dalloway and by using stream of
consciousness she is able to capture the perspective of many characters in the
book. She illustrates a seemingly insignificant June day in the life portrait
centered on Clarissa Dalloway, a wife of a wealthy politician, to depict the
issues at hand with women in 1920s London. As she immerses us in each inner
life, Woolf offers exquisite, painful images of the past to the present with the
desires overwhelmed by society’s demands. The feelings that emerge behind such
mundane events as buying flowers, the social alliances, the exchanges with
shopkeepers, the fact of death — that give Mrs. Dalloway a sense of richness
Woolf stands as a chief figure of modernism in England. Interestingly, to keep
with the issues of the time, the book carries the name of the key character. As
Woolf introduces the character, ?Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers
herself,? the identity is that of her husband?s, not of her own. It isn?t
until the second paragraph that Woolf gives the name?Clarissa. By building the
character without a sense of self-identity, Woolf establishes a firm ground
based on the women question of that time. While the novel may seem hard to
follow the artistic stream of consciousness Woolf exercises truly depicts the
times in a way that will only capture a reader over the course of the book.
Virginia Woolf, Modern Fiction, 7th ed., The Norton Anthology (W.W. Norton
& Company, Inc., 2000) 2151.
Woolf, Professions For Women, 2215.
Sarah Stickney Ellis, The Women of England: their social duties and domestic
habits, 7th ed., The Norton Anthology (W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2000)
Mary Wollstonecraft, The Vindication of the Rights of Woman, 7th ed., The
Norton Anthology (W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2000) 188.
Florence Nightingale, Cassandra, 7th ed., The Norton Anthology (W.W. Norton
& Company, Inc., 2000) 1928.
Woolf, A Room of One?s Own, 2205.
Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway with a foreward by Maureen Howard, (Harthcourt,
Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway, 59.
Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway, 186.
Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway, 77.
Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway, 77
Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway, 35.
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