January 15: mid-century female existentialists

I have never thought of Virginia Woolf as an existentialist, but re-reading To the Lighthouse this week it is clear that that is what she is. If she had been writing in Paris in the 1950s she would have been classed along with Simone de Beauvoir whose Les Mandarins I have also been reading in recent weeks. Both of them are forever having their female protagonists suddenly stopping in their tracks to ask themselves what they are doing in life, where they are, how they got there, is their life fulfilled, is this what life is. Often, their doubts are somehow hooked up to the men and children in their lives. That is just the pressure of middle-class society in the mid-century. The male existentialists weren’t that bothered about family. Sartrean and Camusean heros are macho loners, exposed to war, guns and prostitutes. It’s difficult to know whether that is nature or nurture. It’s also difficult to know whether the existentialists doubts and reveries are just a response to new ways of writing, in particular the stream of consciousness., which took the writer into the uncertain thoughts of the characters. When you look at Middlemarch (1870), George Eliot’s protagonist Dorothea Brooke thinks about life but it’s mostly in connection with her actions in society. Maybe there was a shift in the twentieth century from the enlightenment optimism of empire and society building to the doubt and introspection after the Great War. Another thing maybe is that the women were more educated, more confident, more inclined to doubt the social project.


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