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Towards a Feminine/Feminist/Female Discourse
of Virginia Woolf
Advisor: Professor Yuan-jung Cheng
By Jing-yun Huang
A Dissertation Submitted to
The Department of Foreign Languages and Literature
National Sun Yat-sen University
in Partial Fulfilment
of the Requirements for the Degree of
Doctor of Philosophy
July 2004
I would like to express my deepest appreciation to my advisor Dr. Yuan-jung
Cheng for her scholarly insight and her patience in helping me through the rocky parts
of this dissertation.
My sincere thanks also go to the chairperson of our department Dr. Shu-li Chang
for her warm support and consistent encouragement when I was in a state of bodily
and mental prostration.
I am grateful to my friends Susan Lin, Christine Feng and Sheue-yun Huang,
who have been very supportive and helpful, and Zoe Chen who helps me with
computer problems.
At last but surely not the least, I would dedicate this dissertation to my mother
and my husband, without whose care and understanding this dissertation would never
be achieved.
頁數:166 頁
然不同的特質;我? 可以說終其一生,吳爾芙都在找這個句子。對吳爾芙而言,
陰性書寫(women’s writing/righting)的意義有二,一為撥亂返正,反威權反
Towards a Feminine/Feminist/Female Discourse
of Virginia Woolf
This dissertation explores Virginia Woolf’s concept of “a woman’s sentence”
and the significance and possibility of “a woman’s language.” It demonstrates how
Woolf finds a new way to write fiction that expresses women’s values and her
resistance and disruption of a traditional discourse.
Chapter 1 focuses on the theoretical backgrounds and key points of the debate on
the possibility of a discourse, a language or a mode of writing capable of expressing
the unique woman’s experience in culture.
Using a wide variety of critical
approaches (including historical, feminist, psychoanalytic, and post-modernist
perspectives), this chapter contrasts the traditional masculine discourse with Woolf’s
discursive feminine narrative.
Chapter 2 deals with Virginia Woolf’s plural-consciousness narrative
technique as the fluidification of the rigid realistic structure, aiming to present its
discursive multiplicity and fluidity characteristic of women.
It is through the
exploration of a language unmarked by culture coded as masculine that Woolf
discovers or develops the stream-of-consciousness technique and unconventional
representation. She goes back to the pre-referential stage of language searching for a
language untouched by culture, as a suitable medium to voice the female
Woolf presents the pre-speech (semiotic or pre-oedipal) level of
consciousness. Her representation of different consciousnesses that “drift” from past
to present, and her texts which “flood” with feelings, make the narrative feminine.
Chapter 3 rebuts Elaine Showalter’s rejection of Virginia Woolf as “flight
into androgyny” to “evade confrontation with her own painful femaleness.” It
refreshes readers with Woolf’s elusive “woman-manly” or “man-womanly” dialogic
narration as de-centering the monologic patriarchal narrative. The idea of
“androgyny” defined by Woolf is seen as recognition of the fluidity of gender and an
ideal state of mind of a great writer. Since cultures are seen as patriarchal, those
experiences of which are specific to women are excluded, and cannot be articulated or
shared in available discourse.
The “im-masculinization” of a writer’s mind is an
“active claim” of feminist criticism instead of a “passive flight” from femaleness.
Chapter 4 presentsVirginia Woolf’s central symbol, water as the maternal
element and the feminine liquid, as significant in her thinking and writing, and as
opposed to the “time-bound, land-locked world of the masculine ego.”
Women in
Woolf’s novels are associated with the flux, men with the solid. Both metaphysical
positions, the solid and the fluid, are elements necessary to Woolf’s vision of life and
techniques of narration.
In order to capture the elusive tides of life, Woolf’s
narrative in her works is streamy, wavelike, and oceanic.
Her discursive coup is to
overwhelm the land-based, patriarchal tradition of unified authoritative static narrative
and chronological plot by infusing her dis-course (disrupting the conventional course
of narration) with aqua, an ever-changing dynamic life.
Chapter 5 draws attention to Woolf’s idea that there is a “natural” way for
women to write, a distinctive “woman’s sentence,” and concludes with the idea that
“naturalness” is historically contingent.
As women change, and their social roles
and circumstantial realities evolve, what is “natural” to them will presumably change
as well.
Feminine writing has evolved from imitation, through protest, to
It’s a “writing practice” instead of a “literary theory,” a process
instead of a product, a sentence-in-making, and a writing-of-becoming.
It is not a
stable or coherent body of knowledge. It only presents itself in its narrative
experimentation, not in theoretical conclusions drawn or literary traditions outlined.
I. Polyphony and Heteroglossia of the Feminine Discourses
A. History: Patriarchal tradition vs. women’s writing
B. Psychoanalysis: Women as lack & absence
C. Feminism: Women as multiplicity & flexibility
D. Bakhtin: Feminine as dialogic & polyphonic
II. Stream of Consciousness and Feminine Writing
A. History and Development: From realism to modernism
B. Theory
1. Feminine equivalent of realism
2. Pre-speech level of language
3. Fluidification of structure
C. Practice: Mrs. Dalloway as a “Schizophrenic Novel”
III. Androgyny and Feminine Writing
A. Critique and Defense: Elaine Showalter vs. Woolf
B. Theory
1. Redressing the imbalance of the discourse
2. Immasculination of the discourse
3. Integrity of the creative mind
4. Bisexuality as feminine
5. Lesbianism vs. Fascism
6. Rebirth of Shakespeare’s sister
C. Practice: Orlando as a Linguistic Symbol Or/and
IV. Water Imagery and Feminine Writing
A. Significance: Historical definition & Woolf’s death in water
B. Theory
1. Water as feminine liquid
2. Dissolution of masculine ego
3. Fluidity of gender and genre
C. Practice: The Waves as Aquatic Aesthetics
V. Approximation of the Feminine
A. Sentence-in-making
B. Subject-on-trial
C. Genre-of-becoming
Works Cited
A Room of One’s Own (1929)
A Writer’s Diary (1965)
Collected Essays (1967)
The Common Reader (1932)
The Diary of Virginia Woolf (1975-1980)
Mrs. Dolloway (1925)
“Modern Fiction” (1919)
Orlando: A Biography (1978)
The Voyage Out (1915)
The Waves (1931)
Women and Writing (1979)
Chapter 1
A Polyphony and Heteroglossia of the Feminine Discourses
“I have the feeling of a woman, but I have only the language of men.”
(Women and Writing 67)
Is pen a metaphorical penis?
(The Madwoman in the Attic)
“[A] woman’s composing is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs.”
(AROO 61)
“To write, or read, or think, or to inquire,
Would cloud our beauty [. . .].” (AROO 66)
“I have the feeling of a woman, but I have only the language of men” (WW 67).
Female writers were considered by Virginia Woolf as suffering the handicap of having
to use a medium which is essentially a male instrument fashioned for male purposes.
Since language is male-oriented, is there a form of language which is free from this
bias, or even in some way approximates the female, and a discourse, a language or a
mode of writing which is inherently feminine? There has been a long-standing
tradition of endless debates on this issue. This dissertation aims to put together
works about feminine writing, especially the writing practice of Virginia Woolf, in a
project to show what a female discourse, or a female sentence, or a feminine writing,
or lecriture feminine actually is.
Feminine writing has been expressed in two ways.
It can be understood from
the fate and aim of the women writers. From the perspective about women’s fate,
women’s writing is women’s righting.
When women write, they try to correct the
wrongness imposed upon them from the patriarchal literary tradition because of their
female status. Besides redressing the imbalance shown in the literary tradition,
women aim to find a true language which can really express female experience.
Therefore, writing/righting is a kind of feminist poetics.
Feminine writing
progresses from women’s righting to women’s writing, no matter it is Elaine
Showalter’s three-phase development: feminine (imitation), feminist (protest), female
(self-expression), or Toril Moi’s three-period distinctions: feminist (political), female
(biological), feminine (cultural), or Julia Kristeva’s three-stage struggle: radical
feminism (equality demanded), liberal feminism (femininity extolled),
anti-metaphysical feminism (dichotomy rejected). Femininity includes all these
struggles and developments of women; it changes with the progression of women’s
writing history from oppression through suppression to expression. According to
Woolf, “woman’s gift of making a world of her own wherever she happened to be” is
“purely feminine” (MD 114). The process is more important than the content and
the writing practice counts more than the writing itself.
By the end of the 18th
century “female” and “feminine” were understood to be synonymous. The reasons
for “phasing” as female, feminine, or feminist are complex: partly, it is the result of
the view that feminist criticism required a terminology; it was to attain theoretical
respectability. More importantly, there is a great need to establish a sense of
progress, enabling early and cruder examples of feminine writing to be given rightful
credit and acknowledgement.
Understanding that female literary tradition comes
from the still evolving relationships between women writers and their society, the
three words “feminine,” “feminist,” and “female” will be used interchangeably in this
dissertation to designate feminine writing is an ongoing writing practice departing
from the patriarchal tradition and progressing toward a proper balanced state between
According to Virginia Woolf (1882-1941), one of the most innovative forces
within modern literature, one of the founders of contemporary feminism, “a woman’s
writing is always feminine; it cannot help being feminine: the only difficulty lies in
defining what we mean by feminine” (WW 70).
“What is a woman?”
assures us, she does not know. She does “not believe that anybody can know until
she has expressed herself in all the arts and professions open to human skill” (60).
Through her whole writing career, she never stops trying without wishing to add to
and qualify her attempts at a definition. She develops and refines her concept over
the course of a lifetime. Feminine writing, according to her, is then left untheorized;
it is still in process of formation and modification.
A “female sentence,” in fact, is a
“sentence-in-making,” and a “feminine writing” is the “writing-of-becoming.”
Feminine writing is an experimental writing “process” instead of a finished literary
“product,” a writing “practice” instead of a literary “theory.” In Woolf’s words,
women writers should keep on writing “to try the accepted forms, to discard the unfit,
to create others which are more fitting,” “before there is freedom or achievement”
(WW 67). Feminine writing “will not be in this generation or in the next that she will
have adjusted her position or given a clear account of her powers” (67). Woolf
dwells her hope of a true feminine writing in those “who are in process of showing us
by [their] experiments what a woman is” (60), in those “who are in process of
providing us, by [their] failures and successes, with that extremely important piece of
information” (60), in “the twilight of the future” (AROO 83), and in “the future of
fiction” (83). She unceasingly encourages women writers and assures them that
“[w]e are approaching, if we have not yet reached” (WW 48) a true feminine writing.
She examines the validity with her lifetime and exemplifies feminine writing in her
experimental narrative of “stream of consciousness,” of “androgyny,” of “water
imagery” as a literary mother of women writers, and provides an alternative view of
reality to the male writers. From her “marked differences of plot and incident” and
her “infinite differences in selection, method and style,” none of us “can possibly
mistake” (71) her writing for a man’s writing.
Throughout her work, Woolf consistently argues that the position of women,
which is socially and historically determined, has significant consequences on
women’s writing. She points to the difficulties in overcoming the proscriptions
against women’s intellectual work, and the obstacles encountered in trying to resist
the conventional role.
Her experimental writing practice constitutes a sustained
illustration of the historical determinants of women’s literary tradition.
Language is
considered as partial and as being not able to tell “the whole story” about human
Literary tradition is assumed to be based on Man as the transcendental
signified reality meaningful in and of himself, the marker against which everything
else is measured, creator of language by which the world is defined and not himself
defined by language or the world.
Woolf clearly understands herself writing in
contention with a sexist literary tradition, in which women are described as
imaginatively important but practically insignificant:
A very queer, composite being thus emerges. Imaginatively she is of the
highest importance; practically she is completely insignificant. She
pervades poetry from cover to cover; she is all but absent from history.
She dominates the lives of kings and conquerors in fiction; in fact she was
the slave of any boy whose parents forced a ring upon her finger. Some of
the most inspired words, some of the most profound thoughts in literature
fall from her lips; in real life she could hardly read, could scarcely spell, and
was the property of her husband. (AROO 51)
Woman in literary history, according to Woolf, is “an odd monster,” “a worm winged
like an eagle,” and “the spirit of life” (51). These monsters “have no existence[s]
save in the fiction written by men” (50).
“[T]he best woman,” in her words, was
thought to be “intellectually the inferior of the worst man” (60).
“[I]t was
impossible for any woman, past, present, or to come, to have the genius of
Shakespeare” (53).
Western civilization is patriarchal, history is his-story, literature
is phallogocentric, language is man-made, and “[s]cience,” Woolf claims, “is not
sexless; she is a man, a father… too” (WW 8).
Literary discourse shapes perception
of reality as much as it reflects it, and the monopoly on discourse men have held has
distorted the material reality which continues to authorize and monopolize. To
defend women from the accusation of inferiority, Woolf suggests that women writers
“should rewrite” the “queer,” “unreal,” and “lopsided” history to correct the
prejudices. Women’s disabilities are cultural; women writers can only survive
despite the prejudices of men, and the key to their emancipation is to be found in their
writing which women may call their own and which they can inhabit with the same
freedom and independence as their “brothers.”
Woman’s writing, for Woolf, is a revolutionary act.
It is not a “sign of folly and
a distracted mind, but was of practical importance” (AROO 71).
Women’s beginning
to write, she claims, was “of greater importance [even] than the Crusades or the Wars
of the Roses” (72).
Woman writer should keep on writing until she finds “a perfectly
natural, shapely sentence proper for her own use” (83).
Since the writing conditions
for women in Woolf’s time were very difficult, feminist literary criticism began with
various critiques of the patriarchal culture. Though those in front might fall, those
behind should take up their positions. She suggests again and again in A Room of
One’s Own that in a hundred years’ time women’s writing situation will be much
improved (48, 99, 117). We never can tell how close we are, but we may succeed
with another blow. Woolf’s concerns and struggles with feminine writing are
dominant in her works, which deal with obstacles and prejudices that have hindered
women writers.
If women are to achieve as writers, not only does the ghost of father,
the patriarchal tradition looming in the background, need to be overcome, but also the
“Angel in the House,” the phantom of ideal womanhood that dictates that women
must be “sympathetic,” “charming,” “unselfish,” excellent in housework,
self-sacrificial, “pure,” and without “a mind or a wish of her own,” needs to be killed
(WW 59).
Killing the Angel, according to Woolf, was “part of the occupation of a
woman writer.” She justifies her necessary murder of the Angel from accumulated
rancor as “self defence[:] Had I not killed her she would have killed me[,] [s]he would
have plucked the heart out of my writing” (59).
The most formidable obstacles to
writing as a woman— once they’ve eliminated the more concrete problems of money
of money and time— are the perpetual admonitions of the patriarchal male voice.
The psychological assaults by patriarchal authority on the female writer’s integrity
persistently threaten to divert her mind from its own truth, alter her values in
deference to the opinions of others.
Woolf’s active murder in her imaginary life and
passive suicide in her real life seem contradictory to her reputation as a prominent
woman writer but they are symptomatic of her real experience of oppression within a
patriarchal world where she must “write this, think that”: “that persistent voice, now
grumbling, now patronizing, now domineering, now grieved, now shocked, now
angry, now avuncular, that voice which cannot let women alone, but must be at them,”
“adjuring them,” and “admonishing them”(AROO 81).
These conditions underwrite
all literary productions, but they are particularly relevant to understanding the
situation of women in the literary tradition because women historically have been
deprived of those basic prerequisites for writing.
Woolf was looking throughout her
life for a writing which would produce female subjectivity without strain. She
explored the writing history of women in literature through an unconventional
(psychological realism against traditional materialism) and highly provocative
(androgyny toward femininity, lesbianism against Fascism) investigation of the social
and material conditions required for the writing of literature. She made
extraordinarily painstaking efforts to indicate the differences between women as
objects of representation and women as authors of representation. Being a woman in
her time when criticism was in the hands of men and the image of women presented
in the predominantly male literary tradition, she did not have much choice in her fight
against the “masculine values” (AROO 80).
Though she eventually seemed to grow
so depressed and discouraged about World Wars (for Woolf, the expression of fascism,
the prevalence of masculine values) and about the patriarchal oppression that she
killed herself, women writers still look to Woolf as a liberating, inspiring and
empowering force of feminine writing.
In fact, Woolf’s suicide is interpreted by Nancy Topping Bazin as “a beautiful act
of faith” (Hussey 5) and possibly by herself as “defiance,” as “an attempt to
communicate” (MD 280).
As well observed by John Lehmann, “[s]he carried out
the plan that had long been in her mind for such a crisis [. . .] filled her pockets with
stones and went out and drowned herself in the River Ouse” (Lehmann 114).
is seen not only as the source of life but also as its goal. “To return to the sea” is “to
return to the mother,” that is, to die (Cirlot 268).
Carrying rocks (symbol of
masculine rigidity) with her into the maternal embrace of Mother Sea (waters in flux,
symbol of procreation of and fluidity), Woolf left a significant death-dealing note of
“relieving” and “re-living” of her writing career.
The 20th century saw two World Wars. Two enormously destructive world wars
and the economic disruption of the Great Depression brought to an end both Britain’s
colonial empire and the social and moral certainties of the Victorian era.
Technological changes brought great improvements in the physical comfort of life and
also attacks on the materialism and spiritual emptiness of modern life. Freud’s
theories of psychology prompted interest in the inner life of individuals.
Intellectuals questioned old values in religious, political, philosophical and literary
fields. In all the arts, this is a period of experiment and innovation.
20th-century writers have been torn between expressing the era’s new discoveries
(Freudian psychology, for example) and expressing dissatisfaction with Western
Woolf is considered a leading modernist and one of the greatest
innovators in the English language. One aspect of the matrix from which Woolf’s
innovative writing developed was Woolf’s growing interest in the work of Freud. As
well indicated by Michele Barrett, Woolf in her essay “The Leaning Tower” discusses
an important difference between the nineteenth-century novelists and her Georgian
contemporaries in writing: “By analyzing themselves honestly, with help from Dr
Freud, these writers have done a deal to free us from nineteenth-century suppressions.
The writers of the next generation may inherit from them a whole state of mind, a
mind no longer crippled, evasive, divided” (WW 14).
Woolf clearly suggests the
inadequacy of a “crippled, evasive, divided” old consciousness of classic realism to
describe life and capture reality, hence tries every effort to find a new way to
represent female experience.
Before the 20th century, realism was dominating the genre of the novel as a
means of representing and commenting on life. This mode of writing is based on the
belief that reality can be reflected in a narrative particularly by the description of the
characters, their surroundings, their actions and their speeches. The attempt to
portray events realistically and to provide a convincing illusion of life is common in
literature. “Classic realism” aims to give an impression that we are reading about
real people in real events, and depends on creating the illusion of lifelikeness, a true
representation of the real. In the 20th century, however, this view was shaken by
Freud’s research into the subconscious.
His discovery that every thought including a
dream carries meaning in our conscious life questioned the concept of mimesis. One
feature of the modern novel is its tendency towards subjectivism, and away from what
might be called “objective realism.” The changing development of the English
novel after 1900 and the emergence of new post- and anti-Realist modes of writing
could be seen in novels such as Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and
Ulysses, Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse, and novels by Lawrence,
Forster, Conrad, Kafka and Greene. One starting point might be Virginia Woolf’s
comment that, in 1910, “human nature changed” (CE 1: 320).
She was writing in
response to the first exhibition of Post-Impressionist painting in London.
Like the
postimpressionist painters she so admires, Woolf has abandoned efforts at
comprehensive or realistic representation and is exploring linguistic brushstrokes that
would evoke rather than define character. What she meant is not that human nature
literally changed, but that the representation of human nature, of “Life” itself had to
change in response to the changing nature of modern, urban and post-Freudian
experience. Two of her best-known essays— “Modern Fiction” and “Mr. Bennett
and Mrs. Brown”— articulate her conception of modernist fiction. Both essays
contrast the group of writers she calls the materialistic Edwardians— H. G. Wells,
Arnold Bennett, John Galsworthy— with the spiritualistic Georgians— E. M. Forster,
D. H. Lawrence, Lytton Strachey, James Joyce, T. S. Eliot, and by implication, herself.
Faced with the Edwardian “materialists” or realists, who concentrate on superficial
“external details” rather than on the more important “inner experience,” Woolf asks
“is life like this?” Claiming that “human character changed,” she accuses Arnold
Bennett and the other Edwardians of ignoring the change.
Were Bennett to write a
novel about an elderly couple— named by Woolf Mrs. Brown and Mr. Smith— whom
she observed on a train, Bennett would present only “external” details about clothing
and property. The Edwardians have not looked at Mrs. Brown, “never at her, never
at life, never at human nature” (CE 1: 330).
Modern art, according to Woolf, will be
possible only “if we are determined never, never to desert Mrs. Brown” (CE 1: 337),
the symbol of human spirit and the “soul and heart” of fiction.
In the novels of
Woolf, Joyce, Conrad, Foster, Lawrence etc, there is an increasing emphasis on the
“inner life of individual,” more of a sense of the individual self as more “authentic”
than the society “outside.”
It was no longer possible to write, or paint, in the established tradition of classic
realism, and new modes of expression had to be found to create and portray human
character. This was significant of Woolf’s celebrated attack on the solid Edwardian
figures who she felt to be both old-fashioned and bound to a materialistic world.
Clearly “realism” as understood by Woolf is an exceptionally elastic and elusive term
more like what Ian Watt describes:
If the novel were realistic merely because it saw life from the seamy side, it
would only be an inverted romance; but in fact it surely attempts to portray
all the varieties of human experience, and not merely those suited to one
particular literary perspective: the novel’s realism does not reside in the
kind of life it presents, but in the way it presents it. (Watt 11)
It is the conveyance of an authentic impression of actuality that counts instead of the
humdrum, dreary day-to-day existence.
With a subjective perspective it is no longer
possible to rely on the old certainties and securities: Truth, Value, Time, Space,
History and Society. Instead, there is an inward moving toward representing
individual life as truer than the society “outside.” She infers that Jane Austen
“would have trusted less to dialogue and more to reflection to give us a knowledge of
her characters” (54) had she lived longer. Her judgment of Jane Austen is interesting
as it reveals how important to her the novelist’s vision of reality was. Though
realism remained the most popular mode of writing, it has been enriched and
developed by the emergence of the experimental novel.
Woolf has been credited
with “changing the literary canon” (Caughie 180) through her attempt to redefine the
important elements in literature. Her call for a different fiction and the example of
her nine novels were seen as defining her as a major British high modernist.
emphases in her novels on the experiences and inner lives of her female characters,
and especially her prescience about women and writing in her essays, A Room of
One’s Own, Three Guineas, Women and Writing, make her an honorable literary
“mother” and her writing an alternative to the many “fathers” available to male
Woolf’s primary motivation to experiment with literary forms did not only result
from the inadequacy of language to express reality but also her attempt to relocate
reality. Language use, according to Woolf, is gendered so that when a woman turns
to fiction writing, she finds that there is “no common sentence ready for her use”
(AROO 82).
A change in the forms of literature, she argued, was necessary because
most literature had been “made by men out of their own needs for their own uses”
(83). Historically, many women wrote within the constraints of the “rule of the
father.” They aped the styles and followed the generic conventions of an essentially
male culture. They wrote anonymously or pseudonymously in order to conceal their
gender. Their education, according to Virginia Woolf, was subordinated to their
brothers’, and their writing was often dismissed as limited. Given freedom and
opportunity, women will write differently. Speculating on how Jane Austen might
have “enriched the scope of her novels” had she lived longer even “a few more years
only,” Woolf argues that she “would have devised a method, clear and composed as
ever, but deeper and more suggestive, for conveying not only what people say, but
what they leave unsaid” (WW 9).
In short, Jane Austen would have trusted the inner
portrait more than the outside descriptions of her characters to give the knowledge of
reality, would have identified sense perceptions, mental images, feelings and aspects
of thoughts as ways to the true reality, hence “would have been the forerunner of
Henry James and of Proust” and of Woolf herself (Booth 54).
“Before a woman can write exactly as she wishes to write, she has many
difficulties to face [. . .] in reality, so baffling – that the very form of the sentence does
not fit her. It is a sentence made by men” (WW 48). The great male novelists have
written a prose, “swift but not slovenly, expressive but not precious, taking their own
tint without ceasing to be common property” (AROO 82).
She quotes the following
example and says “[t]hat is a man’s sentence:”
They have based it on the sentence that was current at the time. The
sentence that was current at the beginning of the nineteenth century run
something like this perhaps: “The grandeur of their works was an
argument with them, not to stop short, but to proceed. They could have no
higher excitement or satisfaction than in the exercise of their art and endless
generation of truth and beauty. Success prompts to exertion; and habit
facilitates success.” That is a man’s sentence [. . .].
(AROO 82)
Carefully balanced and patterned in rhetorical sequences, the sentence seems to be
characterized by mind instead of soul, clarity instead of enjoyment, intention instead
of emotion. Behind the “man’s sentence,” Woolf tells us, we can see “Johnson,
Gibbon, and the rest” but “[i]t was a sentence that was unsuited for a woman’s use”
Women writers trying to use it (Charlotte Bronte, George Eliot) fared badly.
Jane Austen rejected it and instead “devised a perfectly natural, shapely sentence
proper for her own use” (83).
Woolf clearly suggests that “this [a female sentence] a
woman must make for herself” (WW 48).
Some critics think that Woolf does not
make its qualities explicit enough and that is the cause of endless debates. This
dissertation is going to argue that if Woolf’s speculations on female sentence or
feminine writing sound vague, her artistic representations in her own fiction serve as
clear examples of their possibilities.
Behind Woolf stands the wider attempt made by modern novelists to break away
from, or simply reject, older forms of artistic and literary representation, and to find
new styles and methods to accommodate the “shock of the New.” If Woolf did
indeed help to change the literary canon, the accomplishment is tied to her tireless
attempts to redirect the content and form of fiction and to open up possibilities for the
writing and appreciation of writing by women. Dorothy Richardson (1873-1957)
was the first English novelist to adopt the stream-of-consciousness technique. She
refers, in the foreword to her autobiographical work Pilgrimage, to her desire “to
produce a feminine equivalent of the current masculine realism” (Buck).
questions of gender and language, and of the possibility of a “female aesthetic,” are
central to the novel.
Virginia Woolf, in her review of Revolving Lights, refers to
Richardson’s invention of “a woman’s sentence:”
There is no one word, such as romance or realism, to cover [. . .] the works
of Miss Dorothy Richardson. Their chief characteristic [. . .] is one for
which we still seek a name. She has invented, or, if she has not invented
developed and applied to her own uses, a sentence which we might call the
psychological sentence of the feminine gender. It is of a more elastic fibre
than the old, capable of stretching to the extreme, of suspending the frailest
particles, of enveloping the vaguest shapes. Other writers of the opposite
sex have used sentences of this description and stretched them to the
But there is a difference.
Miss Richardson has fashioned her
sentence consciously, in order it may descend to the depths and investigate
the crannies of Miriam Henderson’s consciousness.
sentence [. . .].
It is a woman’s
(WW 191)
The sentence is so unconventional that it still needs a name and has not yet been
Woolf even suggests that the “woman’s sentence” of Richardson’s is
different from that of “the opposite sex,” James Joyce, who has “used sentences of
this description and stretched them to the extreme” (191).
technique being a feminine narrative is hence clear in Woolf’s thinking.
Richardson’s use of stream of consciousness suggests its commensurability with
female experience, and her belief that a woman “thinks flowingly.” If streamof-consciousness technique is a feminine narrative, what’s the difference in men and
women using it? The question is briefly answered here and will be explored more
thoroughly in the second chapter of this dissertation when Woolf’s stream-ofconsciousness narrative is discussed. Woolf and Joyce both carry the internal
emphasis of modernism further than many of their contemporaries, moving their
narrative completely within the thoughts and ideas of their characters. By using
stream of consciousness, Joyce and Woolf express that a subjective and internal
reality is more important than the external or societal forces. In their writings, what
sets them apart from the traditional realist novels is the fact that most of the action
takes place in the mind of the major characters. They have employed the narrative
technique called “stream of consciousness,” in which the random, unshaped thoughts
of the characters are quoted directly. Both Joyce and Woolf utilize this narrative
technique but in different ways. Joyce tends to keep his narrative within the
thoughts of a particular character. The Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man is almost
completely composed of the different thoughts that pass over Stephen’s mind. The
other characters of this novel have been given somewhat less importance. On the
other hand, Woolf presents a collage of internal realities, moving rapidly from one
character to the next, from moment to moment.
In fact, in Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway,
readers are repeatedly brought to ask, “Where are we?” “When are we?” and “Who is
speaking/thinking?” The stream of consciousness that Joyce uses is composed more
of a single threaded stream like the “interior monologue,” whereas the “sea of
consciousness” that Woolf uses is converged from multiple streams of “life going on
and on.” Joyce’s narratives working through the similar pattern as Woolf might be
that he is as marginal (of his Irish identity) in his society as Woolf (of her female
identity) in hers, exiled from a language of one’s own. They share the same
ambition to produce a writing which is to escape the operations of the Law of the
Father, to resist the patterns the paternal authority seeks to impose. Being the
outsider of the dominant discourse and its linguistic laws like Woolf, Joyce is closer to
“the feminine” than his contemporaries. As Cixous claims that man can also write
“feminine,” because “it’s up to him to say where his masculinity and femininity are
at” (Cixous 1975, 335).
At the heart of the literary innovation called “feminine writing” originated from
Woolf, or the feminist movement called l’ecriture feminine founded in France by
several women writers, including Cixous, Kristeva, and Irigaray, is a refusal to accept
the traditional Western binary opposition of mind and body. As Sandra M. Gilbert
and Susan Gubar show in their study of 19th century literature The Madwoman in the
Attic, artistic practice, including writing, is often metaphorically or almost literally
connected with sexuality – traditionally with male sexuality. In the opening chapter
of their book, Gilbert and Gubar ask the question: “Is pen a metaphorical penis?”
The problem is that the pen/penis metaphor is about the symbolic power over the text
similar to the power of the Father.
Woman, linked with body rather than mind, was
supposed to be antithetical to writing, an activity said to be restricted to the intellect,
thus failed to write.
The obstacles faced by women writers are “immensely
powerful” and “difficult to define” (WW 62), yet Woolf does try to describe them.
her essay “Professions for Women,” Woolf suggests that the two main obstacles are
the Angel in the House and the difficulty of “telling the truth about my own
experience as a body” (62). Of these two obstacles, Woolf thinks she solved the first
one of “killing the Angel in the House,” of rejecting the ideal, pure image of woman,
and it is the second one of “telling the truth about [her] own experience as a body,” of
frankly exploring sexuality and the unconscious, which is hard to deal with and which
she doesn’t think she solved and doubts “that any woman has solved it yet” (62).
The stereotypes of womanhood have been accepted by both men and women for quite
a long time, hence it needs much time to “give woman herself as herself” (Morris
Feminists’ engagement with psychoanalysis has resulted from the construction of
a feminine identity. Questions of the relation between being “biologically sexed
female” and “culturally gendered feminine” are central to the understanding of the
notion of feminine writing. According to Freud, we are born biologically female or
male but not with a corresponding ready-made feminine or masculine gender identity.
Two aspects of Freudian theory are particularly important to feminists: “his account of
sexuality as socially and not biologically constructed, and his theory of the
unconscious” (Morris 95).
The feminist claim, whatever their differences, is that all
Western languages, in all their features, are utterly and irredeemably male-gendered,
male constituted, and male-dominated.
It is indicated earlier in this chapter of
Freud’s impact upon realism and Woolf; Woolf’s interest in psychoanalysis is
expressed through her writings of making distinction between the “materialists,” the
solid, popular writers of her day, and the “spiritualists,” those experimental writers
who are looking for “reality” in unconventional ways.
In Woolf’s novels she is
concerned with the “exploration of the conscious and the unconscious mind, and also
in the relation of states of mind to the public, social relations in which they were
embedded” (WW 14).
Along with French feminists such as Luce Irigaray and Julia Kristeva, Helene
Cixous’s work draws on the writings of Jacques Lacan.
Lacan’s key innovation is to
refocus Freud’s ideas through the intense concern with language. The Lacanian
model comes out of the work Freud and the structural linguist Ferdinand de Saussure.
The importance of this constellation of theorists is an interest in connecting language,
psyche, and sexuality.
Recasting the basic concepts of psychoanalysis into
formulation derived from the linguistic theory of Saussure, Lacan applies these
concepts not to people, but to the operations of the process of signification. The
unconscious, according to Lacan, is structured like a language.
He reformulates
Freud’s views of the early stages of psychosexual development and the formation of
the Oedipus complex into a distinction between the pre-linguistic stage that he calls
the “imaginary” and the stage after the acquisition of language that he calls the
“symbolic.” Feminists have drawn attention to evidences that a male bias is encoded
in our linguistic conventions; instances include the use of “man” or “mankind” for
human beings in general, of “chairman” and “spokesman” for human beings of either
sex, and of the pronouns “he” and “his” to refer back to ostensibly gender-neutral
nouns such as “God,” “human being,” “child,” “inventor,” “author,” “poet,” and etc.
Discourse, it is asserted, is phallogocentric; that is, it is centered and organized
throughout by implicit recourse to the phallus (used in a symbolic rather than a literal
sense) both as its supposed logos, or ground, and as its prime signifier and
For Lacan, the language system is the totalizing order of culture and
it is an order enacting the Law of the Father: phallocentricism as Cixous terms it.
Phallogocenticism, it is claimed, “manifests itself in Western discourse not only in its
vocabulary and syntax, but also for its rules of logic, its proclivity for fixed
classifications and oppositions, and its criteria for what we take to be valid evidence
and objective knowledge” (Abrams 238).
As well observed by Morris, feminists
have confronted and questioned Lacan’s thinking on two central and related areas:
his negative account of feminine subjectivity and his conception of
language as a totalizing and determining order of meaning – the symbolic
order. It is especially the centrality of language in the debate that makes it
important to feminist literary criticism. In attempting to rethink patriarchy,
feminists working within this framework focus their attention on the intense
pre-Oedipal attachment of the child to its mother instead of concentrating,
as Freud and Lacan do, on the Oedipal relationship with the prohibiting
father. (Morris 113)
Feminists have sought to establish a basis for a different order of language. Gender
difference is a cultural construction. It is organized and conducted in ways that
subordinates women to men in all cultural domains (familial, religious, political,
economic, social, legal and artistic).
This ideology privileges those writings that
have been traditionally considered “great literature” and have been historically written
by men for men. The distinction between “masculine” and “feminine” gender is
formative in the generation of all discursive practices. Feminine writing can be
considered as a feminist political act not simply to interpret the world but to change it
by changing the consciousness of those who read and being read. It has been the
process of exorcizing the male mind that has been implanted in us through literary
Psychoanalytic practice is based upon theories of how the mind, the instincts,
and sexuality work. Freud’s impact on our vision of reality or how we think about
ourselves has been incalculable. A feminist critique of male psychoanalytic theory
focuses on its negative constructions of feminine identity within a repressive
patriarchal system of language. Feminist theorists emphasize the pre-Oedipal
mother-child relationship to propose alternative accounts. “Infantile sexuality” is the
notion that sexuality begins not at puberty, with physical maturing, but in infancy,
especially through the infant’s relationship with the mother.
Connected with this is
the “Oedipus complex,” whereby, says Freud, the male infant conceives the desire to
eliminate the father and become the sexual partner of the mother. Many forms of
inter-generational conflict are seen by Freudians as having oedipal overtones, as
reproducing the competition for paternal favor. As the very idea of the oedipal
complex would suggest, Freudian theory is often deeply masculinist-biased. It is
based on an exclusive privileging of the male as norm and denigrating female as lack
and absence:
Female sexuality has always been conceptualized on the basis of masculine
parameters. Thus the opposition between “masculine” clitoral activity and
“feminine” vaginal passivity, an opposition which Freud— and many
others— saw as stages, or alternatives in the development of a sexually
“normal” woman, seems rather too clearly required by the practice of male
sexuality. For the clitoris is conceived as a little penis pleasant to
masturbate so long as castration anxiety does not exist [. . .]. About woman
and her pleasure [. . .]. Her lot is that of “lack,” “atrophy” (of the sexual
organ), and “penis envy,” the penis being the only sexual organ of
recognized value. Thus she attempts by every means available to
appropriate that organ for herself [. . .]. Woman lives her own desire only as
the expectation that she may at least come to possess an equivalent of the
male organ. (Irigaray 1977, 350)
Freud’s concept of “penis-envy” (Penisneid) is related as women’s “lack” functioning
within psychoanalytic discourse to confirm and valorize masculinity as the fullness of
phallic possession and power. Thus his theorizing of femininity constructs a model
of women’s sexuality which functions only as a lack to affirm the primacy of
Most importantly, “penis-envy” is used to explain what he believed as
the little girl’s relinquishment of her pre-Oedipal attachment to the mother, together
with her renunciation of the clitoris as an erotogenic zone in preference for the
arguably more passive vagina, and the replacement of her infantile narcissism with a
lasting feeling of inferiority. It is allied to his theory of the little girl’s “castration
complex” (discovery of anatomical lack) forcing the little girl into the
“Oedipus-complex” and desire for the paternal penis. Normal “femininity” is only
fully established if the wish for a male child replaces the desire for the father’s penis
(Wright 303-05).
The theory of female penis-envy was a crucial factor in the
rejection of Freud and psychoanalysis by feminists.
Luce Irigaray’s work has been at the forefront of psycho-linguistic enquiry.
Her radical challenge to psychoanalysis has a two-fold purpose: “to reveal the
masculine ideology inscribed throughout our meaning system (the symbolic order)
and to construct a feminine order of meaning with which to produce a positive sexual
identity for women” (Morris 114). Against Lacan’s theorizing of feminine sexuality
in terms of “lack,” she critically re-reads Freud in the light of Jacques Derrida’s
critique of binary thought. The significance of Derrida’s work, as of Lacan’s, lies in
its radical rethinking of language and identity. Replacing the “valorization of a
single male organ, the phallus, in representations of masculinity and the privileging
within patriarchal language of a unitary notion of truth” (116), Irigaray locates
women’s otherness more positively, crediting female body with the plural forms, with
a multiple sexuality and a distinctly feminine psycho-linguistic economy,
Her sexuality, always at least double, is in fact plural. [. . .] Plural as the
manner in which current texts are written [. . .]. Fondling the breasts,
touching the vulva, spreading lips, stroking the posterior wall of the vagina,
brushing against the mouth of the uterus, and so on. [. . .]
But woman has sex organs more or less everywhere. She finds
pleasures almost anywhere. [. . .]
“She” is indefinitely other in herself. [. . .] not to mention her language,
in which “she” sets off in all directions leaving “him” unable to discern the
coherence of any meaning. (Irigaray 1977, 352-53)
which she calls “paler femme,” a form of ecriture feminine.
Alternatively, Irigaray
posits a “woman’s writing,” which evades the male monopoly by establishing the
diversity, fluidity, and multiple possibilities inherent in the structure of the female
sexual organs as its generative principle, in place of the monolithic phallus.
Like Irigaray, Helene Cixous wants a feminine writing practice with which to
challenge a repressive and domineering symbolic order.
To evade a condition of
marginality and subservience, or even of linguistic nonentity, Cixous posits an
incipient “feminine writing” (ecriture feminine) which has its source in the mother, in
that stage of the mother-child relation before the child acquires the male-centered
verbal language:
Such is the strength of women that sweeping away syntax, breaking that
famous thread (just a tiny little thread, they say) which acts for men as a
surrogate umbilical cord, assuring them— otherwise they couldn’t
come— that the old lady is always right behind them, watching them make
phallus, women will go right up to the impossible. (Cixous 1975, 342)
Ecriture feminine is an experimental writing whose impulse is to inscribe femininity
and which deconstructs the binarism of patriarchal definitions of sexual difference.
Writing against psychoanalysis, she describes how writing is structured by a sexual
opposition favoring men, one that “has always worked for man’s profit to the point of
reducing writing [. . .] to his law” (340).
Man has separated reality by compiling
concepts and terms in pair of polar opposites, one of which is always privileged over
the other; man is associated with all that is active, cultural, light, high, or generally
positive and woman with all that is passive, natural, dark, low, or generally negative.
Man is the self; woman is the other. Cixous attacks patriarchy by attacking
patriarchal language. The only alternative to male domination, she says, is to
construct a woman’s language which can exemplify sexual difference. This kind of
writing that Cixous identifies as woman’s own is ever-changing:
The woman arriving over and over again does not stand still; she’s
everywhere, she exchanges, she is the desire-that-gives. [. . .] She comes in,
comes-in-between herself, me and you, between the other me where one is
always infinitely more than one and more than me [. . .] she thrills in our
becoming [. . .] in the moving, open, transitional space, she runs her risks.
(Cixous 1975, 348)
In contrast, the kind of writing she associates with man comprises the bulk of the
accumulated wisdom of humankind no longer permitted to change.
Male sexuality,
which centers on what Cixous called the “big dick,” is ultimately boring in its
pointedness and singularity.
Like male sexuality, masculine writing, usually termed
“phallocentric writing” by Cixous, is also ultimately boring. Fearing the multiplicity
and chaos that exist outside their symbolic order, men always write in black ink,
carefully containing their thoughts in a sharply defined and rigidly imposed structure.
On the other hand, female sexuality is, for Cixous, anything but boring:
Almost everything is yet to be written by women about femininity; about
their sexuality, that is, its infinite and mobile complexity; about their
eroticization, sudden turn-ons of a certain miniscule-immense area of their
bodies, but about the adventure of such and such a drive, about trips,
crossings, trudges, abrupt and gradual awakenings, discoveries of a zone at
one time timorous and soon to be forthright. (Cixous 1975, 342)
Like female sexuality, feminine writing is open and multiple, varied and rhythmic,
full of pleasures, and perhaps more importantly, of possibilities. “Her writing can
only keep going, without ever inscribing or discerning contours [. . .]. She lets the
other language speak— the language of 1,000 tongues which knows neither
enclosure nor death [. . .]. Her language does not contain, it carries; it does not hold
back, it makes possible” (345).
When a woman writes, she writes in “white ink”
(339), the water from the body, the inexhaustible source, letting her words flow
freely where she wishes them to go.
Thus, for Cixous, feminine writing is not merely a new style of writing; it is “the
very possibility of change, the space that can serve as springboard for subversive
thought, the precursory movement of a transformation of social and cultural
standards” (337).
It will “not only ‘realize’ the decensored relation of woman to
her sexuality, to her womanly being, giving her access to her native strength; it will
give her back her goods, her pleasures, her organs her immense bodily territories
which have been kept under seal” (338).
Cixous believes that we can escape the
dichotomous conceptual order within which we have been enclosed and that women
have the capacity to lead the revolt. If woman explores her body, “with its
thousand and one thresholds of order,” says Cixous, she “will make the old
single-grooved mother tongue reverberate with more than one language” (342).
For Cixous, “desire,” instead of “reason,” is the means to escape the limiting
concepts of traditional Western thought. “Writing the body” is a revolutionary act
to contact the forbidden, the taboo:
The exclusion of women from writing (and speaking) is linked to the fact
that the Western history of writing is synonymous with the history of
reasoning and with the separation of the body from the text.
The body
entering the text disrupts the masculine economy of superimposed linearity
and tyranny. (Groden and Kreiswirth 162)
Theories of the body are particularly important for feminists because historically the
body has been associated with the feminine, the female, or woman, and denigrated as
weak, immoral, unclean, or decaying.
Understanding the unconventionality of the idea, even Woolf, the foremother of
feminine writing, thinks “writing the body” is the greatest obstacle for a woman
writer to overcome: “The first – killing the Angel in the House – I think I solved.
She died. But the second, telling the truth about my own experience as a body. I
do not think I solved. I doubt that any woman has solved it yet.
The obstacles
against her are still immensely powerful – and yet they are very difficult to define”
(WW 62).
In a most sex-conscious patriarchal age and a most masculinist society
like Woolf’s, in spite of the “difficulty” and her “unfitness to say,” Woolf defines
women’s problems with exceptional caution in writing the body:
She was letting her imagination sweep unchecked round every rock and
cranny of the world that lies submerged in the depths of our unconscious
Now came the experience, the experience that I believe to be far
commoner with women writers than with men.
The line raced through the
girl’s fingers. Her imagination had rushed away.
It had sought the pools,
the depths, the dark places where the largest fish slumber. And then there
was a smash.
There was an explosion.
There was foam and confusion.
The imagination has dashed itself against something hard. The girl was
roused from her dream. She was indeed in a state of the most acute and
difficult distress. To speak without figure, she had thought of something,
something about the body, about the passions which it was unfitting for her
as a woman to say.
Men, her reason told her, would be shocked. The
consciousness of what men will say of a woman who speaks of the truth
about her passions had roused her from her state of unconsciousness. (WW
Women’s imagination can be brought into full play if without the bondage of
Writing “something about the body, about the passions” has been
taboo subject in female literary tradition.
Women writers’ difficulties in writing the
body could be easily sensed and shared from Woolf’s ineloquent hesitation and
uneasy bashfulness of the description of “the experience, the experience” and of
“something, something” about the body.
If women can set their imagination free
and write what they like to write, even the “darkest places” prohibited by patriarchal
tradition, they surely can catch the “largest fish,” the source of creativity.
question of what true femininity is, Woolf modestly admits she is still exploring and
encourages the future woman writers to join the exploration and provide us, “by
[their] failures and successes, with that extremely important information” (WW 60).
Following Woolf’s step, the French feminist writers Cixous, Irigaray, and
Kristeva, carry forward the idea of writing the body and give free rein to it.
the body, in fact, is a refusal to use the tools of the master, instead inventing a new
code based not on hierarchy and domination:
Women must write through their bodies, they must invent the impregnable
language that will wreck partitions, classes, and rhetorics, regulations and
codes, they must submerge, cut through, get beyond the ultimate
reserve-discourse, including the one that laughs at the very idea of
pronouncing the word “silence,” [. . .].
(Cixous 1975, 342)
Ecriture feminine, then, is by nature transgressive, rule-transcending,
anti-authoritarian, questioning and unsettling.
Laughter is one significant way in
which feminine writing may be said to inscribe the body.
As Cixous indicates, that
the purpose of a feminine text is “to smash everything, to shatter the frame work of
institution, to blow up the law, to break up the ‘truth’ with laughter” (344).
is the mythological figure who has the petrifying power but who lost her head.
Cixous’s usage of the myth implies that “women are body” (343) is just like “Medusa
without head” still threatening to men with their laughter. Sharing Medusa’s courage,
“laughs exude from our mouths; our blood flows [because of losing head]; we never
hold back our thoughts, our signs, our writing; and we’re not afraid of lacking [head
or reason]” (336).
“Let the priests tremble, we’re going to show them our sexts
[sexual texts]” (342)[emphasis mine]!
Further expression of the notion of the ecriture feminine is found in the writing
of Julia Kristeva. She sees women’s role in language primarily as providing the
oppositional force within traditional discourses. Within Lacanian psychoanalytic
theory, signification is the result of a separation, a lack, which begins in the mirror
stage (Freud’s pre-Oedipal or pre-linguistic stage) and is completed through castration.
While Kristeva criticizes Lacan for overlooking processes that take place prior to the
mirror stage. She posits the “chora,” or pre-linguistic, pre-Oedipal, and
unsystematized signifying process, centered on the mother, which she labels
“semiotic.” This process is repressed as we require the father-controlled,
syntactically ordered, and logical language that she calls “symbolic”.
She uses the
terms the symbolic and the semiotic to designate two different aspects of language.
In her works including Revolution in Poetic Language, “From One Identity to the
Other” in Desire in Language, “The System and the Speaking Subject,” and Power of
Horror, the symbolic is associated with authority, order, fathers, repression and
control (Groden and Kreiswirth 446; Makaryk 395) . This symbolic facet of
language maintains the fiction that the self is fixed and unified. By contrast, the
semiotic aspect of discourse is characterized not by logic and order, but by
“displacement, slippage, condensation,” which suggests, again, a much looser, more
randomized way of making connections, one which increases the available range of
The semiotic gives rise to and challenges the symbolic. Kristeva
describes the relationship between the semiotic and the symbolic as a dialectic
oscillation. Her intention is to “seek to give a language to the intra-subjective and
corporeal experience left mute by culture in the past” (Kristeva 1981, 447).
“Oscillation Between Power and Denial,” an interview by Xaviere Gauthier in Tel
Quel, Kristeva tells us that “[i]n women’s writing, language seems to be seen from a
foreign land [. . .] from the point of view of an asymbolic, spastic body” (Kristeva
1974, 166) Women writers “have a role to play in this on-going process, it is only in
assuming a negative function; reject everything finite, definite, structured, loaded with
meaning” (166).
Ecriture feminine, for the French feminists, is characterized by play,
disruption, excess, gaps, grammatical and syntactic subversion, and ambiguities; by
endless shifting register, generic transgressions; by nonlinear, fluid, figurative,
multiple languages, voices, themes, developments etc.
Feminine writing, therefore, is a way of writing which literally embodies
femininity, thereby fighting the subordinating, linear style of classification or
It is understood as a style which breaks off before the argument reaches
a conclusion, splits off into a number of possible meanings, affirms plural
interpretations, and thus speaks with more than one “voice.” The diversity of voices
is the fundamental characteristic of the feminine writing. Ecriture feminine can be
argued as a feminist reworking of the novel theoretician, Mikhail Bakhtin’s
(1895-1975) theory of “voices,” of “dialogism,” of “polyphony,” and of
“heteroglossia.”. As Diane Price Herndl well observed, “novelistic discourse”
defined by Bakhtihn and “feminine language” elaborated by many feminists, “often
seem like very similar uses of language despite the fact that the novelistic language
Bakhtin described has nothing to do with either women or the feminine” (qtd. in
Bauer and McKinstry 7).
In the traditional literary hierarchies Bakhtin mentions,
novel always joins women’s structural place as the excluded other:
dominant/dominated, masculine/feminine, epic/novel, and poetry/novel.
This notion
of “novel being a feminine genre” shares the same sparkle of wisdom with Woolf
when she says: “There is no reason to think that the form of the epic or of the poetic
play suits a woman any more the sentence suits her. But all the older forms of
literature were hardened and set by the time she became a writer. The novel was
young enough to be soft in her hands – another reason, perhaps, why she wrote
novels” (AROO 83).
According to Woolf, even the youngest and most flexible genre,
novel, is doubted to be adequate to satisfy the requirements of a woman writer, or to
be “rightly shaped for her use”:
Yet who shall say that even now ‘the novel’ (I give it inverted commas to
mark my sense of the words’ inadequacy), who shall that even this most
pliable of all forms is rightly shaped for her use? No doubt we shall find
her knocking that into shape for herself when she has the free use of her
limbs; and providing some new vehicle, not necessarily in verse, for the
poetry in her. For it is the poetry that is still denied outlet. (AROO 83)
Though Woolf does not assume that women can write novels only, novels for her are
definitely closer to the feminine.
In the feminine text, there is a plurality of voices, put together by “the sex which
is not one,” by someone who is “not one” (Bauer and Mckinstry 11). The feminine
writer has no name of her own, no language of her own; her name is the name of the
Father; she is “other.” Every time when she speaks or writes, she is under the gaze
of the Father, she is “aware of all the other silenced feminine voices” (11). Bakhtin
allows the dominated (including female) voice rather than the male gaze to construct
and dismantle the exclusive community of dominant ideology and patriarchal critical
discourse, so that the other voices including women’s, which have been silenced and
excluded by hegemonic narrative strategies, can be read back into the dialogue in
order to reconstruct the process by which women should have been heard in the first
place. The emphasis on voice rather than gaze derives from Bakhtin’s placing of
dialogue at the center of his theory of meaning. A voice refers the listener not just to
an originating person, but to a network of beliefs and power-relationships which
attempt to place and situate the listener in certain ways. As Bakhtin puts it,
“Language is not a neutral medium that passes freely and easily into the private
property of the speaker’s intentions; it is populated – overpopulated – with the
intentions of others. Expropriating it, forcing it to submit to one’s own intentions
and accents, is a difficult and complicated process” (Bakhtin 1981, 294).
process is the means whereby language is transformed into a voice, whereby literary
works are transformed into many different voices. Language once uttered by human
being the carrier of ideas, is discourse, and becomes voices.
To avoid total
submission to the oppression of a patriarchal society, to gain a place in the so-called
universal normal side, and to avoid expulsion from the regime into complete silence,
Woolf being a woman novelist has really given much thought to the matter:
I will here sum up my impressions before publishing A Room of One’s Own.
It is a little ominous that Morgan [E. M. Forster] won’t review it. It makes
me suspect that there is a shrill feminine tone in it which my intimate friends
will dislike.
I forecast, then, that I shall get no criticism, except of the
evasive jocular kind, from Lytton [Strachey], Roger [Fry] and Morgan; that
the press will be kind and talk of its charm and sprightliness; also I shall be
attacked for a feminist and hinted at for a Sapphist. . . . I am afraid it will not
be taken seriously.
(WW 3)
The anticipation of adverse criticism against her “shrill feminine tone” and her “very
feminine logic” leads to a defensiveness in her writing, such as her
stream-of-consciousness narration, and other experimental narrative techniques to be
discussed later. Wishing to speak to effect, women (according to Woolf) and the
dominated (according to Bakhtin), constitute themselves as plural consciousnesses, as
different voices opposite to the dominant discourse.
Woolf and Bakhtin’s similar
experience of “struggling with the dominant” bring up their similar attachment of
significance to voices. They aim at a discourse of “feminine logic” or “dia-logic”
(Baur and McKinstry 7), a variety of thoughts or a difference of voices.
The main intention of a novel, according to Bakhtin, is set against a “monologic”
(single-voiced) authoritative genre; novelization is to bring different new voices into
and revives a dead genre (such as epic, classical tragedy etc.)
Voices in a novel
could be in agreement, or one against another or one strengthens the other, but they
are never merged and we can clearly sense or hear them. “Dialogism,” he claims,
tells us that in the novel voices do not just “coexist” together; they must “interact”
with one another; they must dialogize with each other (Bakhtin 1984, 28). Bakhtin
asserts that no discourse is stable, and that all discourse has multiple meanings. No
matter how authors may try to assert definitive meanings, in part by eliminating
competing voices so that only one level of vocabulary remains, in accordance with
their own ideological positions, other meanings inevitably put through.
This is
because meaning is never contained solely within an author’s text, since an utterance
both reacts to the word before the author’s text and anticipates future responses.
Language can never be monologic, because utterances are always spoken in response
to another person’s words.
A novelistic text must “represent all the social and the
ideological voices of its era [. . .] must be a microcosm of heteroglossia” (Bakhtin
1981, 411). A genuine novel is:
a diversity of social speech types (sometimes even diversity of languages)
and a diversity of individual voices, artistically organized.
The internal
stratification of any single national language into social dialects,
characteristic group behavior, professional jargons, generic languages,
languages of generations and age groups, tendentious languages, languages
of the authorities, of various circles and of passing fashions, languages that
serve the specific sociopolitical purposes of the day, even of the hour (each
day has its own slogan, its own vocabulary, its own emphases)— this
internal stratification present in every language at any given moment of its
historical existence is the prerequisite for the novel as a genre. ((Bakhtin
1981, 262-63)
It is the diversity of voices and the split (“which is not one”) “internal stratification”
of language that characterize the narrative of Woolf as feminine dis-course disrupting
the conventional course of narration. Different voices represent different ideas,
consciousnesses, or ideologies.
For Bakhtin, “voice-consciousness” (Bakhtin 1984,
88), “consciousness-voices” (88), “voice-ideas” (91) all mean the same thing – voices:
Human thought becomes genuine thought, that is, an idea only under
conditions of living contact with another and alien thought, a thought
embodied in someone else’s voice, that is in someone else’s consciousness
expressed in discourse. At that point of contact between
voices-consciousnesses the idea is born and lives.
In all of Woolf’s stream-of-consciousness novels, these narrative voices are
achieved by “represented speeches” suspending the location of the subjects between
characters and narrators. Woolf enters the consciousnesses of seemingly
unconnected characters and brings their feelings to the surface. The characters are
connected, and the narrative moves from one to another, through public occurrences
that the characters can see or hear, such as an exhibition of skywriting and the
backfiring of a car on the street in Mrs. Dalloway. The narrative of the
stream-of-consciousness novels is the vivid example of multi-voicedness. The fuzzy
indication of the speakers and the complicated structure of the speeches make for
great difficulty in analyzing and the impossibility of exhausting or fixing the meaning.
The female “voice” even in a “silenced” zone (characters’ mind) competes and
contests for authority. This marginal “voice,” pregnant as it is with meaning,
represents the “centrifugal” force which threatens to disrupt authority and liberate
alternative “voices” in a heteroglossia which the author has either not detected, or has
deliberately tried to suppress.
Like Bakhtin’s theory of novelistic discourse, theories of feminine language
describe a “multi-voiced” or “polyphonic” resistance to hierarchies and “Medusan
laughter” at authority.
The concept of “female sentence” or “feminine writing,”
first introduced by Woolf, and then carried forward by French feminists such as
Cixous, Kristeva, and Irigaray, takes the same direction with Bakhtin without prior
consultation. The focus of this concept is the idea that feminine writing must and
always occur outside the phallocentric symbolic order, and escape the boundaries of
reason and logic. An ecriture feminine would hence create a space for women to
share their voices, not being afraid to reveal their side of the story.
It writes that for
which there is as yet (in phallocentric culture) no language, and which has been
marginalized, silenced and repressed in the masculine symbolic order. Its context is
the range of feminist difference and desire may be creatively articulated.
writers, not only Cixous, find it impossible to define or theorize. Their resistance to
theorization identifies “theory” as phallocentric, symptomatic of a desire to master
and to deny difference, which this writing challenges. Difference and deconstruction
are part of this writing’s challenge to logocentrism.
They argue that a feminine
mode of writing is nonlinear, fluid, figurative, multiple in voices, themes and
Feminine writing presents itself in its narrative experimentation (practice again
and again), not in theoretical conclusions drawn or literary traditions outlined. As
Elaine Showalter summarizes the history of women’s writing as three stages, women
writers have created a model which describes their “evolutionary” stages of writing
from the feminine period--imitation of male forms with an internalization of
patriarchal values, to the feminist phase--protest against dominant male artistic norms
and aesthetic standards, arriving finally at the female stage--a search of identity and
female experience. Feminine writing has evolved from imitation, through protest, to
It has moved beyond its early goal for equality, to the later notion of
celebrating the difference, to the “present” (post) expression of female values. In
Woolf’s words, women writing should experiment “altering and adapting the current
sentence until she writes one that takes the natural shape of her thought without
crushing or distorting it” (WW 48).
Feminine writing, in fact, is a “process” instead
of a “product,” a “practice” instead of a “theory.”
Virginia Woolf spent all her life trying progressively in her research to free
language from patriarchal patterns, to find a way to write woman into an active,
independent thinking body, to write a “female sentence.” According to her, even
with her ceaseless lifetime effort, “[t]he Mother Tongue” had not been achieved yet.
Women writers should keep on writing; continuous writing practice “is only a means
to an end, and the end is still to be reached” (WW 48).
towards “a female sentence.”
She had always been moving
As well described by the promoter of the ecriture
feminine, Cixous, it can never be achieved; if it is finalized, it is not “a female
sentence” anymore:
It is impossible to define a feminine practice of writing, and this is an
impossibility that will remain, for this practice can never be theorized,
enclosed, coded— which doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.
But it will always
surpass the discourse that regulates the phallocentric system; it does and
will take place in areas other than those subordinated to
philosophico-theoretical domination.
It will be conceived of only by
subjects who are breakers of automatism, by peripheral figures that no
authority can ever subjugate. (Cixous 1975, 340)
Though feminine writing cannot be defined, “theorized, enclosed or coded,” it does
“exist,” “does and will take place,” and “will be conceived,” after all.
A “female
sentence” is, in fact, a “sentence-in-making,” a “feminine writing” is the
“writing-of-becoming,” and the fundamental issue of this dissertation is a feminist
“subject-in-process.” It is not a stable or coherent body of knowledge.
We can
only know its “direction” but never arrive at its “destination.” As Woolf suggests in
her letter to Ethel Smyth in September 1930, “sentences are only an approximation, a
net one flings over some sea pearl which may vanish, and if one brings it up it wont
be anything like what it was when I first saw it.” To define “a female sentence” is to
nullify the very spirit of a female writing practice as our foremothers conceived it.
This dissertation, sharing the spirit of them, does not attempt to describe the
specificity of the theorization of a female sentence, but aims to show how the shifting
points of view about feminine writing, together with the works of Virginia Woolf,
combine to create a picture of the “ecriture feminine.”
As Woolf remarks, feminine writing “is always feminine; it cannot help being
feminine; the only difficulty lies in defining what we mean by feminine” (WW 70).
She believes that the sex of a writing to be an elusive, but unmistakable aura, a matter
of values, from which “spring not only marked differences of plot and incident, but
infinite differences in selection, method, and style” (71).
their voices in a world that often insists otherwise?
How can women maintain
George Eliot and Miss Bronte’s
adoption of male pseudonyms to obtain impartial criticism, Woolf herself and E. M
Foster’s defense of Radclyffe Hall’s lesbian novel The Well of Loneliness, James
Joyce and D. H. Lawrence’s facing court hearings over the content of their works, all
contribute to Woolf’s comprehensive understanding of the material and ideological
conditions for the freedom of a writer, and the boundaries of women’s access to
literary production.
In order to assert but not vainly exert herself, Woolf’s feminist
issues are usually raised in an oblique manner.
Woolf’s writings inform and echo each other. Woolf’s characters carry Woolf
with them in the direction of a new writing.
Her writings and her characters are the
starting inspiration for a long development in Woolfian text characterizing feminine
experience and creativity as the opposite of the masculine.
Woolf’s use of “stream
of consciousness,” of “androgyny,” of “water imagery” in her fiction, will be carefully
explored in the following chapters as her narrative toward the feminine, as expressive
of lecriture feminine, as constituting both a woman’s language and a female aesthetic,
for sisterhood, and for a politics of feminist survival. This dissertation will present
Woolf’s texts not to finalize feminine writing, or to fix it in a message, but to discuss
the possibilities that will maintain those elements in movement, “streaming” along
like “mother’s milk,” dancing around to the rhythm and shape of “women’s
body,” enabling readers to experience the “process” of female creativity.
Chapter 2
Stream of Consciousness and Feminine Writing
Fragmentation, abstraction, alienation, change, individualization, acceleration of
life – these are some of the characteristics of European urban life at the beginning of
the 20th century as experienced by contemporary artists and intellectuals.
Technological changes brought great improvements in the physical comfort of life and
also impacts on the spiritual emptiness of modern life.
Wars added to all this a
profound sense of disillusionment as to the consequences of technical modernization
and scientific progress.
At the same time, Freud’s theories of psychology prompted
interest in the inner life of individuals. Art, as most other social fields, saw a rapid
development of specialization and sought to explore and experiment with new form of
expression that would accommodate the experience of modern life. Intellectuals
questioned old values in religious, political, philosophical and literary fields.
Generally, 20th-century writers have been torn between expressing the era’s new
discoveries (Freudian psychology, for example) and expressing dissatisfaction with
western civilization.
Despairing of coherence in a materialist, chaotic modern life, increasingly bereft
of religious, moral or historical certainties, Woolf sees art and the depths of the
individual spirit as the only refuge from this disorder. Lack of assurance outside in
life forced the writers to seek it within.
Many authors during this time were
influenced by the new psychological ideas which were becoming accepted as ways to
identify the true reality of human consciousness. In literature this involved the
rejection of intelligible plots or characterization in novels, or the creation of fiction
that defied clear interpretation.
Modern writers believed that by rejecting the
depiction of material objects they helped art from a materialist to a spiritualist phase
of development.
Virginia Woolf has been credited with “changing the literary canon” (Caughie
180) through her attempt to redefine the important elements in literature. She thinks
human nature has changed since 1910 (CE 1: 320); therefore, the perception of nature
must follow the change.
Like most of the modernists, it is not external but inner
nature that Woolf favors. The primacy of “how we see” over “what we see,”
resulted from the Post-Impressionist Exhibition, is delicately expressed in Woolf’s
theory of fiction.
Interpreting the external world through the internal stream of
consciousness of her characters and minimizing the importance of plot, Woolf helps
shape the modernist novel. In her essays “Modern Fiction” and “Mr. Bennett and
Mrs. Brown,” Woolf argues that the “Edwardians,” represented by Wells, Bennett and
Galsworthy deal life only in surfaces but to get underneath these surfaces one must
use less restricted presentation of life: “
if a writer were a free man and not a slave, if he could write what he chose,
not what he must, if he could base his work upon his own feeling and not
upon convention, there would be no plot, no comedy, no tragedy, no love
interest or catastrophe in the accepted style, and perhaps not a single button
sewn on as the Bond Street tailor would have it.
(“MF” 88)
In fact, “Woolf raises a clarion call to a new aesthetics of psychological realism”
(Hussey 162) against the traditional realism with these two important essays.
Claiming “human character changed,” Woolf accuses Bennett and the other
Edwardians of ignoring the change. Life itself had to change in response to the
changing nature of modern, urban and post-Freudian experience. Sharing the same
interest with other contemporary women writers such as Dorothy Richardson and
Katherine Mansfield, Woof attempted to break significantly with the traditional
conventions of literature. She argued persuasively and strongly for a rejection of
materialist writings of the Edwardians who “have given us a house in the hope that we
may be able to deduce the human beings who live there” (WW 31).
Taking a female,
Mrs. Brown as the inner life of fiction, Woolf has already made clear that the
“psychological reality” is a woman, and “she” is the symbol of “feminine realism.”
Though realism remained the dominant mode of writing but has been enriched and
developed by the emergence of the modernist novel especially women’s writing.
Wells, Bennett and Galsworthy, are “materialists,” concerned not with the
“spirit,” the internal man, but with the “body,” the external man. Life, according to
Woolf, is not really like the way they represent it:
If we tried to formulate our meaning in one word we should say these three
writers are materialists.
It is because they are concerned not with the spirit
but with the body that they have disappointed us and left us with the feeling
that the sooner English fiction turn its back upon them [. . .] the better for its
soul. [. . .] Mr. Bennett is perhaps the worst culprit of the three, inasmuch as
he is by far the best workman. He can make a book so well constructed
and solid in its craftsmanship that it is difficult for the most exacting of
critics to see through what chink or crevice decay can creep in. [. . .] And
yet--if life should refuse to live there?
(“MF” 87)
Their description of life is so crafty and well-worked that it is too seamless to “see
through” and “creep in.” “The soul, life within us, by no means agrees with the life
outside us” (CR I 59).
Movement, change, and freedom are “the essence of our
being; rigidity is death; conformity is death” (63).
Life itself, “escapes” these
materialistic writers because “[l]ife is not a series of gig-lamps symmetrically
arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the
beginning of consciousness to the end” (“MF” 88).
Her protest against the
Edwardian novel is, in fact, a revolt against the tyranny of realistic rules such as
chronological time that is “matter” (material), in favor of stream of consciousness that
is “spirit.” Her various literary experiments are, in fact, directed towards finding a
suitable medium which can render most appropriately this elusive sense of life.
“grows” when the masculine realism is “cut out”:
“There will be books with all that cut out [. . .]. The book of the future will
be clear of all that.” [. . .] “if books were written like that, sitting down and
doing it cleverly and knowing just what you were doing and just how
somebody else had done it, there was something wrong, some mannish
cleverness that was only half right.
To write books knowing all about style
would be to become like a man.” So “him and her” are cut out, and with
them goes the odd deliberate business: the chapters that lead up and the
chapters that lead down; the characters who are always characteristic; the
scenes that are passionate and the scenes that are humorous; the elaborate
construction of reality; the conception that shapes and surrounds the whole.
(WW 189)
When the chapters, the characters, the scenes, the construction of reality and the
conception of the happenings do not become “deliberate business,” life presents itself
in writing.
When all the masculine materialistic stuff is cast away, life, “the small
sensitive lump of matter,” “the very oyster within the shell,” “the source beneath the
surface” presents itself in the female consciousness (189). According to Woolf, it is
“the many-colored and innumerable threads of life” that novelists should try to “plait
incessantly” (189) [emphasis mine]. It is this “whether we call it life or spirit, truth
or reality, this, the essential thing” (“MF’ 88) that novelists should try to capture. It
is “this varying, this unknown and uncircumscribed spirit, whatever aberration or
complexity it may display” (88) that novelists should try to convey.
Woolf regards
the aesthetic act as a means of understanding the “hidden depth” (WW 190), the
“regions beneath” (191), the “profound reality” (190), and the underlying order in life,
which is concealed from us by everyday existence. In one word, she “saw the
novelist as trying to express the elusive reality of character, especially as character is
reflected in sensibility” (Booth 53).
This deeper sense of “looking within” is expressed by the
stream-of-consciousness technique by means of the extent to which it directs readers’
attention upon subjective, inner feeling. The influence is identified at many points in
the work of modernist authors in their general readiness to “look within” (“MF” 88).
Writers began to characterize using not only spoken words but also by writing streams
of thought possibly going through the characters’ minds. Subject matters for the
earlier novelists are motive and action (materialistic) and for the later ones, psychic
existence and functioning (spiritual). In contrast to those whom Woolf has called
“materialists, Mr. Joyce is spiritual” and “concerned at all costs to reveal the
flickerings of that innermost which flashes its myriad message through the brain” (“M
F” 89).
Faced with traditional realists, who concentrate on superficial “external
details” rather than on the more important inner experience, Woolf claims that life
“refuses to be contained any longer in such ill-fitting vestments” as they provide.
Considering that the materialists use the wrong “apparatus for catching life,” Woolf
deeply understands the importance of the “immediacy of experience rendered in a
fluid medium” (Kumar 65).
She tries to create an aesthetic revolution by developing
a feminine version of reality, or “psychological realism,” or “spiritualism:”
The mind, exposed to the ordinary course of life, receives upon its surface
myriad impressions— trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the
sharpness of steel. From all sides they come, an incessant shower of
innumerable atoms, composing in their sum what we might venture to call
life of Monday or Tuesday, the accent falls differently from of old, the
moment of importance came not here but there [. . .] if he could base his
work upon his own feeling and not upon convention [. . .].
(“MF” 88)
This shift in emphasis to the inner lives of characters during the late Victorian period
and in the modern period is related to a growing shift away from a belief in an
independent, absolutely verifiable external reality. Stream of consciousness
represents a new way of rendering reality free from traditional conceptualization, a
plea for a free intuitive process of creative evolution against the more mechanistic
theories of nineteenth-century materialism.
Woolf finds women’s traditional structural position enables them to take an
adversarial stance to institutions of dominance.
basically outsiders.
Women, according to her, are
They can and must refuse male society and its values, such as
militarism, hierarchy, authoritarianism, materialism and etc.
Women must turn its
negative markers such as “trivial, fantastic, evanescent” into positive markers of
difference. Among Woolf’s contemporary writers, women are by no means alone in
using stream of consciousness, but many women who affiliate themselves with this
narrative technique write against norms of “realist” narrative from a consciousness
stirred by feminist discourses of resistance. Woolf’s depiction of human
consciousness offers a kind of reality beyond causality. The heart of Woolf’s
feminine writing is that human consciousness is spiritual in fact, and does not belong
to the material world.
It takes expatriates to introduce modernist innovations to literature.
Women, of
course, are not the only ones to suffer from the marginalization of language; stream of
consciousness becomes the language of the outlaw because of its unconventionality
and nonconformity. Joyce, an Irish outsider, has commanded the same technique,
but Woolf claims insistently “there is a difference” (WW 191).
Joyce is one of the
male authors who Dorothy Richardson praises for his creation of what she calls
“feminine prose” (Richardson 12), who Cixous appreciates for his “innovation of a
New Miss Sexuality,” his “new image of the feminine,” and his perfect “artistic
production of the feminine” (qtd. in Birkett 14-15), and who Kristeva compares his
language with Woolf as “feminine” (Kristeva 1981, 166).
Claimed by so many
practitioners of feminine writing as “feminine,” Joyce’s stream of consciousness is
still lack of something to be true feminine.
According to Woolf, Joyce’s writing may
be a man-womanly (man writing feminine) sentence but definitely not a
woman-womanly (woman writing feminine) sentence because it is not “used to
describe a woman’s mind by a writer who is neither proud nor afraid of anything that
she may discover in the psychology of her sex” (WW 191).
In the novels of Woolf,
Sinclair, Richardson, Stein, Joyce, Conrad, Foster, Lawrence etc, there is an
increasing attention to the “inner life of individual” as more “authentic” than the
external reality. Priding himself on his very distinctive style of expression, which is
energetic and concentrates on presenting the externals of human nature with icy
clarity, the major opponent of Woolf, Lewis Wyndham claims the
stream-of-consciousness technique a “feminine art” and not “quite meat for men”
(Lewis 3).
Under his pen, Woolf becomes “an introverted matriarch, brooding over
a subterraneous ‘stream of consciousness’-a feminine phenomenon” (6).
spiritual world, according to him, is an “unreal city” with “pale kings, and princes,”
and “pale warriors” (6), “a novel with a dramatis personae of disembodied spirits” (3).
For all the forerunners of stream of consciousness such as James, Joyce, Forster,
Lawrence, Dostoievsky or other, he implies that they are the “feminine men,” “the
Prousts and sub-Prousts,” “the poor lost ‘Georgian’ would-be novelists, using the
“feminine art,” “in their way,” “in the same unenviable position” (2-7).
“All were
boxed up with some Mrs. Brown or other, longing to ‘bag’ the old girl, and yet
completely impotent to do so” (5).
The narrative method of Marcel Proust, the
father of psychological novel, in his A la recherché du temps perdu, and Laurence
Sterne, the father of stream of consciousness, in his Tristram Shandy, is often
described as “feminine.” Jane Wheare gives a very good reason why stream of
consciousness is termed as feminine narrative:
What is meant in this context is not that it is female, but rather that it is
subversive or anti-conventional. The “feminine” approach to narrative is
typified in the early twentieth century in the work of Dorothy Richardson.
In her unfinished novel, Pilgrimage, Richardson uses the fictional narrator,
Miriam Henderson, to put forward her own criticisms of what she deems the
traditional “masculine” (or conventional) world-view, criticisms which
correspond very closely to those contained in Woolf’s experimental novels
and essays. [. . .] Like Woolf, Richardson defines her own narrative
method in opposition to the “Edwardian” tradition of Galsworthy, Bennett,
and, particularly, Wells. When she praises a narrative technique for its
“femininity,” the implication is that it subverts this tradition. A
“masculine” style, on the other hand, is conventional and imitative.
(Wheare 9)
Therefore, it is the sense of subversion and unconventionality that makes stream of
consciousness feminine.
Though stream-of-consciousness narrative cannot be
claimed totally or extremely feminine, it is absolutely not the so-called traditionally
masculine style; it was generally acknowledged and has been certainly considered
closer to the feminine. If we do not know what a true feminine writing is, Woolf
suggests it means “we haven’t written enough,” we are still “in process of showing
[our] experiments” (WW 60), and “we are still in the thick of the battle” (“MF” 1).
Moving within toward the feminine, Woolf speculates that her literary foremother
Jane Austen would have devised a spiritual narrative which is “deeper and more
suggestive,” for conveying not only what things are, but what life is had she lived
longer (WW 9).
She “would have been the forerunner of Henry James and of Proust”
(Booth 54), and of Woolf, hence would have been the mother of stream of
consciousness. Similarly, Dorothy Richardson “defended her endless
stream-of-consciousness as a route to ‘reality’; her method she said, expressed her
first experience of letting ‘a stranger in the form of contemplated reality’ have ‘its
own say’” (qtd. in Booth 54).
Woolf is like Austen and Richardson in her desire to
make her fiction closer to “life itself.”
An acute sensibility and an almost uncanny awareness of the complexity of inner
life enable her to present successfully the subjective aspect of experience. Human
life pulsates simultaneously at many levels, each corresponding to a particular ebb or
flow of the psychic stream. Stream of consciousness is a phrase used by William
James in his Principles of Psychology (1890) to describe, “the unbroken flow of
perceptions, thoughts, and feelings in the waking mind”; it has since been adopted to
describe a narrative method in modern fiction.
Its forerunner was the psychological
novel as exemplified by Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, which had an
enormous influence on many such novelists, such as Dorothy Richardson, James
Joyce, and Woolf.
Another forerunner was Henry James, who created what he called
“central consciousness” or a governing intelligence, a character that he would stay
with throughout a story or a novel and whose mind we might thus be limited to in our
perception of the action of the novel. Some critics use stream of consciousness
interchangeably with the term “interior monologue.” Dostoievsky was also kin to
interior monologue; “long self-communing passages” were found in his novels
(Cuddon 919).
Joyce, who is believed to have “exploited the possibilities and [taken]
the technique almost to a point of ne plus ultra in Ulysses (1922) which purports to be
an account of the experiences (the actions, thoughts, feelings) of two men, Leopold
Bloom and Stephen Daedalus” (Cuddon 919). The purpose of most
stream-of-consciousness writers, according to Robert Humphrey, is to reveal “the
psychic being of the characters,” “to analyze human nature,” and “to present character
more accurately and more realistically” (qtd. in Booth 54). Several original minds
had been working towards this unconventional and nonconformist method of writing
The technological and intellectual innovations of the early 20th century had a
striking impact on women of all classes.
Women’s changed perception of
contemporary society and their roles within it affect not only the subject and ideas of
fiction, but also its form and style. Controversial innovations marked the
development of modernist fictions by different modern writers especially women.
These texts focus on the mental processes of characters and enacted the disruption of
the consciousness by unconscious material. Women writers’ break with the
materialist tradition came in the form of the centrality in their works of women’s
experience, more specifically, the reality of female sexuality. This is tied to the
further psychological thematic of the exploration of the psyche as an unknown,
unconscious realm desperately in need of being made conscious. Richardson’s
Pilgrimage (1915-1967) explored the mental evolution of its heroine, Miriam
Henderson, while Woolf practiced a “tunneling” technique through which she
excavated the dreams and desires of her characters.
Gertrude Stein’s insistence on a
“continuous presence” is her adoption and adaptation of William James concept of
May Sinclair adopted Dorothy Richardson’s and Henry James’s
“psychological realism,” or “stream of consciousness” as she first called it, and
experimented successfully with narrative perspective in her novels. They placed
language and consciousness at the center of their works structurally, thematically and
stylistically. The works of Woolf and her contemporary women writers exemplify
the feminine modes of writing within their sociological and psychological context.
Woolf did indeed help to change the literary canon; her accomplishment is tied to her
tireless attempts to redirect the content and form of fiction and to open up possibilities
for writing and appreciation of writing by women.
Taking Mrs. Brown in “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown” as the symbol of inner life,
defining Richardson’s stream-of-consciousness technique as the “psychological
sentence of the feminine gender” (WW 191), Woolf clearly orientates inner lives as
feminine and external reality as masculine. Praising Proust’s creative tendency
within as “androgynous, if not perhaps a little too much of a woman” (AROO 108),
approving Joyce’s unflinching fight against materialism as “spiritual” and “with
complete courage” (“MF” 89), Woolf specifically indicates the inward moving
direction of a feminine writing.
As Elaine Showalter observes and comments,
women writers responded to the war by turning within:
In 1920 a critical study called Some Contemporary Novelists (Women) by R.
Brimley Johnson attempted to define the collective nature of women’s
fiction and to explain what was meant by the female version of realism:
“The new woman, the female novelist of the twentieth century, has
abandoned the old realism.
She does not accept observed revelation.
is seeking, with passionate determination, for that Reality which is behind
the material, the things that matter, spiritual things, ultimate Truth. And
here she finds man an outsider, willfully blind, purposely indifferent.”
Johnson romanticized this quest in relating it to the war, which he thought
had brought “a new spirituality” to a disillusioned generation. But he also
thought it stemmed form feminist ideology. (Showalter 1982, 241)
Losing the trust on one side, people may appeal to the other. Showalter’s
consideration of the “spiritual things” as the “ultimate Truth,” the “Reality,” and most
importantly, the “female version of realism” is the same as Richardson and Woolf.
According to Woolf, women’s writers’ anger is because that literature is dominated by
“some mannish cleverness that was only half right” (WW 189) and “so much of the
enormous labour of proving the solidity, the likeness to life” has been “thrown away”
and “misplaced” “on the [masculine] wrong side,” Woolf recommended a narrative
direction “within” toward the feminine “closer to life:”
Look within and life, it seems, is very far away from being ‘like this
[materialistic representation of life]’.
Examine for a moment an ordinary
mind on an ordinary day. [. . .] Let us record the atoms as they fall upon the
mind in the order in which they fall, let us trace the pattern, however
disconnected and incoherent in appearance, which each sight or incident
scores upon consciousness. Let us not take it for granted that life exists
more fully in what is commonly thought big than in what is commonly
thought small.
(“MF” 88-9)
Woolf’s idea of the feminine is her idea of writing; a woman’s “writing” is a woman’s
Woolf writes the feminine by expanding and “righting” its conventional
And since novel has the correspondence to real life, its values are to some
extent those of real life.
But it is obvious that the values of women differ
very often from the values which have been made by the other sex; naturally,
this is so.
Yet it is the masculine values that prevail. Speaking crudely,
football and sport are “important”; the worship of fashion, the buying of
clothes “trivial.” And these values are inevitably transferred from life to
fiction. This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with
war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of
woman in a drawing-room. A scene in a battlefield is more important than
a scene in a shop – everywhere and much more subtly the difference of
value persists. [. . .] There was a flaw in the center of it.
(AROO 80)
In place of the traditional evaluation of human “feelings” as “trivial,” Woolf value the
dreaming elements of life “however disconnected and incoherent in appearance” (“M
F” 89) with creative energy.
What is commonly thought small is valued over what is
commonly thought big. Being revolutionary, obviously Woolf has the genius and
integrity with which she credits Jane Austen and Emily Bronte in face of all severe
criticism, in the midst of that purely patriarchal society without shrinking.
mind,” in Woolf’s narrative, which “receives a myriad of impressions— trivial,
fantastic, evanescent” makes life exist more fully (89). Such a narrative is supposed
to follow not just the unvoiced (“silent”) thoughts of characters, but also the leaps of
association that connect these thoughts. Her narration sets out not to tell us what a
character thinks, but to follow how he or she thinks.
Woolf’s tendency towards subjectivism and away from “objective realism” is
one significant feature of modern novels, especially for the women writing.
It turns
inward from its 19th-century concern with “external reality” to the representation of
what Woolf terms the “flickerings of that innermost flame” (“MF” 89).
She sought
to develop a technique of expression that would capture the essence of the sensibility
and render “inner experience.” Woolf’s novels show a feeling for privacy, a need for
a mind to exist in its own parameters. It is in her narrative method that Woolf makes
her most important contribution to the novel. She ingeniously rejects conventional
conceptions of the novel and replaces emphasis on incidents, external descriptions,
and straightforward narratives by an overriding concern with character presentation
by the “stream of consciousness” method. This “different technique” used by Woolf
and her contemporaries has been the definitive break with the past ushered in the
modernist era. Searching for a suitable term to describe this not-yet-named
innovative feminine narrative, Woolf was quite proud of this “woman’s discovery”
and was most willing to be a modest follower, “an intermittent student” (WW 191).
She did not claim the credit for herself but to Dorothy Richardson:
The method [stream of consciousness], if triumphant, should make us feel
ourselves seated in another mind. [. . .] to achieve a sense of reality far
greater than that produced by the ordinary means is undoubted. [. . .]
Having sacrificed not merely ‘hims and hers [traditional characterization]’,
but so many seductive graces of wit and style for the prospect of some new
revelation or greater intensity. [. . .] The old method [masculine realism]
seems sometimes the more profound and economical of the two. [. . .]
We want to be rid of realism, to penetrate without its help into the regions
beneath it [. . .] to fashion this new material into something [. . .].
Woolf’s delight was mixed with worries for this still-achievable female innovation.
Starting “the method,” Richardson did not fully express the hidden depth and did not
make the best use of it.
Woolf claimed “we still find ourselves distressingly near the
surface” only:
Things look much the same as ever. It is certainly a very vivid surface.
The consciousness of Miriam [major character in Richardson’s stream-ofconsciousness novel] takes the reflection of a dentist’s room to perfection.
Her senses of touch, sight and hearing are all excessively acute. But
sensations, impressions, ideas and emotions glance off her, unrelated and
unquestioned, without shedding quite as much light as we had hoped into
the hidden depths.
(WW 190)
Though Richardson’s feminine writing is considered by Woolf as not good enough,
“The Tunnel is [still] better in its failure than most [men’s] books in their success”
Though she “never reach[es] that degree of significance,” her failure might
be resulted from the “exacting” high standards which we [women writers], perhaps
unreasonably, expect” (190-191). According to Woolf, it was just the beginning and
women writers still had a long long way to go. Practice makes perfect. In order to
find a “perfectly natural, shapely sentence proper for her own use” (AROO 83), Woolf
herself or any woman writer should keep on writing until she finds the true feminine.
Indeed, she earnestly practiced what she advocated by her series of
stream-of-consciousness novels.
Jacob’s Room (1922) is her first stream-of-consciousness novel. It has no plot,
but through the thoughts of Jacob Flanders, the inner turmoil of the young is
remarkably revealed.
In Mrs. Dalloway (1925), the stream of consciousness
narrative represents the thoughts of Clarissa and a range of other characters with
whom she is acquainted, or connected by chance occurrences of the day.
Throughout the novel memories of the past are blended with present sensations to
register the interaction of different lives and their inner consciousness.
To the
Lighthouse (1927) plumbs the depth of human experience and such elements as the
mystery of personality, the differences between masculine and feminine worlds, and
the importance of womanly love to a family. The story is told through the stream of
consciousness technique in the minds of the characters, especially James, Lily, and
Mrs. Ramsay. The Waves (1931) unfolds the consciousness of six characters from
youth to age as they search for identity in a machine-age world. Each character
reflects images of the others in his or her own mind.
It presents human existence as
an organic process, uniting individuals like waves on the sea, tide after tide.
attempts to recreate the stream and pattern of her characters’ thoughts and feelings
from a totally “internal” viewpoint, thus emphasizing the uniqueness of each
individual. In these works, she uses less restricted presentation of life, therefore
abandoning linear narrative and finding an alternative to the male-dominated views of
reality. Her use of stream-of-consciousness technique consolidates her position as
one of the leading modernist writers.
It is through the searching for a language unmarked by culture coded as
masculine that Woolf discovers or develops the stream-of-consciousness technique.
What makes Woolf’s stream-of-consciousness narrative gendered as feminine?
Firstly, it is a language not yet formulated into speech.
Woolf tries to present the
content of consciousness as it was before it had been shaped in obedience to the
demands of practical life.
Woolf’s emphasis is placed on the exploration of the
pre-speech (semiotic or pre-oedipal) level of consciousness as closer to the feminine
for the purpose, primarily, of revealing the true reality, the psychic “being” instead of
“states of doing” of the characters. The semiotic, stemming from the pre-oedipal
phase, bound up with the child’s contact with the mother’s body, is thus closely
connected with femininity. The child in the pre-oedipal phase “does not yet have
access to language,” to the symbolic, to the “Law of the father,” but we can imagine
its communication by a flow of “body pulsions” (Eagleton 188).
This pre-oedipal
“rhythmic pattern,” like the stream of consciousness, in its inchoate nature, can be
seen as a non-patriarchal language. Since the semiotic is not yet meaningful and not
yet organized into the symbolic, it is more typical of woman.
In her praise of Richardson’s “woman’s sentence”-- “the denuded, unsheltered,
unbegun and unfinished” (WW 189) consciousness, Woolf’s intention for a
pre-patriarchal language is clearly shown.
According to Woolf, language, the only
medium of expression, was already marked by male-dominated culture and thus it
was impossible for women to express anything to the world. She went back to the
pre-referential stage of language because she was searching for a language untouched
by culture, as a suitable medium to voice the female consciousness. Freed from the
cultural restraint, the pre-structured, pre-modified flow of language in its inchoate
unpolluted or unoccupied stage can have a more healthy balanced development
toward the genuinely feminine. The “feminine equivalent” is, in this sense, a vehicle
not only for the “voyage out” the constraints of linear time and linear syntax but also a
vehicle for the “voyage in” the unconscious:
[. . .] that idea of visiting places in dreams. It was something more than
that . . . all the real part of your life has a real dream in it; some of the real
dream part of you coming true. You know in advance when you are really
following your life.
These things are familiar because reality is here.
Coming events cast light. It is like dropping everything and walking
backward to something you know is there.
However far you go out you
come back. . . . I am back now where I was before [the semiotic chora, the
pre-speech realm] I began trying to do things like other people. I left
home to get here. None of those things [masculine materialist stuff] can
touch me here. They are mine.
(WW 189-90)
It is through this continuous “going back” to the pre-oedipal realm, to the semiotic
“space of the maternal chora (enclosed space, womb, receptacle)” (Roe and Sellers
232) where they were that women writers find life or reality, and find the truth about
The semiotic, proposed by Kristeva and described by Terry Eagleton,
though “not exclusive to” women, is “closer to” women:
The semiotic is the “other” of language, which is nonetheless intimately
entwined with it. Because it stems from the pre-Oedipal phase, it is bound
up with the child’s contact with the mother’s body, whereas the symbolic as
we have seen, is associated with the Law of the father. The semiotic is
thus closely connected with femininity; but is by no means a language
exclusive to women, for it arises from a pre-Oedipal period which
recognizes no distinction of gender. (Eagleton 188)
A feminine writing written by men “is only an oblique consideration” and cannot be
true feminine or completely feminine.
Secondly, as mentioned earlier, Woolf’s primary motivation to experiment with
modernist forms was not only resulted from the inadequacy of language to express
reality but also from her ingenious attempt to relocate reality. Stream of
consciousness offers Woolf one of the tools to craft an alternate portrait of reality.
Following Richardson “to produce a feminine equivalent of the current masculine
realism” (Buck), Woolf discovers stream of consciousness an “undoubted genuine”
(WW 191) feminine writing.
Richardson’s concern “of the silence rather than of the
sound” (191) expressed in her stream-of-consciousness novel Pilgrimage deeply
attracts Woolf. It is this comment that started a long-standing tradition of debate on
this issue within feminism.
And it was this effort of producing “a feminine
equivalent of the current masculine realism” hence inventing or developing the “the
psychological sentence of the feminine gender [stream of consciousness]” that made
Woolf “an intermittent student” (191) of Richardson, an earnest practitioner of
feminine writing. The issue of stream of consciousness as narrative toward the
feminine is argued even clearer in her contrast with the masculine one:
if books were written like that, sitting down and doing it cleverly and
knowing just what you were doing and just how somebody else had done it,
there was something wrong, some mannish cleverness that was only half
right [masculine rightness].
be to become like a man.
To write books knowing all about style would
(WW 189)
It is this self-imposed “mannish” rightness of the “masculine realism” that Woolf and
her contemporary women writers protest against and try very hard to find the way out.
Stream of consciousness obviously holds the supremacy of spontaneity over logic and
style; it opens the door for the women writers’ return from a pervasively masculine
present to a mythically feminine past.
“The voice of protest is the voice of another” (“MF” 91). Speaking from the
place of an-other makes a marked difference in the way women use language.
Feminine language does not conform to solid male rules of realism, of logic, clarity,
and consistency.
The questions of gender and language, and of the possibility of a
“female aesthetic,” are central not only to Richardson’s works but also to those of
Woolf’s. Among Woolf’s contemporary writers, women are by no means alone in
pursuing nonlinear, anti-hierarchical and de-centered writing.
In this, May Sinclair,
Gertrude Stein, Dorothy Richardson, Virginia Woolf, and even James Joyce, were at
one. Their emp hasis upon subjectivity, upon “psychological or feminine version of
realism” brought to the fore the inner world of the mind, de-emphasizing direct realist
representation of the social context in favor of its indirect portrayal through the
consciousness of their characters. Since male writer such as Joyce was the classic
exponent of stream of consciousness too, how can we gender the “turning inward of
the novel” feminine?
Exiles and outsiders bring revolutions and innovations.
Feminine writing, as well observed by Cixous, can only be imagined and worked out
by “breakers of automatisms, by peripheral figures that no authority can ever
subjugate” (Cixous 1975, 340).
Many writers who affiliate themselves with this
tendency write against norms of tradition.
Because of the permissiveness of the
stream-of-consciousness technique, Woolf was not the only novelist who used it in
opposition to a patriarchal society or the dominant masculine discourse. Women had
been outsiders of a phallogocentric world, hence naturally had the potential for a new
departure in art.
Joyce was both an artist and a Dubliner, and his self-knowledge grew as he
understood more about the history of an Ireland dominated by the English, which had
pushed his own culture to the margins and denied him his own language. Joyce,
being a literary outsider, feels with increasing intensity the anguish of that
He transcends the anguish by finding techniques of writing that
released the repressed energies of a frozen culture and turns an ossified inheritance
into a streaming and becoming process.
As well observed by Woolf’s biographer
John Lehmann, “the idea of using such a technique was clearly ‘in the air’” at that
time, and “though all three, James Joyce, Dorothy Richardson and Virginia Woolf,
developed a style in which ‘stream of consciousness’ played its part, each used it in a
different way” (48).
Joyce’s stream is undeniably Joyce’s.
undeniably Richardson’s.
Richardson’s stream is
Stein’s stream is undeniably Stein’s. Sinclair’s stream is
undeniably Sinclair’s. It seems quite clear that stream of consciousness allows a
freer and more fluid female expression that traditional narrative cannot.
differentiated Joyce’s stream from Richardson’s by indicating Joyce’s “extreme” use
of language and different state of mind (WW 191).
Male writers without “female
consciousness” cannot write a complete or pure “woman’s sentence,” even he has the
“feminine technique.” It still needs some requisites: “It is a woman’s sentence, but
only in the sense that it is used to describe a woman’s mind by a writer who is neither
proud nor afraid of anything that she may discover in the psychology of her sex”
As explained earlier in this chapter, Woolf was not the first or only
practitioner of this technique, and this technique may be not fundamentally or totally
feminine. However, in the task of representing a peculiar and particular female
reality, women are more appropriately placed than man.
Thirdly, Woolf’s representation of different consciousnesses that “drift” from
past to present, and her texts which “flood” with feelings, make the narrative feminine.
Stream of consciousness, the flow of inner experiences brings water into “the desert
of male arrogance and intellectuality” (Poole 260).
It creates a flowing
communication among time-bound and land-locked selves.
The solid unified
structure, according to Woolf, is another masculine expression of language. Her
multiple “stream[s] of consciousness,” moving back and forth, aims for a melting
fluidity and a communicating polyphony. The fluidification of the rigid realistic
structure aims to present its discursive multiplicity and fluidity characteristic of
women. Cixous, being the later comer, yet possibly the most avant-garde and
challenging practitioner of ecriture feminine, carries on Woolf’s idea of consciousness
and enhances it: “Women’s imaginary is inexhaustible, like music, painting, writing:
their stream of phantasms is incredible” (Cixous 1975, 334). All the watery, womby,
wet imagery--flow, flood, blood, milk (white ink), and sea (“we are ourselves
sea”)--which will be discussed more thoroughly later in Chapter Four (Water Imagery
and Feminine Writing) is Cixous’s stream. All of these streams of the women
writers, Sinclair’s, Richardson’s, Stein’s, Richardson’s, Cixous’s, and others’, flowing
together with Woolf’s make a sea, an oceanic text, the feminine writing.
with their infinity and fluidity are not limited like facts.
Woolf’s psychological
realism based on mind is surely different from the traditional materialistic realism
based on human actions to present reality. Her stream-of-consciousness novels,
Jacob’s Room (1922), Mrs. Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927), and The
Waves (1931) exemplify her less restricted presentation of life, hence providing an
alternative to the male-dominated views of reality.
Woolf’s unique feminine writing began with her attempt to render the flow and
play of consciousness.
Language and consciousness are placed by Woolf at the
center of her works structurally, thematically and stylistically. She both discusses
and illustrates her idea of feminine writing: they are not linear or logical, which
means that they are not contained by traditional (masculine/ patriarchal/
phallogocentric) notions of argumentation and developments. The narration of her
works is more fluid than direct, more experimental than argumentative. She aims for
her reader to understand the nature of women’s writing as much from the way in
which she writes, as from what she writes about. As in so many other kinds of
oppositional definitions, such as mind/body, reason/passion, one term has historically
been privileged at the expense of the other, and one has been linked with the male,
one with the female.
Stream of consciousness as narrative might also be Woolf’s
refusal to accept the traditional Western separation of mind and body.
linked with body rather than mind, is supposed to be antithetical to writing, an activity
said to be restricted to the intellect. Stream of consciousness, the “content of
people’s mind”— memories, dreams, perceptions, sensations, impressions, aspirations,
illusions, feelings, intuitions, thoughts— associated by Woolf with the feminine has
challenged this [masculine vision of] body/mind notion in theory and practice.
Simultaneously, Woolf’s works is about and is “feminine writing.”
What really distinguishes Woolf’s novel is the aesthetic effect of her exploration
of the minds of her characters. Her probing into the human consciousness in Mrs.
Dalloway is not so simplistic that it emerges as a typical feminine presentation. She
presents the mental worlds of her characters with an unprecedented depth and
intensity. By virtue of her depth and intensity, Woolf creates a novel both with an
unconventional plot, and an unconventional prose characteristic of women called
The conscious is never in a “state.”
Life itself, according to Woolf, is
in characters which spring from the lively and fertile fusion of consciousnesses. Mrs.
Dalloway helps to understand these comments more fully as we follow the narrative
dis-course in her works. Through the “voyage out” with Woolf’s characters, the
treasure of her feminine writing or “the very oyster of the truth,” will soon drift into
our sight.
This metaphorical reading ship here tries carrying the passengers toward exploring
“madness,” the “split consciousness” as a delicate writing technique and an allegorical
subject especially of the women novelists to create "voices" in modern fiction. Stream
of consciousness is understood as a mad discourse which breaks off before the argument
reaches a conclusion, splits off into a number of possible meanings, affirms plural
interpretations, and thus speaks with more than one voice. As a result of her dislike for
what she calls the masculine-biased “egotistic” quality in writing, Woolf tries to evolve a
dis-course with multiple-“I”s which is more commensurate with the female experience.
By relinquishing the power of writing and embracing a plurality of consciousness
between activity/passivity and masculinity/femininity, Woolf attempts at generating the
non-phallogocentric language at beginning and a true feminine language in the future.
The multi-personal representation of consciousness is the portrayal of consciousness as
containing many voices. Stream of consciousness as a narrative both reflects and
represents the dissolution of the self in the modern world and the irrationality of the
modern self.
What is reason? What is madness? Where lie the dividing lines? And who can
discern and police them?
Can reason itself be unreasonable? What do we mean by
madness? Or isn't that what we call idiocy or mental illness? Is it the absence of
reason? Or is it, rather, the antithesis of right reason - wrong reason, drawing consistent
deductions from false premises? Or is it all these things together, in some amalgam that
defies analysis? What is sanity?
Can reason itself be unreasonable? Is there a
method in madness, a truth in folly? How is madness related with women? What is
the significance that madness represents in literary works?
According to Bakhtin, each consciousness represents one voice. Madness as split
plural consciousnesses represents multiple voices. The combination of ruptured plots,
with the undecidability of “who is speaking” orchestrates a text rich in voices. “The
voice of protest is the voice of another” (“MF” 91).
“[T]he feminine voice cannot be
identified as ‘one’ because it cannot be named and because every time she speaks, she
is aware of all the other[s’]” (Baur 11). In Woolf’s stream-of-consciousness novels,
it is never clear who speaks, where the speaking is coming from, but it is clear that
there is always more than one speaker, more than one language, because it is always
“an-other’s” speech, serving “an-other’s” language. The difficulty of determining
what belongs to the narrator and what to the character is further complicated by the
similarity of their voices. In the feminine writing, there is plurality of voices, put
forward by someone, who is “not one.” This diversity with language is especially to
a woman’s writing for it allows for the questioning of the many identities of woman.
This diversity of voices, elaborated by Bakhtin as heteroglossia, is the fundamental
characteristic of prose writers, and of novel as a genre. The “dis-course of madness”
which aims at disrupting the conventional course of narration in Virginia Woolf's Mrs.
Dalloway (1925) is, in fact, the "novelistic discourse" as defined by Bakhtin, and is the
major concern of this dissertation. Stream of consciousness allows Woolf a wonderful
display of narrative fluidity, as she moves us around places, between the thoughts of
different characters. Managing such glimpses of many minds is certainly not an easy
thing to imitate. The word “dis-course” is divided intentionally and shown slantwise,
since “not following one particular, or regular course” is just what Virginia Woolf
intends, and where this metaphorical reading ship is going to sail.
In a culture which glorifies reason, madness or unreason becomes particularly
threatening and must be subjugated. Women have been attributed with what amounts
to a constitutional proneness to insanity. Michel Foucault in his Madness and
Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason holds the assumption that society
has not been able to enter into a genuine dialogue with madness and that treatment of
madness at any age is an expression of fear and an attempt to either banish or control.
“Language of psychiatry,” according to Foucault, is only “a monologue of reason about
madness” (xi), a lopsided partial definition. For Virginia Woolf, a woman novelist, the
outsider to the male-dominated realm of official art, how she breaks this cultural
imposition of madness without losing her voices is a great challenge.
To avoid total
submission to the oppression of a so-called rational society, to gain a place in the
so-called normal side, and to avoid expulsion from the regime into complete silence, she
needs a more subtly defensive strategy to let her indignation take effect. “Madness” as
subject and “dis-course (no single unified course)” is Woolf's knack of writing in Mrs.
Dalloway. In the novel, Woolf successfully gives voices to the place of women and
rejects masculine discourse without being marginalized into madness and silence.
Though risking “sanity,” it's a nice try for Woolf and her characters to make known their
resistance to the social definition of “madness” and also invite the self-criticism of the
If “split consciousnesses,” or “divided selves,” or “schizophrenia” (yearning for
many) can be defined as an “illness,” isn't the “Unified Self” (biased to one) elaborated
by Louis Althusser also an illness called “paranoia?” The psychiatrist John Wing in his
Reasoning about Madness (1978) defines the term "illness" in two ways. His first
reference to "any experience or behavior which departs from a generally accepted
standard of health" could best explain the term "madness" (qtd. in Skultans 141). His
taking Locke's distinction between two kinds of madness -- "the first madness involves
opposition to reason, the second involves being overpowered by unruly passions" -indicates the difference between unreasonableness (eccentricity) and illness (141). It is
the first madness that involves “opposition to reason” that Woolf uses to create "voices"
in modern fiction, for madness has its unconventional and non-patriarchal significance.
Though reason and unreason are two sides of a coin and only the two together
claims a healthy balance, yet the priority has always been given to reason. It seems
obvious in history, as proposed by Foucault, that the so-called “rational” side shuts out
the heaven with one hand, and that the traditionally admitted “truth” is always the
majority-claimed “truth.” Madness, in fact, is but a label pinned by the respectable
majority on those they cannot tolerate, on the deviants. The result of the conflict
between the majority and the minority is that the majority becomes the only voice and
the minority's voice is muffled: “They called me mad, and I called them mad, and
damned them, they outvoted me” (Porter 1). Submitting yourself to the dominant voice,
you are sane; otherwise, you are mad:
Much Madness is divinest Sense To a discerning eye Much Sense - the starkest Madness
'Tis the Majority
In this, as All, prevail Assent - and you are sane
Demur - you're straightway dangerous [insane] And handled with a Chain Emily Dickinson, “Much Madness is divinest sense” (2-3)
Concepts of rationality, justice and the human good are thought exclusively based on
male-centric shared understandings. Woman is by definition in culture labeled as
madness. A woman writing was not merely “a sign of folly” but “a distracted mind”
(AROO 71). The imposition is ingrained in culture: “One can measure the opposition
that was in the air to a woman writing when one finds that even a woman with a great
turn for writing has brought herself to believe that to write a book was to be ridiculous,
even to show oneself distracted” (70). Aphra Behn, the first woman making her living
by writing, is the victim of the false binary opposition. She “proved that money could
be made by writing at the sacrifice, perhaps of certain agreeable qualities” (71). For a
woman writer, the situation is intolerable. “[B]y living the life of Aphra Behn!” Woolf
claims, “Death would be better” (71). The recurring identification in literature of male
as reason, light, revelation and female with madness, antireason, primitive darkness,
mystery represents the traditional stereotypes. Feminism questions the received view
of the past; women writers point both to the exclusion and marginalization of women
from most historical traditions and to the patriarchal prejudices that have stereotyped
women in demeaning and disenfranchising ways. Menaced by the paternal paranoia
and the mother’s schizophrenia, women writers must maintain themselves in a difficult
equilibrium between the two. The narrative voice is fractured, wavering, and multiple.
In terms of feminist theory, what Woolf’s writing effects is “a denial of the unified
subject which supports all discourse and is necessarily ‘masculine’, since the symbolic
order is established with the phallus as its fundamental signifier” (Minow-Pinkney 58).
The narrative in Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway clearly points out that the
so-called “insane” character Septimus "could reason; could read, Dante for example,
quite easily,” and “he could add up his bill; his brain was perfect" but he "could not feel"
(MD 133). The definition of “insanity” as “absence of reason” is therefore not
unproblematic. Septimus lost his “sanity” because he thought that either to kill men as
a natural thing in war or to feel natural about his friend Evans' death in war was the
absence of humanity and was the absence of feeling (MD 130-34). The question of
which is “madness,” the “absence of reason” or the “absence of feeling,” hence is
doubtful. The narrative goes on to suggest that "it must be the fault of the world
then--that he could not feel" and that "it might be possible that the world itself is without
meaning" (MD 133). For Woolf, feeling definitely is more valuable than reason.
Through the irreverent satirical description of the psychiatrists, Woolf clearly suggests
that the extreme “sense of proportion” is “madness.” Her personification of the social
system as the famed psychiatrist Sir William Bradshaw, a warrior against the forces of
irrationality and a hero to his countryman is, therefore, not without irony:
Worshipping proportion, Sir William not only prospered himself but made
England prosper, secluded her lunatics, forbade childbirth, penalized despair,
made it impossible for the unfit to propagate their views until they, too, shared
his sense of proportion.... this is madness, this sense; in fact, his sense of
proportion. (MD 150-51)
Though Sir William considers himself as a healthy doctor and understands the definition
of "madness" as "not having a sense of proportion" (146), he is indicated by Woolf as
unhealthy: "a doctor loses his sense of proportion, as a doctor he fails.... and health is
proportion" (149). Septimus’ wife, Rezia, though not mad, suffers with his husband
from the psychiatric medical system cries that she does not like Sir William for the sake
of her husband or maybe for all the victims. “Naked, defenseless, the exhausted, the
friendless received the impress of Sir William’s will. He swooped; he devoured. He
shut people up” (154). Hence the meaning of "health" also deserves careful
Madness, variously defined, is the near neighbor in both Foucault's and Nietzsche's
understanding of the term. Tragedy died, claimed Nietzsche, because Euripides (whom
Aristotle honored as "the most tragic of the poets") expressing the views of Socrates,
refused to concede that the world had any irrational aspects and thereby robbed tragedy
of all its Dionysian elements. The central value of tragedy, as Nietzsche understands,
as Tracy B. Strong analyzes, is:
the denial of a single master narrative whose telos is self-recognition. The
dramatic "proto-phenomenon" from which tragedy emerged was the
procession of the chorus. The chorus is not, for Nietzsche, the representation
of the spectator on stage, but instead a double process: "To see oneself
transformed before one's eyes and to begin to act as if one had entered into
another body, another character." [. . .] Nietzsche goes on to indicate that one
encounters oneself "epidemically," that is, on a scale that is not only individual.
Moreover, the spectator is not only spectator and actor, s/he is also, in a sense,
the author. [. . .] tragedy is not that of a single narrative. (qtd. in Magnus 136)
Great minds are alike. Foucault indicates in that the language of psychiatry (madness)
is defined only by the so-called normal side. It is "a monologue of reason about
madness" (Foucault xi). He argues that we now can only have the "erased forms" (28),
or "tamed" (36) forms, or "silenced" (38) forms of madness, which in fact is the
"emptied" one: “By a strange act of force, the classical age was to reduce to silence the
madness whose voices the Renaissance had just liberated, but whose violence it had
already tamed” (38). The Renaissance "tamed" the violence of madness by banishment,
the classical age (Age of Reason) "silenced" the voice of madness by confinement, and
the modern men "lose" the essence of madness by psychiatry. He also quotes
Dostoevsky's words, “It is not by confining one's neighbor that one is convinced of one's
sanity" (ix). From the accusation and intention against a monologic definition towards
“madness,” Nietzsche and Foucault obviously share the same sparkle of wisdom.
Madness, in fact, is but a label pinned by the respectable majority on those they
cannot tolerate, on those deviate from them.
“Split consciousness” is "the impasse
confronting those whom cultural conditioning has deprived of the very means of protest
or self-affirmation" (Warhol 7). And “mental illness” as Shoshana Felman clearly
points out is a "request for help, a manifestation both of cultural impotence of political
castration" (7). The odds are always against the so-called “abnormal” side, and
“reason” becomes the only voice. The other side is then marginalized to or labeled as
madness. What we consider “madness,” whether it appears in women or in outlaws, is
either the acting out of the devalued female role or the total or partial rejection of one's
sex-role negative discrimination.
Society in Mrs. Dalloway produces many such examples of excessive patriarchal
dominance. Clarissa and Septimus can be seen in their relationship to society, as
essentially “feminine” in that both are victimized, to varying extents, by a
male-supremacist system. The world is thus perceived by both Clarissa and Septimus
as threatening to one’s individuality. Woolf depicts a universalized vision of virility
manifesting itself as fascism. Its victims are those members of humanity who are
powerless, “feminine” men as well as women. War, as a weapon of tyranny and as a
manifestation of that “quintessence of virility,” is an ominous presence. Septimus is
diagnosed as suffering from deferred shell shock, his mind being a casualty of war.
Woolf subtly indicates the lopsided masculine tenor of the postwar British society. The
youngest generation in this novel is almost exclusively male: Sally Seton repeatedly
announces her pride in her “five great boys;” the Bradshaws have a son at Eton, in fact
"everybody in the room [party] has six sons at Eton" (MD 289); Rezia mourns the loss of
closeness with her sisters but craves a son who would resemble his father; Elizabeth
Dalloway is the sole daughter, and she identifies more closely with her father than her
mother. Sir William Bradshaw and Dr. Holmes, “the repulsive brute, with the
blood-nostrils” (223), in league with the “clocks of Harley Street,” uphold the tyranny of
external time over the inner stream of experience. Thus, for both Woolf and Septimus,
the two doctors are the powerful representatives of the masculine aspect of human nature.
Male authority is partially incarnate in the relentless chiming of Big Ben, the London
clock. Big Ben, the famous London landmark, symbolizes British authority. It is a
British institution which represents society's attempt to extirpate creativity and human
differences in the service of proportion and order: “the clocks of Harley street nibbled at
the June day, counselled submission, upheld authority, and pointed out in chorus the
supreme advantages of a sense of proportion [. . .] a commercial clock [. . .] announced,
genially and fraternally, as if it were a pleasure to Messrs” (MD 154). The tick of the
clock, "shredding and slicing, dividing and subdividing" (154), promises the smooth
functioning of society yet at the expense of individuals like Septimus and Clarissa. Its
general function for all the characters is to remind them of their “dis-ease.” The heavy
"leaden circles," the oppressive reminder, the inevitable ticking of the clock, presses not
only Clarissa's (5, 71, 73, 142, 154, 192-3), but Peter Wash's (72), and also Elizabeth's
(73), and Rezia's (142) mind like the psychiatrists, who occupy a position of authority
"forcing the soul" of Septimus (281) and drives them “mad.” The relentless patriarchal
dominance of clock "striking... with extraordinary vigour, as if a young man, strong,
indifferent, inconsiderate, were swinging dumb-bells this way and that" (71) is more
ominously embodied in the medical professionals, Holmes and Bradshaw, the modern
officers of coercion. Septimus is obviously the dramatic victim of this authority, but
who is not in this novel? Lady Bradshaw's feminine concession is equally significant:
"Fifteen years ago she had gone under.... There had be no scene, no snap; only the slow
sinking, water-logged, of her will into his. Sweet was her smile, swift her submission."
(152) The connections Woolf suggests in World War I and a bolstered male authority
have no basis in actual social change, but within the image created by the novel the war
assumes a dysfunction of a masculine rational society. The illness is in fact on the
so-called normal side. Woolf offers adequate proof in the presentation of "the world" as
seen by the "insane" and by a whole series of those generally regarded as "sane."
Madness as the subject in the novel is hence a literary device to invite the self-criticism
of the society about the meaning and cause of “madness.”
Being an outsider to the so-called normal discourse, Woolf’s major concern is to
break out this cultural imposition of madness without losing her voice. The challenge
facing her is nothing less than:
to "re-invent" language, to re-learn how to speak: to speak not only against but
outside of the specular phallogocentric structure, to establish a discourse the
status of which would no longer be defined by the phallacy of masculine
meaning. An old saying would thereby be given new life: today more than
ever, changing our minds--changing the mind--is a woman's prerogative.
(Warhol 18-19)
If women are drowned out or denied, how can their voices be heard? How can they
give voices to the place of women and reject masculine discourse without being
marginalized into madness or silence? To increase the voices and balance the loss is
Woolf's stratagem of being heard. Wishing to speak to effect, women constitute
themselves as split consciousnesses to enter the symbolic and play a language game with
men; that is, they "give voice to the specificity of a female subject who is outside any
principle of identity-to-self, which can identify with multiple scenes without fully
integrating herself into them" (Minow-Pinkey 83). The invention of Septimus, the
feminine man without a stable identity is thus a defensive “splitting,” whereby Clarissa's
most dangerous impulses are projected into another figure that can die for her as Christ
the scapegoat: “the voice which now communicated with him who was the greatest of
mankind, Septimus, lately taken from life to death, the Lord who had come to renew
society, who lay like a coverlet, a snow blanket smitten only by the sun, for ever
unwasted, suffering for ever, the scapegoat, the eternal sufferer” (MD 37). She and he,
in fact, are one composite character. What is implied here is that Mrs. Dalloway is not
the only victim of the society; the repressed need an eternal sufferer to suffer for them
and the problem raised here is not individual but general. The figure of "Septimus as
scapegoat, as victim of society's own illness called war, oppression and insensitivity"
serves well to illustrate the society's own state of madness called normality (Rigney
Literary works reflect the philosophical, medical, social, religious and political
assumptions regarding mental aberration characteristic of the periods in which they were
created. Mad protagonists and personae of literature convey the intricate connections
between psychic requirements and the social and cultural milieux in which these,
however obliquely, are expressed (Feder xiii). Different characters in Mrs. Dalloway
are all “mad” of a different degree. Clarissa and Septimus are threatened more than
other characters because more than any others their private selves diverge from public
expectations of them. The so-called “sane,” whether men or masculinized women like
Miss Kilman, are not the only assailants in Woolf's dangerous society; at times the very
atmosphere of London becomes profoundly threatening for Septimus:
In the street, vans roared past him; brutality blared out on placards; men were
trapped in mines; women burnt alive; and once a maimed file of lunatics being
exercised or displayed for the diversion of the populace (who laughed aloud),
ambled and nodded and grinned past him, in the Tottenham Court Road, each
half apologetically, yet triumphantly, inflicting his helpless woe. And would
he go mad? (MD 135-36)
When judged under the so-called sane logic, he represents insanity. Clarissa only
stands closer than Septimus to what is considered the norm, that is, the consensus or
majority behavior. Torn between her private self as a person she likes to be and her
public social identity she must commit, she is somewhat insane, though to a less drastic
Her uneasy relationship with her lover Peter, with her husband Richard, with
her daughter Elizabeth, and with her daughter’s teacher Miss Kilman shows her
incompatibility with the society. The social order of Britain in 1923 was resolutely
inimical to the reality of actual life cherished by Clarissa and Septimus. It created
standards that, far from allowing for free, individual expression, forced individuals into
rigid roles with unfulfillable expectations. The regime's ideals were antithetical to life
itself. No one measured up to these standards. Peter is a failure, and Richard has not
gone as far as expected. The accomplished Lady Bruton, due to her putative
non-rationality, felt she cannot write a letter. The Prime Minister would look more in
place selling bread: “One couldn’t laugh at him. He looked so ordinary. You might
have stood him behind a counter and bought biscuits— poor chap, all rigged up in gold
lace. [. . .] He tried to look somebody. It was amusing to watch” (MD 261-62). Even
Whitbread and Bradshaw, the enthusiastic enforcers of the ideal, are almost universally
disliked. The regime works on ideals and ideal symbols relating to the glory of a
“supernormal” society which is in fact abnormal. It is this “split consciousness” of the
society instead of the “madness” of any individual that Woolf tries to expose. This is
the reason why “madness” becomes Woolf's continuous theme, and why the “mad
dis-course (no single unified course)” is her knack of writing.
Working under the oppression of a so-called rational society at the risk of negating
women's difference, Woolf looks to a feminine language as a means of undermining the
male domination from within.
Being a woman novelist, she has really given much
thought to the matter. Clarissa's oscillation between “sanity” and “insanity” is Woolf’s
stratagem of being heard. Clarissa marries Richard Dalloway instead of Peter Wash to
keep a title of the public self “Dalloway” which is the symbol of society-claimed
“sanity” but still keeps the privacy:
So she would still find herself arguing in St. James's park, still making out that
she had been right--and she had too--not to marry him. For in marriage a
little license, a little independence there must be between people living
together day in and day out in the same house; which Richard gave her, and
she him [. . .]. But with Peter everything had to be shared; everything gone into.
And it was intolerable, and when it came to that scene in the little garden by
the fountain, she had to break with him or they would have been destroyed,
both of them ruined, she was convinced. (MD 10)
The privacy which the society labels as “insanity” is valued by Clarissa as "priceless"
(181). Such privacy is a paramount value for all Woolf’s “feminine” characters. Mrs.
Ramsay in To the Lighthouse dies for the lack of it. Septimus, the feminine man,
ultimately, commits suicide to achieve it. The social institution in which the self is
most vulnerable is marriage, especially for women.
Bonds with men, especially their
culmination in marriage, are a menace to the freedom of women. Clarissa and Sally
Seton “spoke of marriage always as a catastrophe” (50). Septimus takes marriage as
bondage. When his marriage with Rezia was over, he thought, “with relief. The rope
was cut; he mounted; he was free” (101). Clarissa refuses the victimization; she
survives despite of her contradictions with the symbolic order. To behave like a lady, as
patriarchy’s “perfect hostess,” is thus a cautious program for survival. Her early suitor,
Peter Walsh, has posed a subtle threat to psychological security. Peter’s negative
masculinity is also evidenced by his ever-present phallic pen-knife. Loving Peter but
marrying Richard, Clarissa has her female consideration. Although vacillating
emotionally between the allure of Peter and that of Richard, she remembers Peter’s
courtship only glancingly; the burden of that plot is carried by Peter, through whose
memories Woolf relates the tortured end of the relationship with Clarissa. Clarissa’s
memories, by contrast, focus more exclusively on a pre-war pre-marriage feminine
world, the general ambience of Burton, her childhood time, and her love for Sally Seton.
Even marriage to Richard, who permits Clarissa this precious privacy and agrees that she
sleeps alone, is not without danger. “She had the oddest sense of being herself invisible;
unseen; unknown [. . .] this being Mrs. Richard Dalloway” (14). Clarissa’s present is in
a male-dominated London where she does not have any close female bonds (for example,
she is not close to her daughter, not invited by Lady Bruton, and hated by Miss Kilman);
this is starkly contrasted with her memories of Bourton, the pre-Oedipal stage of female
development. Clarissa’s passionate attachment with Seton in Bourton predates Mrs.
Dalloway’s female experience of the Oedipal state of marriage in London. She
perceives the negative symbol of masculinity Peter as an irritating intruder; the scene she
most vividly remembers, Sally Seton’s kiss, is rudely interrupted by Peter’s appearance.
The moment of exclusive female connection is shattered by masculine intervention.
Clarissa responds to Peter’s intrusion as an absolute and arbitrary termination: “It was
like running one’s face against a granite wall in the darkness! It was shocking; it was
horrible” (53)! Her perception of Peter’s motives— “she felt his hostility; his jealousy;
his determination to break into their comradeship”— suggests a revised Oedipal
configuration: the jealous male attempting to rupture the exclusive female bond, insisting
on the transference of attachment to the men, demanding heterosexuality. Clarissa’s
revenge is to refuse to marry Peter, to select instead the less demanding Richard
Dalloway, who allows “a dignity in people; a solitude,” even “a gulf” between husband
and wife, a space that can incorporate the memory of Sally (181). Such tendency to
withdraw from what is perceived as a negative, masculine world in which the self can be
theoretically violated sexually and psychologically and to enter a feminine world of
garden images and security exists in other characters. Similarly, Rezia’s passing from a
feminine and pastoral world of sisters and mother in Italy to the arid masculine ugliness
of London orchestrates the same tune with Clarissa’s story. The wavering between the
symbolic and semiotic, Clarissa and Mrs. Dalloway, public self and private self, reason
and madness, or the indirection becomes the only safe way for women to return to the
mother (Sally’s arrival at Burton replaces Clarissa’s dead mother and sister.), to balance
the social false imposition, to find her language to speak. Voice, therefore, takes a
profoundly significant role in the poetics of modern fiction especially for women writers.
Language, and particularly the language of women’s writing, is a rich and complex
dialogue of voices. Dis-course that is multi-voiced is “dialogic” or “polyphonic” rather
than “monologic,” and it achieves this quality primarily through “collision or
communication” between or among differing points of view or consciousnesses on the
world. A speaker affects not only the listeners, but the collective discourses of social
classes, the whole culture. A voice refers to different listeners and signifies differently
in different time and different situations. As Bakhtin puts it, language is “populated”
and “overpopulated with the intention of others” (Bakhtin 1981, 294). This process is
the means whereby language is transformed into a voice, whereby Mrs. Dalloway is
transformed into voices by Woolf.
Language once uttered by man the carrier of ideas,
is discourse, and becomes voices. It is the diversity of voices and the “split internal
stratification of language” that characterize the narrative of Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway as
“mad dis-course”'. Different voices represent different ideas, consciousnesses, or
ideologies. As discussed earlier of Bakhtin, consciousnesses and ideas all mean the
same thing – voices (Bakhtin 1984, 88, 91). Multiple voices are heard through Woolf’s
stream-of-consciousness narrative. The whole narration of Mrs. Dalloway is a perfect
example of multi-voicedness. The fuzzy indication of the speakers and the flowing
structure of the speeches evade any effort to fix and to exhaust the meanings. Take the
passage from the very first pages as example,
What a lark! What a plunge! For so it has always seemed to her, when,
with a little squeak of the hinges, which she could hear now, she had burst
open the French Windows and plunged at Bourton into the open air. How
fresh, how calm, stiller than this of course, the air was in the early morning;
like the flap of a wave; the kiss of a wave; chill and sharp and yet (for a girl of
eighteen as she then was) solemn, feeling as she did, standing there at the
open window, that something awful was about to happen; looking at the
flowers, at the trees with the smoke winding off them and rooks rising, falling;
standing and looking until Peter Wash said, "Musing among the
vegetables"--Was that it?--"I prefer men to cauliflowers"--was that it? He
must have said it one morning when she had gone out on to the terrace--Peter
Wash. He would be back from India one of these days [. . .]. (MD
3-4)[emphasis mine]
The bold lines marked, the speeches with and without quotation marks, the words in the
brackets, the past memories and the present events, the mixture of tenses, the
consciousnesses or unconsciousnesses, the multiple voices produced, all together make it
hard for the reader to recognize who is reasoning, who is speaking, what is past, what is
present, whether it happens in the mind or in reality. This technique of blurring the
distinction between direct and indirect speech is common in Woolf and is part of her
attempt to make the transitions between speech and thought as fluid. She orchestrates
individual speeches between past and present, interior thoughts and outward speeches,
and moves the reader to one character and another. The characteristic of Woolf’s
feminine writing gives the impression to readers that Mrs. Dalloway “flows in one
uninterrupted stream from first word to last” (Hussey 175). The novel can be seen as a
“metaphoric ocean whose ‘rhythms . . . surge through the passages describing the loss of
clear distinction between the self and the world” (175-6). Generally she avoids
identification with any authority and so creates a text as elusive as the old woman's song
or the airplane's skywriting. Whenever we try to pinpoint the locus of the subject, we
get lost in the discursive mist. This is what the “mad dis-course” is like.
If the “Unified Self,” the “Single Consciousness,” is the symbol of “Reason,” the
“split selves,” the “plural consciousnesses” would be the symbol of “unreason
(madness).” If the linear monologue is the discourse of reason, then the non-linear
polyphony is the dis-course of madness. According to Bakhtin, “plural
consciousnesses” does not mean “idiocy” “folly” or “insanity;” it means “multiple
voices” and it is the smartest and truest expression of a "novel," an innovative writing.
A novelistic text, Bakktin emphasizes again and again, is a "polyphonic" (multi-voiced)
A plurality of independent and unmerged voices and consciousness, a genuine
polyphony of fully valid voices is in fact the chief characteristic of
Dostoevsky's novels. What unfolds in his works is not a multitude of
characters and fates in a single objective world, illuminated by a single
authorial consciousness; rather a plurality of consciousnesses, with equal
rights and each with its own world, combine but are not merged in the unity of
the event. (Bakhtin 1984, 6)
A novelistic text, according to Bakhtin, is in fact a “party of voices.” To present two
groups of characters from the extremes of polarity of mental health and connect their
worlds is a great challenge which racks Woolf's brains. Mrs. Dalloway's status as the
“hostess of the party,” and Mr. Dalloway as the Parliament member is not without
profound significance. Clarissa never even glimpses the character Septimus whom
Woolf called her double, and yet he plays a central role in her day. She hears of his
death through Bradshaw; this news strikes a chord that reverberates with her mood at the
party, and she withdraws to consider her party's deeper meaning for her. A meeting is
not necessary for their communion; to know what is essential in a person requires only a
sort of sympathetic psychic awareness. As the hostess of the party she does more than
passing the tray and describing the weather on this fine day in June, she holds not only a
physical but a spiritual conversation with people, and she brings different voices of the
society together letting them interact with one another. As the wife of a Parliament
member, her collection of ideas from the party and her reaction about Septimus' death
would become a voice in politics to effect a reformation in the society and a
reconsideration about the social “illness” which is called normality.
Being a stream-of-consciousness novel, Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway is called by Phyllis
Rose as "the most schizophrenic of English novels" (qtd. in Minow-Pinkey 62). The
novel which examines the life of Clarissa relies heavily on consciousnesses of different
characters to build the narrative. Her “mad dis-course,” which is “dis-course of plural
consciousnesses,” which is "multi-voiced discourse" is therefore, in Bakhtin's words, the
"novelistic discourse", and Mrs. Dalloway is a "novelistic text".
The interaction of
voices is not masculinely limited in one single conversation as the "microdialogue"
(Bakhtin 1984, 40); it happens in the "novel as a whole as a 'great dialogue'" (40) and
also goes far and broad enough to occur in society, culture, history, as the
"macrodialogue." Clearly we can see how significant "polyphony--the dialogue of
voices" means to the novelistic genre, the genre-in-the-making, the genre-of-becoming,
or the feminine writing. It could be the best "capsuled" image of a novelistic text.
The purpose of this "polyphonic" genre to which Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway belongs is to
open the space of definition, interpretation, discussion, argumentation, and critique to
make it an "open-ended," "unfinalizable" genre where everyone can have their "character
zones" (Bakhtin 1981, 316) to express their voices. Though risking “sanity,” it's a nice
try for Woolf and her characters to make known their resistance to the social definition
of “madness” and invite the self-criticism of the so-called “sane.” Each time the words
of quotation from Shakespeare's Cymbeline "Fear no more the heat o' the sun [symbol of
reason]" (MD 13, 44, 59, 211, 224, 283) are repeated, the voices of their defiance are
heard. Being readers, we are the guests of honor of Woolf's Clarissa, the "perfect
hostess of the party," and our attention is her greatest expectation.
For Woolf, stream of consciousness represents versions of reality; for Bakhtin,
novelistic discourse represents languages of truth.
Feminine writing, as elaborated
by Woolf, and “novelistic discourse,” as defined by Bakhtin, seem very similar in uses
of language, despite the fact that the novelistic language Bakhtin described had
nothing to do with women, and feminine language Woolf claimed is not necessarily
tied to the novel. The very act of giving voice to the female by Woolf and to the
unofficial by Bakhtin makes feminine writing and novelistic discourse move toward
the same direction against a monologic dominant discourse. For both of them,
consciousness is inner speech, and inner speech is the orchestration or interaction of
the dialogic, different voices that we have heard.
Wayne Booth claims that “if
Bakhtin had lived today, he would have come to accept feminist criticism” (qtd. in
Bauer and McKinstry 7).
Woolf’s remarks of the “Russian influence,” the “Russian
mind,” and “their natural reverence of the human spirit” (“MF” 90-91) indicate her
evaluation of human consciousness. Stream of consciousness typifies Woolf’s
moving toward an articulation of gender within an inclusive instead of exclusive web
of relationships between narrator, narrated, and narration to effect a female narrative
subjectivity that transcends the traditional paradigms of monologic reading and
The narrators always substitute the definitive characterization for streams
of images or drifting impressions of characters. The narrated consciousnesses are
represented as the fluid ramblings of the mind’s conversations with one another. The
female subjectivity of Woolf’s narrative is paradoxically inscribed in her
deconstructive narration of the traditional subject (mind/body, reason/madness) by
the unconventional plural consciousness of the narrators. She tries every effort in
her life to evolve a feminine style which will transcend the masculine Self.
If her
writing practice does not make sense to us, it means that women writers need more
writing practice to achieve the true female sentence. Though praising Joyce’s
“complete courage” about his “spiritual” writing against the “materialists” (“MF” 89),
working within a system whose terms are phallogocentric, and using an-other’s
language from the place of the Other, Wo olf definitely needs far more “courage” and
effort to write as a woman against the patriarchal dominance and masculine definition.
Though she is not the mother of “stream of consciousness,” she is undoubtedly the
mother of “feminine writing.”
Chapter 3
Androgyny and Feminine Writing
Western culture is seen as patriarchal; “history is too much about wars;
biography too much about great men; poetry has shown, I think, a tendency to sterility,
and fiction [. . .] I will say no more about it” (AROO 112); those experiences which
are specific to women are excluded, and cannot be articulated or shared in available
Patriarchal culture has dispossessed women of motherhood and of
mothers in literature. Literature is based on the primacy of masculine terms in the
structure of binary oppositions. Each opposition is analyzed as a hierarchy where
the feminine side is always seen as the negative. Feminine access to sexuality is
complicated by psychoanalysis, by how the presence or absence of the penis in boy,
girl and mother is conceived. Feminine writing practice hence is attempted to
challenge the universalistic stance of discourse by exposing its inherent dualism.
Female scholars assume truths are common to all humanity not just for men.
discourses are relative, and are therefore only true locally or partially, and not
universally. The natural shape of men and women has been twisted by patriarchy’s
insistence on the inferiority of women.
Women writers aim to challenge the age-old
assumption about the basis of meaning and reclaim the naturalness of femininity.
Androgyny, raised by Woolf, can be seen as a strong expression of support for gender
equality. The idea that gender is mutable is central in her fiction Orlando.
Androgyny is an archetypal image of the union of masculine and feminine
natures in one being. The word is from the Greek andro (male) and gyn (female),
and it “defines a condition under which the characteristics of the sexes, and the human
impulses expressed by men and wome n, are not rigidly assigned” (Heilbrun x).
Woolf was writing at a time when the modern distinction between sex and gender
(biological given vs. cultural construct) was hardly thought of. However, she did not
blind herself to the coercive power of culture in making people act out a sharply
delineated gender role.
She contributes most to this shift of emphasis. Being a
woman and a writer, Woolf strives to overcome the limits that social indoctrination
has placed upon her. In her writing, sexuality refers to culturally acquired
characteristics rather than to biologically determined ones. Artistically, this means
using sexually liberated language and exploring topics that has traditionally been the
province of male authors.
Woolf’s depiction of relations between sexes attempts to
smash the barriers defining acceptable subject matters for ladies. Like most of her
female characters, she longs to be free of both overt masculine authority and the latent
mind-control of feminine socialization.
In A Room of One’s Own she sketches the
ideal fusion of male and female inspired by the sight of a man and a woman getting
into a taxi together below her window. Wondering whether “the two sexes in the
mind” can “live in harmony together, spiritually co-operating” to get “complete
satisfaction and happiness, Woolf presents an image of true androgyny: “If one is a
man, still the woman part of the brain must have effect; and a woman also must have
intercourse with the man in her. Coleridge perhaps meant this when he said that a
great mind is androgynous” (AROO 103).
Against the hierarchical dualism of man
and woman, androgyny is attempted by Woolf to topple the narrative myths that
dominate our culture and rewrite and redefine the inferior, de-privileged side of that
dualism. “Androgyny is proposed as a corrective to the masculinization of discourse
represented” (Abel 87).
In fact, the “immasculinization” proposes a vision for better
interaction. Through the new dialogue, a de-valuing of the masculine side of the
traditional hierarchical dichotomies and a revaluing of the traditionally feminine or
female will occur.
Woolf argues for androgyny in writing.
She believes that the writer should not
allow an undue consciousness of being of one sex or the other to permeate her or his
work. The concept of androgyny is a cry with literary works for more balanced
human experience. “Literature would be incredibly impoverished, as indeed is
impoverished beyond our counting by the doors that have been shut upon women”
(AROO 89) by men’s “egotism” and “aridity” (105), expressed by the “straight dark
All this [freedom of mind] was admirable. But after reading a chapter or
two a shadow seemed to lie across the page. It was a straight dark bar, a
shadow shaped something like the letter ‘I’. One began dodging this way
and that to catch a glimpse of the landscape behind it.
Whether that was
indeed a tree or a woman walking I was not quite sure.
Back one was
always hailed to the letter ‘I’. One began to be tired of ‘I’. Not but what
this ‘I’ was a most respectable ‘I’; honest and logical; as hard as a nut, and
polished for centuries by good teaching and good feeling.
I respect and
admire that ‘I’ from the bottom of my heart. But – here I turned a page or
two, looking for something or other – the worst of it is that in the shadow of
the letter ‘I’ all is shapeless as mist.
have been more indecent.
Is that a tree? [. . .] Nothing could
But … I had said ‘but’ too often. One cannot
go on saying ‘but’. One must finish the sentence somehow, I rebuked
Shall I finish it, ‘but – I am bored!’ But why was I bored?
Partly because of the dominance of the letter ‘I’ and the aridity, which, like
the giant beach tree, it casts within its shade.
Nothing will grow there. [. . .]
There seemed to be some obstacle, some impediment in Mr. A’s mind which
blocked the fountain of creative energy and shored it within narrow limits.
(AROO 104-05)[emphasis mine]
With the giant masculine tree standing and stopping in front, nothing behind can be
seen and nothing under will grow. Stuffing every page or chapter with the masculine
ego, any male writer typified by Mr. A cannot produce an interesting writing.
Readers will be helplessly “bored.” Androgyny is intended as the antidote to men’s
“self-assertive virility” in writing.
If men are “writing only with the male side of the
brains,” men’s “unimpeded masculinity” (AROO 107) not only “block[s] the fountain
of creative energy” but also bores literature and kills sentences.
“It is a mistake for a
woman to read them, for she will inevitably look for something that she will not find”
The feelings of the writer are “no longer communicated”; his mind becomes a
soundproof chamber.
Losing the power of suggestion, his sentence “falls plump to
the ground – dead” (106). On the contrary, the sentence of the androgynous poet
Coleridge is the sort of writing which “gives birth to all kinds of other ideas,” and
which has the secret of perpetual life” (106).
Of the conception of fusion and
harmony, androgyny seems to speak for or sympathize with neither men nor women.
Toward the idea of impartiality, not all feminists have been content with such a
paradoxical approach.
Showalter is the major pioneer in criticizing the concept of
Wo olf’s androgyny is thoroughly refuted and sarcastically critiqued by
Showalter argues that for Woolf the concept of androgyny--“full balance and
command of an emotional range that includes male and female elements”--is the
excuse that helps Woolf “evade confrontation with her painful femaleness,” and
“enable[s] her to choke and repress her anger and ambition” (Showalter 1982, 264).
Woman writers’ anger, according to Showalter, is righteous and appropriate in
fighting masculine tyranny. As elaborated by Toril Moi, Woolf’s “greatest sin
against feminism” (Moi 2) for Showalter, is that “even in the moment of expressing
feminist conflict, Woolf wanted to transcend it” (Showalter 1982, 282).
to Showalter, Woolf is one of the “failures of androgyny” (Showalter 1982, 265);
androgyny is the expression of Woolf’s personal tragedy, and the “betrayal of her
literary genius.”
Virginia Woolf was as thwarted and pulled asunder as the women she
describes in A Room of One’s Own. [. . .] Woolf inherited a female tradition
a century old; no woman has ever been more in touch with – even obsessed
by – this tradition that she; yet by the end of her life she had gone back full
circle, back to the melancholy, guilt-ridden, suicidal women – Lady
Winchelsea and the Duchess of Newcastle – whom she had studied and
And beyond the tragedy of her personal life is the betrayal of her
literary genius, her adoption of a female aesthetic that ultimately proved
inadequate to her purposes and stifling to her development.
1982, 264)
Agreeing with other critics that androgyny is central to Woolf’s thinking not only
in A Room of One’s Own but also in her novels, Showalter uses lots of different
caustic descriptions to criticize androgyny: “a strategic retreat, and not a victory; a
denial of feeling, and not a mastery of it” (285), “a response to the dilemma of a
woman writer embarrassed and alarmed by feelings too hot to handle without risking
real rejection by her family, her audience, and her class” (286), “a symbol of psychic
withdrawal, an escape from the demands of other people” (286), “a rationalization of
her own fears” (289), “passive receptivity to the point of self-destruction” (296), etc.
Showalter’s rants and raves toward Woolf and androgyny are too numerous to
Under Showalter’s pen, Woolf’s conception of androgyny “lurks a
psychological equivalent of lobotomy” (287); Woolf is not only a coward neurotic
psycho who “need[s] equanimity” and was “practicing equanimity” (287), but also an
isolated & inexperienced & unpractical literary outsider with a very limited outlook;
Woolf’s ideal “perfect artist” is “a figure more pathetic than heroic” (290); Woolf’s
“Three Guineas rings false”; Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own becomes “irritating and
hysterical” (295).
Showalter is “infuriated by” Woolf’s “naiveté” of androgyny.
According to her, “Woolf’s female aesthetic” is the “creative synthesis to the point of
exhaustion and sterility” (296).
A Room of One’s Own, the precursor and structuring
metaphor for feminist literary criticism, becomes a “female space that is both
sanctuary and prison” of which Woolf is “the architect” (264).
Woolf becomes “the
victims of this emotional utopia” (264-65). Woolf’s suicide is snubbed as “one of
Bloomsbury’s representative art forms” (265).
Woolf is mocked as “the Angel
herself” by her appeal to the women writers for the killing “the Angel in the House,
that phantom of female perfection” (265).
Woolf’s feminine aesthetics of androgyny
is without a single redeeming feature under Showalter’s pen.
As early foretold by Woolf that her “unconventional” feminine aesthetics might
not be accepted immediately even by women because “[w]omen are hard on women”
and because “[w]omen dislike women” (AROO 114), though Woolf herself enjoyed
women’s “unconventionality” (114). Showalter’s comments become personal insults
and she has lost the professional objectivity of an acceptably qualified literary critic,
when she takes Woolf’s biographical material, private life (relationship with her father,
mother, brother, sister, and husband) and physiological record (menstruation,
childlessness, and menopause) to be the target of critique of Woolf’s “femaleness”
and runs an elaborate passage on her biological lampoon (265-82) in her chapter
“Virginia Woolf and the Flight Into Androgyny” (263-97):
I am struck by the way in which critics have abstracted and mythologized
her experience [. . .]. Considered form another perspective, however, her
major breakdowns were associated with crises in female identity; the first
occurred in 1895, after the death of her mother and the onset of
menstruation; the second from 1913-1915, after Leonard decided that they
should not have children.
Her suicide in 1940 followed menopause;
though less information about it has been published, it seems to have
repeated elements of the earlier episodes.
While I have no wish to
substitute one magical explanation of her anguish for another, it is clear that
most of the information we have about her comes form those most
concerned to deny or repress their own complicity in her sickness.
(Showalter 1982, 267)
This kind of emotionalist argument surfaces everywhere in her discussion of Woolf in
A Literature of Their Own, “Killing the Angel in the House: The Autonomy Wo men
Writers,” “Twenty Years On: A Literature of Their Own Revisited,” etc.
A Room of
One’s Own paves the way for A Literature of Their Own by its feminist title and by its
pioneering conception of womanhood.
Showalter’s A Literature of Their Own
became well-known soon because of its similar and significant title as A Room of
One’s Own which had achieved a widely-recognized status in the literary stage.
Arrogantly comparing herself as “Northrop Frye’s sister-the great feminist critic” (an
apish appropriation of Woolf’s Shakespeare’s sister), Showalter benefits from Woolf’s
achievement but rejects her literary foremother very ungratefully. She justifies
herself in the name of future women writers:
I felt sure that there would be an audience for my book; and the writers
themselves kept me going as I read about their hopes that all their struggles
and failures would make a difference to the women who came after. They
gave me the confidence to believe that even if I were not Northrop Fry’s
sister-the great feminist critic who would get everything right-it was enough
to find the courage to write exactly what I thought and to be willing to share
my own struggles and errors in the faith that the critics who came after me
would know more and do better.
(Showalter 1998, 2)
With an insolently self-important and provocatively challenging attitude toward the
counter-attack feminist critics such as Toril Moi she reflects in her revisiting of her
work A Literature of Their Own:
The critical reception of A Literature of Their Own by men has been
generally respectful, but among women critics the book has been both
imitated and reviled. On one hand, it helped create the new field of
feminist literary history and gynocriticism, has been translated into several
languages, and has influenced similar undertakings around the world. [. . .]
For the past twenty years, I have been attacked virtually every point on the
feminist hermeneutic circle, as separatist, careerist, theoretical,
anti-theoretical, racist, homophobic, politically correct, traditional, and
non-canonical critic.
I’ve come to expect new critical studies of women’s
writing to point out how I have failed [. . .] Still being notorious for failing
is better than not being noticed at all. [. . .] I have followed the cycles of
criticism and attack with attention and interest, and I have even had the
good fortune to live long enough to receive a few apologies, in person or in
(Showalter 1998, 3)
Showalter enjoys her notoriety of her “failing,” or critique toward Woolf, “better than
not being noticed at all.” Her argument indefensibly fails when she evokes
biographical evidence and physiological material to sustain her thesis about the nature
of Woolf’s writing. Readers could have been misled and convinced by appeals to
biographical circumstances and biological science rather than texts.
“[I]n feminist
literary history and criticism, as in other field, being first has its disadvantages,
because you become the launching-pad for subsequent work and the starting-point for
everyone else’s improvements and corrections” (Showalter 1998, 3).
It seems this
reflection of Showalter toward her A Literature of Their own (1977) is better suited to
Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own (1929) according to the time of their
publication and the originality of their works. Obviously, it is not Toril Moi and
other counter-attack feminist critics who owe Showalter an apology as she boasted
that she has “had the good fortune to live long enough to receive a few apologies, in
person or in print” (3), but it is Showalter that owes an apology to Woolf for her
appropriation and rejection of Woolf’s works by careless reading and
Woolf’s crucial concept of androgyny is, definitely not as Elaine Showalter
argues, a flight from fixed gender identities, but “a recognition of their falsifying
metaphysical nature” (Moi 13).
Far from fleeing such gender identities because she
fears them, Woolf rejects them, and more importantly, she seriously and cordially
encourages women writers to overcome all difficulties (earning more money, bearing
fewer children) to go to college to be “uneducated” of them:
I remind you that there have been at least two colleges for women in
existence in England since the year 1866 [. . .] there must be at this moment
some two thousand women capable of earnings of five hundred of a year in
one way or another, you will agree that the excuse of opportunities, training,
encouragement, leisure, and money no longer holds good. [. . .] go on
bearing children, but, so they say, in twos and threes, not in tens and twelves.
Thus, with some time on your hands and with some book learning in your
brains – you have had enough of the other kind, and are sent to college
partly, I suspect, to be uneducated – surely you should embark upon another
stage of your very laborious and highly obscure career. A thousand pens
are ready to suggest what you should do and what effect you will have.
My own suggestion is a little fantastic, I admit; I prefer, therefore, to put it
in the form of fiction.
(AROO 116)
Knowing the underlying immense difficulties in changing an ingrained literary
convention in reality, Woolf encourages women writers to put the “fantastic” ideal in
writing practice at least. The goal of the feminist struggle, hence according to Woolf,
is to deconstruct the lopsided, imbalanced binary oppositions of masculinity and
femininity. She is not a coward, sexually or otherwise.
Though she experienced
terrible emotional oscillations exacerbated by the death of loved ones, an awareness
of being eternally vulnerable by reason of being female, and horror of the two world
wars, she doesn’t allow these personal difficulties to limit her literary scope of inquiry;
she doggedly pursues her gender demons throughout her life as a professional writer.
The result of this battle is a set of beliefs that anticipate modern feminist ideology.
Woolf begins with an intensely personal terror of nervous breakdowns and psychiatric
treatment and discovers its origin in the world around her. In doing this she brings to
surface many things that had previously remained hidden. From the inner depths of
the human heart to the gathering war clouds of her time, Woolf locates her fears,
names them, and brings them out for public inspection. The correction of the
phallogocentricism of the discourse saturated with masculine ego of a writer’s mind is
what Woolf really intends for androgyny.
Androgyny is “a movement away from sexual polarization and the prison of
gender toward a world in which individual roles and the modes of personal behavior
can be freely chosen” (Heilbrun ix).
It provides women writers “a way of rejecting
biological determinism and undoing the privileging of the masculine over the
feminine” (Hussey 5). “The unbounded and hence fundamentally indefinable nature
of androgyny” is borrowed from the spirit of Dionysus:
Dionysus, who is Euripides’ embodiment of universal vitality, is described
variously by chorus, herdsman, commoners, and princes. The descriptions
cannot be defined.
He can perhaps be totaled but the sum is never
definitive; further inspection adds new features to the old. If a definition is
at all possible it is a definition by negation or cancellation. For one thing,
Dionysus appears to be neither woman nor man; or, better, he presents
himself as woman-in-man, or man-in-woman, the unlimited personality. . . .
(Heilbrun xi)
It is this “woman-in-man, or man-in-woman,” this “definition impossible,” this
“definition by negation,” the festive inversion of normal behavior, the comic mocking
of authority, the spontaneous eruption of social forces, the “embodiment of universal
vitality,” and the image of “unlimited personality,” that Woolf intends for androgyny.
There are many “phantoms and obstacles” looming in women writers’way;
“only can the labour be shared, the difficulties be solved” (WW 62).
Trying every
effort herself searching for a new poetic language free from servitude, Woolf
encourages women writers to seek their own ideas and forms. Cixous, about
half-a-century later echoes Woolf’s cry for sisterhood, for women writers’continuous
writing feminine: “I am for you what you want me to be at the moment you look at
me in a way you’ve never seen me before; at every instant.
When I write, it’s
everything that we don’t know we can be that is written out of me, without exclusions,
without stipulation [. . .]. In one another we will never be lacking” (Cixous 1975, 348).
Androgyny defined by Woolf in A Room of One’s Own or the concept of “bisexuality”
carried forward by Cixous in “The Laugh of the Medusa” is not only a positive
recognition of the fluidity of gender but also an ideal state of mind of a great writer.
She argues that language which is based on oppositions reproduces a patriarchal order
which places the feminine as subordinate to the masculine.
Bisexuality goes beyond
the oppositions to imagine a multiple subject. Though Cixous doesn’t privilege
women in achieving this bisexuality, she suggests women are historically and
culturally more open or accustomed to accepting different forms of subjectivity.
Cixous significantly suggests, androgyny is intended “to break the old circuits,” “to
render obsolete the former relationship and all its consequences, to consider the
launching of a brand-new-subject, alive, with defamilialization,” to
“demater-paternalize rather than deny woman,” and to “defetishize” (Cixous 1975,
346). Androgyny hence can be understood as Woolf’s subtler way of preserving and
regaining “femininity” by active fusion to change within not by passive withdrawal to
escape identity.
It is this “defamiliarization,” or “de-paternalization,” or
“defetishization” of the dominant patriarchal discourse that androgyny intends and
makes the century-old wrong balance swerve toward the feminine.
dis-course is to disrupt the conventional narrative course toward the feminine.
Women are more androgynous than men.
opposite to man’s “monosexuality.”
As Cixous observes, “woman is bisexual”
Against the classical “merger-type bisexuality,”
Cixous “oppose the other bisexuality on which every subject matter not enclosed in
the false theater of phallocentric representationalism”:
Bisexuality: that is , each one’s location in self (reperage en soi) of the
presence— of both sexes, nonexclusion either of the difference or of one sex
[. . .] for historico-cultural reasons, it is women who are opening up to and
benefiting from this vatic bisexuality which doesn’t annul differences but
stirs them up, pursues them, increases their number. In a certain way,
“woman is bisexual”; man— it’s a secret to no one— being poised to keep
glorious phallic monosexuality in view. (Cixous 1975, 341)
Among its characteristics is the “multiplication of the effects of the inscripition of
desire,” and the tolerance of differences.
It is multiple, variable and ever-changing.
Men’s glorification of the phallic and rejection of the feminine make them
“monosexual,” and women’s “nonexclusion” of the differences make them
Woolf’s androgyny “includes” instead of “excluding” differences.
Both in and
outside the dominant masculine discourse, women writers are doomed to write “with
a spasm of pain” (AROO 82); women’s writing has been to be androgynous.
Similarly, Elizabeth Abel also claims that “[t]he weighing of androgyny toward the
maternal is in fact implicit throughout Woolf’s discussion”:
The very sexuality on which her language insists— the “intercourse” and
“marriage” of masculine and feminine that qualifies the meaning of their
“collaboration”— returns to the metaphor of birth. The site of textual
production is figuratively the womb: the taxicab into which the man and
woman enter in Woolf’s allegory of the androgynous mind; the imaginative
chamber whose “curtains must be close drawn” so that the mind can
“celebrate its nuptials in darkness” and the “marriage of opposites . . . be
consummated” (108).
(Abel 87)
The writing of androgyny as feminine can be seen by Woolf’s representing the image
of androgyny as women’s creative process, as “giving birth” from marriage, to
“curtains-drawn chamber,” to “nuptials in darkness,” to “intercourse,” to
“consummation,” and to pregnancy (AROO 102-03).
Kristeva alike expounds that bisexuality provides women writers with “another
signifying space” where “the very notion of identity is challenged”:
I am not simply suggesting a very hypothetical bisexuality [. . .] an effacing
of difference.
What I mean is, first of all, the demassification of
problematic of difference [. . .]. And this not in the name of some
reconciliation [. . .] but in order that the struggle, the implacable difference,
the violence be conceived in the very place where it operates with the
maximum intransigence, in other words, in personal sexual identity itself, so
as to make it disintegrate in its very nucleus.
(Kristeva 1981, 458)
Androgyny is the “demassification of problematic of difference” instead of “an
effacing of difference” (458).
It aims at “counterbalancing of aggressive and
murderous forces” from men not only for a “personal equilibrium” of woman but also
for “social equilibrium itself” (458).
The “de-dramatization” of the struggle is a
camouflage or cover-up intended to make the “problematic difference” “disintegrate
in its very nucleus.”
Intended in writing, according to Kristeva, androgyny is “the
maximum intransigence” instead of “some reconciliation.” If androgyny is a retreat,
it definitely is a “retreat from sexism” instead of a “retreat from feminism” (459).
For a long time fair possibilities in literary tradition were never given to women.
According to Woolf, “[i]t may have been not only with a view to obtaining impartial
criticism that George Eliot and Miss Bronte adopted male pseudonyms, but in order to
free their own consciousness as they wrote from the tyranny what was expected from
their sex” (WW 70).
“Poetry ought to have a mother as well as a father” (AROO
107). Is feminine writing the expression of female experience unique to women or
another “guerilla fights” of women against men? According to Woolf, the quality of
a woman writer’s style is decided by “whether she has a pen in her hand or a pickaxe”
(86). Woolf puts the emphasis on what a man and a woman have to give to each
other, on the mystery of completion, and not on the assertion of separate superiorities
and inferiorities.
She finds a form that would “absorb the new into the old without
disturbing the infinitely intricate and elaborate balance of the whole” (90) and covey
the movement of things under the surface – the free movement of thought, emotion,
and insight.
What Woolf clearly states is that the creative mind is a marriage, or
balance, of the supposed female traits with the supposed male traits. “It is when this
fusion takes place that the mind is fully fertilized and uses all its faculties” (103).
“transmits emotion without impediment; that it is naturally creative, incandescent, and
undivided” (AROO 103).
It is the token of the “fully developed mind that it does not
think specially or separately of sex” (103).
Androgyny aims at a “man-womanly and
woman-manly” dialogue instead of a “purely masculine” or “purely feminine”
monologue (103). Not only does me n’s “aridity” “impoverish” literature, but
women’s “acidity” does.
Women’s “acidity” (79) “lowers their vitality” and spoils
their writing:
The imagination falters under the enormous strain. The insight is confused;
it can no longer distinguish between the true and the false [. . .]. Would the
fact of her sex in any way interfere with the integrity of a woman novelist
[. . .]. We feel the influence of fear in it; just as we constantly feel an acidity
which is the result of oppression, a buried suffering smouldering beneath
her passion, a rancour which contracts those books, splendid as they are,
with a spasm of pain.
(AROO 79-80)[emphasis mine]
Women’s writing would be “hindered,” “strained,” “distracted,” “harassed,” “torn
asunder,” “disfigured,” “deformed,” “cramped,” and “thwarted” by their “alien
emotions” of protest against men’s oppression shown in writing (66-76). It is
exactly this refusal of anger, of protest which sets Woolf at odds with feminists like
“Alien emotions” such as “hatred,” “anger,” “fear,” “indignation,” “grievances,”
“bitterness,” “resentment,” “melancholy,” “loneliness,” “riot,” “rage,” “scruples,”
“fire,” “sensitiveness” (AROO 65-69) are “traces of disturbance” that spoil women’s
writing. A woman can write well only when her mind is not forced to choose
between culturally-constructed gender and self-determined identity, or between
herself and society’s expectations of her.
“Her mind must have been strained and her
vitality lowered by the need of opposing this, of disproving that” (62).
Keeping the
“masculine complex” in mind, or holding the Showalter-called “righteous anger” in
writing does not help to build a genuine female tradition.
It will only lower woman
writer’s vitality and bar her way to arts. Better spent on writing skills, women’s
energy and time should not be wasted and frittered away in complaining and in
“scribbling nonsense.” Even the woman writer has enough talent, she would fall
short of success for lack of an attentive effort and become “a bogey to frighten clever
girls” (AROO 69) if she stops to curse: “If you stop to curse, you are lost [. . .].
Hesitate or fumble and you are done for.
Think only of the jump, I implored her, as
if I had put the whole of my money on her back; and she went over it like a bird.
But there was a fence beyond that and a fence beyond that” (98).
Women’s writing
is not only a test but also a contest; any distraction would surely affect the
And as I watched her lengthening out for the test, I saw, but hoped that she
did not see, the bishops and the deans, the doctors and the professors, the
patriarchs and the pedagogues all at her shouting warning and advice.
can’t do this and you shan’t do that!
the grass!
Fellows and scholars only allowed on
Ladies not admitted without a letter of introduction! Aspiring
and graceful female novelists this way! So they [men] kept at her like the
crowd at a fence on the race-course, and it was her trial to take her fence
without looking to right or to left. [. . .] Whether she had the staying power I
was doubtful, for the clapping and the crying were fraying to the nerves.
(AROO 98)
Like the racing horses on the “race-course,” women are running and men are
watching and staking. Their “shouting warning,” “clapping and crying” are fraying
to the nerves” of women.
Here Woolf with her professional experiences advises
women writers earnestly to focus their attention on writing instead of wasting time
complaining, whining, or cursing. Her advice is not pleasing maybe, but
Woolf’s argument for androgyny on man’s side discussed earlier is for a new
unpolarized consciousness, but on woman’s side is for a self-styled creative perfection.
She insists that writers should shun consciousness of their own sex when they write
because pressures to conform to social gender roles or indignation (fear, hatred,
bitterness, rage, resentment, grievances) to oppose the pressures create barriers that
are “fatal” to creativity: “It is fatal for a woman to lay the least stress on any
grievance; to plead even with justice any cause; in any way to speak consciously as a
woman” (AROO 108).
Woolf reasons that the advantages of the “androgynous
writing” of an “unimpeded mind” will come about with time, provided women do not
hurt their own cause by wasting energy on ranting and raving.
Preventing future
women writers from suffering her pain and spasm, she urges them earnestly that
“[a]mong your grandmothers and great-grandmothers there were many that wept their
eyes out” (62-3) and warns them again and again urgently of the serious consequences
of an impeded writing. “Fatal” is not the bluffing words to scare people; anger
surely kills writing. Alien emotions will make the writer’s mind “cease to be
fertilized” and “grow” (108).
It is this “whole of mind,” the “perfect fullness,” and
the “free and unimpeded” mind that Woolf claims. She advocates for the women
writers to return to “the mind of an artist,” “the state of mind most propitious for
creative work” “where no obstacle in it, no foreign matter unconsumed” (63). If
women writers do not waste energy whining and complaining, an “incandescent
mind” and a bright future are coming soon.
Otherwise, even Shakespeare’s sister is
born again, she will not survive in a sparse female literary tradition. Because if “her
coming without that preparation, without that effort on our part, without that
determination that when she is born again she shall find it possible to live and write
her poetry, that we cannot expect, for that would be impossible” (AROO 117).
Therefore, Woolf maintains that Shakespeare’s sister, the future female genius “would
come if we worked for her” even with some sacrifice, “even in poverty and obscurity,
is worthwhile” (117). By “obscurity” Woolf implies not only the “obscure” gender
of an androgynous mind but also the “not-yet-clear situation of women writers at her
Measured by Woolf’s self-claimed “impeccable taste” and “fastidious ear” (96),
the imaginary woman novelist Mary Carmichael earns Woolf’s praise not so easily
through her “unconventional,” sexless, “unimpeded” consciousness:
She was no “genius” – that was evident. She had nothing like [. . .] the
brooding wisdom of her great predecessors, Lady Winchilsea, Charlotte
Bronte, Emily Bronte, Jane Austen, and George Eliot [. . .] Dorothy
Osborne [. . .]. But, nevertheless, she had certain advantages which women
of far greater gift lacked even half a century ago. [. . .] she need not waste
her time railing against them; she need not [. . .] ruin her peace of mind
[. . .]. Fear and hatred were almost gone, or traces of them showed only in a
joy of freedom, a tendency to the caustic and satirical, rather than to the
romantic, in her treatment of the other sex. (AROO 97)
Compared with her “great predecessors,” she is unnoticed and unremarkable but she
is praised because she does not lower her vitality, because “she wrote as a woman, but
as a woman who has forgotten that she is a woman, so that her pages were full of that
curious sexual quality which comes only when sex is unconscious of itself” (98).
mentioned earlier in chapter one, before a woman writer begins to write, she has two
obstacles to overcome. Though she killed them, the phantoms kept “creeping back”
haunting and annoying her.
The “struggle” is still “severe” and there’s a tough way
to go; energies “had better” be “spent” on more significant things, such as “learning
Greek grammar; or in roaming the world in search of adventures” (WW 60).
writers’ “vitality” should be spent on developing their “creative faculty” instead of
being lowered by the impediments of writing (AROO 62, 68, 76, 86, 97).
She should
have had a microscope put in her hand. She should have been “taught to look at
stars and reason scientifically” (68).
She “need not ruin her peace of mind longing
for travel, experience, and a knowledge of the world and character that were denied
her” (97).
The “alien emotions” in mind hinder women’s writing “as if some giant
cucumber had spread itself over all the roses and carnations in the garden and choked
them to death” (69).
Neither the noisy assertive resentment of the male nor the shrill
nagging resentment of the female will produce good literature. “The attempt to
conciliate, or more naturally to outrage, public opinion is equally a waste of energy
and a sin against art” (WW 70).
Literature demands a comprehensive sympathy which embraces and
comprehends the feelings of both sexes.
Women’s disabilities are social and
economic. The lack of the social and economic freedom breeds resentment.
patiently and earnestly “implores” women writers to remember their responsibilities,
“to be higher,” and to be “more spiritual” (AROO 114) in their writing practice.
Being misunderstood and blamed as “materialistic” because of her persistent
advocating enough “money” and a “room” for any women writers, Woolf’s intention
is in fact directed otherwise for “intellectual freedom.” “[F]ive hundred a year
stands for the power to contemplate,” and “a lock on the door means the power to
think for oneself” (112)[emphasis mine]. Intellectual freedom depends upon
material things. That is why, Woolf claims, she has “laid so much stress on money
and a room of one’s own” (112).
Woolf’s writing androgyny is a record of her search for integrity, for wholeness,
for “the unity of mind.”
This “freedom and fullness of expression,” which Woolf
takes to be the “essence of the art” (AROO 83), is the “backbone of the writer” (79).
Though Charlotte Bronte “had more genius in her than Jane Austen,” she never gets
“her genius expressed whole and entire” (76). She is “starved” and “made to
stagnate” by anger. Indignation “tugs at her imagination and deflects it from its
Her books were “deformed” and “twisted” by “rancour.” Even “to which
her entire devotion was due, Bronte never outperforms Austen in writing,” because
she “left her story to attend to some personal grievance” (79).
She writes “foolishly
where she should write wisely.” She writes “in a rage where she should write
calmly.” She writes “of herself where she should write of her characters.”
According to Woolf, this is the reason why Bronte can’t help “but die young, cramped
and thwarted” (76).
Shakespeare was able to produce masterpieces because he had
no ax to grind. Any “hardship or grievance that was fired out of him” is consumed.
His poetry “flows from him free and unimpeded.” If ever a human being gets “his
work expressed completely,” according to Woolf, it is Shakespeare (63-4).
It is this “unimpeded,” unhindered,” and “undivided” mind that appeals to Woolf
and is identified by her as the ideal creative force of a writer. It is this primary
desire to retain the androgynous integrity of a work of art taken as weakness that cuts
across the feminist drive in her work. Those who have become used to explicit
feminist polemic in creative writing find this difficult to sympathize with, yet this
argument remains an important tenet of her criticism. She admires Jane Austen for
distancing herself from her own anger: “I could not find any signs that her
circumstances had harmed her work in the slightest.
miracle about it.
That perhaps was the chief
Here was a woman about the year 1800 writing without hate,
without bitterness, without fear, without protest, without preaching.
Shakespeare wrote” (AROO 74).
That was how
Being a woman writer, Jane Austen is placed by
Woolf on a par with Shakespeare. Austen does not lose her brightness or
“incandescence” though she “suffered from her circumstances in the narrowness of
life that was imposed upon her” (AROO 74). To achieve this artistic incandescence,
women writers must have an “androgynous mind.” Once a woman writer achieves
this stylistic freedom, Woolf claims, she is free to write about women if she likes.
Woolf, though sparing no efforts in feminine writing, still modestly implies that she
herself had not achieved it and placed her hope on the future writers.
Radical feminists are as sexist as masculinists are. According to Gayatri Spivak,
the longer feminism holds on to “woman” as its sole essence and cause, it will be
doomed to essentialize that name (and all who bear it) in the name of history
(especially the history of women), and thus to repeat a history it wishes to overturn.
Suffering the Fascist masculinity, Woolf would not be glad to see the feminine version
of fascism.
Androgyny is proposed by Woolf against the “literary monster of double
paternity”: “[I]t is doubtful whether poetry can come out of an incubator. [. . .] The
Fascist poem, one may fear, will be a horrid little abortion such as one sees in a glass
jar in the museum of some country town. Such monsters [. . .] a prodigy of that sort
cropping grass in a field. Two heads on one body do not make for length life”
(AROO 107).
It is this “Fascist” writing, this literary “prodigy” produced from an
“incubator” with “two fathers but no mother” and “two heads on one body” that needs
a little “abortion.” Androgyny is intended to “purge language of its sexist aspects”
(Lodge 33). It is the wrong proportion of the valorization of the duality of meanings
of head/body, intellect/emotion, fatherhood/motherhood, and masculinity/femininity
that must be balanced and readjusted. In essence, Woolf claims that this state of
androgyny would offer women the same freedom to express themselves that men
seem to have been inherently endowed with.
Woolf intends an integral writer’s mind which is neither sexist male (linear,
“I”-driven) nor sexed female (divided, impeded, crippled, hindered by rancor, anger,
bitterness and etc.). Rather than correcting women towards female-attentive
essentialism, she valorizes their separation from the male dominance. Rather than
advising women from femaleness, she encourages and inspires them to write
[W]rite what you wish to write, that is all that matters; and whether it matter
for ages or only for hours, nobody can say. But to sacrifice a hair of the
head of your vision, a shade of its colour, in deference to some Headmaster
with a silver pot in his hand or some professor with a measuring-rod up his
sleeve, is the most abject treachery, and the sacrifice of wealth and chastity
which used to be said to be the greatest of human disasters, a mere flea-bite
in comparison. (AROO 110)
To sell a brain, according to Woolf, is worse than to sell a body; “the sacrifice of
wealth and chastity” pale into insignificance in comparison with the “sacrifice” of
even “a hair of the head of your vision.”
Extreme matriarchy, like patriarchy, is a kind of discrimination.
tyranny by an-other isn’t what Woolf intends.
Replacing one
Woolf’s androgyny is intended to
correct the imbalance of the state of mind of general writers, to neutralize the
overweening masculinity. This “universal-as-being-two,” which informs the
perpetual incompletion of self-knowledge suggests the very interaction, the
ever-changing mediation, between the two. Androgyny allows a space for entirely
new, unpredictable expressions of sexual difference.
An intentionally pluralized
subject remarkably contests the phallogocentric complacency with which “the
happiness of motherhood” is proclaimed and retrieved.
It is definitely not what
Showalter misunderstood as a flight from, or an evasion of femaleness.
is more the “other deconstruction of the duality” than “the classical union of
masculinity and femininity” (Moi 14).
It is the solution of the imbalance of “the
masculine and the feminine ‘approach to truth’” (14).
One significantly relevant event of the time of Woolf’s conception of androgyny
(Orlando 1928, A Room of One’s Own 1929) was the Radclyffe Hall’s obscenity trial,
which began in November 1928, Woolf and other writers had offered to testify against
censorship in this case. After the trial, Hall’s novel The Well of Loneliness was
destroyed and banned in England because of its lesbian subject matter. Knowing
very well the tabooed and sensitive subject of lesbianism, Woolf “carefully eschew[s]
‘the arrant feminism’” (AROO 65) and tactfully proposes the “fantasy of double
motherhood” – “Chloe liked Olivia” (Chapter 5) before she raises the idea of
androgyny (Chapter 6).
With a reference to Sir Chartres Biron (presiding
magistrate in the obscenity trial of Radclyffe Hall’s lesbian novel), Sir William
Joynson Hicks (Home Secretary at the time, responsible for banning The Well of
Loneliness and satirized by Woolf and E. M. Forster in a letter of protest written to
The Nation), and Sir Archibald Bodkin (Director of Public Prosecutions during the
trial of Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness) (AROO 87, 91, 115), Woolf’s
anxieties (about the lesbian double motherhood of A Room of One’s Own) should have
been the liability or risk of “being attacked for a feminist and hinted at for a Sapphist”
(D 3:262).
Orlando (1928) had just appeared a lesbian love letter, including
photographs of Vita Sackville-West.
not on trial for obscenity.
Vita Sackville-West was real, and Orlando was
The strict surveillance of men didn’t stop Woolf’s writing
but enriched her apprenticeship in feminine writing, sophisticated and consummated
her writing skills. When Woolf asked readers to check that Sir Chartres Biron or Sir
Archibald Bodkin were not eavesdropping, that they were all women in the room, the
obscenity trial for The Well of Loneliness was still in progress. The names of the
patriarchs, seemingly fictional, were in fact real. The audience would have known
their roles in the lesbianism case. In responding to Woolf’s request to see that the
offending fathers or brothers were not hiding behind the curtain, in a cupboard, the
audience understands the secret of the talk, that “literary women gathered in a room to
discuss women and writing are, at least symbolically, lesbians,” and patriarchy is the
enemy (Marcus 166). The strategy she sets up with her audience is of women in
league together against authority.
Haunted by the headsmen of motherhood, Woolf
ingeniously mocks them and subtly writes “feminine” against “patriarchal,”
lesbianism against Fascism, double motherhood against double paternity, “Chloe liked
Olivia” against “Napoleon and Mussolini” (AROO 87, 115).
Though “motherhood” remained a taboo subject and lesbianism gave rise to a big
tumult at her time, women’s writing still advanced a huge step through her effort.
Women write what they like. Orlando is Woolf’s truthful realization and vision of
the secret psychological realities that shape the most liberated woman’s life.
Dedicated to her lover Vita Sackville-West, the novel is not only Woolf’s lesbian
fantasy but also a literary pastiche, parodying gender essentialism. Just like the title
of the novel Life’s Adventure suggests, life is adventure. Extreme in one side has
been tried so long; why not trying the other side, lesbianism will be more satisfactory
than fascism; Chole and Olivia of course will be more adorable than Napoleon and
Mussolini. If women writers are forced to have “parents,” they are encouraged to
take “two mothers” rather than “two fathers.”
“Chloe liked Olivia … ” Do not start. Do not blush. Let us admit in the
privacy of our own society that these things sometimes happen.
Sometimes women do like women. [. . .] Chloe liked Olivia perhaps for the
first time in literature.
Cleopatra did not like Octavia. And how
completely Antony and Cleopatra would have been altered had she done so!
[. . .] But how interesting it would have been if the relationship between the
two women had been more complicated.
(AROO 87-88)
If woman writer could write naturally even with lesbian love, the prohibited subject,
the “quality in her style” would be more enjoyable. And “she will light a torch in
that vast chamber where nobody has yet been” (89).
been seen since the world began” (89).
unprecedented innovation of women.
It will be “a sight that has never
Readers will enjoy the “unattempted” and
Mary Carmichael, the author of Life’s
Adventure, in which “Chloe liked Olivia,” is also the pseudonym of birth control
advocate Marie Stopes, whose novel Love’s Creation (1928) begins with two women
in a laboratory (like Chole and Olivia).
“Chloe liked Olivia,” therefore is Woolf’s
“shortest of shorthand” to “catch those unrecorded gestures, those unsaid or half-said
words” (90). Though this “forbidden land” seems full of risk and danger, Woolf
seems to assure women writers that any kind of writing practice would be an
enjoyable and worthy adventure.
Androgyny not only entails “the assimilation of maternal generativity” against
“the Fascist poem’s double paternity,” “the dominance of the letter ‘I’” (Abel 87), but
also provides writers a return to the womb to be born again.
Woolf’s comparison of
the “taxicab or room” for the source of an androgynous mind, for the artistic integrity
is well intended.
It aims for women writers a feminine return to the pre-patriarchal
wombly status to be regenerated again. Actually, androgyny prepares the rebirth of
Shakespeare’s sister:
Shakespeare had a sister [. . .]. She died young – alas, she never wrote a
word. [. . .] still lives. She lives in you and me, and in many other women
who are not here tonight [. . .] they need only the opportunity to walk
among us in the flesh. This opportunity, as I think, it is now coming
within your power to give her.
For my belief is that [. . .] if we have the
habit of freedom and the courage to write exactly what we think [. . .] then
the opportunity will come and the dead poet who was Shakespeare’s sister
[. . .] will be born.
(AROO 117)
Judith Shakespeare was invented by Woolf to stand for the woman artist muted by
patriarchy. That Judith Shakespeare being a fiction did not prevent the audience
from seeing her death as a sign of the suppression of lesbianism in the obscenity trial.
Woolf and Radclyffe Hall are the “female descendants of bi-sexual Shakespeare”
(Marcus 167). Judith Shakespeare is a “continuing presence”: “She lives in you and
in me, and in many other women who are not here tonight, for they are washing up
the dishes and putting the children to bed” (AROO 117).
Without women writers’
androgynous writing practice, without our effort in changing the writing environment
and circumstances, the true femininity could not be found and women’s genius would
be choked and buried again.
Androgyny may seem a paradoxical proposal, offering something like
de-politicization as a political project for women. It is a subtle feminine discourse
for a “tabooed subject”, for women’s lesbian desire, for “double motherhood,” for
“triple motherhood” (“when the woman writer seduces the reader”) (Hussey 242), or
more specifically, for the long-lost femininity.
Far from being a submissive retreat
from political issues the project of androgyny is innovative and substantial. To open
the gender boundaries for women surely does not lose touch with women-identified
Showalter’s accusation of Woolf as non-feminist and her androgyny as
“a flight from troubled feminism or painful femaleness” is therefore inadequate and
Suggestions of lesbianism or “parthenogenesis” (Abel 89) virtually
imply the re-search of literary mothers and the rebuilding or re-creation of a female
As well perceived by Moi toward Kristeva, “it is not the biological sex of a
person, but the subject position she or he takes up, that determi nes their revolutionary
potential” (Moi 12). Woolf’s views of feminist politics and conception of androgyny
“reflect this refusal of biologism and essentialism” (12). Feminine writing and
feminist struggle must be seen historically and politically as a three-stage progress:
1 Women demand equal access to the symbolic order. Liberal feminism.
2. Women reject the male symbolic order in the name of difference.
Radical feminism. Femininity extolled.
3. (This is Kristeva’s own position.) Women reject the dichotomy between
masculine and feminine as metaphysical.
(Moi 12)
Moi claims that she would stress with Kristeva that a theory that demands “the
deconstruction of sexual identity is indeed authentically feminist” (14). Not to
advance is to go back; Showalter advocates femininity through “radical feminism” or
“righteous anger” instead of moving ahead for a higher artistic goal; her staying at the
second stage of the feminist struggles or writing as defined by Kristeva is in fact a
regression. Kristeva’s feminism echoes the position taken up by Woolf some sixty
years earlier. Woolf’s remarkably progressive understanding of feminist objectives
naturally makes her take up an advanced political position in the feminist struggles:
There are books on all sorts of subjects which a generation ago no woman
could have touched. There are poems and plays and criticism [. . .] And
though novels predominate, novels themselves may very well have changed
from association with books of a different feather.
the epic age of women’s writing, may have gone.
The natural simplicity,
Reading and criticism
may have given her a wider range, a great subtlety. The impulse towards
autobiography may be spent. She may be beginning to use writing as an
art, not as a method of self-expression.
(AROO 85)
Her concept of androgyny could be viewed as the more advanced third stage of
feminism, the “deconstruction of the duality” (14) instead of the second one.
Toward the idea of feminine writing, in fact, Showalter moves toward the same
direction with Woolf and Cixous without self-knowledge. In her “Feminist Criticism
in the Wilderness,” Showalter employs the concept of the “wild zone” to explore the
basis of women’s writing.
She argues that women’s writing is more a
“double-voiced discourse” than something entirely separate, “containing a ‘dominant’
[male] and a ‘muted’ [female] story” (Showalter 1981, 350).
According to her, “if a
man’s text is fathered, then a woman’s text is not only mothered but parented”(349).
Doesn’t this coexistence of a “dominant” male voice with a “muted” female voice, the
“maternal and paternal parented text” sound a similar tune with Woolf ‘s idea of
Women live double lives, female in a male world, learn androgyny
and become bilingual, able to use both male and female discourse:
Women writing are not, then, inside and outside of the male tradition; they
are inside two traditions simultaneously [. . .] a more fluid imagery of
interacting juxtapositions, the point of which would be to represent not so
much the territory as its defining borders. Indeed, the female territory
might well be envisioned as one long border and independence for women
not as a separate country but as open access to the sea.’ (Showalter 1981,
Women “were on a pilgrimage to the promised land in which gender would lose its
power, in which all texts would be sexless and equal, like angels” (350).
to Showalter, the same as Woolf’s idea of writing as a process approximating the
feminine, “we could never reach the promised land at all”(350).
“But we could work
toward completeness, even as an unattainable ideal” (350).
On the promotion of flexibility in writing, Woolf’s version of “androgyny and
feminine writing” is similar to Cixous’ understanding of “bisexuality and écriture
feminine,” and Showalter’s conception of “dominant/muted story and parented text.”
“Androgyny” and “bisexuality” and “parented text” share the same designation of
multiplicity instead of singularity, fluidity instead of rigidity, dialogue instead of
monologue as the discourse of feminine writing. The elusive identities of characters
in Orlando and The Waves and Mrs. Dalloway could be seen as Woolf’s
“non-patriarchal” expression and as corrective narration from the patriarchal toward
the feminine.
Woolf’s androgyny sets up a definition of bisexuality which is not the simple
combination of sexualities, but the displacement of the terms “masculinity” and
“femininity.” It suggests a state in which “the man in every woman” and the
“woman in every man” could be integrated and freely expressed.
This describes a
blurring or combination of gender roles so that neither masculinity nor femininity is
dominant. The important point about the plurality of the subject, “the sex which is
not one,” is its non-totality.
In short, to know the self is impossible, because the self
is always more than its “I.”
Woolf’s androgyny pursues “androgynous mutuality”
rather than “gendered hierarchy.”
Androgyny opens up possibilities.
parallel to a political attempt at rethinking sexual difference.
It can be read
Woolf tries to create an
acceptable sexual orientation. The idea of masculine and feminine essences is not
implied or reinforced in androgyny.
Bisexuality implodes the two groups
“masculine” and “feminine,” and therefore it has a valid rhetorical and political
function – as a concept of method, more specifically a destroyer of a false and
arbitrary dichotomy. Androgyny is a form of inclusiveness supporting feminism and
homosexuality by challenging sexism and heterosexism and by seeking equality of the
sexes. Androgyny suggests an equality of style which serves to deconstruct and
destabilize traditional patriarchal gender roles.
Orlando is not simply a hymn to androgyny as is frequently supposed.
novel “revisits the history and development of English literature from the Renaissance
to 1928 in the spirit of feminist parody in order to free it— and by extension of its
author— from the burden of this largely masculine tradition” (Hussey 204).
embodies Woolf’s feminist poetics and ecriture feminine in an androgynous vision. If
Orlando gains freedom from constraint by her “ambiguous gender,” she can become
whatever she chooses. It is the very possibility of putting the question in the form of
the “or/and” without dema nding a definite, single answer is “feminine,” in the sense
of challenging the confidence of an unequivocal judgment.
The transformation from
man into woman is Orlando’s awakening to flexible sexuality.
Orlando begins with he, ends with she, and culminates at sex-changing,
age-transcending, cross-dressing and genre-breaking. The novel provides a vivid
picture of linguistic variation associated with the sex of the speaker through centuries,
and at the same time explores some of the ways in which language mirrors sexism in
society in different ages. The biography of a character who lives more than three
hundred years through Elizabethan, Jacobean, Carolinean, Restoration, Augustan,
Victorian and Modern England, as well as of Constantinople before and after the
Sultan's fall is surely not only a biography but also a history.
Orlando's story, the
tale of a body now male, now female, presents us a flexible perspective of history
instead of a fixed point of view from which we must view the world.
Experiences of
different identities in a variety of situations provide a narrative device in which to
explore the linguistic relationships between the sexes. Woolf's flowing "chronotopic"
(time/space) narrative presenting the visible world of human space and human history
through hundreds of years serves as a mobile background with multiple voices and an
inexhaustible source of the artistic visualization.
A live film of discourses, then, is
projected through Orlando's relationship with people, through Orlando's observation
of different societies, of different ages. Being the revolutionary persona, Orlando’s
living for more than three hundred years from about 1570 to 1928--through a change of
sex, a husband, a wife, and a career in diplomacy and literature--breaks the traditional
management of time in biography, and provides a critique of gender essentialism. It is
a combination of historical novel and biographical fantasy which parodies the changing
styles of English literature and explores the themes of androgyny and women's creativity.
Woolf suggests that an ideal writing is an androgynous one.
Orlando, the
metaphor of "anotherness" or "possibility of meaning" is a synthesis of male and female
traits. "[O]bscurity," the paramount value of female writing in Orlando by Virginia
Woolf, "is dark, ample, and free" and "lets the mind take its way unimpeded" (O 72).
The obscurity of sex or ambiguous gender of Orlando is therefore not without
significance. It disrupts all sorts of cultural and conceptual binaries, and s/he offers a
challenge to the traditional notions of binarity, putting into question the categories of
“female” and “male,” whether they are considered essential or constructed, biological or
cultural. As a disturbing challenge to binary thinking, Orlando is identified by Woolf
with "anotherness" that is neither the "self" nor the "other" but a mode of articulation, a
way of describing a space of "possibility." Towards the refusal of absolute meaning
and the openness to the play of innumerable meanings, "obscurity" and "androgyny" are
synonymous. Androgyny, proposed in Orlando by Woolf, is an image of the union of
masculine and feminine natures in one being, under which human impulses expressed by
men and women, are not rigidly assigned. Thus it opens up new possibilities in the
fixed rules of genre which are shaped by the politics of gender. Woolf’s androgyny
anticipates bisexuality put forth by Cixous on ecriture feminine.
Of the advocation of
flexibility or "obscurity" (O 72) in writing, Woolf's androgyny or Cixous' bisexuality
denotes the co-presence in the human individual of “feminine” and “masculine”
psychological characteristics. Androgyny or bisexuality shares the same designation of
multiplicity instead of singularity, fluidity instead of rigidity, polyphony instead of
monologue as the subject and dis-course in feminine writing.
How to achieve the “masculine” paternal identification which supports History
(which means men's history, his story) without being silenced but simultaneously
preserve anotherness? For the women writers, Woolf suggests, writing is just like
carrying "contraband" through the "customs":
Orlando now performed in spirit... to compare great things with small - a
traveller, conscious that he has a bundle of cigars in the corner of his suit case,
makes to the customs officer who has obliging made a scribble of white chalk
on the lid. For she was extremely doubtful whether, if the spirit had
examined the contents of her mind carefully, it would not have found
something highly contraband for which she would have had to pay the full
fine. (O 183-4)
Woolf’s love for Vita Sackville-West in Orlando, Clarissa’s love for Sally Seton in Mrs.
Dalloway, and Chloe’s love for Olivia in A Room of One’s Own are “lesbian subject”
present in the texts as “contraband.” Androgyny is her attempt to solve the dilemma for
feminine writing. The "transaction between a writer and the spirit of the age," Woolf
claims, "is one of infinite delicacy” (O 184). Her insightful solution to any woman
writer is: "she need neither fight her age, nor submit to it; she was of it, yet remained
herself.... therefore, she could write, and write she did. She wrote. She wrote. She
wrote" (O 184). Orlando's "obscure therefore flexible" gender hence androgynous
features allow Woolf, through “indirection,” to comment far more vividly than would
otherwise be possible on the variety of restrictions imposed upon women.
To pass the customs without being caught and fined, to promote an offending issue
without offending the male readers, to catch everybody's attention without being muffled,
or to flow in the flood of History without being drowned is Woolf's writing stratagem.
Adventures in trousers and in petticoats through different ages portray Orlando in a
variety of situations in which s/he had to cope as man and woman, thus providing a fluid
narrative device through which to hear different voices. Orlando's obscure gender
allows him/her to pass through a series of unusual experiences--amorous, political, and
literary--which otherwise would have been denied him or her as a fixed gender.
Androgyny as subject or dis-course is therefore both revolutionary and tactful.
Orlando, the symbol of fluid identities, the female aesthetic ideal, suggests
openness to signification and contextualization. Cixous understands feminine writing
as bisexual political act that holds open "the very possibility of change" (Cixous 1975,
337). The aims of this androgynous dis-course are to "break up, to destroy; and to
foresee the unforeseeable, to project" (Cixous 1975, 334). "A feminine text," Cixous
claims, "cannot fail to be more than subversive. It is volcanic" (344). The traits
claimed by Cixous for "feminine writing" are vividly shown in Orlando. The
sex-changing, age-transcending, crossing-dressing, genre-breaking Orlando is acting to
subvert. The outcry of "gender fuck" is subversive enough to deconstruct the gendered
or sexed praxis. Orlando's nonentity in small biography provides menacing challenge
to the massive canon in History (his story) which is men's history.
When a woman writes, said Cixous, she writes in "white ink" that is "mother's
milk" letting her words flow freely where she wishes them to go (Cixous 1975, 339).
From the elusiveness of Orlando, the flowing and polyphonic narrative through sexes
and ages, it can't be denied that the ink used to compose Orlando is definitely “white.”
Possibility is what Woolf exemplifies in Orlando. For any woman writer, text is her
body. Cixous' outcry "Text: my body" suggests that women can escape the
dichotomous conceptual order within which they have been enclosed and that women
have the capacity to lead this revolt. The body functions figuratively as what cannot be
unified or categorized, what has been excluded or unvoiced. It is through Orlando's
body, Woolf opens the "thresholds" of meanings, distributes the fascinating "ardor," and
"reverberate[s]" with different voices. The features presented in their definition of
feminine writing characterized by play, disruption, subversion, ambiguities, generic
transgressions, fluid figurative language, and myths all describe the qualities of Orlando.
As a man, Orlando was free to experience the world in all its variety and to speak
about those experiences freely. As a woman, she is forced to experience the
impositions which men put on women.
If patriarchy is the socio-historical fact, can
women command a different language instead of imitating a manly one?
Can they
create their own female story instead of male History within an androcentric society?
Orlando, the manly woman or womanly man, the metaphor of linguistic flexibility,
shows the possibility.
For s[/]he had a great variety of selves to call upon, far more than we have
been able to find room for [. . .]. Choosing then, only those selves we have
found room for, Orlando may now have called on the boy who cut the
nigger's head down; the boy who strung it up again; the boy who sat upon
the hill; the boy who saw the poet; the boy who handed the Queen the bowl
of rose water; or she may have called upon the young man who fell in love
with Sasha; or upon the courtier; or upon the Ambassador; or upon the
Soldier; or upon the Traveller; or she may have wanted woman to come to
her; the Gipsy; the Fine Lady; the Hermit; the girl in love with life; the
Patroness of letters; the woman who called Mar (meaning hot baths and
evening fires) or Shelmerdine (meaning crocuses in autumn woods) or
Bonthrop (meaning the death we die daily) or all three together - which
meant more things than we have space to write out - all were different and
she may have called upon any one of them. (O 213)
Orlando endowed with different genders and times and costumes and careers, has
many “lives” and many “selves” to appeal to.
Not only the eighteen Orlandos
portrayed here, the biographer Woolf tells us that "a person may well have as many
thousand" identities to call upon and many different language to speak (O 213).
Orlando's quick changing of selves indicates the indeterminacy and possibilities of
meanings in language:
What then? Who then? she said. `Thirty-six; in a motor-car; a woman.
Yes, but a million other things as well. A snob am I?. . . .
luxurious, vicious? Am I? (here a new self came in) . . . (here a new self
came in) . . . (here another self came in) . . . (here another self came in). . . .
(Here another self came in.) . . . (here another self came in) . . . (here
another self came skipping over the top of her mind like the beam from a
light house).
(O 214-15)
The metaphor of Orlando suggests that language shifts when it is called upon to
describe not only the man around whom a novel or biography is typically composed,
but also “the woman who discomposes it” (O 215).
The obscurity of sex or
ambiguous gender of Orlando disrupts all sorts of cultural or linguistic essentialism.
Gender is a system of differences without “definite” terms, without immanent essence.
Differences between the sexes exist only in relation to each other and to the
representation of it.
It is a matter of whether the dividing line is, and its location
varies historically and socially. A definition only has meaning in relation to a
specific socio-historical context.
The characteristics presented in Woolf's representation of language characterized
by play, ambiguities, fluidity and myths express the qualities of Orlando. Sex is not
a nature but a social product.
Woolf believes that the difference between the sexes
cannot be defined in terms of biological or immanent essences, then “change” from
one sex to the other cannot be specified either.
From the very beginning, there is
something ambiguous or androgynous about Orlando.
When we first meet him, his
appearance makes it difficult to determine his gender, “He - for there could be no doubt
of his sex, though the fashion of the time did something to disguise it” (O 11). There
are many similar occasions later on. Nearly all of the characters in this work are
unstable in gender, and Woolf seems to be suggesting that the sexual self in its
uninhabited state is androgynous. "Different though the sexes are, they intermix. In
every human being, a vacillation from one sex to the other takes place, and often it is
only the clothes that keep the male or female likeness, while underneath the sex is the
very opposite of what it is above" (O 132-33). Orlando's lover, Sasha, the Russian
Princess, ambiguous in sex,
coming from the pavilion of the Muscovite Embassy, a figure, which, whether
boy's or woman's, for the loose tunic and trousers of the Russian fashion
served to disguise the sex, filled him with the highest curiosity. The person,
whatever the name or sex, was about middle height.... But these details were
obscured by the extraordinary seductiveness which issued from the whole
person. (O 26)
irresistibly attracts Orlando’s attention. Sasha appeared in the "loose tunic and
trousers of the Russian fashion," with her "extraordinary seductiveness," though
ambiguous in sex of "whether boy's or woman's," still "filled him [Orlando] with the
highest curiosity" (O 26).
Orlando's sudden love for her emerges prior to the
division of gender. His descriptions of her as "a melon, a pineapple, an olive tree, an
emerald, and a fox in the snow" are a "pell-mell of categories" (Minow-Pinkrey 122).
The "synaesthetic confusion" proves Woolf's further refusal of the sexed praxis or the
sexual dividing line (122). When Orlando was a man, he was chased by the
Archduchess Harriet. After Orlando has become a woman, the sex of Harriet changes
too. S/he and Orlando act “the parts of man and woman for ten minutes with great
vigour and then [fall] into natural discourse” (O 126). The Archduchess Harriet, who
later becomes the Archduke Harry, provides another example of Woolf's attempt to
deconstruct the gendered behavior.
The ambiguity of sex for Orlando is by far the most dramatic. As a man at the
beginning, he had never been particularly virile. After the change of sex, the former
Ambassador becomes a gypsy in the mountains. Unself-conscious about “her” new
sexuality, Orlando remains as ambiguous as "Turkish coats and trousers which can be
worn indifferently by either sex" (O 98). Leaving the gypsies on the way home back to
England, Orlando's female appearance attracts men and her critical disgusts towards
their behavior and her present situation make her ambiguous in sex:
All I can do, once I set foot on English soil, is to pour out tea and ask my lords
how they like it. D'you take sugar. D'you take cream?' And mincing out the
words, she was horrified to perceive how low and opinion she was forming of
the other sex, the manly, to which it had once been her pride to belong. `To
fall from a mast-head', she thought, `because you see a woman's ankles; to
dress up like a Guy Fawkes and parade the streets, so that women may praise
you; to deny a woman teaching lest she may laugh at you; to be the slave of
the frailest chit in petticoats, and yet to go about as if you were the Lords of
creation - Heavens!' (O 113)
After the severe criticism of men, she counted her one of them instead of women, "what
fools they make of us - what fools we are" (113)! Ambiguity of sex is clearly seen in
her words as the biographer describes, "she was censuring both sexes equally, as if she
belonged to neither [. . .] she seemed to vacillate; she was man; she was woman [. . .] she
shared the weaknesses of each" (113).
After the transformation, his/her servants’and pets’ “too natural” or “somewhat
unaffected somewhat mysterious somewhat suspicious somewhat knowing” reaction
designates further obscurity about Orlando's identity:
Milord! Milady! Milady! Milord! [. . .] No one showed an instant's
suspicion that Orlando was not the Orlando they had known. If any doubt
there was in the human mind the action of the deer and the dogs would have
been enough to dispel it, for the dumb creatures, as is well known, are far
better judges both of identity and character than we are. Moreover, said Mrs.
Grimsditch, over her dish of china tea, to Mr. Dupper that night, if her Lord
was a Lady now, she had never seen a lovelier one, nor was there a penny
piece to choose between them; one was as well-favoured as the other; they
were as like as two peaches on one branch; which, said Mrs. Grimsditch,
becoming confidential, she had always had her suspicions (here she nodded
her head very mysteriously), which it was no surprise to her (here she nodded
her head very knowingly), and for her part, a very great comfort... it was time
they had a Mistress among them. (O 121)
It seems that every one including the animals admit that gender is not fixed. Sexes
are "like two peaches on one branch", and there isn't "a penny piece to choose
between them" (121). The incident which best reveals that sex is not immanent but
culturally-produced occurs after Orlando's change of sex.
Her sex together with
other issues of property comes under legal litigation. "Thus it was in a highly
ambiguous condition, uncertain whether she was alive or dead, man or woman, Duke
or nonentity" (O 119). Through hundreds of years, the "lawsuits are settled" and
Orlando "is pronounced indisputably, and beyond the shadow of a doubt... female" (O
176). This so-thought authoritative identity proclamation is undercut by the questions
raised just after the case by Orlando's lover, Shel:
‘Are you positive you aren’t a man?’ he would ask anxiously and she would
‘Can it be possible you’re not a woman?’ and they must put it to the proof
without more ado. For each was so surprised at the quickness of other's
sympathy, and it was to each such a revelation that a woman could be as
tolerant and free-spoken as a man, and a man as strange and subtle as a
woman [. . .]. (O 178-9)
Therefore not only is Orlando's sex “still in dispute”(O 162), but Shel’s is mysterious too.
Even after the engagement with a man, Orlando’s female identity is considered to be
assured but is spoiled by the fact that they have just discovered "You're a woman, Shel!",
"You're a man, Orlando" (O 174)! Hence readers' notion of gendered praxis is
disturbed not only by most characters' reactions but even more profoundly by
Orlando's bisexual life. None of the main characters identity is fixed, let alone
Orlando. Woolf's intention to make Orlando (or/and) linguistically androgynous,
ambiguous, elusive, and flexible is quite obvious, "for it was this mixtures in her of
man and woman, one being uppermost then the other, that often gave her conduct an
unexpected turn":
The curious of her own sex would argue, for example, if Orlando was a
woman, how did she never take more than ten minutes to dress? And were
not her clothes chosen rather at random, and sometimes worn rather shabby?
And then would say, still, she has none of the formality of a man, or man's
love of power. She is excessively tender-hearted. She could not endure to
see a donkey beaten or a kitten drowned. Yet again, they noted, she detested
household matters, was up at dawn and out among the fields in summer before
the sun had risen. No farmer knew more about the crops than she did. She
could drink with the best and liked games of hazard. She rode well and
drove six horses at a gallop over London Bridge. Yet again, though bold and
active as a man, it was remarked that the sight of another in danger brought on
the most womanly palpitations. She would burst into tears on slight
provocation. She was unversed in geography, found mathematics intolerable,
and held some caprices which are more common women then men, as for
instance that to travel downhill (O 153).
Orlando's sometimes-male sometimes-female and somewhat-masculine
somewhat- feminine behaviors make him/her neither a man nor a woman, both a man
and a woman. Being a man, he does not have "the formality of man." He "couldn't
endure" to see animals mistreated. Being a woman, she doesn't like to do
"household matters." She dresses as quickly as men, drives as well as men, and
travels as often as men.
"Whether, then, Orlando was most man or woman," Woolf
claims, "it is difficult to say and cannot now be decided" (O 153). This forever delay or
eternal indeterminacy not only suggests the impossibility of transmitting Orlando's
personality in the biography but also the inexhaustibility of Orlando as metaphor in
Society is the cause of difference. If men are located in the status of women,
and women situated in the role of men, their linguistic behavior is still decided by
their context not by language itself:
Orlando curtseyed; she compiled; she flattered the good man's humours as
she would not have done had his neat breeches been a woman's skirts, and
his braided coat a woman's satin bodice [. . .]. The man looks the world full
in the face, as if it were made for his uses and fashioned to his liking. The
woman takes a sidelong glance at it, full of subtlety, even of suspicion.
Had they both worn the same clothes, it is possible that their outlook might
have been the same [. . .].
(O 132)
The artifice of gender roles is exposed here. Clothes make the man, and contexts
explain the behaviors. It is clothes that "change our view of the world and the
world's view of us." Clothes "wear us not we them."
The difference between the
sexes is "one of great profundity." In every human being, Woolf seems to suggest, a
shifting command of language, a "vacillation from one sex to the other" takes place
(O 131-2).
In moving so deftly and so rapidly from ages to spaces, from gender to
genre Woolf is able to tease out any fixed assumptions or stereotypes about the
linguistic differences of men and women. Being a flexible linguistic me taphor,
Orlando's historical or sexual mobility emphasizes the inherent linguistic instability.
Orlando, the protagonist's multiple and fickle personality opens the possibilities of
meanings in the novel, Orlando, which is the best example of feminine writing,
An act which will not only "realize" the decensored relation of woman to her
sexuality, to her womanly being, giving her access to her native strength; it
will give her back her goods, her pleasures, her organs, her immense bodily
territories which have been kept under seal; it will tear her away from the
superegoized structure in which she has always occupied the place reserved
for the guilty. (Cixous1975, 338)
Whether the emphasis of the novel is on alternative writing or subversive rewriting,
Woolf presents an impressive example of feminist poetics of feminine writing. The
readers do get significantly unusual "culminations and perorations" from the novel
which speaks with quite a different "accent" and sings quite a different tune from men (O
Chapter 4
Water Imagery and Feminine Writing
Water could be seen as the maternal element or the feminine liquid, as
significant in Virginia Woolf’s thinking and writing, and as opposed to the
“time-bound, land-locked world of the masculine ego” (Poole 262).
Solid ground
has conventionally been associated with men, and water has for centuries been the
symbolic element of women.
Among the symbols of the female principle are
included “those which figure as origins of the waters (mother, life), such as Mother
Earth, Mother of the Waters, Stone, Cave, House of the Mother, Night, House of
Depth, House of Force, House of Wisdom, Forest, etc.” (Cirlot 347).
At least three
of Woolf’s novels— The Voyage Out, To the Lighthouse and The Waves— have water
in their very titles, and water is part of their structure too.
Women in Woolf’s novels
are associated with the flux, men with the solid:
[T]he primaeval waters, the image of prime matter, also contained all solid
bodies before they acquired form and rigidity. [. . .] This ‘fluid body’ is
interpreted by modern psychology as a symbol of the unconscious, that is,
of the non-formal, dynamic, motivating, female side of the personality.
The projection of the mother-imago into the waters endows them with
various numinous properties characteristic of the mother.
(Circlot 345)
Both metaphysical positions, the solid and the fluid, are elements necessary to
Woolf’s vision of life and techniques of narration.
Her attraction to the watery
element gives her writing another of its feminine attributes. Reading her works, one
has the impression of being immersed in a constantly moving liquid. The water
imagery “subverts the ‘Selfsame,’ flowing into the cracks of the symbolic order and
infusing it with the semiotic” (qtd. in Hussey 176).
The ultimate purpose of any writing is to represent life.
Life, as Woolf
conceives it, is not a predetermined and precisely patterned thing. It has no spatial
symmetry or chronological cohesion about it.
Life is full of unpredictable and
intangible happenings. There are a lot of ups and downs, twists and turns.
Reality seems to be “something very erratic, very undependable” (AROO 113).
could be found everywhere even in “a dusty road,” “a scrap of newspaper in the
street,” or “a daffodil in the sun” (113). It will move people’s emotion and hides
itself from us. It presents itself everywhere in small things or big events, in silence
or uproar, at home or on the street in different forms:
It lights up a group in a room and stamps some casual saying.
overwhelms one walking home beneath the stars and makes the silent world
more real than the world of speech – and then there it is again in an omnibus
in the uproar of Piccadilly. Sometimes, too, it seems to dwell in shapes too
far away for us to discern what their nature is. (AROO 113)
It is the writer’s business to find it and collect it and communicate it to us. For
Woolf, life is just as William James defines: “it flows … let us call it the stream of
thought, of consciousness, or of subjective life” (qtd. in Naremore 64). Assuming
that classic realism cannot represent the world as it is, Woolf attempts to render the
flux of life in a fluid medium.
Life is the “subjective” thinking of human beings
instead of the objective presentation of facts.
Life escapes:
“Like” and “like” and “like”— but what is the thing that lies beneath the
semblance of the thing?
Now that lightening has gashed the tree and the
flowering branch has fallen [. . .] There is a square; there is an oblong.
They place it very accurately; they make a perfect dwelling place. Very
little is left outside. The structure is now visible; what is inchoate is here
stated; we are not so various or so mean; we have made oblongs and stood
them upon squares.
This is our triumph; this is our consolation.
(W 134)
No matter how hard any writers try, they can only touch the very surface of things, the
appearance of life. Even they sometimes see things or think they see things, their
depictions might be still shallow or wrong. They might still have “stood oblongs
upon squares” and have caught little left outside. Claiming much of life has been
missed, excluded, and ignored; Woolf tries to evolve a discourse more in keeping with
what she called “life itself.” To capture the elusive tides of life, to participate in the
ebb and flow of existence, Woolf’s narrative in her works is streamy, wavelike, and
oceanic. Her discursive coup is to overwhelm the land-based, patriarchal tradition of
unified authoritative static narrative and chronological plot by infusing her dis-course
(disrupting the conventional course of narration) with aqua, an ever-changing
dynamic life.
Across all Woolf’s novels, according to Marie-Paule Vigne in her “Reflections
on a Theme: Virginia and Water,” “water alone occupies almost one half of the cosmic
vocabulary: 48% (about 4,500 words) against 52% (4,850) for all the other elements
together” (Poole 259).
Water flows and streams in her novels, “52% in The Voyage
Out, 53% in Jacob’s Room, 54% in The Years, and a proportion of 2/3 in Orlando and
To the Lighthouse” (259).
The water images Woolf uses establish her idea of true
reality and reject the traditional depiction of literature.
intangible, vague, shapeless, and fluid.
are no longer important.
that experience them.
They are chosen to appear
The events that traditionally make up a story
What matters is the impression they make on the characters
Fluidity is the main feature of Woolf’s poetic style; the quality
of language which flows follows the most intricate thoughts and stretches to express
the most intimate feelings.
Woolf’s works is always crafted into a random sea of
voices, an ocean of consciousness, a flood of feelings, “each sentence a wave rolling
in,” and “each chapter a renewed tide” (qtd. in Wheeler 45). “[B]ringing water into
the desert of male arrogance and intellectuality” (Poole 260), challenging traditional
modes of writing, Woolf’s aquatic aesthetics not only leads to her elevation as a
literary “mother” but also an alternative to the many “fathers” available to male
Feminine writing is characterized by Woolf’s construction of fluid identities,
wavy texture and flowing dis-course in her works. Women’s mind is described as
stream or sea, and the metaphor of thinking as fishing:
Thought [. . .] had let its line down into the stream.
It swayed, minute after
minute, hither and thither among the reflections and the weeds, letting the
water lift it and sink it, until – you know the little tug – the sudden
conglomeration of an idea at the end of one’s line [. . .] how small, how
insignificant this thought of mine looked; the sort of fish that a good
fisherman puts back into the water so that it may grow fatter and be one day
worth cooking and eating. [. . .] But however small it was, it had,
nevertheless, the mysterious property of its kind – put back into the mind, it
became at once very exciting, and important. (AROO 15)
Writing is a fishing trip into the female element, into the arms of mother water.
Feminine writing, like fishing, needs experience and practice by “putting back” the
small fish (thought) “into the water” (mind) to let it “grow fatter and be one day worth
cooking and eating.” The underwater world of a woman writer’s imagination is
commensurate with female “creativity as amniotic bliss” (Marcus 151). Women
writers voyage through the discursive path of adventure on the sea. “Without our
doing, those seas would be unsailed and those fertile lands a desert” (AROO 116).
The fisherwoman, the mermaid and the fish make up a female underwater womblike
world of freedom.
In water, women writers let their imagination feed unfettered on
every crumb of their experience; they let their imagination “sweep unchecked round
every rock and cranny of the world that lies submerged in the depths of our
unconscious being”:
a girl sitting with a pen in her hand, which for minutes, and indeed for hours,
she never dips into the inkpot. The image that comes to my mind when I
think of this girl is the image of a fisherman lying sunk in dreams on the
verge of a deep lake with a rod held out over the water. She was letting
her imagination sweep unchecked round every rock and cranny of the world
that lies submerged in the depths of our unconscious being. [. . .] It had
sought the pools, the depths, the dark places where the largest fish slumber.
(WW 61)
Women writers are like the fishermen fishing on the continuous flux interrupted by
catastrophes called “the extreme conventionality of the other sex”:
And then there was a smash.
and confusion.
There was an explosion.
There was foam
The imagination had dashed itself against something hard.
The girl was roused from her dream. She was indeed in a state of the most
acute and difficult distress. [. . .] The consciousness of what men will say of
a woman [. . .] had roused her from her artist’s state of consciousness. She
could write no more.
Her imagination could work no longer. [. . .] women
writers – they are impeded by the extreme conventionality of the other sex.
(WW 61-62)
Water is traditionally an image of life and procreation. Woolf presents ocean not only
as a symbol of procreation and life-giving energy but also as the source of creativity.
The fish is “a psychic being or a ‘penetrative motion’ in the unconscious” (Cirlot 101).
Because of the close symbolic “relationship between the sea and the Magna Mater [great
mother]” (101), fish by virtue of the “extraordinary number of its eggs” (103) becomes a
symbol of bountiful female creativity. “Fishing” amounts to “extracting the
unconscious elements from deep-lying sources,” and from “the elusive treasure” of life
Explicit references to maternity or the ambience of fecundity and vitality are
present in Woolf’s works. The dominant image of motherhood is significant in
undermining the credibility of the Patriarchal society and in creating the feminine
version of psychological realism. As quoted earlier, water, the “fluid body” is
interpreted by modern psychology as a “symbol of the unconscious, that is, the
non-formal, dynamic, motivating female side of the personality” (Circlot 345)[emphasis
mine]. Ocean, the “collective of unconscious” (230) stands for the sum of all the
possibilities of existence. It is the mother of creations, of things on earth. Water as an
image of a repository of the human spirit is repeated in Mrs. Dalloway where Clarissa
remembers tossing a shilling into the Serpentine. The image becomes more poignant
when we remember that Woolf herself met death by her own hand and by water. In
1941, Woolf filled her pockets with stones and waded into the River Ouse near her home
in Rodmell, Sussex. She left a suicide note that seems a significant gesture. The
expressions “risen from the waves” and “saved form the waters” symbolize fertility and
are “metaphorical images of childbirth” (Cirlot 346). Birth is usually expressed
through water imagery. “Water is symbolic of dissolution and, at the same time,
renovation and regeneration” (103). Since rock is the “male prejudice,” and sea is the
“female imagination” Woolf’s death is a defiant gesture – carrying with her body the
“rock” the masculinity and sinking to the bottom of the sea (femininity - “we are
ourselves sea”) where the “largest fish slumber” (WW 61). Never is the call of water
more powerfully felt in the face of the assault of the rationalist male mind. Having a
“female mind” and a “male exterior,” Septimus the feminine man in Mrs. Dalloway
reflects: “like a drowned sailor on a rock. I leant over the edge of the boat and fell
down, he thought. I went under the sea. I have been dead, and yet am now alive”
(MD 163-4). Death in this world does not mean death in the other world. The “death
of the soul” (89) is far more horrible than the “death of the body.” Of Septimus’ death,
Woolf suggests the “plunge” is a happy act of “holding treasure,” an “embrace” of life
instead of sacrificing life:
Death was defiance. Death was an attempt to communicate; people feeling
the impossibility of reaching the centre which, mystically, evaded them;
closeness drew apart; rapture faded, one was alone. There was an embrace in
But this young man who had killed himself— had he plunged holding his
treasure? “If it were now to die, 'twere now to be most happy,” she had said
to herself once, coming down in white. (MD 280-81)
Of Woolf’s understanding, death is not the enemy to be fought, but “a vision to be
embraced,” “an escape ‘from here and now’into the other reality behind appearances”
(Roe & Sellers 70). Death, for Woolf, is definitely neither what Showalter called “the
tragedy of her personal life,” nor “the betrayal of her literary genius” (Showalter 1982,
264). It is a significant, communicative, defiance toward Fascism (World War I), the
“increasingly male violence which threatened to blow her apart in pain, blood and guts”
(Poole 279). On the other hand, death in water is a happy plunge into Mother’s
embrace. Suicide, though severely critiqued by Showalter, yet tacitly accepted by
Woolf, is a “fantasized female weapon, a way of cheating men out of dominance”:
Martyrdom and self-immolation are viewed as aggressive, as a way of
inflicting punishment on the guilty survivors. This passage, with its
suggestion that Richardson saw her own mother’s suicide as a protest against
her father, is extremely significant; it is a direct advocacy of the art of
self-annihilation that is the hallmark of female aestheticism. (Showalter
1982, 250)
Suicide, recognized by Richardson in Pilgrimage, is not only the “hallmark of female
aestheticism” but “another form of power politics” to live in the world of “egolessness,
in the female country of multiple receptivity” (250). Being the apprentice of
Richardson’s “feminine equivalent of the current masculine realism,” of “psychological
sentence of the feminine gender,” of “woman’s sentence,” Woolf definitely understands
the significance of suicide for women. If Woolf dies, she dies a physical death instead
of a spiritual one, a worldly death instead of a heavenly one. “While all her tormentors
thought that she was dead, she was not dead, but curled up at the bottom of the sea.
There she lay, sometimes seeing darkness, sometimes light, while every now and then
someone turned her over at the bottom of the sea” (qtd. in Poole 267). She indeed got
everyone’s attention even by her death at the very bottom of the sea. As expressed by
Richardson’s protagonist Miriam, “life is poisoned for women, at the very source, all
women ought to agree to commit suicide” (qtd. in Showalter 1982, 250). Death is a
“beautiful act of faith” (Hussey 5), a “perfecting” plan that had long been in Woolf’s
In A Room of One’s Own Virginia had already shown herself aware of the
menace of Mussolini’s Fascism; but since then, the hopes of mankind had
taken a much steeper plunge, Hitler had risen to power in Germany, the
hideous, irrational persecution of the Jews had started, and preparations for
war were being made everywhere. [. . .] ‘How can one be “happy”? She
asked herself, in a world bursting with misery. On every placard at every
street corner was death; or worse – tyranny; brutality, torture; the fall of the
civilization; the end of freedom. We here, she thought, are only sheltering
under a leaf, which will be destroyed . . . .’ (Lehmann 97)
Death in water for Woolf is a rebirth, a way she “can be off again, as indeed [she] long[s]
to be. Oh to be private, alone, submerged” (qtd. in Poole 279). “Immersion in water
signifies a return to the pre-formal state, with a sense of death and annihilation on the
one hand, but of rebirth and regeneration on the other” (Cirlot 345). And it is in this
sense, the symbolism of baptism represents “death,” “life,” and “resurrection” (345-6).
Water takes the sufferers burden, and sea provides the refuge:
Such are the visions which proffer great cornucopias full of fruit to the
solitary traveller, or murmur in his ear like sirens lolloping away on the green
sea waves [. . . ] which fishermen flounder through floods to embrace.
Such are the visions which ceaselessly float up [. . .] often overpowering the
solitary traveler and taking away from him the sense of the earth, the wish to
return, and giving him for substitute a general peace [. . .] out of the waves to
shower down from her magnificent hands compassion, comprehension,
absolution. (MD 86)
The “solitary traveler” seeks and yearns for “solace,” “relief,” and the “figure of the
mother” (85, 87). What is true of Woolf applies to most of her characters. This
recurrent sea imagery figures some great semiotic chora in which one can lapse out into
a state of maternal embrace and consoling bliss:
Septimus Warren Smith lying on the sofa in the sitting-room; watching the
watery gold glow and fade with the astonishing sensibility of some live
creature on the roses [. . .] the sound of water was in the room, and through the
waves came the voices of birds singing. Every power poured its treasures on
his head, and his hand lay there on the back of the sofa, as he had seen his
hand lie when he was bathing, floating, on the top of the waves, while far
away on shore her heard dogs barking and barking far away. Fear no more,
says the heart in the body; fear no more. (MD 211)
Woolf, like her character Septimus in Mrs. Dalloway, and as Bernard in The Waves
declares, will fling herself against death “unvanquished and unyielding” (W 248) just
like the waves (mothers) keeping on breaking on (fighting) the shore (man).
Furthermore, flowing water as an image of source of creativity is strengthened by
Woolf in The Voyage Out where the “fountain without any water” symbolizes for Evelyn
“the type of her own being” when the “little gush of vitality” had left her, and she felt
herself impotent (VO 426). And the image is vividly created in Orlando where the
river freezes and life and death intermixes. When, the flow of the river ceases, life is
suspended for natural beings: “birds froze in mid air” and “shoals of eels lay motionless
in a trance” (O 24-5). For the bumboat woman life is suspended in the course of
business leaving only “a certain blueness of the lips” to betray her true condition. All
other means of life are present but their spiritual existence is suspended due to the
absence of a life giving flow. The artificiality of the court surmounts nature only when
the latter is frozen, not surprisingly “it was at night that the carnival was at its merriest.”
When the melt comes and real life resumes it is the “gold goblets,” “furred gowns,”
“valuables” and “possessions of all sorts” which are swept away (O 45). The release of
the water frees the Muscovite ship and releases Sasha but stultifies Orlando at that time
still in his male incarnation (O 40-46).
Besides, all the stream of consciousness novels by Woolf overwhelm and melt the
sense of logical or narrative continuity. As a narrative device, stream of consciousness
depicts the discontinuous fluidity of human awareness. As suggested by some critics,
Woolf has created new narrative structures and new protagonists, and from moment to
moment, into the streams the protagonists and readers plunge. In her works, one is
repeatedly brought to ask, “Where are we?”, “When are we?”, and “Who is speaking or
thinking?” As stream of consciousness places the narrative voice within the human
psyche, it ends the false deification of the narrative voice which was the essence of the
“omniscient narrator.” Recent analyses (Sprague 1994, Scheff 2000) of interior
monologues in Woolf’s work propose that they are feminine, especially the
multi-personal aspects. They show that Woolf portrays extensive interior monologues
of her women characters, and that these monologues are dialogic and multi-personal.
Stream of consciousness is Woolf’s experiment in dissolving identity in dissolution of the
self. That Woolf has written novels which do not comply with the dictates of
phallogocentric realism is also manifest through her formal deconstruction of the
dominant “I.” In Mrs. Dalloway, no one point of view dominates. Like the dissolving
letters etched in the sky by the airplane’s smoke, the narrative continuously flows from
on subject’s point of view to another’s. So too are the dissolving circles of Big Ben’s
striking characteristic of the novel’s pattern focalization. Even in an argumentative
essay A Room of One’s Own, Woolf’s use of mobile, pluralist viewpoints, with her
refusal to let herself be identified with any of the many ‘I’s [eyes -- “I (Mary Beton,
Mary Seton, Mary Carmichael or by any name you please – it is not a matter of
importance) (AROO 14) turns her text and London into a psychic river: “a river,
which flowed past, invisibly, round the corner, down the street and took people and
eddied them along, as the stream at Oxbridge had taken the undergraduate on his
boat” (101).
The Waves (1931) could be mediated alongside the composition of Orlando
(1928), and of A Room of One’s Own (1929) where Woolf more directly challenges
the current ordering of society, particularly its disabling of women. The Waves
overcomes what she saw as a central problem for women writing: expressing “the
body” and “the passions” which were considered “unfitting for her as a woman to say”
(WW 61). By going down in The Waves into “the world that lies submerged in our
unconscious being” and by sustaining readers’ imagination of her in a trance, “her
artist’s state of unconsciousness” (62), Woolf seeks to escape the narrow bounds of
social realism which, she perceives, is functioning as a form of censorship.
She has
found a language that will be less “impeded by the extreme conventionality of the
other sex” (62).
Masculine insistence on substantiality goes with a sense of how
objects warp, bend, melt and how the senses seize a world always irretrievably altered,
endlessly contingent: “Everything became softly amorphous, as if the china of the
plate flowed and the steel of the knife were liquid. Meanwhile the conclusion of the
waves breaking fell with muffled thuds, like logs falling, on the shore” (W 21).
masculine eye’s (I’s) assurance wavers with the changes of light and the splashes of
The Waves enacts a formal and thematic deconstruction of general sequence
of what Bernard describes as the “military progress” of the sentence.
It is a mistake, this extreme precision, this orderly and military progress; a
convenience, a lie. There is always deep below it . . . a rushing stream of
broken dreams, nursery rhymes, street cries, half-finished sentences and
sights . . . nothing one can fish up in a spoon; nothing one can call an event.
Yet, it is alive too and deep, this stream. (W 213)
Any attempt to regulate the eternal flux of life will be a distortion and
misrepresentation of reality. So much has been disrupted, standards overturned,
ideas blown skywards, the great body of knowledge has been punched so full of
deadly holes that there is no authority to whom women writers need to submit.
The cyclical rhythms of Woolf's free-verse in the novel have been likened to the
flux and flow of sea waves. She crafts the novel into an ocean, in which her six voices
of six characters pour forth their experiences in six streams of consciousness
simultaneously. The stream of inner flux flows through all characters, through Bernard
who is always tormented by “the horrible activity of the mind’s eye” (W 220). No one
voice gives the "privileged perspective"; no one offers a restrictive story. A stream of
nine descriptive passages, printed in italics, flowing together with the six streams of
consciousness make a sea, the oceanic text.
The Waves is, in fact a random sea of
voices, an “ocean of consciousness,” “each sentence a wave rolling in,” and “each
chapter a renewed tide” (qtd. in Wheeler 45). It marks Woolf’s progression through a
flowing writing practice toward a convergence with the feminine source or the maternal
sea. As Elizabeth Abel indicates, The Waves is Woolf’s experiment in dissolving
identity. The Waves marks “Woolf’s progression through the 1920s toward an
ambivalent engagement with maternal origins” (Abel 132). Woolf’s movement from
the early drafts to the final version of the novel fully expresses the idea that feminine
writing is actually an experimental writing practice. Waves and mothers are
indistinguishable, and the characters are shown actually to be born out of the waves
Many mothers, & before them many mothers, & again many mothers, have
groaned, & fallen back, while the child crowed
Like one wave, & then
succeeding each other. Wave after wave, endlessly sinking and falling as far as
the eye can stretch. And all these waves have been the prostrate forms of
mothers, in their flowing nightgowns, with the tumbled sheets about them
holding up, with a groan, as they sink back into the sea, infin innumerable
children. (qtd. in Beer xxvi)
Water is associated with women because of its metaphorical image of fertility
(childbirth). Waves contribute to alternating rhythmic undulations of a woman's mind.
Water, the waves, or the ocean -- the maternal element or the feminine liquid -- is
Woolf's central symbol. The most essential aspects of the ocean are its ceaseless
movement and the formlessness of its waters. Ocean wears motherly garments. The
sea waves themselves were, in Woolf's holograph quoted earlier, “many mothers . . .
sinking and falling . . . holding up . . . innumerable children.” The Waves is an oceanic
text through which the six children characters, Bernard, Louis, Neville, Susan, Jinny,
Rhoda, are born. Women's writing expressed through the oceanic text, the wavy texture
is wavelike and fluid. Women writers, according to Woolf, must be each like her
female characters Rhoda "flooding free" (W 44), "flutter[ing] unattched, without
anchorage anywhere, unconsolidated" (100), and Jinny "fluttering," "rippling,"
"streaming," "flowing this way, flowing that way" (83). Female sentences dissent from
men's rigidity and criticize male dominance. Water causes all forms to dissolve and
return to a fluid state.
The hard rock Woolf trying to wear down is the rock of male
prejudice. Pouring water "down the runnel" of the "spine" of the boys who are the
future "fathers," women will have their "dry crannies" "wetted" and their "cold body"
"warmed" (19). Woolf’s water imagery and stream of consciousness narrative, the
fluidifications of the realistic structure, are intended to dissolve the rocky male-rigidity
and overwhelm the land-based patriarchal tradition of ossified discourse.
Language, the storehouse of discourses, is part of the fabric of our everyday lives;
its interrelationship with gender has been at the center of feminist discussions. Woolf
thinks that the masculine discourse does not speak to and ring true to the female
experience; traditional method of representation is no longer adequate to express the
working of the subjective consciousness. Claiming “a man’s sentence unsuited for a
woman’s use,” Woolf’s discourse is a process of constructing and reconstructing gender
identity in her writing practice. For most of her writing life she feels encumbered by
the patriarchal censorship. In her writing she tries to define the subtle context of
censorship imposed by the “figure of man.” The censorship of women’s vitality has
come about, she claims in A Room of One’s Own, not only through lack of education and
the prohibition of access to professional resources, but also through a subtle practice of
male elitism which has long ensured that women function as “looking –glasses”
reflecting the “figure of man.” In “Profession for Women” she personifies the censor in
the figure of the “Angel in the House,” whose function is to edit the thoughts of women
novelists as they write, by reminding them that they are in a male world and so “must
charm, must conciliate, must tell lies if they are to succeed” (WW 60). Women's
difficult position in writing is delicately expressed by Woolf in The Waves as being under
I look over the wall. That is Elvedon. The lady sits between two long
windows, writing. The gardeners sweep the lawn with giant brooms. We
are the first to come here. We are the discoverers of an unknown land. Do
not stir; if the gardeners saw us they would shoot us. We should be nailed
like stoats to the stable door [. . .].
`I see the lady writing. I see the gardener sweeping,' said Susan. `If we
died here, nobody would bury us.'
`Run!' said Bernard. `Run! The gardener with the black beard has seen
us! We shall be shot! We shall be shot like jays and pinned to the wall!
We are in a hostile country. (W 12)
Writing for women is not only "an unknown land," but also a “forbidden territory.”
With the "hostile" male gardeners who have "the black beard" and "giant brooms"
sweeping and watching over around, the lady is shut in, and the children (Susan and
Bernard: implication of innocent readers) are shut out. The same image repeats many
times in the novel (12, 208, 213, 224). How strict and stern the censorship is! If
women writers are not tactful enough, how can they have their own ideas read and voice
heard? Woolf marshaled her artistic acumen behind her novels. Fluidity is her
attempt in her novels to solve the dilemma for feminine writing.
Her aesthetic choices
themselves have social and political implications. Her novels, which mostly employ
the technique of "stream of consciousness" -- constantly shifting from the consciousness
of one character to another, perfectly exemplify her idea of a streaming "woman's
sentence," a fluid "female writing,” and a flexible "mother's tradition." The Waves
(1931), "the most firmly rooted in stream of consciousness of all her books,"1 published
Quoted from Melvin Friedman's Stream of Consciousness: A Study in Literary
Method by James Naremore (Naremore 152).
right after A Room of One's Own (1929), incline significantly and timely to present her
desire for not just a room but a sentence for women writers. She tends to write a fiction
which is not made from the language in a single consciousness. Her experiments lead
her from a set of stream of consciousness to the multipersonal representation of
consciousness, to a sort of watery world where all sense of masculine ego, male rigidity,
or patriarchal conventionality is dissolved hence flexible enough to include a feminine
figure (pun: shape & person).
By contrast, Woolf offers in her works an example of the “man’s sentence” (AROO
82) prevalent at the beginning of the 19th century, in comparison with “the woman’s
sentence” (WW 191) invented by Richardson. The man’s sentence, as analyzed by Sue
Roe, “regenerates itself in a repetitive, circular narrative line,” “reflects the male
pomposity and the arrogance of the male ego,” “argues proudly for its own
self-perpetuation” (Roe 20). On the other hand, more “elastic,” sensitive, and “capable
of stretching” than the masculine sentences, a “woman's sentence” enables Richardson to
present honestly “states of being” rather than “states of doing” (WW 191). Claiming
herself “an intermittent student” (191) of Richardson, Woolf must have had passages
from Pilgrimage such as this in mind:
eloquent words, fashioned easily, without thought, a perfect flowing of
understanding, to and fro, without obstruction [. . .]. It was like a sea, each
sentence a wave rolling in, rising till the light shone through its glistening crest,
dropping to give way to the next coming wave, the meaning gathering,
accumulating, coming nearer with each rising falling rhythm; each chapter a
renewed tide. . . . Nothing was at an end. Nothing would ever come to an
end again. (qtd. in Wheeler 45)
Women's writing is “like a sea, each sentence a wave rolling in," and "each chapter a
renewed tide.” Richardson's effort of finding a language less biased by male attitudes is
not unlike Woolf's desire to find a sentence less impeded by the extreme conventionality
of the other sex. Her use of stream-of-consciousness technique suggests its apparent
commensurability with female experience, and her belief that a woman “thinks
flowingly.” Richardson elaborates her views on women and writing in the essay
"Women in the Arts" (1925), which appeared prior to Woolf's formulation of similar
concerns in A Room of One's Own. The comparison of a woman's writing or thinking
to a sea, of sentences to the waves, has its profound significance not only for Woolf but
also for every female writer. The development of a “female aesthetic” is central to their
writing. Cixous, the practitioner of écriture féminine, identifies a woman's writing with
Write! and your self-seeking text . . . a lively combination of flying colors,
leaves, and rivers plunging into the sea we feed. "Ah, there's her sea. . . .
But look, our seas are what we make of them, full of fish or not, opaque or
transparent, red or black, high or smooth, narrow or bankless; and we are
ourselves sea, sand, coral, seaweed, beaches, tides, swimmers, children,
waves. . . . (Cixous 1975, 345)
The fluidity and abundance of the sea, according to Cixous, describe the qualities of a
female text against the masculine economy of superimposed linearity and tyranny.
Kristeva's common understanding of a “female aesthetic” of fluidity is expressed
in her persistence in challenging the discourses that stand. She sees “semiotic”
discourse as a challenge to the “symbolic” order. Women must speak and write as
outsiders to male-dominated discourse to approach this creative “feminine” linguistic
horizon. The semiotic style is characterized by fluidity, multiplicity, and flexibility.
Irigaray is more radical in assuming women's exuberant and overflowing sexualities
which can be put into practice in writing.
A woman’s “geography of her pleasure” is
bounteous and infinite like the sea. Her language “goes off in all directions” in which
man “is unable to discern the coherence of any meaning” (Irigaray 353). The oceanic
expanses or territory of feminist discourse, shared by women writers, appear to be free
and boundless. Experimental efforts to write in the feminine have unveiled an
ever-shifting fluid field of female discovery across space-time borders by Woolf,
Richardson, and the French theoreticians, Cixous, Kristeva and Irigaray. Every
woman's work illuminates another's; each helps to define “female aesthetics.” They
sought to replace the “men's language” with an emphasis on sentences as less arbitrarily
ordered or overtly patterned.
Breaking through the barriers of inherited male conventions towards the expression
of an authentic woman's voice, Woolf overcomes in The Waves a central problem for
women writing by its aquatic form and content. The novel takes its name from its
wavy texture and subject. The words associated with water and fluidity such as
"foams," "ebbs," "drips," "bubbles," "crests," "melts," "pours," "sluices," "sails,"
"ripples," "streams," "floods," "drops," "eddies" etc. exude and overflow everywhere in
the novel. Woolf's wavelike narrative in the novel properly describes the elusive tides
of life which is the content of the novel. She prefaces each chapter with an interlude,
each containing four images of waves: the sun (light waves), the birds (sound waves),
the sea (waves), and a garden (air and color waves). The interludes, like the time waves,
from sunrise to sunset, express the rhythms of the outside nature. Words and sentences
have been likened to the flux and flow of sea waves. Streams of characters’thoughts,
moving freely with eddies and currents of things, make a watery world, the oceanic text.
Each passage mentions the waves and the sea as part of a symbolic landscape, ebbing
and flowing through the different lights, moods and weathers of a day.
Within the
“ocean of consciousness”' causal chronology, unified plot and omniscient authoritative
narrative cease; Jinny speaks, Susan speaks, Rhoda speaks, Neville speaks, Bernard
speaks, Louis speaks -- Woolf's six voices form a fluid changing pattern that she flows
freely from stream to stream. The six characters, taking a wavelike narration without
definite order and across gender (as in the very beginning of the novel):
Susan-Rhoda-Louis-Neville-Jinny-Bernard (W 5)
"rise and fall and fall and rise again" (247). The currents of the outside (the interludes),
inside (six streams of consciousness), and beside (Woolf's unprivileged perspective)
flowing together make a sea which is the novel. She thus creates a fluid dis-course that
substitutes for the conventional coherence of causal chronological plot and omniscient
authoritative narrative.
Her aquatic aesthetics is used to stress the fact that life is a fluid “process” rather
than a solid “product,” a necessary ongoing melting and remelting random drops to form
an "incessant renewal" of stories rather than a single restrictive one. As the artist
character Bernard well observes, life is a liquid bubble instead of a solid stone:
`The crystal, the globe of life as one calls it, far from being hard and cold to
the touch, has walls of thinnest air. If I press them all will burst. Whatever
sentence I extract whole and entire from this cauldron is only a string of six
little fish that let themselves be caught while a million others leap and sizzle,
making the cauldron bubble like boiling silver, and slip through my fingers.
Faces recur, faces and faces--they press their beauty to the walls of my
bubble--Neville, Susan, Louis, Jinny, Rhoda and a thousand others. (W 214)
Woolf expresses here through Bernard her writing experience of the novel. No matter
how hard she tries, she cannot exhaust the wellspring of life. "Whatever sentence" she
"extract[s]" from the ocean of life, she cannot catch all the fish. As in the novel, "only
a string of six little fish that let themselves be caught" -- Neville, Susan, Louis, Jinny,
Rhoda and Bernard -- "a million others leap and sizzle." She could not help exclaiming
at "how impossible to order them [the six characters]; to detach one separately, or to give
the effect of the whole [of life]" (214). This multiplicity behind each commonly
conceived unitary self makes personality an eternal process of interpenetration of
different psychic states. The richness and depth of any stream of consciousness, carries
on its surface an endless flow of recollections and anticipations. It is thus clear that if
Woolf's fluid "feminine sentence" cannot catch the essence of “life going on,” let alone
the patriarchal solid one.
Artists, because they are open to all sorts of influences and possibilities, are like
waves. Woolf, as is well-known, argues for androgyny in a work of art. They cannot
be pinned down to certain fixed traits. It is fatal not merely for men to think of their sex
while they write, but for women as well. As mentioned earlier in Chapter Four by
Woolf, the purely masculine mind cannot create great art any more than the purely
feminine can. She claims that she writes as a woman but as a woman who has
forgotten that she is a woman. This explains the androgyneity of many of Woolf's
characters. The fluidity of identity is the distinctive feature of Woolf's artists. Her
characters, male or female, human or not, earlier in Mrs. Dalloway (Clarissa’s double
identities) and Orlando (Orlando’s multiple selves, and male/female identity) now in The
Waves are capable of flowing as a liquid. "Everything became softly amorphous, as if
the china of plate flowed and the steel of the knife were liquid" (W 21). The six
characters, three male (Bernard, Louis, Neville) and three female (Susan, Jinny, Rhoda)
often allied across gender together can be considered as a "six-sided flower; made of six
lives [. . .]. `Marriage, death, travel, friendship, town country [. . .] a many-sided
substance [. . .] a many-faceted flower" (W 191), or actually a multifaceted female
sensibility characterized by its floral shape and beauty, its suggestion of Spring and
transitoriness. According to the artist character Bernard, they "melt into each other
with phrases" and "make an unsubstantial territory" (11).
The three female characters are the living presences of maternal fluidity. Susan's
fluidity is expressed in her hatred of "restriction," "order," "discipline" and her
embracive identification with Nature:
I think I am the field, I am the barn, I am the trees, mine are the flocks of birds,
and this young hare who leaps, at the last moment when I step almost on him.
Mine is heron that stretches its vast wings lazily; and the cow that creaks as it
pushes on foot before another munching; and the wild, swooping swallow;
and the faint red in the sky, and the green when the red fades; the silence and
the bell; the call of the man fetching cart-horses from the fields--all are mine.
(W 78)
She is the very incarnation of mother Nature, the field, the barn, the trees, the birds, the
hare, the heron, the cow, the swallow, the color, the sound, and the voice, or in fact, the
maternal fertility. Jinny's fluidity overflows through her body:
My imagination is the body's. Its visions are not fine-spun and white with
purity like Louis's [. . .] the infinite variety of women's dresses (I note all
clothes always) delight me. I eddy with them, in and out, in and out, into
rooms, into halls, here, there, everywhere, wherever they go [. . .]. The
torments, the divisions of your lives have been solved for me night after night,
sometimes only by the touch of a finger under the table-cloth as we sat
dining--so fluid has my body become, forming even at the touch of a finger
into one full drop which fills itself, which quivers, which flashes, which falls
in ecstasy. (W 184)
The feminine jouissance2 exudes freely from her body: "like a parasol. I open my
A word used by the French critic Roland Barthes in Le Plaisir du texte to describe
different kinds of reading experience. Feminists use the word to designate and
celebrate the joy of being female (Gray 155-56).
body, I shut my body at my will" (50). She enjoys her colorful selves in the “infinite
variety of women's dresses.”
She goes to everywhere she likes, with anyone she loves
at anytime she can. Women's wellspring will never end in her: "Life is [just] beginning.
I now break into my hoard of life" (50). Rhoda's fluidity issues from her oceanic
fantasies3 and moodiness:
I will pick flowers; I will bind flowers in one garland and clasp them and
present them--Oh! to whom? There is some check in the flow of my being; a
deep stream presses on some obstacle; it jerks, it tugs; some knot in the center
resists. Oh, this is pain, this is anguish! I faint, I fail. Now my body
thaws; I am unsealed, I am incandescent. Now the stream pours in a deep
tide fertilizing, opening the shut, forcing the tight-folded, flooding free. To
whom shall I give all that now flows through me, from by warm, my porous
body? I will gather my flowers and present them--Oh! to Whom? (W 44)
Her abundance comes in an endless flow from her unsteady floating states of being: "I
who have no face, who make no difference when I come in (Susan and Jinny change
bodies and faces), flutter unattached, without anchorage anywhere, unconsolidated,
incapable of composing any blankness or continuity or wall against which these bodies
move" (100).
Constant water dripping wears away a stone. Even the male characters, the
symbol of patriarchal solidity, in Woolf's oceanic text, are capable of flowing. Melting
the proud distinctions each has attempted to make throughout the novel, water inundates
Louis's business, Neville's "credentials," Bernard's refined phrases. Drop by drop,
fluidity dissolves their derived solidity, until each becomes "featureless and scarcely to
Rhoda always fantasizes that her Armadas sails on the waves, and she is relieved
of hard contacts and collisions (W 20).
be distinguished from another" (W 187). Louis and Neville, the worshipper or
practician of "discipline," "precision" and "exactitude" (54) are capable of flowing too.
Louis, "stone-carved, sculpturesque" (96), pressed by his heavy schedules of business
life, yearns for his childhood which is not solidified: “I hang suspended without
attachments [. . .] not firm ground to which I go [. . .] now disembodied, passing over
fields without lodgement [. . .]. I am the ghost of Louis, an ephemeral passer-by, in
whose mind dreams have power [. . .]. I dash and sprinkle myself with the bright waters
[. . .]” (W 51-3). Understanding his potential of fluidity, Louis, "now a duke, now Plato,
companion of Socrates; the tramp of dark men and yellow men migrating east, west,
north, and south" (138) enjoys thinking that "a vast inheritance of experience is packed"
in him and that he has "lived thousands of years" (138). Neville, "scissor-cutting,
exact" (96), sees everything "with complete clarity" (106). Accepting the fluidity of
everything, he softens his suffering of life with the "unceasing excitement" and sloughs
off his rigidity: “the person is always changing, though not the desire, and I do not know
in the morning by whom I shall sit at night, I am never stagnant; I rise from my worst
disaster, I turn, I change. Pebbles [solidity] bounce off the mail of my muscular, my
extended body” (W 106).
The one character in The Waves who does not speak is Percival, and he does not
require a voice because his life is created by “silence, absence, and death.” He never
speaks but only reflected by others. His absence or leaving for India put all the other
characters at a loss what to do. Percival, whose consciousness the reader never enters,
is thought as "a God" (W 111) by the other six characters: "Without Percival there is not
solidity. We are silhouettes, hollow phantoms moving mistily without a background"
(100). In fact, he is the unity for them:
He is like a stone fallen into a pond round which minnows swarm. Like
minnows, we who had been shooting this way, that way, all shot round him
when he came. Like minnows, conscious of the presence of a great stone, we
undulate and eddy contentedly. Comfort steals over us. (W 111-12)
Like small fish the six characters teem around a huge rock for safety. Percival's death
changes each of them. Without Percival, for Neville as no doubt for the others,
everything seems insubstantial. Neville believes that "the lights of the world has gone
out" (W 124) and that "we [they] are doomed, all of us [them]" (125). From "a God" to
"a stone" to "the lights," life or art for Woolf lies not through Percival, but through the
antithesis of those values he represents. Only after Percival falls does the fin4 (Woolf's
symbol of inspiration) appear, first in the six interlude, and then as part of Bernard's
speculations. Only through the “silence, absence, and death” of Percival, the symbol of
patriarchy, do the other characters lose their solidity and recover their fluidity. Woolf's
sun is no fixed Apollonian figure either, but "a woman couched beneath the horizon had
[having] raised a lamp" (3), no father but a "girl who had shaken her head and made all
the jewels, the topaz, the aquamarine, the water-coloured jewels with sparks of fire in
them, dance, now bared her brows and with wide-opened eyes drove a straight pathway
over the waves" (58).
Bernard, the artist character though male reflects about his "eternal flux": “For I
changed and changed; was Hamlet, was Shelly, was the hero, whose name I now forget,
of a novel by Dostoevsky; was for a whole term, incredibly, Napoleon; but was Byron
chiefly” (W 208). Recognizing the inexhaustible richness of an artist's life: "I am not
one person; I am many people; I do not altogether know who I am--Jinny, Susan, Neville,
Woolf wrote in her diary: "I have netted that fin in the waste of waters which
appeared to me over the marshes out of my window at Rodmell when I was coming to
an end of To the Lighthouse." This was the period when she was ready to compose The
Waves. Taking the fin as her inspiration to write, she repeats the image many times in
the novel (Beer xii; W 205, 228, 243).
Rhoda, or Louis; or how to distinguish my life from theirs" (W 230), Bernard knows that
he does not have a fixed identity, s/he is a stream: "For this is not one life; nor do I
always know if I am man or woman, Bernard or Neville, Louis, Susan, Jinny or Rhoda"
(234). Obviously, the male composition of "the world of the self, the time-bound,
landlocked everyday world of the masculine ego, of intellect and routine" is replaced by
Woolf in The Waves with the feminine creation of "the world without a self - watery,
emotional, erotic, generally associated with the female sensibility" (Poole 262).
When Bernard, the androgynous artist character in the novel, discusses art, he
speaks for Woolf. Perpetually looking for a medium that approximates “life,” he fails
as a "clinger to the outsides of words all my [his] life" (W 37, 154, 220). Looking
always outside of himself for the neatly patterned sequences that can slip smoothly into a
phrase extracted from his "methodically lettered" (27) notebook. Bernard remains
blind to the intractable, discontinuous, haphazard stuff of reality which is all around him.
His commitment to the perfect phrase and the hope of finding a means of linking a
number of them together in harmonious sequences with beginnings, middles, and ends,
keep him firmly nailed to the surface of experience, unable to penetrate to the core,
either in his writing or in his own life. Cutting himself from the free play of
imagination and seeking in a wrong direction in solidity for inspiration5:
I require the concrete in everything. It is so only that I lay hands upon the
world. A good phrase, however, seems to me to have an independent
existence. Yet I think it is likely that the best are made in solitude. They
require some final refrigeration, dabbling always in warm soluble words. . . .
There is about both Neville and Louis a precision, and exactitude, that I
Worshipping Percival as a God, Bernard thought "it is Percival I need; for it is
Percival who inspires poetry" (30, 111).
admire and shall never possess. (W 54)
Bernard works to no avail and ensures his artistic failure: "Vain. I, carrying a notebook,
making phrases, and recorded mere changes; a shadow, I had been sedulous to take note
of shadows. How can I proceed now" (W 238)? He begins now to "doubt the fixity of
tables, the reality of here and now . . . [the] solid objects and say[s], "Are you hard"
(240)? Drifting with the tides of life, and rising and falling with the waves of the novel,
a revelation comes to him and he finally understands "the incomprehensible nature of
this our life":
Life is not susceptible perhaps to the treatment we give it when we try to tell
it. . . . It is strange how force ebbs away and away into some dry creek . . .
our waters can only just surround feebly that spike of seaholly; we cannot
reach that further pebble so as to wet it . . . an impulse again runs through us;
we rise, we toss back a mane of white spray; we pound on the shore, we are
not to be confined. (W 223)
The solid "stone words" (14) are now inadequate for him to capture the elusiveness of
life. Aware that it is precisely this uneven, jagged process of living, this elusive tides of
life, not the contours of a well-wrought expression, which he as an artist should be after,
Bernard decides to discard something big and solid:
What is the phrase for the moon? And the phrase for love? By what name
are we to call death? I do not know. I need a little language such as lovers
use, words of one syllable such as children speak. . . . I need a howl; a
cry. . . . I need no words. Nothing neat. Nothing that comes down with
all its feet on the floor. . . . I have done with phrases. (W 246)
He now "distrust[s] neat designs of life" and begins to "long for some little language" (W
199) [compared with the "tremendous and sonorous" (24) big one of the "fathers"] -- "a
rushing stream of broken dreams, nursery [maternal] rhymes, street cries, half-finished
sentences and sights" (W 213). He feels "in me [him] the wave rises" (247).
Woolf builds the scenes of her novels around water imagery dependent for their
significance on fluidity; invents for her characters’phrases and modes of behavior which
reflect meaning. She is seeking in her art, like her artist character Bernard, a fully
conscious acceptance of the rhythm of repeated creation and dissolution which is "the
eternal renewal, the incessant rise and fall and fall and rise again" (W 247). She
conveys her views of life or art (representation of life) in the way she describes waves.
The novel is her experimental form to capture the essence of "life going on." Even
when the novel ends, Woolf through Bernard questions its completion and reminds us of
the elusiveness of life and art: "Should this be the end of the story? [. . .] a last ripple of
the wave? [. . .] Life is not susceptible perhaps to the treatment we give it when we try to
tell it" (W 223). There is no neat conclusion to Bernard's story, let alone that of his
“mother” Woolf's. The language, in which she is writing, is a "woman's language," the
mother tongue. Her aquatic aesthetics does not only expand female writers’conception
of the feminine writing but also provide more possibilities for male writers. As Woolf
indicates at the very end of the novel, the novel does not really end because "The waves
broke [break] on the shore" (248). The wavelike women writing will keep on bringing
impacts upon the land-based patriarchal values.
Chapter 5
Approximation of the Feminine
“A woman’s writing is always feminine; it cannot help being feminine; the only
difficulty lies in defining what we mean by feminine” (WW 70-71).
Woolf believes
that the sexual identity of a writing is an elusive, but unmistakable aura, a matter of
values, from which “spring not only marked differences of plot and incident, but
infinite differences in selection, method, and style” (71).
Feminine writing,
according to Woolf, is never identifiable as a conclusive formulation.
Difference is
not a concept. It can be discerned only in the forms in which it comes into play with
her writing practice. Feminine writing is a constantly changing writing practice,
taking new directions and actions as a result of dialogue and debate with men.
remains a shaping force of literary tradition. Since Woolf claims women cannot
“yet” give an answer to the question “what is a woman?” (WW 60), she uses the
process of writing as a way of shaping meaning. Her definitions of gender, which
are as fluid as subject to redrawing, function as the development of her aesthetic.
Writing under a patriarchal tradition, women have been trying to maintain their
own voices in a world that often insists otherwise. George Eliot and Miss Bronte’s
adoption of male pseudonyms to obtain impartial criticism, Woolf herself and E. M
Foster’s defense of Radclyffe Hall’s lesbian novel The Well of Loneliness, James
Joyce and D. H. Lawrence’s facing court hearings over the content of their works, all
contribute to Woolf’s comprehensive understanding of the material and ideological
conditions for the freedom of a writer, and the boundaries of women’s access to
literary production.
Woolf began her feminine writing by a de-construction of male
hegemony in language and in the re-presentation of women in history and literature.
Throughout her works, she has contested the normalizing of sexual and gender
inequalities in culture. As Sue Roe well describes, Woolf’s feminism might be
issued from her writing practice, “linked more closely with her writing problems than
with her perception of external conditions or events” (Roe 13).
Feminine writing
therefore can be understood as a writing process of searching for the feminine.
Woolf’s characters move with her in the direction of a new writing. They are
characterizing feminine experience and creativity as the opposite of the masculine.
“Fluidity, multiplicity, or flexibility,” represented by stream of consciousness, by
androgyny, and by water in Woolf’s discourse is her narrative toward writings
characteristic of women. Each of the books Woolf wrote strains across genre,
attempts to break through or disrupt the limits of the essay, the novel, the biography,
to touch realities denied by accepted forms.
In all her works there is an astute
awareness shown in literary questions of gender, genre, and language that touch the
pith of how society constitutes and contains itself. On the way toward the feminine,
critiques and judgments are inevitable.
If women writers still don’t know what
feminine writing is, it’s because they are still trying, they “still strive and press on.”
It is difficult not to take it for granted that the modern practice of art is
somehow an improvement upon the old. [. . .] We do not come to write
better; all that can be said to do is to keep moving, now a little in this
direction, now in that [. . .]. Let the historian of literature decide. It is for
him, to ascertain whether we are now at the beginning, or middle, or end, of
a great period of prose fiction; all that we ourselves can know is that,
whatever stage we have reached, we are still in the thick of battle. [. . .] we
still strive and press on.
(“MF” 86)
Knowing they do not write better and they are not qualified to judge the old writing, a
woman writer must “keep moving, now a little in this direction, now in that” (86)
until she find a “perfectly natural, shapely sentence proper for her own use” (WW 25).
Women’s writing conditions though very difficult in Woolf’s time, she suggests
that in a hundred year’s time women’s situation will be much changed: “women will
have ceased to be the protected sex,” and [a]nything may happen when womanhood
has ceased to be a protected sex” (AROO 48).
And if women writers keep trying the
requirements recommended by Woolf, their opportunity for a better writing conditions
will come.
Those who are like Judith Shakespeare who possesses her brother’s
genius but not his opportunities will be reborn within a better surrounding.
women’s voice will be heard and more women’s talents will be shared.
even women writers’ situation would be on the way to be bettered, it couldn’t be
changed overnight.
Men’s words fail to convey women’s idea, and this “dilemma”
brings “infinite confusions and complications” in women’s writing. The problems
could only be solved by women incessant “energy poured into new forms without
wasting a drop.” It takes time, and needs both sides of effort.
A woman’s sentence
could be attained not only through women’s continuous effort but also men’s
“simultaneous evolution and emancipation” (WW 67).
Feminine writing and feminist struggle, according to Kristeva, could be seen
historically and politically as a three-stage progress: from equality demanded, to
femininity extolled, and to metaphysical dichotomy rejected (in Moi 12). It is the
same as Showalter’s gynocentric three-tiered (oppression-repression-expression)
writing practice “that can rescue the feminine from its stereotypical association with
inferiority” (Lodge 336).
“Sexual difference,” according to Kristeva, could be
experienced “not as a fixed opposition (“man” / “woman”), but as a “on-going
process” of revolution and differentiation.
Women’s writing for Kristeva hence is an
inchoate subject, a “subject-in-the-making,” a “subject on trial,” a “subject of a
conceptual quest” (Kristeva 1974, 167).
Similarly, women writers, according to
Cixous “are at the beginning of a new history, or rather of a process of becoming,” in
which women “un-think” his-story and rebuild her-story:
Because she arrives, vibrant, over and again, we are at the beginning of a
new history, or rather of a process of becoming in which several histories
intersect with one another. As subject for history, woman always occurs
simultaneously in several places.
Woman un-thinks the unifying,
regulating history that homogenizes and channels forces, herding
contradictions into a single battlefield. (Cixous 1975, 339)
Through the continuous “un-thinking” of the masculine things, women writers redress
the imbalance of power ingrained in literary tradition. If readers still don’t get what
l’ecriture feminine is, it’s because we have been reading about an on-going
development. Women’s writing is still young; even novel the latest and
not-yet-harden genre, “the most pliable of all forms,” according to Woolf, seems still
inadequate to accommodate the ever-progressive femininity (AROO 83).
In Woolf’s words, there is a “natural” way for women to write a distinctive
“woman’s sentence.” As women change, and their social roles and circumstantial
realities evolve, what is “natural” to them will presumably change as well.
represents the idea that “naturalness” is historically contingent and any writing
practice is only the preliminary performance to poetry writing.
Women should not
be confined to write fiction, they should try to “write books of travel and adventure,
and research and scholarship, and history and biography, and criticism and philosophy
and science.” Different writing practice “will certainly profit the art of fiction.”
A woman writer is both the “inheritor” and the “originator” of the female literary
tradition. She not only carries on the heritage of “any great figure of the past, like
Sappho, like the Lady Murasaki, like Emily Bronte,” but also opens up the future for
the Shakespeare’s sisters to come. Carrying heavy responsibilities, women are
encouraged by Woolf to hesitate at no subject “however trivial or however vast”
(AROO 112).
With women’s collective effort, men would “no longer to her ‘the
opposing faction’,” and women would not need to write railing and protesting along.
They would enjoy “some natural advantages of a high order”: “Fear and hatred were
almost gone [. . .]. She had a sensibility that was very wide, eager and free” (97).
And they would write better and more naturally.
Women’s writing is the loneliest way with extreme hardships and sufferings.
Though women’s writing is a path beset with difficulties, and “there is no arm to cling
to,” yet she must go alone and write along. But it is this “woman writer’s struggle”
that differentiates her writing from that of “her male counterpart.” The history of
“inferiorization” brings up and disciplines women’s “artistic self-definition”:
Thus the loneliness of the female artist, her feelings of alienation from male
predecessors coupled with her need for sisterly precursors and successors,
her urgent sense of her need for a female audience together with her fear of
the antagonism of male readers, her culturally conditioned timidity about
self-dramatization, her dread of the patriarchal authority of art, her anxiety
about the impropriety of female invention— all these phenomena of
“inferiorization” mark the woman writer’s struggle for artistic
self-definition and differentiate her efforts at self-creation from those of her
male counterpart.
(Showalter 1981, 343)
In the struggles big or small searching for identities, women writers learn from their
successes and failures for their “self-creation” and “self-dramatization.” Their
“opportunity” of showing their true femininity will come because “the dead poet who
was Shakespeare’s sister will come and put on the body which she has so often laid
down” (AROO 117). With the improvement of the writing situations, women’s
writing develops and moves toward a more advanced stage, too.
Success is failure turned inside out, and you can never tell how close you are. It
may be near when it seems so far.
Women writers need some strong mentality.
Writing against the current, women need to console themselves that women’s writing
is in its transitional course, phallogocentric writing would pass, and everything would
be fine.
Confusion and doubts are temporary. One step further is one step near the
destination. “We are approaching, if we have not yet reached” (WW 48).
writing is a sentence-of-becoming.
change of attitude.”
Future women’s writing will indicate a “great
When a woman’s sentence is “no longer bitter,” “no longer
angry,” “no longer pleading and protesting,” it will be “far more genuine” than the old
one. The “aloofness” of feminine writing will make women’s writing more
“feminine.” Since writing “without distraction” or “foreign influence” makes
women’s writing more away from the masculine influence, and more toward the
feminine expression. A female sentence, Woolf claims, any “woman must make for
herself” (48).
Critics think that Woolf doesn’t make the qualities explicit enough,
but her artistic realizations in her own fiction discussed in previous chapters serve as
clear examples of their possibilities.
Women’s creative power differs greatly from
the creative power of men, and the different creative power is not gained overnight.
It is “won by centuries of the most drastic discipline” (AROO 93).
“It would be a
thousand pities if it were hindered or wasted,” for “there is nothing to take its place”
Women writer should value the “struggling process for feminine” because it’s
the true and real feminine writing practice. It would be another thousand pities “if
women wrote like me n, or lived like men, or looked like men,” since we need to tell
people what we are by ourselves instead of being the “reflecting-glass” of men’s
superiority again. Sacrificing either side is sacrificing the natural humanity.
Education and exploration should do “greater service to humanity” to “bring out and
fortify the differences rather than the similarities” (93).
Defining the unique differences of women’s writing, as the literary foremothers
(Woolf, Cixous, Showalter, etc.) have warned, women writers must present a flexible,
fluid, on-going, open practice. The difference of women’s writing is a “‘delicate
divergency’ testifying to the subtle and elusive nature of the feminine practice of
writing” (Showalter 1981, 336).
A female sentence has been exploring through
literary history in the process of discovery, and every woman writer has been playing
the role of “an explorer.” Feminine writing presents itself in its narrative
experimentation, practice again and again, not in theoretical conclusions drawn or
literary traditions outlined. Feminine writing, in fact, is a “process” instead of a
“product,” a “practice” instead of a “theory.” This is why Woolf, Cixous, Kristeva,
Irigaray, and Showalter all refuse to define or theorize feminine writing.
According to Woolf, in spite of her lifetime effort trying progressively to write a
“female sentence,” “[t]he Mother Tongue” had not been achieved yet.
A woman’s
writing, and “the true nature of woman and fiction,” according to her, remains a
never-ending and unsolved exploration process:
The title women and fiction might mean, and you may have meant it to
mean, women and what they are like; or it might mean women and the
fiction that they write; or it might mean women and the fiction that is
written about them; or it might mean that somehow all three are inextricably
mixed together [. . .]. I should never be able to come to a conclusion.
should never be able to fulfil what is, [. . .] women and fiction remain, so far
as I am concerned, unsolved problems.
(AROO 13-14)
With their increasing life experience, their improving learning condition, the going of
fashion, the changing of people’s flavor, women writers may be beginning to use
writing as an art, not as a method of self-expression.
Before writing turns an art,
self-expression and sex-consciousness are inevitable.
Women’s writing is a subject-in-process because “one cannot hope to tell the
truth” “when a subject is highly controversial,” especially when the question is “about
sex” (AROO 14).
Woolf herself was always moving towards “a female sentence,”
and she was always encouraging women writers to keep on moving toward the same
direction. The answer of what a woman is hasn’t been found yet; any effort tried “in
all the arts and professions open to human skill” on “that extremely important piece of
information” will be worthy (WW 60).
Any women “who are in process of showing
or providing us” by their experiments, failures and successes what a woman is will be
much appreciated by Woolf “out of respect” (60).
As well described by Cixous,
ecriture feminine can never be achieved; if it is finalized, it loses its femininity.
Though feminine writing cannot be defined, “theorized, enclosed or coded,” it does
“exist,” and “will be conceived,” after all.
It will be conceived only by “breakers of
automatism, by peripheral figures that no authority can ever subjugate.”
merits the reward of the “greatest breaker and outsider” of the patriarchal literary
tradition by her feminine writing practice.
A “female sentence” is, in fact, a “sentence-in-making,” the “feminine writing” is
the “writing-of-becoming,” and the fundamental issue of this dissertation is a feminist
“subject-in-process.” It is not a stable or coherent body of knowledge. It may be in
its germination now; it may be not good enough now; while, according to Kristeva, it
is the spirit of keeping trying, the doubts of “that’s still not it,” and the energy of
disagreeing that make women’s writing feminine: “A feminist practice can only be . . .
at odds with what already exists so that we may say ‘that’s not it’ and ‘that’s still not
it.’ By ‘woman’ I mean that which cannot be repressed, what is not said, what
remains above and beyond nomenclatures and ideologies. There are certain ‘men’
who are familiar with this phenomenon” (qtd. in Jones 359).
Women’s writing is a
living being; it grows with women’s sensibility. “It feasted like a plant newly stood
in the air on every sight and sound that came its way” (AROO 97)
“It ranged, too,
very subtly and curiously, among almost unknown or unrecorded things.” It lighted
on small things and showed that perhaps they were not small after all.
It brought
buried things to light and made one wonder what need there had been to bury them.
Woman’s writing, “without the bearing of long descent,” awkward though when
compared with “the pen of a Thackeray or a Lamb,” is flourishing (AROO 97).
Developments may be unseen in embryo, but magic and surprises can be detected
everywhere. “[T]his organism that has been under the shadow of the rock
[patriarchy] these million years” (90) is capable of growth.
It might bring along
men’s development too:
Woman becomes much more various and complicated there. Indeed it was
the desire to write about women perhaps that led men by degrees to
abandon the poetic drama, which, with its violence, could make so little use
of them, and to devise the novel as a more fitting receptacle. Even so it
remains obvious, even in the writing of Proust, that a man is terribly
hampered and partial in his knowledge of women, as a woman in her
knowledge of men. (AROO 88)
Without a strong and powerful “tradition behind them” when women writers “think
back through [their] mothers,” every step for them is a new challenge and a
revolutionary experiment.
We can only know the “direction” of women’s writing but
never arrive at its “destination.”
Without making any conclusion or definition
toward a feminine writing, Woolf confidently predicted the future of women’s fiction
should be better than her time and insightfully indicated the direction of future
women’s writing about “that very dismal subject,” “the body venture” which was
carried on later by her future French feminist daughters:
I am sure that you do not want me, to broach that very dismal subject, the
future of fiction, so that I will only pause here one moment to draw your
attention to the great part which must be played in that future so far as
women are concerned by physical conditions.
The book has somehow to
be adapted to the body, and at a venture [. . .] what treatment suits them [. . .]
what alternations of work and rest they need [. . .].
(AROO 83-84)
It’s obvious the most avant-garde French feminists must credit Woolf for almost all
their ideas about ecriture feminine they inherit or develop from her; writing the body
is only one of those.
As Woolf suggests in her letter to Ethel Smyth in 28 September 1930, “sentences
are only an approximation, a net one flings over some sea pearl which may vanish,
and if one brings it up it wont be anything like what it was when I first saw it.” To
define “a female sentence” is to nullify the very spirit of a female writing practice as
our foremothers conceived it. This dissertation, sharing the spirit of them, does not
attempt to describe the specificity of the theorization of a female sentence, but tries to
show how the shifting points of view about feminine writing, together with the works
of Virginia Woolf, combine to create a picture of the “ecriture feminine.”
Feminine essence can be disclosed only where masculine difference is located.
It can occur only where there is a place for the practice of it. A feminine writing, is
well described by Showalter, “not as a transient by-product of sexism but as
fundamental and continually determining reality” and the “study of women’s writing”
is “not the serenely undifferentiated universality of texts but the tumultuous and
intriguing wilderness of difference itself” (Showalter 1981, 350-51). Any feminist
writing practice is “a step toward self-understanding”:
And insofar as most feminist critics are also women writing, the precarious
heritage is one we share; every step that feminist criticism takes toward
defining women’s writing is a step toward self-understanding as well; every
account of a female literary culture and a female literary tradition has
parallel significance for our own place in critical history and critical
tradition. (Showalter 1981, 348)
Feminine writing is feminine in that a woman writer describes the experience of
women through a woman’s eye. It is feminine not only because the aim of the
writing to describe the female experience but also because the fate of the writer’s
being born a woman. The difference is that women like men have the right to
choose the experiences they wish to live through, but they are also “given” certain
“pre-destined” experiences that exist only because they are women. The “curious
sexual quality” will naturally describe itself even “when sex is unconscious of itself”
(AROO 98)
Woolf’s use of “stream of consciousness,” of “androgyny,” of “water imagery” in
her fiction, has been explored as expressive of ecriture feminine, as constituting both a
woman’s language and a metaphor for a female aesthetic, for femininity, and for the
politics of feminist survival.
This dissertation presents Woolf’s texts not to
essentialize feminine writing, or to fix it in a message, but to provide a “step toward
women’s self-understanding.”
Woolf’s feminine dis-course will maintain those
elements in movement, “streaming” along like “mother’s milk,” dancing around to the
rhythm and shape of “women’s body,” enabling readers to experience the “process” of
female creativity. If the effort and result involved in this dissertation cannot
completely catch the true feminine for the readers, Jacques Derrida’s concept of
signification as differance, as endless deferral of meanings, may comfort them a little.
There are always gaps between the signifiers and the signified, and signification is an
ever proliferating network of displacement and deferral of meaning.
understanding of feminine writing in literary tradition is vividly revealed as the
aeroplane in Mrs. Dalloway flies over London forming letters of smoke: “Only for a
moment did they [the letters] lie still; then they moved and melted and were rubbed
out up in the sky, and the aeroplane shot further away and again, in a fresh space of
sky, began writing a K, an E, a Y perhaps” (MD 29).
This “key” provides the
solution to the hermeneutic riddle of Woolf’s novels, of feminine writing.
It loosens
the ligatures of the traditional unifying subject so as to produce a style whose
characteristics are fluidity and flexibility.
Works Cited
Abel, Elizabeth.
Virginia Woolf and the Fictions of Psychoanalysis. Chicago: U of
Chicago P, 1989.
Abrams, M. H. A Glossary of Literary Terms. 6th ed.
Fort Worth: Harcourt, 1993.
Ardis, Ann and Bonnie Kime Scott, eds. Virginia Woolf: Turning the Centuries.
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