A Society by Virginia Woolf
In A Society by Virginia Woolf we have the theme of oppression, dominance, control, determination, equality and change. Taken from her The Complete Shorter Fiction collection the story is narrated in the first person by a woman called Cassandra and from the beginning of the story the reader realises that Woolf may be exploring the theme of control or dominance, particularly male dominance. Through the introduction of Poll we learn that before she can inherit her father’s money she first has to read every book in the London library. Which for any person would be a laborious task. However for Poll the task brings confusion as the majority of books she is reading are written by men and the reader (and Poll) discovers that the shaping of an individual’s mind through reading is predominately driven by the male writer. Which would further suggest an element of control or a sense of inequality. It is also interesting that the narrator does not consider Poll to be physically attractive. The benefit of this information to the reader is that it is possible that the narrator realises that men rather than judging women by their character or their achievements views a potential wife by how physically attractive they are. Which suggests the male may view the female as an object rather than as an equal. If anything Poll (and other women) may be oppressed. Forced to live their lives at the command and instruction of the male.
Rose’s visit with the Captain is also be interesting as Woolf may be exploring the ridiculous. The Captain appears to not only demand restitution but through his administration of it the reader senses that Woolf may be mocking the Royal Navy, a bastion of male dominance. At the time the story was written it would have been unusual for a woman to have been aboard a Royal Navy ship. There is also a sense that Rose wishes to be treated equally and as such wants to be caned, as a man would be. Which causes confusion to the Captain. It is possible that Woolf is suggesting that when confronted by a female seeking equality (as Rose appears to be doing) those in authority (the Captain) are unsure of what to do. If anything Woolf may be suggesting that those in authority really do not know what they have to do when confronted by a determined female. It might also be worth noting that the Captain remains unsure of how he should treat Rose yet the reader does not suspect he would incur the same difficulty should the encounter have involved a man. Rose has been treated gently by the Captain as many women at the time the story was written would have been by men. In essence Rose has not been treated as a man would have been. There is a sense of inequality. Fanny and Helen’s encounters are also interesting as both highlight how dominant the male is in society. Fanny visits the Law courts and realises each judge is male while Helen though she went to visit the Royal Academy ends up citing ten lines of poetry, nine of which come from poems written by men.
Castalia’s role in the story may also be important. Particularly the fact that she becomes pregnant. It is obvious that she happy though there are some within the Society who do not necessarily share Castalia’s happiness or at least her pregnancy causes some confusion for them. It is possible that Woolf by introducing Castalia’s pregnancy into the story is suggesting that inevitably women will get pregnant though they do not necessarily have to take on just the role of a mother. They can live their lives still doing things that they would like to do regardless of society’s opinion of the role of a mother (stay at home). Something that is a little clearer to the reader when Poll suggests that Castalia should be President of the Society. It might also be important that the goal of the Society was to decide whether the female is ‘justified in continuing the human race.’ The very fact that Castalia is pregnant answers that question for Castalia. Though the remainder of the Society remain undecided till each Society members report is heard. What is also striking about the story is the fact that when the women asked questions about the value of money and power they were met with silence. This may be important as by questioning others about money and power the women may have unknowingly raised the guard of the individuals who were being questioned. If anything these same individuals (male) may not have wished for the status quo to change. Which would further highlight the idea of inequality and the continued acceptance of this inequality.
The brief introduction of WWI and the Society’s inability to foresee its occurrence may also be important. Throughout the story none of the women made any visits to the House of Commons where the decision to go to war would have been made. What was probably the most important institute in the land had been forgotten about by the women. Whereas one would expect the Society to have ventured to an institute that makes the laws of the land and as such has the capacity to change the role of women in society. The women remained for the main focused on books. It is also possible that by introducing the war into the story and the women’s inability to visit the House of Commons that Woolf is suggesting that the women have focused on the past while the present passed them by. Though it is the present that they have to live with.
The ending of the story is also interesting as both the narrator and Castalia appear to have a moment of realization and it is through this epiphany that they blame themselves for the state that society (and men in general) are in. How defeated both the narrator and Castalia feel is noticeable by the fact that they decide to make Castalia’s young daughter Ann the President of the Society. This act is important as it can be viewed several ways. One way to look at it is to suggest that both the narrator and Castalia realise all their efforts over the years with regard to the Society have been futile or in vain and as such everything they have written is more suitable for a child to read. However another way to look at the narrator and Castalia’s actions is to consider that rather than continue their research themselves. They are passing the baton over to the next generation. Allowing Ann pursue what was once the Society’s cause. If anything it is possible that the women who started the Society are prepared to accept the status quo and leave any element of change to the next generation of women (Ann).