Virginia Woolf was a professional writer who made many important contributions to the progress of women and women’s rights. She was born in 1882 during a time — the middle of the Victorian era — in which the feminine ideal that she struggled against so much was very prevalent; the ideal women was thought to be passive, pretty, and proper. ?The Angel in the House? was Woolf’s term for the internalized ideal against which she strove to overcome. Her father was a writer too; he was an editor and a critic both in profession and parenthood. Woolf suffered continual loss and tragedy in the course of her childhood and adult life.
While still a young girl, she was abused sexually by her half-brothers, and when she tried to tell people about the trauma she endured, no one believed her. Her mother, who continually neglected Woolf while she was alive, died when Woolf was only thirteen years old. As she grew older, Woolf valiantly tried to overcome all of the pain she had endur! ed and the internal fear that seemed to pervade her every thought and action. Whether she eventually did overcome these practically insurmountable obstacles is uncertain; Virginia Woolf killed herself by drowning at the age of 57. Regardless of how her life circumstances affected or even benefited her writing, Woolf offered women in general some very important truths, and challenged women for generations to come with her honesty, frankness, and courage.
Virginia Woolf is a prime example of how, throughout the ages, women are constantly faced with living up to not only men’s opinion of them, but women’s as well, and must overcome their lofty expectations in addition to their own life experiences. One the many ghost’s that haunted Woolf throughout her life was ?The Angel in the House?. Woolf describes this disturbing phantom in her essay, ?Professions for Woman?. The Angel in the House is a spiritual being that resides in every woman. Whether she obeys it or not is up to her, but that does not change that fact that the spirit is there, admonishing them to act in a way that pleases not only the Angel, but also the people around her.
The Angel represents all that the woman is expected by society — or men — to be. In Woolf’s generation, the Angel symbolizes what the Victorian epitome of womanhood is. She can please, she can flatter, she can soothe, she is self-less, she is beautiful, she is ?above all, pure?. In the time that Woolf lives, the standards that the Angel in the House expects women to adhere to are rigid. Women are to be quiet, demure, they have to cook and clean, they need to be attractive, and they are required to be feminine at all times. Why? ! To catch a man of course.
This is a woman’s chief objective. All personal desires are secondary to this central prerogative, for what type of woman would not make a man her greatest desire? Such a woman would be considered unacceptable. But Woolf’s greatest desire is not a husband; it is the truth. Being truthful in her writing, being truthful to herself, being truthful to the world — that is her wish.
Whenever Woolf sits down to write (in this case a review of a novel by a famous man), the Angel in the House appears, wanting to color every sentence, every word, every mark that Woolf’s pen makes. Woolf hates her. Woolf is an independent woman, and a very truthful one. She wants to be true to herself, not this spirit, this other person. But how can she express her true self and still listen to the Angel? She cannot. So Woolf, being the observant and courageous woman that she is, decides that she must murder this ever-present obstacle.
?She died hard. Her fictitious nature was of great assistance to her,? Woolf declares. Of course she is difficult to kill; no one believes she even existed in the first place. But does Woolf succeed in killing her? Does she truly just disappear when Woolf thinks she is finally dead? Maybe, and maybe not, because if she really is gone, then Woolf would be free to say or write whatever she wants.
However, the next barrier that Woolf encounters in her writing appears to be very similar to the Angel in the House. Are the two obstacles one and the same? Or are they separate? Woolf herself maintains that they are two very distinct ghosts with individual identities. But perhaps they are the same phantom dressing up in two different costumes, like a tricker-treater who goes out twice on Halloween to the same houses dressed as a different person each time — getting two times the candy. Let us decide whether Woolf succeeded in killing the Angel in the House, or if she simply appears again by taking on a new form. Woolf uses a powerful and accurate metaphor to depict the inhibition that she feels when she lets her imagination roam in the depths of her consciousness.
She describes a girl, fishing on the edge of a deep lake; ?The line raced through fingers,? she says, implying that her fishing lure , in the midst of its probing, is traveling at a fast rate, as if anxious to reach its destination. What is the destination? What is this mysterious thing that the girl suddenly finds herself cut off from, imprisoned behind a seemingly impenetrable wall? What is this barrier? Woolf dances around the subject, hoping or assuming that her audience will guess what she is hinting at. It is quite obvious. This is a repressor that stifles Woolf in her writing when she finds herself about to expose the sexual feelings and passions that she feels deep inside. A! lthough these feelings that are natural and normal for a woman to have, up until more recent times, they were not to be discussed or even felt by a ?proper? woman.
Although Woolf feels that she has at last conquered one of her numerous ?Angels?, this is one that she admits she had yet to best, as is demonstrated by her delicate handling of the subject even when she musters the boldness to speak publicly about it. Although the Angel in the House is primarily associated with negative experiences and with the suppression of self, some of the attributes that Woolf’s Angel in the House symbolizes are not to be completely discarded. Woolf says that, ?She was intensely sympathetic. . . she sacrificed herself daily.
. . she was pure. ? Though sacrificing oneself on a daily basis denotes self-neglect, there is something to be said for putting others above oneself, for showing respect to others, for being pure.
These are virtues that humanity seems to shun today. The definition of purity does not have to carry the negative meaning that Woolf gave it, it does not have to represent the same thing that it did in her day. ?Pure? does not necessarily denote innocence; a woman or a man can be pure in the aspect of abstaining from certain practices that are harmful, such as inhaling poisonous fumes from a cigarette, or choosing not to eat red meat. Purity can be not participating in activities that a ! person truly believes are wrong.
Being pure can mean being true to oneself. As for self-sacrifice, this is something that some people take joy in. There is something satisfying in doing things for others, for being loyal for the sake of friendship. I think that though the Angel in the House definitely must be gotten rid of, she is still a part of people, and there are aspects of her that should not be killed when the rest of her is. Woman today are faced with new, possibly even more strict Angel in the House’s to model themselves after.
These modern Angel’s have less to do with verbal flattery and moral purity than with simple surface worth. Consider the relatively new paradigm of beauty, thinness. The longing to be skinny, trim, fit, has gone from the achievable to the absurd. The idea that all women should look the same as the surgically enhanced, metabolically blessed people that they are continually being bombarded with by the media is ridiculous. Because of this lean standard of beauty, we have invented all sorts of new diseases to deal with. We now have anorexia, bulimia, as well as depression due to self-disgust from people who in Woolf’s time would have been considered normal and healthy.
But why do women do this themselves? Why do they persistently try to fit themselves into this narrow mold? Who do they want to be attractive to? Do they want to appear appealing to their mates, or is i! t other women that they fear rejection from? Whoever is responsible, regardless of who women are trying to please by succumbing to this aesthetic ideal, the fact remains that women are nevertheless listening to the voice of the Angel in the House; her opinions and appearance may have changed, but she is still stifling the human self. She is as alive and well today as she was nearly seventy years ago. In society today, women are faced with all sorts of stumbling blocks to their freedom and voices. All women — and men — have an Angel in the House hovering in their subconscious, telling what they should and should not say, think, or do.
The Angel comes in many forms. She represents different things to different people. Woolf’s Angel symbolized self-sacrifice without choice; she wanted women to be mere shadows, using their entire existence for the glory of others. The Angel that plagued Woolf was despised by her because it wanted her to become like the rest of women in her day, and Woolf wanted to break out of the conventional role that had been assigned to her, both on the inside and outside of her being. In modern times, women still assume the societal duties that they have for generations, but there are also new parts to play. It is those very positions that the next generation of women will be struggling against and eventually breaking out of, a new-born butterfl! y fighting its way out of a winter cocoon.