Essay: She and I – the female self

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  • Subject area(s): Literature essays
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  • Published on: July 20, 2019
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Margaret Atwood (Lady Oracle, The Edible Woman) and Virginia Woolf (Mrs Dalloway), both twentieth-century female novelists widely acclaimed for their exploration of the creation of the female mind and self, employ the construction of central female protagonists in their novels through which they explore the confines of male-dominated environments. The Male Gaze primarily guards female behaviour within these societies, in which offers the complex duality of traditionally confining women to the muted corners of domesticity, all while simultaneously overexposing the body in the male space — through visual display of her physical appearance, her body as material object, and which must be observed, judged, valued, rejected, modified and essentially commodified, for socially-constructed purposes. Facing the threat of loss of self, these female protagonists then respond by first creating space, in an attempt to reclaim themselves. In more determined assertions of self, they wield greater control over the female body through embracing their sexuality, and freedom of movement away from societal rigidities. Offering further the more intimate complexities of female emotion and thought through Atwood’s use of the first-person narrative through Joan Foster and Marian MacAlpin, set alongside Woolf’s use of the stream-of-consciousness in framing others’ perception, the texts chart the progress of the female protagonists as they embark to establish their individual presence in the male-dominated space.

In the respective societies of the three novels, the Male Gaze is so deeply entrenched in the social fabric as to be manifested in a myriad of ways — directly asserted from the Male presence, or internalised within the female consciousness. This top-down Male Gaze, as levied through personal relationships, deeply diminishes the female sense of self. Internalised within the female consciousness, the female protagonists feel the force of the male gaze, predatory and animalistic in nature. Edible’s Peter had “his eyes gleaming like an animal’s in the beam from a car headlight”, mirrored in Dalloway’s Peter perceiving the unnamed woman as prey,“witty, with a lizard’s flickering tongue” — arresting the female within male perception, objectifying her. The primitive predator-prey relationship further imposes aggression and intrusion upon female objectification. As captured in Freudian scopophilia, Edible’s Peter turns into voyeur with his intensified gaze, as mirrored in his literal eating habits, “slicing precisely with an exact adjustment of pressures”. Likening the objectifying gaze to literal consumption, the ruthless precision with which Peter cuts his food is the equivalent of metaphorically separating Marian into her constituent parts, to be rearranged into his own mould. The gaze turns into fixated perversion, Peter deriving satisfaction from the active watch and manipulation of an objectified other. To a less intrusive degree, but with the same level of obsession, Dalloway’s Peter cyclically narrativizes Clarissa,” possibly [Clarissa] said to herself, As we are a doomed race, chained to a sinking ship (her favourite reading as a girl was Huxley and Tyndall, and they were fond of these nautical metaphors), as the whole thing is a bad joke, let us, at any rate, do our part”.

Speaking from inflected third-person past-tense narration, Peter imagines and speaks for Clarissa’s inner thoughts, even using personal pronouns to create the illusion of direct speech. Displaced by male construction through linguistic command, the female is made silent for the imposition of meaning — rather than as active maker of meaning.

Beyond the conventional Male Gaze, its diminishing quality is made transferable from female-to-female, distorting self-perception specifically in body-image. Oracle positions the unconventional figure of Joan Foster within an equally unconventional mother-daughter relationship — the hardened mother figure domineering and restrictive, especially in the absence of the father and husband (Arthur) figures. Deprived of intimacy and affection, the mother is described in harsh, angular detail, “Her hands (were) delicate and long-fingered, with red nails, her hair carefully arranged; no nests for me among those stiff immaculate curls.” The hands of the mother, usually the nurturing symbol of providence and fertility, is instead talon-like, characterised by the viciousness of the colour red and its “long-fingered” manipulative grip. The maternal nest itself is replaced by the rigidities of beauty ideals, homeliness and familiarity lacking in the “stiff immaculate curls”. It is against these rigidities that Joan resorts to the imagined inflation of her physical body — ”wads of fat sprouted on my thighs and shoulders, my belly bulged out like a Hubbard squash” — grotesquely distorting her own body, isolating and hence objectifying her feminine body parts. Joan starts to dissect her appearance against societal expectations of feminine attractiveness, warping her own perception of self as defined by her body-image.

The Gaze, in intruding upon the female space and alienating her from her own body, hence funnels itself into the collective displacement of a detached “her”.

In response to the displacement of the female self, the female individual, though unable to directly confront male dominance, retreats into a self-created private sphere in an attempt to reclaim herself. This takes shape in either the physical removal of the self from the public domain, or in the mind’s imagined space in which to reconstruct and redefine the role of the female.

As a means of evading the Gaze and to reassert authority, Edible’s and Dalloway’s protagonists retreat into their own private, personal spaces. In the absence of outsider scrutiny, the protagonists re-order their perceptions of self, through physically re-ordering their bedrooms. The menial chore of having Marian clean her own bedroom ascribes the traditionally masculine qualities of rational planning and self-assertion through calculated control — “I should go through the dresser-drawers and throw out whatever has accumulated in them”. The clarity of purpose and sense of conviction in “I should”, paired with the detailed description of her course of action, displays mental rigour in addition to the ordering of the physical. Similarly, Dalloway’s Clarissa treats the attic room “at the top of the house” as the stable and shielded insulator for introspection and exploration of the intimacies of her mind. Woolf’s placement of the room, distanced from the socially-habitable living spaces of her own home, is indicative of inaccessibility of Clarissa’s mind, even to the guests she hosts. As opposed to Marian’s order, however, Clarissa’s bedroom is a place where she can “put off their rich apparel” of rigid aristocracy, and instead relax into her own private freedom. Having “read deep in Baron Marbot’s Memoirs”, she is free to exercise her intellect, a domain usually dominated by males. Political reference made to “retreat from Moscow” hints at her own political awareness, possibly matching up to Richard. The physical arrangement of the room’s furniture makes it accommodative only to her individual self, “narrower and narrower her bed would be”, stripped of the bed’s traditional association to sexual intimacy and Clarissa’s role as wife. It is within this private space that she can therefore contemplate herself in the mirrored reflection of self; “collecting the whole of her at one point”, the mirror symbolic of heightened clarity in her self-perception, acknowledging and reconciling her identity as “Clarissa Dalloway; of herself”.

Apart from stable, physical spaces, the female self dislodges herself from the immobility objectification paralyses her in, and instead initiates movement to reassert herself. Edible’s Marian desperately attempts to evade the Male Gaze through self-concealment, by literally retreating into the “semi-darkness, tinted orange by the filter of the bedspread that curtained me on all four sides”, preferring to shroud herself in visual obscurity over involuntary exposure and visibility of the self to the “reverberating hot glare of the room”. The male gaze, activated and energised in the “reverberations (ing)” and the heat of the “hot glare”, expanded over the physical room, is made more tangible in Marian’s perception — prompting her need for escape. Similarly, this form of self-preservation and defiance can be visualised within the female mind. Joan’s response to her mother’s disgust towards her childhood obesity is to co-opt these images into the control of her own mind — the Fat Lady of her childhood constantly reimagined as a means of deflecting or manipulating the Gaze. While acknowledging the ubiquitous omnipresence of the Gaze, “lines and lines of thin gray faces filing(ed) past her, looking, looking”, the potency of the gaze is reduced through homogenising its male inflictors, quantifying them in unidentifiable multiplicity and rendering them deficient, “thin” and “gray”. However, by free exercise of her imagination, Joan repositions the Fat Lady within an expanded geographical setting — “I took her across, past the lumbering enterprises of the West Coast, over the wheatlands of the prairies, walking high above the mines and smokestacks of Ontario”. Through the Fat Lady projection, she elevates herself not just in front of a circus audience, but extends it through vast landscapes and through traversing geographical boundaries; boundless. This self-initiated physical ascension of the self, alongside the expanded scope of movement, hence allows the reclamation of the female self — through free movement within a self-defined space.

As these texts progress, opportunities are arranged for crossover of the self from self-created, insular spheres to the more public domain of increased self-expression — via the female body. Playing up feminine autonomy through an exploration of female sexuality, Oracle’s Joan and Edible’s Marian strike up extra-marital affairs. While her first tangible sexual encounter strips her of dignity, simultaneously enlarging and reducing her to “a single enormous breast”, Atwood’s introduction of the unconventional artist, the Royal Porcupine, draws out Joan’s primal sexual desire. Descriptions of the Royal Porcupine, as is suggested by his name, is one marked by flamboyance and elaborate dress, “wearing a long black coat and spats, and carrying a gold-headed cane”, this theatrical dimension distinguishing him from the average Male. His sexual desire encompasses animalistic aggression and yet gentle, alluring sensuality, “his green eyes lit up like a lynx’s, and he walked towards me, growling softly”; this being from Joan’s first-hand perspective, indicates her own improved perception of self, moving from exploitation to being consensually desired. Detailing “the backs of my knees were weak with lust, and i felt a curious tingling sensation in my elbows”, a raw manifestation of her own lust, she sensorily immerses herself in, and engages with, the sexual experience as a conscious entity. Fulfillment of sexual desire, as articulated via first-person narrative, allows Marian to gain possession of her own body, moving past its initial treatment as a sexualised object.

While Oracle created a boldly distinguishable character in the Porcupine with which Joan could better define herself, it is Duncan’s unidentifiable, fluid form that allows greater flexibility in Marian’s identity; ultimately solidifying self-ownership over her body via their sexual relations. Duncan himself is the antithesis to the rigidities of Peter, portrayed as openly vulnerable and reduced to the fetal image of “an uncooked egg deciding to come out of its shell”, unsolidified “formless puddle” . Though “the high stark ridge of his cheekbone, the dark hollow of his eye” are characteristically male and angular, this distinct image is quickly eroded in readers’ perception with Marian’s liquidation of him, not only blurring his physical tangibility, but even transforming her gaze on him into near-consumption. Comparatively, Marian’s own perception of her body solidifies, even expands, Duncan instead only merely “a stunted creature crawling over the surface of a huge mass of flesh”. This self-perceived size comparison, with the exaggerated reduction of Duncan both in size and from human to “stunted creature”, indicates heightened awareness of her own body — as conceptualised within her superior position in the relationship. Playing up parity in their sexual relations, both Joan and Marian regain autonomy through better control and awareness of their own bodies.

The female body is, however, not only confined to the bedroom — it may also be wielded into different active forms within the female mind, offering possible liberation and freedom. Breaking away from her plotted death, Oracle’s Joan re-packages herself within the privacy of her Italian home, presenting herself as the image of freedom on the balcony. Against the backdrop of violence and aggression, where predatory activities representative of the Male Gaze is concentrated in “gunshots, it must’ve been someone shouting at a bird”, Joan presents the self unapologetically in the image of the very bird that is preyed upon. A physical transformation is envisioned in the mind to be underway, “wings grew from my shoulders, an arm slide around my waist”, the juxtaposition of the liberating sprouting of ‘wings’ for flight against the traditional male possessiveness through the “arm slide” emphasising the necessary escape mechanism. As opposed to the helplessness of the birds hunted down, Joan’s mind co-opts their “wings” to emphasise the freedom birds have, regaining autonomy for the self. The performative aspect, her “raising(ed) myself onto my bares toes and twirling(ed) around”, is shrouded in elegance and poise, dressed in “spangles” for a flamboyant display of femininity. Combined with the fluidity of her transformation into a bird, Joan utilises her body as a bold statement of her own feminine identity, “dance(ing) for no one but myself”, self-affirming and freeing herself from the rigidities of the Male Gaze.

Similarly, Dalloway’s Clarissa admires and compares Sally Seton’s physical recklessness and vitality with being “all light, glowing, like some bird or air ball that has flown in, attaching(ed) itself for a moment to a bramble” — the female form moving from its rigid limitations to “some bird or air ball that has flown in”, Sally being characterised by the flow of her movement and additionally shrouded in the ethereal quality of “all light, glowing”. Moving beyond the mere mental transformation as imagined by Oracle’s Joan, however, Sally is noted for her own physical rigour — where “she forgot her sponge, and ran along the passage naked”. The freedom of movement and action of having “run (ran) along”, coupled with the her nudity, is doubly liberating — the recklessness of exposing the female form and its accompanying vigorous movement both acting as physical retaliation to the Gaze’s restrictions. Likewise, Clarissa offers her own physical form that same ethereal quality, theorising about the multiplicity of self by projecting herself “like a mist between the people she knew best, who had lifted on their branches as she had seen the trees lift the mist”. Making use of natural imagery, with the physical ascension in being “lifted on their branches”, Clarissa regards herself with the freedom of form in being “a mist”, uplifting herself — borrowing heavily from the vitality of natural imagery, these female protagonists reassert their autonomy by putting them into self-dictated action.

However, the selves that the female protagonists try to create and wrest into expression is undeniably subject to the scrutiny and reduction of larger patriarchal pressures — the omnipresence of the Gaze still offering the threat of diminishment via the female body.

Both Dalloway’s Clarissa and Edible’s Marian seek their validation within romantic intimacy — deeply internalising the gaze of their male counterparts. Even within the privacy of Marian’s own mind, she conceives of herself being “stopped, fixed insolubly in that gesture, single stance, unable to move or change”, anticipating her own capture by Peter, in which she is rendered helplessly paralysed. Though this is an imagined scenario, the flexibility of her own imagination is unable to free her, and is instead subject to the “dark, intense marksman with his aiming eye”, Peter’s hardened gaze policing her and perpetually threatening physical capture. This objectifying gaze even seeps into her internal conception of self, transforming Marian from objectified to object. The dolls from Marian’s childhood, of which bear the trademarks of femininity in a consumerist culture, are now imagined by Marian to be activated, “the dark one, the one with the peeling paint, that was definitely watching her”, vesting power in the inanimate to scrutinise her in male absence. Marian’s mind partakes in this objectification, her arms pictured in the mirror to look “fake, like soft pinkish-white rubber or plastic, boneless, flexible”, shedding both human dignity and human characteristics. Distance created hence leads to dispossession of self, displaced from the mind and instead slotted right into Male-scrutinised consumerist society — “two-dimensional small figure in a red dress, posed like a paper-woman in a mail-order catalogue”.

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