The relationship between writing, gender relations and sexuality in modernist fiction with reference to "Mrs. Dalloway" and "Ulysses"

Essay 2001 11 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Literature


The relationship between writing, gender relations and sexuality in modernist fiction with reference to Mrs.Dalloway and Ulysses

The modernist writers were deeply influenced by the changing gender relations and the attitude towards sexuality within society, which is reflected in their literary works. The patriarchal society was more and more questioned, particularly by an awakening feminist movement, and sexuality became a present issue of discourse after new theories had been introduced. Virginia Woolf’s Mrs.Dalloway and James Joyce’s Ulysses are discussed as two examples of a modernist novel in order to explain in which ways modernist writers dealt with the aspects of gender and sexuality.

The patriarchal society within the modernist’s time implies a strong division between the functions of men and women, to which literary works refer. The term gender describes a cultural category providing certain stereotypes of femininity and masculinity which are generated in society, culture and language. As masculinity is associated with the mind and emotional repression, femininity is reduced to the body. Moreover, this differentiation is equally realised in a phallocentric language. Luce Irigary argues that linguistic meaning is not self-present but depends upon the sexual difference. Masculinity means presence, as the phallus denotes the masculine authority, and is therefore privileged. The opposite means absence and is represented by femininity, which is only notable by a lack.

Virginia Woolf was an author whose modernist works cannot be distinguished from her feminist attitude as both aspects were linked in her novels. She criticised the patriarchal system with its phallocentrism and tried to find a new way of expression which should abolish the neglect of women in literature. The struggle for female writers was that writing included, up to that point, using a language dominated by men. “Perhaps the first thing she would find, setting pen to paper, was that there was no common sentence ready for her use.”[1] The only common sentence was defined as the man’s sentence by Virginia Woolf. In order to be able to express themselves, female writers had to find an own suitable language, which presuppose a woman’s sentence. A sentence which, however, Virginia doesn’t define in detail but which stands in opposition to a logical, primarily rational male sentence.

The linguistic difference of a female literary work is, moreover, connected to differing values and importance, which are expressed in a text.

“This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing-room. A scene in a battle-field is more important than a scene in a shop – everywhere and much more subtle the difference of values persists.”[2]

The differing values are reflected in the plot which underlines the primary accent on the female point of view. Virginia Woolf’s novel describes one day of the protagonist Mrs. Dalloway organising her party and which takes place in drawing-rooms and shops. Her inner feelings are of specific importance and not the war, which is only dealt with in the background. There’s no linear and logical narrative, but present observations, inner feelings and back flashes are taken together and form a unity. A stream of consciousness is used to express all these aspects, and therefore contrasts the rational man’s sentence.

“Quiet descended on her, calm, content, as her needle, drawing the silk smoothly to its gentle pause, collected to green folds together and attached them, very lightly, to the belt. So on a summer’s day waves collect, overbalance, and fall; collect and fall; and the whole world seems to be saying “That is all” more and more ponderously, until even the heart in the body which lies in the sun on the beach says too, that is all. Fear no more, says the heart. Fear no more, says the heart, committing its burden to some sea, which sighs collectively for all sorrows, and renews, begins, collects, lets fall. And the body alone listens to the passing bee; the wave breaking; the dog barking, far away barking and barking.”[3]


[1] Woolf, Virginia (1993) A Room of One’s Own/Three Guineas, London, Penguin p.69

[2] Woolf, Virginia (1993) A Room of One’s Own/Three Guineas, London, Penguin p.67

[3] Woolf, Virginia (1996) Mrs.Dalloway, London, Penguin p.44f.


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Dalloway Ulysses



Title: The relationship between writing, gender relations and sexuality in modernist fiction with reference to "Mrs. Dalloway" and "Ulysses"