Academic journal article Woolf Studies Annual

The Paradox of the Gift: Gift-Giving as a Disruptive Force in "Mrs. Dalloway in Bond Street"

Academic journal article Woolf Studies Annual

The Paradox of the Gift: Gift-Giving as a Disruptive Force in "Mrs. Dalloway in Bond Street"

Article excerpt

"[O]ne bright new sixpence": Woolf and the Market Economy

From the mid-1980s onwards there has been a sustained critical focus on modernism's relation to the market, encompassing the "great divide" between modernist art and mass production, and the quintessential modernity of commodity culture. As Reginald Abbott notes, work which, for example, examines James Joyce's engagement with advertising has "irrevocably opened the modernist canon to consumer theory" (194). (1) Such critical examinations have begun to explode the myth, mapped out in earlier influential studies such as Andreas Huyssen's After the Great Divide, of modernist writers' and artists' absolute disinterest in, detachment from and contempt for popular and consumer culture. The easy and gendered distinction this myth assumes between "high" (masculine) and "low" (feminine) art and the polarization of art in this way is undermined by more recent studies which have begun to uncover, in Lawrence Rainey's words, "the growing complexity of cultural exchange and circulation in modern society" (2). (2) Rainey's study, along with others, significantly explores the contradictory and ambiguous interrelationships between modernist artists, the cultural institutions which produce art, the market, readers, and modernist art as a "commodity of a special sort" (3). He argues that "[m]odernism marks neither a straightforward resistance nor an outright capitulation to commodification but a momentary equivocation that incorporates elements of both in a brief, necessarily unstable synthesis" (3).

This position of equivocation is a useful one from which to consider Woof's relationship to commodity culture. Whereas for Abbott in 1992 "Woolf could only be an ambivalent witness to commodity culture," (3) more recent studies explore Woolf's place in the commercial world. Studies continue to focus on some of the same issues, but in ways which problematize earlier assumptions about Woolf's position so as to more fully engage with the deeply rooted sense of contradiction about market economies found in her writing. (4) As co-owner of the Hogarth Press and as a woman writer intent on making money from her pen, Woolf was interested in markets and profit margins. (5) Sales figures feature significantly in her diaries, as both a marker of her artistic achievement and an indication of her financial success. Clearly, profits from her work enabled her to gain greater financial independence, to have purchasing power and to experience the pleasure of commodity culture. However, she also felt considerably uncomfortable about her own place in the commercial world (her writing for Vogue, for instance, brought anxiety and concern about the debasement that mass production and commercialism can imply). (6)

For Woolf, participation in the market and being active in the public domain are also clearly bound up with her feminist politics, but in a problematic way. Such participation in the public realm is seen as part of the experience of modernity from which women should not be excluded. Her texts capture the impact of these aspects of modernity on perception and experience, and participation in the market as shopper/ consumer figures significantly (if sometimes ambivalently) in several of Woolf's texts (Mrs. Dalloway, "Mrs. Dalloway in Bond Street," "Street Haunting," "Oxford Street Tide" and others). (7) In Three Guineas, Woolf describes middle-class women's engagement with capitalist economies as being caught "between the devil and the deep blue sea" (TG 86). Women's right to earn money and to have a profession is liberating and brings a changed perception of the world, a freedom to express opinions and, importantly, a freedom from the need to charm and allure men. With increased earning power and career opportunities women have a different sphere of action and vision: "[i]n every purse there was, or might be, one bright new sixpence in whose light every thought, every sight, every action looked different" (TG 19). …

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