A 20th century modernist writer and an instrumental member of the Bloomsbury group, Virginia Woolf’s legacy has been defined by defying convention. She is largely remembered for her fierce denunciation of misogyny, but this was just one of the many societal problems she openly criticised: Orlando challenged homophobia and transphobia, Mrs Dalloway condemned the stigma surrounding mental health, particularly for men, and A Room of One’s Own criticised a perpetual cycle of financial inequality dictated by gender, limiting female independence.
Woolf never shied away from challenging topics. Writing at a time in which women were fighting for a political voice, she refused to conform to patriarchal separate spheres which dictated that women should only be concerned with domestic matters. In her fiction, she often satirises 20th century society in order to convey her political messages. Meanwhile, her essays present unequivocally scathing criticisms of social injustices. Both her fiction and her non-fiction are unapologetically written, and the messages conveyed continue to be pertinent today.
Standout fiction: Mrs Dalloway (1925)
A masterclass in defying expectations, Mrs Dalloway takes place over just a 24-hour time period, using the mundane event of an upper-class party to criticise the poisonous impact of patriarchal structure and attitudes on both women and men.
From a literary standpoint, Woolf is unafraid to ignore basic conventions: speech marks are rarely used, the narrative point of view changes and language is often written phonetically, to mock the accent of the upper classes. Some critics have found her disregard for simple rules to be a source of distraction and frustration; however, I would suggest that instead it bypasses restrictive barriers, enabling Woolf to enhance the reader’s experience. Through abandoning convention, she is able explore subject reality and offer the reader multiple first-person insights, showing them how the patriarchy can be damaging for all genders.
Her refusal to conform to literary conventions is matched by her refusal to conform to social expectations. She satirises the trivial matters with which women are expected to be concerned – their appearance, their home, their possessions; meanwhile, also exploring the suffocating nature of mental health, particularly in a society in which the narrator claims “it was cowardly for a man to say he would kill himself”.
Through Mrs Dalloway, Woolf demonstrates that a true feminist is concerned with injustices for all genders, a message which continues to be vitally important today. Her writing is, in equal parts, witty and harrowing. This novel exemplifies why Woolf is so deserving of her place in the literary canon.
Standout essay: A Room of One’s Own (1929)
This extended essay, based upon two lectures delivered by Woolf at two Cambridge women’s colleges, is unyielding in its attack on sexism. Woolf describes the detrimental impact of poverty on the ability for women to produce art and literature, reflecting upon how the arts have been dominated by male creativity.
Woolf’s central argument is that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” She evidences her thesis by referring to the historically imposed view that women must stay at home and raise children, suggesting that this has been used to justify denying girls equal opportunities in education. Woolf details this perpetual cycle of unequal opportunities ensuring that the women faced far greater barriers in achieving financial independence and are thus confined to domesticity.
To illustrate her point, she creates an imaginary sister for Shakespeare, explaining how her gender would have ensured that she was never able to produce such fine literary works as her brother, despite being equally capable. Whilst the issue of financial independence for women is certainly a lesser problem today than it was at the time of writing, the gender ratio in positions of influence remains concerningly unbalanced, reflecting that Woolf’s writing remains relevant today. Not only is this feminist essay vital in the modern consideration of gender roles, but it is also a fascinating time capsule, against which we can measure the progress of equality.
Woolf’s refusal to conform can teach us a vital lesson, in both creating art, and in rebelling against injustice. Both her works of fiction and non-fiction are admirable in their passionate dedication to breaking the mould and challenging the status quo from a literary and a social perspective. As a result of being unafraid to speak her mind, Woolf penned some of the most powerful literary works I have ever encountered.