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T.S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf were contemporaries of each other. Both were born in the 1880s and lived through a time of cataclysmic world events and changing social values. As a result of this, they inevitably wrote on many of the same issues and topics, but that is where the similarities between them end. The two authors may have grown up within the same world context and written on the same range of topics, but their shared circumstances did not breed solidarity between them. Eliot was a conservatist, a person who was reluctant of social change, while Woolf was the exact opposite, a leftist who supported the move towards an egalitarian society (McIntire, 2), which is reflected heavily through both of their texts. Eliot and Woolf both gave social commentary on a wide range of topics, but this essay will focus on one of the most prominent topics of their time and their intrinsic interests: gender and sexuality.
Virginia Woolf¿½s To The Lighthouse investigates the sexuality of women and challenges the expected roles of the female sex. While the male characters are also important within the context of the novel, this investigation is achieved mainly through the characterisation of the two main female characters in the novel, Mrs Ramsay and Lily Briscoe, whose narratives are the most fully developed throughout the text. In terms of gender roles, both of these characters represent different ends of the feminist spectrum: Mrs Ramsay represents the ideal woman of a patriarchal society, while Lily Briscoe represents the exact opposite. She transcends the traditional, patriarchal values of society and becomes a woman who serves her own interests.
Mrs Ramsay is depicted as a maternal and subservient female. She subscribes to the philosophy that women exist to tend to the needs of others, to gain and love a husband and to complement those around them, especially males. This is exemplified in the line from her inner monologue that ¿½she had the whole of the other sex under her protection; for reasons she could not explain, for their chivalry and valour¿½ (13). In short, Mrs Ramsay¿½s goal in life was to foster the egos of men and to nurture their health. Portrayed as a delicate romantic with soft feminine qualities, Mrs Ramsay caters to the needs and interests of men, as the patriarchal society of that time would expect of her.
If Mrs Ramsay is the Victorian era¿½s idealistic woman, then Lily Briscoe is Woolf¿½s. Woolf¿½s autobiographical essay In A Room of One¿½s Own can be used as a supporting document to help us understand her concerns with gender. As it is mentioned in the foreword of this document, the focus of the essay is on ¿½the obstacles faced by any woman who would become an artist¿½ (Woolf, 4). These ¿½obstacles¿½, as they are outlined within the text, are the direct result of subsisting in a patriarchal society almost as a second-class citizen. Lily mirrors Woolf¿½s sentiments in this regard. She represents Woolf¿½s idea of what a woman should be. She is the living image of an independent and free woman, a modern woman if you will, unlike her counterpart Mrs Ramsay. Through her, Woolf challenges the attitudes and values of a society in which males are the supreme, unquestioned figures of authority.
Lily¿½s transcendence of these patriarchal values is captured most effectively through the process and completion of her painting. The painting serves as a symbol of Lily¿½s success. It reflects the notion that a woman is able to pursue her own dreams without the help of a male or husband, which deviates from the social norm within the Victorian era. Before Lily, the mental outlook of society was that a woman could gain happiness only through serving a male, either as a wife or a mother, which posed many inconveniences for the woman who wanted more for her life. Ronchetti agrees with this, claiming that ¿½the relationship between women artists and society was particularly problematic for the women of Woolf¿½s generation¿½ (4). In short, the structure of society at that time restricted women from pursuing and succeeding at their own lives. By empowering and presenting a character such as Lily Briscoe in To The Lighthouse, Woolf challenged the gender roles of men and women of her time and expressed her feminist feelings towards the oppression of the female sex.
Women were groomed into being the perfect accessories for their husbands during the Victorian era; they would stay at home, were seen and not heard, were prim and proper ¿½ just like Mrs Ramsay. We see a shift from this ideal in Woolf¿½s text through her construction of a strong ¿½modern woman¿½.
Conversely, men of the Victorian era were expected to be brave and upstanding, hardworking and romantic, patriotic and courteous ¿½ essentially the same characteristics we have always associated with the perfect man. Like Woolf¿½s text, we see a definite shift in these expected gender roles in The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock. In this poem, Eliot turns to the male sex and portrays the new ¿½modern man¿½ through Prufrock who, just like the ¿½modern woman¿½ in To The Lighthouse, has made a departure from the ideal Victorian stereotype, but as a man. Mitchell agrees with this in his essay on Prufrock, claiming that Prufrock himself is ¿½shy, cultivated, oversensitive, sexually retarded (many have said impotent), ruminative, isolated, [and] self-aware to the point of solipsism¿½, traits that he believes characterise the ¿½Man of early Modernism¿½ and traits that hardly qualify for a strong Victorian man.
Prufrock wants to be a desirable man, someone that is courteous, charming, passionate; all characteristics a stereotypical woman would treasure in a potential mate, yet Prufrock knows deep down that he has no chance with the women in this poem because, to put it bluntly, he simply does not have these attributes. This is indicated through his ¿½taking of tea¿½. He knows that the extent of his romantic or sexual life will stretch only so far as the act of drinking tea and conversing politely with women, and it will go no further because he is not a viable partner. He fears rejection and sinks into an obsession with his own insecurities and self-consciousness, pondering to himself why he is so undesirable: ¿½is he getting too thin? Is his hair getting too thin?¿½
Prufrock¿½s sense of inadequacy is also linked to the way he sees ¿½the women come and go/Talking of Michelangelo¿½ who, in the context of the poem, is a reference to the perfect male. Women desire a man of Michelangelo¿½s calibre ¿½ that is evident through their chatter about him ¿½ but Prufrock will never measure up to such a man. In this way, Eliot suggests that it is women¿½s high expectations of men that ultimately cause them to feel insufficient. This is supported once more through the way he spots other ¿½lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows¿½ as though he is not alone in his suffering, but all men suffer collectively.
In The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock women are portrayed as the downfall of the narrator¿½s happiness and, by extension, the happiness of all males. Through Prufrock, Eliot is admitting or at least musing that men (especially ¿½modern men¿½) are a new gender underclass. They are unable to satisfy women because females are too demanding in their search for a partner. In this way, unlike Woolf, Eliot casts a negative light on the social change and gender relations that accompanied the onset of the modern era.
By examining the way gender is presented through Woolf¿½s text as opposed to Eliot¿½s, we can see how differently the two authors attack the subject of sexuality and gender relations. We have also seen how their opposing social and political views have influenced the way gender is presented through these texts. Whereas Woolf celebrates social change and the rise of feminism in the modern era through Lily, Eliot mourns it through Prufrock, reflecting the two authors¿½ different socio-political values: feminism verse conservatism. We can see that both authors have used the concept of gender and the different sexes as tools to comment on the state of their society and to express the way they feel about the changing roles of men and women.