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Androgyny and homosociality in Mrs. Dalloway


Virginia Woolf was one, if not the most, influential female novelists of modern times. She gave the world
something more interesting than just stories. She was highly philosophical and she interpreted the world in a
very peculiar way. Throughout her life she developed some ideas that were not only improper and highly
controversial for a woman in the early twentieth century but she also labor thoughts that proved to be of a
particular depth, not to mention how much ahead from her times they were. In this particular essay Virginia
Woolfs ideas about androgyny and homosociality (that underlie in most of her work) are being commented.
Nonetheless, it is fair to enlighten the readers of the fact that she was not the first one to include
androgynous and homosocial relationships in her writings. Shakespeare conferred some of his characters
these kinds of relationships too, an aspect that was not overlooked by Virginia Woolf. What is more, in Mrs.
Dalloway -which is, as a matter of fact, the reference text in the following paragraphs- she refers to
Shakespeare in many occasions, and if ever read both before nobody would say this is accidental.
To begin with, the terms androgyny and homosociality need to be clearly defined in order to avoid
confusions. On the one hand, Cambridge dictionary defines androgynous as not clearly male or female
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,
but this definition is too plain. In literature, especially in poetry being androgynous means to be able to fuse
both aspects of human condition. It means to have the capacity of interloping male and female
characteristics, but not at a physical level (as it might be described today, in fashion for instance) but at the
mind level. The implications of this last point are much deeper. The first person who ever talked about
androgyny was the romantic poet and philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Virginia Woolf took this idea
and further developed it in A room of ones own. In the essay she explains that the souls (and in this
context to speak about the soul is to speak about the mind) have two powers []one male, one female; and
in the mans brain, the man predominates over the woman, and in the womans brain, the woman
predominates over the man. The normal and comfortable state of being is that when the two live in harmony
together, spiritually co-operating. If one is a man, still the woman part of the brain must have effect; and a
woman also must have intercourse with the man in her. Coleridge perhaps meant this when he said that a
great mind is androgynous. It is when this fusion takes place that the mind is fully fertilised and uses all its
faculties.
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On the other hand, the term homosociality did not exist as such until the American scholar Eve
Sedgwick popularized it. She defined homosociality as same-sex relationships that are not of a romantic or
sexual nature, such as friendship, mentorship, or others.
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Nevertheless, it is obvious that, although in
Shakespeares times or in Woolfs times the term homosociality had not been defined as such, the authors
had already started to explore these kinds of relationships in literature.
It is not easy to comment on Clarissas and Sallys relationship in Mrs. Dalloway, especially because of the
nature of the novel as a whole; Virginia Woolf very intelligently wrote this novel mostly in the through the
characters perspective. So it is not rare to see why readers find it so hard to make a precise description of
Clarissas personality. In other words, they know what they can guess or what they can grasp mainly from
Clarissas descriptions of her own thoughts and memories, but also from the poor descriptions of other
characters, that always leave readers wanting to know more. Here lies the difficulty and the complexity
when answering the question every Mrs. Dalloway reader has asked: what are Clarissas sexual

1
Definition taken from Cambridge Online dictionary
2
Virginia Woolf, A room of ones own, Chapter 6, paragraph 3.
3 Wikipedias definition (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homosociality)

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preferences?Here is an attempt to answer that question. Although it is true that this doubt might arise, it is
very clear, especially when considering the introductory concepts, that Clarissa and Sally had a homosocial
relationship. They were friends, comrades and they truly loved each other. When Clarissa describes her
feeling for Sally there is no clear evidence to indicate that the relationship had any type of sexual innuendo:
The strange thing, on looking backwards, was the purity, the integrity of her feeling for Sally. It was not as
ones feeling for a man. It was completely disinterested []
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Clarissa never felt as free as when she was with
Sally. In fact, the most exquisite memory Clarissa treasures in her heart was being kissed by Sally in the
garden. This scene might be considered to be a little contradictory to this argument: why would Virginia
Woolf include such scene if it was not to prove a Clarissas homosexuality? Indeed she wanted to prove
something, but something completely different. The kiss functions as the most important symbol of love,
comradeship and friendship in the novel. Besides, to be able to construct a homosocial relationship does not
mean having sexual inclinations to the same sex, although it might happen, it is not the case with Sally and
Clarissa. They shared something more than just love, they resembled each other. Clarissa could see herself in
Sally and Sally could see herself in Clarissa. Probably this is the reason for such confusion. As they mirrored
each other, a certain type of eroticism can be noticed, the kind one has with one self and ones sexuality, but
which does not seek for sexual gratification.
Another homosocial relationship found in Mrs. Dalloway is that of Septimus and Evans. At first sight, this
relationship is similar to Sallys and Clarissas: two young men sharing plenty of time together. Sharing also
(as well as in the previous relationship) some ideals, some thoughts, some space. They had to be together,
share with each other, fight with each other, quarrel with each other.
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They also resembled themselves.
They also could see themselves in the other person mainly because of being in the same position in life. And
again this characteristic of homosociality can be candidate to confusion with homoeroticism. Perhaps, the
most dissimilar element in the relationship of Septimus and Evans was the war. They fell in love with each
other (the friendly, typical of comrades, homosocial kind of love) during the war, when fighting in the
trenches. This, evidently, brings another ingredient into the relationship since Septimus and Evans shared
the willing and the necessity to protect each other. They made a silent, secret promise to keep each other
alive, something Septimus feels he failed to do. Evidence of these two characters homosocial relationship is
found in a particular scene were they are sharing one moment of peace when surrounded by war: It was a
case of two dogs playing on a hearth-rug; one worrying a paper screw, snarling, snapping, giving a pinch,
now and then, at the old dog's ear; the other lying somnolent, blinking at the fire, raising a paw, turning and
growling good-temperedly.
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Symbolism in this short passage is very strong. Virginia Woolf successfully
manages to create a very lax and intimate moment in the least peaceful scenario. She lets readers
understand the nature of Septimus and Evans relationship and, more importantly, how the former felt when
being with the latter: no matter how painful, how awful their situation was, they could take care of each
other, they could share wonderful things together, they could love each other
The third relationship that can be labeled as homosocial in Mrs. Dalloway is that of Miss Kilman and
Clarissas daughter, Elizabeth. Once again, this relationship has the characteristics described in the previous
two paragraphs: the sharing of common interests, feelings and thoughts. Clarissa herself describes, with a
tone of annoyance and frustration, how her daughter was falling in love
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, how Miss Kilman and Elizabeth

4
Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway, Feedbook PDF version, page 28
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Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway, Feedbook PDF version, page 71
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Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway, Feedbook PDF version, page 71
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Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway, Feedbook PDF version, page 9
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were inseparable
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. She also explains how Elizabeth had adopted Miss Kilmans habits: how she dressed,
how she treated people
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. When analyzing and comparing the homosocial relationships something very
interesting can be seen. Although Clarissa found this relationship highly frustrating and she does not approve
of it, does she honestly have the right to judge her daughter? Did not she do the same with Sally? Did not
she adopt Sallys habits and way of thinking and seeing the world as well? Love and religion! [] how
detestable, how detestable they are!
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This is how Clarissa expresses her feelings for Miss Kilmans and
Elizabeths relationship. But what is really the difference between love and religion and love and
rebellion? The essence of these kinds of relationships is the community and the cooperation between the
parts; so at the end it does not matter which is the excuse for it, the fundamental thing is to have this
resemblance that makes the construction of that special bonds between people of the same sex not only
possible but highly enjoyable.
All in all, three examples of homosocial relationships can be found in Mrs. Dalloway. One interesting aspect
of the whole commentary is that Virginia Woolf herself, according to some scholars, had homosocial
relationships or at least shared a special connection with a fellow writer Vita Sackville-West whom she is said
to have had a romantic affair with. So it is of no surprise why she was so fond of same-sex kind of
relationships. She deeply explored and exploited them in the novel. However, the most outstanding remark
is how she wrote about them, what pushed her to construct them. Well, the answer lies in the fact that
Virginia Woolf shared Coleridge vision of the androgynous mind. She went beyond the gender boundaries
and achieved herself a sense of androgyny. This explains why she was able to describe so accurately what
happens between man-man and woman-woman relationships. She did not experiment, she did not guess
because she had in her mind both aspects, the male and the female, and so she had the faculty to utterly,
precisely and unquestionably build homosocial relationships. Mrs. Dalloway characters also proved to have,
at a certain extent, androgynous minds, since all of them were able to leave aside the prejudices and to go
further, no accepting gender restrictions.




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Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway, Feedbook PDF version, page 9
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Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway, Feedbook PDF version, page 9
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Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway, Feedbook PDF version, page 103