Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)


College of Humanities and Social Sciences



Thesis Sponsor/Dissertation Chair/Project Chair

Jonathan Greenberg

Committee Member

David Galef

Committee Member

Naomi C. Liebler


This thesis focuses on the function of the Victorian domestic woman in the Modernist novels and essays of Virginia Woolf. Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse are the two primary texts covered in this study. Woolfs Modernist aesthetic develops out of the Victorian literary tradition and represents a conscious shift away from the literary and social conventions associated with pre-WWI society. Woolf draws upon established Victorian models of femininity, like Patmore’s “Angel in the House,” and traditional Victorian domestic middle-class ideology to center her Modernist novels. Her female protagonists, Mrs. Dalloway and Mrs. Ramsay, represent quintessential Victorian ideals of femininity: domestic, submissive, married, and chaste. Yet Woolf presents these consummate “Angels” in a changing world in which Victorian ideology no longer makes sense. Woolf s progressive aesthetic is firmly anchored within the Victorian ideals of the past because her novels represent and illustrate the progressive movement in both social and literary (aesthetic) thought.

The first chapter focuses on the novel Mrs. Dalloway and the character Clarissa Dalloway. Clarissa, the protagonist and the domestic center of the novel, represents the Victorian ideal in a constantly changing post-WWI society. Clarissa, who suffers from a divided self, is rooted in the past yet learning to live in an ever-changing future. Woolf addresses the duality of Clarissa’s nature by comparing the fervency of youth to the complacency of middle age as she struggles between her engineered social self and her private introspective self. Clarissa has an interesting relationship to traditional marriage and begins to question the foundations of traditional Victorian notions of marriage that have left her cold and passionless. The ardent and youthful relationship between Sally Seton and Clarissa is also examined to determine how this passionate and suggestively bisexual relationship works to subvert the traditional patriarchal heterosexual marriage plot. Furthermore, I believe that the ability to find an artistic outlet or a way to create is Woolfs idea of true female liberation. Therefore, the party at the novel’s conclusion represents a domestic yet artistic outlet for Clarissa because she relegated to the domestic sphere and therefore her aesthetic and artistic expression must develop from that realm.

The second chapter discusses the novel To the Lighthouse and the character of Mrs. Ramsay. Mrs. Ramsay is presented as the ideal Victorian woman. Her incomparable beauty coupled with her passive and pleasing nature makes her the domestic center of the novel. Mrs. Ramsay’s dedication to her tyrannical husband inadvertently makes her the face of female subservience within the system of Victorian patriarchal hegemony; yet despite her seemingly complacent and traditional nature, she does maintain some semblance of newly emerging feminist ideals. Drawing upon Elizabeth MacLeod Walls’ concepts of the modem woman as an “amalgamation of the past and present” (243) and “domestic feminism” (229), I argue that both Mrs. Ramsay and the text of To the Lighthouse embody these principles and consequentially emerge as examples of Virginia Woolfs feminist beliefs: a combination of Victorian gender stereotypes coupled with passive forms of resistance that push the feminine self towards aesthetic liberation and challenge patriarchal hegemony by questioning the foundations of artistic inequality. Mrs. Ramsay is the epitome of an emerging woman who is slowly shedding Victorian gender inequality for a more modem way of thought revealing Woolf s distinctive form of feminist thought.

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