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Virginia Woolf's "A Room of Her Own": War, Independence, and Identity
"[a]s a woman, I have no country. As a woman I want no country. As a woman, my country is the whole world" -Virginia Woolf
The Chinese character for "crisis" is a combination of the words "danger" and "opportunity." It is often the case that when people are faced with hardship, they experience inward, mental, changes as a coping strategy to continue thriving in a new environment. History is ridden with stories of human strength and persistence in the face of imminent danger, such as with Holocaust victims, or any near-death experience. The threat of death, say in times of war, has serious psychological effects on people: for instance, post-traumatic-stress-disorder is commonly attributed to individuals coming from a war-torn area. The effects of war and violence can also be seen in advancing the intellectual movements that have occurred during such times of strife. During the Interwar Period and thereafter, European intellectuals, such as Virginia Woolf, dealt with this constant fear of death with an immense will to live (Brombert no page number). In the catalyst that the World Wars of the twentieth century brought to society, this paper argues that patriarchal societies help promote feminism and other social improvements as a highly relevant issue of individual freedom and identity of women in society.
Woolf was a fore-runner of modern day feminism. She experienced first-hand the patriarchal horrors of war living in England, and desperately held on to the idea that one's life is worth living (Brombert no page number). As a women, this idea of living life to the fullest came under critical review; and Woolf wrote the widely-assigned college course material essay series entitled "A Room of One's Own," in which she expostulates that "a woman must have money and a room of her own" (Woolf no page number). Al-Joulan et al. note that:
[t]he word 'room' in the title is overloaded with sense, suggesting a place, a space, a location, and a position. It is not a house but a private domain in or a center of a house; self-protected and contained, secure, and dependent -though imprisoning, secluded, and isolated" (no page number).
Although the concept of a woman having her own income and property may be commonplace in the contemporary Western world, throughout human history, well into the twentieth century, women were considered "the second sex" to men (Gan no page number). From biblical stories and adages, to local government laws on marriage, property, and the like, Woolf took an avant-garde approach to the role of women in the family and society-at-large. "A room of her own" expanded the rights of women to personal expression and discovery from the mere confinements of one's mind into the physical world where tangible change could ensue. This capacity for women's thoughts and opinions to matter in the patriarchal, male-dominated world of business, politics, and society is one effect of the war that Woolf experienced. Indeed, Woolf, like many others, simply would not support remaining stagnate in a world that threatened to kill her; so she used the patriarchal system to improve her situation.
In the action of Woolf's revolting against the collapse of a peaceful world, many of her previous assumptions and nativities about the world were greatly altered. Woolf recollects on her once common practice of attending lunch and dinner parties, saying that:
[t]here was something so ludicrous in thinking of people humming such things even under
their breath at luncheon parties before the war that I burst out laughing, and had to explain my laughter by pointing at the Manx cat, who did look a little absurd, poor beast, without a tail, in the middle of the lawn (no page number).
Woolf's outward expression of awkwardness with a traditionally light-hearted, lively event perhaps shows her inward anxiety toward the length of her life with how to react to the ever-present patriarchal possibility of war. Furthermore, Woolf blames her discomfort on another source: the cat instead of the simple gaiety of the people. Woolf also begins ruminating on the cat who she places blame on, turning her attention further from the original cause of her out-of-place laugh, war, and onto a more relaxed subject. While it is Woolf's mind that switches thoughts, she has enough awareness of the action to write about patriarchy becoming the catalyst for necessary social change in "A Room of One's Own."
Woolf explores her fear of death more openly in symbolism and stream-of-conscious journaling, versus a straight-forward, direct approach to telling a story (no page number):
"I thought how unpleasant it is to be locked out; and I thought how it is worse perhaps to be locked in; and, thinking of the safety and prosperity of the one sex and of the poverty and insecurity of the other and of the effect of tradition and of the lack of tradition upon the mind of a writer […] All human beings were laid asleep -- prone, horizontal, dumb"
Using indirect references and abstraction, Woolf is able to write about her thoughts on death from behind a well-executed defense mechanism. The switch in artistic style, from reflective story-telling to personal stream-of-conscious, suggests that the stream-of-conscious mode created a more comforting writing and thinking style for Woolf than her other, more traditional, communicative modes. Drastically, readers see Woolf deal with fears of death indirectly, by focusing on an external excuse, such as with the previous cat example, into a picture that shows a near-obsessively morbid inner world. Indubitably, Woolf's representation of stifled human beings as "prone, horizontal, dumb" alludes to concepts of death, specifically of corpses and coffins, which also lay "prone, horizontal, dumb" (no page number).
Woolf continues her contemplation of the meaning of life in a patriarchal society behind the comfort of intellectual abstraction and philosophical stream-of-consciousness in a brief examination of time. In her prose, Woolf elucidates in metaphor that:
"[t]here one might have sat the clock round lost in thought […] the sudden conglomeration
of an idea at the end of one's line: and then the cautious hauling of it in, and the careful laying of it out? Alas, laid on the grass how small, how insignificant this thought of mine looked" (Woolf no page number).
Time comes into immediate consideration when one's death becomes a serious fear, as Woolf experiences in the bombing of London, and other atrocities of war. Woolf's ruminations of time, presented to readers as a "clock round lost in thought," point to her reverence for life as a whole, "laid on the grass how small, how insignificant this thought of mine looked" (no page number). Being confronted with the possibility of her own death made Woolf more conscious of the importance of people and situations outside of herself, i.e. "the big picture." While Woolf's deliberation of her "insignificance" may seem negative, her awareness of the significance of the outside world came from incessant patriarchal traditions and is critical to her emphasis of females needing physical freedom, as in "A Room of One's Own."
The entire experience of patriarchy in the violence of war made Woolf not only scared, but also mad, and therefore empowered. Woolf examines the changing world, as a result of these wars, and questions "[w]hy, if it was an illusion, not praise the catastrophe, whatever it was, that destroyed illusion and put truth in its place?" (Woolf no page number). The "catastrophe" that Woolf notes, being a generalized term for war in her poetic license, is the cause of the "illusion" in Woolf's world being "destroyed" (no page number). Woolf uses the horrible nature that war brings of pain and destruction to rebuild a healthier social setting than had previously been the norm. This ability to grow from any circumstance, such as patriarchal injustice, however blind, is an invaluable tool in personal and social amelioration.
The anger that Woolf feels from the degradation inflicted upon people from the war, and for fearing the end of her own life, becomes channeled in the feminist cries that "we [women] burst out in scorn at the reprehensible poverty of our sex. What had our mothers been doing then that they had no wealth to leave us? Powdering their noses? Looking in at shop windows?" (Woolf no page number). The focus of harsh reality and jaded cynicism that often defines the Modern literary genre is fully expressed in Woolf's sentiment, but is ultimately helpful in redefining not only her assumptions of women in society, but the Western world's view of women as well in patriarchal cultures.
In addition to Woolf's critical speech on earlier generations of women, she also criticizes the typical masculine exploits and habits that have led to her present anxieties and half-hearted repressed fears. For Woolf, since war has been usually initiated and fought by men, it is "viewed as a distinctly male folly. Woolf refers explicitly to the education of males in the arts of rowing, killing and acquiring wealth. Even fascism appears…[continue]
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