From Victorian gender roles towards a new female identity: Feminism in Virginia Woolf’s "To the Lighthouse"


Term Paper, 2005

13 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Excerpt

Contents

1. Introduction

2. Traditional Victorian Gender Roles
2.1 The Stephen Family
2.2 The Angel in the House: Mrs. Ramsay
2.3 The Victorian Patriarch: Mr. Ramsay

3. Lily Briscoe: Coming to Terms with Mrs. and Mr. Ramsay

4. Conclusion: Woolf’s Liberation from Her Mother and a New Female Identity

Bibliography

1. Introduction

“Woolf has […] been recognized as one of the most important and influential feminist writers of the twentieth century” (The International Virginia Woolf Society 2005). In her novel To the Lighthouse, published in 1927, Virginia Woolf uses Victorian or Edwardian types of characters. Thus, she describes characters she knows from her childhood. In those times before World War I the English class system was rigid, a father of a family was usually the patriarch and a mother had to play the household Angel.

In my term paper, I will first discuss traditional Victorian gender roles. I will begin with a description of Virginia Woolf’s family, as it serves as model for a family living according to Victorian values. I will then examine Mrs. and Mr. Ramsay as presented in To the Lighthouse to demonstrate their Victorian way of life and their problems. I will also show that Virginia’s parents served as an archetype for Mr. and Mr. Ramsay. In the next step I will illustrate that Lily Briscoe, although she does not want to be like the Ramsays, tries to come to terms with the family and seeks to take on their positive characteristics. To conclude, I will argue that Virginia’s family resembles the Ramsays very much. By writing To the Lighthouse, Woolf wanted to liberate herself from the consequences of her mother’s ‘Angel in the House’ role, a feeling of constriction. Woolf needed to understand and respect her mother’s household Angel role and her father’s callous behaviour to create a new possible identity for herself and for every woman of her generation. As Bowlby writes, “To the Lighthouse represents a darker insight into the woman’s ‘structurally untenable position’ within male-dominated society, subtly undermining any complacently ‘androgynous’ ideal unity” (Bowlby 1988: viii). Arisen from the time of feminist movement, To the Lighthouse can still enlighten psychological processes on the family level in today’s society.

2. Traditional Victorian Gender Roles

2.1 The Stephen Family

Virginia was born into a family living according to traditional Victorian values. Her father, Leslie Stephen, was a member of the Victorian aristocracy. As a respected editor, author and critic, he was knighted for his editorship of the Dictionary of National Biography. After the death of his wife, Julia Stephen, he went into deep mourning (cf. Wikipedia 2005).

DeSalvo believes that incest and sexual abuse was common in the Stephen family (cf. DeSalvo 1991: 1). He is convinced that Virginia was even raped by her older half-brothers George and Gerald Duckworth while other critics suggest that the consequences of rape “would have been much more severe” (Young 2002). In his biography her nephew Quentin Bell (DeSalvo 1991: 3) as well as Woolf in her autobiographical account Moments of Being indicate that there have been erotic fumblings, but they do not discuss it in detail (cf. ibid.). Virginia experiences four severe mental breakdowns in her life, lasting months and even years, the first of them after the death of her parents and her step-sister Stella when Woolf was still adolescent. After her father’s death she attempts to throw herself out of a window. At the age of 59, she drowns herself.

2.2 The Angel in the House: Mrs. Ramsay

Like the Stephen family the Ramsays are a stereotypic Victorian family. Mrs. Ramsay can be called the Victorian ‘Angel in the House’, a term which dates back to the famous homonymous poem written in 1854 by the Victorian poet Coventry Patmore (cf. Schaffer 2000: 50). As Schaffer summarizes, the

“role of the Angel required certain characteristics: a deft ‘woman’s touch’ in the home, a calm unruffled demeanor, personal beauty, and physical fragility, a modest shrinking from public view, and a mute martyrdom, constant self-sacrifice to the greater good of the family” (ibid.).

In Professions for Women Woolf describes the Angel as intensely charming, utterly unselfish and self-sacrificing (cf. Bowlby 1988: 47). Mrs. Ramsay meets all of the above mentioned attributes. She is a beautiful (cf. Woolf 2004: 18, 35, 49) woman supporting traditional gender roles and taking pride in providing her family and her guests an excellent stay at the summer home on the Isle of Skye.

Mrs. Ramsay’s main ambition is to protect her youngest son James, her husband and her male guests. She wants to save James’s hope for visiting the lighthouse (cf. ibid.: 5, 31), while her husband and his pupil, Charles Tansley, constantly remark that the weather will not permit going there and, thus, try to destroy James’s optimism and demand a realistic view from the child. Nevertheless, Mrs. Ramsay particularly protects her husband and the other male guests, even Mr. Tansley or the opium addict Augustus Carmichael who ignores her (cf. ibid.: 47-8). Mrs. Ramsay thinks that men shoulder the burden of their work and thus need to be protected and reassured by women:

“Indeed, she had the whole of the other sex under her protection; for reasons she could not explain, for their chivalry and valour, for the fact that they negotiated treaties, ruled India, controlled finance; finally for an attitude towards herself which no woman could fail to feel or to find agreeable, something trustful, childlike, reverential” (ibid.: 8).

She thinks that all wives are to subject themselves their husband’s labours (ibid.: 14). Although she senses that men do the important work, she feels a power that only women seem to have: She “pitied men always as if they lacked something – women never, as if they had something” (ibid.: 98). However, this female power is only discovered through Lily Briscoe’s imagination in the Lighthouse section of the book and will be discussed in 3.2.

Conventions play a big role for Mrs. Ramsay, for instance, when she constantly tries to marry Minta Doyle to Paul Rayley and Lily Briscoe to William Bankes. She propagandizes marriage and procreation, “as if it were an escape for her” (ibid.: 70). Although she knows that this is not the ideal way of life for everyone, she is trapped in these traditional Victorian values. She is also annoyed by the state of the summerhouse, getting “shabbier and shabbier” (ibid.: 32) every year. Mrs. Ramsay even gets angry and sad about the fact that all the doors in the house are left open and that she made the stockings for the lighthouse keeper’s boy too short (cf. ibid.: 33-4). Thinking about the future of her children and her younger guests, she remembers having said to all of them, ”You shall go through it all. […] For that reason, knowing what was before them – love and ambition and being wretched alone in dreary places – she had often the feeling,

[...]

Excerpt out of 13 pages

Details

Title
From Victorian gender roles towards a new female identity: Feminism in Virginia Woolf’s "To the Lighthouse"
College
Bielefeld University
Course
Modernism
Grade
1,3
Author
Year
2005
Pages
13
Catalog Number
V59554
ISBN (eBook)
9783638534628
ISBN (Book)
9783638843980
File size
496 KB
Language
English
Notes
Woolf needed to understand and respect her mother's household Angel role and her father's callous behaviour to create a new possible identity for herself and for every woman of her generation. Arisen from the time of feminist movement, To the Lighthouse can still enlighten psychological processes on the family level in today's society.
Tags
Victorian, Feminism, Virginia, Woolf’s, Lighthouse, Modernism, Female, Identity
Quote paper
Tobias Nahrwold (Author), 2005, From Victorian gender roles towards a new female identity: Feminism in Virginia Woolf’s "To the Lighthouse", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/59554

Comments

  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: From Victorian gender roles towards a new female identity: Feminism in Virginia Woolf’s "To the Lighthouse"



Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free