It was common for women writers to address the so-called woman question intheir works during the 19th and 20th centuries. This is true of one of the thewell-known authors, Virginia Woolf, whose life spanned from the end of the Victorians 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 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 a stream of consciousness and a poetic rhythm in a prose form. She fought against the 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 the 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 were 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 a 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 immensely charming and utterly unselfish she claims to have encountered the fore-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 a woman. Sarah StickneyEllis, a popular essayist, and educator of the mid 19th century wrote that 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 toman. 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 is 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 workers, seamstress, or nun. Women were little more than domestic attendants and child-bearers in most cases. Many women including Florence Nightingale lamented 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 Ones 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. Amind 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 she writes: 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. Peters character, a previous suitor to Clarissa, reveals the educational standing of women at the time: 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 soul.
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 Clarissawas are 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, as 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 father’s woman is 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 Richards 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 beck and 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 this suffering.
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’s 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 Sallykissed Clarissa that she felt the emotions a man would feel flow through her body and: She felt that she had been given a present, wrapped up, and told just to keepit, not to look at ita 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 effects 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 a 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 richnessWoolf 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. Woolf introduces the character, Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself, the identity is that of her husbands, not of her own. It is 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’s 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.