To The Lighthouse And Lady Oracle
– Gender: Society?s Restraint Essay, Research Paper
Time and time again gender-conflict is brought to the attention of the public in various forms. In our time someone who wants to make a point about gender-conflict and the inequality that is present will be more likely to use television or song to reach their audience. This however is a fairly new technology. Books or some form of writing on the other hand have been around for thousands of years. Gender-conflict is nothing new. It is not as though one day it just came out of no where. It has been around since the dawn of time. What is a man?s place and what is a woman?s place in society or is there really a specific place at all; further more are we even really that different to begin with? Two classic novels To the Lighthouse and Lady Oracle are perfect examples of how gender-conflict is viewed and present in our society, but what is it that they are trying to teach us?
One of the central motif?s in To the Lighthouse is the conflict between the feminine and masculine principles at work in pretty much the entire universe. Mrs. Ramsay, with her emotional, poetical frame of mind, represents the female principle, while Mr. Ramsay, a self-centered philosopher, expresses the male principle in his rational point of view. Both of which are flawed by their restricted and somewhat ignorant perspectives. A painter and friend of the family, Lily Briscoe, is Woolf’s vision of the “androgynous artist” who personifies the ideal blending of male and female qualities. When looked at more deeply Lily does not only personify the ideal male/female role in society but she is also representation of Woolf herself.
Growing up as a female little alone trying to fit into the stereotypical role a women is expected to fill in a male dominated society can be a trying experience for any woman if not all women. Joan, the main character in Lady Oracle, is no exception from this. Joan is able to provide the reader with a vivid description of the anxieties and ordeals of being a female throughout childhood and adolescence. She starts out with the simple desire to love and be loved, to find acceptance. These desires are not gender specific, as both males and females strive to be love and be loved and find acceptance. The difference is how women and men actually find these. Due to constant victimization by others a pattern of outsiders becomes Joan?s defense and revenge. Joan’s early misery and resentment causes her to see life as her adversary. Because she is made to feel like an object, as many women in her time felt, Joan learns to use embodiment as a weapon that will reach her emotionally inaccessible mother: “By this time I was eating steadily, doggedly, stubbornly, anything I could get. The war between myself and my mother was on in earnest; the disputed territory was my body” (65). Joan claims to resist every effort to make her reduce out of a fear of assimilation and loss of autonomy: “I wasn’t going to let myself be diminished, neutralized. I wouldn’t ever let her make me over in her image, thin and beautiful” (85-6). This in her mind would be surcoming to the gender stereotype that woman not only should fit into, but had to fit into. It was her own way of rebelling against what a woman should be and being herself. Whether this was the correct way to go about it, her reasons were her reasons and that is what is important to her. Unfortunately this only caused a vicious circle. The more she rebelled against the gender norm for her society the more she was ostracized and ridiculed, and the more intense the pressure became to fit into society.
Men though out history have always had “the power” over women. This sort of patriarchal society has existed long before recorded history. Another one of Woof?s main theme in the novel To the Lighthouse is the effects of patriarchy on the creative lives of women. Instead of centering her novel around the violent abuses of power in a patriarchal society or the effects on social life of prohibiting middle-and upper-class women from education or employment, Woolf centers her novel around the subtle distortions which a
strict division of gender roles produces on personalities and on family life. This is clearly evident in the protagonist/antagonist aspect of her novel. The protagonist, who is Lily, struggles to be an artist in a society where women are expected only to be wives and mothers like Mrs. Ramsey is. The Antagonist is Mrs. Ramsey. She is he perfect model of the old generation?s value of a woman?s place in the patriarchy. This clash is much more important then the male/female clash because it is a female/female clash. How a women should fit into society and the battle that is fought to go beyond the gender stereotypes and the place of women in the society.
In Margaret Atwood?s Lady Oracle, Joan fantasizes and later writes about the constantly sought after ideal of love, all she ever really yearns for is the acknowledgment of her needs and the feeling that she is needed. Again as stated earlier this is normal for anyone one. Unfortunately, she is immersed in an individualistic patriarchal culture that denies the possibility of exerting one’s identity in a non-reactionary way. Society’s constructs decree the role and the image that one is to assume. This meaning men have there place and woman have there place. There is no room for blending of roles, no gray area one might say. The blending of roles would surely mean that you are less masculine or less feminine, and that could never be tolerated. Men were men, and women were women. Joan’s constant cruel relegation to the margins of society causes her to develop a acute, empathetic eye for the pain of others. Because Joan has gave up on attempting to satisfy any of society’s prescribed roles, she becomes able to see past the ideals and images of bliss that it successfully sells:
Escape wasn’t a luxury for them, it was a necessity… I had the power to turn them from pumpkins to pure gold… Why refuse them their castles, their persecutors and their princes… The truth was that I dealt in hope, I offered a vision of a better world” (31-2).
Joan feels it is healthy to put up a wall of protection to keep the real world at bay, while retreating into the world of fantasy Gothic romances to satisfy her needs and those of her female readers. Immersed in a society where one cannot escape the pressure to fit the proper image and act the according role, Joan seeks escape into the world of fantasy, in which the creative and deceptive potentialities give the impression of freedom. As ridiculous as that may be she was able to escape the rules and boundaries set by society. In an unconventional manner none the less but still she was successful. Atwood also undermines the position of language that reflects objective reality. The plot within a plot structure disrupts the calendar of the main narrative, thus creating several dofferent temporal levels intertwined within each other. These seem to suggest the dissolution of identity and the lack of unity that characterize Joan’s society. Nothing and no-one can be clearly labeled..
One of Woolf’s lifelong concerns was the role of women in a patriarchal society. In Woolf’s time, learned men wrote scholarly and well-respected books on the intellectual inferiority of women. This is where Woolf herself fits into the novel and how she uses Lily Briscoe to represent her own beliefs and struggles throughout her own life. Woolf understood the overt and covert pressures placed on women not to write. Her being a writer this was very obvious to her as it was her life. One such pressure was created by the ideology of true womanhood, which was very strong during the Victorian period and is residually present in our own time. This ideology held that women belonged in the home where they provided a civilizing influence over men. Women were to be the restricted to the house. This was not only just some underlying belief in the society, but it went as deep as having Newspaper editorials, scholarly books, medical professionals, preachers, lawmakers all producing reasons why it was in women’s and in civilization’s best interests to keep middle- and upper-class women uneducated and unemployed. Clearly this was a very sexist view, but it was the view none the less held by the majority in power therefor that?s the way it was, and to an extent still is today.
Even though gender roles and the conflicts that are present due to them in today?s society are more flexible and lenient they have been in the past, it is still a very large problem. Only time will set things straight. Men and women are no longer restricted to specific roles. Even though they may be shunned for their choices it is more widely acceptable then it has ever been for a man to stay at home with the kids, or for the woman to go out to work in a job with a very powerful position. Gender-conflict has been around since the dawn of time. But since the dawn of time many significant leaps and bounds have been made. What is a man?s place and what is a woman?s place in society? In an ideal world there is no conflict. Unfortunately that type of world is still far away. Fortunately we are a lot closer then we were even as far back as one hundred years ago. Two classic novels To the Lighthouse and Lady Oracle are perfect examples of how gender-conflict is viewed and present in our society. By looking at the underlying story in the novels we are able to see the conflicts of gender as what they truly are; petty and ignorant. We all know what must be done to overcome the stereotypes placed in the society. It is just a matter of time. The two novels give us a better look into humanity and what it means to be human, not make or female, but human. Basically what these novels teach us is that it is fatal to be a man or a woman pure and simple; one must be woman-manly or man-womanly.
Works CitedAtwood, Margaret. Lady Oracle.Toronto: Seal Books, 1999.
Cooke, Nathalie. Margaret Atwood: A biography. ECW Press, 1988.
Dworkin, Andrea. Woman Hating. New York: Dutton, 1974.
Fokkema, Douwe W. An Interpretation of To the Lighthouse: With Reference to the Code of Modernism. Tel Aviv, Israel, 1979.
Ruddick, Lisa. The Seen and the Unseen: Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. Cambridge: Harvard, 1977.
Woolf, Virginia. To the Lighthouse. New York: Oxford, 1999.