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Virginia Woolf's Presentation of Male and Female Relationships in Mrs. Dalloway

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How does Woolf present the relationship between men and women in the novel Mrs. Dalloway?

Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway highlights the unequal relationship between men and women living in the post-WWI period in London. The novel is set in 1923, three years after women have gotten the vote, yet there is still a female dependence on the male sex both economically and socially. This can be seen through Woolf’s female protagonist, Clarissa Dalloway, whose marriage to Richard has secured her status, financially and socially, in terms of achieving her goal to appear as “the perfect hostess”. Woolf displays the contradictory nature of the mind through the “stream of consciousness” technique, highlighting the struggle of many female characters such as Clarissa and Rezia to survive in a patriarchal society without losing their true selves. Mrs. Dalloway presents the relationship between men and women to be somewhat sacrificial on the woman’s part, as Elizabeth Abel states, “The sacrifices made to the system by wives like Richard’s Clarissa and Septimus’s Rezia are made clear by Woolf.” However, one might argue that men are not always displayed to be the dominant sex, since with cases such as Septimus and Peter there is an element of insecurity and inferiority.

On one hand, the ominous nature of male dominance in post-war London is highlighted through the monotonous motif of drowning. This can be seen through the description of Lady Bradshaw, wife of the highly proclaimed doctor, Sir William Bradshaw. Lady Bradshaw is described as having “gone under… only the slow sinking, water-logged, of her will into his.” Lady Bradshaw is displayed by Woolf as a victim of male domination,”, creating an image of an individual drowning slowly in the midst of her husbands “grey”, watery presence. The relationship between the Bradshaws highlights the prodigious extent of male pre-eminence in 1923. Similarly, we can see through the presentation of the relationship between Rezia and Septimus that Rezia too seems to have given her life and will to her suffering husband. She is described by Septimus, himself, as looking “pale, mysterious, like a lily, drowned, under water.” Septimus’s thoughts about Rezia show his awareness of how their relationship has submerged her spirit, with the description of a drowning lily highlights the destruction of something beautiful. Woolf presents male domination as a form of drowning for the woman. Woolf herself was known to be a radical feminist so it is no surprise that her text addresses the crucial issues of disproportion and power struggle in the relationship between men and women at the time. It is significant that the dominant males such as Sir William Bradshaw were heavily obsessed with the ideology of a “goddess of proportion” among society and yet failed to see the greater form of disproportion in the relationship between living men and women.

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Moreover, within the relation between the upper-class couple Clarissa and Richard Dalloway there is a strong sense of female dependence. Twentieth-century critic Susan Squier comments that “The social world of London is male-dominated, and as Clarissa can survive there only by becoming a kind of background for her menfolk.” Clarissa, unlike the other women in the text who have tendencies to drown under the weight of male oppression, is described as like a mermaid, “a creature floating in its element.” Clarissa is aware that she needs to suppress who she is to survive in the male society. She declares “this being Mrs. Dalloway; not even Clarissa any more; this being Mrs. Richard Dalloway.” This renaming serves as an erasure of her original female identity implying the conformity she has to submit to in order to survive. The post-war London society was designed for male’s mould women into their perfect depiction of the idealised woman, Patmore’s ‘The Angel in the House’ poem, first published in 1854, still resonated in the mind of many in the 20th century as a quintessential representation of the perfect woman, loyal and servant-like. This theory of the ideal woman can be seen through Peter’s stalking of the young woman in Trafalgar square: “she became the very woman he had always had in mind; young, but stately; merry, but discreet; black, but enchanting.” These contradictory expectations of women appears highly unrealistic, and with such high demands of women to fulfil men’s high standards it is no wonder women “drowned” under male influence at the time. Woolf with this example encourages the reader to question human fantasy and its remoteness from reality. Peter seems to want this woman to be everything, yet this is impossible. Also, Peter is described as having a habit of “fingering his pocket-knife” when stalking the young woman and also when being in Clarissa’s presence. Peter’s handling of the pocket-knife has connotations of phallic imagery but still it is a form of defence against women, as if he wishes to signal to them not to come too close. Furthermore, when he stalks the unknown woman through the streets of London he seems to want to attack them with the knife. With this Woolf is tapping into the most archaic fear of women – that men will attack them, will misuse their superior strength to dominate by force. The relationship between men and women is presented in these cases to appear dangerous towards the female.

Nevertheless, arguably there is also a sense of male dependence on the female. Septimus appears to depend on his relationship with Rezia, and this may be to protect the possibility that he is homosexual. The stream-of-consciousness narrative reveals “How he had married his wife without loving her.” Septimus seems to have an infatuation with his war friend Evans, who Woolf implies that he is in love with: “he drew the attention, indeed the affection of his officer, Evans by name…They had to be together, share with each other, fight with each other, quarrel with each other.” This insinuates that this is a tale of two inseparable lovers. Woolf herself is known to have had homosexual relations so it is no surprise that she incorporates it in her writing. Similar to Woolf using her husband Leonard as a way to hide her lesbian feelings, Septimus uses his wife, Rezia, to shield him from society’s judgment of his sexuality. From this angle, it can be seen that it is the man that needs the woman, and not vice versa, to survive in society. Additionally, Peter feels a sense of inferiority around Clarissa, thinking of her reminds him that “his whole life had been a failure”. Clarissa seems to have a great sense of power over Peter, diminishing the idea of male dominance. Indeed the novel ends with Peter’s feeling of “ecstasy” towards Clarissa, “What is it that fills me with extraordinary excitement? It is Clarissa.” Clarissa’s hold over Peter is perhaps Woolf’s presentation of female dominance in a relationship. Clarissa indulges in the power she holds over Peter because it is one of her few forms of dominance in the male society she dwells in. As a result, it can be seen that there is level male dependence on woman and female dominance, though almost imperceptible, is still present in post-WWI London.

In conclusion, there are many dimensions to the way in which Woolf explores the relationship between men and women in Mrs. Dalloway. Woolf in just a twelve hour span is able to unfold the tendency men have to completely consume women, when in a relationship, causing them to eventually lose themselves. According to Ellen Rosenman, in regard to Clarissa “eventually she ‘transforms herself into an artefact’ for the sake of male society at large.” Ultimately, the relationship between men and women in the 1923 setting of Mrs. Dalloway is bigoted, it allows women to be hypnotised by the ideals of society till they unconsciously lose their identities and become accessories to their own self-destruction. Women like Miss Kilman who refuse men are seen as freaks who are tormented by not belonging to society properly, yet both Clarissa and Sally have compromised their happiness by choosing men. There does not seem to be an easy path for women to tread in the world Woolf presents.

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