Woolf, Eliot, Modernism, and the Emerging Faith of Early Feminism versus Victorian Values: The Role of the Feminine as a Subversive Site of Resistance

The works of T.S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf represent the eve of first-wave feminism, where traditional Victorian principles have been challenged by controversy in the Royal Family, the more assertive role that women played in the First World War and receiving the vote for women (although only for 30-year-old householders, or wives of householders). This meant that the challenge of sexuality, gender and the ‘biological’ and social status of women was in flux (i.e. the weaker, romantic and fairer sex was being replaced with stronger figures). The problem for women is that they had to show one face to society, whilst underneath the Victorian norms that still pervaded the early Twentieth Century, were being challenged. This is represented by Clarissa Dalloway in the mirror scenes, in Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. There is conflict with this development of the feminine in Eliot’s The Wasteland, which sees it as a move from glory of the genders in the Victorian era, to the sordidness of feminism and modernity. In both texts, there is psychological stress caused by the change, although in different ways. Therefore Mrs. Dalloway represents modernism’s challenge of the weak, feminine persona, perpetrated by Victorian beliefs and replaced it with a more rationale but subversive feminine persona, that formed the emerging faith of early feminism. Conversely, The Wasteland represents a challenge to this development, because it is replacing glory of Victorian England, with the sordidness of modernism.

Clarissa in Mrs. Dalloway is expected to depict the perfect genteel woman, as required by her station in society. This means that Clarissa is depicted as “the model of some human virtue—strength of character, intuitive genius, affirmation of life, transcendence of patriarchal social arrangements, empathy with the dead, unifier of society” (Bell, page 94). This is her outward appearance, which means that an over simplistic reading of the text will not engage with the feminist undertones that Woolf has in the text (Bell, page 94). There are traditional masculine figures, which are not seen in Clarissa’s husband; rather, the characters of Walsh and Smith provide this juxtaposition. Richter (2010) identifies that Walsh and Smith “function as seismographs registering the advent of modernity; despite their relative…and catastrophic failure to come to terms with the contradictory social roles with which they are confronted, they, rather than the inflexible defenders of power, patriarchy, and empire, represent a viable although precarious embodiment of modern masculinity” (page 158). This means that the traditional patriarchal model of the Victorian gentleman is not represented in these figures. Rather, there is the modern masculine (i.e. there is an overt show of masculinity, but this hides the reality that the masculine is being challenged by the feminine, as power relations are changing) (Richter, page 158).

In fact, the challenge of the masculine can be seen in the private thoughts of Clarissa (i.e. the Clarissa that is reflected in the mirror). Her husband can be seen as the traditional patriarchal character, which is seen in Clarissa’s introducing him as Wickham (Mrs. Dalloway, page 66). The traditional, handsome and masculine figure of Richard, that wants to keep and protect his wife, is seen in actions that are proper. This includes the giving of gifts, which is not done frequently; rather, when it is expected. As Woolf writes: “he never gave Clarissa presents except a bracelet two or three years ago, which had not been a success. She never wore it. It pained him to remember that she never wore it” (Mrs. Dalloway, page 124). The implication is that Richard buys her the appropriate and proper number of gifts to show Victorian reserved affection, but Clarissa does not return this act with proper appreciation (Mrs. Dalloway, page 124). This illustrates the tension of Clarissa’s character because she may seem proper outwardly to society.

However, the personal interactions show that she is not receptive to the patriarchal expectations; rather, she wants to be free of the yoke and these expectations. The result of this relationship is that Richard feels like a failure because his show of proper patriarchal masculinity is being challenged by the improper reciprocation by Clarissa (Halberstam, page 364). This is because Clarissa’s actions can be viewed as more and more masculine in private relationships, which does peek through her interactions, more generally. The so-called masculine traits have given rise to comments that Clarissa is cold. The text states that: “there was always something cold in Clarissa, he thought. She had always, even as a girl, a sort of timidity, which in middle age becomes conventionality…” (Mrs. Dalloway, page 36). The problem is that she does not engage with others as a woman should (i.e. Clarissa does not engage individuals with feminine charms; instead, she is reserved and measured in a manner that would be described as masculine). Nonetheless, these traits are identified as “timid”, “hard,” “arrogant” and “prudish” (Mrs. Dalloway, page 44). These words are negative because the personality of Clarissa does not fit with the face, that a woman is meant to show. In fact, there are more negative descriptions by the males in the book, which includes, “the death of the soul” (Mrs. Dalloway, page 44); “devilish”, “coldness” and “woodenness” (Mrs. Dalloway, page 45). These characteristics are strong and powerful because the individual is standing up against pressures (i.e. very masculine). The terms devilish and the cad are regarded as desirable qualities in men, by some because these terms can be seen as dashing masculinity (i.e. the Mr. Wickham of the book who would attract femininity and frivolity (Corwin, page 205).

The problem is that these terms are applied to Clarissa who is meant to be Richard’s Lydia because he is the M. Wickham. Clarissa is not as flashy or dashing as Richard. More so, she is viewed as timid, as well as, “iron,” “flint,” and “rigid up to the backbone” (Mrs. Dalloway, page 48). These are qualities of the proper gentleman (i.e. the Mr. Darcy) because a sand-offish, rude and awkward character is part of this exemplification. However, when applied to a woman, it is a negative application, especially when the term states that Clarissa is “cold as an icicle” (Mrs. Dalloway, page 60). The so-called masculinity and dominant characteristics, which have been hidden by her reserve; begin to become increasingly apparent. This is especially so, when she is reflected in the mirror because she believes that her body is ridiculous (Mrs. Dalloway, page 27). The rationale for this application is that she is more pointed and in control, than the expected woman. When Clarissa looks in the mirror, she is faced with the tension of who she is (a dominant woman with more so-called masculine qualities). As the text identifies: “she pursed her lips when she looked in the glass. It was to give her face point. That was her self—pointed; dartlike; definite” (Mrs. Dalloway, page 27).

Her counterpoint is Sally, who is described as “extraordinary beauty of the kind she most admired, dark, large-eyed, with that quality which, since she hadn’t got it herself, she always envied” (Mrs. Dalloway, page 24). There are two factors to be identified in this quote. The first is that Sally is the type of woman that is expected in society, which Clarissa should compensate with greater femininity because she does not have the feminine form. However, she acts with greater masculinity, which is further revealed in the mirror (Butler, page 9). Secondly, there is the subversion of identity, through the mirror because Clarissa identifies how she does not fit with the cultural concept of femininity; but a more powerful and modern woman is revealed (i.e. she is the dominant character, even if her husband does not like it) (Booth, page 113). The subversion of identity in Mrs. Dalloway is part of the feminist message because the principle that women and men exemplify certain characteristics, is flawed.

The expected characteristics are not natural, but a product of society. This is the reason that the use of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice characters are used because there is an assumption that women are to play a certain role. The reality is that Clarissa is torn between these beliefs and the fact that she is dominant; the mirror allows her to reflect on this and lead to empowerment, in a subversive manner, that challenges the expected control of men (Booth, page 113). Although, the application of non-feminine terms is illustrative of society trying to control her and create a scapegoat, through her lack of good looks (and thus the lack of internal beauty) (Steinberg, page 25-26). Overall, Woolf sees the masculinity of Clarissa as a positive development because she challenges the social norms and the restricting of women to the beauty outside, reflecting the beauty within (unless compensated with heightened femininity (Steinberg, page 26). Therefore, there is a feminist message in Mrs. Dalloway that challenges traditional images of the Victorian woman, with a more powerful character that can hold her own in society (although conflicted at times due to traditional beliefs). In other words, the modern woman does not have to be tied down to her look and heightened femininity.

Eliot in The Wasteland makes a juxtaposition between the glorious past and the sordid present, which indicate that the changes in society are not a positive development. In the poem, he states: “But at my back from time to time I hear The sound of horns and motors, which shall bring Sweeney to Mrs. Porter in the spring” (The Wasteland, lines 196-198). The action of bringing Sweeney to Mrs. Porter is an example of the traditional roles of men and women. Additionally, Mrs. Porter illustrates traditional femininity, as the poem states: “O the moon shone bright on Mrs. Porter And on her daughter They wash their feet in soda water” (The Wasteland, lines 199-201). This beautiful image is contrasted against the brutality and sordidness of modernity, which have changed the role of men and women. Eliot wants to recapture traditional values.

However, as Booth identifies, in The Wasteland there is discussion of how greatness and power are being moved from an exclusively male realm, to include women (page 231). The problem is that Eliot does not view this as a positive development because there is the loss of a glorious past, where there are values and beauty. The sordidness that is described in The Wasteland is linked to the empowerment of women (and most notably their sexuality). As Eliot states: “She turns and looks a moment in the glass, Hardly aware of her departed lover; Her brain allows one half-formed thought to pass: “Well now that’s done: and I’m glad it’s over” (The Wasteland, lines 249-252) This is a negative view of the woman who does not comply with the glory of marriage and is not swooning after her lover (i.e. she sees that encounters with her lover as a chore and not a celebration of love). This is an illustration of her empowerment because she is not emotional about the actions; rather, she is logical and links such actions with a duty to quickly relieve herself from. This is an example of sexual emancipation, which is a change in the genders.

In fact, a description of men, with women’s breasts (The Wasteland, line 219) illustrates that there is a crossing over of gender, which is overt. There are elements of the subversive, such as the statement: “I do not know whether a man or a woman — But who is that on the other side of you?” (The Wasteland, lines 364-365). The implication is that the glory is being lost through the aligning of genders, through figures that represent both, which is illustrative of a subversive change. This change is not celebrated in The Wasteland, which is supported by the “Murmur of maternal lamentation” (line 367). Thus, the empowerment of women is a negative occurrence because it is contributing to the sordidness of modernity. The problem is that Eliot recognizes that it is not possible to return to this past, which is why there is a lament and not a struggle.

The aligning of the male and female, is present in both Mrs. Dalloway and The Wasteland. The former sees it as a subversive action to positively empower women, although there are elements of tension between the new role of the male and female. The main truth is that there is a change in faith (i.e. Victorian beliefs to modernism that with it, changes the role of women). Nonetheless, Eliot sees this as a negative development, because there is loss of the feminine. Where Woolf sees the Victorian era as oppression for women; Eliot sees it as an overt loss of glory. The implication is that Eliot is challenging the feminist developments of modernity; whereas Woolf identifies that this movement is important, but can only be undertaken subversively, due to opposition from the faith of the Victorian elite. Both authors engage with gender and sexuality, which is centered from changes in identity for women. Therefore, the impact of this is a significant amount of stress of the psychology of the genders, but the end result is positive for Woolf because it should result in empowerment; whereas it is sordidness for Eliot.

Works Cited:

Eliot, TS. “The Waste Land” (1922). Bartleby. Web. Accessed December 11, 2016

Woolf, V. Mrs. Dalloway (1925, 2nd ed. Vol. 1). Orlando: Harcourt, Brace, & World Inc. 1953

Booth, A. “Greatness Engendered: George Eliot and Virginia Woolf.” Cornell University Press, 1992.

Butler, J. “Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity.” New York: Routledge, 1999.

Steinberg, E.R. “Mrs. Dalloway and T.S. Eliot’s Personal Waste Land.” Journal of Modern Richter, V. “Women constructing men: Female novelists and their male characters, 1750-2000”. In Sarah S. G. Frantz and K. R. Lexington (Eds.), The differential construction of masculinity in the writings of Virginia Woolf. Rowman and Littlefield. 2010. pp. 155-170

Halberstam, J. “The good, the bad and the ugly: Men, women, and masculinity”. In J. K. Gardiner (Ed.), Masculinity studies and feminist theory: New directions Vol. 1, 2002. pp. 344-367)

Bell, V. M. “Misreading “Mrs. Dalloway”. The Sewanee Review, 114(1), 2004. Pp. 93-111 Corwin, DP. Women as Part of the Patriarchy: Masculinity, Women, and Relationships in Virginia Woolf’s Novels. Cultural and Religious Studies, Vol. 3(4), 2015, pp. 201-210 Literature. Vol. 10, 1983. pp. 3-25.

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