Women's Search for Identity in Modern Fiction (1881-1927): Self-Definition in Crisis

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1987

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A study of eight women in the novels of Henry James, Joseph Conrad, D.H. Lawrence, and Virginia Woolf reveals the validity of the statement of Henry James that "the novel is history." Each of the eight characters reflects the position of women at a specific point in the history of the modern world. The situations in which the eight women find themselves demonstrate the unique ability of each author to develop a character who parallels conditions that existed for women in the period in which the author wrote. Conventions governing the place and expectations of women changed radically toward the end of the nineteenth century. Modern English fiction dramatically recorded theses changes over time in the evolution of the female character as it was developed in The Portrait of a Lady (1881) and in The Golden Bowl (1904) by Henry James, in Nostromo (1904) and in Victory (1915) and in Women in Love (1921) by D.H. Lawrence, and in Mrs. Dalloway (1925) and in To the Lighthouse (1927) by Virginia Woolf. James's Isabel Archer and Charlotte Stant, Conrad's Emilia Gould and Lena, Lawrence's Ursula and Gudrun Brangwen, and Woolf's Clarissa Dalloway and Mrs. Ramsay are endowed with charm, intelligence, courage, moral integrity, and patience. These virtues do not vary qualitatively as one generation leads to the next. What does vary, as the eight novels show, is the measure of free choice available to the women; and this measure is significantly connected to their places in historical time. The eight novels register the continuous process of women's search for self-definition. Viewed separately, the novels offer insightful character studies of eight women with remarkable emotional strength, whose actions respectively set the pace in the novels. Grouped as a unit, the novels in which these women appear present a poignant commentary on the status of women in the years between 1881 and 1927, years that included not only the havoc of the Great War, but also a growing reassessment of social and moral values.

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