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"All This One Could Never Share;" Virginia Woolf and the Conflict between Community and Independence

Lisa Metzgar
"If we face the fact, for it is a fact, that there is no arm to cling to, but that we go alone and that our relation is to the world of reality and not only to the world of men and women, then the opportunity will come." A Room of One's Own

When Virginia Woolf was thirteen, she wrote, "I believe after all that human beings would find it very difficult to exist together if they knew each other1" (Reid 39). In her biography of Woolf, Panthea Reid suggests this statement is representative of a deep ambivalence toward close relationships, that for Woolf, "really knowing [people] would have meant knowing each other's innermost thoughts, a prospect that both intrigued and repelled [her]" (39). The source of this ambivalence, I think, was a conflict between being drawn to relationships and communities while simultaneously being in need of independence and solitude. This conflict between community and independence appeared in all areas of Woolf's life and work; as she struggled for the independence and privacy necessary for her work and her life, there remained a conflicting desire for close communities and relationships, for connection and communion. Obviously, Woolf was able to negotiate these conflicting needs well enough to produce stunningly fine literature while also leading a rich life of relationship. Yet this negotiation seems to have often been agonizingly difficult and not surprisingly, issues of relationship and independence became a recurring theme in many areas of her work.

Because of the prominence of these themes in her writing, a greater understanding of Woolf's ambivalence about community can enrich and inform our reading of her life, her essays, and her novels and characters. As well, such a reading may enrich our understanding of our own lives. Even now, more than a half century after Woolf's death, it seems that for women the conflicts between community and independence remain central; we still struggle to find balance between contradictory needs and fight to create and maintain identities in a world that constantly demands the dissipation of our independence. Woolf provides no simple answer to this dilemma, but because of her understanding of the conflict between community and independence, I believe her voice remains important to such a discussion.

In her wide variety of work, Woolf came from many different perspectives regarding this conflict. While she used political essays such as A Room of One's Own and Three Guineas to call unequivocally for women's independence, she took a more complex view of the conflict in both her autobiographical writings and her novels. In order to look at the source of this conflict in Woolf's life, I will briefly discuss her autobiographical work, "Sketches of the Past." I will then look at the political stance taken in A Room of One's Own; finally, in order to show how Woolf complicates that political stance, I will address the conflict between independence and community in the character Clarissa Dalloway.

In the autobiographical work, "Sketches of the Past," Woolf writes about three early memories that are emblematic of both her ambivalence about community and relationship and the importance of independence to her life and work. Two of the memories involve relationships. In the first, Woolf recalls being very young, sitting on her mother's lap in a train. It is a memory of peace and deep happiness, of being with and being loved by her mother (Moments 64). This memory of connection and communion is very much in contrast to the second memory, in which she recalls being sexually molested by her half-brother Gerald Duckworth (Moments 68-9). Like the first memory, this one recalls a relationship, but here she remembers it as invasive and destructive. These two memories are indicative of Woolf's conflicting view of relationship as both necessary and destructive; they are representative of her need to commune with people and her knowledge that communion could devastate, could invade the space she inhabited and threaten her identity.

In the third memory, unlike the first two, Woolf recalls being alone. She remembers being in a crib with the wind blowing the curtains in and out and of hearing waves crashing outside. It is a moment of powerful emotion, of "ecstasy." Woolf sees this memory as essential to her identity, saying, "If life has a base that it stands upon, if it is a bowl that one fills and fills and fills--then my bowl without a doubt stands upon this memory" (Moments 64). That Woolf identifies a moment of solitude as the base of her identity suggests how important privacy was to her. It is equally important to note that she chooses a moment when her emotional experience is independent, is unrelated to others.

That Woolf's personality seems to have been characterized by the need for independence and solitude and the ambivalence about community that these memories suggest is not surprising given the character of her early life. The background of Woolf's early childhood was the crowd and bustle of a household containing at least ten family members and various other relatives, guests, etc. Her mother, Julia Stephen was at the center of this community and was completely dedicated to and subsumed by her communal responsibilities to family and charity work. This type of life, which Julia Stephen believed to be expected of and appropriate for women, earned her tremendous respect--it also most likely killed her (Reid 18, 19, 37-8). These images of a crowded, swirling household and of a central and entirely communal--rather than individual--mother became important, I think, to Woolf's understanding of and ambivalence about relationships2.

As crowded as that early life might have been, the pressures and the complexity of family community increased drastically with Julia Stephen's death when Woolf was thirteen. For Woolf, the loss was devastating in and of itself. Worse, however, was the fact that the family had lost its center and anchor. The nature of the elder Stephens' relationship had created, according to Woolf, "a legacy of dependence on [her father's] side which became a terrible imposition after [Julia's] death" (Moments 114). This dependence was played out as emotional tyranny; rather than being able to share his loss, Leslie Stephen imposed his grief on the young women of his household, demanding commiseration and exacting sympathy from them (Moments 94).

At the same time Woolf's relationship with her father was becoming tremendously demanding, she found herself being forced (with her sister Vanessa) into other communities and relationships she didn't want. With their coming of age, her half-brother George Duckworth pushed both Woolf and her sister into "society". For women society actively discouraged any attempts at independence. All of its pressures were for relationship and community. It was, according to Woolf, "a very competent machine . . . convinced that girls must be changed into married women" (Moments 135). Despite despising these social events, tremendous pressure was put on Woolf to attend endless parties. Parties, afterall "led to . . . the only success [George] valuedsocial success. Failure led to the only failure--dowdiness, eccentricity" (Moments 134). Social success demanded conventionality--conventional dress, conversation, interests; it discouraged the expression of the eccentricities that might have represented independence.

Unable to fend off the demands of her father and half-brother, Woolf found her life overwhelmed by relationships that were often unwanted, uncomfortable and oppressive. Woolf recalls that during this time of her life, her day was so dominated by these responsibilities that there were about three spare hours a day that could be spent alone or in study (Moments 128-130).

That Woolf emerged from this atmosphere to write about the necessity of solitude and independence for women is not at all surprising. In A Room of One's Own, she addresses this issue by relating it to the creation of art, asking why women have written so few great books. Her infamous answer, of course, is that women have not had the space and money--the material conditions--for art. Woolf is, however, not just talking about space and money, she's arguing for independence--for having control over one's own space and money.

According to Woolf, being independent--owing nothing to anybody--is essential to achieve the state of mind necessary to produce great art. With material and financial independence, "no force in the world can take from me my five hundred pounds. Food, house and clothing are mine for ever. I need not hate any man; he can not hurt me. I need not flatter any man; he has nothing to give me" (A Room 38). Material independence grants its owner an emotional independence, it allows one to be free of "grudges and spites and antipathies," (A Room 56) to have one's mind unclouded by "alien emotions like fear and hatred" (A Room 58-9). Woolf calls this state of mind "incandescence" (A Room 56).

Perhaps what is most important about the idea of incandescence is its requirement that one be free of emotions rooted in dependent relationships. The "alien emotions" that Woolf names such as "grudges, spites and antipathies" are emotions based in relationships, in communities and in dependencies; they are emotions that exist as reactions to other people--they are reactive, not creative. The idea of incandescence recalls that early memory of being alone, when Woolf's emotional experience was independent of others. As well, it reflects the connection Woolf makes between relationships and dependence when writing about her father and her early life.

In Woolf's view part of the danger of community is that it forces people into dependence, and that dependency locks a person into a limited and rigid world. In A Room of One's Own, this connection is made clear in Woolf's discussion of women's crippling material dependence, which leaves them incapable of producing work with "integrity" (73). This discussion is similar to Woolf's recollection of her father's emotional dependence, which locked him into a limited and dependent state of grief from which he often had "no possibility of communication" (Moments 126). Dependence, whether material or emotional, binds a person to a community, forcing them to live a partial life that is reactive, rather than creative. Independence, on the other hand, frees one to be incandescent, or "disinterested," to be unbound by relationships and communities in which one doesn't believe (Three Guineas 17, 38).

While Woolf closely associates independence with the creation of art, I think she is also relating it to the ability to live as an individual. For Woolf, to be an individual, a person must be independent, not trapped into a restricted, reactive set of emotions, thoughts, etc. by relationships and communities. For example, in A Room of One's Own, she develops the idea that the independent mind must be "androgynous," that it is "fatal to be a man or woman pure and simple" (A Room 104). By saying that not only does such restriction make bad art, but that it is "fatal," suggests how important Woolf felt independence was to life itself.

For Woolf, completeness--either artistic or personal--demanded material and emotional independence. In A Room of One's Own she is unequivocal about the necessity of this independence, suggesting that it must often outweigh desires for community. While Woolf delineates the need for independence and even though she mentions some of the difficulties it entails, she does not really address the costs that achieving independence requires. A political essay, perhaps, is not the place for this kind of emotional complexity. In many of her novels, however, Woolf addresses issues of relationship, community and independence with greater complexity. In the context of the novel, Woolf was able to develop and complicate her call for women's independence.

Themes of community and independence, of isolation and connection are central to Mrs. Dalloway both in content and in the imagistic pattern of the book. As well, because of several circumstances, such as her party, Peter Walsh's reappearance, and her recent illness, these themes are so central to Clarissa Dalloway's thoughts that everything she encounters seems to emphasize her present and past conflict between community and independence.

Peter Walsh's return to London reminds Clarissa of her choice, thirty years earlier, to marry Richard Dalloway rather than Peter. Although she reconsiders her decision, she still finds "herself . . .making out that she had been right. . .not to marry him" (Dalloway 7). Her reason for this decision was her belief that "in marriage a little licence, a little independence there must be between people . . .which Richard gave her, and she him . . . . But with Peter everything had to be shared; everything gone into. And it was intolerable" (Dalloway 8). Understanding the depth of this need for independence is essential to understanding Clarissa's character and her relationships.

The importance of distance and independence is re-emphasized for Clarissa when Richard comes home to see her at mid-day and she thinks, "there is this dignity in people; a solitude; even between husband and wife a gulf; and that one must respect . . . for one would not part with it oneself, or take it, against his will, from one's husband, without losing one's independence, one's self-respect--something, after all, priceless" (Dalloway 120). Independence is essential to Clarissa, and it is maintained by a distance, a space between herself and Richard. With Peter, however, the closeness of their relationship, the communion that he demanded, would have denied her space and independence. For Clarissa that independence is so "priceless" that she imagines her relationship with Peter would have been ruinous, that "they would have been destroyed, both of them ruined, she was convinced" (Dalloway 8).

As adamant as Clarissa is about the importance of her independence, she seems to maintain a lingering doubt about her decision. This doubt appears mostly as an underlying current, keeping a comparison of Richard and Peter present in her mind throughout the day. Occasionally, however, her doubts come to the surface, as when she wonders, "why did I make up my mind--not to marry him?" (Dalloway 41) Perhaps it is also doubt that causes her almost shrill insistence that she was right in her decision, thinking, "they would have been destroyed, both of them ruined, she was convinced" (Dalloway 8).

The fact that Clarissa is still considering and doubting a thirty year-old decision is indicative of her awareness of both the costs and benefits of her independence. While Clarissa is, as the earlier quotes suggest, thankful for the independence her marriage allows, and while she acknowledges the enduring tenderness of their relationship, she is also aware of some lack of connection to Richarad, of a lack of communion. This lack appears most vividly at mid-day when Richard comes home. On his side, this lack emerges as an inability, despite desperately wanting to express himself, to say he loves Clarissa, knowing, finally, that "he could not bring himself to say he loved her; not in so many words" (Dalloway 118). At that same moment, when he is unable to make that verbal connection, Clarissa recalls her own, presumably sexual failures to connect with him, remembering, "she had failed him, once at Constantinople" (Dalloway 118).

Clarissa has already thought of this repeated sexual --failure' earlier in the day, and she believes that it comes from some deep, intrinsic part of herself. "She had failed him: And then at Constantinople, and again and again. She could see what she lacked. It was not beauty; it was not mind. It was something central which permeated; something warm which broke up surfaces and rippled the cold contact of man and woman, or of women together" (Dalloway 31). The coldness Clarissa identifies in herself is representative of the way she has very carefully maintained her space and independence against communal pressures, of her distance from Richard and her rejection of Peter. She imagines this distance, this coldness as essential, and again, connects it to sexuality, thinking, "she could not dispel a virginity preserved through childbirth" (Dalloway 31).

Like Clarissa, Peter imagines her independence and the space she maintains as intrinsic to her personality. He recalls that these qualities have lasted thirty years, thinking, "that was the devilish part of her--this coldness, this woodenness, something very profound in her, which he had felt again this morning talking to her; an impenetrability" (Dalloway 60). Like Clarissa, Peter associates this characteristic with her sexuality, thinking of her not only as impenetrable and cold, but also as "a prude" (Dalloway 8). As disturbed as he is by what he perceives in her as coldness and hardness, Peter is twice mystified by her wholeness, by the fact that somehow she has a presence that goes beyond her physical appearance. "It was Clarissa one remembered. Not that she was striking; not beautiful at all; there was nothing picturesque about her; she never said anything specially clever; there she was, however; there she was" (Dalloway 76).

Like Peter, Clarissa is ambivalent about her independence and although she is clearly aware of the loss of connection it creates, she is unable to balance the needs for independence and for connection. She has, for instance, since her recent illness, started sleeping in her own room. On one hand, this solitude allows her to do what she wants. In this case, "she really preferred to read of the retreat from Moscow" before going to sleep (Dalloway 31). On the other hand, she understands her isolation, thinking, "there was an emptiness about the heart of life" (Dalloway 31). Again, Clarissa thinks about this isolation in sexual (or asexual) terms, as an isolation from physical connection, imagining herself as "a nun withdrawing, or a child exploring a tower . . . . Narrower and narrower would her bed be" (Dalloway 31). Even with this issue, there is no point of balance. Clarissa both needs and is isolated by this space.

In trying understand this conflict, Clarissa wonders how one makes connections without sacrificing independence. She imagines people's isolation in terms of rooms, thinking of each person as alone in a room. The problem is trying to make some connection between those rooms without violating independence. In trying to imagine what could bridge that gap, Clarissa considers "love and religion," then thinks, "how detestable, how detestable they are! . . . [L]ove and religion would destroy . . . the privacy of the soul" (Dalloway 127). Not only do love and religion destroy privacy, they also, she thinks, don't have "the ghost of an idea of solving [this problem which] was simply this: here was one room; there another" (Dalloway 127). Love and religion fail to make these connections because they neither protect independence nor create deep connections between people.

The moment when that gap is finally bridged for Clarissa is, importantly, not with anyone she meets or knows. Rather, it occurs with her mystical understanding and experience of Septimus Smith's death. Unlike her other connections, which are characterized by distance and a lack of complete communion, Clarissa's experience of Septimus' death is both a physical experience and a successful communication. Clarissa is aware of this difference, thinking, "death was an attempt to communicate," (Dalloway 184) and she compares it to communication with the living where, "people [felt] the impossibility of reaching the centre which, mystically, evaded them; closeness drew apart; rapture faded, one was alone. There was an embrace in death" (Dalloway 184). The "embrace" Clarissa experiences is so complete that she is able to mentally experience Septimus' fall and impalement (Dalloway 184). More than Peter or Richard, Septimus is able to enter into both Clarissa's body and mind and achieve communion. The embrace that occurs in Septimus' death overcomes the distance Clarissa must maintain with the living.

Perhaps this embrace, this communion, is possible with Septimus because in death he offers no threat to Clarissa's independence and individuality. While she does not ponder why she has been able to connect so completely with Septimus, it is clear when she re-enters the party, her independence, her space has remained intact despite the connection she's made. Peter makes this fact apparent when he sees her and thinks, "for there she was," (Dalloway 194) indicating that he sees her as he had earlier in the day, as whole, complete, and independent.

It seems that both Clarissa's triumph, that is her ability to be as Peter sees her, whole, as well as her inability to connect are bound up with her independence. She has been able, despite all the pressures of society life, of marriage, and of motherhood, to create and maintain a whole, complete self. At the same time, Clarissa, as well as those around her, understand that this independence isolates her and creates a kind of poverty to her connections. For Clarissa, as it was for Woolf, relationship and community are both desired and threatening. As Woolf's youthful quote predicted, for Clarissa, the fact that she would have really known Peter made it impossible to live with him. Yet Clarissa understands and yearns for what she is missing, for something to link one room to the next. At the end of the book, despite her connection to Septimus, Clarissa emerges without a solution. While she has managed, despite all the communal pressures, to establish and live a life that allows her independence, she hasn't found a balance. What remains is not only her success, but also her loss and the ambivalence of her decision.

Clarissa's unresolved ambivalence complicates Woolf's more definitive discussion of independence in A Room of One's Own, returning, perhaps, to the complexity experienced in her life. The unresolved conflict brought forth in Clarissa Dalloway is important, I think, in that it denies the oversimplifications that a politicized reading of Woolf might encourage. More importantly, however, I think that Woolf's discussion of independence and community is essential to the current experience of women. The years since Woolf's death have provided us with many attempts to solve this conflict and tell women how they should balance the needs for independence and community. Those same years have also produced everything from the housewife of the fifties to the Supermom of the eighties. What Woolf teaches us, however, is that there are no set answers, that life is full of incompatible needs and desires which we must somehow negotiate, and that that negotiation is not without costs. Woolf teaches us that there is no simplicity, no guaranteed answers, that, like Clarissa Dalloway, we may, and perhaps we should, find ourselves looking back at old decisions and feeling both the victory of those choices as well as the losses we have incurred for them.


1. This quote appeared in "The Hyde Park Gate News," a family newsletter written mostly by Virginia. Return to Text

2. The importance of these images of her family come out clearly in both "Sketches of the Past" and in To the Lighthouse, in which Woolf creates characters and scenes reminiscent of her family and childhood. Return to Text

Works Cited

Reid, Panthea. Art and Affection: A Life of Viriginia Woolf. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Woolf, Virginia. Moments of Being. New York: HBJ, 1976.

---. Mrs. Daloway. New York: Harvest/HBJ; 1925.

---. A Room of One's Own. New York: Harvest/HBJ, 1929.

---. Three Guineas. New York: Harvest/HBJ, 1938.

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