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Virginia Woolf's Literary Themes Of Feminism

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 2474 words Published: 21st Apr 2017

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There are only a few authors who are as renowned as Virginia Woolf. For she was one of the first authors of her time to try to break the "Victorian grasp" on literary works and put imagination in almost every aspect of literature. She also was one of the few feminists who stood up for the rights she should have through her work. Yet in no way was Virginia Woolf only inspired by feminism. On the contrary many of her works were also influenced by the detrimental results of conventionality that was plaguing England at this time period. It was through these concepts that Woolf talked of, at one point or another, almost every social or political problem occurring in her time.

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Born January 25, 1882, Virginia Woolf led an amazingly ideal childhood. Being the daughter of two prosperous parents had its advantages, and Woolf took them; for at the tender age of nine, she opened herself to literature by writing her own newspaper called the Hyde Park Gate News, a newspaper in which she either mocked her fellow siblings or stated the weekly family affairs. Yet tragically, this ideal life ended when her mother, half sister, and father all died in a ten year span. This not only caused her to have a nervous breakdown, but she fell into such a depression that it took years for her to get out of it.; though when she did overcome this tragedy, she came back to the literary world just as suddenly as before. She started writing weekly articles for the Times Literary Supplement, wrote several novels, and married Leonard Woolf (a member of the Bloomsbury Group, which originated in Virginia's house). From there the couple founded the Hogerth Press and continued along their respective literary roads. Yet she, later in her life, started to doubt her own sanity and suffered through another nervous breakdown, but this time it led her to commit suicide.

There is no doubt that Woolf left her mark on the literary world but one of the largest of these would be that of her suffrage movement. She was an author who, from the very beginning, could not comprehend as to why men and women were treated so differently and the latter so unfairly. Thus it was through this call of equality that Woolf started putting feminism into her literary works; which she did dramatically with the release of her novel The Room of One's Own. Originally two different essays, The Room of One's Own had been presented to several groups of college women, who were forbidden to enter universities in England because of their sex. She used this novel to question the policies in England that were being upheld to denounce female rights. This easily being seen where she explains the dinner given to female student as, "'a plain gravy soup'"; the main course as a "'homely trinity'" of beef, greens, and potatoes; the desert as prunes and custard, the prunes "'stringy as a miser's heart,'" (Bowers 1) then later talking of how luxurious the dinner that was served to the male students was. Yet Woolf doesn't necessarily condemn universities for treating women unfairly; the reason for this being that the women colleges are lacking only because women themselves are lacking money. For how are they supposed to earn money for an education when they are not evenly decently paid or even employed? Thus Woolf condemns the male sex for destroying the independence that should have been given to females, yet her anger is, ironically, also felt by her own gender:

At the thought of all those women working year after year and finding it hard to get two thousand pounds together and as much as they could do to get thirty thousand pounds, we burst out in scorn at the reprehensible poverty of our sex. What had our mothers been doing then that they had no wealth to leave us? Powdering their noses? Looking in shop windows? (Moss 360)

Here Woolf not only questions her country for allowing such discrimination to occur but also the mothers who are "supposed to" help their daughters be educated and prosper in this world, but Woolf later states that it is not that women are lazy or unwilling to work it's because they are never given the opportunity to work.

"If truth is not to be found on the shelves of the British Museum, where, I asked myself, picking up a notebook and a pencil, is truth?"(Moss 360). This is one of the several questions Woolf questions herself while she wonders across the British Museum to search for any scientific proof as to why women are inferior to men and comes across a fictitious example of Professor von X's The Mental, Moral, and Physical Inferiority of the Female Sex. Here, once again, Woolf mocks the male writings where women are "proven" to be inferior on "facts" that are incredibly biased and unreliable. Thus she questions "the social forces that keep women financially impoverished, from inheriting power, prestige, ease, and education" (Moss 360).

Probably one of Woolf's biggest demonstrations of feminism in The Room of One's Own was her fictitious example of Judith Shakespeare, the equally talented sister of William Shakespeare. Yet due to her gender Judith is repressed and unlike her brother is stopped from writing. This unfortunately leads her to commit suicide. Through Judith, Woolf explains to the world how the destruction of women (women writers especially) is occurring, because it isn't that females lack talent, as shown by Judith, but that they are never allowed any opportunities to demonstrate them.

While A Room of One's Own is Woolf's major novel on feminism, this theme is shown throughout almost all of her novels, and To the Lighthouse is no exception. Two of the novels largest characters are women who are the exact opposites. One of them being Lily Briscoe; a women who rejects Victorian conventions and decides to remain single in order to not compromise herself to the "dominant male society"; and the other being Mrs. Ramsey; a women who realizes that society is extremely prejudice against the female sex but is willing to idly watch and do nothing about it. It is through Mrs. Ramsey that Woolf tries to show the problems that are not only within society but also within women who are unwilling to stop these injustices, and through Lily the freedom and independence women could have.

Woolf shows through Mrs. Ramsey that there are women who are allowing such discrimination to occur by willingly making themselves seem less intelligent. In To the Lighthouse, Mrs. Ramsey does that same exact thing in order to make her husband feel more dominant but by doing so Woolf suggests that she also ends up destroying her individuality. This can easily be seen where in one scene she regrets that her lack of educations prevents her from joining into conversation about politics, science, math, and literature (Picker 2). Then later in another scene when some of the guests go outside to watch the waves, "Instantly, for no reason at all, Mrs. Ramsey became like a girl of twenty, full of gaiety" (Picker 2). Even though she longs to go outside she refuses to do so in order to stay and be the devoted wife to her husband. Here Woolf shows how many women refuse to give themselves the slightest of pleasures without asking permission from their husbands first, and thus they force upon themselves an almost child-like dependency.

In To the Lighthouse, Woolf shows the world that two extremes like Mrs. Ramsey and Mr. Ramsey could never function successfully. She represents Mrs. Ramsey as the "purely feminine" who will do whatever her husband desires of her and Mr. Ramsey as the "purely masculine" (Picker 2), but Woolf suggests that to be a prosperous homo sapien one has to have traits from both. Thus Woolf creates the character of Lily who has both of these characteristics by being the one who "unites the rational and the imaginative into the androgynous whole" (Picker 2). She rejects Victorian conventions by refusing to marry; a ceremony that would, unfortunately, destroy any of the independence she had to that point. She also refuses to keep any type of relationships with men (except that of friendship) in order to not "compromise herself by either aiding insecure men… or indulging the egos of overweening men" (Picker 2).

Woolf's other feministic novel, Orlando, tells the story of a handsome young poet and writer who finds himself one day transformed into a woman. Here Woolf explains to the audience as to what freedoms that change destroys, because Orlando goes from being an independent and freethinking writer into someone who is denied the same privileges he once had. So much in fact that in order to even hold property Orlando finds "herself" waging a century long battle. Thus it is through this novel that Woolf talks of the injustices felt by women, because to Woolf, there are no basic differences between male and females except in the physical sense. When Orlando changed it was only his physical being not his mental, so he was just as intelligent and talented as before but instead as a women he was given secondary status in society and denied any institution that could help him hone his skills.

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While Orlando does display the theme of feminism it also displays one of the things that made Woolf so famous, her unconventionality. Woolf takes this novel and turns it into the unusual by transcending what was considered the conventional novel. Since this novel was written as a somewhat "biography" it was expected to be, as biographies had been at this time, to be a personal and intimate recollection of his or her life yet Woolf instead used a technique called, the biographical third-person narrator. Through this technique she allowed herself to "commit fully with flights of fanciful description," (Theodore 2) and speak frankly about Orlando's private thoughts and feelings. Though Orlando was unique, it was not necessarily a novel that helped transform a new genre but instead it helped transcend barriers that were placed on imaginative writing.

Woolf's experimental novel, Orlando was not nearly as acclaimed for its individuality as Woolf's other novel, Mrs. Dalloway. Set in London, Mrs. Dalloway tells the story of two completely unrelated main characters, Clarissa Dalloway and Septimus Smith, who Woolf brings together through thoughts rather than interaction. Woolf does this by using the "tunneling process," where she brings characters into the present without giving the reader any explanation as to why they are there. Stating that "I dig out beautiful caves behind my characters," (McFadden-Gerber 2) Woolf never really explains as to what the characters pasts were. All that is told is the present and the reader is thus left to make his or her own conclusion.

Woolf never brings the characters together in the sense of physical contact but she does it by moments. "The sight of a motorcar, the sight and sound of a skywriting plane, a running child, a woman singing, an omnibus, an ambulance, and the clock striking," (McFadden-Gerber 3) are what join Clarissa and Septimus. One moment the reader will be following Clarissa and then with the sticking of the clock the reader will be shifted into Septimus's consciousness, who would be hearing that same exact clock. Here Woolf experiments with transitions because not once in her novel does she use chapters to divide the story instead Woolf wanted one flowing movement so she did this by creating "symbolic chapters." Instead of words she would use sounds and moments shared by both of the characters and if she was not changing characters she would indicate the end of a chapter by a space. Moreover her use of the clocks also signals the reader to the day's progress and the nearing of the conclusion hints to the eventual end of life itself.

While Woolf does use shared experiences to unite the main characters, it is not nearly as used a device as her creation of the similarity between Clarissa and Septimus. What Woolf does not explain about one character she explains through a different character. Once again showing how unusual Mrs. Dalloway is, Woolf characterizes Clarrisa and Septimus as two halves of a whole. This shown be the fact that both are suffering from loneliness, feel guilty for their past lives, have homosexual feelings, contemplate suicide, and both want to stabilize their chaotic lives (McFadden-Gerber 3).

"It is no use trying to sum people up. One must follow hints, not exactly what is said nor yet entirely what is done" (Smelstor 3). This is one of Woolf's first sentences in Jacob's Room and it shows perfectly as to what Woolf's novelistic technique was while writing this novel. With Jacob's Room came Woolf's first "novelistic experiment." She challenged the conventional thinking by using unfinished sentences, disjointed scenes, and stream of consciousness to convey thoughts and emotions. Woolf, had up to this point, followed the path of most authors but with this novel came her drastic and permanent change, to the unconventional. Here she started experimenting with interior monologues and lyrical poetic devices which later would be represented in almost all of her literary works. In Jacob's Room, Woolf suggests that everything we experience and witness is seen uniquely through different perspectives. Hence Woolf used this type of technique to present, suggest, and imply; not to announce. "This is Virginia Woolf's novelistic technique and her philosophical orientation. She whispers hints; she never shouts proclamations" (Smelstor 3). Throughout the novel this is exactly what Woolf does; she always probes the reader to the "right" direction but leaves the reader to his or her own conclusion.

Virginia Woolf was, and wanted to be, a revolutionist. She despised conventional thinking which destroyed the imaginative process of all artists and writers. She despised the conventional thinking that upheld the child-like dependency that was forced upon women and both of these themes she displayed in her novels to tell the world as to how ridiculous these barriers are. Woolf thus suggested through these themes that England needed a change; for these restrictions were not only destroying women but also the creativity that was locked away in the human mind. Woolf wanted freedom in every essence of that word and thus made it almost a life's purpose to achieve it. As stated in A Room of One's Own:

Intellectual freedom depends upon material things. Poetry depends upon intellectual freedom, and women have always been poor, not for two hundred years merely, but from the beginning of time. Women have had less intellectual freedom than the sons of Athenian slaves…That is why I have laid so much stress on money and a room of one's own. (Moss 359)


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