Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Patriarchal Absurdity

"...the whole edifice of female governance is based on that foundation stone; chastity is their jewel, their centre piece, which they run mad to protect, and die when ravished of." (Woolf, 113)

This quote begins to get at the heart of Woolf's critique of sexism during not only her period of life, but also a period that stretches much further back. Her novel Orlando, a fictional biography of the main character by the same name, strives to illuminate the absurdity of patriarchal beliefs such as the one expressed in this passage.

Orlando is a satirical look at gender, its “norms” and expectations, that stretches 400 years. It begins with Orlando as a man in the 1600’s and ends at the beginning of the 20th century, Orlando having since been transformed into a woman. At this point in the novel, Orlando had been a woman for sometime, but she is just now realizing the extent that this will alter her life. She begins to notice new restrictions on her dress and behavior. She is required to spend large amounts of time in the morning preparing herself to be seen in public—to do otherwise would be inappropriate or even obscene.

By the time of the quote I have chosen Orlando sits on the deck of a ship heading for England. She is amazed to realize how easy life has become for her. The captain of the ship dotes on her and she understands the frenzy she can cause among the crew by exposing even her ankle. The biographer interjects my chosen passage in his/her attempt to quantify some of these feelings Orlando is experiencing. Orlando cannot flirt to her heart’s content, instead she must be careful, for to lose her chastity would be socially damning.

Looking at the quote itself, Woolf is obviously being very satirical. The meaning behind the statement is innocent enough, but the language Woolf uses to convey the biographer’s thoughts are another matter entirely. The first words “…whole edifice of female governance…” are very revealing. “Edifice” means “any large, complex system or organization,” (Webster’s) and plays on the common male belief that women are far too complex to understand. The “edifice” of “governance” begins to toy around with the complex ways in which women are expected to behave, or govern themselves. The convoluted and overtly “intellectual” language of just the beginning of this statement further compounds this notion of complexity and the redundancy begins to hint at the sarcasm of this statement.

Woolf really hammers this home, though, immediately after when this complex complexity rests on one simple thing—a stone. All that was previously difficult to understand becomes immediately understandable in a stereotypical way. “…chastity is their jewel, their centre piece…” Woolf has the biographer describe this immensely feminine thing, the notion of female chastity, in a way that all men could understand; chastity is a piece of jewelry that women yearn to protect, it is an expensive centre piece on a dinner table. Woolf uses the most absurdly feminine stereotypes to describe a feminine stereotype, obviously this isn’t meant to be taken seriously.

If it was taken seriously, though, Woolf uses the end of the sentence to make certain that no lingering doubts of her sarcasm exist. “…which they run mad to protect, and die when ravished of.” The notion that this biographer could make such a broad and all inclusive statement regarding women and their beliefs of the importance of chastity has left the realm of satire and has begun to knock on the door of absurdity. Women are being treated as, at best, as victims—as poor souls to be pitied when their chastity is stolen from them.

It can certainly be assumed that the biographer was intended to be male and that this sentence was Woolf’s stark criticism of men’s beliefs about women. It is a relentless attack on stereotypes and misconceptions, on a patriarchal belief of passivity and victimization.

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