restricted access "Robbed of Meaning": The Work at the Center of To the Lighthouse
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"Robbed of Meaning":
The Work at the Center of To the Lighthouse

I

Critiques of "Western feminism" have demonstrated convincingly that much of feminist discourse constructs its subject through processes of exclusion (see, for example, Minnie Bruce Pratt, Chandra T. Mohanty, Biddy Martin and Chandra T. Mohanty, and Gayatri C. Spivak's "Texts" and "Foreword"). A passage from Virginia Woolf's well-known essay A Room of One's Own exemplifies the dynamic: "It is one of the great advantages of being a woman that one can pass even a very fine negress without wishing to make an Englishwoman of her" (52). The sentence constitutes its subject—"woman" and "one"—as exclusively English and white. It excludes black women from the category "woman" and presumes to judge them as "very fine" in the same breath that it criticizes masculine imperialist habits of thought.

Woolf's sentence demonstrates the deconstructive dictum that, in opposing a system of power, "one" nevertheless becomes complicit in the system through the structures of language that oppose, exclude, and appropriate. The sentence also, however, enacts the dialogism Mikhail Bakhtin and Bakhtinian critics claim is inherent in language.1 It swings between an assumption of one colonialist discourse, to which it replies, and another assumption—"high feminist" and also colonialist—to which it anticipates response.2 The assumption to which Woolf's sentence [End Page 217] responds opposes the English "civilized" subject to the colonized Other and desires simultaneously to claim the Other for England. To that discourse, this sentence replies ironically and critically by inserting the difference of gender in the construction of the English subject. It does so by differentiating between the desires (and their absence) of English male and English female subjects on the occasion of passing an already colonized Other. Thus it lends subjectivity to Englishwomen, who now may have desires of their own different from those of Englishmen, and it criticizes the expropriating actions of male-governed colonialism. But it also repeats the colonialist construction of womanhood as an identity created in the positioning of a "negress" who can be gazed upon and judged by an "Englishwoman." To this second assumption—of womanhood as something characterizing the "one" of the speaker in contrast to the "negress" under the speaker's gaze—the sentence's irony anticipates critical reply. Particularly in the suggestion that something called an "Englishwoman" can be wished for and made by Englishmen resides an invitation to critical response, to the kind of critique that stresses the making of the "free," "civilized," female subject through colonialist discourses.

If we are concerned to criticize and transform the colonialist legacies within "Western feminism," analysis that takes into account the discourses to which a feminist text responds and the ways in which it anticipates reply should help us to do so. If we can identify ideological turning points within especially influential writings by feminist authors in the English canon, for example, we may be able to reflect upon the turnings available to contemporary feminist writers and critics. The canonized status of To the Lighthouse as a classic in modernist narrative and the authorizing position of Virginia Woolf in much of contemporary feminist thought make this novel a particularly significant case study. Read dialogically, To the Lighthouse sets into motion a critique of English colonialist patriarchy that simultaneously repeats colonialist assumptions about "Englishwomen." It also—by both including and suppressing them—represents the "mumblings" of a counter-discourse.3 [End Page 218]

II

A modernist female Künstlerroman, To the Lighthouse portrays an unmarried woman who paints and whose single unifying brush stroke at the novel's end announces her long-awaited achievement of artistic vision. Lily Briscoe's "line there, in the centre" represents as well the aesthetic vision of the novel. Her artistic triumph concludes the novel's passage beyond the requirements of heterosexual romance in Woolf's efforts to "write beyond the endings" of either marriage or death that conventional nineteenth-century novels require. Rachel Blau DuPlessis has argued that To the Lighthouse emphasizes brother-sister ties, male-female friendships, and a larger communal vision in which binary oppositions, especially that of masculine/feminine, are undone (96...


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