Virginia Woolf Woolf, Virginia (Feminism in Literature) - Essay


(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.

Principal Works

(Feminism in Literature)

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

Hours in a Library (essay) 1957

Granite and Rainbow (essays) 1958

Collected Essays. 4 vols. (essays) 1966-67

Mrs. Dalloway's Party: A Short Story Sequence (short story) 1973

The Diary of Virginia Woolf. 5 vols. (diaries) 1974-84

The Letters of Virginia Woolf. 6 vols. (letters) 1975-80

Moments of Being (autobiographical essays) 1976

The Complete Shorter Fiction of Virginia Woolf (short stories) 1985

Virginia Woolf (Review Date 25 January 1905)

(Feminism in Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 820 words.)

Virginia Woolf (Letter Date 16 October 1920)

(Feminism in Literature)

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


(The entire section is 1364 words.)

Herbert Marder (Essay Date 1968)

(Feminism in Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 9769 words.)

Barbara Currier Bell And Carol Ohmann (Essay Date 1974)

(Feminism in Literature)

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,...

(The entire section is 5278 words.)

Toril Moi (Essay Date 1985)

(Feminism in Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 4253 words.)

Harold Bloom (Essay Date Fall 1994)

(Feminism in Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 4989 words.)

Title Commentary

(Feminism in Literature)


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...

(The entire section is 5342 words.)

Further Reading

(Feminism in Literature)


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...

(The entire section is 1247 words.)