Sunday, May 17, 2009

Fiction Review: "A Society," Virginia Woolf

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

The text of "A Society," by Virginia Woolf, can be read by clicking here.

Like most accomplished artists of the last century or so, Virginia Woolf worked in a number of modes. Her dominant side was her experimental one, which employed innovative uses of wordplay and character perspective, and which resulted in her most impressive work. The novels To the Lighthouse and Mrs. Dalloway are what immediately come to mind. But she was also a witty satirist of gender relations, roles, and status. This was Woolf at her most accessible and popular; if one meets a person who has read only one book by her, her semi-autobiographical feminist narrative A Room of One’s Own is the work that is invariably (and most fondly) mentioned.

Her 1921 short story “A Society” appears, at first, to be cut from much the same cloth as A Room of One’s Own. There’s little of the modernist approach to construction and effect that characterizes most of her major fiction; one can’t imagine anybody complaining about the story being incomprehensible or exceedingly arty. It starts off as a breezy, good-natured satire on gender roles. Woolf engages in a bit of her trademark leitmotif approach to words and phrases, but she keeps it in service to jokes, which is all but guaranteed to keep every reader on board. But the comic aspects of the early parts serve two purposes: they also provide a devastating set-up for the harsh ironies of the story’s latter sections, in which the entertaining absurdism of Woolf’s gender satire shifts into tragedy.

The story opens with a tea party. The attendees are all young women, and they’re completely caught up in thoughts of men; they can’t wait to get married and have children of their own. However, one of them, Poll, breaks down crying while listening to the others rhapsodizing. Poll is the most eccentric of the group--the one considered least likely to get married--but she’s not crying over her prospects. Her father has left her a fortune in his will, but only on the condition that she read every book in the London Library. She has done her best to comply, but she can’t take it anymore; most books, as she puts it, are “unutterably bad.” She reads passages from several works to overcome her friends’ skepticism, and the group comes to the realization that men may not be living up to their end of the social contract. As the narrator says, “the objects of life were to produce good people and good books.” The women create a society of their own; its goal is to go out in the world and see how men are living up to their responsibilities, such as running things and writing the books. And until they are satisfied that they know how well the men “have borne the books” and whatnot, they will not bear any children.

This leads to a number of entertaining vignettes. There’s the encounter with the ship captain who has, shall one say, idiosyncratic notions about corporal punishment. (The bit is like something barely cleaned-up from Anaïs Nin.) One of the women tries to understand the nature of judges, only to be left unsure if they are men or a whole other species of animal. Another takes her measure of a number of Oxbridge professors, who are so caught up with their goofy obsessions that she can’t imagine them producing anything of value--and these are who the culture entrusts to cultivate men. The suspicions created by the passages Poll read for them in the opening scene seem all but confirmed. Men’s pretensions exist for the knowledgeable woman’s laughter.

Woolf’s tone, though, shifts at this point. Others in the society outline men’s achievements in the world, such as the remarkably sophisticated operations of government and business. There’s no room for derision there. And an especially discordant note is struck when one of the women, who has posed as a book reviewer, can’t offer any kind of coherent report on the state of contemporary literature--her thoughts drift back to mundane pleasures and the vicarious joy in a colleague’s having his raised his sons in style. The women don’t know what to make of her comment that “the truth has nothing to do with literature.” And they certainly don’t know what to make of the cheers for a declaration of war that come from the streets outside. Rollicking humor has given way to feelings of unease, confusion, and dread.

The final section of the story is a dialogue between two of the women some years later. One has come to the conclusion that the women were better off in their ignorance--everyone is better off in their ignorance. At best, knowledge only makes humanity clever without substance; at worst, knowledge is joined with substance--with concrete goals--which leads to the suffering of war. Paradise was in not knowing anything at all. Woolf never makes or alludes to the analogy of Eve and the apple, but the resonance of the Hebrew myth in this story is inescapable. Knowledge walks hand in hand with horror.

And one realizes that the story isn’t feminist in the way one traditionally thinks of. Its point of view is not patriarchal--Woolf treats war as the culminating sin in that manner of thought, and it is a sin she clearly feels is alien to the female mind. However, in "A Society," she is not advocating that women step beyond their roles in the patriarchal structure. She’s not of the view that they can’t, but that they will ultimately reach a point where they wish they hadn’t. It’s an odd sort of feminist notion: women, unlike men, have the capacity to understand that it is ultimately better not to know. Knowledge is power, but ignorance is security. Hm.

Other reviews of works by Virginia Woolf

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