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("Why did men drink wine and women water? Why was one sex so prosperous and the other so

poor? What effect has poverty on fiction? What conditions are necessary for the creation of works

of art?") and then resolves upon a trip to the British Museum in order to "strain off what was perso-

nal and accidental in all these impressions and so reach the pure fluid, the essential oil of truth."

She looks in the catalogue in the British Library for books about women and marvels at how many

have been written, and under the rubrics of how many different disciplines. Checking the "M" li-

stings, she finds that no such archive exists on the topic of males.

Arbitrarily selecting a few of these books, she finds a great array of opinions and topics and finally

pauses resentfully with one professor's statement of "the mental, moral, and physical inferiority of

women." She decides that these studies, whatever their differences, had all "been written in the red

light of emotion and not in the white light of truth." They betray an underlying anger that prevents

them from approaching their subject objectively. "Why are they angry?" the narrator asks herself as

she breaks for lunch. She concludes that if the author of the study on the inferiority of women had

argued dispassionately, she would not have become incensed herself: "I had been angry because

he was angry." The narrator intuits a depth of motivation and response underlying this issue, and

she decides that male scholars have been less interested in the inferiority of women than in pre-

serving and authenticating their sense of male superiority. Women have served as mirrors to men,

in this sense, for centuries.

Here, the narrator is interrupted by the necessity of paying the bill. She takes the opportunity, while

on the subject of her own finances, to inform us that she was left a legacy of five hundred pounds a

year by her aunt, Mary Beton. She remembers getting the letter at the same time that women were

granted the vote, and observes that the inheritance was more important in securing her freedom. It

relieved her not only of the obligation to work for a living, but also of hatred and bitterness of tem-

perament. It allowed her to forgive men for their collective injustices toward women, and to see

males too as victims in some ways of their education and culture. Ultimately, the financial freedom

gave her the "freedom to think of things in themselves."

Returning home, the narrator finds herself entering into a strikingly domestic setting. She thinks to

herself that it is nearly impossible to say whether the kinds of labor that have traditionally been per-

formed by women are more or less valuable than the (usually more quantifiable) work done by

men. The question is unanswerable: not only does domestic labor fall outside of any economic in-

dexes of value, but its cultural value also changes "from decade to decade." She envisions a future

in which there will be no gender-based division of labor. "But what bearing has all this upon the

subject of my paper, Women and Fiction?" she wonders as she enters the house.

Commentary

The narrator's first naive belief in the British Museum as a bastion of unadulterated truth is an iro-

nic swipe on Woolf's part, and she quickly disabuses her protagonist of this error. Woolf herself

does not hope to uncover any trans-historical truth about women, in part because her project is to

show that the status of women (and literary achievement in general) is context-bound and histori-

cally relative. She does leave room, however, for a certain kind of objectivity in one's approach to

the question. The work that has been done by men was written in anger, she is sure: "When I read

what he wrote about women I thought, not of what he was saying, but of himself. When an author

argues dispassionately he thinks only of the argument; and the reader cannot help thinking of the

argument too." She advocates for a disinterested approach, which means that she must purge

herself of her own anger at the kinds of analyses she has been reading. Her goal is to place her-

self above the fray of the war between the sexes, where the air is clearer and one is more likely to

arrive at some kind of truth. The fictionalization of the essay is one of Woolf's strategies for remo-

ving the argument from her own personal injuries and resentments.

Woolf is careful not to blame men for the unequal treatment of women over the centuries. Or, ina-

smuch as she does blame them, she attributes the violences of patriarchy to universal human foi-

bles. "Life for both sexes—and I look at them, shouldering their way along the pavement—is ar-

duous, difficult, a perpetual struggle. It calls for gigantic courage and strength. More than anything,

perhaps, creatures of illusion that we are, it calls for confidence in oneself." For men, over the

ages, women have served as an instrument for reinforcing that necessary self-confidence. Women

have been the mirrors in which man wished to see only the reflection of his own grandeur. If this

has been detrimental to women, it is nevertheless true, the narrators surmises, that "mirrors are

essential"—to "heroic action" as well as to violence. Yet in spite of her unwillingness to pass

judgment in a personal or resentful way, she takes a stand against this sexist mode of operation

from a cultural point of view, invoking fascist and dictatorial political regimes as the extreme mo-

dels of this kind of thinking.

The narrator's ability to consider the subject of gender inequality with disinterestedness stems in

large part from her financial independence. She has five hundred pounds a year, and the effect of

that income is to dissolve the frustration and vulnerability that would color her thinking and writing

in a negative way. It is for this same reason that the writer of literature, in Woolf's view, must enjoy

the luxury of financial freedom. Artistic production, even more perhaps than rational argumentation,

requires that all traces of the particular self be distilled in the "white light of truth."

Chapter 3

Summary

The narrator returns home disappointed at not having rounded up some useful tidbit of truth from

her researches at the British Library. She turns at this point to history, which, she conjectures, "re-

cords not opinions but facts." As her starting point, she chooses to look into the lives of English

women during the Elizabethan period—an era of surpassing literary accomplishment, but only

among men. It is a virtue of Shakespeare's plays, she observes, that they seem, like enchanted

spider-webs, "to hang there complete by themselves." In reality, however, even his works "are not

spun in mid-air by incorporeal creatures, but are the real work of suffering human beings, and are

attached to grossly material things, like health and money and the houses we live in."

History turns up little except a few terse statements about the legal rights of women in the early

modern period (which were virtually non-existent). This reticence on the topic of women, and the

fact of her utter powerlessness, strikes discordantly with the prevalence in literature of complex

and strong female characters from ancient times to the present. "A very queer, composite being

thus emerges. Imaginatively she is of the highest importance; practically she is completely insigni-

ficant. ...Some of the most inspired words, some of the most profound thoughts in literature fall

from her lips; in real life she could hardly read, could scarcely spell, and was the property of her

husband." In light of this paradox, the solution to the problem of trying to conceptualize the Eliza-

bethan woman seems to be to pool the resources of history and fiction.

"It would have been impossible," the narrator concludes from this thought-experiment, "completely

and entirely, for any woman to have written the plays of Shakespeare in the age of Shakespeare."

To illustrate this conclusion, she conjures the imaginary character of Judith Shakespeare. Judith is

as gifted perhaps as her brother, but receives no education except that which she can create for

herself in what free time she has. Although she is "the apple of her father's eye," her family expects

her to conform to a social role that leaves no room for the development of her talent. She writes

some, in secret, but hides or burns her work for fear of reprisal. She becomes engaged at a young

age. When she begs to be allowed not to marry, she is chastised and beaten by her father. After

this she runs away, driven by "the force of her own gift alone." She wants to go into acting, but

meets with rejection and ridicule. She is finally taken up by a theater-manager, becomes pregnant

by him, and commits suicide.

This is how the life of a woman with Shakespeare's genius might have looked at that time, the nar-

rator argues. But she goes on to assert that "it is unthinkable that any woman in Shakespeare's

day should have had Shakespeare's genius"- -or no more than the first germ of genius, and cer-

tainly not the kind that would ever have translated itself into brilliant writing. "For genius is not born

among labouring, uneducated, servile people," except with the rarest exceptions—and even then,

that social condition glares through as a limitation of the art. In that age, genius engendered wit-

ches and lunatics among women, and "Anonymous," she argues, was most likely a woman as

well.

Having explored the deep inner conflicts that a gifted woman must have felt during the Renaissan-

ce, the narrator goes on to ask, "What is the state of mind that is most propitious to the act of crea-

tion?" She marvels at the "prodigious difficulty" of producing a work of genius, and observes that

circumstances generally conspire against it. She cites as obstacles the indifference of most of the

world, the profusion of distractions, and the heaping up of various forms of discouragement. This is

true for all artists, but how much more so for women! A woman would not even have a room of her

own, unless her parents were exceptionally wealthy, and in her spending money and discretionary

time she would be totally at the mercy of others. Being regularly told of female ineptitude, women

would surely have internalized that belief; the absence of any tradition of female intellectuals would

have made such arguments all the more viable. Though we like to think of genius as transcendent,

the narrator holds that the mind of the artist is actually particularly susceptible to discouragement

and vulnerable to the opinion of others. The mind of the artist, she says, "must be incandescent.

...There must be no obstacle in it, no foreign matter unconsumed."

Commentary

In this chapter, the narrator turns to history to look for "facts" about the relationship between wo-

men and literature. Relevant facts, however, prove to be few and far between. Once again, fiction

is enlisted to help complete the history—and to expose, along the way, the biases and omissions

of canonical knowledge. The absence of objective historical facts is a real obstacle for the person

attempting to reconstruct the experience of 16th century women: "Here am I asking why women

did not write poetry in the Elizabethan age, and I am not sure how they were educated; whether

they were taught to write; whether they had sitting rooms to themselves; how many women had

children before they were twenty-one; what, in short, they did from eight in the morning till eight at

night." In spite of this gap in the historical record, however, the narrator provides an astute analysis

of the conflicting values and impulses to which such a woman would have been susceptible. She

points out that sexist assumptions would have been internalized, showing how oppression of this

kind comes from within as well as from without. The touching portrait of Judith Shakespeare takes

us beyond mere facts, touching the tragedy and anguish that would have been at the heart of an

intelligent woman's experience at that time. Even while bemoaning the missing history, the author

is aware that a purely objective view would not do justice to this subjective experience in the way

the portrait of Judith Shakespeare might hope to. "Objectivity," in this instance, must take the form

not of scientific detachment, but rather of imaginative engagement.

The narrator elaborates more fully the point from the first chapter that genius depends on certain

conditions—and that these conditions, at the most basic level, are material and social. Because

Shakespeare is so often sanctified as the pure genius who transcends all conditions of circum-

stance and surroundings, his era and his sister provide apt templates for Woolf's argument. There

are two important ideas in play here. The first is that all art, even Shakespeare's, is in fact enabled

by a historical, social, and economic reality, whether or not that reality finds articulation in the art

itself. The different outcomes of William and Judith Shakespeare serve to dramatize this point, and

also to account for the fact that women simply were not writing literature at that time. The second

point is an aesthetic one: that good art in fact should not betray the personal circumstances sur-

rounding its production. In order to achieve "incandescence," the intensity of the art must burn

away "all desire to protest, to preach, to proclaim an injury, to pay off a score, to make the world

the witness of some hardship of grievance." It is in their incandescence that Shakespeare's plays

achieve their greatness. But that characteristic is itself a luxury, and a product of social and mate-

rial privilege (in much the same way that the narrator's five hundred pounds a year allows her to

think about her controversial topic with charity and equanimity). The very fact that we know so little

about Shakespeare as a person testifies to the greatness of his art.

Chapter 4

Summary

Incandescence, the narrator reiterates, is a state of mind that simply would have been impossible

for a woman in the sixteenth century. She continues her history by tracing the gradual emergence

of women writers out of that blank past. The first would have been aristocrats, women of "compara-

tive freedom and comfort" who had the resources not only to spend their time writing, but also to

brave public disapproval. This is how the narrator accounts for the poetry of Lady Winchilsea

around the turn of the eighteenth century. Her work, however, is far from incandescent: "one has

only to open her poetry to find her bursting out in indignation against the position of women." She

then turns to the writings of Margaret of Newcastle, who might have been a poet or a scientist but

instead "frittered her time away scribbling nonsense." Like Lady Winchilsea, she was an aristocrat,

had no children, and was married to the right kind of man. The letters of Dorothy Osborne, next off

the shelf, indicate a disdain for women who write, and at the same time betray a remarkable verbal

gift in their own right. With Aphra Behn, the narrator identifies a turning point: a middle class wo-

man making a living by her writing, in defiance of conventions of chastity. The later eighteenth cen-

tury saw droves of women following her example, and these paved the way for the likes of Jane

Austen and George Eliot. "All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra

Behn ...for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds."

Why were all these women writers novelists? The major nineteenth-century figures, except for the

fact that all were childless, seem to have had very little in common. The narrator offers several

reasons why they all might have been attracted to the novel form. For one thing, these women

wrote in the shared space of the sitting-room; perhaps the novel proved a hardier form than poetry

in this climate of distraction. Secondly, without any formal literary training, the education nineteenth

century women received in reading character and behavior would have been their main literary as-

set—one most applicable to the novel. Emily Bronte might have made a better dramatic poet; Eliot

was by disposition a historian or biographer. Yet these women wrote novels (though Bronte also

wrote lyric poems), and the novels were good ones. Jane Austen was known to hide her work

when someone entered the room, yet her novels are written "without hate, without bitterness, wit-

hout fear, without protest, without preaching." Like Shakespeare, the narrator thinks, Austen wrote

in such a way that her art "consumed all impediments." Charlotte Bronte does not write with that

same incandescence; Bronte may have had more genius than Austen, but her writing bears the

scars of her personal wounds.

Integrity, in the novelist, "is the conviction that he gives one that this is the truth." It is what holds

novels together and makes them exciting to read. This is a simple principle, but how difficult to

achieve! "For the most part," we are told, "novels do come to grief somewhere." The narrators

wonders how the sex of the novelist affects the possibility of achieving this artistic integrity. For

Bronte it certainly did: "She left her story, to which her entire devotion was due, to attend to some

personal grievance. She remembered that she had been starved of her proper due of experience.

...Her imagination swerved from indignation and we felt it swerve." Not only anger, but ignorance,

fear, and pain are the residue of gender in Bronte's case, nor is Bronte alone in this: "One has only

to skim those old forgotten novels and listen to the tone of voice in which they are written to divine

that the writer was meeting criticism; she was saying this by way of aggression, or that by way of

conciliation. ...She was thinking of something other than the thing itself." Only Jane Austen and

Emily Bronte manage to eradicate that central flaw, to maintain integrity in the face of criticism, op-

position, and misunderstanding. Their achievement, under the circumstances, is miraculous.

The lack of an existing literary tradition is, in the narrator's opinion, the greatest obstacle for these

heroic nineteenth-century writers. The writings of the greatest literary men were no help to the fe-

male author against the problem "that there was no common sentence ready for her use." The ma-

sculine sentence of a Johnson, say, would not do, and these motherless women had a great work

before them. This may be another explanation for the turn to the novel, which form "alone was yo-

ung enough to be soft in her hands." But women may not always choose to write novels, the narra-

tor predicts. They have poetry in them still unexpressed. This does not necessarily mean that they

will write poems, however, but that they may channel that poetry into some new form, as yet un-

conceived.

Commentary

The narrator begins to outline (with great reverence) the women's literary tradition to which she

herself is heir, and which was so conspicuously absent for those first women writers. Even the "in-

numerable bad novels" that women produced in the years after Behn made writing into an industry

are a salient piece in this tradition. The fact that writing could generate income was foundational for

all that came later; "money dignifies what is frivolous if unpaid for."

Woolf has returned, in this fourth chapter of her essay, to the point from which she refused to begin

it: a discussion of prominent women writers. After all that has been discussed about the conditions

for genius and its expression, the careers of the canonical literary women appear in a fresh light.

We are asked to consider what they did and did not achieve in terms of the incandescence and

integrity of their work. This aesthetic standard itself is a luxury hard-won; Woolf wants us to see

that it could not have been applied a generation earlier, and that its very relevance measures the

leaps these women have made. Charlotte Bronte had axes to grind; the fact that they show up in

her work is a failing, but it doesn't make her grievances any less legitimate or make her any less

important in the history Woolf is outlining. The fact the Austen wrote as purely as she did appears,

in light of the total absence of tradition or precedent, as a near miracle.

The form of Woolf's essay enacts the changes it describes. The narrative details with which the

first chapters were littered begin to fall away as the speaker enters into full engagement with her

ideas. The daily comings and goings of the fictional narrator recede into the background, and the

argument—the ideas themselves—comes to the fore. It took some uphill work to get to this point

however. Even though that lead-up and preparation may not be evident in the flush of the argu-

ment, they are its invisible foundation. Like the five hundred pounds, or those first, bad novels by

women, these foundations disappear in the bright light of what they enable. It is this bedrock which

Woolf, for the purposes of this essay, has wanted us to see; yet it is precisely what a work of art

ought not to exhibit.

The statement that there is a uniquely female way of writing—a woman's sentence—is one of

Woolf's most provocative claims. She argues that women see and feel and value differently than

men, and that because of this they must also write differently if they are to be true to themselves

and their experience. She praises Jane Austen, who had "devised a perfectly natural, shapely sen-

tence proper for her own use and never departed from it."

Chapter 5

Summary

Moving on to "the shelves which hold books by the living," the narrator finds that women are cur-

rently writing nearly as many books as men, and that they are not only novels. "There are books on

all sorts of subjects which a generation ago no woman could have touched." In assessing the

change has occurred in women's writing in her own generation, the narrator pulls down a novel

called Life's Adventure by Mary Carmichael. It is her first novel. Looking to see what this young wri-

ter has inherited from women of the past—both writers and non-writers, both "their characteristics

and restrictions"—she first decides that the prose is not as good as Jane Austen's. "The smooth

gliding of sentence after sentence was interrupted. Something tore, something scratched." She

soon revises her opinion, however, noting that Miss Carmichael's writing actually has nothing in

common with Austen's; it is attempting something completely different. "First she broke the senten-

ce; now she has broken the sequence. Very well, she has every right to do both these things if she

does them not for the sake of breaking, but for the sake of creating."

The decisive moment in Mary Carmichael's innovation comes with the words, "Chloe liked Olivia."

The narrator stands slackjawed. How rarely, she realizes, has literature presented real, amicable

relationships between women! Women were always, at least until the nineteenth century, conside-

red in their relationship to men, and this has resulted in a huge and grave omission from literary

history, and all history. "Hence, perhaps, the peculiar nature of woman in fiction; the astonishing

extremes of her beauty and horror; her alternations between heavenly goodness and hellish de-

pravity—for so a lover would see her as his love rose or sank, was prosperous or unhappy." Wo-

men also, in Carmichael's book, have interests and pursuits outside the home. Chloe and Olivia

work together in a laboratory, a fact which greatly changes the kind of friends they can be. The nar-

rator begins to think that an importance transition has occurred, "for if Chloe likes Olivia and Mary

Carmichael knows how to express it she will light a torch in that vast chamber where nobody has

yet been." The real, unrecorded experience of women in solitude has been so little handled that its

expression will stretch the existing resources of the English language.

Mary Carmichael will have her work cut out for her, the narrator fondly acknowledges. She does

not represent the culmination of the literary development Woolf has in mind, "for she will still be

encumbered with that self-consciousness" that keeps her in the realm of "the nature-novelist" rat-

her than the contemplative artist. She will have to learn not only to tell the truth about women, but

also to tell, gently and without rancor, that bit of truth about men that has gone untold because it is

what they cannot see in themselves. But if Miss Carmichael does not have the genius of Austen or


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