A Modern Look at Gender; Internal and External Gendering in James Joyce and Virginia Woolf

April 10, 2019 by Essay Writer

In the early twentieth century, many writers began to give a more complex, nuanced, and realistic portrayal of the issues that surround gender. Virginia Woolf, often heralded as one of the most important voices in feminist literature,[1] wrote about this concept in a way that, considering this was during her time a recently “new” issue, is startlingly astute and, to use a modern term, queer. James Joyce, in a similar way, tackled this concept in a way that was bold and dynamic, presenting gender as a complex internalised issue, a concept that defines our identities. Both Woolf and Joyce, in their respective texts, present gender in a highly realistic way that delves deep into this concept.

In “Mrs. Dalloway in Bond Street” Woolf provides a female character that presents both the internalisation of gender, as well as the inherent gendering of language. The story’s opening sentence presents this gendering of language: “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the gloves herself.”[1] Clarissa Dalloway is initially introduced by her formal title, Mrs., clarifying that she is married, and therefore defining her character as a wife. By clarifying her marital status, Woolf projects onto the character of Clarissa all of the reader’s assumptions of the married woman as a role in the early twentieth century; doting, subservient, restrained in a multitude of socio-economic and cultural ways. Furthermore, to follow this clarification with “said she would buy the gloves herself” presents further gendered assumptions. The fact that Clarissa has decided to buy the gloves herself implies that she could have had somebody else, a servant most likely, do it for, therefore presenting her as upper-middle to upper class, an assumption that is solidified when we learn she lives in Westminster and is the husband of a Member of Parliament. The action of buying gloves is inherently feminine, focussing on fashion, a trivial thing, and thus presents both a solidification of her gendered role as well as reaffirming her class status as she is able to spend money on such a triviality. Thus, through reading closely the first sentence of the story, we can determine that Clarissa Dalloway is married and comes from a well off background, showing how Woolf exploits the inherent gendering of language to allow insight into her characters.

The internalisation of gender is presented through Woolf’s use of stream of consciousness, a style that she and Joyce notably utilised to its maximum potential. The internalisation of gender within Clarissa’s consciousness is highlighted in a passage that follows Clarissa learning that her friend, Milly Whitbread, has been to the doctors: “Of course, she thought, walking on, Milly is about my age – fifty – fifty-two. So it is probably that, Hugh’s manner had said so, said it perfectly”. [Woolf, pp. 223] The “that” which has sent Milly to the doctors is implied to be menopause due to Milly’s age. The internalised gendering of Clarissa is shown through her inability to, even within her own interior monologue, say the word menopause, but rather only imply it and Woolf making the reader fill in the gaps. It is implied that menopause is too risqué or impolite a subject to mention, too physical and private, and the fact that Clarissa cannot even bring herself to say the word internally highlights how conditioned she has been into the polite role of a middle to upper-class woman. Gender, Woolf therefore implies, is more than outward appearance of an individual, as well as their actions and what they are permitted to do under the law. Rather, it is something that is internalised, reaching deep into our sense of self and our identity and even censoring our thoughts and shaping our language. Through utilising a revolutionary writing technique, stream of consciousness, Woolf is able to able to present gender in a realistic manner, and therefore highlight the issues of gender that have previously gone ignored.

Joyce, through the use of stream of consciousness, shows a similar internalisation of gender and gender roles. In the “Nausicaa” episode of his magnum opus Ulysses, Joyce depicts an interaction on a public beach between the protagonist of his novel, Leopold Bloom, and a young woman, Gerty McDowell. The internalisation of gender is primarily presented through Gerty’s stream of consciousness, not just through its content but also its tone and overall style. As he does in much of the rest of the novel, Joyce uses an eclectic array of styles, and in this section he mimics the style of the romance novels that Gerty confesses to adore. The story opens on a scene that, in comparison to the rest of the novel, is highly sentimental and romanticised:

“The summer evening had begun to fold the world in its mysterious embrace. Far away in the west the sun was setting and the last glow of all too fleeting day lingered lovingly on sea and strand, on the proud promontory of dear old Howth guarding as ever the waters of the bay”.

This incredibly picturesque description is out of sorts of the novel, especially considering its general coherence in comparison to the often chaotic and distorted descriptions of the novel’s settings. This overly romanticised style goes further than simply describing the landscape, and goes on to influence Gerty’s stream of consciousness. Gerty is presented, either through the narrator or by herself, in an overly exaggerated manner:

“She was pronounced beautiful by all her knew her … Her figure was slight and graceful, even inkling to fragility … The waxen pallor of her face was almost spiritual in its ivorylike purity though her rosebud mouth was a genuine Cupid’s bow, Greekly perfect.”

Gerty’s appearance is exaggerated by Joyce’s ironic use of a romantic style, presenting her as a perfect Irish beauty, highlighting how, through an obsession with romantic novels, she has internalised the stereotypes of gender to such a degree that it has altered her own perception of herself, conditioning her to act as a tragic romantic heroine: “ Her very soul is in her eyes and she would give worlds to be in the privacy of her own familiar chamber where, giving way to tears, she could have a good cry and relieve her pentup feelings.” [Joyce, pp. 347] Gender is shown, once again, to effect both the individual’s language and consciousness, Gerty having been linguistically effected by literature written to appeal to young women to such an extent that it presents her as a one dimensional character, void of substance beyond an interest in her own looks and her melodramatic love interests.

But the works of Woolf and Joyce do more than just show how, internally and through language, gender effects the individual, they go further and tackle the issues in a manner that can be considered well ahead of their time. In her novel Orlando, Woolf describes the life of the titular character, Orlando, whose life spans many centuries and whose body changes between the male and female sexes. In Orlando, Woolf writes:

There is much to support the view that is clothes that wear us and not we them; we may make them take the mould of arm or breast, but they mould our hearts, our brains, our tongues to their liking… If we are to compare the picture of Orlando as a man with that of Orlando as a woman we shall see that though both are undoubtedly one and the same person, there are certain changes.”

Woolf thus asserts that clothing changes how we carry ourselves and how we act, especially considering how women’s and men’s clothes make a clear distinction between women and men. Woolf asserts, on one level therefore, that it is Orlando wearing a dress that makes her a woman, and it is Orlando wearing a suit that makes him a man. This links to the idea of gender performativity, a concept originating from the critic Judith Butler and a cornerstone of queer theory. Butler writes that “Gender is the repeated stylization of the body, a set of repeated acts within a highly rigid regulatory frame that congeal over time to produce the appearance of substance, of a natural sort of being.”[1] Butler asserts that gender exists through the actions of the individual, or to be more specific in the repeated actions of the individual that create and recreate gender in an endless cycle. Wearing a dress is a gendered act that asserts the individual as female, and thus it could be argued, like Woolf writes, that a dress could wear us, “moulding our hearts”. Although Orlando was published roughly sixty years before queer theory would first begin to immerge as a field of academic study, it is clear to see that Woolf understood aspects of gender that are difficult to conceive and conceptualise, writing about them in a way that realistically portrays the complexities of gender.

This idea of performativity can be applied to both Ulysses and “Mrs. Dalloway in Bond Street” to demonstrate the complexities of gender, however neither text precisely presents the concept as directly as Orlando. The first line of Woolf’s short story presents performativity through the action of buying gloves, an action that is implied to be feminine, while the self-censoring of Clarissa concerning Milly’s menopause is also a performative act. Gerty’s performativity, though not stated as such, is a lot more apparent through the insights into her character that Joyce allows us, namely her obsession with her appearance:

“Getty was dressed simply but with instinctive taste of a votary of Dame Fashion … A neat blouse of electric blue, selftinted by dolly dyes (because it was expected in the Lady’s Pictorial that electric blue would be worn). [Joyce, pp.346]

Gerty’s obsession and pedantic fixation when it comes to appearance, especially the specific details of fashion magazines, is performative, solidifying her gender. It is Gerty’s admiration of fashion, her taking tips from fashion magazines, her love of romance novels marketed towards women, that makes her a woman.

The mix of internalised gender roles and the outward awareness of what would later be called gender performativity present, in both the works of Woolf and Joyce, a complex representation of gender and the issues that surround it. Both writers show that gender is not contained inwardly or outwardly, but rather encompass the entire being of an individual. It effects how you utilise language, it defines your status, your perception of the world, all through acts of internalised gendering and outward performativity. Joyce and Woolf present gender as a concept that is not merely defines what the individual is able to do in the external world, but also how they work internally, how they act and carry themselves. Gender, both writers seem to argue, is intrinsically linked to identity, indistinct from our very innermost sense of self; gender creates us, defines us, and determines how we interpret and act within the world around us.

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