23 March, 2011

Helal on “Anger, Anxiety, Abstraction: Virginia Woolf's 'Submerged Truth.'”

Woolf is an angry feminist. Anger in women is completely justified because it has been historically frowned upon, while anger in men is illegitimate because it has been historically enabled. These are the two flawed presuppositions that support this discussion of Woolf's political essays and the novels Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse. Though the latter assumption is illogical, it does not significantly mar the opening discussion of the essays, many of which Woolf did in fact write in a polemical vein; the presence of anger here is unmistakable, and its expression does line up in some respects with Helal's description of it as a tool for attacking historically repressive structures. However, Helal claims—assumes rather—that “the discourse of anger constructs and organizes social reality” (80), and this assumption is the framework for a much less than convincing reading of Woolf's two most famous novels. Focusing on Clarissa Dalloway's and Mrs. Ramsay's minor outbursts of anger or irritation, she takes these as a sign that the two women are boiling over with a rage that then is suppressed in favor of the feminine role that society expects them to play. With its disregard for anything in the text that might modify this rather extreme claim, the essay takes a single (minor) element of the characters as the unspoken “reality” underlying the text. Despite its relative uselessness as actual criticism, the essay is deserving of passing note in the annotations as a telling caricature of a significant quantity of Woolf criticism, much of which likewise seems to begin with a few assumptions about what they are “supposed” to find in Woolf's writing, and then to extrapolate wildly from the textual evidence to find psychological subtexts that agree with this presuppositions.

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