The Traditions in English


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Killing the Angel: Anxieties about Motherhood for Women Writers

Questions for Discussion, Writing and Research

1. How would you characterize Virginia Woolf’s authorial stance in her literary essay, “Professions for Women”? How do you account for her choice of tone? What does she achieve by adopting such a tone? How might her tone affect her intended audience of the Women’s Service League? Do you think Woolf would have made a different rhetorical choice had her audience been male academics and writers?

2. Why might the duties of motherhood invoke special anxiety and ambivalence in women writers? How does the history of the Rousseau’s Cult of True Motherhood, embodied in Patmore’s Angel, impact women writers, according to Virginia Woolf? Why is it so dangerous for women writers to emulate the notion of femininity the Angel represents?

3. What do you make of Woolf’s assertion that the Angel’s “fictitious nature was of great assistance to her,” for “it is far harder to kill a phantom than a reality” (245)? Do you think Woolf’s assertion is true? Why or why not?

4. In works like “The Yellow Wallpaper” and Olsen’s Tell Me A Riddle, women writers express ambivalence about the self-sacrificing expectations of motherhood. However,women writers have also experienced pregnancy and childbirth as incredibly creative times and have celebrated such fecundity in works like Audre Lorde’s “Now That I Am Forever with Child” (NALW2 1072) and Sylvia Plath’s “Nick and the Candlestick” (NALW2 1060) and “You’re” (NALW2 1049), poems that celebrate the birth and mothering process as excellent metaphors for artistic and literary creation. How is the act of childbirth similar to the process of artistic creation?

5. Read Sylvia Plath’s “Morning Song” (this poem is not in the anthology but is widely anthologized). The speaker compares her child to a sculpture in a museum, an artistic masterpiece from which she feels disconnected. Do you see the speaker’s feelings of ambivalence shifting in the course of the poem? Do you see any imagistic nods to Woolf’s idea of the Angel? Do you think the speaker feels more connected to her baby at the end of the poem? Why or why not? Is it possible to love one’s children and still feel ambivalent about the cultural imperative to ignore one’s own needs, artistic and otherwise, to care for them? Can you think of other works by women writers that deal with that ambivalence?

6. In the nineteenth century, physicians were the new guardians of morality and the female body. Both Woolf and Gilman underwent the so-called rest cure made famous by Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, of whom Gilman was actually a patient, and both wrote about the negative effects it had on their mental health. Woolf wrote about her personal experience with mental illness in diaries, letters, and memoirs. Gilman chronicled her treatment by Dr. Mitchell in “Undergoing the Cure for Nervous Prostration” (1935). In the essay, she writes that Mitchell sent her home to “live as domestic a life as far as possible” and directed her “never to touch pen, brush or pencil again as long as [she] lived” (1403). When she returned home to follow the treatment, only to get much worse, she wrote “The Yellow Wallpaper”—a fictionalized account of her experience with what we would now call post-partum depression— and sent it to Dr. Mitchell. As Gilman reveals in “Why I Wrote the Yellow Wallpaper?” (1403–04), Mitchell never acknowledged receiving the story but later told friends that it influenced him to change his treatment. Do some research on Dr. S. Weir Mitchell and make a case for why such a treatment as his goes against what we know about good mental health today. Why might such a “cure” be worse than the disease? Why might it be particularly problematic for a woman writer? How does Gilman’s story illustrate that dilemma?

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7. In Olsen’s novella Tell Me a Riddle, the dying grandmother Eva reveals an internal conflict that underlies her inability to hold her new grandchild:

It was not that she had not loved her babies, her children. The love—the passion of tending—had risen with the need like a torrent; and like a torrent drowned and immolated all else. But when the need was done—oh the power that was lost in the painful damming back and drying up of what still surged, but had nowhere to go. Only the thin pulsing left that could not quiet, suffering over lives one felt, but could no longer hold nor help. . . . And they put a baby in her lap. Immediacy to embrace, and the breath of that past: warm flesh like this that had claims and nuzzled away all else and with lovely mouths devoured; hot-living like an animal—intensely and now; the turning maze; the long drunkenness; the drowning into needing and being needed. (670)

How does the language in this passage evoke the damming of breast milk, a decidedly feminine image? How does Olsen characterize the grandmother’s ambivalence? Earlier in the novella, Olsen writes that Eva “would not exchange her solitude for anything. Never again to be forced to move to the rhythms of others. For in this solitude she had won to a reconciled peace” (662). What is at stake for Eva in holding the baby? Is she “unfeeling,” as her husband accuses? Or is something else revealed in her reaction? How does Olsen’s characterization of the baby in the above passage parallel Plath’s depiction of a baby in “Morning Song”? What does the baby represent in Tell Me a Riddle? Why is the baby’s need so threatening to the mother’s sense of self?

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8. Read Alice Walker’s “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens” (NALW2 1296). How does the essay add a racialized dimension to Olsen’s class-inflected notion of the Essential Angel? What does Walker realize about her mother and her female ancestors’ thwarted artistic production? How does Walker’s essay, and Olsen’s concept of the Essential Angel, augment Woolf’s original idea? What does it reveal about the class assumptions at play in the notion of the Angel in the House? Does Woolf’s inability to imagine or include the lives of Victorian-era laboring working-class women limit “Professions for Women”?

9. Read Tillie Olsen’s “Freeing the Essential Angel,” an essay in Silences, a collection that explores the social and economic forces that can thwart artistic and literary production. Olsen refers to Woolf and quotes two of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s books: Women and Economics (1898)and The Home, Its Work and Influence (1907).Olsenargues that Gilman was the only theorist who articulated tangible ideas whereby the drudgery of domestic work could be eliminated, thus liberating the Essential Angel. What do you make of Olsen’s re-conceptualization of Woolf’s Angel? How does such a re-working both pay homage to the original idea and subvert it to reveal something new?

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