If there is one thing the social commentary surrounding Virginia Woolf’s novel agrees upon, it is the undeniable multiplicity of interpretations and meanings filled within the pages of Mrs. Dalloway. While most criticisms focuses on analyzing Woolf’s critique of a woman’s social status in early British 20th century society, most critics fail to question what causes womankind to act as they do. Of course, it is easy to conclude social boundaries force women to cohere to certain traditional standards, but this assertion disregards the most important characteristic that influences women in society: The perceptions of men.
Although Woolf does not give one direct or pointed stance of her personal critique of the female role, one natural conclusion can be made: Women want to become the embodiment of men. In Alex Zwerdling’s book Virginia Woolf and the Real World, this idea can be further explained by exploring his proposal about Mrs. Dalloway: “The novel in large [is] an examination of a single class [the governing class] and its control over English society” (120). The ruling class of Virginia Woolf’s world is one that relies on the traditions of the past.
One holding patriarchy as the central pillar for ideology (one’s ethos of worldview), and where domestic, institutional, and state politics coverage to uphold and maintain male domination. It is a world in which society values men for possessing the traits equating them to being perceived as possessing manliness—having masculinity, power, independence, and dominance over others. Therefore, the social pressures resulting from this system, honoring and facilitating to the worship of virility, mandated certain behaviors determining the classification of individuals in Mrs. Dalloway.
In consequence, a system obsessed with manliness was constructed, confining its inhabitants to rules dictating how one should live and act in life. The novel, Mrs. Dalloway, captures, through her female characters, the resulting influence of living in a world where representing maleness is desired. As a result, the disposition of the female cast—Clarissa, Ms. Kilman, and Elizabeth—are altered (their behaviors, thoughts, and outlook on the world), so that they try to mimic the behaviors of men. The orthodoxy of desiring manliness transcends not only into societal bounds, but also into how women perceive the world.
Womankind has a clear place in society with rules imposed on them that they must follow, because they develop a different kind of relationship with society. Unlike men, who are afforded more liberties and freedoms (they shape how society is built), women are given a sense of false consciousness to accept a repressive role in society. Clarissa Dalloway explains how women acknowledge the inequalities by asserting that she, and other women, cannot escape from the forceful voice of men: “[I would] disappear, but London would have none of it… [London] constrained her to [a] partnership… ”(Dalloway 35).
Society restricts the advancement of anything outside the parameters set forth by ruling men in accordance to the “masculine ideal. ” The values of society rely on maintaining the image of “man is god. ” Septimus Smith’s following thoughts reiterates upon how society works: Once you fall, Septimus repeated to himself, human nature is on you. Holmes and Bradshaw are on you. They scour the desert. They fly screaming into the wilderness. The rack and the thumbscrew are applied. (Dalloway 140) If there is one thing Septimus’s assertion suggests it is that men are the caretakers of ensuring the order of masculine domination.
Society exploits women so men can achieve their vision of masculinity. The “Holmes’s and Bradshaw’s” in the world are the men who hamper down any desires questioning the system to protect the system of patriarchy. Therefore, it is within the power of the system, based on male envy, to label women as objects—peripheral characters who have no redeeming qualities. As Clarissa puts it, “half the time she did things not simply, not for [herself]; but to make people think this or that” (Dalloway 41). Women did not have the minds necessary for intellectual thought.
Matson, a critic, furthers this assertion in her essay “The Textual Politics of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway” by explaining “women in patriarchy [are] relegated to the background of his/story; she occupies the position of passive, objectified other” (Matson 164). Matson’s assertion addresses how the dichotomy of gender is constructed. Men impose a certain model for women to follow by categorizing them (placing them as the “other”), so that the boundary between the two is maintained. The obvious differences, thus, provides the gender roles ascribed to society.
The “othering” of womankind places them in a different plane of existence—one that is lesser—since men attribute anything possessing “unmaliness” as bad. As a result, Matson argues, the female characters in the novel lack “textual authority. ” The female cast in the novel does not have power or a sense of power, which is why their actions and words are not deemed vital. Matson proves this idea by examining Lady Bruton. Miss Bruton seeks the help of a man to write a letter for her, which makes her wonder if “her own meaning [could] sound like that” (Woolf 110).
Lady Bruton’s small assertion reaffirms the female standing in society. Women are in a world where meaning is created and maintained by mankind’s labeling. The creation of meaning (of life) for women is only through the eyes of men. For instance,, Peter Walsh’s insight about the world confirms the idea that society favors men and only holds their judgments as valuable: “Beauty, the world seemed to say. And as if to prove it (scientifically) wherever [Peter] looked at the houses, at the railings, at the antelopes stretching over the palings, beauty sprang instantly” (Dalloway 102).
Peter’s words “Beauty sprang instantly” illustrate the extent of the powers men have. Because he wants beauty, beauty springs up—he controls the creation of beauty. Therefore, the world belongs to the observations men give. It is no great wonder Clarissa Dalloway wants to be a man. Not in the literal sense, of course, but she wants the benefits naturally given to men. She wants independence, autonomy, and desires to make meaning in her own life; traits belonging to men. The influence of wanting to be a man guides her life.
She decides to not marry Peter Walsh, because with Peter, “everything had to be shared, everything” (Woolf 83). If she would have married him then she would have been engulfed by his superior status, losing her independence; she would have been like any other typical woman in society, she would have been another victim of the system. Her desire for freedom, like that of man, trumped her love for Peter, and, in doing so, her decision marks the first step she takes to ensure her mimicry of being a man.
The appeal stems from the fact that if she rejects Peter and marries someone else, who gives her more freedom, she will have the opportunity to model her life around trying to become masculine. To be like a man, privacy trumps all, leading her to sleep by herself in her attic, and possess a carefree attitude towards things that had no regard to her independence. The following quote exemplifies her nonchalantness: “Some committee? ‘ She asked, as he opened the door. ‘Armenians,’ he said; or perhaps it was ‘Albanians’” (Woolf 132).
Clarissa did not care where her husband had gone, and she did not bother to care. As long as she was not affected by something, her thoughts revolve around herself. Lastly, Clarissa tries to make meaning in her own actions, something only men do. Unlike the viewpoints men place on her parties, expressed through Peter, Clarissa thinks the purpose of her parties are to bring people together, an offering of acceptance and traditions. It is not the representation of hypocrisy and insecurity of society that Peter proposes.
The dominant ideology of being manlike shapes Clarissa’s actions to mimic the system, and her strive to become a male. Miss Kilman is the physical manifestation of a character striving for the embodiment of manliness—the desire for power, for independence, for things. Because she is not inside the Dalloway’s social class, she has a fierce jealousy for their things. She is convinced that she has the right to their possessions, but she lacks the means to own all them. Miss Kilman’s mentality of “entitlement” represents the side of masculinity she clearly clings to, since it transcends from her thoughts to reality.
For instance, when Miss Kilman is eating in the restaurant with Elizabeth, she eats in an odd manner: It was her way of eating, eating with intensity, then looking, again and again, at the plate and a child sat down and the child took the cake, could Miss Kilman really mind it? Yes, Miss Kilman did mind it. She had wanted that cake – the pink one. The pleasure of eating was almost the only pure pleasure left her, and then to be baffled even in that! ( Woolf 131) This scene is an illustration of her greediness and how she wishes to consume everything at the table, even Elizabeth.
Her role models for mimicry are the Dalloway’s, which can illustrate the extent of the pursuit for masculinity. It does not matter what form male symbolism is in, because individuals know it when they see it, and want it regardless if it is not a “pure” form. This idea is further explained by her thoughts: She was about to split asunder, she felt. The agony was so terrific. If she could grasp [it], if she could clasp [it], if she could make [it] hers absolutely and forever and then die; that was all she wanted” (Woolf 132).
Her ache just to grasp living life as a man is something that consumed her life; her words clearly mirror her yearning within. Miss Kilman is just one woman who strives to be inside the dominant culture, the man culture. Elizabeth Dalloway, unlike Clarissa and Miss Kilman, radically dismisses the “otherness” assigned to woman, and she values herself as if she was a man. If there is one certain thing about Elizabeth it is that “she [is] a pioneer” (Woolf 134). She does not want to do anything that is associated with the ascribed stereotypes of women.
She is uninterested with the whole ordeal: “every man fell in love with her, and she was really awfully bored” (Woolf 136). The language surrounding Elizabeth’s assertion could have easily used some other euphemism to modify bored, but “awfully” illustrates the depth of displeasure she holds for the rules placed down upon her. In a society where power, dominance, and freedom is looked up to, why would she not want to belong to it? A clear representation of Elizabeth’s determination to be like men is her thoughts about her future: “She liked people who were ill… o she might be a doctor, she might be a farmer. Animals are often ill. She might own a thousand acres and have people under her” (Woolf 136). Her refusal to acknowledge societal gender roles is the reason why she embraces and acts out masculinity. Her refusal to be wrapped around “parties” and other “nuisances” all signify her male independence, the direct influence of living in a world where manliness is desired. Mrs. Dalloway does not provide fictitious accounts of how the societal arrangement works, or ideas for the betterment of it, but rather highlights the evident properties it has.
The novel’s main concern is portraying the impact of patriarchal society on women’s lives. Living in a society where the common conventions of structuring is around men impacts its inhabitants in many ways. Women try to grasp the valued concept of “manliness” so that they can achieve a man’s role and live a different life: One where they can live life according to their own wants, needs, and desires. While it is easy to dismiss this argument on the grounds that it is too extreme and one sided, this argument should not be overlooked. The argument leaves out how the system impacts men, because the results are the same.
If this essay would have looked at Septimus, readers would have seen the same thing. Septimus strives to be like other men in society, and even joins the army to gain a better sense of recognized masculinity. The only difference in his situation is the fact that his obsession for manliness, like society, killed him. He died because he did not believe he could achieve the personified “ideal” of virility. If one reads Mrs. Dalloway with the concepts and ideas presented (women want to be like men because of the shaping of society/ideological thinking) a different understanding of the novel can commence.
Readers can get a better grasp on why the female characters live like they do, and how the dominant ideological thinking influences them. The argument provides readers with a sense of clarity, and understanding one might not have otherwise, by giving an explanation for the female characters actions. Additionally, readers can see the beginning of the feminist movement. The striving of women to be “men” made their position in society and life apparent. Thus, the rising consciousness of women’s individuality can be attributed to women mimicking men.