Revising the feminine self in the fiction of Dorothy Richardson and Virginia Woolf
Smith, Lenora Penna
Doctor of Philosophy
The fiction of Dorothy Richardson and Virginia Woolf is situated, as are the writers themselves, in the late-Victorian middle-class ideology of individualism, defining the self as autonomous and self-determining and positioning women with domesticity, defining them as relational and self-denying. Although their representations of women and strategies of point of view indicate construction within these dominant discourses, their narratives also refute, sometimes inadvertently, these same discourses. Richardson's fiction suggests an image of identity rooted in individualism, in notions of an autonomous, unified individuality, associated in her culture with the masculine, whereas Woolf's suggests a basis in individualism's denial of an autonomous, unified feminine identity. The fiction of both assumes a transcendental self, a notion key to individualism, in the image of a "true" self that avoids situation within material and social circumstances. This image appears in Richardson's fiction in the perception of an untouched self and in Woolf's, in the perception of a dispersed self. In their representations of women, both also rely on notions of feminine identity that reiterate the cultural definitions of gender. In Pilgrimage, Richardson's central character, Miriam imagines her self as autonomous, essential, and transcendental. This notion also appears to govern the narrative focused through Miriam's perspective and related through a voice sometimes indistinguishable from hers. But the narrative provides a dual perspective on Miriam that refutes the notions of individualism grounding it and her imagined self. In contrast to Richardson's, Woolf's female characters, in particular in Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse, are not unified, autonomous individuals, but instead are fragmented and dispersed, and in their dispersal, they recapitulate both relational, self-denying femininity and transcendental individuality. Woolf's narrative techniques also seem to valorize the culturally constructed feminine by incorporating multiple perspectives and voices. However, Woolf's narrative strategy, like Richardson's, exposes the ideology that grounds it by granting the female narrators an authority ordinarily denied women and by exposing the failure of the relational ego to create a community of characters.
Modern literature; English literature