The Fight of Virginia Woolf Against Gender Inequality
Throughout a wide variety of cultures in history, women have had to endure an inferior status to men. Many women and feminists have risen to combat or oppose this inequality, and Virginia Woolf was no exception. In order to convey her disapproval for the underlying attitude toward women’s place in society, Woolf portrayed a situation in which women were deprived of the pleasures of expensive foods. During her visit to a university, Woolf witnessed two vastly different meals. The extravagant feast was reserved for men, while the women received a far less glamorous meal. Through her usage of details, syntax, and imagery, Woolf contrasted the privileges of men with the bare necessities granted to women.
Through her recollection of specific details, Virginia Woolf recounted the stark contrasts between the meals that were served for the men and the women’s colleges. While the men received “partridges, many and various, with all their retinue of sauces and salads,” the women received beef, more specifically, “the rumps of cattle in a muddy market.” The men also had a confection for dessert which was so elegant that “to call it pudding and so relate it to rice and tapioca would be an insult.” On the other hand, the women had to swallow prunes that “even when mitigated by custard, are an uncharitable vegetable.” Even the beverages that the individuals in this university were allowed to consume depended on their gender. The men’s wine glasses were repeatedly refilled throughout the course of the meal, yet the women were only granted a water jug which was “liberally passed around.”
Not only did the content of Woolf’s sentences depict the differences between the treatment of males and females during this time period, her sentence structure also suggested that Woolf was outraged by the discrimination against women. Contrary to the eloquent, complex sentences found in the passage which depicted the meals of the men, the passage which portrayed the dining conditions of the women utilized short, simple sentences. Woolf opened the scene by stating that, “It is part of the novelist’s convention not to mention soup and salmon and ducklings as if soup, and salmon, and ducklings were of no importance whatsoever, as if nobody ever smoked a cigar or drank a glass of wine” among the men. On the other hand, Woolf introduced the passage about the ladies’ meal with a blunt statement: “Here was my soup.” Futhermore, the men were described in elegant sentences which confirmed that they were all “going to heaven… in other words, how good life seemed, how sweet its rewards, how trivial this grudge or that grievance, how admirable friendship and the society of one’s kind as lighting a good cigarette, one sunk among the cushions in the window seat” after the meal had concluded. Conversely, for the women, Woolf simply stated that “the meal was over” and the women all dispersed from the dining hall. The lengthy sentences exuded a sense of contentment, while the abrupt sentences used to describe the women’s meal gave off a sense of frustration and and anger.
In addition to the usage of syntax, Woolf also utilized imagery to provoke the realization that even though women and men received similar food at the university, the quality of the men’s food surpassed the quality of the ladies’ food. Although they both received sprouts, the men’s sprouts were described as “foliated rosebuds, but more succulent,” meanwhile the women’s sprouts were “curled and yellowed at the edges.”
Even the physical presentation of the meals varied vastly for the men and the women. The men’s soles were exhibited in a “deep dish over which the college cook had spread a counterpane of the whitest cream.” In contrast, the women received a transparent soup that would have shown the pattern on the plate beneath it, but the plate was plain. Furthermore, the men received an aesthetically appealing confection “which rose all sugar from the waves” for dessert. However, the dessert, supposedly the most enjoyable portion of the meal for the women, was depicted as prunes, “stringy as a miser’s heart and exuding a fluid such as might run in the miser’s veins who have denied themselves wine and warmth for eighty years.”
Overall, sexism and the inferior position of women has been so deeply ingrained within societies worldwide that they continue to affect the decisions and treatment of women today. However, writers such as Virginia Woolf and the feminists of this generation strive to condemn this belief. In choosing to juxtapose the dining conditions of men and women at a university which she traveled to, Woolf attempted to convey the fact that women were deprived of privileges in the most basic area of life: the food necessary for living. Through her usage of details, syntax, and imagery, Woolf portrayed the radiance of the meals at the men’s college compared to the bleakness of the meals at the women’s college. Through her portrayal of a basic situation, Virginia Woolf succeeded in raising concern for the double standards and gender inequalities that have been prevalent in society.
The Character Who Wasn’t There: Daddy In “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”
In the drama Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Edward Albee meticulously constructs Daddy as a character who is both ever present and tied to the representation of major themes in the play. Albee uses the looming yet absent presence of Daddy to bring out traits in other characters and also depict their relationships in an especially stark light. Daddy is almost life-like in the relationship of George and Martha, while simultaneously serving as the supernatural, fictional presence that draws attention to the rituals, cycles, conflict and escapism, thus bringing about the ideology behind Albee’s theatre of the absurd.
On a superficial level, primarily, Daddy is revealed as a major factor in Martha’s life, supported by her talking of her “rapport” with him. The audience also sees his importance to her in Martha wanting her son’s eyes to be green, as “Daddy’s eyes were green, too.” Simultaneously, Daddy is Martha’s trump card, the final word in any given argument with George. When trying to sort a thing out between them, George is cut off with “Daddy said…” this signifies that Daddy stands as a third person in their relationship. In addition, Martha admits that George is the only one to make her happy, but in the contrary, because of George not living up to Daddy’s expectations, by being a “flop” and not being capable to take over, Martha’s I eternally dissatisfied with their relationship and disappointed by George. Thus Daddy hinders their relationship and looms large on them and also signifies the inability to love completely. This lack of satisfaction and inability to find happiness and untainted love links to the absurdity of the human condition.
Consequently, through the unquestioned authority and influence of Daddy, Albee portrays him an almost divine being. Daddy seems to have the last word. “Daddy wouldn’t let him” publish the book and “Daddy said we should be nice”: Daddy dictates what happens. The fact that Daddy is never seen in the play and yet has the highest authoritative status and can puppeteer the characters, further emphasizes absurdity. An unseen, unreasoned force controls the actions and condition of the characters, and of people everyday in life. This theme Albee explores is intriguing because of its universal nature and its relevance even in our society today.
What is also significant is the description of Daddy being a big, white mouse with red eyes. This gives him a fable character like quality and adds to the effect of the rituals in the second act. The ritual and curse is supported by the fact that he is ever present and being the mouse, carries the evil through the play. It must also be noted that there is no mention of him leading to, during or after the exorcism proceedings.
The sense of everything being cyclic, representing the futile state of mankind, is explored through Daddy. There is mention that he has a “sense of continuity” which is important because through the play, Albee brings up repetition, continuity and cycles. Furthermore, the cycle of sadness is brought about in that “you (Daddy) cry all the time” and Martha, the offspring, cries “allllll the time”. This emphasizes the continuity, sadness is passed on from generation to generation, unending and is extended to George and, further, in them freezing their tears to consume the later. Also along the lines of nothing being human choice, futility and foreign control of characters, is that Martha and George are never alone, besides the end of the play. They require their audience Nick, Honey and Daddy in order to carry out their game. When they are alone, moreover, they can barely carry a conversation. Martha cannot fully love George until Daddy is gone, after the exorcism. This suggests that the exorcism was not just for the child, but for Daddy. There are connected too with the same green eyes.
There is more absurdity in Martha, a 50 year old woman, referring to her father as “Daddy.” But since the audience sees through the play Martha’s tendency to play a child when the situation grows too serious and she is unable to handle something. It is striking as her reference to Daddy indicates her wish to escape the permanent daunting reality. She is then in a permanent child-state with respect to her father. This coupled with his white mouse appearance and her idealistic childhood, in reality quite darkly tainted by the death of her mother and her affair; she seems not to dwell on detail. Martha worshipped her father and the audience isn’t given substantial reason, which suggests that Daddy is merely another manner of escapism to Martha, as unreal as her child.
Albee creates a very significant persona in Daddy and through the play, effectively uses him, or rather the concept of him, to bring out absurdity of Martha and George’s relationship. This unseen character is also employed to explain Martha’s mind and explore the cyclic situations, the futility of relationship and the concept of choice. Through all this manipulation, the audience grasps the looming theme of escapism.
Skilled with Words, for Better or Worse: An Assessment of George’s Character
“Of the four characters in the play, George is the character most adept at ‘doing things with words’” How far do you agree with this statement?
The phrase, ‘doing things with words,’ can be interpreted in different ways; one effective way to interpret it would be as these of language to manipulate people and changing the flow of dialogue or action. In this sense, George is clearly very skilled linguistically as we see him achieve this at different points in the play. This does not mean however, that George is more adept at this skill than the other characters of the play, with Martha and Nick being his key rivals in this competition. In Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Edward Albee’s characters frequently show that they are capable of manipulating each other and the mood or tone of the room by the use of their language. As all three acts of the play taken together effectively demonstrate, George is the most capable in this respect.
In the first Act, ‘Fun and Games,’ we are initially introduced to George and Martha, with Martha doing the majority of the talking and shouting, seemingly to no avail in terms of a response from George. This shows that while Martha may use words frequently, she is not necessarily always skilled in the art of ‘doing things’ with them. She speaks very quickly and her tone is aggressive for the majority of the opening scene, before Nick and Honey’s arrival. This aggressive tone is not returned by George, as he realises that to turn aggressive would be to fall into the trap which Martha is setting for him. An example of this arises when Martha says, ‘AWWWWWWWW! [No reaction] Hey! [No reaction] Hey! [No reaction]’ Martha is clearly clambering for attention in this moment of the play, incapable of using her language to influence George. On the other hand, George is capable of changing the tone and the direction of the dialogue without getting angry, such as when Martha asks George to put ice in her drink and they continue to have a conversation about the amount of teeth they each possess. Martha becomes heated, saying that she has more teeth than George, ‘Well, two more’s a lot more,’ indicating an aggressive and defensive tone, whilst George responds with, ‘I suppose it is. I suppose it’s pretty remarkable… considering how old you are.’ This shows how George is able to manipulate the emotions of Martha and the flow of the scene with the use of his words.
Martha and George become locked in this conflict throughout the play, which acted as a mirror image for the Cold War which was unfolding in the same time period as the play was written, showing the play to be relevant and politically aware of the time. George also shows that he is adept at using words when he is talking to Nick, slightly later on in the first Act of the play, such as when he suggests that Nick is in the maths department at the university, then after he is corrected he continues to make references to Nick being in the maths department. This is to undermine Nick and suggest that he himself holds more power, which is furthered when he says, ‘I am a doctor. A.B… M.A…PH.D…’ George has shown in Act One that he is more than capable of influencing people’s emotions, the flow of a conversation and the tone or mood of an atmosphere by using his words, rather than turning to emotional extremes, like Martha. Nick and Honey also show that they are capable of doing things with words, possibly in a more subtle manner. I say this because of the fact that their manipulation is subtle, as they are trying to convince Martha and George that they are having a good time and feel welcomed into their home, with the use of their words, ‘Oh, isn’t this lovely!’ Whilst this is technically manipulation of the tone of the scene by the use of words, I would argue that it is too minor a manipulation to be compared with George or Martha, who attempt to completely manipulate and change a conversation. This relates to Speech Act Theory, as the intention of the illocutionary force which Nick and Honey employ is not as significant as the illocutionary force which Martha or George use throughout the first Act and indeed the rest of the play.
The name of the second Act, ‘Walpurgisnacht,’ means the night of the Walpurgis: the German equivalent of Halloween. This means that the monsters will come out, as is shown in all of the characters of the play, influencing George and his vocal capabilities. The Act opens with George and Nick talking together, both of whom are inebriated at this point of the play as they have been drinking strong alcoholic drinks for a while. As they talk, we see George is still capable of using his words to manipulate the scene, such as when he tells the long story about the boy who shot his mother. They had previously been talking about why Nick had married Honey, then George wanted the attention back on himself, evidenced by the long and dense story which he tells Nick. He gives background to the story, ‘When I was sixteen and going to prep school, during the Punic Wars,’ and he talks about how they laughed, drank for free and had a great time, in contrast with the severity of the fact that the boy killed his own mother. It is this contrast which acts as a vocal tool which George shows he is capable of using to draw the interest towards himself, evidenced by Nick’s response to the story, ‘What… what happened to the boy… the boy who shot his mother?’ What is especially interesting about this section is George’s response to this question, ‘I won’t tell you,’ to which Nick simply replies, ‘All right.’ This shows how George has used the story and just his words to achieve power over Nick in this scene, capable of putting Nick’s question down without any issues at all.
When taken from another perspective however, the scene and Nick’s response to the story could be different interpreted; perhaps his response could be one of disinterest, which would explain why he gave up on his question with such ease. This places the topic of George’s vocal capability under question, however I would argue that the first interpretation makes more sense and still shows therefore, that George is adept at doing things with words. As the second Act continues, the four characters begin to drive towards Nick and Honey’s home, when they pass a small bar which they enter for some more drinks. Dramatic events unfold in the bar, including a moment where George shows that he is capable of weakness in terms of his linguistic capabilities. He snaps at Martha and grabs her by the throat, showing that he is not always capable of controlling people through the use of his words. In this section, Martha uses the story of how George was never able to get his book published because of her father as a weapon against George, making him feel inadequate about his career. These feelings of inadequacy are covered up by George and Martha, as says Akhil Bansal on the Academia website, ‘George and Martha create an illusionary barrier to repress feelings such as self-inadequacy, fear and self-contempt, but this illusion simply exacerbates their self-loathing.’ Martha reveals that the plot of the story was the story which George told Nick earlier in the second Act, which supports Bansal’s theory about George creating this illusionary barrier. This shows that he is in fact adept with words, as he is capable of using something which is clearly a weakness or shortcoming of his life as a tool to control the emotions of external people.
In the third and final Act of the play, ‘The Exorcism,’ we see George employ a host of linguistic tools to undermine and seek vengeance on Martha, in front of Nick and Honey. When he comes to the house, he knocks and holds out a bouquet of flowers for Martha. The bouquet of flowers are made very sinister however, as he says, ‘Flores; flores para los muertos,’ which in Spanish means, ‘Flowers; flowers for the dead.’ This shows that George is so adept at using his words that he can manipulate the atmosphere of the scene in different languages. When he enters, he appears to get along with Martha very well as they finish each others sentences and sing together, ‘I’m nobody’s houseboy now…’ Things then begin to descend, as George holds Martha by the hair and slaps her cheeks, telling her that he wants to fight her when she’s angry to make it a fair fight. George then proceeds to tell Martha that their imaginary son has died, another illusion which Martha has created to hide her own feelings of self-inadequacy, as Bansal would say. When George tells her this, Martha gets angry and cries hysterically, collapsing to the floor and clutching the coffee table. Martha is rendered incapable of using her words to form a retort towards George, showing George’s linguistic prowess at this point in the play. He has used his words in a manner which have broken Martha and left her with nothing to hold onto, as the imaginary son had been the crutch for Martha to fall back on throughout the first and second acts. This shows how George was is more than capable of manipulating Martha, his main opponent throughout the play, along with Nick and Honey, who believe that the son is a real person until just moments before they leave, with there being no evidence to suggest that Honey realises at all. In shattering the illusion which Martha has created, George has shows that he is in fact the most adept at doing things with words, not just in that moment, but throughout the play.
Each of the characters within the play shows some skill in manipulating the emotions which they each feel towards each other and the tone or atmosphere of each scene. Nick and Honey show that they are capable of this; however, they are clearly not as well adapted to the games of speech which Martha and George have clearly been playing for a long time. Whilst Martha is clearly capable, she seems to let her emotions overcome her, subduing the potential for eloquent speech, with an effective illocutionary force applied to the intended person. This is not a problem that is seen within the character of George, at least of the majority of the play. George shows that he is capable of manipulation of people and atmosphere, without succumbing to the dramatic emotions which Martha does. For this reason, George is the character most adept at doing things with words.
The Hidden Wish of Words: Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” and “Three Tall Women”
A reader reading Albee will not fail to notice tricks of language in operation; a more interesting analysis is to consider how the characters themselves are aware of language, of reading and being read, as a text, by other characters. Albee’s plays, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and “Three Tall Women”, show the obsession with language and its functions, both good and terrifying. “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” is as much about censorship, the attempts to limit speech, as it is about playacting and generating through language. Three Tall Women, as a memory play, exposes language as the primary form of discovery. In both works, the characters engage language in ways that may begin lightly though never without meaning.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, to begin with, takes its title from a pun, seemingly not a very meaningful one, unless we read it as a reversal of the traditional children’s tale and acknowledge that a female has substituted for the male monster. But if we accept the idea of the pun as betraying the hidden wish of words, then we are thrown into a world where every verbal choice matters whether we understand it or not. Indeed, by entering the house with George and Martha, we enter exactly this world, and the word play begins instantaneously and relentlessly. A faintly remembered, unanchored phrase enters Martha’s mind What a dump! and she will not rest, or let George rest, until she locates it in time and place (3). A conflict immediately opens based on how each perceives the other’s mode of communication at the party from which they are returning. Martha accuses George of passivity, of sitting around and talking rather than mixing, and George counters, Do you want me to go around all night braying at everybody, the way you do? (7). After a few more pages of verbal back-and-forth, the guests arrive, thrown into the world of George and Martha in much the same way we are. The banter continues without reprieve, and when George attempts to ease Nick, Honey, and the audience into the exchange with the aside, Martha’s a devil with language; she really is, we begin to realize what the theme of the night will be (21).
The exhausting Act I of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, entitled Fun and Games, gives us a peak at the range of language. There are common, unspectacular but utilitarian aphorisms and phrases, such as Honey’s Never mix never worry (23) and Martha’s bust a gut (25), as well as disorienting utterances that perhaps sound familiar because of rhythm but are in fact the character’s sheer invention, such as George’s For the mind’s blind eye, the heart’s ease, and the liver’s craw (24). The characters are always searching for the right phrase, testing possibilities out loud in an attempt to make language match meaning. Thus, we have George’s image of Martha chewing ice cubes like a cocker spaniel (14) and Martha’s more damaging non-image of George as a blank, a cipher … a zero (17). Linked to this desire for successful representation is a distaste for those who treat language slackly. George ridicules Nick for his attempt to characterize an abstract painting by offering him various empty interchangeables, a certain noisy relaxed quality or a quietly noisy relaxed intensity (22), as later he mocks Honey for reducing the toilet to a euphemism (29). Conventional values as expressed in polite speech have no place in the order of this night, which will end with the characters getting down not just to the bone, but beyond the bone to the marrow (213).
In Act I, George tries to assure Nick that nothing out of the ordinary is taking place. We’re merely walking what’s left of our wits, he tells him (34). But once it is revealed that Martha has told Honey about the couple’s son, the games quickly turn ugly, extending into the second act. As each character exposes secrets known only to him or herself, or shared only with one’s spouse, and as the characters move in and out of the rooms on the stage so that the setup is constantly changing, the audience becomes confused as to who knows what at each point in the play. For example, the stories of George and Martha’s boxing match and Martha’s first lover are told to all four characters, but the stories of George at prep school and Nick’s marriage to Honey are exchanged only by George and Nick. This sets the stage for the final and climatic asymmetry of knowledge that George has killed off the son shared by George and Honey, to Honey’s great terror.
This, the consummate achievement of the play with language in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, gloriously closes an unsatisfactory evening of word games. The uses of language so far discussed, to injure or to reveal or to relate, are unsatisfactory for two reasons. In Act I, George tells Nick, I’m sorry. I wasn’t listening … or thinking … whichever one applies (46). This is similar to Nick in Act II when he tells George, I heard you … I didn’t say I was deaf … I said I didn’t understand (98). As Albee makes clear throughout the play, listening is not thinking, and hearing is not understanding. The characters dissatisfaction with language takes form as repeated instances of corrected speech throughout the play. Was there ever a play in which the characters corrected each other’s speech so persistently and for so little functional purpose? There is George and Martha arguing about abstruse and abstract (63), the bunch of geese corrected as gangle and finally as gaggle (113), and Honey’s correction of George when he says that the doorbell rang, not chimed, which maddeningly prolongs the tension before the watershed (229). The characters, I think, attempt to assert this small measure of control over speech because they fail in the greater ways, in their attempts to censor the speech of others when it matters.
In Act III, Martha tells George, Truth and illusion … you don’t know the difference, to which George responds, No; but we must carry on as though we did (202). The failure of language could be the play’s final message, but it isn’t, as George has prepared a final game to end all games. He tells Martha:
Now, you listen to me …We are going on, and I’m going to have at you, and it’s going to make your performance tonight look like an Easter pageant. Now I want you to get yourself a little alert. (Slaps her lightly with his free hand) I want a little life in you, baby. (208)
This seems a rather gentle and almost humane leading of Martha into the ring, coming after what we have seen before. George is telling Martha, Please be at the top of your game, because I’m going to need you.
What George has imagined will follow is an entirely new and powerful use of language. This comes alongside his turn from a man of contemplation, a historian, to a man of action, a biologist, in keeping with the human organization of the play. As George earlier says, when people can’t abide the present, they do one of two things either they turn to a contemplation of the past, as I have done, or they set about to alter the future (178). By the end of the play, both George and Martha have come to realize that their relentless play with language keeps them trapped in a claustrophobic, unbearable present. Thus, when George kills off the son to close the play, he is activating the original scriptural function of language, the logos, in reverse. Rather than creating through word, George’s act is an act of dismantling. So when he tells Martha, I’m not a god. I don’t have the power over life and death, he is being slightly coy (233). George removes the basic untruth in their relationship with others and each other through another untruth, and thus creates the space for a new world in which the two of them will no longer have to carry on as if they knew the difference between truth and illusion. Either they will know the difference the most hopeful reading or they will recognize their human limits, and not add to the murkiness. Throughout the play, the characters take language through a whole range of functions but it is only this last that is purposeful and therefore satisfying.
Like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Albee’s later play, Three Tall Women, betrays an obsession with language as exchanged between people. The play divides, although not tidily, into two acts, each with its primary function achieved through language. In Act I, Albee aims to individualize or differentiate the three women A, B, and C, sorting them into roles that are largely economic but also dependent in a biological way, in which each character’s existence feeds off another’s (A as the old lady in need, B as the caretaker, and C as the lawyer’s representative). In Act II, by contrast, the three women undergo a form of condensation or compression into one, and the basic asymmetry of knowledge (C does not know that she is the same woman as B and A), as in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, gradually falls away.
However, the boundaries between the acts are not entirely strict. Verbal clues begin to penetrate the reader’s consciousness from the very beginning, at the same time as C begins to realize what she has gotten herself into. When C says in Act I, There’s nothing the matter with me, B responds, with sour smile, Well you just wait (18). This is the first warning in the play, and while it could be understood with its straight meaning that with age the complacent C will no longer be so it also sets the scene for more ambiguous statements, as when A says to B, She’ll learn. (To C; ominous.) Won’t you (24). This suggests that there is something that C will have to uncover, through careful listening, careful recollection, and a synthesis of the two.
Albee clues us in to the secret early on in the play, though at this point we are insufficiently schooled in the patterns of language operating in the play and are therefore unable to grasp the nature of the riddle. This is, as in Oedipus Rex, a riddle of identity. In an exchange that shows Albee in full control of his talents, A shuffles into the room after being abandoned in the bathroom and complains, A person could die in there and nobody’d care, transferring the emotion to a disembodied third person in order to generate feelings of guilt without seeming to ask for it (14). C has caught on to intent, and so she mocks her for her circumlocution:
(To herself, but to be overheard.) Who is this … person? A person could do this, a person could do …
It’s a figure of speech.
(Mildly sarcastic.) No. Really?
(Not rising to it.) So they tell me. (15)
The joke works on many levels. C not only gets in a joke on A, but one on B. In the end, however, the joke is on C, because she is, as much as the any other character, the answer to her question, Who is this person?
In Act II of Three Tall Women, the carefully scripted roles begin to fall apart. The dummy of the disembodied third person A has presaged in Act I lies on the bed, and B and C enter the stage opposite their exits at the end of Act One, a simple visual trick that reverses the audience’s intuitive cognitive expectation, the expectation to see a mouse exit the same hole in the wall he has entered (66). Albee’s visual play with the question of identity, suggesting the interchangeability and unity of roles, prepares the audience for the heightened verbal play that will follow. In B’s discussion of how her death will come, she imagines herself having her throat slit while seated in an upstairs sitting room. I hear them you hear them turn around, see them how many? Two? Three? (66). B betrays an obsession with number (at the point of your death would you be counting the perpetrators?) as related to the crisis of identity within the play, as well as a confusion over how to address herself and C at this imagined death scene, knowing A, B, and C to be expressions of the same person. She alternates between first and second person (I hear, you hear, your throat, my throat) before her mind focuses on an image: All that blood on the Chinese rug (66). C asks, pausing, Chinese rug to which B responds, quite naturally, Yes, beige, with rose embroidery all around the edges. We get it at auction (67). At this moment, the collective we enters the play’s vocabulary, and it will persist, though meeting against resistance, until the end.
C’s monologue in Act II repeats certain themes and phrases of speech that have surfaced in A’s monologue in Act I, such as I had my eye out, the idea of the right man, and the city life with Sis that involves going out and dancing every night but also pleasant, ladylike work during the day as a caution against being spoiled (70). These notions are slightly out of date though not completely anachronistic, and C does not hear the patterns, or else she fights against them. She continues, describing her work as a mannequin, walking the department stores and stopping to let shoppers admire her dress, perhaps flirting with the men. This sends B and A into hysterics. B looks at A in mock astonishment, saying Flirt?! You? and A answers, shadowing her, Me?! Flirt?! (71). B begins to sashay and twirl, aping a mannequin, while A turns to C and corrects her narrative, I remember it differently, little one. I remember more …design. I remember a little calculation, and B concurs (72). C turns to the audience and protests, Don’t listen to them. Design? What are they talking about? (72). But it is two against one, and so the audience must take its cue from A and B and believe that calculation and design fit the single character of A, B, and C.
Albee’s play is, after all, about design: the patterns within the life of human beings that can be given form, and made known, through speech. In other words, the patterns of verbal play and repetition in Three Tall Women are helpful to Albee as a metaphor for how a human being develops into a whole, though a fragmented whole, through her experiences. Thus the play achieves its task through language, though it is only one method of achievement in the play and only one method of reading it. But, to end with, I’d like to look at what I believe is the single word given the most weight in the play, particularly in Act II: yes. Obviously, the word will come up quite often in any conversation involving three people, in which things are misheard and must be repeated, and in which individuals are directly addressed as they bicker and give consent. But looking, for example, at pages 73 and following, we can count its occurrences under multiple meanings (Ã¢Â?Â?Well, yes; I suppose so. Oh, yes he was. Yes? Was he? Oh yes, I remember him. He was … He was; yes. Yes!). This peaks at the end of C’s monologue, in which she recalls her attempt to reject her first lover’s proposition. I heard myself saying (incredulous), I’m not that kind of girl, to which he responds, Yes, you are you’re that kind of girl? (76).
Throughout the play, Albee shows language as used to deny and fight, to deny and fight people and to deny and fight what they are saying. But in the end he upholds its capacity for affirmation. A, B, and C’s first lover correctly identifies the kind of person she is, and in the same way C comes to understand who she is in relationship to A and B. Both identifications are the play’s answer to the Sphinx-like riddle proposed at the beginning. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Three Tall Women show Albee’s delight in the flexibility of language to perform just about anything a human being can think to make it do.
Reuniting the Public and Private Sphere as Depicted by Mrs. Dalloway and the Color Purple
The ‘public’ and ‘private’ spheres are often held as two separate entities, both representing opposing positions of social freedom or restraint. Whereas the public realm is the more conformed-to and socially hegemonic of the two, the private is associated with an unseen process of identification, allowing private thoughts to remain free. In spite of this, the authors of Mrs Dalloway and The Color Purple attempt to reconcile the two spheres, developing initially private thoughts into the public realm in their texts by removing personal privacy altogether. Although the public advancement of restricted characters demonstrates the authors’ success in moving the focus from private to public, some concerns arise as to whether reconciliation is truly achieved or whether it even can be. Whilst both authors view the shift into a public society as the path to liberation, the violation of privacy opens up both the authors’ and characters’ personal opinions to public criticism. The complete destruction of the private sphere – and what it represents – then appears as the only way to progress into the public realm, as Walker’s and Woolf’s characters adhere to the conventions of the public sphere in order to release themselves from the alienation of the private sphere.
In an attempt to reconcile the public and private realms, Woolf violates the mental and personal privacy of her protagonists to integrate her characters into a public society that is reliant on sociability and union. The free indirect discourse of the narrative removes the privacy of thought, as it provides no separation between individual thoughts and vocalized speech, instead portraying the narrative as a shared voice. When an important car passes characters in the street, “nobody [in the crowd] knew whose face had been seen”; the use of “nobody” aligns the group as sharing one perception and integrates her protagonist, Clarissa Dalloway, into society’s voice when she “comes to the window”. It brings her individual character to be lost as she enters into a shared narrative. The preceding question wondering whose car the group saw – “Was it the Prince of Wales’s, the Queen’s, the Prime Minister’s?” – is then constructed as a communal query, which removes the privacy of individual thought to place Clarissa immediately within the public sphere of thought. A mental violation is created, shifting all private affairs – such as Septimus’ ultimate expression of mentality that he is said to share with Clarissa – to public affairs, which reflects the feeling of Woolf at this time. Whilst private thoughts regarding her depression were concealed within her diary, where she writes, “My depression is a harassed feeling”, this illustrates how she felt attacked by society, as she mirrors in Septimus’ publicized mental illness. Therefore, an indication to Woolf’s ability to reconcile the public and private spheres can begin to be perceived as being hindered by her own alienation from a public society.
In comparison, Walker’s breach of mental privacy in The Color Purple initially appears as a positive way to transfer the otherwise hidden voice of her main character into the public sphere as part of Celie’s mental healing. However, similar to Woolf, concerns arise regarding the violation of privacy being the only way to let her protagonist’s voice exist within society. The use of an epistolary narrative allows the voice of Celie to be transferred through another mode of communication, as she is speaking to “nobody but God” due to her father’s threat to her before the narrative starts to remain isolated from society. As the reader of Celie’s private letters, it is us who force the voice of Celie to be publicized, consequently reconciling her with the public sphere once more, which is reflected by the progression of the plot, where Celie begins “writing to [Nettie] instead of God”, which could be seen as Celie finding a harmony with a public society. However, this simultaneously implies that the reader breaches her mental privacy in order to achieve public unification too, as Celie’s private letters were not constructed to be viewed, as we see in the confessional tone that Walker uses when Celie expresses opinions, such as “I don’t never git used to it”. Although Walker has stated that, “If knowledge of my condition is all the freedom I get from a ‘freedom movement’, it is better than unawareness”, advocating the black female voice in America, her approach to reconciling this unheard voice with the public realm leads to a violation of personal privacy, which, like Woolf, does not successfully achieve reconciliation.
Throughout Mrs Dalloway, the protagonist’s shift into the public realm demonstrates the way that a social emancipation, and not solely the abolishment of mental and personal privacy, is used to reconcile the private with the public. Woolf portrays Clarissa’s liberation through her use of empowering language when introducing her. Clarissa is written as “an indescribable pause” and “a suspense (…) before Big Ben strikes”, with the importance of her position being reflected through the emphasized anticipation in the words “pause” and “suspense”, which is seen to figuratively pause the time of “Big Ben”. As the main focus of the story, Clarissa’s social position is important in the narrative to illustrate the reconciliation of the previously private role of women with the post-war public position that they rise into. Her importance as a woman against the pressures of society was important to Woolf, who knew how important it was for women to write themselves into the public world. The post-war society of the 1920s saw many women trying to remain in a work process that no longer needed them after the war had ended. Woolf constructs a society that is pressuring Clarissa into the private realm in contradiction to her protagonist’s public social position, as opposed to occupational position. Social emancipation does not successfully liberate women into a public realm founded upon business, which the women have been alienated from once again, therefore it suggests that the public and private are still antagonized and not fully reconciled.
Walker’s establishment of a public position for her female protagonist appears to be more emancipating than Woolf’s, as the liberation from the novel’s oppressive male figure, Mr.___, allows Celie to reconcile her private ambitions with the public realm. The female characters’ destiny is usually shown in opposition to man and society, pre-determining their life to be contained within a suppressed private sphere. Celie’s speech, “I’m pore, I’m black, (…) a voice say to everything listening. But I’m here,” portrays a diversion from this restricted private bracket as a move into public activism, with “I’m here” asserting the supremacy of speech and a voice opposing the pattern of female suppression in society. Walker’s attempt at reconciling the private with the public can therefore be seen as a consequence of women’s emancipation. However, Walker’s exertion can still only be defined as an attempt at reconciliation, as Celie’s newfound affirmation-of-self places her individual voice within a public patriarchal society at the expense of her independent womanhood. If her liberation is a response to men, with Mr.___’s actions being the cause of her speech, the activist voice of Walker that appears in Celie’s character does not appear as reconciling private thoughts with the public. Instead, her voice, still concealed within her letter, remains as opposed to the public patriarchal society. Both authors also shift the private into the public in an attempt at reconciliation through broadcasting the private sphere of the family home into society.
In Mrs Dalloway, Woolf exploits family life as a public and social affair, removing the privacy attached to family life and suggesting once more that destruction of privacy surpasses reconciliation. The character of Miss Kilman is important in the novel to recognize the decay of the family unit, as the absence of parental figures leaves Clarissa’s daughter in the hands of a “prehistoric monster”. The faded description of her “crumbled” appearance emphasizes the poor state that social reconciliation has brought upon the family and implies that dragging the two realms into reconciliation had led to this consequence. Furthermore, due to the demands of Clarissa’s social position, Miss Kilman adopts the mother-figure role for Clarissa’s daughter, Elizabeth, turning her into a pawn in their struggle for social dominance. The way Clarissa reminds her daughter about the party “with violent anguish” portrays how destroying family privacy leads to competition and violent tendencies, which does not successfully reconcile the public and the private. Snaith notes how Woolf found difficulty harmonizing her own public and private life as two separate entities. Woolf’s self-sacrificing nature in order to achieve Bloomsbury publication denied her freedom within her private family endeavors, which is reflected in Clarissa’s establishment of her social position compromising her relationship with Elizabeth. Therefore, whilst shifting the family position into the public sphere is portrayed as an attempt at reconciling the two spheres, the opposite effect occurs and privacy diminishes.
Walker explores how family life is essential to public establishment in a way contrasting to Woolf, as the completely private information of Celie’s children led to the lack of family existence, yet family became re-established after the whereabouts of her family became publicized. Celie’s discovery of Nettie’s letters, and the knowledge they granted her of children containing a “resemblance” to her, emphasizing a physical connection, provide a reconciliation of private information with public knowledge. Shifting family into the public sphere can then be suggested as a successful reconciliation in The Color Purple. However, the novel’s archetypal family unit appears disjointed, possibly due to the mayor’s public position, implying that a reconciliation of family privacy and the public sphere has not been achieved. Similar to Elizabeth in Woolf’s novel, Eleanor Jane turns to an outsider, Sofia, who has been granted access to the family through their public establishment, for emotional maternal support, as she “felt something” for her and not her own mother. This suggests that reconciling private family life with the public realm eventually destroys the foundations of a good family unit due to the public connection with society. Walker herself depicts this as the change in social culture of generations, suggesting how the archetypal family portray a family more integrated with society and constructed for public criticism, whereas black women are living the legacy of their suppressed grandmothers and are breaking through social barriers, such as maintaining a family in a public society, that have not yet been destroyed. The inevitability of a family in the public sphere being without privacy demonstrates the way that public and private reconciliation can never be achieved, despite the authors’ attempts to do so.
Overall, both authors attempt to reconcile the public and the private realms throughout their novels, yet the extent to which they successfully do this is questionable. Although they often manage to remove the social restriction placed upon their characters, it is usually at the expense of the private sphere, which is destroyed during the authors’ liberation of their protagonists. The attempted reconciliation manages to create a new version of the public sphere to replace the private, as the voice that characters find through removing privacy opens them up to criticism. Therefore, whilst reconciliation of the private and the public is attempted, the violation of privacy during public progression and pre-construction of the two separate realms stops reconciliation from ever being truly achieved.
War Repercussions as Shown in Mrs. Dalloway
Septimus was one of the first to volunteer. He went to France to save an England which consisted almost entirely of Shakespeare’s plays and Miss Isabel Pole in a green dress walking in a square. There in the trenches… they had to be together, share with each other, fight with each other, quarrel with each other. But when Evans…was killed, just before the Armistice, in Italy, Septimus, far from showing any emotion or recognizing that here was the end of a friendship, congratulated himself upon feeling very little and very reasonably. The War had taught him (Woolf 86).
Propaganda in literature and art during WWI seemed commonplace, and yet, many artists and authors reacted against what they deemed falsities that occur in propaganda. Many did not believe that war is glorious, honorable, or brave, but difficult, painful, and unnecessary. After the war, the magnitude of the lives lost permeated the country, and the soldiers that returned home came back different than when they left. Authors used this as fuel for the fire, portraying what they believe true soldiers and war experiences. Several authors wrote against propaganda in the hopes that their country would stop consisting of the blind leading the blind. In this passage from Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf reacts to the propagandistic ideals she must have heard leading up to WWI.
In the above passage, the narrator describes Septimus Smith, the novel’s war sullied veteran. The values that Septimus Smith held in pre-war London are not unique to him; they applied to many people, both men and women alike, living in London. Yet not everyone that shared these beliefs so willingly put their lives on the line for these ideals. The reasons that Septimus Smith went to war resulted from the propaganda that was force-fed to him leading up to the war. He idealizes British symbols like Shakespeare, the London culture, and its “pure” women. Yet how could a reader not make inferences about where all these ideals lead Septimus Smith at this point of the novel, five years after the end of the war? His bravery and patriotism resulted in his trauma and neurosis, his inability to relate to those around him, and his apathy to his surroundings. As this novel’s setting takes place after the war ended, the reader sees the ideals that Septimus once prided himself in through a different light. These ideals have become propaganda, myths, British vanity and naivety. Evidence of this view of propaganda becomes embodied in the character of Septimus Smith himself, as a shell-shocked, psychologically damaged war veteran.
With the war’s end, Septimus rejects many of the ideals he once embraced. Though the narrator does not specifically state to what degree his views changed, the reader does not get the sense that Septimus identifies himself as a Shakespeare-quoting romantic any more. Also noteworthy, Septimus did not marry the pure English girl that he gallantly went to France to protect, but an Italian whom he barely even knew. He married her right at the war’s end, and though the two spent the past five years together, their relationship seems cold and estranged. This is most likely because Septimus does not know how to live in the world in which he finds himself after the war. Septimus does not congratulate himself for his bravery and courageousness in volunteering to fight in the war, nor does he seem to think about particularities of that war. He now prides himself on the fact that he has lost his ability to feel emotions; though he once thought poetry important enough to go to war and risk one’s life to protect. While before the war Septimus held romantic ideals and lived in a dream world, now he often has trouble deciphering reality with figments of his own imagination. After experiencing the horrors of battle and the grief that comes with war, Septimus sees that his embrace of propagandistic ideals amounted in nothing but pain and loss.
One may also conclude that this passage suggests that Septimus lost the ability to feel emotions because he lost the love of his life, his comrade in battle, Evans. The relationship between Evans and Septimus could be more than just a heterosexual friendship. Perhaps the reason that Septimus no longer feels anything results from the loss of such a good friend, even the man that he loves. Once this man dies, Septimus starts feeling disillusioned from the war and the futility of his efforts, yet he claims that it “taught him.” This passage implies that the lesson he learned from the war was not a positive one, but instead one of those dreaded life lessons that break a person down. This idea supports one parallel between Septimus and Clarissa, who never meet, yet at the end of the novel, after hearing of his death, Clarissa admires the bravery he had when it came to killing himself. The two characters serve as doubles within the context of the novel, both representing people of different backgrounds that see the true effects of war. Further evidence of Clarissa and Septimus as doubles occur when they both question their identities and life choices, and Clarissa also experienced a love affair with the same sex, her childhood friend, Sally Seaton.
While this doubling is an effective literary technique, it does little to make restitutions for Septimus’ hardships. When Septimus kills himself, the reader does not get the sense that any of Clarissa’s problems resolve either. Woolf punishes Septimus for his false notions of bravery through his trauma of survival, which plagues him until he takes his own life. The propaganda that Septimus embodies, that of a brave soldier, willing to die gloriously in battle for his beloved country, disappears after the war. It left him feeling nothing, seeing ghosts of people who died in the war, suffering from flashbacks, and wanting a way out of this life. Once he succeeds in his suicide attempt, Woolf concedes nothing honorable to this character or what he embodies. He receives no redemption for the bravery that eventually led to his suffering. In this way Woolf shows the futility of war, the real result of propaganda, and how alone the shell-shocked soldiers end up.
Franco Moretti Posits in the Way of the World: the Bildungsroman in European Culture
Franco Moretti posits in The Way of the World: The Bildungsroman in European Culture that “Even those novels that clearly are not Bildungsroman or novels of formation are perceived by us against this conceptual horizon; so we speak of a ‘failed initiation’ or of a ‘problematic formation’” (Moretti 561). While not a bildungsroman in the sense that it follows the trajectory of a youth’s maturation, Michael Cunningham’s The Hours presents Clarissa Vaughn as its own symbolic hero. She must navigate a community in crisis and come to terms with understanding how her sexuality has influenced her life’s choices, and consequently, the formation of her identity. The Hours inverts common conceptions of the bildungsroman’s structure: instead of emphasizing a young person coming to terms with sexuality through maturation, this narrative divulges the innermost retrospection and “what-if?” contemplation of an older Clarissa who questions and, in some ways, problematizes her identity by wondering what her life would have been like if her sexual and romantic relationships had played out differently.
Breaking free from the confines of heteronormativity, this post-modern novel explores homosexuality through the engagement of a diverse array of characters who illustrate what it means to identify as queer or homosexual in a period of dramatic crisis. The novel’s setting, at least in the case of Clarissa’s narrative, is a New York in crisis—the rampage of the AIDS epidemic has left loved ones devastated, culminating in a “crisis of a socio-cultural order, and the violent reorganization of power” (Moretti 560). The AIDS epidemic therefore serves as an invitation to consider or reconsider the trajectory one’s life takes under the influence of sexuality and choices concerning sexual activity.
Clarissa is then invited to reflect on her past and her present situation through her disparate interactions with these people, especially Richard, Sally, and Julia, who themselves are in various stages of coming to terms with their sexuality and its influence. For Clarissa, Richard represents a past love that was never completely free to explore; Sally is the lesbian lover with which she has built a home for the past eighteen years. Both characters are positioned on opposite ends of a sexual spectrum on which Clarissa oscillates throughout her maturation, but ultimately, Sally acquires Clarissa’s commitment, publicly positioning Clarissa as a lesbian in a world in which homosexuals are placed under sociopolitical scrutiny. The question that Clarissa must wrangle with, then, as she watches her past love slowly succumb to the effects of AIDS is what would have happened if they had been able to maintain a committed relationship with each other. Would Richard have contracted AIDS? Would she have found more romantic fulfillment in that relationship, as opposed to her relationship with Sally, which at points in the novel seems forced due to its habitual nature?
The Julia-Clarissa dynamic essentially allows the novel to achieve the bildungsroman status because both the novel: “[abstracts] from ‘real’ youth a ‘symbolic’ one, epitomized… in mobility and interiority” (Moretti 555). Clarissa watches her daughter, the novel’s real youth who is yet incredibly mature for her age, from a distance—this mother and daughter pair do not possess an intimate bond. Although Julia’s age positions her to be a prime example of a young person having to come to terms with the future of a community post-crisis, the lack of Julia’s interiority makes this youth’s “ability to accentuate modernity’s dynamism and instability… the sign of a world that seeks its meaning in the future rather than the past” (556) difficult to determine. Julia seems much more stable than her mother in terms of identity, and much more grounded than what is typically expected for someone her age: “Julia sighs with a surprisingly elder mixture of rue and exhausted patience, and she seems, briefly, like a figure of ancient maternal remonstrance” (Cunningham 155). Yet, the pedestal of maturity on which Julia is placed allows the ‘real’ youth of the novel to become a model from which her mother can learn from, therefore abstracting Clarissa’s physical maturity and allowing her to become the novel’s symbolic youth. Richard illustrates the potential for older people to retain this kind of youthful interiority beautifully: “We’re middle-aged and we’re young lovers standing beside a pond. We are everything, all at once. Isn’t it remarkable?” (Cunningham 67). Clarissa Vaughn then comes to illustrate the symbolic youth of mobility and interiority as she reflects upon her problematic sexual formation. The reader gleans from the novel’s employment of free indirect discourse her interior notions of identity and what it means to question one’s sexuality and its implications late in life. The mobility of youth is achieved by her reflections on her past romantic liaisons with Richard and her coming to terms with the idea that if such a relationship could have blossomed, Richard may not be on the cusp of death. For Clarissa, sexuality is mobility, and the choices one makes in attempt to find romantic or erotic fulfilment can have dire consequences for loved ones.
Although The Hours seems to break the conventions of the bildungsroman due to its focus on three women who are long past their youth, it is a post-modern reconceptualization of the bildungsroman in the way that it proves that adult identities are unstable and can too be ruptured and renegotiated in times of public crisis. In a community that has been devastated by an epidemic, Clarissa is left to reconsider where exactly she fits on the sociopolitical spectrum of sexual identity. The internal restlessness that is born out of crisis encourages a renegotiation of mobility and interiority, and such restlessness does not discriminate in terms of age. In modern culture where such crisis is inevitable, the young and the old are similarly susceptible to change. The Hours, through Clarissa, proves that “youth” does not have to be the defining factor for a post-modern bildungsroman to occur. Instead, a bildungsroman can occur whenever there is some form of societal rupture that catalyzes people of all ages to reconsider the formation of their identities.
Cunningham, Michael. The Hours. New York: Picador USA, 1998. Print.
Moretti, Franco. The Way of the World: The Bildungsroman in European Culture. London: Verso, 1987. Excerpt in Theory of the Novel: A Historical Approach. Ed. Michael McKeon. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins UP, 2000. 554-565. Print.
Mrs Dalloway’s Criticism of Societal Conventions
Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway criticizes societal conventions as it portrays the internal thoughts of its protagonist, Clarissa Dalloway, and the various characters that surround her in post-World War I London. Woolf illustrates the mental repercussions of the war and the past in general through the perspectives’ of individuals from a variety of different backgrounds and experiences. The two central characters of the narrative, Clarissa and Septimus, initially could not appear more different. Septimus is a male war veteran suffering from undiagnosed PTSD while Clarissa is a female matriarch who dedicates her life to trying to maintain a sane composition. Arguably, the decision to make the male foil the one “diagnosed” with insanity might be a result of Woolf’s feminism but, with access to her internal thoughts, we quickly see that Clarissa isn’t as sane as she initially appears. Woolf juxtaposes Clarissa and Septimus to illustrate the inability to escape from societal oppression, except through death, and the consequences of choosing whether or not to sacrifice one’s soul in order to conform.
Both Septimus and Clarissa are trapped by societal subjugation; the two are victims of disingenuous relationships, emotional repression, a social pressure to conform, and the inevitable passing of time. Clarissa and Septimus are stuck in degrading marriages that lacked a strong foundation to begin with. While we are given obvious textual evidence about Clarissa’s affair with Sally Seton, Woolf suggests that Septimus may have also been in love with another man he served in the war with: Evans. Septimus claims that he is guilty of a “sin for which human nature had condemned him to death; that he did not feel. He had not cared when Evans was killed; that was worst,” (89) but he obsesses so regularly about Evan’s death that it is impossible to believe he does not care. Clarissa, too, is forced to portray herself differently to the world than how she feels internally. Unlike Septimus, Clarissa feels too much – about Sally, about what people think about her, and about the past. This homoerotic behavior and insecurity contribute heavily to the deterioration of Septimus and Clarissa’s marriage, other relationships and, consequently, their mental stability. Physically, the two are compared to birds: Clarissa has “ [the] touch of the bird about her, of the jay… there she perched,” while Septimus is depicted as “beak-nosed” (4, 14). This comparison to birds, especially “perched” birds, illustrates the desire in both Clarissa and Septimus to be free. Furthermore, Septimus commits suicide by literally flying out of a window, escaping the “cage” that is society. Septimus is repressed by his doctor, Sir William Bradshaw, who “swoops” and “devours,” as though he were a bird of prey (99). Sir William worships conformity, and prescribes Septimus means to “cure” who he has become with the intent of shaping him to fit the ideal, obedient social mold.
Clarissa and Septimus’s infatuation with death connects them while simultaneously illustrating that the only escape from societal oppression is through dying. While Septimus obsesses over Evan’s death, Clarissa is infatuated with the inevitability of her own. Both protagonists see death as a victory, though neither of them desires to die. Clarissa believes that death is an “attempt to communicate,” that it provides an “embrace” (180). She explicitly says that she does not pity Septimus after he has killed himself. Death provides a communication with others that Clarissa and Septimus do not have while they survive as outcasts. After Septimus kills himself, his wife, Rezia, “ran to the window, she saw; she understood” (146). This is the first evidence we have of Rezia finally accepting Septimus for who he has become. And, while Septimus claims that he does not want to die immediately before his suicide, it is a sacrifice he makes in order to hold on to his true self and his soul at the expense of his physical body. Additionally, Septimus and Clarissa reference the line “Fear no more the heat o’ the sun / Nor the furious winter’s rages” from Shakespeare’s Cymbeline throughout the novel. The line is adapted from a funeral song that welcomes death as an escape from the burdens of life. While neither character physically or mentally fits a conventional societal mold, their souls are designed for nobody’s acceptance but their own. Thus, Septimus ironically has no place in life until his death, and Clarissa never truly finds herself or her happiness in the novel.
Clarissa and Septimus’s obsession with protecting their souls from the societal pressure to conform drives them to insanity. Through access to both characters’ internal thoughts, however, we see that “sanity” is entirely relative. Clarissa may have more control over her fears and emotions than Septimus but, as readers, we see that her stability is equally compromised. Through Septimus, an “outcast who gazed back at the inhabited regions,” (101) it is evident that insanity is a consequence of a lack of connection and a displacement from society. As follows, it is arguable that Clarissa is on the brink of madness. Clarissa feels “far out to sea and alone;” (8) she is insecure about the role that she plays in society, and claims that “she had the oddest sense of being herself invisible, unseen; unknown” (10). Clarissa feels misunderstood and has no secure relationship to provide her with someone she can confide in; Septimus, ironically, wishes to be left alone. Both characters are obsessed with protecting the privacy of their souls but, while Clarissa compromised her passion and her soul when she married Richard, Septimus preserved his soul by choosing death. Septimus is, in this manner, reborn while Clarissa suffers from “an emptiness about the heart of life” (30). Septimus sacrifices his mind and body for his soul, but Clarissa sacrifices her soul for her mind and body. In order to be accepted by society, Clarissa sacrifices the happiness that she would have attained through pursuing her relationship with Sally for a future, while Septimus sacrificed his future for preserving his spirit. Both decisions illustrate the pressure and madness that social norms and pressure to conform inflict upon individuals. Clarissa and Septimus were simultaneously victims of serious battles; Clarissa suffered from an internal battle between whom she genuinely loved but took the safe road by marrying Richard, while Septimus took the dangerous road and fought an external battle, which resulted in a perpetual internal battle with his sanity. Losing people they loved made them mad, but losing themselves made them insane.
Our sanity is arguably the most important part of the human psyche, but the uncensored internal thoughts of Clarissa and Septimus prove that it is entirely subjective. There is no such thing as “the real world.” Clarissa’s definition of the “real world” differs from Septimus’s, and both of their perspectives are completely unique to the other characters in the novel. The “real world” is less real, and more so a combination of rules and inventions designed by man: time, social norms, laws, and morals, etc. While all of these every-day characteristics add routine and order to human lifestyles, they can also be the cause of isolation and madness, as observed in Mrs. Dalloway. The theme of protecting the soul, one’s true self independent of what is socially acceptable, illuminates the internal struggle between being truly yourself, and being the version of yourself that others have designed.
Virginia Woolf’s Use of Social Conflicts in Mrs. Dalloway
In any story, conflict is vital. It drives forth plot and reveals truths about the characters involved, keeping readers engaged. It also reflects the world of its writer, who often uses conflict as a tool to illustrate personal ideas. This is particularly true in the case of early twentieth-century writer Virginia Woolf. Throughout her most famous novel, Mrs. Dalloway, Woolf draws readers into several different interpersonal conflicts, each of which involves a clash between English conventions and undeniable human conditions. Portraying these conflicts with keen sensitivity to injustice, folly, and ignorance, Woolf criticizes England’s traditional social system as a world in which people cannot acknowledge, confront, or understand what may disturb their comfort.
Through the conflict between half-crazed World War I veteran Septimus Warren Smith and his prominent doctor, Sir William Bradshaw, Woolf highlights one of the English system’s most tragic failures: its tendency to isolate “undesirables” at any cost to human dignity. Septimus finds himself desensitized after fighting in the Great War and utterly unable to return to daily life, where empathy is a vital quality rather than a hindrance. Incapable of recalling ordinary emotions, he hallucinates and experiences bouts of melancholia and exhilaration, punctuated by moments of lucidity. However, because English society wants nothing to do with abnormality, Septimus finds himself “swallowed up” in London along with the “many millions of young men called Smith” (Woolf 84). Indeed, ironically, it is in the thick of his insanity that he realizes that “human beings have neither kindness, nor faith, nor charity…They desert the fallen” (89). In tracing Septimus’ visit to the renowned Sir William, Woolf indicates that even English doctors serve the sinister purpose of removing all disturbing agents from public life. Believing that the mentally unstable “should drink milk in bed,” Sir William “not only prosper[s] himself but ma[kes] England prosper, seclud[ing] her lunatics…[and] ma[king] it impossible for the unfit to propagate their views” (99). He realizes that Septimus’ is “a case of extreme gravity” (95), but instead of dealing with it directly, he recommends that Septimus “lie in a beautiful house in the country” (97), away from everyone who loves him. Lacking the faculties and resources to seek further help, Septimus and other “friendless” people who see Sir William have little choice but to obey his orders (102). Even more ominously, Woolf remarks that Sir William “endear[s] [himself] greatly to the relations of his victims” as he “shut[s] people up” (102). Here, her use of “victims” to describe Sir William’s patients, and her revelation that he is well loved by their relatives, cast an insidious shadow upon doctors in England, who seek not to help the sick but to “take care…that these unsocial impulses…[are] held in control” (102).
Unfortunately, the English system’s way of sequestering away its pariahs claims more victims than those who receive treatment from Sir Williams; as Woolf evinces through the example of Lucrezia Smith, Septimus’ young wife, those who care for the “friendless” find themselves trapped between obeying societal rules and keeping intact everything they have loved (102). At first, not understanding Septimus’ illness, Lucrezia believes that her detached husband is acting “selfish” and despairs that “love makes one solitary” (23). When she finally realizes that something is desperately wrong with Septimus and obtains treatment for him, she finds herself more alone than ever, for Sir William tells her that treatment is “a question of rest…[a]way from her” (96). Realizing that she and Septimus have “been deserted” by those who purport to help (99), Lucrezia staunchly refuses to be separated from her husband, and readers follow her story with sympathy as she fights, in a sense, to revive Septimus before he has even died. Later, when Septimus commits suicide in order to avoid yet another doctor’s visit, readers also see clearly the tragedy that arises when doctors work to eliminate the strange and disturbing rather than to heal the sick. Through Lucrezia’s conflicts, first with Septimus, then with English doctors like Sir William, Woolf conveys the enormous damage done by a system that tolerates neither abnormality nor connection with it.
In portraying several unfulfilling romances, Woolf also criticizes marriages that perpetuate complacency rather than nurturing mutual growth. For example, although protagonist Clarissa Dalloway falls in love with the idealistic Peter Walsh, she feels uncomfortable with Peter’s insistence that everything in her life “be shared; everything gone into” (8). Not content to let her develop simply into “the perfect hostess” (7), Peter demands “impossible things” of Clarissa, challenging her to think of life beyond throwing parties and entertaining guests (63). However, Clarissa eventually rejects Peter in favor of Richard Dalloway, a man who grants her “a little licence, a little independence” (7). A “thorough good sort” who displays “inexplicable niceness” (74), Richard nonetheless “make[s] a mere hostess” of Clarissa and “encourage[s] her worldliness” so that in the end, she still “care[s] too much for rank and society and getting on in the world” (76). Their marriage also falls short in passion and intimacy; Clarissa fails Richard sexually “again and again,” unable to “dispel a virginity…which cl[ings] to her” (31), and try as he might, Richard can never bring himself to tell Clarissa that he loves her. Ironically, the quixotic Peter also settles for a less fulfilling marriage and concludes simply that “women…don’t know what passion is” (80). Both Clarissa and Peter are aware of having failed somehow; Clarissa asks herself what she has made of her life, knowing that she has only stayed worldly, and the tortured Peter, still rather lovelorn, admits that he is “in some sense a failure,” having done little with his humanitarian ideas aside from trekking to “a peak in the Himalayas; reading science; reading philosophy” (50). Ultimately, because Clarissa and Peter marry people who do not challenge them or dare to make them uncomfortable from time to time, as they would have done for each other, neither of them counts life as a great success.
Finally, Woolf uses the mutual resentment between Clarissa and Miss Doris Kilman to illustrate the stratified social arena of England, in which people of different classes are often too entrenched in their own prejudices to understand one another. Openly admitting that her dislike for the indigent Miss Kilman is unreasonable, Clarissa explains that “no doubt with another throw of the dice…she would have loved Miss Kilman” (12). However, as it is, she resents Miss Kilman because she “mak[es] you feel her superiority, your inferiority; how poor she [is]; how rich you [are]; how she live[s] in a slum” (12); in other words, Miss Kilman makes her feel guilty about the materialism of her own life. On the other hand, unable to look down on Clarissa from a seat of wealth or beauty, Miss Kilman resents Clarissa as a “condescending” woman “from the most worthless of all classes – the rich, with a smattering of culture” (123). Scorning Clarissa as one who “ha[s] known neither sorrow nor pleasure; who ha[s] trifled [her] life away,” she wishes “to overcome her; to unmask her” (125). Each woman, feeling provoked by sheer difference in lifestyle, is too quick to leap to judgment to communicate and identify with the other. On the one hand, Clarissa “care[s] much more for her roses than for the Armenians” (120), and on the other, Doris Kilman feels the overwhelming need to look down upon those whose fortunes she envies. Woolf’s portrayal of the hostility between these two women gives readers a glimpse of how people of different classes in England frequently misjudge each other, simply because attempting to understand one another would require stepping out of their comfort zones.
In one of his moments of lucidity, Septimus realizes that “[c]ommunication is health; communication is happiness” (93). Coincidentally, one of the recurring reasons for conflict in Mrs. Dalloway is people’s inability to communicate with one another. Quick to condemn and slow to listen, they feel immediate fear or anger at anything that disconcerts them and place themselves in positions that foster complacency rather than growth. Herein lies Woolf’s strongest criticism of not only English society, but also of society in general: that man is a creature of habit and of comfort zones, and that it is precisely those comfort zones that feed discontent.
Woolf, Virginia. Mrs. Dalloway. San Diego: Harcourt, 1953.
Privacy of the Soul: Privacy and Communication between Clarissa Dalloway and Septimus Smith
Virginia Woolf’s novel Mrs. Dalloway is known for its flowing, stream-of-consciousness narrative form that connects external events and the thoughts of all of the characters. Ironically, one of the novel’s most prominent themes is that of individuals struggling with privacy of the soul. In particular, the main characters Clarissa Dalloway and Septimus Warren Smith serve as opposing yet connected personas that typify and develop the constant conflict between privacy and communication.
On an exterior level, Clarissa and Septimus have many distinctive traits, including gender, social class, and level of sanity. Clarissa is an older, upper-class woman struggling to maintain her private emotions while interacting reasonably with those around her. While contemplating how she interacts with others, Clarissa reflects that she “had tried to be the same always, never showing a sign of all the other sides of her- faults, jealousies, vanities, suspicions” (37). However, earlier she notes that “she had the oddest sense of being herself invisible; unseen; unknown… not even Clarissa any more; this being Mrs. Richard Dalloway” (10-11). The contrast between these two statements manifests Clarissa’s struggle between protecting the intimacy of her emotional state while fostering a sense of self among her social circles.
On the other hand, Septimus is a World War I veteran who has lost his sanity due to severe post-war depression. Septimus appears to have a similar struggle to that of Clarissa, yet he focuses more on achieving a stable state within his own mind rather than maintaining communication with others. Septimus’ wife, Rezia, attempts to stimulate his interest in the external world, “for Dr. Holmes had told her to make her husband… take an interest in things outside himself” (21). However, Septimus makes a different observation about himself, stating that “for now that it was all over, truce signed, and the dead buried, he had, especially in the evening, these sudden thunder-claps of fear. He could not feel” (87). Therefore, while Clarissa mainly struggles with attempting to communicate with others, Septimus avoids interactions with society and focuses on the presumed loss of his inner emotional state. The diversity between the two characters serves to strengthen the universality of the conflict they experience.
An early event in the text demonstrates the aforementioned differences between the two figures. When an official-looking vehicle passes through the streets, much excitement stirs as people wonder if the car contains the Queen or Prime Minister of England. Clarissa, who seems to have faith in her society and government, imagines “she had seen something white, magical, circular, in the footman’s hand, a disc inscribed with a name,- the Queen’s, the Prince of Wales’s, the Prime Minister’s?” (17). However, Septimus has a different take on the situation: “And there the motor car stood, with drawn blinds, and upon them a curious pattern like a tree… and this gradual drawing together of everything to one centre before his eyes, as if some horror had come almost to the surface and was about to burst into flames, terrified him” (15). Rather than arousing interest or excitement in Septimus, the car reminds him of the destruction and loss of faith associated with the government during the war, and he attempts to internalize his fears.
Despite their outward differences, many traits typify both Clarissa and Septimus during their development in the novel. For instance, both characters have an inclination towards literature, particularly that of Shakespeare. Clarissa views two lines of a Shakespeare play through a store window in the exposition of the plot: “Fear no more the heat o’ the sun/ nor the furious winter’s rages” (9). These lines are repeated and reflected upon often by both Clarissa and Septimus later on, and Clarissa particularly adapts the lines to her own fear of aging. Similarly, Septimus often analyzes his life by referring to Shakespeare, such as his statement after remembering his experiences in the war: “Here he opened Shakespeare once more. That boy’s business of the intoxication of language-Antony and Cleopatra- had shriveled utterly” (88). Like Clarissa, Septimus is able to apply literature to his own development. The characters’ inclination towards such writing implies that they are prone to analyzing people and events on a more in-depth level than those that are ignorant of literature, such as Clarissa’s husband.
Eventually, both Clarissa and Septimus reach a moment where each character faces the respective side of the conflict that they have been contemplating. Interestingly, this moment takes place at the same time for both characters. With Rezia’s constant imploring, Septimus eventually yields to her desire for him to see a psychiatrist: “At last, with a melodramatic gesture which he assumed mechanistically and with complete consciousness of its insincerity, he dropped his head on his hands. Now he had surrendered; now other people must help him” (90). Soon after this statement, the reader realizes that Clarissa undergoes a similar transition: “twelve o’clock struck as Clarissa Dalloway laid her green dress on her bed, and the Warren Smiths walked down Harley Street. Twelve was the hour of their appointment” (94). Just as Septimus must communicate with other members of society, Clarissa puts down her social dress, actions symbolizing an exchange between privacy of the soul and social interactions.
In addition, at some point in the narrative both Clarissa and Septimus undergo a brief moment of clarity. Clarissa’s moment occurs early in the text, after she contemplates her husband’s lunch appointment with a woman friend. The narrative describes this moment:
It was a sudden revelation, a tinge like a blush which one tried to check and then, as it spread, one yielded to its expansion, and rushed to the farthest verge and there quivered and felt the world come closer, swollen with some astonishing significance, some pressure of rapture, which split its thin skin and gushed and poured with an extraordinary alleviation over the cracks and sores! Then, for that moment, she had seen an illumination; a match burning in a crocus; an inner meaning almost expressed (32).
Clarissa appears to be experiencing a deep reflection on how the soul can, at times, connect to that of another person, such as when one is in love. The images of the revelation as an “illumination” or a “match,” similar to the fire that Septimus saw when the car drove by, connote a moment of intense emotional experience. During this moment, Clarissa realizes that it is possible to share the intricacies of the soul with another person.
Similarly, Septimus experiences a moment of clarity when he is spending time with Rezia, right before he commits suicide. As he is helping Rezia make a hat for a friend, Mrs. Peters, Septimus feels a brief period of sanity: “None of these things moved. All were still; all were real … Miracles, revelations, agonies, loneliness, falling through the sea, down, down into the flames, all were burnt out” (142-143). He helps Rezia fix the hat, and afterwards describes how “never had he done anything which made him feel so proud. It was so real, it was so substantial, Mrs. Peters’ hat” (144). The stillness of Septimus’ visions asserts that he is temporarily returned to sanity, and the images of the flames burnt out imply an absence of the inner turmoil that earlier had haunted him. In the same way Clarissa experiences an emotional connection, Septimus feels a connection to his wife and the outside world, away from the private thoughts of his soul. He realizes it is possible to communicate and produce “substantial” accomplishments, an idea juxtaposed to his earlier ignorance of society and inability to relate to others in any meaningful manner. These moments of clarity help each character by balancing their constant reflection on one side of the conflict with a truth about the other.
Clarissa and Septimus also share similar moments of reflection when they observe an elderly woman or man from afar. Clarissa views an elderly woman neighbor who lives alone and contemplates: “she watched out of the window the old lady climbing upstairs. Let her climb upstairs if she wanted to; let her stop…Somehow one respected that- that old woman looking out of the window, quite unconscious that she was being watched. There was something quite solemn in it” (126). Though the woman has complete privacy of her soul, “solemnity” most likely stems from the fact that the woman is alone and is unable to communicate with others, the other part of life that is necessary for humans as social beings. The woman withdrawing and climbing the stairs symbolizes her removal from any sort of connection to the outside world. Clarissa respects this act because she has been incapable of entirely avoiding communication, and instead spends the day throwing a party to stimulate further social interaction.
Likewise, Septimus views an old man descending a staircase out of a house before he throws himself over a balcony to commit suicide. Septimus’ death is described: “Coming down the staircase opposite an old man stopped and stared at him. Holmes was at the door. “I’ll give it you!” he cried, and flung himself vigorously” (149). While the old woman Clarissa observed was ascending stairs and hiding from the outside world, the old man is descending the stairs and exposing himself to society. Septimus cries “I’ll give you!” to assert that he has maintained control over his own private soul, and only will expose it when he wants to, rather than when the doctor probes him. Septimus commits suicide by leaving the house, an action symbolic of leaving the privacy of the soul and revealing himself to others. Thus, Septimus’ death is his final method of communicating with the world while keeping his interior protected. The old man and old woman that Clarissa and Septimus watch help clarify relations with either one’s soul or outside society by typifying experiences that other people have that relate to the protagonists, and have similar views with respect to privacy and communication.
A final connection is made directly between Clarissa and Septimus in the climax of the novel, when Clarissa comments on Septimus’ suicide. She decides that: “Death was defiance…an attempt to communicate; people feeling the impossibility of reaching the centre which, mystically, evaded them; closeness drew apart; rapture faded, one was alone. There was an embrace in death” (184). Clarissa feels responsible for the suicide: “Somehow it was her disaster- her disgrace. It was her punishment to see sink and disappear here a man, there a woman, in this profound darkness, and she forced to stand there in her evening dress” (185). It appears that Clarissa and Septimus have decided to handle their private lives in different ways. While Septimus made one final communication with society while still preserving the privacy of his own soul, Clarissa has forgone much privacy for the societal figure that she has become by marrying Richard, symbolized by the reference to her dress. Interestingly, both figures realize that preserving one side of the conflict involves somewhat sacrificing the other; however, the choice over which is more important is left up to the character, as well as the reader, to decide.