The Legacy by Virginia Woolf
In The Legacy by Virginia Woolf we have the theme of ego, jealousy, independence, identity, gender roles, equality, awareness and change. Taken from her The Complete Shorter Fiction collection the story is narrated in the third person by an unnamed narrator and after reading the story the reader realises that Woolf may be exploring the theme of ego. Throughout the story Gilbert seems to be more focused on himself than he is on others, something that is noticeable when he is reading Angela’s diaries. When he comes across incidents in the diaries in which he is mentioned he pauses to reflect on his own memory of what may have happened and has an ability to remember how he felt at the time and what he was doing. However it is also noticeable that he rarely recalls how anybody else may have felt or what they may have been doing. This may be significant as it suggests that the most important person in Gilbert’s life or the individual that Gilbert is most focused on is himself. How self-centered Gilbert may be is further explored when Gilbert assumes that Sissy’s offer of assistance, should he need it, is driven by her being enamored with him. Again this would suggest that Gilbert lacks the ability to exclude his own vanity (or ego) from a situation. Something that becomes clearer to the reader when Gilbert looks at himself in the mirror after Sissy has left the house and we discover that he considers himself to be a ‘very distinguished-looking man.’ It may also be important that while Gilbert is reading Angela’s diaries, as soon as his name no longer appears, Woolf tells the reader that Gilbert’s ‘interest slackened.’ Again this would suggest that Gilbert may be self-centered with very little real interest in others.
It also becomes obvious to the reader that Gilbert is jealous of B.M. and as the story progresses it becomes clear that Gilbert feels threatened by him and the relationship that B.M. had with Angela. This may be important as both Gilbert and B.M. are two very different types of characters. Gilbert as a Member of Parliament (and upper class) seems to view himself as being better than others and as the reader is already aware, lacks any ability to be able to think of how others may live their lives. While B.M. on the other hand appears to be cut from a different type of cloth. Not only is he a socialist who believes in the inevitability of a social revolution but the reader is also aware of the difficulties B.M. incurred when growing up. By having two very different types of male characters in the story Woolf may be suggesting that at the time the story was written there were some who believed in changing the order of the world around them with B.M., through his socialist views, being one of these people. While on the other hand there is a sense that Gilbert prefers for things to remain the same or for the status quo to remain unchanged.
Though she is only briefly mentioned in the story the introduction of Lady Lovegrove may also have some symbolic significance. The reader is aware that Lady Lovegrove (or Lady L.) asks Angela ‘Did I realise my responsibility…as Gilbert’s wife.’ This line may be important as it suggests that Lady Lovegrove believes that it is a woman’s responsibility or duty to serve her husband. Which at the time would have been the predominant view within society as to what a woman’s role inside a marriage might be. It may also be a case that by introducing Lady L.’s question into the story Woolf is suggesting that a woman’s identity is intertwined with her husband’s identity with there being no room for a woman to have her own identity or to be her own person. It is also interesting that at no stage in the story does the reader sense that Gilbert considers Angela’s charity work to be of any significance, which may suggest a lack of equality within Angela and Gilbert’s marriage. While Angela has always been by Gilbert’s side and supported him in all his endeavours the same is not true for Gilbert when it comes to him supporting Angela.
It is also possible that by considering Angela’s work to be no more than part of ‘some committee’ Woolf is highlighting how men in general at the time would have viewed their wives role in society. If anything there is a sense that Gilbert (or society) believes that any input a woman may have with regards to their efforts outside marriage may not necessarily be considered important. Many critics also believe that by including the line ‘Egypt, Egypt, Egypt’ into the story Woolf is drawing on Exodus and just as the Israelite’s were enslaved in Egypt, Woolf may also be suggesting that Angela too may have felt enslaved or trapped within her marriage to Gilbert. The fact that Gilbert also disliked the clothes that Angela wore while she was doing her charity work may also be symbolically important as Woolf could be suggesting that not only had Angela begun to change how she lived her own life but she may also be highlighting the fact that Angela was beginning to understand how different her life was from those that she met while working at the charity. Unlike Gilbert who as mentioned lacks any ability to be able to connect with others, particularly those who may be less fortunate than him.
The end of the story is interesting as Woolf appears to be not only exploring the theme of awareness but continues to explore the theme of change. It is only after Gilbert has spoken to Sissy that he becomes fully aware of not only who B.M. is but also what B.M.’s relationship with Angela really was. No longer is he as ignorant about the truth as he had previously been. However there is no sense that things will change for Gilbert rather how he lives his life, thinking of himself only, may be how he continues to live. The reader does not suspect that Angela’s death will force Gilbert to reflect on his own life and to re-evaluate how he thinks. Woolf’s use of the word ‘escape’ in the final sentence of the story may also be important as it again suggests that Angela may have felt trapped inside her marriage to Gilbert. Which may be the point that Woolf is trying to make. It is possible that Woolf is suggesting that for many women, again at the time the story was written, rather than feeling any sense of equality within their marriages found themselves instead locked within the marriage with very little or no freedom to explore their own identity. Rather than being viewed upon as independent of their husbands or to have any of their efforts outside the marriage taken seriously by their husbands many women may have been considered to be no more than an extension of their husband and as Lady L. suggested had a responsibility to their husbands.