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One of the greatest female authors of all time, Virginia Woolf, produced a body of writing respected worldwide. Driven by uncontrollable circumstances and internal conflict, her life was cut short by suicide. Her role in feminism, along with the personal relationships in her life, influenced her literary works.
Virginia's relationships throughout her life contributed, not only to her literature, but the quality of her life as well. Perhaps the greatest influence in Virginia's life is her mother, Julia Stephen. "Julia Stephen was the most arresting figure which her daughter [Virginia Woolf] tried to resurrect and preserve" (Gordon 4). Woolf, a manic-depressive, found herself constantly searching for approval. "Virginia needed her mother's approval in order to 'measure her own stature" (Bond 38). Battling with a sense of worthlessness, Virginia's mother helped her temporarily rid herself of self-criticism and doubt. This however was short-lived. When Mrs. Stephen rejected Virginia, she felt her mother's disapproval directly related to the quality of her writing. "Virginia Woolf could not bear to reread anything she had written… Mrs. Stephen's rejection of Virginia may have been the paradigm of her failure to meet her own standards" (Bond 39). With the death of her mother Woolf used her novel, To the Lighthouse to "reconstruct and preserve" the memories that still remained. According to Woolf, "the character of Mrs. Ramsey in To the Lighthouse was modeled entirely upon that of her mother" (Bond 27). This helped Virginia in her closure when dealing with the loss and obsession with her mother. Although Virginia clung to the relationship with her mother, she favored her father, Leslie Stephen. Virginia resembled her father uncannily in character traits, in her writing and self-doubts, in her great and malicious sense of humor, in her marriage, in her frugality, in her fear of aging, and in her social consciousness. (Bond 59) They were both extremely outspoken while sparing no one's feelings with their comments. Virginia and Leslie both had strong personalities and rapid mood changes. Woolf portrayed her father, like her mother, through characterization in To the Lighthouse. Mr. Ramsey captures her father as a man of "baffling mutability, a lightening switch from the most lovable of men, to a 'famished wolfhound' and back again" (Gordon 22). This portrayal of Leslie Stephens relates to his uncontrollable rages and mood swings. Leslie Stephen not only controlled Virginia's mental development, but her intellectual development as well.
He became his daughters' mentor, and "trained her to become his intellectual aire" (Bond 60). Mr. Ramsey parallels Woolf's father in "his need to pass his intellectual nature onto his children" (Gordon 26). Leslie Stephen saw no problem with his uncontrollable behavior. Virginia, on the other hand, found it infuriating. She established: In the creation of this character… the examination of Mr. Ramsey… is like a witness box account of the pros and cons of his [Leslie Stephens] behavior. (Gordon 22) Despite their differences, Virginia and her father formed a special bond not understood by anyone but each other. His insecurities and flaws became hers, which added to the already enormous struggles in her life. The relationship between the two influenced Virginia's life, as well as her death. By watching her father die of a terminal illness, Virginia wrote: The waiting in intolerable… the worst of it is he is so tired and worn out, and wants to die… I shall do my best to ruin my constitution before I get to this age, so as to die quicker… I can not bear to become the wretch my father became when he reached my stage of life. (Bond 62). Virginia had great difficulties writing towards that end, and she feared her work would only continue to worsen with age. At the age of fifty-nine on the eve of her birthday, Virginia drowned herself. Her father's death did not solely influence her suicide, but her identification with him was so strong that he was "instrumental in her choice of death" (Bond 62). While Virginia Woolf's parents contributed greatly to her unstable life, her husband, Leonard, took on the responsibility of keeping her temporarily together. Leonard's role as Virginia's husband is a complicated one. He not only helped her through he manic-depressive episodes, but also worked to maintain her self-esteem. Because of Virginia's mental state the marriage between the two endured many conflicts. Shortly after they were married, Virginia became ill, suffered numerous breakdowns, and attempted suicide. Their marriage resembled that of Virginia's parents, in that both marriages "were based on supposed evidence of superiority-inferiority" (Bond 96). Virginia had trouble in expressing her anger, and because of this she took revenge out on Leonard. She not only refused to have sex with him, but she also psychologically abused him. Exhibited in Virginias' literary work Mrs. Dalloway. Virginia, "like her 'chaste' heroine, Mrs. Dalloway, needed to refrain from sex with her husband in order to maintain her separateness" (Bond 96). Despite all of the turmoil, their marriage survived. The marriage became necessary for Virginia's mental survival as well as the survival of her writing career, which Leonard was an asset to. He kept Virginia focused on her writing, and kept her sane for extended periods of time. He "experienced vicarious gratification from Virginia's writing" (Bond 96). When Leonard criticized Virginia's writing, as with her mother, she fell back into depression and psychosis. Virginia's inability to function with out Leonard's support ultimately contributed to her suicide. Despite Virginia's marriage to Leonard he was not her true love. The love of Virginia's life, Vita Sackville, and Virginia met while Virginia was in her forties. They continued an on and off relationship "which contributed to the maintenance of Virginia's health and sanity for eighteen years" (Marcus 109). The relationship between the two "was of primary importance in determining the course for Virginia Woolf in both her psychosis and her guineas" (Marcus 150). The relationship manifested Virginia's childhood memories as well as offering a therapeutic aspect. Vita filled the voids for Virginia, which enabled her to resume her emotional development. Vita instigated the flowering of Virginia's growth and creativity and served as the primary source of inspiration and creativity for Woolf's most important works, To the Lighthouse, The waves, and Orlando. (Bond 119) Even though Vita helped Virginia, because she was incapable of being faithful and left Virginia for other relationships after a few months. "Virginia was heartbroken, and reacted to a minor breakdown" (Bond 118). Vita returned to Virginia, and renew her creativity and improve her health, but when the "love affair with Vita finally ended, the light of Virginia's genius dimmed" (Bond 154). The relationship between Virginia and her sister Vanessa offered a different of relationship from all the others in her life. From the time Vanessa and Virginia were children, Vanessa acted as a safety net for Virginia. Virginia looked to her sister for comfort in a motherly role, and this continued with each new crisis. However, Vanessa failed to live up to the expectations Virginia had on her as a substitute mother. The first instance occurred with the death of their father, Leslie Stephen. Virginia "found herself emotionally drained and exhausted," while Vanessa "was plain delighted at regaining her freedom, and being released from the care and ill temper of this tyrannical man" (Bond 100). Because of their differences in coping with Leslie Stephens' death, Vanessa did not offer much consolation to Virginia. Virginia found Vanessa's happiness impossible to bear… Vanessa's indifference to Virginia's state of mind contributed to her grief and subsequent mental breakdown… At the death of Sir Leslie, Virginia lost her father and her sister, the two people closest to her. (Bond 111). Their deteriorating relationship continued to worsen with each new quarrel. Each time they would argue, Virginia would suffer a breakdown, and Vanessa would reconcile with Virginia. When Vita and Virginia met, she and Vanessa went their separate ways. The sisters continued to have no contact while the relationship between Vita and Virginia prospered, but when Vita would leave her, the sisters would make amends yet again. Their relationship remained unstable because of the expectations placed on the relationship by Virginia. By failing to fill the role of mother that Virginia required, and by not being psychologically present for her at the death of their father, Vanessa was woven into the fabric of Virginia's breakdowns… by not being emotionally available to Virginia, Vanessa indirectly helped her to precipitate Virginia's homosexual love affair… and the resulting indifference to Virginia's pain contributed to her grief and subsequent suicide. (Bond 109) Virginia portrayed her relationship with Vanessa through her literary work, The Waves. A character in the story, Susan, presents Vanessa as an "uninhibited child of nature, as a creature of the wild, independent of the demands of civilization" (Bond 110), which was how Virginia viewed her sister. The hard ships between Virginia and her sister may have arisen because Virginia asked too much of her sister, Vanessa could not accept the responsibility asked of her. Insanity did not stop Virginia Woolf from achieving great accomplishments, including feminism. As one of the earliest feminists, Woolf's role in feminism was due to relationships with others throughout her life. Woolf shied away from feminist groups, yet she was intensely critical of patriarchal social and political system of values, particularly related to women, and her fiction became a vehicle of her criticisms. (Transue 2) Woolf felt her father was a tyrant and she became "the voice against male tyranny" (Bond 52). Her literature was a voice for suppressed women. She spoke out not only against her father, but against her mother as well. She blamed her father for her mother's death because he expected her to dedicate her whole life to his needs. Seeing this as a child, Virginia placed most of the blame on her mother for losing her personal sense of self and identity, causing her to die young. Although Virginia refused to settle for a life like her mother's, she fell into a similar pattern with her husband Leonard. Her marriage paralleled her parents because Leonard controlled every aspect of Virginia's life. For Virginia, it was necessary to depend on Leonard in order to sustain life, but she rebelled against him, and the entire male sex. Virginia blamed men for most of the negative events in her life. For the feminist Virginia Woolf, who turned down medals and doctorates at universities, which discriminated against women, second-class citizenship was unacceptable. (Bond 40) Virginia dedicated many of her works to the feminist cause, including one of her most famous, A Room of One's Own, presents the discrimination of women in a humorous fashion. She writes about university scholars attending a dinner where men are served the finest food with the best taste, and the women are given bland, boring food. Although the men and women hold equal positions their treatment is far from equal. Woolf felt this comparison represented the everyday treatment of women. Virginia Woolf used her leadership and literary talent to fight for women's rights, and to bring justice to the unfair obstacles women were challenged with. "Only writing," Virginia Woolf said, "could compose 'the synthesis of my being" (Gordon 7). Virginia Woolf greatly affected the feminist movement with her thoughts and writing. Her relationships with others fired her creative talent all the time driving her to suicide.
Bond, Ala Halbert. Who Killed Virginia Woolf? New York: Human Sciences Inc, 1989.
Gordon, Lyndall. Virginia Woolf: A Writer's Life. New York: Worton and Company, 1984.
Transue, Pamela J. Virginia Woolf and the Politics of Style. Albany: University of New York Press, 1986
Marcus, Jane. Virginia Woolf: A Feminist Slant. Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1983.