A Room of Ones Own
The Politics of Knowledge in Feminist Literary Theory
To a substantial degree, the political system of patriarchy is dependent on the manipulation of knowledge. The biological, psychological, and economic discrimination against women, as well as other marginal groups, has relied upon the establishment of a singular construction of “truth” that is fundamentally exclusionary, yet regarded within the system as natural and objective. What is considered “outside” or “other” than the dominant notion of “truth” as defined by this patriarchal system is regarded as inferior and secondary. The political situation of women, as marginalized outsiders, has thereby relied upon a system of misrepresentation and misinterpretation. Feminist theory has thus been concerned with unraveling this long history of discrimination through the re-appropriation of knowledge by and about women. This project may sound straightforward, but the nature of knowledge for feminist theory is problematic on many levels, from linguistic and psychological to social and historical. This process of rebalancing the politics of knowledge involves validating female literary production, battling basic binary oppositions such as male/female that have been internalized by women themselves, breaking down representations of women based on such binary oppositions, and finding an authentic female voice and language that is not marked by the psychological and social conditioning of patriarchal society, among others. These goals and projects are crucial if a knowledge emptied and freed of patriarchal influence is to be found and established. The beginning of the problematizing of knowledge within a political context can be said to begin with Virginia Woolf’s seminal work, A Room of One’s Own. Woolf points to the persistent suppression of female literary production, as women are kept from learning and confined to the roles of wife and mother. If a woman in Shakespeare’s time had comparable genius, she “would certainly have gone crazed, shot herself, or ended her days in some lonely cottage outside the village, half witch, half wizard, feared and mocked at” (Woolf, 75). Despite holding potential and capability, and without social and economic freedom, or “a room of one’s own,” women are kept imprisoned by ideologies of what a “woman” is. In this way, Woolf recognizes that gender identity is constructed by “law and custom” and can consequently be challenged. In The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir further elaborates on the constructed ideologies of womanhood that are regarded as natural and true. De Beauvoir points to how “man defines the human, not woman, in an imbalance which goes back to the Old Testament… Woman is riveted into a lop-sided relationship with man: he is the ‘One’, she is the ‘Other.’” Such modes of representation are fundamentally political, as “man’s dominance has secured an ideological climate of compliance: ‘legislators, priests, philosophers, writers and scientists have striven to show that the subordinate position of woman is willed in heaven and advantageous on earth’” (Selden; Widdowson; Brooker, 119-120). Such supposed “knowledge” of the meaning of womanhood has been used for centuries to keep women subjugated to men. Following from Woolf and de Beauvoir’s recognition that the “knowledge” of gender identity is in fact socially constructed is the exploration of how these constructs are formed and maintained. For a number of feminist literary theorists, language is a primary source of this construction. Semiotics has taught us that our ideas are not linked by any natural means to the words that are meant to represent them. That is, “the bond between the signifier and the signified is arbitrary” (Saussure, 272). Further, as poststructuralism has demonstrated, this process of signification is fundamentally unstable. Signifiers are not naturally linked to what they signify; rather, they “lead a chameleon-like existence, changing their colours with each new context” (Selden; Widdowson; Brooker, 145). This context through which language is formulated is historical, social, and ultimately political. According to Michel Foucault, “what is ‘true’ depends on who controls the discourse’ (Selden; Widdowson; Brooker, 121), “discourse” being defined as what “determines what it is possible to say, what are the criteria of “truth”, who is allowed to speak with authority, and where such speech can be spoken” (Selden; Widdowson; Brooker, 147). In a patriarchal system, it is men that hold this authority. They control meaning, being the arbitrary relations between signifiers and signifieds. For feminist literary theory, this has meant a long history of negative representations of women, from Aristotle’s contention that “the female is female by virtue of a certain lack of qualities” and John Donne’s reiteration of Aquinas’s notion that “form is masculine and matter feminine: the superior, godlike, male intellect impresses its form upon the malleable, inert, female matter” (Selden; Widdowson; Brooker, 115). Women are seen as passive, weak and inferior, while men are seen as active, strong and superior, among a great number of binary oppositions that comprise perhaps the strongest binary opposition of all, that of male/female. The discourse of patriarchy has thus kept women in a secondary state, beneath that of the dominant social group. According to this “symbolic order of culture” women “do not speak, desire, or produce meaning for themselves, as men do, by means of the exchange of women.” Recalling de Beauvoir’s observation of woman as the symbol for “Other,” women are only considered human beings insofar as they are like men. In short, the “human subject” can only be conceived as male (de Lauretis, 298). In this sense, the “domination of discourse” by men “has trapped women in women inside a male ‘truth’” (Selden; Widdowson; Brooker, 121). The challenge for all women is how to break free of this knowledge system, and by extension, the repressive political order that is supported by it. This challenge begins with an understanding of male “knowledge” as a system of constructions that keeps women oppressed, and efforts to recover alternative truths written by women themselves. Kate Millet’s work, Sexual Politics, was pivotal in solidifying the notion that patriarchy is a pervasive “political institution” that “subordinates the female to the male or treats the female as an inferior male” (Selden; Widdowson; Brooker, 123). Borrowing from social science the difference between sex and gender, where “sex is determined biologically but ‘gender’ is a psychological concept which refers to culturally acquired sexual identity” she attacks “social scientists who treat the culturally learned ‘female’ characteristics (passivity etc.) as ‘natural’” (Selden; Widdowson; Brooker, 124). Millet privileges literature as a space in which the culturally imposed knowledge that is keeping women politically repressed can be and has been challenged. However, given that men have long shaped “literary values and conventions,” it is “possible for the female reader to collude (unconsciously) in this patriarchal positioning and read ‘as a man’” (Selden; Widdowson; Brooker, 125). That is, while breaking down the illusionary knowledge that supports patriarchy is certainly fruitful, it is difficult to remove oneself entirely from the system whilst working within its confines. Elaine Showalter refers to this practice of deconstructing the ideology underlying “the images and stereotypes of women in literature, the omissions and misconceptions about women in criticism, and women-assign in semiotic systems” as “feminist reading or the feminist critique” (Showalter, 459). While this work is certainly illuminating and rewarding, it is limited to merely “redressing a grievance” and building upon “existing models.” Showalter argues that this “feminist obsession with correcting, modifying, supplementing, revising, humanizing or even attacking male critical theory keeps us dependent upon it and retards our progress in solving our own theoretical problems”. As long as feminist literary theorists “look to androcentric models for out most basic principles—even if we revise them by adding the feminist frame of reference—we are learning nothing new”. Beyond merely revising male-centred discourse, what feminist criticism needs is to find “its own subject, its own system, its own theory, and its own voice” (Showalter, 260). This involves rejecting the male canon in favour of literature by women, through which the formerly male human subject can be conceived as female as well. Showalter’s concern with finding alternative methods of reading and interpretation is echoed within the work of French feminist theorists such as Helene Cixous and Julia Kristeva. Both attempt through their writings to subvert and reorder the symbolic order that keeps women politically repressed. In “Castration or Decapitation?” Cixous focuses on the masculine economy of power that keeps women passive, silent, and powerless. According to Freud and Lacan, woman is “outside the Symbolic, that is outside of language, the place of the Law, excluded from any possible relationship with culture and the cultural order” (Cixous, 483). This is because she lacks the “transcendental signifier” of the phallus, which orders masculinity. Without this lack, she cannot participate in the construction of meaning, leaving her outside the masculine economy. The masculine economy is defined by the concept of debt, wherein “the child owes his parents his life and his problem is exactly how to repay them.” This obligation is threatening to man, who wants to “hastily… to return the gift, to break the circuit of exchange that could have no end” in order to “owe no one a thing.” Difficulty arises when this system is confronted with love, which is “hard to give back” since it is in a sense a gift, but one that has no definable way of repaying; it is open-ended. Woman, as the object of love, is consequently “the place of this mystery” and “stands in the place of not knowing” as her role as “Other.” This dynamic enables man to define his masculinity, “to keep overcoming, dominating, subduing, putting his manhood to the test, against the mystery he has to keep forcing back” (Cixous, 485). In this masculine economy, woman is kept passive and silent. Cixous then explores the notion of an alternative economy wherein women regain their voice and power, affirming their difference and creating their own knowledge, thereby rejecting the knowledge of the masculine economy in which woman only exists in relation to man. For Cixous, this requires allowing women to speak and to write, but not to produce writing “that’s in effect masculine.” Here, language stands on its own as being masculine or feminine, so that the gender of the text does not determine which economy it is representing. A true female text is “an exploration of woman’s powers” that is fundamentally political and defined by a “female libidinal economy” based on the fullness of the “gift” that is not withheld. The feminine text is overflowing in its openness and ability to cross limits, in contrast to the closed and incorporated masculine “system of returns” that is marked by withholding and resolving debt (Cixous, 489-490). In this way, Cixous challenges how ideas of “woman” have been constructed within patriarchal culture, offering a way for women to re-imagine and re-construct their own textual representations, and ultimately gaining the power that comes with such knowledge. In “Stabat Mater” Julia Kristeva similarly explores the notion of a “feminine text.” Stylistically, her essay is non-linear and decentred, retaining an open discourse that consciously subverts that of Cixous’ closed, masculine economy. The work consists of a dialogue between abstracted idea of mother, versus the mother as an actual, individual woman, that is, between the Virgin Mary and Kristeva’s own experiences as a mother in the twentieth century. In this way, Kristeva challenges the abstracted fantasy of idealized motherhood as represented by the mythical Virgin Mary, seeking a more authentic representation not just for herself, but also for all mothers. Kristeva deconstructs and exposes the historical roots of the symbolism surrounding the “virginal cult in Christianity” (Kristeva, 188). Aside this linear narrative is a poetic and openly personal description of the experience of childbirth and motherhood. The result is both an explanation and a demonstration that motherhood “today remains, after the Virgin, without a discourse” (Kristeva, 202). While the radically non-linear linguistic explorations of Cixous and Kristeva are certainly fruitful, they also risk moving away from the important political aspects of overcoming such conventional representations of women. Where ‘woman’ is recognized as “not a physical being but a ‘writing-effect’” feminist theory may become overly abstracted from the quite physical and embodied focus of its analysis. What is important to many theorists is maintaining the contextual and political aspects of the discourses within feminist theory. That is, ensuring that above all that feminist literary theory contains a social critique, despite ontological difficulties “about the nature of speech [and] about the status of significance” which “forces us to reconceive the very concepts and relations of ‘self’ and ‘world’” (Con Davis; Schleifer, 569). This raises a new debate about the political ramifications of the nature of perception and the possibility of an exclusive female subjectivity. This is in many ways a return to a central conflict within feminist thought: namely, who is it that is said to “know” and what power does this “knower” hold?Diana Fuss addresses the problems raised by the idea of an inherent female subjectivity in “Reading like a Feminist.” She asks, “What is it exactly that underwrites and subtends the notion of a class of women or a class of men reading?” (Fuss, 581). To assume that women hold their own particular way of reading and writing is an “essentialist” viewpoint, essentialism being “what is taken for granted, assumed, or presented as ‘natural’ in discourse (Con Davis; Schleifer, 566). In this sense, to assume the existence of a female subjectivity as many feminist theorists is to move away from discipline’s social constructionist roots, whereby terms such as “woman” and “feminist” are themselves arbitrary and politicized distinctions. Fuss argues that the construction of “a class of women” based on “‘essence’ or ‘experience’” leaves no space for “the real, material differences between women” such as “class, race, national, or other criteria”. Where in such categories are the differences between “ ‘third world’ readers, lesbian readers, and working-class readers?” Given their “generality”, essentialist categories such as “‘the female experience’ or ‘the male experience’” are ultimately of “limited epistemological usefulness” because their reference point is one that is continually shifting and far too diverse (Fuss, 583-585). Fuss supports this viewpoint using Lacan’s poststructuralist psychoanalytic theory of the unstable subject, whereby the “‘I’…is not given at birth but rather is constructed, assumed, taken on during the subject’s problematic entry into the Symbolic”. It follows that “the question ‘who is speaking’ can only be answered by shifting the grounds of the question to ‘where am I speaking from?’” (Fuss, 586). In other words, subjectivity is always determined by the social, historical, and political position from which one speaks or acts. There is no intrinsic “feminist approach to reading”; rather, “ways of reading are historically specific and culturally variable, and reading positions are constructed, assigned, or mapped”. Essentializing notions such as “a shared woman’s experience” or “a female reader” are thus inaccurate theoretical grounds. The only stable essence within feminist theory, Fuss concludes, is politics, as “politics is precisely the self-evident category in feminist discourse—that which is most irreducible and most indispensable” (Fuss, 589-590). In this sense, essentialist categories such as “class” and “women” are political constructs that should only be used sparingly and strategically for political ends as “determined by the subject-position from which one speaks” (Fuss, 587). For feminist theory, this means that the essentialist category of women as a class” should be retained only “for political purposes” so that “politics emerges as feminism’s essence” (Fuss, 590). In “Pandora’s Box: Subjectivity, Class and Sexuality in Socialist Feminist Criticism” Cora Kaplan also emphasizes the need for feminist theory to maintain its own “radical social critique” in order to remain connected to the very social processes from which it arises. Kaplan argues that feminist criticism is “implicitly conservative in its assumptions about social hierarchy and female subjectivity, the Pandora’s box for all feminist theory” (Kaplan, 593). Like Fuss, Kaplan focuses on the need for feminist criticism to attend to social and historical context: “…“without the class and race perspectives which socialist feminist critics being to the analysis both of the literary texts and of their conditions of production, liberal feminist criticism, with its emphasis on the unified female subject, will unintentionally reproduce the ideological values of the mass-market romance” that “tends to represent sexual difference as natural and fixed”. Kaplan outlines three strategies which feminism has employed to deal with the problem of “the concept of the inner self and moral psyche”. Firstly, “women’s psychic life” was deemed to be “essentially identical to men’s” although “distorted through vicious and systematic patriarchal inscription”. The second strategy seeks to validate women’s psyche as inherently different from men, and often “in direct opposition”. The last strategy refuses to acknowledge the issue of gender construction in this way, viewing the notion of psychic difference as ideological (Kaplan 595-596). Kaplan rejects all of these strategies. Rather than seek out a unified female subjectivity through a common method reading or writing, or through the commonality of the body, her strategy is to distance any such universal representations of women’s experience as a source of fact. Instead, Kaplan argues in favour of the inclusion of additional social categories such as class, recognizing that there is a “fusion of class and gender meanings” in literary representation (Kaplan, 602-604). It is this particular sort of historical understanding of the female subject that “we must uncover and consider”. As opposed to seeking stable, transhistorical answers to questions of what characterizes femininity or female textuality, Kaplan proposes that the psyche be redefined as “a structure, not as a content”. In that way race and class are included in feminist politics, and it is through the analysis “of how these social divisions and the inscription of gender” surrounding the historical subject “are mutually secured and given meaning” that “we can work towards change” (Kaplan, 609-610). In “Variations on Sex and Gender: Beauvoir, Wittig and Foucault” Judith Butler, like Fuss, resists the notion of a female essence. Drawing on Beauvoir’s statement that “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman” Butler assumes that “become” means “purposely assume or embody”. She then asks the question, “If genders are in some sense chosen, then what happens to the definition of gender as a cultural interpretation of sex, that is, what happens to the ways in which we are, as it were, already culturally interpreted? How can gender be both a matter of choice and a cultural construction?” (Butler, 612). The answer to this question rests on the manner in which the body and embodiment has been culturally interpreted. That is, the binary in which men have been associated with “the disembodied or transcendent feature of human existence” while women account for the opposite, representing the “bodily and immanent feature of human existence”. Since in this symbolic order women are the “Other” for men, it follows that in order to “safeguard” their disembodiment, men have needed to keep women embodied (Butler, 615). Following from the Hegel’s master-slave dialectic, man is considered master of the bodily sphere, having transcended it, while women are kept enslaved within the body (Butler, 616). This cultural interpretation of the body demonstrates that “natural sex is a fiction” and what may be considered “distinctly feminine” is merely a historical development with the end cause of men holding authority over the female body (Butler, 620). Butler concludes that women do not “belong in the order of being”, rather they are locked into “a mode of becoming that is arrested prematurely” by the “reductive imposition” of a category that decides what she is supposed to mean in relation to men. To overcome this categorization, “the task is not simply to change language, but to analyze language for its ontological assumptions, and to criticize those assumptions for their political consequences”. In sum, it can be concluded that “women have no essence at all” since they have no true signification beyond the role as symbolic “Other” within patriarchal discourse. It follows, then, that women have “no natural necessity” as well, for “what we call an essence or a material fact is simply an enforced cultural option which has disguised itself as natural truth” (Butler, 622). In this sense, Butler’s conclusion can be seen as the culmination of the criticism of Fuss and Kaplan, wherein retaining essentialist categories such as “women” or “femininity” that suggests a unified female subjectivity must be rejected entirely in order to break free of a politically repressive, male-dominated discourse. A central concern of feminist theory is the importance of locating and tearing down the systems of knowledge that support patriarchy. Recognizing that it is through the unnatural constructs of what is considered inherently “female” that women have been politically repressed, feminist theory is faced with the formidable political challenge of breaking free of this male-dominated discourse. This project has meant denaturalizing and deconstructing the “objective knowledge” that has justified patriarchal oppression and attempting to regain control of the meanings and representations associated with “female.” The manner in which this occurs, however, is very much disputed. The viewpoints of Fuss, Kaplan and Butler contrast on several levels with those of Showalter, Cixous and Kristeva. Where the latter strive to uncover what it is that makes women “different” through their language and literary history, and by exploring the possibility of a “woman-text,” the former resist ascribing women with any such “essence” at all. The problem with re-interpreting and re-presenting what is considered “female” can be seen to rest on conceptions of difference. Early theorists have sought to validate “female” difference while remaining within an essentially male-dominated discourse. Many insights have come from deconstructing male representations of women and re-imagining how “woman” may be freely expressed in text. However, this feminist discourse is fundamentally reactionary as it retains the male/female binary opposition. Seeking the “essence” of the “female” effectively validates this binary. To be “gynocentric” or “woman-centred” implies that the binary of centre/periphery has merely been redrawn, shifting the terms of inequality rather than eradicating them altogether. The work of Fuss, Kaplan, and Butler demonstrate that such binaries should be surpassed altogether. Affirming the fundamentally political nature of feminist discourse, these theorists renew feminism’s focus on the social and historical contexts in which knowledge is formulated. Like the work of earlier theorists, the notion of singular or universal “truths” that are removed from time or place is problematized. Such notions lead to a privileging of some narratives over others; focusing on the contextual differences between all narratives neutralizes this conflict. However, this later feminist theory does not concern itself with replacing old representations of “woman”; rather, it focuses on the variety of social, historical, and political differences that have been marginalized by male-dominated discourse. The new discourse encompasses a range of knowledges that surpass that of generalized “woman” to include class, race, ethnicity, homosexuality, and many others, in a process that is materialist, political, and revolutionary. Works CitedJudith Butler. “Variations on Sex and Gender: Beauvoir, Wittig, and Foucault” in in Contemporary Literary Criticism: Literary and Cultural Studies, 4th edition, edited by Robert Con Davis and Robert Schleifer, pp. 612-623. United States: Longman, 1998.Helene Cixous. “Castration or Decapitation?” In Contemporary Literary Criticism: Literary and Cultural Studies, 2nd edition, edited by Robert Con Davis and Ronald Schleifer, pp. 479-491. New York and London: Longman, 1989.Robert Con Davis and Robert Schleifer, Editors. Contemporary Literary Criticism: Literary and Cultural Studies, 4th edition. United States: Longman, 1998. Diana Foss. “Reading Like a Feminist” in Contemporary Literary Criticism: Literary and Cultural Studies, 4th edition, edited by Robert Con Davis and Robert Schleifer, pp. 581-591. United States: Longman, 1998.Cora Kaplan. “Pandora’s Box: Subjectivity, Class, and Sexuality in Socialist Feminist Criticism” in Contemporary Literary Criticism: Literary and Cultural Studies, 4th edition, edited by Robert Con Davis and Robert Schleifer, pp. 593-610. United States: Longman, 1998.Julia Kristeva. “Stabat Mater.” In Contemporary Literary Criticism: Literary and Cultural Studies, 2nd edition, edited by Robert Con Davis and Ronald Schleifer, pp. 185-203. New York and London: Longman, 1989.Teresa de Lauretis. “Semiotics and Experience” in Contemporary Literary Criticism: Literary and Cultural Studies, 4th edition, edited by Robert Con Davis and Robert Schleifer, pp. 297-318. United States: Longman, 1998.Raman Selden, Peter Widdowson, and Peter Brooker. A Reader’s Guide to Contemporary Literary Theory, 5th edition. Great Britain: Pearson Longman, 2005. Elaine Showalter. “Feminist Criticism in the Wilderness.” In Contemporary Literary Criticism, edited by Robert Con Davis and Ronald Schleifer, pp. 457-478. New York: Longman, 1989. Virginia Woolf. Extracts from “A Room of One’s Own.” In Feminist Literary Theory: A Reader, edited by Mary Eagleton, pp. 73-80. Oxford: Blackwell, 1996.
The Unseen Table: Woolf’s Critique of Philosophy and the Possibilities of Female Subjectivity in To the Lighthouse
The construction of subjectivity in relation to the “real” world of objects has long been a concern for critics of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. In his seminal work, Mimesis, Eric Auerbach argues that the novel inverts the conventional relation in fiction between inner and outer events: “In Virginia Woolf’s case the exterior events have actually lost their hegemony, they serve to release and interpret inner events, whereas before her time…inner movements preponderately function to prepare and motivate significant exterior happenings” (Auerbach 1). According to his analysis of the novel, events external to characters are subordinate to the subjective thoughts or “chains of ideas” (Auerbach, 477) they evoke, as if the function of the outer world were to provide merely a stimulus for the inner one: “the exterior objective reality of the momentary present . . . is nothing but an occasion . . . The stress is placed entirely on what the occasion releases, things which are not seen directly but by reflection, which are tied to the present of the framing occurrence which releases them” (Auerbach, 478). In this way, the very notion of reality is transformed. That which happens as “exterior occurrence,” though indisputably concrete and actual in its own right, becomes merely the context or frame in which “a more real reality” unfolds (Auerbach, 477). A range of critical study has further elaborated on the philosophical implications of Virginia Woolf’s work. Jane Duran maintains “some of Woolf’s best known work—especially To the Lighthouse—exemplifies a concern for time, reality and a sense of interior life-as-lived that is overtly philosophical in its construction” (Duran, 300). Both Lucio Ruotolo and Heidi Storl employ Martin Heidegger’s existential analysis of Dasein, or “being there,” found in his seminal work Being and Time. In interpreting Mrs. Dalloway, Ruotolo uses the concept “to illuminate Clarissa Dalloway’s complex interaction with nothingness, ‘the void that borders meaning’” (Ruotolo, 17) while Storl argues that in To the Lighthouse “Woolf illustrated the nature and implications of being” as proposed by Heidegger (Storl, 303). In The Singing of the Real World: The Philosophy of Virginia Woolf’s Fiction, Mark Hussey links Woolf’s perpetual attentiveness to moments of sensation to the phenomenological theory of Maurice Merleau-Ponty to analyze the various senses in which “self” or “soul” are used in order to define its reality. Also using the work of Merleau-Ponty in addition to Emmanuel Levinas, Justine Dymond argues in “’The Outside of its Inside and the Inside of its Outside’: Phenomenology in To the Lighthouse” that the novel effectively performs “the phenomenological challenge to the inside/outside dichotomy as theorized by Levinas and Merleau-Ponty” (Dymond, 140). In Virginia Woolf and Postmodernism: Literature in Quest and Question of Itself Pamela Caughie explores Woolf’s work in terms of “a conceptual model” rooted in Ludwig Wittgenstein’s philosophy of language, “for narrative discourse [. . .] in terms of the multiple and shifting relations among signifying systems” (Caughie, 81). Lastly, in The Phantom Table Ann Banfield argues that the theory of knowledge formulated by G.E. Moore and Bertrand Russell had a profound effect on Woolf’s conception of reality and through the work of Roger Fry, her artistic expression of it. Despite of, and in response to, this scholarship, Michael Lackey maintains in “Modernist Anti-Philosophicalism and Virginia Woolf’s Critique of Philosophy” that “philosophy was a discipline in crisis during Woolf’s day, and a casual glance at philosophy and the philosopher in Woolf’s works indicates not just that she was aware of the unparalleled assault on philosophy’s most treasured axioms and methods, but that she was also trying to deliver the deathblow to philosophy itself. Given Woolf’s blatant critique of philosophy, I argue that using philosophy to analyze and interpret her corpus places the critic at odds with Woolf’s political and aesthetic agenda” (Lackey, 76). While rightly noting that in Woolf’s time the discipline of philosophy was in a profound state of crisis, Lackey misinterprets the position of this crisis within Woolf’s work. Regardless of Woolf’s inclination toward or against philosophy, I find that her politically motivated feminist deconstruction of gender identity within To the Lighthouse remains indebted to philosophical shifts in the understanding of the masculine subject in relation to the external object, both material and female. In effect, these shifts constitute the intellectual underpinnings of Woolf’s reformulation of gender identity and relations and are thus responsible for opening up a space that made such a re-imagining possible. In this way, philosophical interpretation of Woolf’s work does not undermine its political or aesthetic intent, but rather confirms and illuminates the framework that allowed for its development. The thematic importance of philosophy in To the Lighthouse is embodied in the character of Mr. Ramsay, a professional philosopher referred to as the “greatest metaphysician of the time” by his disciple, Charles Tansley (Woolf TL, 59). His son, Andrew Ramsay, responds to the painter Lily Briscoe’s query on the topic of “his father’s books…’Subject and object and the nature of reality,” Andrew had said. And when she said Heavens, she had no notion what that meant. ‘Think of a kitchen table then,’ he told her, ‘when you’re not there.’” (Woolf TL, 38). This episode alludes to one of the basic problems of Western empirical thought, which Bertrand Russell describes in The Problems of Philosophy: “It seems to me that I am now sitting in a chair, at a table of a certain shape, on which I see sheets of paper with writing or print” (Russell, 7). Ann Banfield identifies the table as “the paradigmatic object of knowledge” that “any philosophy addressing our knowledge of the external world first addresses” (Banfield, 66). In this episode, then, we find the novel’s engagement with “the topics of the British empiricists, Locke, Hume, Berkeley—the survival of the object without a perceiver, the nature of identity and non-entity, the skepticism about substance—“ that “”lie beneath the activity of the narrative” (Beer, 32). Woolf critiques this empirical strand of metaphysical speculation through the characterization of both Mr. Ramsay and his wife, who observes the philosophical fallacies of her husband: Indeed he seemed to her sometimes made differently from other people, born blind, deaf, and dumb, to the ordinary things, but to the extraordinary things, with an eye like an eagle’s. His understanding often astonished her. But did he notice the flowers? No. Did he notice the view? No. Did he even notice his own daughter’s beauty, or whether there was pudding on his plate or roast beef? He would sit at a table with them like a person in a dream (Woolf TL, 107). This passage demonstrates how “reality…is ever haunted by its spectral negation, unreality” so that probing into the realness of the object turns it “into something strange, unreal, and yet so insistently present one wonders whether its strangeness is its reality” (Banfield, 60). In this sense, despite his speculative labours, Mr. Ramsay remains paradoxically estranged from the reality of the world he seeks to comprehend. Storl’s reading of To the Lighthouse in conjunction with Heidegger’s Being and Time is illuminating in connection to Mr. Ramsay’s detached subjectivity. Heidegger was primarily concerned with the recuperation of the question of the “Being” of human life and the failure of Platonic Idealism to reach the real ground of “Being”: In the history of Western thinking, indeed continually from the beginning, what is, is thought in reference to Being; yet the truth of Being remains unthought, and not only in that truth denied to thinking as a possible experience, but Western thinking itself, and indeed in the form of metaphysics, expressly, but nevertheless unknowingly, veils the happening of that denial (Heidegger IM, 20). According to Heidegger, Western philosophy had thus far formulated the ground of philosophical inquiry from the perspective of the thinking subject. His aim was to reverse “the Cartesian suggestion…’I think, therefore I am’” through a new understanding in which “my being (the fact that I am) makes possible my various modes of being, including that of thought or thinking” (Storl, 306). The consistent fallacy within Western philosophy was to ascribe “Being” to an immaterial essence, the “Form” of which the object comprises a mere representation of, thus reducing the world to an object for the thinking subject. This perspective is found in Mr. Ramsay with the alternative posited by his wife who, when seeing “the first pulse of the full-throbbing star,” wants to shows her husband and have him look at it, “for the sight gave her such keen pleasure. But she stopped herself. He never looked at things. If he did, all he would say would be, Poor little world, with one of his sighs. At that moment, he said, ‘very fine,’ to please her, and pretended to admire the flowers. But she knew quite well that he did not admire them, or even realize that they were there” (Woolf TL, 108). Instead of seeing the flowers he only “notic[es] something red, something brown” (Woolf TL, 93). In this passage, rather than comprehending nature’s “Being” in its fullness, Mr. Ramsay has chosen the reductive perspective of narrow conceptual or empirical analysis and the belief that the world is a mere shadow image, a “poor[er]” and “little[r]” version of the truth. For these reasons, he can only see one aspect of the object in question. In this sense, Mrs. Ramsay effectively acts as the foil to her husband’s subjectivity and a model of Heidegger’s alternative connective “being there.” In the novel’s opening scene, Mr. Ramsay insists that a lighthouse trip is impossible in present weather conditions, pressing single-mindedly for truth despite the harm this does to the feelings of James, his son. In contrast, Mrs. Ramsay processes multiple factors in the same situation, linking them associatively rather than by cause and effect: James’s eagerness to make the trip; her husband’s rational approach to the weather predictions; the barometer reading; the stockings that she knits for the lighthouse keeper’s son; her desire that her husband and find some common ground; the look of the sea and sky; the mood of the day (Woolf TL, 49-51). Unlike her spouse, the historical perspective and the distant future do not interest Mrs. Ramsay. Rather, the immediate sensations of life’s flux engage her completely. Assembling disparate foci into an organic whole and moving from one image to another, Mrs. Ramsay remains more aware of the present than its relation between past and future. Watching family and guests around the dinner table, she “unveils each of these people, and their thoughts and feelings…without effort, like a light stealing under water so that its ripples and the reeds in it and the sudden trout are all lit up hanging, trembling” (Woolf TL, 160). Reading poetry after dinner, she envision climbing upward through a blossoming tree, “…swinging herself, zigzagging this way and that, from one line to another as from one branch to another” (Woolf TL, 179). These individual images and the larger pattern they suggest illustrate Mrs. Ramsay’s spatially centered perception that sees and connects things in motion—disparate parts of life’s flux—into a weblike cluster of associations where “the whole is held together” for brief moments of synthesis (Woolf TL, 160). In opposition to this perspective of connectivity, Mr. Ramsay seeks security and safety in the linearity of an objectifying masculine perspective, against the nagging worry that time will efface his work. His walks through local lanes and commons always lead him to the sea, a symbol to him of confusion and reflective of time’s violent destruction of his contribution of knowledge. Images of the sea emphasize his fear of ignorance, a forceful chaos surrounding intellectual history that resists the fragile structures of human thought. Throughout “The Window” section of the novel, Mr. Ramsay’s fear that history will erase his work translates into images of his guarding the land’s edge, watching the sea erode the ground under him: It was his fate…whether he wished it or not, to come out thus on a spit of land which the sea is slowly eating away, and there to stand, like a desolate sea-bird, alone. …and so to stand on his little ledge facing the dark of human ignorance, how we know nothing and the sea eats away the ground we stand on… (Woolf TL, 68-69). Separation and opposition thus define Mr. Ramsay’s perspective. In opposition to this conception of the thinking subject, Heidegger maintained that “[s]elf and world…belong together in the single entity, the Dasein,” translated literally as “being there.” In short, “[s]elf and world are not two entities, like subject and object…but self and world are the basic determination of the Dasein itself in the unity of the structure of being-in-the-world” (Heidegger BPP, 297). The “empirical sense” of “the human body” that is “distinct from the desk and chair within which it is situated” remains, but the underlying “being of the human being merges with, or becomes indistinguishable from, the keyboards at its fingertips” (Storl, 306). Storl sees To the Lighthouse as illustrating this “subject-object collapse” and “convergence of being” that is “traditionally construed as a collection of independently existing subjects and objects” (Storl, 306). The novel’s dinner party scene illustrates such a fusion of “Being”: “Light the candles,” and they jumped up instantly and went and fumbled at the sideboard…Now eight candles were stood down the table, and after the first stoop of the flames stood upright and drew with them into visibility the long table entire…Now all the candles were lit up, and the faces on both sides of the table were brought nearer by the candlelight, and composed, as they had not been in the twilight, into a party round a table, for the night was now shut off by panes of glass, which, far from giving any accurate view of the outside world, rippled it so strangely that here, inside the room, seemed to be order and dry land… (Woolf TL, 96-97). The critique of the metaphysical division between the subject and the object is likewise identified within Gillian Beer’s essay “Hume, Stephen, and Elegy in To the Lighthouse” as the foremost philosophical fiction that is “passionately explored” in novel, “not only by the painter Lily Briscoe, but by the entire narrative process” (Beer, 60). Beer cites the comments of Leslie Stephen, Woolf’s father, on Hume, the eighteenth-century philosopher he most admired: The whole history of philosophical thought is but a history of attempts to separate the object and the subject, and each new attempt implies that the previous line of separation was erroneously drawn or partly ‘fictitious’ (Beer 30- cite original)This division is the foundational assumption of the tradition through which Mr. Ramsay and Mr. Bankes, a friend and houseguest of the Ramsays, regard themselves as “knowing subjects that examine and manipulate the order of nature—conceptually (as in the case of Mr. Ramsay) or empirically (as in the case of Mr. Bankes)” (Storl, 305). Over the course of the novel, this division and its associated philosophical tradition are deconstructed and replaced by an alternative vision of perception that renders the “thinking subject” unnecessary. As Banfield outlines with thorough detail, Woolf’s understanding of philosophy was in large part influenced by the work of Bertrand Russell and G.E. Moore. Russell sought to reconcile the basic problem of the relation between subject and object in epistemological terms: “That the mind can ’know’ its own private experience is not contestable, but that it can have a knowledge that goes beyond immediate experience, a knowledge of the external world, is subject to doubt” (Banfield, 22). Woolf’s comprehension of philosophy was largely defined by the conflict between “two versions of a knowledge of the external world, one direct apprehension of it through the senses and the other scientific knowledge, chiefly modern physics.” Both made certain empirical claims: “All we ever know immediately is not matter, but our own sensations. The object of science is beyond immediate knowledge. But sensation remains the evidence for it. The empirical basis for objective knowledge thus rests on subjective foundations” (Banfield, 6). Truth, then, cannot be perceived from a singular and detached perspective. Russell formulated this position in a 1926 lecture given at Cambridge University: All empirical evidence consists, in the last analysis, of perception, since it is the latter which supplies the evidence of the law of physics. In the time of Galileo, this fact did not seem to raise any very difficult problems, since the world of physics had not yet become so abstract and remote as subsequent research has made it…The problem arises because the world of physics is, prima facie, so different from the world of perception that it is difficult to see how one can afford evidence for the other (Banfield, 6). Russell responds to “doubt” of the external world by restoring the possibility of a reality independent of subjective perception through his argument that we can logically infer knowledge of the unobserved object not directly from observed experience of it, but by means of “the seeming paradox of unoccupied perspectives and unsensed sensibilia.” That is, through the fact that any human perspective can perceive it (Banfield, 59-107). The consequence for Woolf was an “impressionistic” mode of narration in which the individual “I” is effectively unnecessary. Banfield thus characterizes Woolf’s novels as a Leibizian “monadology”, an atomized universe—not an “unbroken whole”—in which the “table is not one table, but many” (Banfield, 108). This universe “grounds itself on a philosophical system, a theory of knowledge” in which “[o]bjects are reduced to ‘sense-data’ separable from sensations and observing subjects to ‘perspectives.’ Atomism multiplies these perspectives.” From this viewpoint, “the idea of death” is “the separation of subject and object” that is otherwise interconnected (Banfield, 1). In this context, we can understand Lily Briscoe’s difficulty in comprehending the topic of Mr. Ramsay’s work: So now she always saw, when she thought of Mr. Ramsay’s work, a scrubbed kitchen table. It lodged now in the fork of a pear tree, for they had reached the orchard. And with a painful effort of concentration, she focused her mind, not upon the silver-bossed bark of the tree, or upon its fish-shaped leaves, but upon a phantom kitchen table, one of those scrubbed board tables, grained and knotted, whose virtue seems to have been laid bare by years of muscular integrity, which stuck there, its four legs in the air” (Woolf TL, 23). The inadequacy of a singular perspective is further observed following Mrs. Ramsay’s death, in Lily Briscoe’s musing that “[o]ne wanted fifty pairs of eyes to see with…Fifty pairs of eyes were not enough to get round that one woman with, she thought” (Woolf TL, 294). In order to penetrate the essence and identity of Mrs. Ramsay, one set of eyes would need to “steal though keyholes and surround her where she sat knitting, talking, sitting silent in the window alone” (Woolf TL, 294) and capture a successive external portrait of Mrs. Ramsay in all her settings. Another pair would pass into Mrs. Ramsay’s consciousness to see what “stirred and trembled in her mind” and unveil responses to questions of perception: “What did the hedge mean to her, what did the garden mean to her, what did it mean to her when a wave broke?” (Woolf TL, 294). Yet to fully embrace Mrs. Ramsay’s being, even these “fifty pairs of eyes” are insufficient, as Lily contemplates the “chambers of the mind and heart” of Mrs. Ramsay, imagining them as “treasures in the tombs of kings, tablets bearing sacred inscriptions, which if one could spell them out, would teach one everything” (Woolf TL, 79). In her coordination of narrative perspectives, Woolf effectively constructs multiple “pairs of eyes” in her portrait of Mrs. Ramsay, including the omniscient eyes of the narrator, the external eyes of the characters, and the internal eyes of the character herself. Banfield describes this method in terms of an “infinite number of possible perspectives” that constitute Woolf’s universe and “like London at night, out of a multitude of rooms and houses, it is punctuated by points of light, private worlds” (Banfield, 109). Although Woolf enacts this privilege of traversing the spatial and temporal boundaries of her characters, she also acknowledges that “fifty pairs of eyes” cannot satisfy the breadth and depth of any identity. Lily, without access to more than one perspective, wonders early in the novel how “did one know one thing or another thing about people, sealed as they were?” (Woolf TL, 79); yet, even “unsealed” in the eyes of the narrator identity is slippery, as Lily herself eventually discovers and finally wonders “how many shapes one person might wear” (Woolf TL, 290). The possibilities for identity are thus expanded and multiplied, and this is in large part due to the deconstruction of the rigid separation between subject and object. Moreover, dominance that the subject holds over the object is diffused, as the subject must recognize that understanding reality occurs in power-with, rather than power-over, additional perspectives. The philosophical shifts outlined above in which the division and power relation between subject and object open up the space of aesthetic possibility that furthers Woolf’s political concerns. In A Room of One’s Own, she protests the mystification of the objectified female image: Women have served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size…Mirrors are essential to all violent and heroic action. That is why Napoleon and Mussolini both insist so emphatically upon the inferiority of women, for if they were not inferior, they would cease to enlarge (Woolf ROO, 44). The real “object” of this projecting vision is obscured—but how this male perspective be altered so as to recognize this obscurity and consequently improve the status of women? As Nancy Armstrong points out, in the Modernist period “the gendering of human identity provided the metaphysical girders of modern culture—its reigning mythology—[I]nstead of a ‘soul’—Locke’s word for what exists before the process of self-development begins—the essential self was commonly understood in terms of gender.” Consequently, men and women were divided into separate spheres according to the determining “essence” of their apparent masculine or feminine characteristics. Public employment, earning an income, public interaction, and verbal articulateness were masculine, whereas domestic work, private interaction with family, modesty, and verbal inarticulateness were feminine (Armstrong, 18-19). In brief, masculinity was associated with “economic and political qualities” while femininity was associated with “emotional qualities”, and these roles were considered both natural and essential: writing in 1913, Walter Heape, “an antisuffragist zoologist,” could claim that because the reproductive system differs structurally and functionally “in the Male and the Female; and since all other organs and systems of organs are affected by this system, it is certain that Male and Female are essentially different throughout” (Gilbert and Gubar, xvi). In “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown” Woolf contests the underlying power relations that dictate the lives of women in terms of knowledge of their apparently innate “nature”: “I ask myself, what is reality? And who are the judges of reality?” (Woolf BB, 239). In this passage we can find Woolf’s critique of the masculine subject who struggles to control the material world through logical thought, as Mr. Ramsay strives to accomplish in To the Lighthouse: For if thought is like the keyboard of a piano, divided into so many notes, or like the alphabet is ranged in twenty-six letters all in order, then his splendid mind had no sort of difficulty in running over those letters one by one, firmly and accurately, until it had reached, say, the letter Q. He reached Q. Very few people in the whole of England ever reach Q,…But after Q? What comes next? After Q there are a number of letters the last of which is scarcely visible to mortal eyes, but glimmers red in the distance. Z is only reached by one man in a generation. Still, if he could reach R it would be something…Q he could demonstrate. If Q then is Q – R— (Woolf TL, 53-4). In “Getting to Q: Sexual Lines in To the Lighthouse” Rachel Bowlby finds in this passage the “structure of masculine subjectivity” as a linear progression of “human development” from which women are excluded: In the psychoanalytic account of human development, there is no subjectivity without sexual difference, and there is no natural, programmed progression for these of either biological sex towards the achievement of the ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ identity socially ascribed. Because the dominant line is that of masculinity, the girl’s understanding of the meaning of sexual difference implies coming to terms with her de facto eccentricity, forced to take up a position in relation to the norm from which she is by definition excluded: as the image of maternal fulfillment seen from the train window, as the ‘woman’ despised for her lack of the masculine attribute, or as an interloper into the compartment reserved for men (Bowlby GQ, 57). In “The Trained Mind” Bowlby comments on a passage from A Room of One’s Own, in which Woolf writes, “For if Chloe likes Olivia and Mary Carmichael knows how to express it she will light a torch in that vast chamber where nobody has yet been. It is all half lights and profound shadows like those serpentine caves where one goes with a candle peering up a down, not knowing where one is stepping” (ROO, 80). Bowlby observes, The subterranean, shadowy imagery of this passage recalls the frequent allusions in one region of contemporary feminist theory to two of Freud’s metaphors for femininity. In his essay on ‘Female Sexuality’ (1931), Freud compares the discovery of the significance of ‘the early, pre-Oedipus, phase to girls’ to that ‘in another field, of the Minoan-Mycenaean civilization behind the civilization of Greece’. And in The Question of Lay Analysis (1926), he says ‘the sexual life of adult women is a ‘dark continent’ for psychology’. The conflation of historical and spatial obscurity in the archaeological analogy suggests that femininity in some way eludes or precedes the parameters of rationalistic representation; the “dark continent” suggests a vast expanse awaiting its enlightenment, but also the enigma of a space which cannot be assimilated to the norms of ‘civilized’ thought (Bowlby TM, 28). This passage points to the problems of knowledge that mark the imbalance of power between men and women. The naturalized norm that is exemplified by men, rather than viewed as its own sexual difference, is upheld as that which is known while the sexual difference of women is mystified and marginalized as that which is unknowable. Yet, as the above interpretations of To the Lighthouse demonstrate, truth can be accessed only through a perspective that is limited by its singularity. Banfield notes that “Moore’s and Russell’s revolt against Idealism…allow[ed] the possibility that there is an unknowable truth…denying…the Berkeleyan proposition ‘nothing can be true without being known,’ as Russell says in The Philosophy of Leibniz” (Banfield, 153). In this sense, the loss in the philosophical assumption of absolute access to the knowable allows for the possibility of an autonomous female subjectivity. It is within this context that we can understand Mrs. Ramsay’s retreat into her own private space as an expression of such a possibility. Mrs. Ramsay finds this imagined blank space strangely comforting. When she enjoys solitude, sitting alone before dinner, she shrinks down into herself in the “wedge-shaped core of darkness” (Woolf TL, 95-96). Here, Mrs. Ramsay removes herself from public or social identity and sinks down into a “dark”, “all spreading,” “unfathomably deep” place where the “horizon [seems] to her limitless.” Rising “not as oneself…but as a wedge of darkness,” a person can go anywhere, “for no one [sees] it” or can stop it: “There [is] freedom…peace…a summoning together, a resting on the platform of stability” (Woolf TL, 96). This free space is liberating, allowing Mrs. Ramsay to cast off identity at the surface and sink down where she can be and see anything. Freud’s “dark continent” of unknowable female sexual identity is thus recast as a space of possibility in which a female subjectivity is not limited by the domination of the masculine norm of development or “knowability.” In other words, “[t]he unseen table, a logical possibility, leads knowledge outside the comfortable sphere of certainty to another, uncertain knowledge” (Banfield, 51). As a number of critics have observed, Woolf’s awareness of philosophy through the work of her father, Leslie Stephen, and the work of “Cambridge” philosophers such as Russell and Moore, had a discernable effect on her novels. This is particularly illustrated by the problematic posed by the “subject and object” and the independent existence of the “table” within To the Lighthouse. The novel deconstructs the division between subject and object that posits the absolute authority of the former over the latter, thus destabilizing the “thinking subject.” Moreover, these shifts further her “political and aesthetic agenda” of achieving an autonomous female space where identity can be deconstructed and reconstructed. Lackey’s claim that Woolf rejected philosophy mistakes her rejection of certain branches of philosophy for that of the discipline altogether. Rather, Woolf’s philosophical recognition of the limitations of the masculine subject in terms of the inadequacy of a singular perspective is rooted in her familiarity with the work of Moore and Russell. These limitations meant that man did not have direct access to all that is “knowable,” thus removing his apparent power to cast out what is deemed “unknowable” about the object, whether material or female. It is thus partly through these foundational shifts that the truth-claims of the masculine subjectivity of Charles Tansley that “[w]omen can’t paint, women can’t write…” are irrevocably undermined within To the Lighthouse (Woolf 75). Works Cited Armstrong, Nancy. Desire and Domestic Fiction : A Political History of the Novel. New York : Oxford University Press, 1987. Auerbach, Erich,. Mimesis; the Representation of Reality in Western Literature. Tr. from the German by Willard Trask. Anchor Books Ed. Garden City, N.Y.,: Doubleday., 1953. Banfield, Ann. The Phantom Table : Woolf, Fry, Russell, and Epistemology of Modernism. Cambridge, U.K. ; New York : Cambridge University Press, 2000. Beer, Gillian. “Hume, Stephen, and Elegy in To the Lighthouse. Virginia Woolf : The Common Ground : Essays by Gillian Beer. Ann Arbor : University of Michigan Press, c1996. Bowlby, Rachel. “Getting to Q: Sexual Lines in To the Lighthouse.” Feminist Destinations and further Essays on Virginia Woolf. Updated ed. ed. Edinburgh : Edinburgh University Press, c1997. —. “The Trained Mind.” Feminist Destinations and further Essays on Virginia Woolf. Updated ed. ed. Edinburgh : Edinburgh University Press, c1997. Caughie, Pamela L.,. Virginia Woolf & Postmodernism : Literature in Quest & Question of itself. Urbana : University of Illinois Press, c1991. Dymond, Justine. “’The Outside of its Inside and the Inside of its Outside’: Phenomenology in To the Lighthouse.” Conference on Virginia Woolf University of Maryland,Baltimore County) 2000 : (10th :, Jessica Schiff Berman , and Jane Goldman . Virginia Woolf Out of Bounds : Selected Papers from the Tenth Annual Conference on Virginia Woolf, University of Maryland Baltimore County, June 7-10, 2000. New York : Pace University Press, 2001. Duran, Jane. “Virginia Woolf, Time, and the Real.” Philosophy and Literature 28.2 (2004): 300-8. Heidegger, Martin,. The Basic Problems of Phenomenology. Bloomington : Indiana University Press, c1982. —. Introduction to Metaphysics. New Haven : Yale University Press, c2000. Heidi Storl. “Heidegger in Woolf’s Clothing.” Philosophy and Literature 32.2 (2008): 303-14. —. “Heidegger in Woolf’s Clothing.” Philosophy and Literature 32.2 (2008): 303-14. Hussey, Mark,. The Singing of the Real World : The Philosophy of Virginia Woolf’s Fiction. Columbus : Ohio State University Press, c1986. Lackey, Michael. “Modernist Anti-Philosophicalism and Virginia Woolf’s Critique of Philosophy.” Journal of Modern Literature 29:4 (2006): 76-98. Ruotolo, Lucio P. Six Existential Heros; the Politics of Faith. Cambridge [Mass.]: Harvard University Press, 1973. Russell, Bertrand,. The Problems of Philosophy. New York,: Oxford University Press, 1959. Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. Canada: Broadview Press, 2001. —. “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown.” A Bloomsbury Group Reader. Ed. S.P. Rosenbaum. London: Oxford University Press, 1993. —. To the Lighthouse. Canada: Broadview Press, 1985.
An Audience Member’s Perspective on A Room of One’s Own
Jordan Reid BerkowWomen’s LiteratureLambertSeptember 19,1998An Audience Member’s Perspective on A Room of One’s Own A young, female reader of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own would experience an array of emotional responses to the author, ranging from empathy to hostility. Though Woolf is writing to just such an audience in an effort to encourage young women to write fiction, her argument is often self-contradictory and otherwise full of holes. As a young woman in very much the same social situation as many of Woolf’s listeners would have been, I find many flaws within the writing that may have alienated the very women whom she was trying to inspire. Woolf begins A Room of One’s Own wonderfully, considering the nature of her audience. It is immediately clear that she is writing for a woman, not for a man. Her apologetic, somewhat defensive tone, which might appear to a man stereotypically weak and “feminine”, would appeal to a young, female audience. “[W]hen a subject is highly controversial – and any question about sex is that – one cannot hope to tell the truth. One can only show how one came to hold whatever opinion one does hold. One can only give one’s audience the chance of drawing their own conclusions as they observe the limitations, the prejudices, the idiosyncrasies of the speaker” (4). A young, female audience would see a woman able to admit the possibility that she is wrong as courageous. Woolf’s willingness to accept other points of view would be a welcome break from the overly confident, bullheaded voices of men whom they would have been used to reading. However, Woolf soon launches into a discussion of the viability of anger in a piece of writing. She discusses how she saw the necessity of complete objectivity and was thus able to overcome the anger she felt towards certain men. She writes that writers writing out of anger are weakened and states, “I need not hate any man” (38), and yet she does. As Woolf writes so vehemently about the necessity of complete objectivity in order to maintain a credible argument, she is in fact letting the reader know that she is, indeed, angry, even if she doesn’t always appear to be. By repeatedly stating that one must appear objective regardless of true feelings, Woolf is indirectly (and perhaps subconsciously) letting the audience know that she is suppressing her own anger in order to appear rational and credible.Woolf is not always able to keep her anger in check. Instead, she tends sometimes to rechannel it, focusing it on others and letting their own anger speak for her. Woolf’s bitterness towards men shines through her objective faÃ§ade in countless places throughout the book. Most striking is when Woolf writes of Lady Winchilsea, who’s writing, Woolf believes, is “harassed and distracted with hates and grievances” (62). Yet the emotion prevalent in Winchilsea’s writing is hopelessness, not anger. Woolf, in her criticism of Winchilsea, reveals her own bitterness at being unable to express anger because of her fear of losing credibility. Perhaps Woolf is jealous of the other woman’s ability to reveal her true emotions without fearing backlash. Woolf also appears bitter towards Charlotte Bronte, whom she wrongly criticizes, writing that “anger was tampering with her integrity. . .She left her story. . .to attend to some personal grievance” (76). A psychologist might say that when Woolf sees hatred of men in other women’s writing, she is actually giving voice to the hatred in herself. It is apparent that Woolf’s true feelings are not always expressed, leaving her audience feeling possibly distrustful of her statements and uncertain about her true message. Woolf’s rejection of the “traditional” female lifestyle is another point on which the author may inadvertently alienate herself from her audience. She rejects the notions of passion and romantic love as being predicated on an imbalance of power. Woolf believes that love only gets in the way of making money – most likely an unpopular viewpoint in an audience of college-age women. Additionally, Woolf criticizes the idea of motherhood as being unworthwhile. “I thought. . .of the urbanity, the geniality, the dignity which are the offspring of luxury and privacy and space. Certainly our mothers had not provided us with anything comparable to all this – our mothers who found it difficult to scrape together thirty thousand pounds, our mothers who bore thirteen children to ministers of religion at St. Andrews” (24). This unsympathetic, unromantic point of view would certainly have alienated a number young women. While motherhood and love are not occupations that will bring in any money, they are certainly not to be disregarded as a waste of time. Woolf’s main point, that wealth is necessary in order to attain intellectual freedom, is the primary point on which many (especially after the speeches were published as a book) may feel hostility towards the author. Although she was, at the time, speaking to an audience to whom wealth was hardly an impossible aim, is Woolf not creating a sense of hopelessness to anyone who cannot hope to come into money in the future? Although she offers other, more symbolic, interpretations of her belief that money is absolutely necessary (page 110), Woolf does not appear to truly believe in these alternative interpretations of her argument. Indeed, the symbolic option appears to be inserted as an afterthought, a halfhearted attempt to win over the less financially secure members of her audience. Only a page later, Woolf states it directly: “Intellectual freedom depends upon material things. Poetry depends upon intellectual freedom.” By making such an strong statement (and supporting it with quotations from various male writers) without offering alternative ways for women to achieve intellectual freedom, Woolf comes off, in the end, as sounding remarkably similar to those men who see themselves as the keepers of “THE ABSOLUTE TRUTH”. Although Woolf does say that women, regardless of their socio-economic position, should write whether or not they have a room of their own, she spends far too much time preaching about what women should be doing and far too little time telling them how they can do it. Virginia Woolf, in A Room of One’s Own, has a number of interesting, revolutionary ideas which doubtless could have inspired and benefitted her intended audience. However, her inability to voice to her own anger, her self-contradictory rejection of other lifestyles and points of view and her omission of suggestions as to how women may be able to achieve the wealth which she presents as necessary all serve to undermine what may have otherwise been an incredibly strong argument. Whether or not the women in the audience to which she read these speeches did, indeed, feel alienated from Woolf is impossible to know, but modern-day readers will certainly find fault with many of her assertions.
“A Room of One’s Own”, “Wasteland” and “J. Alfred Prufrock”: The Affairs of Society
An underlying, general disgust for the opposite sex is one of the sentiments shared by writers Virginia Woolf and T.S. Eliot. While the two authors have similar perspectives on the two genders, both viewing males as the inferior sex, the means by which Woolf and Eliot come to this conclusion are quite different. Likewise, the emotions that arise from their beliefs are quite dissimilar. Writing in the aftermath of WWI, both authors have strong emotions about the society that has emerged from the rubble. Woolf, in “A Room of One’s Own”, takes on an air of defiance toward the societal implication that men are superior to women, and concludes by picking her way through a jumble of thoughts: that men are afflicted with an inferiority complex that can only be fed by women, and that it is society that perpetuates these circumstances. Eliot, on the other hand, feels that women are superior because they hold power over men; men need women, however disgusted they are by the female gender, because of the innate urge to procreate and because society dictates that man must have a mate. These ideas are portrayed in Eliot’s poems “The “Wasteland” and “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”The two authors view men in an almost identical manner: they see the male as inferior, bordering on pitiful. This is exemplified by how the men in their works interact with women. Woolf claims that men only insist on the inferiority of women so that they can feel superior. She uses Napoleon and Mussolini as prime examples, saying that if “[women] were not inferior, they would cease to enlarge” (36). She even goes so far as to say that without women acting as a looking-glass, men would die, “like the drug fiend deprived of his cocaine” (36). Woolf considers that women were, “until Jane Austen’s day…seen only in relation to the other sex” (82). This stems from her contention that prior to Austen, the majority of writers were male, and considered women only in relation to men, and not as individuals. Eliot perceives the way that men deal with women slightly differently, but with the same pathetic ends. The first person narrator is the prime example of how men feel about women: Eliot appears to hate women because of the power they hold over men, and to hate men because of the power that women hold over them. In “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”, the speaker suffers from an acute fear of failure in love, and is afraid to even begin a conversation with a woman, lest she respond, “That is not what I meant at all; That is not it, at all” (6.97). The speaker, having managed to make it through trivial societal circumstances such as tea, idle chit-chat, and reading novels, wonders it is even worth attempting to appear worldly. He is disgusted by the fact that he is drawn to women, and resents that he is held to a heterosexual bond that is so displeasing to him. He reveals his disgust with women when he speaks of their arms: “arms that are braceleted and white and bare / (But in the lamplight downed with light brown hair!)” (5.63). Both Woolf and Eliot hold that men are inferior to women, although it seems that general opinion at the time did not agree. When these authors examine how women deal with men, their views become dissimilar. Woolf sees women as equal, if not superior to men, while Eliot feels that although women are placed on an untouchable pedestal, they are petty and ignorant. In his poem “The Wasteland”, Eliot writes of the sterility of love and the male/female relationship. Three scenes of love are present in the poem, and all three are representative of how women act toward men. The first love scene in the poem shows the lack of emotion in a heterosexual relationship – the woman should be loving and reminiscent, but because she is not, the man is emotionless as well: “living nor dead” (56.40). Later in the poem, when the speaker tells of an erotic encounter with a woman in a boudoir, he is commenting on the narcissistic side of women. This recalls how Woolf judges men: after the encounter, the female lover looks to the mirror, “hardly aware of her departed lover” (63.250). Eliot then describes the fruitlessness of love, the result of a woman’s inability to listen; there is a bar scene in which the woman rambles on, and will not listen to what the man truly wishes to say. Eliot’s belief that women feel superior is voiced in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” when he writes that “the women come and go / Talking of Michelangelo” (3.13); women are simply attempting to impress others, talking of art and culture rather than discussing anything of substance. Woolf, on the other hand, feels that women only speak of petty matters because they have had no chance at receiving real education or earning money. Even in her time, “ladies [were] only admitted to the library if accompanied by a Fellow” (Woolf 8). She feels that even if given the chance to earn money, so that one could have a room of one’s own, such a thing would be nearly impossible; the woman would in all probability become pregnant, and need at least nine months to prepare for the child, depriving her of further earning ability. Woolf also feels that it is society that impedes a woman’s expression, stifling any genius that my be held within the confines of a female mind. Woolf and Eliot share the belief that society holds back both male and female growth. Woolf feels that women should be treated as equals to men, but knows that no laws can perform this act. When she finds that she is to receive an inheritance from an aunt, she is also informed that the law allowing women to vote has been passed. She says that “of the two – the vote and the money – the money…seemed infinitely more important” (37). Woolf realizes that men will still attempt to overpower and control women. With money, she can afford a room of her own in which to write, and that will make more of an impact on the world than the ability to vote. Eliot also believes that society does not allow people to do what they truly desire. Because of the strict demands that society makes on men to act towards women in a particular way, men inevitably feel resentment, and in turn become jaded. Though Woolf and Eliot use different means to express their beliefs, they arrive at highly similar ends.
The Feminine Ideal in Female-Directed Works of Literature
During the Victorian Period, women were “strongly encouraged to adopt attributes of purity, domesticity, and submissiveness” (Bland, Jr. 120). These values and ideals were projected into the writing of many different forms of female-directed literature. Harriet Jacobs’ “Life of a Slave Girl” is an example of a slave narrative intended to evoke sympathy from readers while simultaneously keeping them at a comfortable distance from the brutalities described in the text. Another example of this dichotomy is found in Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own”, a feminist essay that defies the conventional antifeminist sentiments prevalent during the Victorian Age. Despite their differences, Jacobs’ and Woolf’s works are both aimed at a white female audience. The predominant difference between their works is that Jacobs’ writing conforms to the expectations of her readers by magnifying the attributes of purity, domesticity, and submissiveness, while Woolf breaks with convention and mocks these characteristics through the use of irony and sarcasm.A close reading “Life of a Slave Girl” and “A Room of One’s Own” reveals that both authors are targeting a predominantly female audience. This fact is almost startlingly obvious in Jacobs’s narrative, which directly addresses a female reader: “But, O, ye happy women, whose purity has been sheltered from childhood” (Jacobs 54). This passage demonstrates that Jacobs is directing her narrative voice towards a female audience and, more specifically, that she hopes to target the “white, northern, female” (Fox-Genovese 7). The fact that she is trying to reach this group of people is exemplified by her writing style: she uses literary English and inserts quotation marks around gramatically “incorrect” slave dialogue. An interesting point to note is that when Jacobs herself is engaged in dialogue, she places quotation marks around her own words, but instead of using ungrammatical dialogue as she does when transcribing the words of other slaves, she uses correct grammar. The following passage illustrates this point:”Don’t run away Linda. Your grandmother is all bowed down wid trouble now.” I replied, “Sally, they are going to carry my children to the plantation to-morrow; and they will never sell them to anybody so long as they have me in their power.” (Jacobs 96)The first two lines are spoken by a slave and are characterized by a lack of grammar and incorrect spelling. Thereafter the protagonist, Linda Brent, speaks using correct grammar. This shows that Jacobs wants the reader to make a distinction between her and the slaves. Ultimately, she hopes to identify with the “white, northern, female”, and wants to portray herself on the same level as them. Her writing style incorporates many of the “attitudes and assumptions of the Anglo-American literacy establishment” (Garfield 63). This is because Jacobs seeks to attract her target audience by magnifying values that are prominent in mainstream society while simultaneously creating a sympathetic relationship with the reader by incorporating these values into her narrative. The intention behind writing a slave narrative while conforming to the attitudes of white society is, as Frances Smith Foster notes, to “encourage Northern women to resist slavery” (63). Jacobs’ abolitionist message might not have made such a great impact had she written her slave narrative using exclusively “incorrect” grammar and following the speech patterns of slave dialogue. Jacobs’ anti-slavery message was not directed at the slaves themselves, but rather at the women of the North.By examining Virginia Woolf’s essay “A Room of One’s Own”, it is clear that she, too, hopes to attract a female audience. The line “What had our mothers been doing then that they had no wealth to leave us?” (Woolf 21). The “our” and “us” refer to daughters, so it is evident that Woolf’s text is directed toward women. Jane Marcus states that Woolf uses a “fictional narrative technique which demands open sisterhood as the stance of the reader” (Beja 158). This is reflected in the above quote, where Woolf engages the reader and asks a question that she does not herself answer. This serves the dual purpose of forcing the reader to interact with the narrator and promoting critical thinking. Furthermore, this is an example of Woolf’s willingness to defy the “prevalent fashion among the intelligentsia”: her writing breaks from the conventions of the Victorian Age and produces a feminist text when feminism was unfashionable (156).While both Jacobs and Woolf target a white female audience, they do so with vastly different intentions. Jacobs tries to relate to the white Northern woman by magnifying their values and writing in mainstream (“literary”) English. She presents an abolitionist view of life as a slave girl while evoking sympathy from her audience. She urges her readers to resist slavery and feel compassion towards those who still suffer in slavery. Woolf, on the other hand, mocks the same values that Jacobs reveres (purity, domesticity, and submissiveness) through sarcasm and irony. Woolf points out that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction” (Woolf 4)2E This illustrates Woolf’s belief that women are economically oppressed, and that their creativity is curtailed by this rampant oppression.The ideals and values of the Victorian Age are exemplified in “Life of a Slave Girl” because Jacobs incorporates many of these attributes into her writing. Elizabeth Fox-Genovese claims that “Jacobs never shows Linda as beaten or raped, as dirty or disfigured” (7) so as to avoid tainting her narrative voice and her protagonist, Linda Brent. If she had done otherwise, she “would be labeled unacceptably illicit in Victorian America” (Garfield 81). Instead of explicitly describing the sexual abuse, she uses confession as a medium through which to reach her audience while preserving her pure identity. P. Gabrielle Forman references the line, “Pity me, and pardon me, O virtuous reader!”, stating that “this passage acts to absolve [the reader] as much as it seeks to absolve Linda” (Jacobs 55; Garfield 81). The fact that Jacobs clears both herself and the white reader from the guilt of these horrible events shows that she is conforming to the Puritan values of the Victorian age by avoiding vivid descriptions of a situation’s true brutality. She does this in an effort to convince her readers that although Linda Brent is a slave, she is nevertheless a woman, just like them (Fox-Genovese 7).Woolf does not undertake the challenging task of convincing her readers that she is like them, because this fact is already assumed. It is understood that Woolf, like her readers, is “pure”. This, in essence, gives Woolf an advantage, because her readers can relate to her life, while they might have a harder time relating to Jacobs’s life as a slave. This illuminates the fact that Woolf, as an upper-class woman, already has an established relationship with her audience, while Jacobs is trying to establish a largely artificial bond. This advantage allows Woolf to use irony and sarcasm to mock the conventions of the Victorian Age, while Jacobs’s writing must conform to them. This disparity explains why Jacobs merely alludes to the many brutalities of slavery, rather than openly discussing them. Being a victim of sexual assault suggests that she is an object, rather than a “woman like them”. Furthermore, this explains why P. Gabrielle Forman states that Jacobs absolves both the reader and herself. Jacobs wants to clear the reader of inherent guilt of being her enslaver and, in essence, be considered a woman.Had Jacobs described the brutality of slavery in full detail, she would have lost the bond that she sought to establish with her readers, because she would have deviated from the Victorian standards of purity. This would have resulted in the alienation of her target audience, and her message to white northern women urging them to renounce slavery would have contained less meaning because the readers would be unable to relate to the author. By successfully shaping her story around the values of mass society, Jacobs is able to attract her target audience and deliver a powerful message urging upper-class women to resist slavery. As Jean Fagan Yellin notes in her introduction to Jacobs’s autobiography, “a number of women in the South responded to Linda Brent’s experience as a woman and mother over and above her experiences as a black woman and mother” (Bland Jr. 126). This illustrates Jacobs’ ability to penetrate beyond her target audience but, more importantly, it shows that by conforming to the values of the Victorian age, Jacobs is able to effectively “mask” her blackness and evoke sympathy from her white readers.Jacobs’ decision to espouse the ideal of motherhood throughout her writing elicits further sympathy from her readers. She magnifies the ideal of domesticity because “nineteenth-century bourgeois culture raised [motherhood] to unprecedented heights of sentimentality” (Fox-Genovese 4). Yellin’s remark is corroborated when it becomes clear that using the theme of motherhood is an effective tool for relating to the reader. Since motherhood was such a pivotal role in the Victorian lifestyle, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese believes that “Jacobs has reshaped Linda Brent’s memories of her mother for narrative purposes” (8). She relates this idea to Linda’s lament over motherhood: “when I am gone from my children they cannot remember me with such satisfaction as I remembered my mother” (Jacobs 90). She argues that although Linda could not possibly remember much of her mother, because she was only six years old when her mother died (Jacobs 6), such memories serve “the important mission of sustaining the ideal of motherhood.” This shows that Jacobs upholds the values and ideals of the Victorian Period; in this case, the domestic ideal (Fox-Genovese 8). This example suggests that Jacobs might have fictionalized her writing slightly during the description of her mother. However, this minor deception enables her to attract her target audience by incorporating contemporary ideals into her writing. Timothy Dow Adams states that deviations from the hard truth in autobiographies are “not just something that happens inevitably; rather, it is a highly strategic decision” (Adams X). If this is principle is applied to Jacobs’ depiction of motherhood, it becomes evident that she chooses to lie because she hopes that by emphasizing the ideal of motherhood she will be able to establish a relationship with her audience.As noted earlier, Woolf does not have the challenging task of convincing her readers that she is like them; she already has an established relationship with her female audience. This gives Woolf the freedom to employ sarcasm when discussing the ideals that Jacobs glorifies. Instead of magnifying the ideal of domesticity, she asks her readers to question the character of their mothers:What had our mothers been doing then that they had no wealth to leave us? Powdering their noses? Looking in at shop windows? Flaunting in the sun at Monte Carlo? (Woolf 21)In this passage, Woolf engages her female audience by laughing at the conventions of domesticity, which place women at such an extraordinary economic disadvantage. She questions what women have been doing with their lives when, at the end, they have no money to show for it. Furthermore, because Woolf is able to relate to her readers she is free to express her belief that women have been too busy focusing on their appearance and “flaunting” themselves to have made any money of their own. This supports Woolf’s main argument, that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction” (Woolf 4). Wolf asserts that the economic oppression that hinders women’s creativity will be lifted only after women break the conventions of domesticity and gain financial independence.It is clear that Woolf rejects domesticity, while Jacobs values the feminine ideal. By examining the other ideals and values espoused during the Victorian Age, it becomes clear that this trend can be found in each authors’ text. Jacobs conforms to the idea of submissiveness by portraying herself as inferior, while Woolf makes sarcastic remarks about the inferiority of women. The following passage from Jacobs’s text illustrates this point:What would you be, if you had been born and brought up a slave, with generations of slaves for ancestors? I admit that the black man is inferior. But what is it that makes him so? It is the ignorance in which white men compel him to live. (Jacobs 44)This passage reveals that Jacobs is conforming to the ideal of submissiveness, because she says, “I admit that the black man is inferior” (Jacobs 44). Clearly, Jacobs does not believe that the black man is truly inferior; she does, however, think that he is ignorant. He is ignorant because he continues to live in slavery, like his ancestors. She calls attention to this fact because it is not the black man’s fault that he is inferior; it is the institution of slavery that makes him so. Jacobs makes this claim subtly because she does not want to offend her target audience to the point where they are appalled by her directness. Instead, she hopes to present a gentler perspective on why the black man is inferior and evoke sympathy from her audience while urging the women of the North to indict slavery.Woolf mocks the ideal of submissiveness through the use of sarcasm and irony, while Jacobs clearly does not. The following passage shows Woolf’s willingness to mock the values of the Victorian Age:Women have served all these centuries as lookingglasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size. Without that power probably the earth would still be swamp and jungle. The glories of all our wars would be unknown. (Woolf 35)An analysis of this passage reveals that Woolf is mocking the convention of submissiveness. She states that women are only tools that men use to boost their egos. She uses the metaphor of women being “looking-glasses”, magnifying men to twice their size. By this, Woolf means that men see themselves as superior, and objectify women in order to ensure their inferiority. The passage does not have a submissive tone; it is, rather, remarkably biting and sarcastic. Woolf says sarcastically that the earth would not be civilized had it not been for man. She also writes that “The glories of all our wars would be unknown”, essentially claiming that history would not exist had it not been for man. It is important to note her sarcastic tone, because Woolf is arguing the opposite of what she is actually writing. She does not believe that women have not contributed to the civilization of society; to the contrary, she argues that women are “looking-glasses” that have allowed themselves to become inferior. This supports Woolf’s argument that women should seek economic independence so that men cannot rely on women to boost their egos.Another important ideal of the Victorian Age is purity. Jacobs portrays herself as physically pure, never describing any sexual encounters that might taint her narrative voice. She also emphasizes the fact that she is speaking truthfully to the reader: another characteristic of purity. Telling the truth relates to the Victorian ideal of purity because the truth is pure, while lies are tainted. In the following passages, Jacobs addresses the reader and emphasizes the fact that she is speaking candidly: “Reader, it is not to awaken sympathy for myself that I am telling you truthfully what I suffered in slavery” (Jacobs 29); “Reader, I draw no imaginary pictures of Southern homes. I am telling you the plain truth” (36). These lines illustrate the fact that Jacobs values the notion of truth. She stresses this value in order to get her audience to believe the stories she tells. She does not want her readers to think that she is creating “imaginary pictures of Southern homes”. Instead, she wants her readers to understand the brutality of slavery, thereby conveying her message that “slavery is damnable” (23). It is evident that Jacobs emphasizes truth in hopes of conforming to the purity valued during the Victorian Age. Woolf, on the other hand, ridicules the notion of truth:I should never be able to fulfill what is, I understand, the first duty of a lecturer to hand you after an hour’s discourse a nugget of pure truth to wrap up between the pages of your notebooks and keep on the mantelpiece. (Woolf 4)In this passage, Woolf uses irony to mock the notion of truth. She says that she will not be able to give the reader a “nugget of pure truth” to “keep on the mantelpiece” (Woolf 4). This “nugget” represents her unrealistic, almost comical view of the notion of complete honesty. The use of sarcasm is evident because even if she tells the truth, it is impossible to place such an abstract concept on a mantelpiece. Although she does not explicitly express this belief, the underlying point that Woolf is trying to make is that women will never be able to tell the truth until they have broken the economic oppression that constrains them. This illustrates Woolf’s willingness to defy the convention of purity, one of the primary values of the Victorian Age.A comparison of Harriet Jacobs’ “Life of a Slave Girl” and Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own” reveals that while both authors target a female audience, Jacobs has the considerabe challenge of convincing her reader that she is similar to them, while Woolf has an established bond with her readers and is thus accorded greater flexibility. This fact explains why Jacobs must adopt the Victorian values of purity, domesticity, and submissiveness in her text, while Woolf is free to openly mock these values. Jacobs invokes the values of mass society in order to convince her audience that she is a woman, just like them. By magnifying these ideals, she is able to establish a common ground with her reader. Woolf, on the other hand, already has this established bond, and can employ sarcasm and irony to mock the same attributes that Jacobs upholds. This permits Woolf to produce a feminist text that women can relate to, while incorporating her own style of comic irony.Works Cited:Adams, Timothy Dow. Telling Lies in Modern American Autobiography. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990.Beja, Morris. Critical Essays on Virginia Woolf. Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., 1985.Bland, Jr., Sterling Lecater. Voices of the Fugitives: Runaway Slave Stories and Their Fictions of Self-Creation. Westport: Praeger Publishers, 2000.Fox-Genovese, Elizabeth. Unspeakable Things Unspoken: Ghost Memories in the Narratives of African-American Women. Jamaica: University Press, 1993.Garfield, Debora M., and Zafar, Rafia, ed. Harriet Jacobs and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Cambridge: University Press, 1996.Jacobs, Harriet A. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001.Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. New York: Harcourt, Inc., 1989.
Virginia Woolf and A Room of One’s Own: Writing From the Female Perspective
Virginia Woolf’s ambitious work A Room of One’s Own tackles many significant issues concerning the history and culture of women’s writing, and attempts to document the conditions which women have had to endure in order to write, juxtaposing these with her vision of ideal conditions for the creation of literature. Woolf’s extended essay has endured and proved itself to be a viable, pioneering feminist piece of work, but the broad range of ideas and arguments Woolf explores leaves her piece open to criticism over certain concepts which seem to contradict themselves. This observation can be explained most satisfactorily by critic Ellen Bayuk Rosenman, who posits, “the essay does not strive for the strict coherence of a jigsaw puzzle, composed of perfectly interlocking pieces in which no gaps exist and there is nothing left over…Woolf’s essay has proved so durable because it often contradicts itself”(13). Woolf puts forth the notion in the end of her essay that the “androgynous mind” is to be the apotheosis of all the perspectives of writing; yet this belief she conveys contradicts not only previous evidence she has expressed but also diminishes the value of the female as a significant contributor to the world of literature, and discredits woman’s ability to write as she is attempting to praise and inspire us.Virginia Woolf uses A Room of One’s Own as a platform to discuss past and current social inequities that exist within the realm of women and literature, attempting to document the negative effects that patriarchal society of the early twentieth century England has wrought upon the female psyche. From her analysis of these issues and her own life experiences, Woolf comes to the conclusion which becomes the basis for this essay, stating, “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction”(2154). Taken at face value, this statement seems rather uncontroversial and quite obvious. However, this supposition of Woolf’s is based less on the physical environment, and more on the psychological changes she hopes to induce in allowing women the freedom of these two possessions. Woolf’s essay hinges on the fact that women at this point in time are oppressed, abused, disallowed to work in certain areas and in general have not gained the respect of their male counterparts as intellectuals and authors; these injustices produce in a woman a certain bitterness and skeptical quality which distorts her view of the world and its possibilities. This argument is illustrated when Woolf discusses the obstacles which women authors such as Jane Austen have battled, relating, “What genius, what integrity must it have required in face of all that criticism, in the midst of that purely patriarchal society, to hold fast to the thing as they saw it without shrinking”(2193). She reserves the highest praise for Austen for her ability to compartmentalize her anger and bitterness over the circumstances that both her sex and the opposite have imposed upon her. Of course Woolf does not believe she is admiring Austen for this quality, but rather for her complete lack of rage in the first place. She muses over this idea, noting “perhaps it was the nature of Jane Austen not to want what she had not. Her gift and her circumstances matched each other completely. But I doubt whether that was true of Charlotte Bronte…”(2189). It is a wonderful quality of Jane Austen that she is able to rise above the prejudice that has been inflicted upon her and all women for that matter, but is that ability the only path to meaningful writing? Does Woolf really mean to say that the writing of Jane Austen is better than Charlotte Bronte merely because this female perspective is somehow obscured, subtler than in Bronte’s works? Rosenman illuminates this quandary when she relates, “How do we judge the works of the women writers Woolf discusses, almost all of whom express anger at their plight? Are they all “doomed to death,” unable to “grow in the minds of others” as Woolf claims? Has only Jane Austen survived?”(105) As Woolf praises Austen, she discredits women who strive to write from their perspective, to document faithfully their ‘plight’, to reflect life as they know it. This criticism of Woolf’s becomes all the more ambiguous when viewed in light of her beautiful and inspirational words, “No need to hurry. No need to sparkle. No need to be anybody but oneself”(2189). Is Woolf suggesting that all our experiences, torments, struggles somehow do not combine to create our truest selves? If indeed gender is a social construction, as Woolf believes it is, that does not change the fact that this construct does exist and does color our perceptions of the world. It is a lofty idea to hope that women will be able to disregard their earthly circumstances, but this is a very narrow view of what inspires great literature, and one of the many casualties of this belief is the faction of female writers who believe their true selves are a combination of all the anger, bitterness, and other emotions that women feel throughout their lives.Woolf clings to the idea that Charlotte Bronte’s resentment towards the chains that have bound her, both in her life and in her literature, disallows her to write with her full consciousness, and thus cheapens the value and message of her work. A manifestation of this attitude appears when Woolf is discussing Bronte’s work and states, “if one reads them over and marks that jerk in them, that indignation, one sees that she will never get her genius expressed whole and entire. Her books will be deformed and twisted. She will write in a rage where she should write calmly” (2190). The validity of this view has not often been challenged, and without further consideration it does begin to seem that this chip on Bronte’s shoulder ruins her otherwise brilliant work. However, Rosenman comes up with another, perhaps more accurate interpretation of Bronte’s tirade against patriarchal society through the eyes of Jane Eyre, when she relates, “Rather than being only technical flaws, perhaps they are also gateways to a distinctively female point of view”(108). If this statement be indeed true, if Charlotte Bronte was merely attempting to expose the female side in her writing, how can this be in conflict with Woolf’s admiration of Austen and Emily Bronte, who are the only women in her view who “wrote as women write”(2193). Who is Virginia Woolf to be the judge of what writing is purely female but not jaded at the same time? Woolf seems to be disagreeing with her own vision of quality writing, and her conflicting views on the female perspective that imbues women’s literature leave the reader in a state of flux, wondering whether Woolf is calling upon females to write as if the construct of gender never existed, or to bask in their womanhood and display it in all its glory.Inarguably, the most radical concept which Woolf wrestles with in A Room of One’s Own, the idea of androgyny as the highest form of consciousness, muddles her exaltation of women and brings into question the status of this work as a piece of progressive feminism. Woolf defines the androgynous mind as being, “resonant and porous; that it transmits emotion without impediment; that it is naturally creative, incandescent and undivided” (2206). These words are indeed poetic, and they paint an idyllic picture of a mind unhindered by any emotional or psychological conflict, but not only does this perspective appear nearly impossible to attain for women of this age, it also brings into question many of the statements Woolf has previously made about the value of female contribution to the realm of literature. Rosenman clarifies this statement when she relates that, “Woolf’s notion of a single-sex artistic creation as ‘a horrid little abortion,’ like her comment that gender consciousness is fatal, flies in the face of her valorization of women’s writing”(111). What does Woolf mean to say here, that neither women nor men have a consciousness which allows them to write to their fullest extent? She befuddles the reader even more with this statement, confessing, “Perhaps to think, as I had been thinking these days, of one sex as distinct from the other is an effort. It interferes with the unity of the mind”(2204). This seems to me to be the most controversial supposition of the entire work; for a woman to think like herself is to acknowledge a certain female perspective that colors her views. To disregard these views and attempt to transcend her sex, to begin to think of women and men as the same beings is the concept which requires the most effort. How does one gain the consciousness of a man, or lose the consciousness of a woman without the deliberate disregard for the feelings and emotions that have been ingrained within us from years and years of experience through the eyes of one sex? Another point of contention that has brought this view of androgyny under greater scrutiny in more recent years is the subtle, at times purposeful suggestion that it is man and woman together that makes for the highest form of awareness, “for the greatest satisfaction, the most complete happiness”(2205). Woolf unconsciously brings sexuality into the mix at this point, advocating heterosexuality as the truest form of fulfillment. This idea opens her up to the fire of feminist critics who rail against this notion of heterosexuality being necessary for true happiness, and who also believe that women do not need men in any way, shape or form in order to succeed and achieve in this world. Virginia Woolf deserves to be praised if only for the vast amount of debate and controversy she has been able to stir up with these views, but nonetheless this utopian vision of the androgynous mind is not only implausible, but creates too narrow a standard for the ideal perspective of writing.Woolf makes many statements that encourage women to write, to make themselves heard, to paste themselves into the pages of history, yet in doing so she also sets clear and restrictive guidelines which one must follow in order to create what she views as worthwhile fiction. In her eyes, Charlotte Bronte has squandered her gift, while Jane Austen has cultivated hers. Rosenman’s observation that, “The celebration of the feminine style coexists with the valorization of androgyny; the insistence on gender as crucial to women’s perspective and experience coexists with a stern admonition to women not to think consciously of their sex”(13), exposes brilliantly the ambiguity present throughout Woolf’s essay. And Woolf herself provides the most eloquent contradiction of the piece when she urges, “it is much more important to be oneself than anything else. Do not dream of influencing other people, I would say, if I knew how to make it sound exalted. Think of things in themselves”(2211). To ‘think of things in themselves’ in the most literal sense would be to allow every perception, every attitude, every emotion equal stature in one’s mind and in the writing process. Perhaps it is not disregarding one’s own sex that will make for the highest form of literature, but instead allowing the combination of experience and emotion, spirituality and materialism, belief and conjecture, to coalesce into a beautiful mass of ideas that will truly be a reflection of the author in her most complete consciousness.WORKS CITEDRosenman, Ellen Bayuk. A Room of One’s Own: Women Writers and the Politics of Creativity. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1994.Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own from The Norton Anthology of English Literature Volume II. Ed Abrams, Greenblatt. New York: W.W. Norton Company, 1999.
Making Room for Women: Virginia Woolf’s Narrative Technique in A Room of One’s Own
“Like most uneducated Englishwomen, I like reading.” Can these words really belong to Virginia Woolf, an “uneducated Englishwoman” who knew half a dozen languages, who authored a shelf’s length of novels and essays, who possessed one of the most rarified literary minds of the twentieth century? Tucked into the back pages of A Room of One’s Own, this comment shimmers with Woolf’s typically wry and understated sense of humor. She jests, but she means something very serious at the same time: as a reader, she worries about the state of the writer, and particularly the state of the female writer. She worries so much, in fact, that she fills a hundred some pages musing about how her appetite for “books in the bulk” might be satiated in the future by women writers. Her concerns may be those of a reader, but the solution she proffers comes straight from the ethos of an experienced writer. “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction,” Woolf asserts early in her essay. This “one minor point,” as she calls it, could have major repercussions for the future of literature. It would certainly, in the least, enrich the life of Virginia Woolf the reader. But before this can happen, Virginia Woolf the writer must demonstrate how a few hundred pounds and some privacy translate into a wealth of new books by women. To do this, she uses a most natural example: A Room of One’s Own itself. Before it became a seminal feminist text or the source of countless cultural clichés, this essay was first a piece of writing by a woman of some means and leisure. It is both the result and the purveyor of a set of ideal creative conditions for the female author. Employing an innovative narrative technique, Woolf manifests how these external conditions come to bear on women’s prose style.A Room of One’s Own is Virginia Woolf’s fictionalized response to a very factual request. “We asked you to speak about women and fiction – what has that got to do with a room of one’s own?” Woolf asks, anticipating her audience’s bewilderment at the title of her work. It has to do, she explains, with women writers’ need for money and personal space. But it can only be properly explained through fiction. “I am going to develop in your presence as fully and freely as I can [my] train of thought…making use of all the liberties and licenses of a novelist,” she explains. One can imagine that this statement only further perplexed Woolf’s original audience of female undergraduates in 1928. But Woolf is adamant here. She has no desire to rehash remarks about the usual suspects of women’s literature. Jane Austen, George Eliot, the Bronte sisters – these women will eventually be mentioned, but Woolf is no historical surveyor. She writes modernist novels; naturally, she will write about women and fiction in that same modernist, novelistic mode. But the fictional form of A Room of One’s Own indicates more than Woolf’s predilection for the novel as a writer. Rather, prose fiction has been the tendency of successful female authors since their historical emergence. Woolf, who notes later that the finest male writers compose “with the unconscious bearing of long descent,” knows that her gender has no Shakespeare, no Milton, no Keats. Nor have women had their hands in biography, philosophy, or history. How is a woman to write, then, without the gracefulness with which tradition imbues the contemporary author’s pen? Woolf confronts this problem by writing in the mode of the richest tradition available to a woman writing – the novel. Here the female author has Pride and Prejudice and Middlemarch to bolster her claim to the form. A male author may demand his own stake on the basis of Tom Jones or Bleak House, but he cannot deny any woman her fair share in the history of the English novel. For Woolf, a “long descent” is a crucial condition affecting a writer’s talent; she writes in novelistic form because it is the one which she truly can trace back through her “mothers and grandmothers.”If female authors have had the best luck as novelists, women personages have likewise fared better in fiction than in history. A trip to the British museum confirms that, while men have had plenty to say about the contemporary inadequacies of the opposite sex, “nothing is known about women before the eighteenth century.” There are scraps of knowledge about wife beating and childbearing, but the thoughts and habits of females have been shrouded by years of social insignificance. It is no wonder Woolf prefers to talk about women through fiction, for in history they have a tendency to completely disappear. This is not so in the literature of this very same past. Male historians took no interest in women, but, as she points out, male fiction writers certainly did. From Lady Macbeth to Madame de Guermantes, literature recounts the lives of hundreds of dynamic females. “Imaginatively woman is of the highest importance,” Woolf observes, “but practically she is completely insignificant…she is all but absent from history.” It makes sense, then, that Woolf would write A Room of One’s Own in the genre that held women to be of the greatest importance rather than the one that found in them nary the least significance.Just as Woolf found a form fit to the woman writer, so she discovered a sentence to accommodate her as well. Like Jane Austen laughing at the “man’s sentence” of the nineteenth century, Woolf smiles at the realist prose in vogue in her day and politely pushes it away. She opts instead for a style which underscores her interest in how exterior conditions act and react with the mind. Her own evaluation of her style is deceptively simple. According to Woolf, her sentences “follow a train of thought.” The sentences and the writers contained within A Room of One’s Own have much in common – they are all meditative and meandering beings sometimes harassed by material conditions. Consider, for example, Woolf’s narration of her visit to the British Museum:”London was like a machine. We were all being shot backwards and forwards on this plain foundation to make some pattern. The British Museum was another department of the factory. The swing-doors swung open; and there one stood as if one were a thought in the huge bald forehead which is so splendidly encircled by a band of famous names. One went to the counter; one took a slip of paper; one opened a volume of the catalogue, and…..the five dots here indicate five separate minutes of stupefaction, wonder, and bewilderment.”The beginning of this passage is lyrical, poetic, very “writerly.” Rich in simile, musical and brisk in style, the first four sentences flow from a mind in comfortable and free circumstances. If London is a machine, the person speaking these words is a carefree cog, at ease functioning as an individual unit and as a tiny part of the larger mechanism. When a wrench is thrown into the works, though, the cog malfunctions as much as the machine. Woolf’s prose, sensitive to its subject matter, reacts the way a real person might. Here shock is not expressed “I was astonished” or “I could not believe.” It gets recorded, rather, as “five dots” signifying the ineluctable blankness of a mind confronted with the truly unnerving. Like the mind of a young female writer, Woolf’s sentences are impressionable; they are words with a lively inner reality in the act of interpreting an unpredictable outer one.Sometimes, though, this outer reality proves to be a tedious interruption, as Woolf’s writing strives to demonstrate. Her stroll across the Oxbridge campus is a vivid instance of this. Glancing about the college, Woolf thinks of an essay by Charles Lamb about a certain manuscript of Milton’s kept in the Oxbridge library. This leads her to muse first upon how Milton revised his poem, next upon the fact that the manuscript of Thackeray’s Esmond resides in the very same building. Her mind is busily engaged in these profound thoughts when both her person and her intellect are abruptly stymied on their path:”But then one would have to decide what is style and what is meaning, a question which – but here I was actually at the door which leads into the library itself. I must have opened it, for instantly there issued, like a guardian angel barring the way with a flutter of black gown instead of wings, a deprecating silvery, kindly gentleman, who regretted in a low voice as he waved me back that ladies are only admitted to the library if accompanied by a Fellow of the College or furnished with a letter of introduction.”Here is a woman, intellectually curious, well-read, receptive to the great thinkers and writers of the past, turned away by a persnickety Beadle and a tradition of patriarchic oppression. The dash in the first sentence frustrates not only the clause, but the intellectual potential of the young lady herself; the sentence is not allowed to develop fully, nor is she.The first chapter of A Room of One’s Own is strewn with such interrupted efforts. Later we find her pensively considering the wealth of Oxbridge: “It was impossible not to reflect – the reflection whatever it may have been was cut short. The clock struck.” And heading up to Fernham after the lapsing of a few more hours: “Why, if it was an illusion, not praise the catastrophe, whatever it was, that destroyed illusion and put truth in its place? For truth…those dots mark the spot where, in search of truth, I missed the turning up to Fernham.” Barely does the crescendo of thought come than reality – unyielding, misogynistic – crushes it yet again. Woolf’s prose mimics these frustrations, describing and demonstrating the intellectual opportunities (or lack thereof) of women writers.Woolf further augments her reflective style with a deft use of symbolism. In the early pages of A Room of One’s Own, symbols of truncation and arrested development abound, often opposed by symbols of affluence and maturity. Dining sumptuously at Oxbridge, for instance, Woolf is startled from her post-prandial leisure by the sight of a tail-less cat lumbering past the window. “The sight of the abrupt and truncated animal padding softly across the quadrangle,” she reflects, “changed by some fluke of the subconscious intelligence the emotional light for me. It was as if some one had let fall a shade.” It is hard to ignore, suddenly, that the banquet upon which she has just feasted was prepared for men, members of an academic institution from which she is barred admittance. The meager dinner at Fernham a few pages later provides another counterpoint for the Oxbridge luncheon. She reports: “Dinner was ready. Here was the soup. It was a plain gravy soup. There was nothing to stir the fancy in that.” Woolf really could have chosen any material condition common to both colleges – plumbing, size of the library, quality of the teaching – in order to juxtapose symbols of wealth and poverty. Food, though, works the best with her prose style because it exerts the most immediate and consistent effect on human beings. It leaves an impression on the quotidian experience of men and women alike. According to Woolf, “one cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.” It seems reasonable to add to this list “write well,” for women’s lack of both stuffed pheasants and literary tradition are not entirely unrelated.Also not entirely unrelated are the shape of the female literary tradition and the structure of A Room of One’s Own. The essay’s tone develops like a timeline of famous woman authors. First, like Lady Winchilsea, ur-woman writer of the seventeenth century, the speaker flares up with anger at the thought of her restrained opportunities. Here she is on being barred from the library: “Never will I wake those echoes, never will I ask for that hospitality again, I vowed as I descended the steps in anger.” And here we find her with Mary Seton in one of the anemically furnished rooms of Fernham: “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?” The speaker of these early pages is incensed at the condition of women and her words redound with Winchilsea’s indignation. “How are we fallen! Fallen by mistaken rules,/ And Education’s more than Nature’s fools;/ Debarred from all improvements of the mind,/ And to be dull, expected and designed,” the poet wrote of women in the late 1600s. Two hundred years later her frustration rears its head again through Woolf’s eloquent pen.With a shift in scene, though, comes a shift in tone. Under the vaulted ceiling of the British Museum appears a speaker whose rage smolders less spectacularly than Winchilsea’s, a Charlotte Bronte-like lady whose anger emerges indirectly. There are no declarations of ire or disgust in this setting, only actions that manifest these repressed feelings. Woolf’s doodling is one such example. She says:”While I pondered I had unconsciously, in my listlessness, in my desperation, been drawing a picture of Professor von X engaged in writing his monumental work The Mental, Moral, and Physical Inferiority of the Female Sex…The professor was made to look very ugly in my sketch…Drawing pictures was an idle way of finishing an unprofitable morning’s work. Yet it is in our idleness, in our dreams, that the submerged truth sometimes comes to the top. A very elementary exercise in psychology showed me, on looking at my notebook, that the sketch of the angry professor had been made in anger. Anger had snatched my pencil while I dreamt.The “submerged truth” here, as Woolf finds it to be later in her evaluation of Jane Eyre, is that women resent men for suppressing their active and intelligent natures. Woolf’s sketching and Bronte’s transitioning both have “that jerk in them, that indignation – one sees that she will never get her genius expressed whole and entire.” Some progress has been made since Winchilsea; the woman writer has at least let her genius peek through. But it remains “deformed and twisted” by social constraint and its attendant anger.Woolf sequesters the reader into the present state of women’s literature with the imaginary novel Life’s Adventure by the neophyte writer Mary Carmichael. This novel, Woolf says, “must be read as if it were the last volume in a fairly long series, continuing all those other books – Winchilsea’s poems and the novels of the four great novelists.” Life’s Adventure is a kind of culmination of women’s writing thus far. And as such, its achievement is modest but noteworthy. Carmichael writes unfettered by the anger and resentment of her predecessors, “as a woman who has forgotten that she is a woman, so that her pages are full of that curious sexual quality that comes only when sex is unconscious of itself.” Likewise, gone is the anger and self-consciousness of the narrative voice of A Room of One’s Own. In the privacy of her home library where she leafs through the novel, Woolf’s own voice becomes that of the modern female writer – eager, free, perceptive, and yet still lacking something. “Give her another hundred years” Woolf says of the woman writer; then she will have more tradition, money, and privacy abetting her art.But who is this woman writer of the future? Woolf claims that she, like Shakespeare, like Keats, like Coleridge, will possess an androgynous mind. Her intellect will be a fusion of male and female sensibilities and she will write with the unconscious bearing of complete genius. No personal vendetta to voice, no inequalities to rage against, this woman would be in “some state of mind in which one could continue without effort because nothing is required to be held back.” As Woolf describes this unborn talent, though, it suddenly becomes clear that her descriptions belongs not to some book to be written, but the very one that she has already written. The reader has just experienced androgynous prose, for how else could we explain how full and natural the narrative of A Room of One’s Own seems? Woolf is no Mary Carmichael, languishing without adequate material comfort and conditions. She is a woman with five hundred pounds a year, a room of her own, and a deep investment in the literary tradition to which she is adding her own volumes. If more women lived as I do, she seems to say, there would be more To the Lighthouses, more Mrs. Dalloways, more Orlandos, more women and fiction of the highest intellectual and aesthetic caliber.A Room of One’s Own is a utopian text written in a utopian style. It began with the topic “women and fiction,” but Virginia Woolf delicately steers her prose toward envisioning a paradise of readers and writers where, regardless of sex, good living and good literature abound.
Seeing With the Eye of God: Woolf, Fry and Strachey
“When you’re down on the lower levels of this pyramid, you will be either on one side or on the other. But when you get up to the top, the points all come together, and there the eye of God opens” (Campbell, 31). Joseph Campbell presents this description of the Masonic symbol of the pyramid, which is an appropriate analogy of a reoccurring goal in Bloomsbury artistic creation. This goal is a detached, disinterested artistic vision, one free of a personal bias that places a persons’ vision on a side of the pyramid. This artistic integrity was highly valued in Bloomsbury creation. Virginia Woolf explores this phenomenon through gender in her essay A Room of One’s Own, as well as through the art of Lily Briscoe in the novel To the Lighthouse. This vision is not limited to creation, but applies also to experiencing art, as presented by Roger Fry in “An Essay in Aesthetics.” Likewise, Lytton Strachey, in his biography of Florence Nightingale in Eminent Victorians, exhibits the importance of detachment and a degree of objectivity when striving for a goal, by describing the aftermath that incurs when she has to overcompensate for the societal limitations of her gender.”What one means by integrity, in the case of the novelist, is the conviction that he gives one that this is the truth” (Woolf, 72). In A Room of One’s Own, Woolf is attempting to define that artistic vision that each person, or at least people of genius, seem to be endowed with. Unfortunately, the ability to achieve this integrity is fragile, and the torch that illuminates the “invisible ink on the walls of the mind” is easily smothered (72). Woolf’s primary suspect for this is the effect of society on gender, specifically the treatment of women by men. To continue the analogy, this treatment put women’s artistic vision on one side of the pyramid. According to Woolf, especially before her own era, women wrote underneath a cloud of anger that prevented them from achieving artistic integrity. Woolf uses Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre as an example: “She left her story, to which her entire devotion was due, to attend to some personal grievance” (73). This personal grievance is the anger that Bronte had toward men.Woolf does not limit this tainted vision to women. She describes men’s reaction to women’s demand for social equality. Men had always been superior, “And when one is challenged, even by a few women in black bonnets, one retaliates, if one has never been challenged before, rather excessively” (99). This motive of retaliation then has the clouding effect on men’s writing:But why was I bored? Partly because of the dominance of the letter “I” and the aridity, which, like the giant beech tree, it casts within its shade. Nothing will grow there …There seemed to be some obstacle, some impediment of Mr. A’s mind which blocked the fountain of creative energy and shored it within narrow limits. (100)The letter “I” here that Woolf refers to is the personal vestment that the artist has in the writing. Woolf asserts the importance of the detached “I”, and when she uses it she limits it to “a convenient term for somebody who has no real being” (4). The “I” she prizes is the detached one, one not limited by the filter of anger, and one that presents vision with artistic integrity. This is what is meant by the eye at the top of the pyramid, which sees all four corners.Bloomsbury valued this detachment in other fields than writing. Strachey reiterates this in Eminent Victorians. He presents Florence Nightingale’s achievements, and stresses the necessity of her rebellion against the limitations of society on women. He begins by describing Florence’s unhappiness and boredom with the traditional life, satirically stating, “It was very odd; what could be the matter with dear Flo?” for there was “plenty to do in any case, in the ordinary way, at home. There was the china to look after, and there was her father to be read to after dinner” (137). Subject to these restrictions, Florence overcompensated by becoming authoritarian, controlling, and worst of all, by destroying her femininity. It is because of this that she was no longer objectively detached from her visions of proper healthcare. Her personal motives and views become irreversibly intertwined with the originally honest and sincere inclination to help others. For instance, because of her adaptive stubbornness, she insists that the windows need to remain open. She ignores the medical fact that this meant that disease would flow in the air to patients. She had to have that stubbornness to get where she was in life, but it permanently clouded her judgment. This problem was the same one that extended to the female writers Woolf cited. According to J. B. Batchelor, Woolf specifically denounces this reaction to oppression:[Woolf] is indignant with women such as head-mistresses and heads of colleges because they have abdicated the specialized role for which their femaleness equips them by adopting male standards. Women must not emulate men; they have a better role of their own. (172)Only by embracing her natural femaleness could Nightingale have been able to remain detached from her aspirations, and this is something that society would not allow.Another character in literature, Lily Briscoe, in Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, demonstrates that need to break free of social conventions. Throughout the book she is plagued by criticism by Tansley that, because she is a women, she cannot paint. She is also limited by the idea that her art “would be hung in attics … it would be destroyed” (208). It is only when she ignores these clouding issues and looks for her true artistic vision that she is able to finish. “With a sudden intensity, as if she saw it clear for a second, she drew a line there, in the centre. It was done” (209). She was finally able to look past those limiting factors and achieve her vision.The Bloomsbury group’s emphasis of detachment is further supported by Fry’s “Essay in Aesthetics.” This approach is different, but still rooted in experiencing or creating art without personal bias. In this case, detachment occurs because we are not required to react to what we are seeing. Fry gives an example of this, stating that the detachment “can be obtained by watching a mirror in which a street scene is reflected. If we look at the street itself we are almost sure to adjust ourselves in some way to its actual existence” (19). The experience of the audience of art that Fry is refering to is similar to the experience that a writer with artistic integrity will have. “It must in the first place be adapted to that disinterested intensity of contemplation, which we have found to be the effect of cutting off the responsive action” (29). The disinterested contemplation that Fry refers to regarding a viewer is the same that Woolf asserts a writer needs to have.Clearly, the members of the Bloomsbury group valued an untainted, pure artistic vision, the “eye of God.” The question is then, what is pureness of vision? In Florence’s case, it would allow for undivided attention toward helping people in nursing. What, then, comes from being able to see something with artistic integrity? Referring to creators of “higher works of art”, Fry states, “We feel that he has expressed something which was latent in us all the time, but which we never realized, that he has revealed us to ourselves in revealing himself.” Woolf’s description is strikingly similar: “When one so exposes it and sees it come to life one exclaims in rapture, But this is what I have always felt and known and desired!” (72). Whether this level purity is attainable is debatable, as Woolf herself admits:Are not all novels about the writer’s self? It is only as he sees people that we can see them; his fortunes colour and his oddities shape his vision until what we see is not the thing itself, but the thing seen and the seer inextricably mixed. (Woolf as quoted in Temple, 90)Nonetheless, the members of Bloomsbury certainly strived for artistic integrity, and perhaps that is the reason so much of their work is still read today.Works CitedFry, Roger. “An essay in Aesthetics.” Vision and Design. London: Chatto and Windus, 1920.Batchlor, J. B. “Feminism in Virginia Woolf.” Virginia Woolf. Ed. Claire Sprague. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1971. 169-179Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. San Diego: Harcourt, Inc., 1929.Woolf, Virginia. To the Lighthouse. San Diego: Harcourt, Inc., 1927.Strachey, Lytton. Eminent Victorians. San Diego: Harcourt, Inc., 1918.Campbell, Joseph. The Power of Myth. New York: Random House, 1991.Temple, Ruth Z. “Never Say “I”: To The Lighthouse as Vision and Confession.” Ed. Claire Sprague. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1971. 90
Exploring Freedom and Influence in Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own and Three Guineas
Both Virginia Woolf’s critical essay A Room of One’s Own (1929) and her polemic Three Guineas (1938) explore feminist issues of freedom and influence. Despite being written almost a decade later, Three Guineas further explores the ideas and values of A Room of One’s Own, thus highlighting how, despite their different contexts, there has been little change. Whilst A Room of One’s Own focuses on the financial and intellectual freedom of women, Three Guineas explores notions of educational freedom for women. Comparing the contexts of the two texts also provides us with insights into the influence of societal views and the power that educational opportunities can provide women.
Both A Room of One’s Own (A Room) and Three Guineas explore the theme of freedom through a call for progress of women’s intellectual and financial rights. In A Room, the financial restrictions on a woman’s literary potential are expressed in Woolf’s overarching argument that, “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction”. The room acts as a symbol of financial and intellectual independence, whilst the frequent repetition of the words “a room” throughout the essay emphasizes how women lack the necessary freedom to write. A woman’s intellectual restrictions are illustrated when Woolf’s narrative persona is refused entry into the Oxbridge library by a man who looked, “like a guardian angel barring the way with a flutter of black gown instead of white wings”. The man acts as a metaphor for the blocked opportunities and societal barriers that have been imposed on women by men, the imagery emphasizing the role of men in restricting woman’s intellectual freedom. Woolf conjures the imaginary character of “Judith Shakespeare”, to further demonstrate the inequality of women. This literary allusion and the allegory of Judith demonstrate how the talents of women are being lost because they are not allowed to be creative. Despite Judith sharing the same genetic makeup, and thus the same potential, she achieved nothing due to lack of education and freedom. The three centuries between Shakespeare’s and Woolf’s contexts highlights the almost nonexistent change in woman’s intellectual freedom. Thus A Room explores restrictions the gender plays on a woman’s intellectual, creative and financial freedom. In the context of a troubled 1938 Europe, the later essay Three Guineas similarly explores the theme of freedom, focusing on educational freedom and the role that educated women can play in preventing war.
Similarly to A Room; Three Guineas also explores the role of men in preventing the educational freedom of women. The freedom from male financial reliance that education can provide woman’s with is highlighted through the metaphor of woman’s being slaves to their fathers: “to depend upon a profession is a less odious form of slavery than to depend upon a father.” Having a career and earning income, she argues, is more rewarding than being financial and intellectually reliant on the men in one’s life. This idea is further emphasized metaphorically by the truncated sentence, “You [men] are fighting with us, not against us”. The ‘war’ represents the ‘war’ between women and men in literature and the professions. Three Guineas thus highlights the limitations of a woman’s educational rights. Both essays also discuss more broadly the effects of society’s attitude towards women. A Room explores the influence of strict early 20th century societal views on women and their role in society. The long history of disrespect towards women in the literary profession is illustrated by alluding to Dr Johnson, the renowned 18th century English writer: “a woman’s composing is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well”. The simile reflects the general male disrespect towards women, whilst further emphasizing the negative influence societal disregard of women writers. Woolf’s argument that societal influences have restricted women from literature composition is further portrayed when Woolf comments that “even a woman…has brought herself to believe that to write a book was to be ridiculous”. The narrator’s disappointed tone emphasizes the impact of societal constraints, further illustrating how a lack of a literary legacy allows women no goals to aim for. Woolf also explores the disheartening impact that a negative and often cruel reception of women writers has on women: “She was afraid of something; afraid of being called ‘sentimental’ perhaps”, the repetition of the adjective ‘afraid’ reflecting potential women writers’ entrenched fears and discouragement. The play on the adjective ‘sentimental’ reflects the pre-Depression view, that women, due to their perceived softer nature are incapable of producing good literature. A Room consequently provides us with a unique insight into the overarching influence of early 20th century, pre-Depression English society on women writers.
In contrast, Three Guineas, reflecting its pre-WW2 context, explores the theme of empowerment of women through education and the professions. A woman’s limited role in society due to lack of educational opportunities is reflected in the rhetorical question, “What does ‘our country’ mean to me an outsider?” emphasizing that because women lack influence and don’t have a voice, they consider themselves outsiders. Woolf quotes Sir Ernest Wild, a British Royal Naval seaman, to validate her argument that, without education, women have to rely on manipulation to influence a man: “A man liked to think he was doing his job…[a] wise woman always let him think he was running the show when he was not.” The alliterative “wise woman” suggests the general view in male dominated society that the usefulness of women is based on their natural feminine talent rather than real skills acquired through education. It is also argues that in a changing society, an “educated man’s daughter has now at her disposal an influence which is different from any influence that she has possessed before”. The repetition of ‘influence’ stresses that, through education, women have a newfound strength. They no longer have to resort to using “whatever charm or beauty…[they] possess to flatter and cajole the busy men”. Three Guineas thus demonstrates the role that education and participation in the professions can play in a woman’s influence over both the men in her personal life and the events of society in the broadest sense.
A Room of One’s Own and Three Guineas have explored different aspects relating to women’s financial, creative and intellectual freedom and resultant influence. Woolf’s call for intellectual and financial freedom in A Room of One’s Own is complemented by a stronger and more urgent call given the context and the passage of time in her later discussion of the importance of educational freedom in Three Guineas.
The Androgynous Ideal; Androgyny in Virginia Woolf’s Writing
In the works of Virginia Woolf freedom is an often unattainable ideal. Woolf discusses freedom at great length in her texts, ranging from the broader freedom of the individual to live as they please in her fiction to the creative freedom of the artist in her nonfiction. There are a few instances in her work where freedom becomes a possibility in both the lives of the individual at large and the artist. The titular character of Orlando is able to live a life that defies definition due to their ever-changing gender, while in the book length essay A Room of One’s Own Woolf provides the writer with a more creatively limitless form of writing. Both of these works present different types of freedom, personal and artistic, but the catalyst for these freedoms is the same: androgyny. Androgyny, for Woolf, is a liberating state, one that allows us to distort or escape what she sees as the most constraining discourse in our society: gender. In fact, Woolf presents androgyny as the state in which the individual is the freest. This essay will argue that Woolf’s writing explores a concept of freedom, both personal and artistic, only achievable through a distortion and rejection of gender through androgyny, looking at the subversive life of Orlando and the rejection of gender in A Room of One’s Own.
Sandra Bem defines the androgynous individual as ‘an individual who does not rely on gender as a cognitive organizing principle and whose personality therefore combines both masculine and feminine elements’. By stating that the androgynous individual does not have to ‘rely on gender as a cognitive organizing principle’ Bem defines androgyny as not simply the mix of masculine and feminine. Rather, androgyny is freedom from, and ultimate rejection, of the discourse that is gender, the mix of masculine and feminine is simply the product of said freedom. Furthermore, the idea of gender as ‘as cognitive organizing principle’ means that everything about us as individuals is regulated and sorted through gender: the clothes we wear, the acts we perform, the words we use; everything about us is gendered. By Bem’s reasoning to be androgynous is to be free from gender, to defy gendered definition and exist beyond what Judith Butler calls the realm of cultural intelligibility: an ordered and coherent subjectivity regulated by gender. Butler writes that ‘“Intelligible” genders are those which in some sense institute and maintain relations of coherence and continuity among sex, gender, sexual practice, and desire.’ Androgyny is a freedom that allows the individual to defy and distort Butler’s realm of cultural intelligibility. To be androgynous, therefore, is to confuse and reject the standards normalized in our society, to refuse the default and chose an unintelligible alternative.
The novel Orlando presents a version of androgyny that subtly challenges the notion of cultural intelligibility. Subtitled ‘A Biography’, the novel uses the form of the biography and the narrative voice of the biographer to present the expectation of the culturally intelligible subject, only to contradict that expectation with the fantastical and amorphous life story of Orlando. In her essay ‘The Art of Biography’ Woolf writes that the form of the biography ‘imposes conditions, and those conditions are that it must be based upon fact.’ The biography as a form, according to Woolf, is rigid and controlling. In biography there can be no room for doubt or inconsistency, and thus the narrative of the biography, the voice of the biographer (which we shall assume is a male voice), is the voice of truth. Orlando opens with a sentence that directly assures the reader that the biographer is the harbinger of truth: ‘He – for there could be no doubt of his sex, though the fashion of the time did something to disguise it’. This sentence is designed to convince the reader that the biographer can see the truth, that despite what may ‘disguise’ reality there is ‘no doubt’ that the biographer is telling the honest facts. The biographer in Orlando is the voice of truth, of expectation and the norm. That Orlando could be a woman disguised as a man by ‘the fashion of the time’ is not a possibility as this goes directly against the norm that the biographer is fated to maintain. Furthermore, at the start of the novel Orlando is undoubtedly male and so the biographer presents the expectations of the male subject:
‘From deed to deed, from glory to glory, from office to office he must go, his scribe following after, till they reach whatever seat it may be that is the height of their desire. Orlando, to look at, was cut out precisely for some such career.’ [Woolf, pp. 11]
The biographer has an expected norm for Orlando and as Orlando, at the novel’s beginning, is, ‘to look at’, the archetypical nobleman there is ‘no doubt’ in the biographer’s mind that this expectation shall be met. Gender, rigid and full of norms, has determined what Orlando’s life as a nobleman is to be, robbing them of the freedom to choose the life they truly want, and the biographer, ‘his scribe’, is there to record and define this life. The biographer in Orlando thus comes to act as the maintainer of a culturally intelligible and coherent subjectivity. It is the job of the biographer to check Orlando still exists in the realm of the intelligible and define Orlando’s life as truthfully and solidly as possible.
As the novel progresses, however, Orlando defies the expectations of the biographer and freely lives beyond the realm of cultural intelligibility. It is their ‘transformation’ from man to woman that frees Orlando from the strict definitions that the biographer has imposed. Before Orlando’s transformation the narrative of the biographer was rigidly assured in its subject, but upon that transformation inconsistencies arise and the rigidity of that narrative starts to collapse. Upon Orlando’s immediate transformation the biographer says ‘we have no choice left but to confess – he was a woman.’ [Woolf, pp. 83] ‘We have no choice to confess’ shows that the biographer, unlike the omniscient doubtless figure Woolf envisions in ‘The Art of the Biography’, has, in Orlando, met the limits of understanding. Pushed to the edge of cultural intelligibility, Orlando becomes to the biographer a paradox, shown through the oxymoronic ‘he was a woman.’ What was so set and clear to the biographer in the novel up to this point becomes undefinable, his subject so unintelligible that he states it is ‘irritating […] to see one’s subject, on whom one has lavished so much time and trouble, slipping out of one’s grasp altogether’. [Woolf, pp. 155] As Orlando grows into their androgyny they experience greater freedom from the limiting discourse of gender and cultural intelligibility embodied by the biographer. The biographer, meanwhile, becomes unable to hide or disguise Orlando’s unintelligibility, ‘to mitigate, to veil, to cover, to conceal, to shroud’ the now wholly subversive existence of Orlando. [Woolf, pp. 170] Unable to contain or hide Orlando’s unintelligibility, their androgynous freedom, the biographer finds himself struggling to maintain a coherent intelligibility within the novel’s narrative. As Christy L. Burns writes: ‘the notion of an essential self [is] comically reduced to a belief that Woolf’s less than competent narrator struggles to defend’. Orlando’s subjectivity is freed by their androgyny beyond the limitations enforced by the role of the biographer. Freedom from the confines of the biographer is achieved by Orlando through fulfilling an androgynous life.
A pursuit of freedom from convention and expectation is evident in Woolf’s exploration of artistic imagination. While in Orlando androgyny is explored through how the individual can defy definition or containment through an androgynous life, in A Room of One’s Own Woolf argues that an androgynous style of writing frees the author and allows them to pursue a form of literature more creative and fulfilling. In the essay, Woolf shows a keen awareness of the limitations set by gender, noting how the traditionally submissive role of women within society and their historical exclusion from higher education has limited their creative capabilities. Woolf, however, does not ignore how gender as a discourse not only constrains women creatively but also creates a barrier for men. Woolf writes that ‘Perhaps a mind that is purely masculine cannot create any more than a mind that is purely feminine’. Gender, for Woolf, is thus a creative blockade that disallows artists of either gender to create art of any more substance than an artist of the opposite gender. Gender puts limits on the imagination, creating a stunted dual subjectivity where there is a clear distinction between male and female: ‘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 predominates the man.’ [Woolf, pp. 88] It is from this duality of the mind that Woolf offers a solution to the limits created by gender; androgyny. Mary Jacobus writes that Woolf’s androgyny is one where ‘the split [between masculine and feminine] is closed with an essentially utopian vision of undivided consciousness.’ Jacobus interprets Woolf’s androgyny as not the individual exhibiting masculine and feminine traits, but rather where the division between masculine and feminine is destroyed. If there are no more distinctions between male and female as Jacobus contests that Woolf envisions and gender as a discourse, as Butler writes, exists because of the relationship between male/man and female/woman, then there is no such thing as gender; gender is surpassed.
Thus Woolf presents a type of androgyny that presents an absolute freedom from gendered discourse as gendered discourse no longer exists. When she writes that ‘Coleridge certainly did not mean, when he said that a great mind is androgynous, that it is a mind that has any special sympathy for women’ she is saying that the androgynous mind is not one that inhibits both masculine and feminine elements, but rather surpasses them. [Woolf, pp. 89] She argues that ‘the androgynous mind is resonant and porous; that it transmits emotion without impediment; that it is naturally creative, incandescent and undivided.’ [Woolf, pp. 89] Therefore the androgynous mind does not exhibit the best qualities of gender norms: the traditional sensitivity of women and the strength of men. To the androgynous mind these qualities are innately parts of the artist. As Marilyn R. Farwell writes, Woolf’s androgyny permits a ‘freedom from the emotional extremes of sexual stereotypes [that] will lead to a complete objectivity.’ Woolf argues that it is through abandoning gender entirely, through living freely from that particular discourse, that the artist is given the opportunity to create and imagine without limits and with total objective honesty. Woolf makes the case for a form of androgyny that closely resembles Bem’s: a non-reliance on ‘gender as a cognitive organizing principle’, it just so happens that the abandonment of gender distinctions is so easily interpreted by those subjectivities still existing within the discourse of gender as exhibiting both masculine and feminine traits when really it is just the exhibition of traits without a gendered definition.
Therefore in A Room of One’s Own Woolf does not advocate for the celebration or empowerment of one gender or another, but rather for the repression or disregarding of all gender. Woolf argues that in order for the woman writer to succeed in her pursuits she must not free the femininity in her but rather destroy it in order to free the creative. Gender in this essay, unlike the controlling gender policing of Orlando’s biographer, is divisive. Woolf writes that ‘No age can ever have been so stridently sex-conscious as our own’, noting how ‘The Suffrage campaign was no doubt to blame. It must have roused in men an extraordinary desire for self-assertion’. [Woolf, pp. 89] To focus on gender is for Woolf to not pursue freedom from it but rather reinforce how it divides us. Gender norms are designed to defend themselves when challenged; for a woman writer to declare ‘I am a woman writer and I wish to be taken seriously’ causes a man writer to write solely to ‘celebrate male virtues, enforce male values, and describe the world of men’, writing with an ‘emotion [… that] is to a woman incomprehensible.’ [Woolf, pp. 92] Gender, therefore, is so divisive that it creates miscommunication between the sexes. Woolf writes that ‘it is fatal for anyone who writes to think about their sex. It is fatal to be a man or woman pure and simple; one must be woman-manly or man-womanly’. [Woolf, pp. 94] For the writer to free themselves from the creative limitations imposed by gender they have to abandon their gender entirely. Woolf’s vision of androgyny in A Room of One’s Own is a celebration of creative empowerment and a denouncement of partisan male and female empowerment. As Lisa Rado notes ‘the empowerment [Woolf’s androgyny] is designed to produce is predicated on the repression of her own female identity’. Subjectivity, Woolf argues, should not be divided by the labels of male/man or female/woman. Instead we should disregard these labels and empower a creative genderless subjectivity.
In a sense, in A Room of One’s Own Woolf is directly challenging the authority of the biographer in Orlando. The biographer constantly attempts to rigidly maintain the cultural intelligibility of Orlando: ‘He – for there can be no doubt of his sex’ and ‘he was a woman’ are examples of how the biographer constantly attempts to maintain Orlando as a binary being, ‘he’ or ‘she’. But by the vision of androgyny in A Room of One’s Own the biographer, by maintaining traditional gender roles, is failing to see the true Orlando; his creative purpose, to record the life of his subject honestly, is compromised by his inability to see past gender. His failure to see Orlando as ‘woman-manly or man-womanly’ but rather only seeing him as either man or woman, one or the other, is perhaps the biographer’s biggest failure and thus he is denied the creative freedom to accurately record the life of Orlando. As Makiko Minow-Pinkney writes: ‘Androgyny in Orlando is not a resolution of oppositions, but the throwing of both sexes into a metonymic confusion of genders.’ This failure to recognize Orlando for what they truly are is shown in the biographer’s attempt to describe Orlando immediately after their transformation: ‘Orlando had become a woman – there is no denying it. But in every other respect, Orlando remained precisely as he had been.’ [Woof, pp. 83] The biographer struggles to resolve the opposition of Orlando’s sexed body, for the sex of Orlando’s body is a subject in which there has been consistently ‘no doubt’ or ‘denying’, with Orlando’s subjectivity. To the biographer Orlando is the same and not the same simultaneously, the biographer unable to make any sense whatsoever of Orlando’s cultural intelligibility. By failing to comprehend Orlando’s androgyny the biographer is denied the creative freedom to succeed in writing a biography of his subject that is ‘based upon fact’.
Unlike the biographer, Orlando themselves seems to inhabit the rejection of gender that Woolf calls for in A Room of One’s Own. Their life in England is defined by a collage of performative acts that to the biographer signal a constant to-and-froing from male to female, but to Orlando these performative acts are not gendered. Instead they have freed themselves from gender so these acts are genderless, they are simply undefined or unregulated actions. The biographer writes that:
‘The curious of her own sex would argue, for example, if Orlando was a woman, how did she never take more than ten minutes to dress? And were not her clothes chosen rather at random, and sometimes worn rather shabby? And then they would say, still, she has none of the formality of a man, or a man’s love of power. She is excessively tender-hearted.’ [Woolf, pp. 111]
The biographer notes how Orlando performs acts that by his limiting view of gender are deemed male or female which are in direct conflict with her sex. She cannot be a woman as she takes no care in how she dresses, yet neither can she be a man as she has none of the sternness or formality necessary. She is something in between man or woman, but the biographer is unable to recognise or name what that thing is. Orlando, by performing acts that distorts the biographer’s understanding of them, refuses to pass as either man or woman. The writer Sandy Stone writes of passing that it ‘means to live successfully in the gender of choice, to be accepted as a “natural” member of that gender. Passing means the denial of mixture. One and the same with passing is effacement of the prior gender role’. To pass in Orlando’s case would be to accept and live up to the expectations of their now female sexed body; to take longer than ten minutes to dress and refuse to look shabby. Orlando, by refusing to pass as either male or female, is accepting that before they were gendered as male and now they are gendered as female. By refusing to pass Orlando lives freely from what was expected of them before their transformation and what is expected of them now. By living a life that is androgynous by the standards set out by Woolf in A Room of One’s Own Orlando lives free from the expectations set out for them by society, they free themselves from the limitations of gender.
The freedom to live as one wishes or to write as best as one can is, according to Woolf, dependant on the surpassing of gender. To surpass gender is to live androgynously, to live beyond the limitations that gender creates. Woolf often explores the concept of freedom as something which is hard to attain. It is perhaps only due to the fantastical nature of Orlando’s life, one that spans many centuries and treats gender so casually, that freedom is achieved. Likewise, perhaps the idea that gender should be abandoned entirely in A Room of One’s Own is far too utopian or idealistic to ever have any chance of becoming the default for the artistic mind. Androgyny, as equally hard to achieve as it is to describe, is perhaps too unrealistic a state to be the goal of either the individual or the artist. Freedom, therefore, is often a fantasy or merely a theory. But nevertheless, Woolf presents a form of androgyny that offers the possibility of freedom from gender, just one of many discourses that often deny us, individual or artist, the freedom we desire.
 Sandra Bem, ‘Androgyny and Gender Schema Theory; a Conceptual and Empirical Integration’, in Psychology and Gender, ed. by Theo B. Sonderegger, (Nebraska; University of Nebraska Press, 1984), pp. 189 – 190
Judith Butler, Gender Trouble, (New York: Routledge, 1999), pp. 23
 Virginia Woolf, ‘The Art of Biography’, in Virginia Woolf Selected Essays, ed. David Bradshaw, (Oxford; Oxford University Press, 2009), pp. 120
 Virginia Woolf, Orlando, (Oxford; Oxford University Press, 2015), pp. 11
 Christy L. Burns, ‘Re-dressing Feminist Identities: Tensions Between Essential and Constructed Selves in Virginia Woolf’s Orlando’, Twentieth-Century Literature 40.3 (1994), pp. 346
 Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own and Three Guineas, (London; Penguin, 1993), pp. 89
 Mary Jacobus, ‘The Difference of View’, in Women Writing and Writing About Women, ed. by Mary Jacobus, (New York; Routledge, 2012), pp. 20
 Marilyn R. Farwell, ‘Virginia Woolf and Androgyny’, Contemporary Literature, 16.4 (1975), pp. 447
 Lisa Rado, ‘Would the Real Virginia Woolf Please Stand Up? Feminist Criticism, the Androgyny Debate, and Orlando’, Women’s Studies, 26.2 (1997), pp. 151
 Makiko Minow-Pinkney, Virginia Woolf & the Problem of the Subject, (Brighton; Harvester Press, 1987), pp. 122
 Sandy Stone, ‘The Empire Strikes Back: A Posttranssexual Manifesto’, The Transgender Studies Reader, ed. by Susan Stryker and Stephen Whittle, (London; Routledge, 2006), pp. 231