“That is part of the beauty of all literature. You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.” F. Scott Fitzgerald
This adage condenses in a splendid way the sense of belonging offered by literature to both writers and readers, creators and consumers, society and its context… Nevertheless, everything becomes more complicated on reading a piece of literature written in a time far from us. How can this pitfall be overcome? Well, it could be solved by contextualising the work itself in its appropriate frame and prevailing ideology.
Literature: a mirror of its time. It goes without saying that the understanding of literary texts is greatly enhanced by deepening into the context within which their authors lived and worked. For that purpose, biographical and literary influences on the writer, and even the creative afterlife of the work are sometimes needed to be addressed if we want to grasp the hidden meanings among the pages. Let’s take Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own as a model to depict the interaction between literature and its context and the necessity to know the latter to understand the former.
A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf is an extended essay articulated by a prime message “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction”. Woolf makes her indictment on the patriarchal and ‘phallocentric’ society of her time with the help of an imaginary narrator and fictional and semi-fictional characters and settings. In short, this work underlies how the patriarchal mainstream inhibited and confined women’s literary potential on depriving them of rights and opportunities within the ‘walls’ of the institutionalised sexism.
Let’s take a look at the different contexts to keep in mind…
The writer’s social context vs. the readers’ social context. “Call me Mary Beton, Mary Seton, Mary Carmichael or any other name you please, it is not a matter of importance.” While a current reader may find these words senseless when learning about Woolf’s social context one realises the meaning behind the evident. How is that? Because the author rejects to give a single name to the narrator in order to make her complain applicable to all women, not just one. Additionally, with this brilliant technique, her message transcends one voice so that every woman has her say.
Ideological context. “It would have been impossible, completely and entirely, for any woman to have written the plays of Shakespeare in the age of Shakespeare”. Whereas this passage can be shocking by the 21st-century reader it was really significant back then since men were justifying the lack of remarkable literary works on the part of women by pointing to females’ incapability instead of their deprivation of opportunities. Hence, so as to defend her reasoning, Woolf invents the figure of Judith Shakespeare, William Shakespeare’s fictional twin sister. By including this character, the writer exemplifies the fact that Judith did not accomplish William’s literary achievements not for lacking talent but for the unequal opportunities they enjoyed. Judith is shown as a woman who leads a tragic life of unrealized genius as society scorns her attempts to make something of her brilliant mind. At the same time, the suicide of this character reflects the tragic fate suffered by a highly intelligent woman due to the unfair circumstances which surrounded her. On the other hand, it is worth mentioning that with the quote which inaugurates this paragraph, Woolf pursues to undermine the fallacious and rooted mantra which stresses that men are superior to women.
Cultural and historical contexts. “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” Again, although a reader of this time could find this quote surprising, at the beginning of the 20th century, women were saddled with household duties and motherhood where there was no room for literary creation. Equally, they kept an unavoidable financial and legally bound to their husbands who denied them the time and their own space to create literary works. After writing these words, the narrator exposes her belief that this gender-consciousness which conceived women as inferior and men as superior is an impediment itself which oppresses women’s creativity since her mind is not free from men’s underestimation. Lastly, with the quote aforementioned, Woolf stands out the indisputable truth about the society of her time: women would have been as brilliant as their male counterparts if they had had the same privileges and possibilities.
Finally, from Tierra Trivium we would like to emphasise that it is about time for women to stand up and reclaim their rights and their voice so that when they say ‘NO’ is ‘NO’.
“Women have served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size.” Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own
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