Theme of Women Opression in Society in Mrs Dalloway and Buddha of Suburbia
In both novels, the author’s present the way in which society’s expectations of men and women can be detrimental to a person if these expectations are not defied. Both Kureishi and Woolf explore how women are oppressed by society, and how opposing this oppression is crucial in order to progress as a society. Both novels are also concerned with the suffering caused by stereotypical views of masculinity and how men should behave. Furthermore, both novels present the way in which the concept of marriage can cause men and women to feel by trapped by the expectations that accompany it.
In both Mrs Dalloway and Buddha of Suburbia, the authors use different female characters in order to portray how society oppresses women, and to highlight a shift in attitudes towards women’s role in society. In Mrs Dalloway, the role of women in society is presented mainly through the characters of Clarissa and Sally Seton. Woolf’s use of stream of consciousness highlights the contrast between Clarissa’s outwards appearance as an upper class, married woman and her inner thoughts as she questions her place in society and harbours feelings of unfulfillment.
The novel opens with Clarissa shopping for flowers for her party, which on the surface seems like a frivolous activity. Critic Elaine Showalter states that “it is easy to see Clarissa as superficial and slight. Yet following her thoughts, memories, anxieties and epiphanies from morning to night… we see a broad and deep cross section of London” (Mrs Dalloway: exploring consciousness and the modern world). The use of stream of consciousness to highlight Clarissa’s private feelings and give us a better understanding of her character is evident from the start, “She had a perpetual sense, as she watched the taxi cabs, of being out, out, far out to sea and alone; she always had the feeling that it was very, very dangerous to live even one day.”pg6. The imagery of the sea emphasises Clarissa’s feelings of loneliness as although she follows the conventions that come with being a woman of her class, she still feels as if there is something missing in her life but is not able to express this out loud. This is portrayed throughout the novel through the recurring symbol of her party, to which she seems to place a great deal of importance, as she repeats the phrase “remember my party!”. Furthermore, after having spoken to both Peter Walsh and her husband Richard Dalloway, Clarissa realises that “both of them had criticised her unfairly, laughed at her unjustly, for her parties”pg111. Peter seems to mock her parties repeatedly “yes, yes but your parties – what’s the sense in your parties?” whilst Richard “merely thought it foolish of her part”. The mocking tone of both men is ironic considering that she is complying to the patriarchal views of how women should behave, and suggests their feelings of superiority over her.
Contrarily, the character of Sally Seton could represent the changing attitudes towards the role of women in society. The older generation in the novel seem to be made uncomfortable by Sally; Clarissa’s father calls her “untidy” – Sally Seton “shocked people” with her unfeminine activities such as smoking cigars and her views on women’s rights (“women should have votes, vulgar men did, she said” pg168). Whilst Clarissa lacks education (“she knew nothing; no language, no history “pg 6), when she was with Sally, she remembers that she “read Plato in bed before breakfast: read Morris; read Shelley by the hour”. Woolf herself was not sent to school unlike her brothers, and it was said that she resented her lack of education. At the time, women were not allowed to graduate from university, so perhaps Woolf is portraying how education can liberate women through the character of Sally. This is highlighted at the end of the novel, where she seems “older and happier” in contrast with Clarissa’s melancholic attitude.
Similarly, in Buddha of Suburbia, Kureishi uses the character of Jamila to represent not only the role of women in British society, but also the cultural differences with the role of women in Indian society. Much like Sally Seton, Jamila uses education to escape her father’s constraints, and to not conform to her role as a woman. Even though she has been forced into an arranged marriage, she spends her time working in her room “with the door open” so that Changez and Karim can see her. This could be seen as an act of defiance, as she wants her husband to see that she chooses to spend her time educating herself rather than being his wife in the stereotypical sense. Karim says that she “knew what she wanted to learn, and she knew where it was; she just had to shovel it all into her head”pg95. This brusque metaphor shows her determination to use education as a way of non-conformity to her traditional role as a woman. This is further emphasised with the description of Jamila’s clothes after she gets married “the days of tight tops and mini skirts were gone. Jamila was wearing what looked like several sacks”pg81. This could suggest that women were now in charge of their own sexuality, as Jamila chooses to cover up so as not to be sexualised by Changez. In David Lodge’s Art of Fiction, he states that “clothes are always a useful index of character, class and lifestyle”. The description of Jamila’s clothes as “a long smock in faded green and on her feet a rather unrelenting pair of Dr Martens”pg81 suggests that Jamila is someone who places more importance on her education rather than her appearance, the word unrelenting suggest that she is willing to fight against her traditional role as a woman. Furthermore, Jamila’s mother portrays the unhappiness caused by conforming to expectations of women, and the liberation that comes when defying these expectations, much like the characters of Clarissa and Sally.
Jamila represents the second wave feminism that was present in the 1970’s, which drew light to a wider range of issues than just women’s vote, such as sexuality, family, reproductive rights and domestic abuse.
In both novels, the authors explore how society’s views on masculinity, as well as sexuality, can cause men to repress their feelings.
In Mrs Dalloway, Woolf explores how this repression of feelings can cause deeper psychological trauma through the character of Septimus Smith. Years after returning from the war, Septimus is still haunted by the horrors he had seen. At the time, Septimus’s mental illness would have been misunderstood, or labelled simply as “shell shock”. The character of Dr Holmes represents society’s failure to understand or sympathise with the mental issues faced by soldiers after the war. He claims that here is “nothing whatever the matter with him” and his use of rhetorical questions “didn’t he owe perhaps a duty to one’s wife? Wouldn’t it be better to do something instead of lying in bed?” makes him sound patronising and dismissive, reflecting society’s view of the mentally ill. Woolf herself suffered with serious bouts of psychosis like Septimus’s throughout her life, so perhaps through the characters of Holmes and Smith she is mirroring her own experience with inadequate medical responses to her mental health.
Woolf set the novel in 1923, to portray how five years after the war, England remains a society in trauma, particularly affecting the millions of young men who had fought. The war itself could represent society’s views on traditional masculinity, and how this forced masculinity had detrimental effects on Septimus’s mental state. Before the war, his teacher Mr Brewers describes him as “weakly”, implying that Septimus did not fit the typical masculine role. He also personifies the war by saying “so prying and insidious were the fingers of the European War”pg78, the word “insidious” implying the harmful effects the war had on young men such as Septimus.
During the war, Septimus instantly “developed manliness”, and at the same time “drew the attention, and indeed the affection of his officer, Evans”pg78. The word affection implies a romantic aspect to their relationship, which is further implied in the use of listing “they had to be together, share with each other, fight with each other…” This suggests that Septimus had feelings of love for Evans, however due to the stigmatism surrounding homosexuality at the time and his newfound “manliness”, he had to supress and hide his feelings from society. Septimus’s repression of his feelings is most evident after Evan’s death, where instead of showing any emotion he “congratulates himself upon feeling very little and very reasonably. The War had taught him. It was sublime”pg79. The contrast between the devastating event of Evan’s death and Septimus’s celebratory tone in the words “congratulate” and “sublime” indicates how Septimus feels forced to not show any emotions due to the expectations of masculinity, to the point where he feels almost numb, which is shown through the repetition of the phrase “he could not feel”. Critic David Bradshaw claims “although Septimus’s anguished repression is most obviously a symptom of ‘shell shock’, it is also a harrowing legacy of his intimacy with Evans”. (Mrs Dalloway and the First World War). This is evident in the fact that he repeatedly mention’s Evans during his depressive episodes, suggesting that he felt forced into hiding his feelings, Evan’s will always haunt him.
Whilst Septimus is forced to repress his feelings due to society’s views on homosexuality and masculinity at the time, in Buddha of Suburbia Karim is openly bisexual, and has no inner conflict regarding his sexual experiences with men. This is clear from the first chapter, when he has his first significant experience with Charlie. However, there is a sense of internal conflict within Charlie; although he enjoys the experience, he “avoided my (Karim’s) lips by turning his head to one side. The fact that Charlie refuses to kiss Karim could show that although he doesn’t feel the need to completely repress his homosexual feelings, there is still a sense of shame and stigma associated with it. This is further emphasised with Haroon’s reaction after seeing Karim and Charlie. He “jumped up and down in anguish as if he’d just heard the whole house had been burned to the ground”pg18. This simile, along with the insults such as “bum banger” that he directs at Karim, reflects his extreme feelings of disgust and disappointment at seeing his son with a boy. This clearly shows that although society has made some progress in how male homosexuality is perceived, there remains still a huge stigmatism surrounding it that affects men who fear reactions like Haroon’s.
Another way in which Kureishi presents how men are forced to repress their feelings is through the character of Ted, Karim’s uncle. When he takes Karim to a football match, we see that he fits the stereotypical masculine role as he not only enjoys sports, but also uses violence to express himself when he vandalises the train, as he “stabbed the seats and tore the stuffing out of them”pg44. The use of violent verbs “stabbed” and “tore” emphasises the fact that Ted feels he can only express himself through a stereotypical masculine display of power, rather than words or emotions. This is similar to the way in which Septimus was encouraged to “develop manliness” through the violence of the War. In the 1970’s, organised football hooligan groups began to emerge and supporters like Uncle Ted would use chants and violence as an outlet for their social angers. Ted uses hooliganism to express himself, as he represses his true emotions and feelings, perhaps in fear of not being deemed masculine enough by society. However, during Ted’s conversation with Haroon about his strange behaviour, he begins to cry and show his emotions “Ted was suffering. He sobbed generously.”pg50. The short sentences and matter of fact tone place emphasis on how shocked Karim is to see his uncle behaving like this. Karim realises that “somehow Dad had released Ted from the obligation to behave normally”. Normally, Ted would feel the need to hide and supress his emotions due to society’s expectations of masculinity, however as soon as he starts releasing his emotions, he becomes a calmer and more peaceful person throughout the rest of the novel, and he becomes happier. Kureishi is portrays through the character of uncle Ted how by defying the stereotypical masculine role and not being afraid to show emotion, it is easier to lead a happier life. On the other hand, Woolf’s presentation of Septimus Smith shows how the repression of feelings due to society’s views on masculinity can result in suffering, as this results in Septimus’s suicide.
Critic Rachel Foss states that “Identity is frequently also filtered through ideas of class, gender and sexuality as the characters experiment with continually inventing and re-inventing themselves” (An Introduction to the Buddha of Suburbia). Ted’s reinvention of himself is due to his choice to defy his gender expectations, giving him a new identity.
Lastly, both Kureishi and Woolf explore how society’s expectations of how men and women should act in marriage can cause unhappiness and discontent. In Buddha of Suburbia, this is presented through Changez and Jamila’s arranged marriage. Jamila, a second-generation immigrant, is forced into this marriage by her father, who threatens to starve himself if she does not comply. Although she does eventually agree to the marriage, she does this on her own terms and refuses to adhere to her traditional role as a wife. Instead of compromising her own happiness and fitting the mould of a traditional wife, Jamila refuses to consummate her marriage with Changez. Due to his expectation of how a wife should behave, this causes Changez to be unhappy in their marriage and Jamila’s father Anwar to be also disappointed. When Anwar asks about a potential grandson, “Changez said nothing, but shuffles backwards, away from the fire of Anwar’s blazing contempt, which was fuelled by bottomless disappointment”pg99.
The metaphor of the fire to depict Anwar’s anger, and the hyperbole “bottomless disappointment” emphasises the suffering that both men have inflicted upon themselves due to their traditional expectations of how women should behave. On the other hand, Jamila’s refusal to adhere to these constraints allows her to keep her self-worth, and not suffer in their marriage. there seems to be a switch in gender roles in their relationship, as Jamila makes Changez “do the cooking and washing and cleaning”pg135, which he is not pleased about. Meanwhile, Jamila is busy educating herself to escape her traditional role as a wife, also portraying the changing role of women in society.
Through the character of Jamila, a second-generation immigrant, like himself, Kureishi is portraying the culture clash of the traditional Indian values vs the more liberal British society. After the war, Britain attracted large numbers of workers and families from India and Pakistan (Anwar, Haroon and Changez) which would have led to a culture clash for second generation immigrants such as Jamila. Her father, who is less integrated into British society than she is, has a very specific and traditional view of the role of women in marriage, whereas Jamila wants to challenge this view.
On the other hand, Woolf presents how marriage can cause suffering in a society that doesn’t allow women or men to escape these expectations. Clarissa feels discontented in her marriage, and this is evident from the start of the novel where she feels “invisible; unseen; unknown there being no more marrying, no more having of children, but only this astonishing and rather solemn progress with the rest of them, this being Mrs Dalloway; not even Clarissa anymore; this being Mrs Richard Dalloway”. This suggests that Clarissa feels restricted by being a woman, now that she has had children, she feels like there is no other purpose in her marriage. A sense of uselessness is portrayed through Woolf’s use of listing, and the repetition of the phrase “no more”, which emphasises the lack of opportunities presented to women. The phrase “solemn process with the rest of them” suggests that now that Clarissa has completed her stereotypical role as a wife, there is nothing but death to look forward to. Furthermore, Clarissa refers to herself as “Mrs Richard Dalloway”. The fact that she doesn’t feel that even her first name belongs to her highlights the fact that women in that society often felt like they lost their identity after marriage. Woolf was heavily associated with the literary modernism movement, as she was concerned with the shift in society, particularly towards women’s rights. This is clear through her presentation of Clarissa’s loss of identity due to her marriage.
Both novels use female character’s who defy traditional roles of women in order to highlight the suffering endured by those who don’t. In Mrs Dalloway, Sally’s character highlights Clarissa’s suffering whilst in Buddha of Suburbia Jamila highlight’s her mother’s lack of freedom. Both novels are also concerned with the suffering inflicted upon men due to society’s views on masculinity. Whilst in Mrs Dalloway the character of Septimus portrays the devastating affects that is caused by men repressing their feelings, in Buddha of Suburbia Kureishi shows how men can go against these social expectations and become happier in the process.
Both Kureishi and Woolf depict the suffering caused by society’s views of the role of men and women, and through their use of varying characters they portray how this suffering can be eased when these roles are defied.
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