Feminism in Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs Dalloway”

 

Many of Virginia Woolf’s works have been attributed with the promotion of feminism, and as such, the topic of feminism in her novels is broad and rich with content. To try and keep this relatively interesting, I’ve been very selective with what I’ve included, and picked just a small selection of points that I found to be the most interesting when I first read Mrs Dalloway.

I must confess that modernist literature, although refreshing, has never really been my thing. Furthermore, the plot of Mrs Dalloway at a first glance, wouldn’t be something that on paper would interest me. However when I started actually reading it, one character in particular that stood out for me, was Sally Seaton. Sally Seaton is perhaps the most obvious advert for feminism in the novel. She enters the narrative as the embodiment of 20th century feminism, personifying independence and instinctively arguing over women’s rights with the patriarchal Hugh Whitbread. Peter Walsh reminisces “One of the things he remembered best was an argument on Sunday morning at Bourton about women’s rights (that antediluvian topic), when Sally suddenly lost her temper, flared up” (page 62). The narration in this passage aligns with the traditional and widely accepted consensus that women should be shackled by their gender. Describing the topic as “antediluvian” and suggesting that Sally was unreasonable in the way she “flared up”. During the early 20th century women’s rights were still very limited, and Mrs. Dalloway takes place in the recent aftermath of women achieving the right to vote in 1918. That being said, the controversial argument of women’s rights would very much have been a large topic of debate, especially post factum of women’s suffrage.

Sally also adopts an open and liberalist ideology. She lives life in the moment, and appears not to be governed by politics nor politeness. She is a rare example of a woman showing independence.  However, in many ways the somewhat anti climatic subduing of Sally’s once free spirit is very much reflective of the tight patriarchal grip that was ever closing around women of the period. Sally portrays a very different image to the one Clarissa paints when she arrives at the party. Once idolized and admired for her outrageous and shocking nature, now seems to be tamed by the patriarchal society she once detested. Once sally referred to marriage as a “catastrophe” for women, now she has adopted her husband’s name, referred to as “Lady Rosseter”, a mother of five. Even Peter Walsh struggles to align with Sally’s new found maternal role, “he really could not call her ‘lady Rosseter’” (page 158) being shocked that Sally has surrendered to the male governed society. This is indicative of the way in which the culture of the early 20th century overturned and consumed the spirit of feminism. Sally’s personality seems far more dry and dull now that she has been tamed under the thumb of her male companion, in comparison to her once exciting and engaging traits.

What is perhaps most noteworthy about the relationship between Sally and Clarissa, Is the way in which Woolf brings into question the pairs sexuality. Woolf writes “Sally stopped: picked a flower; kissed her on the lips” (page 30). During the period of publication there were still legal restraints on homosexuality, making this act shocking, for both the reader and Clarissa. What makes this moment so powerful is how Clarissa reflects on the kiss “Then came the most exquisite moment of her whole life” suggesting that this was much more than just a passing moment of folly. Upon reflection she even says “had not that, after all, been love?” Woolf writes “it had a quality which could only exist between women, between women just grown up” (page 29). Here the relationship appears very matriarchal, having a bond that cannot be as strong nor as special with men, but one that can only exist between women. The focus between the relationship of Sally and Clarissa is representative of this concept. Woolf essentially uses her two characters attraction a form of feminist protest, rejecting the need for male involvement in a loving relationship.

One of the less obvious ways that Woolf promotes feminism, is not through her promotion of the female characters, but her criticism of the male ones. In particular, the physicians. Being a predominantly male profession, their arrogance and ignorance is almost comical.

Woolf herself suffered a history of mental illness, and there is no doubt that her own experiences with the ignorance of male physicians had inspired her writings. She has been described by Stephen Trombley as being a “victim of male medicine”. Her own failure to have her depression successfully treated is arguably what lead to her suicide in 1941. This male dominated profession is an ill image representative of a particular sex and class. Through Doctor Holmes and Sir William Bradshaw, Virginia Woolf promotes her own feminist views, by presenting these characters in an unfavourable light. It is the hounding from the male Doctors that drives Septimus to suicide, as the narrator says moments before his death “he didn’t want to die”. There is almost a predatory aspect to the encounter that the Doctors want to devour his soul. Behaviours that are inherent of a primitive desire to peak their masculinity. Woolf describes Bradshaw as “the brute with the red nostrils” and uses aggressive verbs such as “he swooped, he devoured, he shut people up”, giving him connotations to a predatory eagle. Sir William is a powerful representative of the masculine aspect of human nature. When the two strands of story intersect at Clarissa’s party, she too instinctively knows that Bradshaw has caused Septimus’ death. “Suppose he had the passion, and had gone to Sir William Bradshaw, a great doctor yet to her extremely evil”, and continues “If this young man had gone to him, and Sir William impressed him, like that, with his power, might he not then have said (indeed she felt it now), Life is made intolerable; they make intolerable, men like that” (page 157). Here Woolf presents very plainly that male ignorance and arrogance has caused the suffering of the otherwise innocent.

Despite obtaining the vote in 1918, women’s rights were far from equal. In the wake of the suffragette movement, feminist literature was becoming more and more integral in the promotion of equality. Woolf draws from her own experiences of male oppression, be it from the male physicians she suffered in her own life, to living through and seeing the horrors of the First World War, and the destruction that men caused. Since its publication in 1925 by Hogarth Press, Mrs Dalloway has remained an important and inspiring piece of feminist literature.

 

Some writing on Woolf that I found useful when writing this:

Barrett, Eileen, Virginia Woolf: Lesbian Readings, NYU Press, 1997

Montashery, Iraj, A feminist reading of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, Univeristy Putra Malaysia, 2012

Trombley Stephen, All that summer she was mad Virginia Woolf and her Doctor, 1981

 

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