Sample Essay – Module A – Virginia Woolf
Although we might assume it is the same old story, we are often confronted with a different perspective shaped by a change in context and textual form. Evaluate this statement in the light of your reading of the paired texts and your examination of the values inscribed in them.Composed shortly after WWI together with an awakening female consciousness, Virginia Woolf’s 1929 essay A Room of One’s Own offers commentary on the strictures that have repressed artistic freedom and the nature of truth. The essay proposes the importance of economic self-sufficiency as a necessary tool of independence against a contextual backdrop that impedes truth. Similar to her essay, Edward Albee’s 1960 play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, explores the illusive nature of truth and its impact on human identity as the audience witness the materialism and social convention denying freedom of expression and hampering the characters ability to face and access truth.
In her exploration of the historical context of the 17th, 18th and 19th century, Woolf conveys the impact of inequity and intellectual domination on female identity and hence artistic freedom. “This was the turf, there was the path. Only the Fellows and Scholars are allowed here; the gravel is the place for me… in the protection of their turf...they had sent my little fish into hiding." Woolf's use of the term "turf" and capitals for "Fellows” and "Scholars" portray a sense of territorial aggression expressed by men in their desire to protect their power and dominance. This is highly relevant to Woolf’s context as we see little change towards the educational restrictions on women. The inevitable repression on female creativity is also symbolized by the anthropomorphism of the little fish as a result of this intellectual superiority.
It is important to consider that Woolf’s own context on the 1920’s shows women prevented attaining degrees and in this way once again knowledge retains its historical paternalism and the financial restrictions of the university that prevent the educational autonomy of women, and reflecting the repression of artistic freedom. It is this exploration of context that leads Woolf to examine how women have been depicted in literature and history. The dichotomy between literature and reality is explored by Woolf, highlighting a false portrayal of women in literature their struggle to assert their identity. “Imaginatively she is of the highest importance, practically she is completely insignificant...women have served all these years as looking glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size” Woolf exposes this falsehood to demonstrate the struggle for women to determine their identity from their portrayal in literature women are identified as powerful, in reality they are the property of their husband and suffer from their role in the patriarchy as the inferior sex. She further conveys the patriarchal role of women as “looking glasses” for men to elevate their superiority and power in the patriarchy. Woolf also analyses the impact of social context and the effect of tradition on the self-actualisation of men. “I thought how unpleasant to be locked out, and how it is worse perhaps to be locked in, and thinking of the safety and prosperity of one sex and of the poverty and insecurity of the other.” She suggests that men too fall victim to the traditional expectations of the male patriarchy throughout history and that despite of their ‘safety’ and ‘prosperity’ they are trapped within the repressive, single minded illusion of the patriarchy. Woolf demonstrates women still have the ability to think liberally even if their context is against it, and encourages them to escape their domestic role and achieve artistic freedom.
Similarly to Wolf, Albee explores the struggle to authenticate identity free from the influence of context. He demonstrates how the traditional convention of gender roles are challenged by post-modern values and the critical awareness brought about in the 60’s. Just as Woolf explores the impact of social context and tradition on the self-actualisation on women and men, so too does Albee. The characters George and Martha are both positioned in the play as individuals who are pressured to conform to the values and expectation of the status quo. “This BOG in the History Department who’s married to the President’s daughter, who’s expected to be somebody, not just some nobody, some bookworm, somebody, who’s so damn comtemplative, he can’t make anything out of himself, somebody without the guts to make anybody proud of him.” Through Martha’s verbal attacks on George’s masculinity, Albee highlights society’s expectation for men to be financially, domestically and politically dominant, similar to the male superiority during Woolf’s context. Albee comments on the difficulties of navigating the shift from the conservative and patriarchal values of the late 50s, to the suppressive and materialistically based context of the 60’s. Martha’s pretence at being liberated reflects a shift in values however any true liberation of martha appears to remain ultimately subject to an gender identity of the historical past of women, thus reflecting the title Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf.
In his exploration of the values and expectations of a materialistic orientated society, Albee highlights society’s influence on the identity of women and men as opposed to Woolf’s exploration of the influence of a male patriarchal society on male and female identity. Just as female identity in Woolf’s text is shaped by a male aesthetic, the relationship between the social context of the early 60’s and masculine identity is demonstrated by George’s comment to Nick. “All imbalances will be corrected, sifted out… we will have a race of men…test-tube bred…incubator-born…superb and sublime… like this young man here.” The terms ‘test-tube bred’, ‘incubator-born’ and ‘superb and sublime’ is a direct commentary on the aesthetics of the ‘all American hero’; built, ambitious, athletic and aspiring.it is also a comment on the so called nature of scientific progress. Sarcasm is also portrayed in george’s reference to nick as this ‘american hero’ - “like this young man here” - highlighting the social aspirations and masculine self-righteousness imposed by society (under the guise of benefiting society) that came with America’s success in the Vietnam War.
ILLUSIVE NATURE OF TRUTH
Woolf is interested fundamentally in the modernist exploration on the nature of truth-.
“The mind of an artist…must be incandescent...for they had been written in the red light of emotion and not in the white light of truth...the insight is confused; it can no longer distinguish between the true and the false.” Woolf use of symbolism of ‘red light’ as anger and ‘white light’ as incandescence suggesting one cannot be tainted by bitterness or anger nor be blinded by the illusion of the historical patriarchy in order for truth to be distinguished from fiction and prevent the two from blurring. In keeping with the modernist era, Woolf explores the hidden and overt forces that govern the nature of truth and are often inextricably linked to the very nature of context itself. “Fiction here is likely to contain more truth than fact…Lies will flow from my lips, but there may perhaps be some truth mixed up with them; it is for you to seek out this truth and to decide whether any part of it is worth keeping.” The paradox used by Woolf regarding truth and fact is a reflection on the difficulty of discerning truth from illusion, and therefore the nature of female identity. Whilst she is clearly conscious of female inequity not only in terms of the historical past, but in her own contemporary setting, none the less Woolf is interested in true freedom of the individual; a freedom she believes can only be achieved without female anger and with true independence.
The growing awareness of female disempowerment leads woolf to see a correlation between context and artistic freedom -“a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction”. The term “a room of one’s own” is used by Woolf as a metaphor for economic independence and therefore the freedom of women to express greater truth and artistic freedom.
THE ILLUSIVE NATURE OF TRUTH
Similarly the interrelationship between fantasy and truth lie at the core of Albee’s play as we see George and Martha unable to grapple with their own reality. “Tis the refuge we take when the unreality of the world weights too heavy on our tiny heads.” The game they play is designed as a sanctuary to remove themselves from the pressure of their reality in the patriarchy, reflecting the illusion of stability created by the American Dream during a time of political and social tensions. Like Woolf, Albee demonstrates the society’s inability to recognize the truth embedded in the illusion. “Truth and illusion, George; you don’t know the difference.” Albee makes use of binary opposites to highlight the difficulty in distinguishing between truth and illusion, however it is Martha herself who suffers the difficulty of being unable to distinguish truth and illusion.
Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own and Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf both reflect the strictures and conventions of their context and its effect on society. Through their exploration of identity, freedom and the nature of truth a parallel between the two composers emerges, allowing a deeper understanding of the impact of the patriarchy and the struggle to assert one’s self.