Room for Thought: Privacy and the Private Home in Mrs Dalloway and To the Lighthouse

University essay from Stockholms universitet/Engelska institutionen


Modernism is often connected to the public sphere due to its associations with urbanity and technological changes. But interiority and private life was as important to modernity and, in particular, in Virginia Woolf’s writing. This essay explores the protagonists’ access to and experience of privacy in Woolf’s novels To the Lighthouse (1927) and Mrs Dalloway (1925), which both centre on women in a domestic environment. The reading combines modernist reactions against Victorian domesticity, which was structured on the private/public dichotomy and which limited women’s access to privacy, and combines it with modernist views of interiority, informed, more specifically, by Freud’s model of the unconscious and the spatial features of it. Privacy and interiority are imagined with spatial metaphors, but privacy is not necessarily connected to physical place and being alone, but rather having the ability to control the social situation and to choose what one reveals about oneself. Both novels re-imagine privacy and its ties to physical as well as mental space. This essay argues that To the Lighthouse is centred on a traditional Victorian home which reflects how its protagonist experiences interior privacy, and Mrs Dalloway explores a more modern domesticity that challenges Victorian organisation of the home and in turn, women’s access to privacy and solitude. With modernity public life was made available for women to a larger extent, but just as public life is coded by power relations, so is private life, which determines what sort of life could be lived by, for example, women.

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