Virginia Woolf

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What does "the Angel in the House" symbolize in Virginia Woolf's "Professions for Women"?

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In Virginia Woolf's "Professions for Women", "the Angel in the House" symbolizes the ideal Victorian woman, who suppresses her own desires to cater to male expectations. This internalized image of a woman who lacks personal ambition and is pure and self-sacrificing, restricts women's progress in professional fields, including art and writing. Woolf advocates for the metaphorical killing of this angel, to allow women to prioritize their own needs, and truly express their thoughts and experiences.

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The "Angel in the House" is the typical Victorian middle-class woman (and can also be a woman of any era) who has internalized and restricted herself by adopting male desires about what a woman should be and say. In "Professions For Women," Woolf defines the angel in the house, "in short," as

so constituted that she never had a mind or a wish of her own, but preferred to sympathize always with the minds and wishes of others. Above all—I need not say it—she was pure.

Woolf does not define "purity" in the speech "Professions for Women," but her thoughts on the subject of woman were clear and consistent throughout her entire career. In her novel Orlando, the figure of Purity appears as Orlando is changing gender from male to female. She states,

I cover vice and poverty. On all things
frail or dark or doubtful, my veil descends. Wherefore, speak not, reveal

Purity is that which lies to cover up sin and poverty.

Purity and the Angel of the House are the same in that they both lie to uphold the truths men would like woman to repeat. For example, Woolf says the angel of the house reared its head as she began to write book reviews for a living:

You are writing about a book that has been written by a man. Be sympathetic; be tender; flatter; deceive; use all the arts and wiles of our sex. Never let anybody guess that you have a mind of your own. Above all, be pure.

The angel of the house is rewarded by men for perpetrating and enabling untruths. Such "angels"

tell lies if they are to succeed. Thus, whenever I felt the shadow of her wing or the radiance of her halo upon my page, I took up the inkpot and flung it at her. She died hard.

Woolf condemns this way women are expected to think, write, and behave for perpetrating patriarchal lies and for making it difficult for women to even discover the truth of who they are and what they think. The kind of woman's writing that Woolf was creating, with very few role models to guide her, was later called "l'ecriture femme" and aimed at ripping away the veils that hid a woman's experience of life, of her sexuality, and of her attitudes toward men.

The angel in the house is presented as a very attractive figure—and one that brings approval and rewards from men—so it is very difficult to kill. But kill it one must, Woolf says.

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The phrase "The Angel in the House" was actually the title of a narrative poem by Coventry Patmore, later appropriated satirically by Virginia Woolf. Patmore's poem, written about his wife, represents an ideal of femininity as pure, self-sacrificing, and utterly devoted first to her parents and then to her husband; Patmore states:

Man must be pleased; but him to please

Is woman's pleasure; ...

Woolf argues that this ideal of self-sacrificing, innocent, and morally pure femininity was as much an obstacle to women's careers as artists, writers, and professionals as the more obvious forms of patriarchy and discrimination. Women who conform to this sort of ideal of self-sacrifice cannot devote the time and energy to their work necessary for creation of great art, because the angelic ideal always mandates that they put men and family ahead of their own projects. She expands this concept by suggesting "a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction," something incompatible with the ideal of the angel in the house whose role is to nurture her family and serve as a moral exemplar. 

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The Angel in the House, is a phantom of sorts. Virginia Woolf wrote about this so called phantom. She was extremely out spoken and wasn't afraid to say what was on her mind.

Virginia Woolf explained the phantom as the thing that represses her and attempts to force out imagination and creativity. The Angel in the House was the type of woman that most women were expected to be in the 19th century. She was suppose to be selfless and sacrificial whose sole purpose was to flatter, soothe and comfort the males of the world's population. That was extremely hard for a woman of this time that wanted to have a career, especially a career as a writer. Writers are known for being withdrawn and often most comfortable being by themselves. This was unheard of for women in the 19th century. 

"And the phantom was a woman, and when I came to know her better I called her after the heroine of a famous poem, The Angel in the House. It was she who used to come between me and my paper when I was writing reviews. It was she who bothered me and wasted my time and so tormented me that at last I killed her."

Virginia Woolf tried to be this woman, but in the end it was too much for her. She was a woman destined to be a writer and she wasn't going to allow anyone or anything stop her from being just what she needed to be.

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In this speech by Virginia Woolf, she talks about the need to kill the Angel in the House.  The Angel in the House is the ideal of womanhood at that time.  There are two important aspects to this -- the woman is an angel and she is in the house.

Because she is an angel, she has to act in certain ways.  She has, more or less, to be perfect.  She has to always care about other people rather than herself.  Her life is devoted to her husband and children, not to herself.

Importantly, all of what she does is in the house.  She must stay at home and care for her family, not go out and do any work outside the house.

Here is how Woolf puts it

She was intensely sympathetic. She was immensely charming. She was utterly unselfish. She excelled in the difficult arts of family life. She sacrificed herself daily.

Woolf thought that this ideal stifled women and forced them to try to be the Angel in the House.

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