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Mrs. Dalloway and Feminism

 Original Title of the Paper: External Perceptions and Feminist Judgments of Women’s Choices Through the Lens of Mrs. Dalloway

            On the surface Clarissa Dalloway is a conformist and a seemingly vapid socialite whose main concern in life is staging an excellent party. But in Woolf’s use of the stream of consciousness technique, we are let in on Clarissa’s secret internal world. Clarissa is not just running errands for her party, she is also having an internal existential crisis. At the same time Woolf shows the juxtaposition of Septimus. He is Clarissa’s opposite in many ways, male vs female, younger vs older, working-class vs upper class, etc. Septimus’ psyche has been damaged by the hardships of life (in his case war), which Clarissa has actively tried to avoid experiencing. However, both characters are examples of the gap between the external and the internal. Externally Septimus is young, healthy, and able-bodied, but internally he is non-functional. Externally Clarissa hasn’t a care in the world, yet she spends the whole day questioning the entirety of the life choices she had made. This focus on the external vs the internal is interesting on its own, but when the lens of feminist criticism is applied to Mrs. Dalloway the questions of choice, perception, and judgement take on a new intensity.   

            The choices women make are almost universally critiqued. In previous eras of feminism there was pressure to prove that a woman’s work, art, and mental capacity were as valuable as a man’s. This began as a thing that needed to be proved to men, but then it morphed into proving to other women one’s right to be a representative of the sex, since that’s how any production of a woman would be viewed. It was not simply the work of Wollstonecraft, Eliot, or Woolf individually, it instantly became the work of women writers, which needed to both stand up to the rubric of men’s opinions, but also somehow represent womankind and all their capabilities. Eliot spends a lot of time railing against “[s]illy novels by lady novelists” in which heiresses with dazzling eyes and wit, who can read the Bible in the original languages and casually quote Cicero in Latin, are the unrealistic, unattainable super-women created to entertain the bored female masses for whom they were composed (Eliot 178, 182). Woolf, in turn, criticizes Eliot for having gotten so famous she lost touch with the subjects about which she wanted to write and that she allows her heroines to “talk too much” (Woolf, Smith, Wade 10-11). Woolf also goes after Wollstonecraft slightly for revising her theories against marriage and living under one roof with a man – Woolf almost chides Wollstonecraft for giving in to societal pressures in this regard (Woolf & Barrett 102). Yet these were the choices Eliot and Wollstonecraft made in their work and their lives. Eliot and Woolf are, naturally, entitled to their opinions, but at the end of the day they were not Eliot’s or Woolf’s choices to make. Woolf, perhaps channeling some of Eliot’s criticism, chose not to write Clarissa as some sort of pillar of perfection, instead writing “[s]he had schemed; she had pilfered. She was never wholly admirable” (Woolf & Fernald 130). And Clarissa makes her choices as well – she had chosen Richard over Peter because, in large part, Richard gave her space while “with Peter everything had to be shared; everything gone into” which Clarissa found “intolerable” (Woolf & Fernald 6). Woolf chose to write in “a sea of voices, waves of words that continually pass” style (Garvey 60) in which the narrative “evolves in a fluid process alternating between semiotic and symbolic” (Garvey 62). Those were Woolf’s choices – and countless readers and critics have critiqued, if not criticized them.

            Perception of those choices sometimes have little connection to reality. Eliot decided in her essay on ‘silly’ women writers that there was somehow something wrong in the rendering of these heroines. But the question must be asked where the harm is in writing such women if the books were being read and enjoyed? Is not anything which encourages reading a good thing? And is it not possible that some woman read one of these impossible heroines and set the goal for herself of learning Latin? Clarissa is called “the perfect hostess” and the bulk of the book paints throwing a good party as her main focus. However, being called a perfect hostess by Peter is taken as an insult by her more than once. It sends her into tears (Woolf and Fernald 6) and makes her wince – and Peter meant it to be taken as such; he was trying to hurt her by saying it (Woolf & Fernald 44). So how is the phrase “perfect hostess” to be perceived – as a waste of a life, or a worthy pursuit?

            The judgement which accompanies perceptions of choices can be blinding. In her essay on feminist criticism, Gubar describes us a living in “a culture all too willing to exploit disagreements among women in a backlash against all or some” (Gubar 880). But where is the line between growing the discourse and improving writing overall, and grievance-based infighting? While the reader might initially agree with, for example, Eliot’s derision of the heroines of the silly novels – where does the term silly originate? Does it not smack of a patriarchal dismissal of feminine frippery? Is it not unkind and dismissive of one woman to eviscerate something which financially supported another woman and entertained yet another? Obviously, the discourse of feminist criticism is important and, fortunately, evolving over time. And it is hoped that “we can heal feminist discourse of the infirmities that made us cranky with one another” (Gubar 902) so that more questions can be asked with less applied patriarchy. Culturally speaking, we are given a heavy dose of the male gaze; it’s endemic to our lexicon of art and beauty. It is therefore crucial to have women’s voice heard both in works of art as well as in criticism – even when they seem on the surface to be mere in-fighting.

One of the most interesting, and most feminist, things about Mrs. Dalloway is that within a book that is superficially about the superficial there is actually the deepest exploration of a woman’s inner life – everything which crosses Clarissa’s mind finds a home on the page whether it is shallow or substantive, a question or an answer, or somewhere in the grey areas between them. Clarissa is a whole woman with talents and faults, and fears and choices. And while flaws can be found within her as a character, and probably within Mrs. Dalloway as a work – it cannot possibly be called a “silly” novel.

 


 

Works Cited

Eliot, George. The Essays of "George Eliot". Funk & Wagnalls, [c1883]. Nineteenth Century Collections Online, link.gale.com/apps/doc/ARGVFQ140905709/NCCO?u=asuniv&sid=bookmark-NCCO&xid=bc08c61c&pg=178.

Garvey, Johanna X. K. “Difference and Continuity: The Voices of Mrs. Dalloway.” College English, vol. 53, no. 1, National Council of Teachers of English, 1991, pp. 59–76, https://doi.org/10.2307/377969.

Gubar, Susan. “What Ails Feminist Criticism?” Critical Inquiry, vol. 24, no. 4, The University of Chicago Press, 1998, pp. 878–902, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1344111.

Woolf, Virginia, Ali Smith, and Francesca Wade. Genius and Ink: Virginia Woolf on how to read. London: TLS Books, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers, 2019. Kindle edition, and https://bblearn.nau.edu/bbcswebdav/pid-11472738-dt-content-rid-204529897_1/xid-204529897_1

Woolf, Virginia, and Anne E. Fernald. Mrs. Dalloway: Authoritative Text, Contexts, Criticism. W. W. Norton & Company, Inc, 2021.

Woolf, Virginia, and Michèle Barrett. Women and Writing. Chapter on Mary Wollstonecraft. New York London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980.

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