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Home » سموراج » Subalternity, Gender Performativity and Virginia Woolf ….. Zarmeena Hassan

Subalternity, Gender Performativity and Virginia Woolf ….. Zarmeena Hassan

Virginia Woolf has openly celebrated the identity of women with all her miseries as a writer; Woolf seeks to find answer for women’s fundamental questions such as, who we are? And where we belong to? She expresses a new woman with boldness and bravery in master works such as “The take” and “The plunge”. Virginia Woolf was a saner voice among her contemporary feminists who preferred reasoning and advocacy rather anger as manifestation of second wave of feminism. This parting of ways irked her fellow feminists who tried to scrutinize her filial affiliation with the cause. She never dropped her indirect manner of expressing hatred for male-domination in an effort to sooth outrageous feminism.

Woolf behaves not only as a novelist and a short story writer but as a public intellectual with rebel spirit against totally conspiring society demeaning the status and identity of women. The limitation placed upon women in an eastern society view women merely as a thing of honour which belongs to someone else other than she, herself. Woolf quite copiously depicted tales manifesting ridiculous limiting of the characters, primarily women, who are not allowed to visit Hyde Park for the game of ombre and inability to visit river Thames alone.

The entire discussion behind conceptualization of gender is revolving upon some contested individual as well as institutional interpretations. Since, sex is a biological identity and gender is an acquired identity through a construction based upon norms, mores, behavior and attitudes of those living in a society. The subject of feminism has been ‘women’. It is not altogether an easy subject to be debated and discoursed upon. It is, at times, becomes imperative to demolish certain fixated assumption. Simon De Beauvoir is quite right, when she considers society as agent of reducing the women to a particular notion, where she suffers from certain limitations on the basis of representation. This forces her to scream. She says that we are ‘not born a woman’, but it is society which labels us to ‘become one’. Thinkers like Judith Butler hate such imposed representation. She takes words like “representation” as politicized manoeuvring to extend visibility and legitimacy to woman as a political subject. Judith Butler seems to refute this representation on the basis of normative function which either reveals character of woman is merely a mother, wife, or sister or distort as sex worker, cunt, or call girl by and large.

Michael Foucault views that within a society, where power seeks to legitimize itself, produces certain kind of limitation, prohibitions, regulation, control and even protection of individual related to that of political structure through the contingent and retractable operation of choice.

What is becomes crystal clear is that construction of gender is so heavily rooted within specifications of individuals in a society that they cannot be altogether taken as a coherent and consistent development of a nation. Similarly Butter has an opinion:

“If the immutable character of sex is contested, perhaps this construct call sex is as culturally constructed as gender, indeed, perhaps it was always already gender, with the consequence that the distinction between sex and gender turns out to be no distinctions at all” (Judith Butler, P.346)

The noted Saraiki Poet Rifat Abbas up-held this view point. He says:

‘It is we, the man, who have written down the tale of Sassi,

Weblamed her slumberous sleeps and subjected her to indolence.’

Woolf was skeptical of man as being benevolent father. Perhaps, her own life experiences were so severed with object of freedom that she became a woman with variable soul for characters who are otherwise praised and respected for certain observance. She was frank, forthright and candid in her utterances about father. After few years of writing ‘To the Lighthouse’, she reminded herself that if her father would have been alive, she would not have been able to write anything like that.

He would have been 96, 96, yes, today; & could have been 96, like other people one has known, but mercifully was not. His life would have entirely ended mine. What would have happened? No writing, no books – inconceivable (Diary, P.208).

Woolf was predominantly inspired from works of Proust. According to her works of Proust generated excitement within her to express. In a letter, she wished that she could write like him. She confessed that writings of Proust were so suggestive that she developed an obsession for herself due to strong stimulating impetuses (Letter No. 1244 dated 6 May 1922).

Woolf was always in search of a new identity which may have deep feminist roots.

Perhaps, this was a prime motivation for her to herald on a path to establish a new school of tradition primarily imbued in feminist tradition. She emphasised on the new jargon, new sentences and new discourse within her contestation of femininity. She wrote:

“The weights, the pace, the stride of a man’s mind are too unlike her own for her to lift anything substantial from him successfully.” (Woolf, 1929)

Woolf believed in synthesis of experiences. She knew very well that concentration of consciousness can unravel mysteries of life. The main focus of Woolf behind idea of synthesizing was that of reconciliation of conflicts. She gleefully used to call such moments of conflicting experience as ‘moments of being’.

In a talk entitled as ‘Craftsmanship’ (1937), she has underlined that power of written words are suggestively based upon a type of consciousness. She refutes the assumption that anybody can write without consciousness. She is quite right when she associates words to a man who is naturally associated with myriad of ethos, echoes, and memories. They are given birth in a void but among the people wandering in the streets, dwelling in mansions, languishing in slums since time immemorial. She has strangely mystic feel for the words. She dismissed impression that words are merely symbolic expression, but rather are emphatic beings with a desire for privacy. She says:

‘[W]ords, like ourselves, in order to live at their ease, need privacy. Undoubtedly they like us to think, and they like us to feel, before we use them; but they also like us to pause; to become unconscious. Our unconsciousness is their privacy; our darkness is their light. . . .’

Woolf as woman intellectual advises female writers to enjoin path of their own search of self. She opines that women need space for personal expression of experiences without any interruption. Space and time, however, are tied with monetary concern. She seeks financial freedom where women can sustain her and pursue writing as a professional work. In addition to this, women also suffer from a lack of privacy which is central to superiority of male writers. Woolf is of the view that freedom cannot come to women. She can earn it through developing a consciousness through experiences she had. This is where she also resents the fact that women writer merely reduce them as petit follower of patriarchal trends within writer’s community.

Embarking upon trends of enforced gender normativity eludes easier understanding of women’s role within an established social set-up. The women in Marquez celebrated work entitled as CienA?os de Soledad, is a blatant disregard for men in power. The perceived gender roles in CienA?os de Soledadare quite interpretive in nature where representation draws contestation rather than explanation. People within postmodern literary criticism do view that Marquez is skeptic about stabilization of a family and society in the wake of liberation of women, who are otherwise as passive and submissive as an ordinary women in the patriarchal system conforming to the whims of male dominators. The enforced gender normativity reduces woman a whore, Kari, or mistress. The renegade by women thus represents as final decadence of the society and its decimation. This is out rightly offensive. It was Woolf who viewed that writers of great recognition such as Lamp, Browne, Thackery, Newman, Sterne, Dickens, and De-Quincey have ‘never helped a woman yet’. How can we suffice on to their tales of our experiences? She stressed upon women writers to unravel their own experiences by themselves.

Woolf was determined to unravel the ironies hidden behind patriarchal power relations within a society. This may have been a prelude to disrupt and demolish the blasphemous attachments of values such as honour and sanctity to a woman of lower strata. In tribal or traditional culture, we often see chieftains or leading clerics betroth their daughters for some obvious symbiosis for power play. Contrary to this, we have very antagonistic behaviour of them before us, where they declare a woman Kari for exercising self-will. What makes heads trade the honour for certain interests is quite similar to an enforcement of gender normativity by eroding all possible notions of Ghairat, the honour, by and large. Woolf has explained that liberation from fetters is as difficult as battering of truth. The willful negotiation for desired disruption thus represents a holy cause, but gets entangled within strong hierarchies. These are established power relations having centuries old history of unifying themselves. The very attitude of SanG ChaTi (bartering honour for an honour) is a reflection of age-old minds still drowned in menacing customs and traditions.

Woolf is quite mystic when she thinks about liberation of women folk. The magnum opus discourse such ‘A Room for One’s Own’ is never devoid of any substantive search, methodological inquiry and rigorous analysis. They carry immense value by bringing a new insight for drawing new intellectual frontiers around liberation theory. Deconstructing notions of a traditional society was an excellent act of scholarship which she undertook to prioritise gender based idealism. Woolf is strongly viewing anti-social conformism as a new mode of freedom. She believes this is sure to generate new and more novel sources of procuring experience activate new sources of knowledge. She is reactive, proactive, conventional as well as trail-blazer when she embeds emphasis of exercising new options for deconstruction from a popular shaped up by the norms, values and hierarchies.

Postmodern female critics such as Bonnie Kime Scott bravely call contextualisationof modernism of novels, poetry, and manifestos as gendered masculine. Some of us may set to fan this view point that these postmodern works of arts are product of unconscious expressions on the part of writers and artists. Whatever the intentions of the people within ‘The Men of 1914’ may be, they cannot be condoned within the deconstruction and contextual paradigms. They stand as key exponents of masculinist modernism.

Woolf was primarily committed to realism meant to express fidelity to political, social and feminist principles.

She had strange viewpoint regarding realisation of one’s self through the forces of their age. She had a great despise for schism around her. She knew devastation caused by war. She knew how pathetic is British culture dominated by patriarchal emphasis on so-called sustainability of family system. She unearthed the break-up of communication as a key to this mayhem where women stood substandardised within human society. She knew the importance of human relationships. However, it was to her a socialisation based on male domination which used to impose traditionalistic and socially imprudent values upon women.

Some of the critics blame that she repressed anger within her. They are perhaps attaching importance to anger for carving out a new identity. The marvelous works like ‘The Three Guineas (1938)’ preached the necessity of education, profession and participation of women. She debunked the notions of women as submissive being. She called it fictional work of those having domineering role in a society. To her women had equal and level-playing role, thus no basis of reduction in position to men:

It is now that the first difficulty of communication between us appears. […] We both come of what, in this hybrid age when, though birth is mixed, classes still remain fixed, it is convenient to call the educated class. When we meet in the flesh we speak with the same accent; use knives and forks in the same way […] and can talk during dinner without much difficulty about politics and people; war and peace; barbarism and civilization (Woolf 1938: 154)

Woolf desired that women should celebrate freedom. She should move outside to (un)feel the aura of insecurity in our societies. She knew that women in our society are not afraid of god, but afraid of the people. The rather created issue of insecurity which mainly seeks to victimise themarginalized people is by product of stratification into caste, class, culture and gender. Woolf was an intellectual whocalled upon women to drop the element of fear. She thought that women stands psychologically so crippled that mere a wish freedom sends currents within her.

Works Cited

Woolf, V. (1957) A Room of One’s Own, New York: Harcourt, Brace and World.

Judith. B., (1999) ‘Gender Trouble’, New York: Routledge Press, P. 346.

Virginia Woolf, The Diary of Virginia Woolf, 5 vols., ed. Anne Olivier Bell and Andrew McNeil lie (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980), Volume 3., P. 208.

The Letters of Virginia Woolf, ed. Nigel Nicolson and Joanne Trautman (San Diego:

Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975-1980), vol. 2, 499

Woolf, V. (1942) ‘Craftsmanship’, Published in collection “The Death of the Moth and Other Essays”, also available at http://atthisnow.blogspot.



Woolf, V. (1938) ‘Three

Guineas’, New York: Harvest, 1938.

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