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Feminism in Viriginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 2551 words Published: 20th Sep 2021

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Viriginia Woolf’s work Mrs. Dalloway is a very diverse work. It has a lot of ideas and topics to analyse and discuss. One of the most important issue in the novel is feminism. A lot of scholars and literarists have debated on that topic and is still obscure and does not show clear perspective on itself. First of all I would like to write about feminism in general and later its impact on Virginia Woolf and appearance in the work.

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Feminism can be roughly defined as a movement that seeks to enhance the quality of women’s lives by defying the norms of society based on male dominance and subsequent female which implies the emancipation of women from the shackles, restrictions, norms and customs of society. It demands that women should be treated as autonomous subjects, and not as passive objects. It seeks to achieve equality between men and women in moral, social, economic and political fields. The objective of that movement is the creation of a new identity for women and making them aware of their rights. Women’s education was possible only in a way that suited their claimed weak nature such as sewing, nursing and painting. The sole vocation for women was marriage. According to that role, women couldn’t revolt because of fear, shame and rejection by society. The public world implied that men are strong mentally and physically. They were allowed to work, and were given proper education such as mathematics or science. The sole vocation of men was to work and build society. That formula of dividing the world into two worlds was against human nature. Accordingly, it led to the emergence of several feminist groups which attempted to provide solutions to women’s question. The feminist groups could be classified into liberal, Marxist, radical, psychoanalytic, social, existentialist and post-modernist. None of them has developed a comprehensive answer to the feminist question. But such coordination and understanding among them can make feminists achieve their goals, and help them eradicate women’s sufferings concretely. [1] 

Women’s writing began to grow as a separate category of being focused on quite recently. In the West, women’s writing started to develop from the belief that they have been underrepresented as a topic of scholars. Virginia Balisn characterizes the growth in interest since 1970 in women’s writing as “powerful”. Much of this early period of feminist literary scholarship was given over to the rediscovery and reclamation of texts written by women. Studies such as Dale Spender’s Mothers of the Novel (1986) and Jane Spencer’s The Rise of the Woman Novelist (1986) were ground-breaking in their insistence that women have always been writing. [2] Virginia Woolf was one of the major characters of women writers.

She was subjected to a depressive atmosphere and patriarchal rule in her family. She was affected by her father’s domination of his wife and daughters. After the death of her mother and half-sister, her father’s demands and needs for sympathy and attention from his daughters increased. She was also affected by the sexual expression of power and manipulation of her step-brothers. Her strong admiration for women was coupled with growing dislike for males’ domination, represented by her father and step-brothers especially by George and Gerald. She and Vanessa formed a league together and united against the depressing atmosphere and patriarchal rule in their family. On the basis of this relationship, Woolf appreciated the need for women’s friendship and continued to insist on the importance of women’s friendship against patriarchal machinery. Being aware of the importance of the need for all women to rebel against the patriarchal system, Woolf examined the literary works and biographies of women writers such as Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Mary Wollstonecraft, Russell Mitford and others. She examined their lives and the way they translated their resentment of males’ dominance in literature. She discovered that killing the stereotyped feminine, “the angel of the house”, as Woolf called her, was a part of the occupation of women writers. These women writers maintained their integrity, and insisted upon their own identities against patriarchal society. She believed that the artist needs shared goals, tradition and continuity. Woolf worked for and was influenced by several feminist groups such as the Suffrage Movement, World Women Organization, National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies and Women Cooperative Guild. Social feminists believed in the distinctiveness of women’s values and capabilities. [3] 

Virginia Woolf dedicated her major novels to analyze the patriarchal English society. She portrayed different types of women in various contexts. She opened women’s eyes on their inferior status and provided them with a female tradition to rely on. She strived to provide women with the proper clues for having a meaning in life. She believed that such meaning would lead to a purpose in life, and thus it would create a modern and normal life. [4] 

Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway was published in 1925. The writer tends to write about a lot of themes and feminism is one of the most underlying topics in it which details the roles of women at the time period and their seeming insignificance. The story is about a day in which Clarissa Dalloway keeps a party and the novel tells about the preparing and the outcome of it. During this, she reflects on her life and feels even though most of them are ordinary and trivial. Woolf wanted to show through this point that women’s lifestyle at that time are mostly trivial because of the constraints of them.

A very subtle but feminist tone can be felt right from the beginning. Clarissa goes out to buy the flowers for her party and. She immediately starts to think about Peter Walsh to whom she nearly married. Considering her memories of dialogue between herself and Peter we can draw the conclusion that although he loved her he did not shared with Clarissa his feelings which can be explained with the fact that Peter had a lot of more important matters to deal with. [5] 

“But Peter-however beautiful the day might be, and the trees and the grass, and the little girl in pink-Peter never saw a thing of all that. He would put on his spectacles, if she told him to; he would look. It was the state of the world that interested him; Wagner, Pope’s poetry, people’s characters eternally, and the defects of her own soul. How he scolded her! How they argued! She would marry a Prime Minister and stand at the top of a staircase; the perfect hostess he called her (she had cried over it in her bedroom), she had the makings of the perfect hostess, he said.” [6] 

This remembers Clarissa to the fact that she did right when not marrying him, because with her husband, Richard Dalloway, they keep a little distance, as it should be in a marriage.

Clarissa continues to think about the possibility to have been married to Peter throughout the day, she has the feeling that her life would have been different if not marry to Richard, still the most intensely emotional and romantic memories belong to Sally Saton. But it was not an accepted thing to have an affection to the same sex, that is why it was impossible to confess what she felt because it would have destroyed her dignity and caused feelings of shame which were imposed upon her by the societal standards of her time. Instead she has married to Richard Dalloway which was expected from her and outwardly embraced a life of duty. [7] 

She was a woman who had maintained her appearance, was mother to a daughter, and fulfilled her social obligations such as her role of hostess to parties. She perhaps could not confess that this life was not the one she desired and was the cause of her musings throughout the day.

She somehow suppressed her real feelings and tried to meet the demands of the age and society to her. It was real hard to live without liking what she did and hiding what she felt but as women had not much rights at this time she had no other opportunities than accepting subserviency and not to rebel against the standard.

The sense of a wife’s duty is also demonstrated in the character of Lucrezia Warren Smith, wife of Septimus Smith who is said to be Clarissa’s parallel character. Although she loves her husband very much but she feels the burden of having to care about Septimus who is suffering from mental illness. Doctors have either diagnosed him as having nothing wrong with him, or have not been able to care for him at all. Lucrezia finds herself in the role of constant caregiver, and begins to see her husband as less of a man. [8] 

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A very critical point in the novel is the death of Septimus. The whole story takes a turn and it has a little bit shocking impact on everyone, but especially on Clarissa. At first she felt angry and kept grudges towards Lady Bradshaw saying: why she has to destroy the atmosphere with that bad news. She wanted to keep away this heavy word “death” from the party because her life felt so small in comparison to that thought, a mere wife and party planner. Most women would have thought in that way.

Eventually she embraced the thought and savoured it, as it made her feel more alive, and allowed her to cherish and feel glad for the feelings of being alive, and the things that she had, although in her current state of mind, her life could be summed up as trivial, barely a wife and party planner.

Although the character of Clarissa is pictured as a suppressed woman, there are indications in the novel that some women were beginning to take on roles of power. For instance, Lady Bruton was a lady in a position of power. [9] 

She behaved sometimes as a good leader, she had dignity and everyone was listening to her. She could do such things that average people could not. It is very strange in the case of a woman because they are usually for being lead and not leading others. This situation (being appreciated) could only happen at that time if the woman was in a powerful position. Although it might have happened in some cases, it was very rare and that is why it is weird to be subservient to a woman.

Virginity, a characteristic trait of the Virgin Mary, which she “alone of all her sex” managed to preserve, became in the nineteenth-century an ideal which all women were supposed to strive to achieve. The nineteenth century glorified the woman as a domestic animal, as an angel who is completely unselfish, sympathetic and charming, a woman who has a difficult family life and has to scarify herself everyday. This conception can be bounded to Virgin Mary’s appearance, behaviour and humble approach to God. People in the nineteenth century imagined women (and also took it for granted to behave in a way like this) to be resembled to her. [10] 

Two facts concerning Clarissa, however, distance her from the “angel type”, and restrain her from sanctification: her declared agnosticism (she did not believe in God) and the fact that her virginity is rendered an act of conscious choice. Her conscious denial of a male-centred sexuality imposed on her by patriarchal ideology, along with her inability to perform her wifely duties (characterized by Woolf as a “failure” on her part), render Clarissa’s virginity a far more complex issue. [11] 

Mrs. Dalloway’s virginity is sharply contrasted to her power to arouse fleshly desire in others. Peter Walsh, once a rejected lover of Clarissa’s, is still deeply attracted by her even though time has passed and many-many years have gone so far they loved each other so intensely. Miss Kilman, dedicated to religion, finds it difficult to control the flesh after her encounter with Mrs. Dalloway. Rather than being a sign of mere modesty, Clarissa’s virginity seems to be related to the ancient Greek and pagan notion of virginity as a sign of power and autonomy.

However, the word “failure” is referring to Clarissa’s continuous fails to meet her husband’s demands and her duties towards him. It may be explained with Clarissa conscious option to reject men, and remain single being unconquered like an ancient pagan goddess or as a negative reflection of her to be normal in the question of sexuality. [12] 

The character of Miss Kilman is treated by the writer with exceptional ruthlessness. She describes her as a “monster”, ugly body, hair, no clothes suited her, she wore very simple and green cloth indeed, which made her nasty. Defined by a patriarchal society as a monster-woman, her consolation is not the religion which would keep balance and help to control the desire of flesh, but food. Sometimes it seemed that the only thing she lived for was food (except for Elizabeth). She is adverse of the maternal ideal. A mother offers her breast to her baby, tries to shelter the infant from every danger and rejects all of her wishes, push them back just to meet her child’s demand and valet the baby. As opposed to these, Miss Kilman is adverse in everything. She only wants to feed her hunger physically and mentally as well. She does not give, she takes. Miss Kilman is the “other” Madonna, the reverse side of the Virgin Mary’s image. She tries to achieve a birth in the other way round, as she wants to absorb Elizabeth. She wanted to make Elizabeth hers forever and never let her. [13] 

This behaviour rather more relates to a man than a women. She completely turned from the inside out somewhere in her life because it is not normal for a woman. Instead of being smooth and amiable she is wild and ruthless.


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