In spite of the relative affluence of her family, Virginia Woolf was aware of the difficulties most British subjects faced in terms of earning a living. As a social activist committed to women's suffrage, as a lecturer at Morley College which drew many working-class men and women, and as a partner with her husband at the Hogarth Press, she moved considerably beyond the economic security her birthright offered. The practicality of her declaration in her famous essay "A Room of One's Own" that an artist must have at least 500 pounds a year is an indication of both her lingering sense of entitlement and her awareness of the crippling effects of constant poverty. As she examines the intricate arrangements of the British class system in the early decades of the twentieth century in "The Duchess and the Jeweller" from the perspective of the ambitious arriviste jeweler Oliver Bacon, her semi-sympathy for Bacon's struggle is ultimately overshadowed by her primary concern, the effect that a total focus on wealth and then status has on a person's soul.
The Duchess, as a kind of caricature of totally self-absorbed royalty, is a ludicrously comic figure, a pampered creature in the latter stages of decadence and decline. She is unaware of any form of life other than the prerogatives of her title, and she has lost any vestiges of admirable human qualities. Indeed, it is likely that they were stillborn, and that she is a replica of previous generations corrupted by all of the things Woolf holds in contempt. Bacon, on the other hand, is much more complex and his striving is understandable. Nonetheless, Woolf uses his desires as the basis for a relatively subtle but still devastating critique of the modern world, where none of the things she values are important and where human beings are encouraged to pursue goals that are likely to leave them empty and confused.
At the core of her critique is the growing void in Bacon's soul. He retains the energetic alertness of the young boy who scrambled out of the gutter but he cannot think of any gratification or satisfaction other than ascending the social ladder, and as he climbs higher, his angle of vision is not increased. Instead of becoming more generous, more reflective, more serene, more philosophic, he has continued to refine the aggressive techniques which led to his earliest success, so that his conversation/negotiation with the Duchess is an exercise in duplicity, deception, and...
(The entire section is 614 words.)