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The Subconscious, Death and Feminism

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Writing about the subconscious undercurrents in the human mind is part of Virginia Woolf’s own discovery of her subconscious and how it has affected her writing and held back so many other writers such as her. As Woolf was trying to write a review for a male author’s novel, “the angel in the house” “slipped to [her] and whispered” to tell Woolf “never let anybody guess that you have mind on your own” (“Professions for Women” 27). As a result, Woolf found that she could not “cannot review even a novel” under the constraints of her subconscious which tells her not to have “a mind of your own” and not to “express what you think to be the truth about human relations, morality, sex” (“Professions for Women” 27). She laments “the angel in the house,” who is exactly the subconscious voice that holds women from writing successfully.

“The angel in the house” is the representation of her subconscious, but this confrontation between her subconscious and herself reveals again Woolf’s inclination towards death. She claims in her essay “Professions for Women” that, “the angel” who “excelled in the difficult arts of family life” and “sacrificed herself daily,” as the metaphorical representation of the traditional pure image of women, arouses Woolf’s imagination as if “the angel” was telling her to be “sympathetic” and “tender” to “deceive” and “flatter” the men, so no one would know that women actually has “a mind of [her] own” (“Professions for Women” 27). The imagery of “the angel in the house” sickens Woolf. It symbolizes Woolf’s subconscious undercurrent that a woman should “never ha[ve] a mind or a wish of her own, but…sympathize always with the minds and wishes of others” (“Professions for Women” 27). As Woolf is unable to convince her subconscious mind, she becomes so annoyed that she eventually wrote “the angel” to death so that it could no longer hold her back. Death is used to represent both her subconscious and the actions she takes to ensure female independence from the old “chain” of the treatment of women.

Woolf’s rage against the expected image of the pure, understanding and motherly women can also be found in her piece “Three Pictures” (3). In order to converse with the reader, she prepares death again for her character. “Three Pictures,” though resembling a simple short fiction, gives us insight into her unwillingness to subscribe to the female tradition represented previously by the “angel in the house” (“Professions for Women” 27). The first picture is a peaceful sight of a happy traditional family, in which the wife is “sew[ing] at her baby clothes” (“Three Pictures” 3). Then with no omen, the second picture unsettles us through the horror of the unknown: “In the middle of the night a loud cry rang through the village” (“Three Pictures” 3). The final image combines two previous pictures with both harmony and hints of unrest, and ends with the sudden death of the major character, Rogers. Woolf finally reveals to her readers it is the young Rogers who died and it was his wife who screamed in the middle of the night. Woolf’s killing of the husband character in “Three Pictures” exposes her subconscious desire for the end of a traditional family where the woman is not considered an equal in all respects.

Death is once again one of Woolf’s most powerful literary tools in her arsenal. As she asks in the “Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid,” “do the current thinkers honestly believe that by writing ‘Disarmament’ on a sheet of paper at a conference table they will have done all that is needful?” (28). Woolf seems to feel powerless and disappointed by the close-minded ideas of men. By relentlessly causing death to those that represent the chains against which feminism struggles, Woolf taps into her subconscious, showing us her deepest desire of the collapse of these archaic ideals. Her killing of “the angel in the house,” and her destruction of the husband in a traditionally peaceful family appear to be her call to arms.

Overall, Virginia Woolf’s use of imagery, metaphors, and her extensive discussion about death and the gloom that accompanies death in her pieces form narratives that are complex and perplexing to the reader. Not only is her fascination with death surprising to readers, it is also surprising how intricately she is able to meld death with feminism in a way that promotes feminism and denounces the forces that hold women back. As a writer herself, the ‘angel in the house” of every woman should be silenced. Although there is sometimes a contradiction between her calm, passive writing style and her confrontational stances during some stories, we do see her constant reflection on feminism and more importantly how to overcome the obstacles she and her peers faced.


Work Cited

Hadley, Tessa. "Virginia Woolf by Alexandra Harris – Review." The Guardian. Guardian News

and Media, 21 Oct. 2011. Web. 11 Apr. 2016.

Woolf, Virginia. "The Death of the Moth, and Other Essays, by Virginia Woolf." The Death of

the Moth, and Other Essays. EBooks@Adelaide, 19 Sept. 2015. Web. 14 Apr. 2016.

“The Death of the Moth.” 1

“Three Pictures” 3

“Old Mrs. Grey.” 4

“Middlebrow” 22

“Professions for Women.” 27

“Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid” 28

Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One's Own. New York: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1989. Print.


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