Essay: Feminism in Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway
* 'Portrait of a Young Lady in a Red Dress with a Paisley' by Eduard Friedrich Leybold, 1824
Virginia Woolf is one of the greatest writers whose works reflect her philosophy of life and identification of women. She grew up with an intense interest in the feminist question, and her novels hold the key to the meaning of life and the position of women in the existing patriarchal society. She portrays the impact of the patriarchal English society on women’s lives, the loneliness and frustration of women’s lives that had been shaped by the moral, ideological and conventional factors.
Mrs Dalloway, regarded as a masterpiece of Virginia Woolf, is a novel riddled with themes. Woolf has much to say about society and the post-war changes but a steady underlying theme in the book is feminism, the roles of women of that period and their seeming insignificance. Basically it is the character of Clarissa Dalloway, her relation with Sally Seton, and other women characters, Miss Kilman, Lucrezia Warren, who are also clustered around Clarissa in different contexts of the novel, through which Woolf reveals the physical as well as the psychological world of womanhood – their dilemmas, subjectivity, sexuality and conditioning in the traditional patriarchal society.
Woolf fought for women’s individual identity, privacy and freedom in the male-dominated society. These views bloom in the novel Mrs Dalloway. The relationship between Clarissa and Peter underwent a constant tension between love and freedom. Clarissa though craved for love and to be loved, she also wanted privacy and independence of her own. She wanted to preserve her virginity and equated it with freedom as result of an aggressive society where women were snubbed and despised. So, instead of Peter, she chose to marry Richard because she thought Peter would not give the kind of freedom which was essential for her happiness. Again, Peter couldn’t understand the importance of her emotional need. So, Clarissa thought if she would marry Peter, he would have engulfed her and forced her soul.
“For in marriage a little license, a little independence there must between people living together day in day out in the same house; which Richard gave her, and she him (where was he this morning, for instance? Some committee, she never asked what.) But with Peter everything had to be shared, everything gone into.”
Thus, in her decision to marry Richard, she chose privacy over passion.
In the novel, Clarissa’s relationship with her husband, Richard Dalloway, proved to be a failure. Richard was so preoccupied with politics more than his wife. In response to his loyalty to the social duties of upper-class, he left his wife for a meeting that he did not care about. Again, we find Richard was invited to Lady Bruton’s party without his wife. At this Clarissa felt a sense of emptiness and insignificance. Clarissa mocked her husband’s attempt at taking a hot water bottle as a substitute for her warmth:
“And if she raised her head she could just hear the click of the handle released as gently as possible by Richard, who slipped upstairs in his socks and then, as often as not, dropped his hot-water bottle and swore! How she laughed!”
Through the Clarissa – Richard relationship, Woolf emphasizes that marriage is not a guarantee of a happy relationship, or of a mutual understanding between a husband and a wife in a patriarchal society - even while living under the same roof.
Again, these two relationships – Clarissa-Peter and Clarissa-Richard – reveal women’s existence in the society. Both the males, Peter and Richard, viewed Clarissa as a woman, inferior and insignificant. Peter never wanted to understand Clarissa. Rather he was deeply interested in the affairs of the world:
“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.”
He always scolded her and said sarcastically that she would marry a Prime Minister and stand at the top of a staircase. Clarissa felt such comments were pretty hurtful and often wept. Her husband Richard with all his politics viewed Clarissa as a typical wife, a perfect hostess as had been thought by Peter.
Virginia Woolf called for excluding all masculine values of hierarchy, competition and dominance. She called for a society of women as an alternative to the authoritarian structures and insisted on the importance of women’s friendship against these structures. Clarissa’s love for Salley Saton is that alternative to the patriarchal society. Sally is portrayed as an anti-patriarchal woman. She asserted herself as a woman and demanded equal rights for women. Sally became Clarissa’s inspiration to think beyond the walls of Bourton and even beyond the conventional society. Her relationship with Sally contrasted to those of Peter and Richard. Thus, Clarissa broke the authorial patriarchal voice as uniting with women result in an equal relationship. This kind of relationship was a reaction against patriarchy and for the creation of a society for women. Yet both Clarissa and Sally were defeated. They were compelled to ignore their needs because the only accepted female identity was the one that was accepted by patriarchy.
In Mrs Dalloway, the terrible influence of patriarchy is effectively portrayed through the presentation of Miss Kilman and Rezia’s lives. Both were victims of the cruelty of the social and political doctrine of the English society and their only guilt was that they were merely women. What is really tragic about Rezia is not her husband’s insanity or death but the unfriendly manner in which the world treated her. She suffered silently and alone. Even her husband Septimus for whom she left her relatives and country was indifferent to her.
“She was very lonely, she was very unhappy! She cried for the first time since they were married. Far away he heard her sobbing; he heard it accurately, he noticed it distinctively; he compared it to a piston thumping. But he felt nothing. His wife was crying, and he felt nothing.”
Miss Kilman is a psychological victim of the male-dominated society. Her inability to avenge the injustice she suffered drove her to deny her femininity and adopt aggressive masculine values. She turned to be a ruthless woman and her life turned to be darkness and bitterness. She hated Clarissa because she viewed her as a product of the patriarchal society by which she was victimized.
Apart from these frustrated, lonely women characters, Woolf portrayed the character of Elizabeth Dalloway as an example of the unconventional woman. She lacked the enthusiasm in the trivial feminine society of her mother. She had ambitions to have a career and a professional life. She has planned to be doctor, farmer, or to go into parliament.
Lady Bruton is another character whose strong independence as a leader shows the movement towards tolerance of women being in power. Her taking part in politics, hosting business luncheons, ideas of social reformation and her reaction against parties Clarissa threw set forth the idea that not only could a woman take on acts and responsibilities that were traditionally masculine, but she could also reject those that were traditionally feminine.
Therefore, Mrs Dalloway portrays a picture of a patriarchal and imperialistic society, and details the factors that have limited women’s opportunities for a meaningful life. In the novel, women suffer alone, have no individual identity, lack warmth and are compelled to suppress their needs. By writing Mrs Dalloway, Woolf meant to send out a cry against patriarchy and its representatives. She called to destroy the patriarchal structures to give women female identity, to re-write the history of women through female eyes and talk about themselves and their experiences truthfully.
Woolf ends the novel with a hope for the new woman. Her point is that women shouldn’t lose their femininity, and also shouldn’t be limited to it. The woman of the future embraces her femininity and masculinity and makes a choice of how to use that within herself to achieve fulfilment.