Woolf, Virginia (Feminism in Literature)
A critically acclaimed novelist and essayist, Woolf was a founding member of the intellectual circle known as the Bloomsbury Group. Her most famous works include the novels Mrs. Dalloway (1925) and To the Lighthouse (1927), and the essay A Room of One's Own (1929).
Woolf was born Adeline Virginia Stephen on January 25, 1882, in London. Her parents were Leslie Stephen, editor of the Dictionary of National Biography and Julia Prinsep Jackson Duckworth Stephen. Both parents had been married before and had children from those unions. Together, the Stephens had three other children in addition to Virginia: Vanessa, born in 1879; Thoby, born in 1880; and Adrian, born in 1883. Woolf was educated at home where she had free access to her father's extensive library. In 1895 her mother died, and Woolf experienced the first of many psychological breakdowns that would plague her throughout her life. Her half sister Stella, thirteen years Woolf's senior, assumed management of the household, a position she relinquished to Vanessa two years later. In 1904 Leslie Stephen died, and Woolf attempted suicide after suffering a second psychological crisis. During her recuperation, her sister Vanessa moved the family to the bohemian Bloomsbury section of London, where Woolf began her writing career and where the Thursday evening gatherings with Thoby's Cambridge friends constituted the beginning of the Bloomsbury Group. During this time the four Stephen siblings traveled, in 1904 to Paris and Italy, and two years later to Greece, where Woolf and Thoby both contracted typhoid fever; the illness proved fatal for Thoby.
In 1912 Woolf married Leonard Woolf—one of the original Bloomsbury members recently returned from a seven-year period of civil service in Ceylon. Soon afterwards suffered a serious mental breakdown involving another suicide attempt; she remained in severe mental distress for the next three years. During this period, Woolf completed her first novel, The Voyage Out, published in 1915. Two years later, the Woolfs established their own publishing company in the basement of their home; the Hogarth Press published not only Woolf's work, but those of T. S. Eliot, Katherine Mansfield, and Sigmund Freud, among others. In 1920, through a series of letters to the editor of the New Statesman, Woolf engaged in a dispute over women's intellectual abilities with Desmond MacCarthy, a member of the Bloomsbury Group who wrote under the name "Affable Hawk." She pursued the subject in greater depth at the end of the decade with her feminist essay A Room of One's Own. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, Woolf continued writing and publishing, producing several more novels and a number of essays. In 1941, fearing the onset of another psychological breakdown, Woolf committed suicide by filling her pockets with rocks and drowning herself in the River Ouse.
Although Woolf wrote a number of short stories, her best-known fiction has always been her novels, particularly Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, and to a lesser extent, Orlando (1928) and The Waves (1931). Mrs. Dalloway, frequently compared to James Joyce's 1922 work Ulysses, is an expansion of "Mrs. Dalloway in Bond Street," a short story Woolf produced for Dial magazine in 1923. The events of the plot occur over a period of twenty-four hours in the life of society hostess Clarissa Dalloway and culminate in a large, elaborate party. The work is not only a critique of the social system, but deals as well with issues of madness and suicide through Woolf's characterization of Septimus Smith, a psychological casualty of the war. To the Lighthouse, a family novel with obvious connections to Woolf's own early life, involves Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay, thinly disguised versions of her parents. Notwithstanding the subtitle's claim that Orlando is a biography, it is, in fact, a novel featuring an androgynous main character said to be modeled after Woolf's friend and reputed lover, Vita Sackville-West. The Waves, a complicated exploration of the inevitable mutability of human life, is perhaps Woolf's most complex work, considered by some, including her husband, to be her masterpiece.
Woolf explored issues of sex, gender, and feminism to some degree in her novels, particularly Orlando, and in her short stories, particularly "A Society." However, she most thoroughly articulated her ideas on the equality of women in her essays, especially A Room of One's Own and Three Guineas (1938). Both books explore male power and the injustices associated with it; Woolf especially criticizes the lack of legal rights, educational opportunities, and financial independence for women. Unlike some of her contemporaries, however, Woolf did not believe that women should strive to be like men. She believed, rather, that men should take on some of the characteristics associated with women.
Woolf's works were well received during her lifetime, and recent interest in specific Woolf texts has been revived by feminist scholars who claim Woolf as one of their own. Most current feminist scholarship centers on her A Room of One's Own and Three Guineas. Harold Bloom has claimed "puzzled" when these essays are considered "political theory, the genre invoked by literary feminists for whom Woolf's polemics have indeed assumed scriptural status." For Bloom, Woolf's "religion (no lesser word would be apt) was Paterian estheticism: the worship of art," rather than feminism. Herbert Marder cautions that the two texts should not be considered merely tracts and that they have a great deal in common with Woolf's novels. For Marder, "the tracts fade into fiction, the fiction echoes the tracts; and the continuity is so pronounced that it seems necessary to read every book by Virginia Woolf in the context of her work as a whole" in order to fully appreciate her as a feminist. Thus Marder traces the development of her feminist theories from her earliest novels, The Voyage Out and Night and Day (1919). Similarly, Toril Moi situates the early articulation of Woolf's concept of androgyny in the novel To the Lighthouse, in which the author "illustrates the destructive nature of a metaphysical belief in strong, immutably fixed gender identities—as represented by Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay." It was clear to Woolf, Moi asserts, "that the goal of the feminist struggle must precisely be to deconstruct the death-dealing binary oppositions of masculinity and femininity." Rachel Bowlby (see Further Reading) contends that Woolf's work is both embraced and derided by critics in general and by feminist critics in particular. According to Bowlby, feminist scholars who celebrate her work consider her "exemplary both in the sense of exceptional … and as an example," while Woolf's detractors claim that her work fits in "all too well with patriarchal norms, literary or social, to which authentic women's writing should by definition be opposed." Bowlby herself characterizes Woolf as a feminist writer who questioned masculinity and patriarchy in all aspects of her work.
The Voyage Out (novel) 1915
Two Stories [with Leonard Woolf] (short stories) 1917
Kew Gardens (short stories) 1919
Night and Day (novel) 1919
Monday or Tuesday (short stories) 1921
Jacob's Room (novel) 1922
Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown (essay) 1924
The Common Reader (criticism) 1925
Mrs. Dalloway (novel) 1925
To the Lighthouse (novel) 1927
Orlando: A Biography (novel) 1928
A Room of One's Own (essay) 1929
The Waves (novel) 1931
The Common Reader: Second Series (criticism) 1932
Flush: A Biography (fictional biography) 1933
The Years (novel) 1937
Three Guineas (essays) 1938
Roger Fry: A Biography (biography) 1940
Between the Acts (novel) 1941
The Death of the Moth, and Other Essays (essays) 1942
A Haunted House, and Other Short Stories (short stories) 1943
The Moment, and Other Essays (essays) 1947
The Captain's Death Bed, and Other Essays (essays) 1950
A Writer's Diary (journal) 1953...
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SOURCE: Woolf, Virginia. Review of The Feminine Note in Fiction, by W. L. Courtney. In The Essays of Virginia Woolf, 1904-1912, Volume I, edited by Andrew McNeillie, pp. 15-17. London: Hogarth Press, 1986.
In the following review, which originally appeared in the newspaper Guardian on January 25, 1905, Woolf rebuts the principal points of Courtney's argument concerning women's writing, concluding that the book raises more questions than it answers.
Mr Courtney is certain that there is such a thing as the feminine note in fiction; he desires, moreover, to define its nature in the book before us, though at the start he admits that the feminine and masculine points of view are so different that it is difficult for one to understand the other. At any rate, he has made a laborious attempt; it is, perhaps, partly for the reason just stated that he ends where he begins1. He gives us eight very patient and careful studies in the works of living women writers, in which he outlines the plots of their most successful books in detail. But we would have spared him the trouble willingly in exchange for some definite verdict; we can all read Mrs Humphry Ward, for instance, and remember her story, but we want a critic to separate her virtues and her failings, to assign her right place in literature and to decide which of...
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SOURCE: Woolf, Virginia. "Letter to the Editor, The New Statesman." In Congenial Spirits: The Selected Letters of Virginia Woolf, edited by Joanne Trautmann Banks, pp. 124-27. London: Hogarth Press, 1989.
In the following letter, which originally appeared in the magazine New Statesman on October 16, 1920, Woolf responds to comments made by Desmond MacCarthy—"Affable Hawk"—regarding the intellectual inferiority of women by offering a number of historical precedents that contributed to such a conclusion.
To The Editor, The New Statesman
[Hogarth House, Richmond]
[16 October 1920]1
To begin with Sappho. We do not, as in the hypothetical case of Burns suggested by 'Affable Hawk', judge her merely by her fragments.2 We supplement our judgement by the opinions of those to whom her works were known in their entirety. It is true that she was born 2,500 years ago. According to 'Affable Hawk' the fact that no poetess of her genius has appeared from 600 B.C. to the eighteenth century proves that during that time there were no poetesses of potential genius. It follows that the absence of poetesses of moderate merit during that period proves that there were no women writers of potential mediocrity. There was no...
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SOURCE: Marder, Herbert. “Causes.” In Feminism & Art: A Study of Virginia Woolf, pp. 5-30. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968.
In the following essay, Marder discusses Woolf’s personal philosophy and ideas about women and feminism in rela-tion to developments in English social history and the beginnings of the feminist movement.
In the years immediately preceding Virginia Woolf’s birth, the legal status of English women was essentially the same as it had been in the middle ages. Their rights as individuals were severely limited. Married women could not dispose of the money they earned, or enter into valid contracts. They could be deprived of a say in the upbringing of their children. In one celebrated case, a husband, upon being estranged from his wife, sent the children to live with his mistress and refused to permit the mother to see them. He was entirely within his rights, and the act which was passed in 1839 as a result of this case only permitted the Lord Chancellor to grant custody to the mother until the children were seven years old. The law continued to assume that there could be no divergence of interest between man and wife. A woman could not sue her husband or hold him to an agreement that would have been legally binding under any other circumstances. “By marriage,” says Blackstone, “the very being or legal existence...
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SOURCE: Bell, Barbara Currier, and Carol Ohmann. "Virginia Woolf's Criticism: A Polemical Preface." In Feminist Literary Criticism: Explorations in Theory, second edition, edited by Josephine Donovan, pp. 48-60. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1989.
In the following essay, which originally appeared in the journal Critical Inquiry in 1974, Bell and Ohmann examine Woolf's body of literary criticism, describing the methods and principles that inform it.
In her novels, and those are what most of her readers know best, Virginia Woolf habitually aims at creating moments of freedom, moments when the self, breaking bonds and vaulting bounds, arrives at an unqualified intensity of thought and emotion. Clarissa Dalloway, on a London morning in spring, feels herself lifted on "waves of divine vitality." "It [is] very, very dangerous," she thinks, but without any regret, "to live even one day." Lily Briscoe, toward the close of To the Lighthouse, is oppressed by Mr. Ramsay's demands: he is a widower, and hence aggrieved; she is a woman and owes him, he would insist, solace. She cannot, she will not oblige: she'd gotten up that morning to paint. But suddenly, forgetting him and forgetting herself, she sees, and remarks, that his boots are beautiful. For the moment Lily and Mr. Ramsay are unlocked from the past and...
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SOURCE: Moi, Toril. “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Feminist Readings of Woolf.” In “Mrs. Dalloway” and “To the Lighthouse”: Virginia Woolf, edited by Su Reid, pp. 87-97. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993.
In the following excerpt, which comprises the second part of the introduction to her 1985 treatise Sexual/Textual Politics, Moi outlines a way of reading Woolf’s texts according to French feminist theories, which signiﬁcantly diverge from the aesthetic categories of most Anglo-American feminist critics.
Woolf seems to practise what we might now call a ‘deconstructive’ form of writing, one that engages with and thereby exposes the duplicitous nature of discourse. In her own textual practice, Woolf exposes the way in which language refuses to be pinned down to an underlying essential meaning. According to the French philosopher Jacques Derrida, language is structured as an endless deferral of meaning, and any search for an essential, absolutely stable meaning must therefore be considered metaphysical. There is no ﬁnal element, no fundamental unit, no transcendental signiﬁed that is meaningful in itself and thus escapes the ceaseless interplay of linguistic deferral and difference. The free play of signiﬁers will never yield a ﬁnal, uniﬁed meaning that in turn might ground and explain all the others.1 It is in the light of such textual and...
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SOURCE: Bloom, Harold. "Feminism as the Love of Reading." Raritan 14, no. 2 (fall 1994): 29-42.
In the following essay, Bloom centers on Woolf's passion for reading as the defining feature of her literary criticism, demonstrating the influence of Walter Pater's aestheticism upon her feminist politics.
Sainte-Beuve, to me the most interesting of French critics, taught us to ask as a crucial question of any writer in whom we read deeply: What would the author think of us? Virginia Woolf wrote five remarkable novels—Mrs. Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927), Orlando (1928), The Waves (1931), and Between the Acts (1941)—which are very likely to become canonical. These days she is most widely known and read as the supposed founder of "feminist literary criticism," particularly in her polemical A Room of One's Own (1929) and Three Guineas (1938). Since I am not yet competent to judge feminist criticism, I will center here upon only one element in Woolf's feminist writing, her extraordinary love for and defense of reading.
Woolf's own literary criticism seems to me very mixed, especially in her judgment of contemporaries. To regard Joyce's Ulysses as a "disaster," or Lawrence's novels as lacking "the final power which makes things entire in...
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ELLEN BAYUK ROSENMAN (ESSAY DATE 1995)
SOURCE: Rosenman, Ellen Bayuk. "Difficulties and Contradictions: The Blind Spots of A Room of One's Own." In "A Room of One's Own": Women Writers and the Politics of Creativity, pp. 103-16. New York: Twayne, 1995.
In the following essay, Rosenman explicates inconsistencies in Woolf's thought at key points in A Room of One's Own, suggesting that some of the central issues raised by the essay remain disputed.
Thus far I have been taking A Room of One's Own at its word, explicating its intentions and presenting it as a coherent, persuasive whole. But the essay does present the reader with certain difficulties. At key points Woolf's thought is in conflict with itself, revealing ambivalence about some of the essay's central issues. It is no insult to suggest that some of the essay's issues remain unresolved or in dispute. To begin with, it is arguably the first feminist literary history, and we could hardly expect it to reflect the feminist thinking that would come after it. While what is often called the second wave of modern feminism, begun in the early 1970s, rescued the essay from obscurity, it has also brought new considerations to bear that Woolf's essay, not surprisingly, did not anticipate. Moreover, many of these issues are thorny ones. The...
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Kirkpatrick, B. J. A Bibliography of Virginia Woolf, 4th Edition. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997, 472 p.
Updates the 1967 edition, reflecting the release of numerous diaries, drafts, and papers after the death of Leonard Woolf in 1969.
Majumdar, Robin. Virginia Woolf: An Annotated Bibliography of Criticism. New York: Garland, 1976, 118 p.
Comprehensive guide to Woolfian criticism, including books, articles, essays, and chapters on Woolf, introductions and prefaces to her works, memoirs and obituaries, correspondence, reviews of Woolf's works, miscellaneous references to Woolf in general studies, and additional bibliographical sources.
Bell, Quentin. Virginia Woolf: A Biography. London: Hogarth Press, 1972, 314 p.
Recalls Woolf's life from the perspective of her nephew, whom some critics have considered biased against Woolf in deference to her sister, Bell's mother.
Black, Naomi. "Virginia Woolf and the Women's Movement." In Virginia Woolf: A Feminist Slant, edited by Jane Marcus, pp. 180-97. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983.
Focuses on the significance...
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