Reinventing Grief Work: Virginia Woolf's Feminist Representations of Mourning in 'Mrs. Dalloway' and 'To the Lighthouse.'

By Smith, Susan Bennett | Twentieth Century Literature, Winter 1995 | Go to article overview

Reinventing Grief Work: Virginia Woolf's Feminist Representations of Mourning in 'Mrs. Dalloway' and 'To the Lighthouse.'


Smith, Susan Bennett, Twentieth Century Literature


Freud, in his studies of hysterics, and the contemporary nerve specialists George Savage and Silas Weir Mitchell, in case studies, treat bereaved women as mentally unbalanced. They assume a causal link between grief and madness without any analysis or explicit justification. Because women had traditionally been the primary mourners, they became the primary patients of rest cures and talking cures. As one of Savage's patients and as the subject of much biographical writing, Virginia Woolf embodies the effects of this easy correlation between madness and grief. In Woolf's case, the issue becomes crystallized in a specific moment: why was the family physician called in to treat the thirteen-year-old Virginia Stephen after her mother died? That moment marks a break with Victorian mourning ritual, and makes vivid the transition from social grief practices to medical and psychological therapies. Her own writings, both autobiographical and fictional, offer a critique of this transition and describe a post-Freudian form of grief work. In Mrs. Dalloway Woolf tells a cautionary tale of the fatal results of the feminization and medicalization of grief, but offers no viable alternative. In To the Lighthouse she removes mourning from the realms of femininity and medicine, and provides a positive model for grief work.

As is well documented, her mother's death triggered Virginia's first breakdown; her father's death when she was twenty-two precipitated a severe breakdown and a suicide attempt. Recent theorists consider eating and sleep disorders, hallucinations, anger, and depression to be nonpathological manifestations of grief.(1) Bereavement which prompts a suicide attempt is pathological, but short of that, what constitutes disordered grief? This question becomes particularly difficult to answer when we compare the reactions of Virginia and Leslie Stephen to Julia's death. According to Quentin Bell, both experienced their bereavement as a kind of imitation death, but while Leslie's was comprehensible in terms of Victorian mourning ritual, his daughter's was not. "For a long time he abandoned himself to grief; his life, like his writing paper, was confined within a deep black border" (1:40). Virginia's "breakdown" was "a great interval of nothingness, a kind of positive death which cannot be described and of which Virginia herself probably knew little" (1:44). In Bell's words, Leslie "broke down utterly" after Julia's death, but he did not suffer a "breakdown." There is a fine but definite line between "broke down" and "breakdown," between what can be described in terms of social conventions and what cannot.

In "Reminiscences" Woolf compares her father's grief unfavorably to her own and that of her sisters and brothers. In her analysis it is Leslie's grief that is transgressive. She felt that the "Oriental gloom" which her Victorian father imposed on the household was excessive: his "groans [and] passionate lamentations . . . passed the normal limits of sorrow" (Moments of Being 40). She characterizes his expression of grief as both foreign and feminine, as inappropriate; he is like "a Hebrew prophet" (40) and "the Queen in Shakespeare" (94) in his self-dramatization. But Woolf's notion of "the normal limits of sorrow" is very different from her father's Victorian idea. Leslie Stephen was a distraught widower, living in a conventionally darkened house, visited by female relatives and friends who offered sympathy and comfort. The trappings of "Oriental gloom" were the trappings of Victorian mourning ritual. Woolf's insistence on the strangeness of her father's behavior manifests her complete rejection of nineteenth-century modes of grief as emotionally oppressive, excessive, and perhaps even pathological.

The profound difference between Leslie's and Virginia's bereavements was both gendered and generational. Woolf's rejection of her father's Victorian bereavement is characteristic of her generation's wholesale rejection of things Victorian, but to her family and to many of her critics Virginia's grief was a disease; Leslie's was normal. …

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