Virginia Woolf: A Palpable Parody of Patriarchal Power
Richard Dalloway in The Voyage Out and Sir William Bradshaw in Mrs. Dalloway demonstrate masculine entitlement through their relationships with their respective wives, Clarissa and Lady Bradshaw, and represent hyper-masculine patriarchs with their repeated attempts to exercise control over all things, including women. The marriage of Sir William Bradshaw and Lady Bradshaw is characterized by the narrator, from Lady Bradshaw’s perspective, as, essentially, entrapment. Clarissa Dalloway, however, deludes herself into believing that she is content with her authoritarian marriage to Richard and idolizes him and refusing to see her husband as anything less than perfect. This negative view of heterosexual marriage as an unequal and oppressive partnership is clear in Richard and William’s infallible need to show dominance over and keep up control of their wives’ lives and, in Richard’s case, have power over other women who are not his wife, such as the character of Rachel Vinrace. Virginia Woolf, in her novels Mrs. Dalloway and The Voyage Out, comments on conventional heterosexual relationships by painting a satirical portrait of patriarchy and poking fun at the patriarchal male.
Specifically, in The Voyage Out, there is a scene in which Richard Dalloway exerts control over and takes advantage of Rachel Vinrace by kissing her without consent. This scene presents a picture of the stereotypical patriarchal male and his feelings as well as acting out of masculine entitlement. Richard, typical of the patriarchal male, begins his conversation with Rachel with flattery: “ ‘How strange it is to be a woman! A young and beautiful woman,’ he continued sententiously […] ‘You have beauty’ ” (76). He then “[…] took her in his arms and kissed her. Holding her tight, he kissed her passionately, so that she felt the hardness of his body and the roughness of his cheek printed upon hers” (76). The detailing of this encounter, without a doubt, illustrates Richard sexually assaulting Rachel.
After kissing Rachel without her consent, Richard says, ‘you tempt me’ and the narrator comments: “The tone of his voice was terrifying” (76). Richard projects blame onto Rachel, implying that her appearance made him kiss her, and that he simply could not resist acting on, what patriarchal men would call, his natural impulse. In this passage, Richard explicitly objectifies Rachel. The words used to describe this incident, words such as “sententiously,” “roughness,” and “terrifying,” characterize Richard as a hyper-masculine, cocky, pompous male doing what he pleases, when he pleases, to whomever he pleases (76). Richard’s actions demonstrate feelings of masculine entitlement by revealing his belief that he can do what he wants to Rachel, who is, of course, not his wife. Exploiting Rachel’s ignorance of sexuality, Richard exerts his dominance over her, which is representative, according to Woolf, of stereotypical behavior of socially privileged, controlling, heterosexual men.
Following this experience, Rachel has a terrible nightmare in which she is trapped in a moist vault with a man-like animal:
At length the tunnel opened and became a vault; she found herself trapped in it […] alone with a little deformed man who squatted on the floor gibbering, with long nails. His face pitted and like the face of an animal. The wall behind him oozed with damp, which collected into drops and slid down. Still and cold as deaths she lay, not daring to move, until she broke the agony by tossing herself across the bed, and woke […]. (77)
This dramatic reaction to her first heterosexual encounter demonstrates how Rachel felt “trapped” and hunted by Richard when he kissed her (77). Rachel’s introduction to heterosexual contact is terrifying, due to the way Richard distracts her with flattery and then kisses her without permission which, in turn, makes her feel captive and powerless. This claustrophobic feeling of entrapment is emblematic of the day-to-day life of women in heterosexual partnerships with patriarchal men, such as Richard Dalloway. The frightening imagery and words such as “oozed,” “damp,” “cold,” and “agony” heighten the intensity of the situation’s distressing impact on Rachel’s wellbeing. This depiction of heterosexuality is representative of men manipulating and trapping women; a partnership in which the male does what he wants when he wants regardless of their female partner.
Sir William Bradshaw’s presence in Mrs. Dalloway functions as a critique of conventional heterosexual marriage and patriarchal dominance. The descriptions of Sir William in the novel portray him as a controlling, arrogant, hyper-masculine doctor and husband. His interactions with patients, specifically with Septimus Smith and Septimus’s wife Rezia, shed light on Sir William’s entitled attitude, feelings of superiority, and his relentless need to show dominance and exercise control over those around him.
For instance, when Sir William is talking to Rezia about her husband’s medical state, he speaks as if he is above her and knows all: “ ‘Trust everything to me,’ he said, and dismissed them” (96). In this interaction it is clear, with the word “dismissed,” that Sir William thinks very highly of himself and believes he is above his patients. However, it is in the scene after he dismisses Rezia that the reader gets a true sense of Woolf’s critique due to the sudden change in narrative point-of-view.
In contrast to the shifting interior monologues narrated in the third-person voice, which remains consistent throughout the novel, in the passage following Sir William’s dismissal of Rezia, there is a distinct change in perspective to an omniscient narrator with a critical opinion of Sir William and his marriage to Lady Bradshaw. The narrative ventures off into a discussion about proportion and conversion that reveals an extremely cynical opinion of heterosexuality. This cynicism is established through the narrator’s detailing of the relationship between Sir William and Lady Bradshaw:
Worshipping proportion, Sir William not only prospered himself but made England prosper, secluded her lunatics, forbade childbirth, penalized despair, made it impossible for the unfit to propagate their views until they, too, shared his sense of proportion—his, if they were men, Lady Bradshaw’s if they were women (she embroidered, knitted, spent four nights out of seven at home with her son), so that not only did his colleagues respect him, his subordinates fear him, but the friends and relations of his patients felt for him the keenest gratitude for insisting that these prophetic Christs and Christesses […] should drink milk in bed, as Sir William ordered; Sir William with his thirty years’ experience of these kinds of cases, and his infallible instinct, this madness, this sense; in fact, his sense of proportion. (97)
In this scene, the omniscient narrator mocks and pokes fun at Sir William’s cocky, hyper-masculine attitude and the value placed on what he calls “having a sense of proportion” (84). In addition, it highlights the sacrifices Lady Bradshaw makes to maintain and intensify her husband’s reputation as a strong, commanding, admirable, and, what is most important, a patriarchal authority.
This discussion of Lady Bradshaw’s surrendering to Sir William is continued as the topic of conversation changes from proportion to what the narrator calls “proportion’s sister,” conversion (97). Conversion, as referenced in the novel, refers to Lady Bradshaw’s changing, alteration, and/or transformation into the submissive, passive, domestic wife that is demanded and expected of women in conventional heterosexual relationships: “Conversion is her name and she feasts on the wills of the weakly, loving to impress, to impose, adoring her own features stamped on the face of the populace” (97-98). The narrator describes Lady Bradshaw’s submission, which the narrator classifies by saying “she had gone under,” to Sir William by speaking about conversion as if it were a creature who “feasts most subtly on the human will” (98). This detailing of the “water-logged,” “slow sinking” of “her will into his” is an extremely negative view of heterosexuality that reveals heterosexual marriage as an unbearable experience for women.
Statements such as “Sweet was her smile, swift her submission,” and “Once, long ago, she had caught salmon freely: now, quick to minister to the craving which lit her husband’s eye so oilily for dominion, for power, she cramped, squeezed, pared pruned, drew back, peeped through; […] caused this pressure on the top of the head” set forth a reflection of heterosexual marriage that is similar to an experience of being enslaved (98). Marriage to Sir William is like an illness to his wife; Lady Bradshaw is trapped in a life of submission to her controlling, hyper-masculine, egomaniacal husband.
Similarly, in The Voyage Out, Woolf presents a rather satirical illustration of heterosexuality through the relationship between Arthur Venning and Susan Warrington. Woolf’s critique is most clear in the scene in which many of the characters go on an expedition in Santa Maria. It is on this expedition that Arthur proposes to Susan, and where the reader gets an unmistakably comical presentation of a heterosexual relationship. Arthur and Susan venture away from the group and sit down on the grass at a spot with a beautiful view. The interaction and conversation that goes on between the couple,—or acquaintances, since they have not had much interaction up until this point—is extremely comical, due to descriptions such as: “[…] he paused and plucked a piece of grass up by the roots. He scattered the little lumps of earth which were sticking to the roots […]” (138). It is unusual and ridiculous that Arthur is playing with grass, while in the midst of professing his love to Susan; it paints a very awkward and immature portrait of his character.
The exaggerated and satirical language continues after Arthur proposes, and Susan is “struck motionless […] her heart gave great separate leaps at the last words […] She sat with her fingers curled round a stone, looking straight in front of her down the mountain over the plain” (138-139). Here, Susan is portrayed as brash and uninterested. Instead of looking at the man who is asking her to spend the rest of her life with him, she gazes at the mountain. It is clear from the detailing of this interaction, which would usually be considered a very important moment, that Susan and Arthur’s relationship is not about love, but rather, at least for Susan, about “joining the ranks of the married women,” which means finally joining the domestic sphere and attaining a new status that allows her to feel superior to her unmarried friends (140). Susan’s previous existence as a woman bullied by her female relatives for being, what they would call a pathetic spinster, will be transformed by her marriage to Arthur. Susan is willing to submit to the role as the passive, opinionless housewife to gain a sense of importance outside of the domestic realm.
The comedy continues when Susan asks Arthur what first attracted him to her, he answers by saying, “ ‘It was a buckle you wore one night at sea […] I remember noticing—it’s an absurd thing to notice!—that you didn’t take peas, because I don’t either’ ” (139). Clearly, Arthur is not the brightest or most romantic person; in fact, based on her approving reaction to his response, neither is Susan. The fact that Arthur claims that he first realized he wanted to be with Susan when he noticed her buckle and because they share a hatred of peas is humorous, to say the least. Woolf’s witty characterization continues, as she depicts the couple as they “went on to compare their more serious tastes, or rather Susan ascertained what Arthur cared about, and professed herself very fond of the same thing” (139). Here, it is clear that Susan is simply a woman desperately attempting to escape the socially intolerable and impossible position of an unmarried old maid.
For Susan, giving up her social power is a small price to pay for the socially respected status guaranteed to women who get married. Immediately after the couple gets engaged, Susan transforms and plays the part of the passive wife with no tastes separate from those of her husband-to-be. Woolf’s depiction of Arthur and Susan represents heterosexual marriage as resembling a business transaction between a desperate woman and an ignorant, dense man. Susan trades her hand in marriage to Arthur for a socially reputable rank in a society that views unmarried women as inferior.
Considering this cynical representation of heterosexuality, the relationship between Richard and Clarissa Dalloway, in The Voyage Out, also functions as a critique of the stereotypical masculine and feminine roles designated to husband and wife. Woolf uses the relationship between Richard and Clarissa to provide, yet again, a satirical view of heterosexuality. Immediately upon entering the narrative, Richard makes his patriarchal opinions clear as he declares “ ‘[…] May I be in my grave before a woman has the right to vote in England! That is all I can say,’ ” while having a conversation about the equality of the sexes with Helen, Mr. Pepper, Ridley, and Clarissa (43). Richard goes on and on, bragging about being a politician and claiming that politicians have a better “grasp of things” than artists do, which reveals his arrogant personality (45).
Clarissa, meanwhile, appears fluttery and extremely feminine. Physically, she is depicted as the stereotypical upper-class wife of a patriarchal politician: “Clarissa, indeed, was a fascinating spectacle. She wore a white dress and a long glittering necklace. What with her clothes, and her arch delicate face, which showed exquisitely pink beneath hair turning grey, she was astonishingly like an eighteenth century masterpiece” (46-47). In this passage, words such as “spectacle,” “white,” “glittering,” “delicate,” “exquisitely,” and “pink” paint an exclusively feminine picture of Clarissa Dalloway as a sparkling, charming, and vivacious woman. Interestingly, the narrator goes on to say that Clarissa “seemed to be dealing with the world as she chose; the enormous solid globe spun round this way and that beneath her fingers,” which would imply that Clarissa is not, as the physical description suggests, a stereotypical feminine housewife who only knows the world through her husband’s eyes (47).
Later in the novel, it is revealed that Clarissa’s buoyant personality and cheerful treatment of life is indicative of the happiness and content she feels in her role as Richard’s wife. When the couple separates from the group, the reader is provided with a clear picture of the connection between Clarissa and Richard, who seem to be operating along the same wavelength. The couple is in sync with one another as they critique the appearances of the people they were conversing with in the scene prior: “They both laughed, thinking of the same things, so that there was no need to compare their impressions” (50). Here, Clarissa and Richard appear as two peas in a pod, having the same values and standards and communicating with one another in an honest and raw manner, which is unique in contrast to the detached quality of conversation typical of the other couples in the novel. To be “thinking of the same things” is a remarkable accomplishment in a world where everyone is isolated and where misunderstandings are common (50).
In addition, Clarissa’s judging of the other guests, even though she appeared to find them all charming, shows that she is nobody’s fool except, apparently, when it comes to her husband. In this passage it is clear that while Woolf does do a great deal of mocking she also pays the couple their due by portraying them in this scene as a husband and wife who understand one another. The scene continues as the narrator returns to mocking the couple with Clarissa’s declaration that they ‘must have a son,’ to which her husband reacts by saying, “ ‘To be a leader of men,’ Richard soliloquized. ‘It’s a fine career. My God—what a career!’ The chest slowly curved beneath his waistcoat ” (50).
This importance placed on having a son and continuing the family line of patriarchs, which is typical of heterosexual couples, by Richard and Clarissa in the latter passage, is satirized by the narrator. By using words such as “soliloquized” to describe Richard’s tone of voice and including the image of how his “chest slowly curved beneath his waistcoat,” the narrator is overtly mocking Richard’s ostentatious attitude and ridiculing the typical behavior and interaction that occurs in such conventional heterosexual relationships.
Further in the passage, Clarissa declares that her husband is “better” than she is, exclaiming, “ ‘You see round, where I only see there’, ” it is clear here that Clarissa depends on Richard and views him as a god-like figure. Interestingly, earlier in the scene, when the couple poked fun at the other guests, Clarissa acted like she was nobody’s fool, yet as the passage continues Clarissa seems to be choosing to be the fool when she interacts with Richard. Clarissa’s idolizing of and conscious submission to her husband is confirmed as the conversation continues and Richard reduces her to “a pretty creature” and kisses “her passionately, so that her half-written letter slid to the ground,” then goes on to pick up the letter and “read it without asking leave” (51). As is considered typical in heterosexual relationships, according to Woolf’s presentation of heterosexuality, Richard picks up the pen and “added words in his little masculine hand,” exercising and establishing control over his wife by finishing her letter (51). This description of Richard’s “little masculine hand” adds a comic quality to the already ironic portrayal of this conventional pair.
Another scene in which Richard’s masculine entitlement and belittling of Clarissa is explicitly demonstrated appears later in the novel, when Richard tells Rachel that he never “allows his wife to talk politics” (65). Here, Richard speaks of Clarissa as if she were his property, which not only reveals his objectification of his wife, but also makes his incessant need for dominance clear. In this passage it is obvious that Richard wants his wife to be happy and to shine in the domestic sphere, but it is also implied that he wants her to keep out of his political and economic domain.
The question is: why does Richard want his wife to have nothing to do with his world outside their marriage? He wants their professional lives separate because he fears the competition and questioning of his judgment that will prevail if Clarissa enters his territory. The issue with having these separate spheres is that Clarissa is limited to a domestic realm and, in turn, the relationship is authoritarian and not egalitarian. Woolf’s sarcastic tone and satirical language plainly convey a critique of the stereotypical, oppressive quality of heterosexual relationships and the absurd placing of power in the hands of pretentious, entitled, patriarchal men.
Woolf’s characterizations of Richard Dalloway in The Voyage Out and of Sir William Bradshaw in Mrs. Dalloway as power-obsessed, egotistical men function as critiques of the patriarchal system of power and of the feminine and masculine roles assigned to women and men in heterosexual relationships. Both Richard and Sir William have a superiority complex; they see themselves as men of distinction, who have achieved great professional success, which fuels their feelings of invincibility and invulnerability. These men feel as though they are superior to other men as well as to all women; therefore, they believe that they are entitled to act and do as they please, which includes limiting their wives to, and trapping them in, the domestic sphere. Lady Bradshaw and Rachel encounter similar feelings of entrapment even though they experience different types of heterosexual contact. In contrast, Clarissa appears to be enjoying life and content in her marriage to Richard, which is only because she chooses to be a fool and treats her husband like a god, refusing to acknowledge the inequality of their marriage. Woolf’s depictions of conspicuous, narcissistic, patriarchal men contribute to her revealing and critiquing of the harsh reality that is heterosexual relationships.
Woolf, Virginia. Mrs. Dalloway. Ed. Mark Hussey. New York: Harcourt, Inc., 1925. Print.
Woolf, Virginia. The Voyage Out. Orlando, Florida: Harcourt, Inc., 1920. Print.
What do you think? Leave a comment.
The first time I read Mrs. Dalloway I was confused and had a hard time tracking what was happening and what the point was.
I can honestly say I love Virginia Woolf but I only like her books. Her voice and characterization are second to none. However, her many perspective shifts are dizzying and meager plot lines make her work hard to follow as a reader.
Woolf reminds us that life goes on, even after someone we care for dies–and that death saves us from both the good and the bad.
The irony and witty dialogues is what I like the most of her writing.
I really admire Virginia Woolf’s writing style. Even though The Voyage Out is not her most acclaimed work, I enjoyed it tremendously.
I can’t tell you how many times I picked up and abandoned Mrs. Dalloway because of its stream-of-conscious style (re: run on sentences).
Morgan, thank you for this article there are so many varying views. Great job.
She writes her novels in such a way that you can find lots of differents meanings to the same parts.
Her writing is genuinely good, so in addition to an interesting story your mind is exercised a little bit.
While the voyage out was very well written from a literary standpoint, I did not care about the characters or what happened to them.
I could not find one redeeming or likeable character in The Voyage Out. The male characters were just condescending and self-centered and the women – the main young female character – had no self respect.
This article is amazing, wonderful writings!
Thanks for this perceptive analysis. My favorite novel by Virginia Woolf is To the Lighthouse. What luminous language and deep feelings in that one! It’s quite poignant and beautiful.
The Voyage Out takes the boring realist mode and plays with it just enough to do something miles more interesting.
Virginia Woolf is one of my favorite authors – her brilliancy amazes me.
Mrs. Dalloway was one of those novels that started out very strong and then began to fade off after about the halfway point.
Another reason to enjoy Virginia Woolf. Great article.
I find her nihilism refreshing.
I’ve only read some of Virginia Woolf’s shorter works but this article makes me want to take a look at her novels too!
The Voyage Out was the first I’ve read of Virginia Woolf, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. It wasn’t quite as good as I’d hoped though.
Woolf takes what may be deemed the seemingly mundane, twists it round and illuminates it.
Reading ‘The Voyage Out’ is like finding a missing link between 19th and 20th century literature.
I’ll admit that I found The Voyage Out far more engrossing than I initially thought I would. At first, I didn’t really like Rachel Vinrace, but as I got farther into the novel, her absolute uncertainty about the world around her became somehow endearing. And the end was heartbreaking.
With these two books, Woolf is all over the place and the story is very loosely constructed.
Yes, yes she is; but, that is the beauty of her writing :).
First, well written. However, the conclusion was problematic. While satire is fun, its danger lies in mistaking the exaggerated circumstances for objective reality. Which is exactly what you did: “the harsh reality that is heterosexual relationships”. To completely characterize the massive generalization that is heterosexual relationships, and assume that their dynamics have not changed at all since the early 1900s is fallaciously strong.
Perhaps something like, “to Woolf revealing and critiquing behaviors she has encountered concerning heterosexual relationships in early twentieth century London.” ?
I completely agree, for that sentence was not phrased well and my intention was to draw conclusions about Woolf’s characters existing in the early 1900s. Thank you for the comment!
As an intersectional feminist who likes to critique the fragility of masculinity, this article was spot-on. please keep writing! 🙂
Nice writing! Have you ever thought about the categorization of Clarissa between ‘Mrs. Dalloway’ and ‘Clarissa’ as related to her agency in her marriage?
I just recently reread Mrs. Dalloway; I have yet to read The Voyage Out but I plan to in the near future. This article reminded me of a quotation from A Room of One’s Own: “women have served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size.”