Sunday, November 4, 2012

Following Fictional Females Through the Public and Private Spheres

This week, I continue a discussion of the role of women in the public and private spheres by examining Virginia Woolf’s The Years. Informed by references from spatial theorists such as Gaston Bachelard, Michel DeCerteau and feminist theoriest Linda McDowell, I connect concepts from these theorists exploring the private sphere, the public sphere and the realm of power.

Scholars of Virginia Woolf literature document the dichotomy of the public and private spheres found in her work. “Spatial separation of men and women is indicative of the separation along gender lines of opportunities for education, work and self-development. The Years charts changes in women’s sexual position and identity through their evolving relationship to the city, particularly through changes in their mobility, as confinement to and exclusion from certain places informs their knowledge about the world and their places in it,” Evans states. (Evans). P 113

To ground this discussion, I first point to Gaston Bachelard, the author of The Poetics of Space. For Bachelard, the home is a “large cradle” allowing young women to remain in the bosom of a protected cocoon to prevent them from harm. “Life begins well, it begins enclosed, protected, all warm in the bosom of the house.” (Bachelard). Bachelard further addresses the dialectics of outside and inside in “…from the point of view of geometrical expressions, the dialectics of outside and inside is supported by a reinforced geometrism, in which limits are barriers.” (Bachelard).

The women in the book know the barriers between the private sphere and the public sphere quite well. In an attempt to gaze into the public world, they gravitate to windows. Delia spends a lot of time looking out the window of the house, peering into the outside world, watching men navigate. “‘Don’t be caught looking,’ said Eleanor warningly. The young man ran up the steps into the house.; the door shut upon him and the cab drove away.  But for the moment the two girls stood at the window looking into the street.” (Woolf), p 18.  This quotation underscores the women simply looking at the young man, who has the freedom to navigate.    

Woolf casts a spotlight onto the dichotomy of public and private in her discussion of the Pargiter girls. While citing a draft copy of Woolf’s the Years, scholar Elizabeth Evans cites “Eleanor and Milly and Delia could not possibly go for a walk alone  …. To be seen alone in Picadilly was equivalent to walking up Abercorn Terrace in a dressing gown carrying a bath sponge.” (Evans), p 115

The demarcation between public and private has long been studies by feminist theorists and the connection to “danger” and the power balance is evidence by women “cordoned off” from social, economic and political happenings.  “Woolf’s narrator comments upon this scene, describing not only the danger to girls and women in the streets, but also the consequent need for their protection within the private sphere. The danger, outside, in other words, enables their cloistering at home,” according to Evans. (Evans), p 116

Further, through this removal and subsequent “imprisoning” in the home, a power dynamic emerges that denies the role of women in the public sphere. “Thus, women’s construction as dependent on men, both economically and morally, or as lesser beings – as fragile or in need of protection reduces their rights to freedom,” (McDowell), p 150.

Even a lightbeam had more freedom to pass between the cordoned off private world and the public realm.  “Woolf symbolically illustrates the permeability between public and private realms through the infiltration of noise and light from the outside world into the domestic space,” Evans writes, p 117.  We find this in the scene depicting the children eating dinner. “They ate in silence. The sun, judging from the changing lights on the glass of the Dutch cabinet, seemed to be going in and out. Sometimes a bowl shown deep blue; then became vivid. Lights rested furtively upon the furniture in the other room. Here was a pattern here was a bald patch. Somewhere there’s beauty, Delia thought, somewhere there’s freedom…” (Woolf), p 13.  This is reminiscent of Woolf’s description of the Ramsey house in To the Lighthouse. “Now, day after day, light turned, like a flower reflected in water, its sharp image on the wall opposite. Only the shadows of the trees, flourishing in the wind, made obeisance on the wall and for a moment darkened the pool in which the light reflected itself; or the birds, flying made a soft spot flutter slowly across the bedroom floor.” (Woolf, To The Lighthouse), p. 129.

For Woolf’s character Delia, the escape from the domestic realm came in the form of a trip to a funeral. “She glanced out the window again. Another man raised his hat – a tall man, a man in a frock coat, but she would not allow herself to think of Mr. Parnell until the funeral was over. At last they reached the cemetery.  As she took her place in the little group behind the coffin and walked up to the church, she was relieved to find that she was overcome by some generalized and solemn emotion ….. Delia, standing behind her father, noticed how he braced himself and squared his shoulders. ‘I am the resurrection and the life.’ Pent up as she had been all these days in the half-lit house which smelt of flowers, the outspoken words filled her with glory,” Woolf writes.

The second half of Woolf’s years reveals the women taking a more aggressive approach to the public sphere. For Kitty’s ride in the rail car, I am reminded of Michel DeCerteau’s view on rails. Woolf writes, “There was a perpetual faint vibration. She seemed to be passing from one world to another; this was the moment of transition. She sat still for a moment; then undressed and paused with her hand on the blind,” (Woolf), p 256. DeCerteau places this in a perspective, “The windowpane is what allows us to see, and the rail allows us to move through. These are two complementary modes of separation.” (DeCerteau)

The characters in Woolf novels, continually try to step out of the domestic sphere. For example, in The Years,  Eleanor later finds her way onto the street: “The uproar, the confusion, the space of the Strand came upon her with a shock of relief. She felt herself expand. It was still daylight here; a rush, a stir, a turmoil of variegated life came racing towards her. It was as if something had broken loose – in her, in the world.” (Woolf), p 105 “She walked slowly along towards Trafalgar Square, holding the paper in her hand. Suddenly the whole scene froze into immobility. A man was joined to a pillar; a lion was joined to a many; they seemed stilled, connected, as if they would never move again. ” (Woolf), p107.

This is the power of the public sphere. The ability to engage in this realm, observe happenings and participate in the social, economic and political happenings of the day. While Woolf’s readers may not have exercised this freedom, with their minds they were able to traverse London streets, voyeuristically travel on trains and experience a freedom through Woolf’s fictional characters.


Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space. The Orion Press, Inc. , 1964.

DeCerteau. The Practice of Everyday Life. 2011, n.d.

Evans, Elizabeth. "Woolf's Analysis of "The Outer and the Inner: A Spatial Analysis of The Years." Woolf and the Art of Exploration: Selected Papers from the Fifteenth International Conference on Virginia Woolf. Ed. Helen Southworth and Elisa Kay Sparks. Portland, OR: Clemson University Digital Press, 2005.

McDowell. Gender, Identity and Place. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999.

Woolf, Virginia. The Years. Orlando: Houghton Mifflin, 2008.

—. To The Lighthouse. Orlando: Harcourt, Inc., 1981.


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