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Feminist Woolf: New Perspectives on Woolf’s Resistance to Feminism

‘Psychoanalytic Receptions of Woolf’s Vision of Androgyny: Feminist Uses of Ambivalence?’

Réceptions psychanalytiques de l’androgynie chez Virginia Woolf: des usages féministes de l’ambivalence ?
Marie Allègre


L’androgynie chez Woolf est-elle une figure ‘féministe’ ? L’ambivalence qui la caractérise tient notamment à la difficulté à la définir. Quel discours porte-t-elle sur les relations entre ce que l’on nomme’féminin’ et ‘masculin’ ? Si certains y voient une dissolution de la perspective d’une femme dans une prétendue universalité/neutralité/objectivité masquant à peine une vision patriarcale sous-jacente, d’autres lisent cette androgynie comme une irrésolution créative qui prend acte du caractère matriciel de l’écriture oxymorique woolfienne. Les critiques psychanalytiques tendent à la percevoir, non comme une combinaison du ‘féminin’ et du ‘masculin’, mais comme une dialectique, un jeu perpétuel entre des postions radicalement contextuelles et sans immanence aucune. L’irréductibilité de l’écriture woolfienne s’apparente à une réserve éthique contre tout discours du maître ; elle serait une forme de Lacanisme avant la lettre, une métaphore du pas-tout subvertissant tout appareil conceptuel systématique.

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  • 1 After Rachel Bowlby’s project to ‘weave from Woolf’s writing some answers and some more questions f (...)

1Throughout critical history, Virginia Woolf has both been identified with, and increasingly iconised by, feminist movements (Jones 2015, 7). Yet one question often re-emerges: what kind of feminist was she? Of course, the terms of the debate themselves are problematic: What ‘Woolf’ are we talking about here? The writer of the novels and short stories? The one of the essays, of the diaries and letters? A validating figure for mainstream feminisms? A blend of all of the above? And what feminism are we thinking of? We often come to ask ourselves: Is it not, in fact, misguiding, to look for an end word on Woolf’s feminism? Instead, we could try and define what feminism means in Woolf’s case, what a Woolfian feminist discourse could be and, eventually, to ask how her writing specifically qualifies as the basis for current feminist ethics (Bowlby 1992b, 17).1

2I offer to contribute to the discussion in turning to one of the most debated features of Woolf’s work among feminist critics, one which is an ambivalent or oscillating position in itself: her conception of androgyny. Broadly perceived as either a dissolution of sexual difference, a reinforcement of this difference, or even as a third option beyond binaries (Goldman 1997, 86), Woolf’s androgyny remains a riddle and still triggers much ambivalence.

3One interpretative framework which has proved useful to many past and present feminist and/or Woolfian critics is psychoanalysis. Woolfian androgyny and psychoanalysis have been intertwined throughout critical history and, indeed, rightly so: both are to do with the much-debated notions of ‘woman,’ ‘man,’ ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’. Could this common destiny be an asset in the matter which occupies us now? I propose a conversation between psychoanalytic criticism and Woolf. I argue that, on the one hand, psychoanalytic readings of Woolf’s androgyny help us frame her ambivalence towards feminism and, on the other, that feminist readers of Woolf’s androgyny gesture towards a new legibility for psychoanalysis, a Woolfian reading that lets ethics in in a new way.

  • 2 Rachel Bowlby later speaks of ‘‘the force of censor-ship’ in this regard (Bowlby 1997, 39).

4The crux of the problem—is Woolf’s androgyny a ‘feminist’ vision?—revolves around definitional difficulties. Does it mean fusion, balance, alternation—or something else entirely? Marilyn R. Farwell addresses two different conceptions of androgyny and attempts to assign a place to Woolf’s vision. While Western concepts of androgyny see it as being akin to fusion, Eastern androgyny resembles a balance, close to the Yin and Yang symbol (Farwell 1975, 441). In the Western vision, the One is associated with the male, the Other with the female (Farwell 450). Crucially, the (male) One stands for objectivity and universality (Farwell 450). In fact, ‘[t]he principle of the One opposed to the Other is, in much of Western thought, a principle of the One transforming and incorporating the Other’ (Farwell 438). In the end, Western androgyny amounts to ‘the assumption that the male and the androgyne are identifiable’ (Farwell 438). The other version, however, describes a dialectic between two sides of the same coin, an interdependence and even, an ‘expansion’ of the self (Farwell 442). In the various ways Woolf portrays her androgyne, Farwell says, she ‘hedges between balance and fusion, only to resort to fusion at the end’ (Farwell 443). Farwell assumes that Woolf, afraid of rejection from her ‘male overhearers’ and plagued by suppressed anger, retracts in fusion (Farwell 443–4)2 or in other words, in a male androgyne, associated with objectivity and T.S. Eliot’s impersonality (Farwell 448). Farwell does not expand further on Woolf’s self-contradiction, but she acknowledges that there is sufficient space in her texts to weave another narrative of androgyny: ‘While we are left with an ambivalent and limited concept of androgyny, we are also given the tools to go beyond that’ (Farwell 451).

  • 3 Hermaphroditism refers to the coexistence of female and male sexual organs or sexual characteristic (...)

5In 1979, Barbara Fassler returned to the sexual theories of Woolf’s time to better understand her androgynous visions within medical and cultural contexts. Her conclusions are similar to Fassler’s: Woolf’s androgyny inscribes itself in contemporary misogynistic beliefs regarding the relation between androgyny, homosexuality and, importantly, genius—rendering androgyny only deceptively harmonious with regards to sexual (or, anachronistically, gender) identifications. She recalls that the notion of a ‘third sex’ is closely associated with that of the ‘trapped soul’ (Fassler 1979, 241–42): a man trapped in the body of a woman and vice versa. This popular representation itself is very much linked to theories about homosexuality, and particularly to the idea that homosexuality is a kind of hermaphroditism (Fassler 242), ‘a contradictory union of body and soul’ (Fassler 244). Androgyny, often described as a psychological form of hermaphroditism3 finds itself unproblematically close to homosexuality as ‘alternate preponderance’, not as a ‘uniting’ phenomenon but as a war between ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ (Fassler 248)—not, then, in the fusion camp, but not in the more peaceful balance camp either. Homosexuality is persistently associated, Fassler says, with artistic genius as, for example, in the idea ‘that the tension between male and female in the homosexual is exceptionally vital, creative and integrative’ (Fassler 250). This ideal poet corresponds to Freud’s idea that homosexuals often sublimate very well through artistic expression, to Havelock Ellis’s diagnosis of ‘high intelligence’ (Fassler 248) and ‘artistic capability’ in homosexuals (Fassler 250), and to Edward Carpenter’s idea that the homosexual’s combination of male and female makes a good ‘mediator’ (Fassler 250). Brenda S. Helt recently insisted on the link between representations of androgyny and (male) homosexuality, both in their scientific definitions as in their affinity with creativity and genius (Helt 2010, 136). In fact, glorifying beliefs regarding the homosexual (and the androgyne) are founded on the misogynistic idea that the most valuable half of the person is male and that, in the case of the lesbian, it is the man in her who is the genius: ‘though a lesbian may, by virtue of the strong dash of masculinity in her character, possess artistic gifts or high intelligence, she can never be a genius. The true genius is the womanly man, his basic masculinity just nicely spiked with feminine sensitivity’ (Fassler 248). This analysis strongly resonates with the notion that ‘[Havelock] Ellis and his followers constructed a “scientific” model of the “true” female homosexual as masculine’ (Cramer 2010, 190).

6Fassler interprets Woolf’s androgyne to be, in fact, a homosexual in disguise: ‘In choosing Shakespeare and his sister [in A Room], Woolf includes an intimation of homosexuality in her portrait of androgyny and draws upon current theories of the homosexual as a person who uniquely combines both masculine and feminine qualities to achieve artistic creativity and personal integration’ (Fassler 251). It is not that Woolf’s androgynous portraits are misogynistic but that they rely on cultural icons and sexological models which are anything but egalitarian. While Fassler also reads Woolf’s androgyny as fusion, she highlights a circular aspect in Orlando: the androgyne ‘is built upon a series of ever more integrative combinations of role playing versus reality, disguise versus revelation, the clothed self versus the naked or inner self’ (Fassler 244).

7While Woolfian androgyny can be read as a fusion that engulfs the woman’s perspective within a pretence of universality/neutrality/objectivity which only hardly hides a hegemonic masculine vision, other critics side for a productive undecidability which acknowledges the generative aspect of Woolf’s writing. They read Woolf’s androgyny, especially in Orlando, not as a simultaneous combination (or fusion) of the ‘feminine’ and the ‘masculine’, but as a dialectic, a constant play between roles that are themselves highly contextual and never immanent. Amongst this later group who tends to root for the alternation camp, we find most psychoanalytic critics.

8In 1987, Makiko Minow-Pinkney also emphasises an underlying circularity in Orlando’s androgyny. She quotes from the novel: ‘the difference between the sexes is, happily, one of great profundity. Clothes are but a symbol of something hid deep beneath. It was a change in Orlando herself that dictated her choice of a woman’s dress and of a woman’s sex’ (Woolf et al. 180; hereafter, O). Makiko-Pinkney explains:

The previous case [‘it is clothes that wear us and not we them’ (O 180)] now seems reversed, as some feminine ‘essence’ is given priority over female social existence, yet if we take the ‘change in Orlando herself’ to be her physical change of sex, the sentence becomes circular, its first and last phrases coinciding with each other. . . . The nature of the change is never specified or clarified. For since . . . Woolf believes that the difference between the sexes cannot be defined in terms of biological or immanent essences, then ‘change’ from one sex to the other cannot be specified either. (Minow-Pinkney 1989, 129)

9What we have is a circular definition which empties words and amounts to a perpetual question mark. Rachel Bowlby similarly insists on the irreducibility at play, the infinite layers echoing Judith Butler’s ‘drag’. On the relation between the hidden ‘truth’ of sexual identity and its representation through clothes, Bowlby demonstrates that ‘[f]ar from establishing a stable correspondence of clothes to underlying sex, [another possible interpretation of Orlando] offers rather a potentially endless series of layers through which the sex is not just contingently but necessarily ‘in dispute’’ (Bowlby 1997, 46-47). She goes back to the following passage in Orlando:

. . . perhaps in this she was only expressing rather more openly than usual . . . something that happens to most people without being thus plainly expressed. . . . Different though the sexes are, they intermix. In every human being a vacillation from one sex to the other takes place, and often it is only the clothes that keep the male or female likeness, while underneath the sex is the very opposite of what is above. (O 181)

10Therefore, clothes ‘are effectively useless as evidence of which sex it is, since there is no way of knowing whether the wearer is wearing “plainly” and openly or not’ (Bowlby 1997, 47). Because we can never really decide whether biological sex is imitated by clothes or if clothes are a convention and the only credible indicator of sexual identity, it seems that androgyny—and therefore the sexes—becomes void of meaning. In the end, ‘Orlando’s playfulness masks a set of quite serious questions about the significance or determinability of sexual difference’ (Bowlby 1997, 51). Androgyny in Woolf is oscillation and ambivalence par excellence, ‘sexual indeterminacy’, ‘sexual mobility’ (Bowlby 1997, 165–6): a contradiction and undecidability that keeps the definition of sexual identity, sexual difference and androgyny open so that future societies can redefine them, in an eternal cycle.

11Discussing the passage in which Orlando wakes up as a woman, Minow-Pinkney points out the highly contextual definition of sex it gives us. His/her looks have slightly changed but ‘in every other respect, Orlando remains precisely as he had been. The change of sex, though it altered their future, did nothing whatever to alter their identity’ (O 133; qd in Minow-Pinkney 125). Minow-Pinkney insists that ‘Orlando’s biological change does not of itself entail a change of personality’ and that ‘[s]ince he has not yet begun to live as a woman in a specific context’ he remains indeed the same. It is the future which changes for Orlando ‘because his sexuality will be constructed from now on in social-cultural context’ (Minow-Pinkney 125). It is precisely because Orlando’s sexual identity is indeterminate that ‘his/her gender becomes a legal matter for the courts to decide. . . . Having lived as a man, Orlando at this moment remains one; s/he will have to learn to be a woman through the years to come’ (Minow-Pinkney 125–26). In other words, s/he will have to find out how to correspond (or not) to her society’s representation of ‘woman’. Therefore, Minow-Pinkney compares Woolf’s Orlando to Saussure’s differential definition of language: gender also is ‘a system of differences’ dependent on each other for signification, ‘without any immanent essences’ (Minow-Pinkney 130). The fictional biographer does not negate differences between the sexes but ‘do[es] deny biologism’ (Minow-Pinkney 125).

  • 4 However, it is only the neurotic subject who finds itself divided by castration. For the psychotic (...)

12For Woolf, ‘[i]t is fatal to be a man or a woman pure and simple’ (Woolf 2000, 94). This suggests, Minow-Pinkney explains, that ‘meaning . . . can be produced only in the play of difference’, something she associates with Julia Kristeva’s notion that ‘sexual difference is not . . . a fixed opposition . . . but a process of differentiation’ (Kristeva 1980, 165; qd in Minow-Pinkney 9). Minow-Pinkney, and Laura Marcus later on (Marcus 2000, 232), recount Mary Jacobus’s Freudian interpretation of Woolf’s androgyny as an instance of a paradoxical and heterogeneous mind for which homogeneity is only brought about by ‘repression’ (Jacobus 1986, 27–40; qd in Minow-Pinkney 9–10). A crucial thing is that against the ‘united subject’, the erected ‘I’, Woolf chooses the multiplicity of selves. This is why Minow-Pinkney finds fault with Elaine Showalter’s 1977 critique of Woolfian androgyny (Showalter 1977, 263–97): it ‘posits a unified subject which is the sole agent of its development’, irrespective of current socio-cultural representations (Minow-Pinkney 12). Emphasising the referentiality of sexual identifications, ‘[t]he concept of androgyny [in Woolf . . . becomes radical, opening up the fixed unity into a multiplicity, joy, play of heterogeneity’ (Minow-Pinkney 12). Not only does Woolf’s androgyne Orlando liberate ‘new possibilities in the fixed division of gender’ but it also ‘generalises the phenomenon of heterogeneity itself (Minow-Pinkney 130–31). Indeed, ‘in every human being a vacillation from one sex to the other takes place’ (O 181; emphasis added). Woolf here anticipates the later Lacanian assertion of the divided subject against the all-powerful cogito which interprets fragmentation not as a ‘pathology’ but as ‘a universal fact of the human subject’—language moulds and divides4 the human subject (Minow-Pinkney 13).

13To those who would argue that Orlando sometimes resorts to stereotypical descriptions of man and woman, Minow-Pinkney replies that one must start from already available representations in order to find new ones: ‘Androgyny itself is “non-conceptual” and unrealistic, but its components are presented in terms of naturalistic stereotypes. . . . In order to put the category of the ‘real’ into question, the fantastic needs realistic forms, at least initially’ (Minow-Pinkney131). She adds: ‘No metaphor can condense into a single image this constant transgression of sexual boundaries; it can only be presented in metonymical displacement, a sliding of one form into another’ (Minow-Pinkney 131). There is a sense of the unavoidability of normative sexual representations as a basis for new narratives; a ‘right’ and ‘necessary’ choice on Woolf’s part (Minow-Pinkney 131). Importantly, Woolf’s androgyny seems analogous to fantasy here, a tension between ‘real’ and ‘imaginary’—between what cannot be represented and the images we already have at hand.

  • 5Lalangue sert de toutes autres choses qu’à la communication. […] cette lalangue dont vous savez qu (...)
  • 6 This obviously convokes the much debated ‘écriture féminine’ which Minow-Pinkney explores at length (...)
  • 7 This argument indeed falls within one of Abel’s main theses, that Woolf goes back to patrilineage i (...)

14This idea of tension extends to other aspects of Woolf’s androgyny: ‘Woolfian androgyny involves a dialectic of symbolic and semiotic’ (Minow-Pinkney 189). Minow-Pinkney’s work relies on Julia Kristeva’s theory of the subject, based on a conception of language as a dialectical ‘signifying process’ composed of ‘two modalities: semiotic and symbolic’ in which subjectivity is a perpetual negotiation between the two (Minow-Pinkney 17). The semiotic is what ‘logically and chronologically precedes the establishment of the symbolic and its subject’ (Kristeva 1984, 41). As such, it is linked to the pre-oedipal or maternal—the before of any differentiation. Minow-Pinkney points out the privileging of the semiotic throughout Woolf’s novel: when Orlando joyfully explores Kew Gardens—‘Oh yes, it is Kew! Well, Kew will do! So here we are at Kew . . .’ (279)—‘language does not exist . . . purely for the sake of the signified’ and ‘sentences are . . . urged on by rhyme’ (Minow-Pinkney 140). Language is not utilitarian here; it does not inform but plays, similar to Kristeva’s semiotic, Lacan’s lalangue5 and Bernard’s ‘little language’ in The Waves. This privileging of a language primarily occupied with the senses inscribes itself in a feminist search for an idiom that expresses a woman’s experience,6 ‘at once inside and outside the dominant order’, the (male dominated) symbolic (Minow-Pinkney 10). In the end, this is not a fusion of opposites but “a constant alternation’ between the inside and the beyond of culture and the sign. In Kristeva’s words, ‘an impossible dialectic: a permanent alternation’ (Kristeva 1977, 38; qd in Minow-Pinkney 121). As such, Woolf’s androgyny is close to Lacan’s notion of a ‘feminine position’, at once inside and outside the symbolic order (Lacan et al. 2005, 118; Abelhauser 2013, 292–93). Elizabeth Abel’s pioneering work, however, disagrees with this interpretation. She reads Woolf’s androgyny as asymmetrically drawing the androgyne towards the biologically female; via maternal and coital metaphors in A Room (Abel 1989, 87–88) and, in Three Guineas, through the image of the ‘egg’, a sign of Woolf’s ‘anxiety about maternal complicity’ with fascism (Abel 92). In her two essays, Woolf would in fact have remodelled androgyny ‘as a patriarchal appropriation of maternity’: a ‘merger’ takes place between the patriarchal figure and the fascist mother (Abel 92).7 However, Abel problematically does not engage with androgynous Orlando. As recent scholarship shows, the novel was long seen by critics (and Woolf herself) as only a ‘joke’ (Woolf et al., 164), which rather discouraged critical investigation but also reveals how much of a riddle it remains (Högberg and Bromley 2018, 1–12).

  • 8 See also Abelhauser 296–97.

15Katharine Swarbrick’s Lacanian reading uses Woolf’s mock biography to (re)establish fluidity between the psychoanalytic notions of phallic and not-all phallic modes (Swarbrick 2012, 142–49). In Lacan’s model of sexuation, these are available to all subjects, regardless of biological sex. Broadly, the first mode is concerned with meaning, ‘blind to the elusiveness of truth’ (Paccaud-Huguet 2006, 298);8 and the second, also called the ‘not-all’ (pas-tout) does not claim global mastery and control but is receptive to what eludes representation—to what reveals the ‘all’/‘whole’ to be a fiction. From a discursive point of view, the masculine is associated to the ‘phallic’ register while the ‘feminine’ has to do with the ‘not-all phallic’. Swarbrick interrogates the figure of Orlando in relation to the latter: ‘What can Orlando’s enjoyment [or jouissance] tell us about psychoanalysis, the feminine, and the projects of Woolf in general?’ (Swarbrick 143) If what differentiates ‘man’ and ‘woman’ is their relation to the phallic and not-all phallic modes, how does Woolf’s androgyny work in these respects?

16To highlight the workings of Woolf’s Orlando with regards to sexual enjoyment and the phallus, she takes as counterpoint Jacqueline Harpman’s 1996 Orlanda. Because Harpman’s masculine character is presented ‘as in undisputed possession’ of both phallus and penis, ‘Orlanda exemplifies the impasses to which psychoanalytic readings of sexual identity as phallic/not phallic give rise’ (Swarbrick 144): Harpman’s phallic and not-all phallic modes do not cohabitate. On the contrary, Woolf’s character shows that the phallus works in the same way for both masculine and feminine characters. As such, the mode of enjoyment is detached from sexual identification and is not essentialised. An example of this is that ‘the [phallic] signifier “oak tree” is a stable point of identification which . . . serves the same purpose for Orlando as a woman’ as for Orlando the man (Swarbrick 144): the tree belongs to neither ‘version’ of Orlando but remains an external ‘common point of reference’ (Swarbrick 145). Anna Frøsig makes a similar point when writing of ‘a primary perceptual structure in sexual identity, which holds for both Orlando the woman and Orlando the boy’ (Frøsig 2018, 35). Orlando the man’s harmonious relationship to public space is the main difference with Orlando the woman: it ‘does not reside in an essential, anatomical organ, but in the forces of social convention’ (Swarbrick 145). Here, the Lacanian concept of phallus serves to underline the fact that sexual difference in Woolf is profoundly positional, referential. Similarly, Orlando does not become a woman through ‘a process of splitting’ but ‘on the same corporeal site of an original self with which she remains inextricably linked’ (Swarbrick 146): her innermost sense of self being detached from sexual identification, Orlando remains the same (O 133). While Harpman’s protagonist’s ‘libido . . . dictates the gender of the individuals pursued’ (Swarbrick 146), Orlando ‘enjoyed the love of both sexes equally’ (O 211) and indeed, her attraction to Sasha remains (Helt 146). The protagonist really alternates between ‘two different forms of jouissance’, not so much between two sexes—a structural, not biological, difference (Swarbrick 146).

17Just as Orlando is bound by neither sexual identification or sexual desire to a single identity, feminine jouissance is ‘not tied to gender’ and does not prescribe the object of desire. For ‘Lacan charts two unconscious subjective positions, not two genders’ (Swarbrick 147): ‘we have tended to overlook the fact that the feminine position encompasses two relations to jouissance, one phallic and one, as Lacan calls it, supplementary’ (Swarbrick 147). For Swarbrick, ‘the multiple selves are a means by which Woolf expresses the crucial logic of sexuation which states that not all of a woman is submitted to the phallic function’ (Swarbrick 148). Orlando helps ‘avoiding the reductive impulse to characterise masculine and feminine as phallic/not phallic’ (Swarbrick 148) and reminds us that the feminine participates both in the phallic and not, which is why it is not not-phallic, but not-all phallic. Orlando also disentangles subjectivity and gender and does not picture ‘homosexuality and heterosexuality as pitted against each other’ (Swarbrick 148). It delineates ‘a continuum’ of ‘erotic possibilities’ (Cramer 2010, 192). This corroborates Minow-Pinkney’s association of Woolf’s androgyny with the ‘feminine’ position, that which ‘lifts the limit on the totalised, finite worlds and points to a place where Symbolic and Real meet’ (Swarbrick 147). Swarbrick proposes to see the not-all ‘as otherness as such’ since it ‘entails that a world in which all phenomena can be objects of experience does not exist’ (Swarbrick 147)—a world in which everything can be symbolised and mastered cannot be. Woolfian androgyny as not-all is a deconstructive and feminist objection to many tenets of psychoanalysis and an anticipation of Lacanianism. In this case, it is not so much androgyny itself as a feminist problem posed by Woolf’s fiction which psychoanalysis helps to better grapple with; rather, it is through a psychoanalytic study of androgyny in her fiction that Woolf’s takes on feminist issues are highlighted—and highlighted as, precisely, feminist positions.

  • 9 After Freud’s use of the term, and not as describing sexual orientation (today’s most common usage) (...)

18Perhaps the dialogue becomes even more interesting when implemented by Brenda S. Helt’s contextual reading of Woolfian androgyny (Helt 2010, 131–67). All of the above is indeed predicated upon the notion that Woolf advocated androgyny as a creative ideal or as metaphor for the model writer. Going back to Woolf’s time’s sexological, psychological and psychoanalytical beliefs on sexual identity and practices and re-reading Orlando and A Room of One’s Own alongside them, it is precisely what Helt calls into question: Woolf might not in fact have been so keen on androgyny as either a combination or a perpetual oscillation between the ‘feminine’ and the ‘masculine’. Androgyny once had the scientific name of ‘bisexuality’9 which basically referred to ‘the state of being psychically both male and female’ (Helt 135). Both terms were already ‘long established in aesthetic cultures’ (Helt 136) and crucially conflated concepts now seen as distinct or utterly unrelated: ‘biological sex, gender, desire sexual preference, sexual identity, and intellectual and artistic superiority’ (Helt 136). It is the perpetuation of the association of ‘intellectual ability with maleness’ which Woolf, as other feminist critics, resents (Helt 138). Helt summarises this as follows:

Because both the androgyne and the genius have a heritage privileging men and maleness more generally, Woolf’s challenges to constrictive theories of gender, sexuality, and desire necessarily confront theories of androgyny popular with modernists and other elite circles. Contrary to common scholarly assertion, in Orlando and A Room of One’s Own she takes up but ultimately rejects the prevalent notion that the gifted artist must have an androgynous mind. In both works she rejects the fantasy that anyone could ever truly escape the physical, and therefore the psychological, limitations of always being understood by one’s culture as either male or female. Far from repressing the female sexual body, in both works she disputes the possibility of androgyny, the androgynous mind of the genius, and the intermediate type or third sex. (Helt 143)

19Gender identity in Woolf thus depends on social conditions which themselves depend on the perceived biological sex. Yet Helt goes further: it is precisely because of the unavoidability of context that Woolfian androgyny is in fact closer to a description of an impossibility (Helt 144). As the meanings of ‘man’ or ‘woman’ depend on social interactions and fictions, historical and material conditions and since those of her time were so clearly differential between women and men, androgyny as psychological combination of both ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ characteristics is impossible. Although from a different perspective, Vassiliki Kolocotroni makes the same observation: when climbing the all-male Mount Athos with her goats, the female Orlando becomes the very embodiment of impossibility (Högberg and Bromley 10; Kolocotroni 2018, 92, 97–98). From a feminist—or egalitarian—point of view, Woolf rather recommends that women writers write from their own experiences and perspectives as women: they do not need to strive for an androgynous position (Helt 151). Orlando is a case in point: s/he ‘shows that only by living corporeally as both a man and a woman and being understood by one’s society and one’s intimates as one and then the other can a person hope to obtain an androgynous mind’ (Helt 145). And even then, ‘[b]ecause a body will always be interpellated as either male or female, even the sex-changing Orlando can partake only fleetingly of an androgynous mind’ (Helt 135). S/he is first a man, then experiences a brief oscillation, and eventually becomes a woman but plays out both sexual identities through clothes while remaining quite the same underneath—akin to a Butlerian idea of performance (Helt 149). This resonates with Minow-Pinkney’s and Bowlby’s understanding of an endless circularity as to what comes first between the body and clothes in Orlando. Androgyny may very well not have been Woolf’s ideal but a popular and exclusionary image which she turns against itself; a means to show how undefinable and unstable sexual identity is.

  • 10 ‘On the one hand its [Woolf’s work] complexity and obliquity render it virtually inexhaustible by i (...)
  • 11 In this regard, Minow-Pinkney also reminds us that Woolf was highly aware that genius was only poss (...)

20Importantly, Helt implies that regarding androgyny, Woolf’s feminist stance might have in fact been obscured by critics themselves: ‘since Woolf ’s promotion of androgyny is assumed, the passages in A Room and elsewhere, in which Woolf ’s logic or rhetoric throws into question or even outright refutes the concept of androgyny must be contradictions—lacunae on Woolf’s part rather than on the part of the early scholars who established the tradition of this understanding’ (Helt 162). A similar contention to Farwell’s (Farwell 452) or Marcus’ (Marcus 2000, 219),10 Helt reminds us that Woolf’s indirections and apparent vagueness can be a means of empowerment for the reader: ‘Woolf, who hated lectures and didacticism, simply offers readers the conceptual tools to deconstruct the metaphor of the androgynous mind for themselves’ (Helt 151). Turning to Elaine Showalter’s famous critique, Helt comments that it is as if ‘the points [made] about the inherent misogyny and heterosexism of the tradition of the androgynous mind or androgynous genius11 are new insights enabled by second- and third-wave feminist scholarship, rather than points Woolf made—though less directly—in A Room, Orlando, and elsewhere’ (Helt 163). Informed by cultural context, the deconstructive power of Woolfian androgyny emerge anew, both as to common sexological beliefs and to the critical history of Woolf’s androgyne itself: thus, ‘Woolf’s prominence as an early twentieth-century sexual theorist . . . can be more widely acknowledged’ (Cramer 2010, 194).

21Woolf’s androgynous vision thus harbours its own critical unravelling and even provides space to question the usual frameworks used to approach it systematically. And if we decide—which is indeed the critic’s prerogative—that Woolf’s androgyny nevertheless remains ambivalent, we might still find great freedom in that: ‘As Gillian Beer puts it, ‘refusing to resolve is not irresolution, but assertion’ (qd in Bowlby 1992b, 15). In the collected papers from the Contradictory Woolf conference, Angeliki Spiropoulou accordingly elevates Woolf’s ambivalence to the rank of epistemology. In the end, ‘Woolf’s dialectical thinking blatantly “contradicts” the classical tradition of identifying contradiction with logical falsity and non-truth established by the Platonic dialogues and Aristotelian thought’ (Spiropoulou 2012, 102). She goes on: ‘With regard to ontology, Woolf can be said to affirm self-contradiction against the logic of self-identity that governs Western metaphysics’ (Spiropoulou 102). Spiropoulou puts androgyny back into the web of Woolf’s style:

Woolf’s non-unitary mode of thinking, encompassing antithetical positions, is also extended to the aesthetic plane. As is perceptively noted by Jane Goldman, Woolf ’s aesthetic vision is markedly ‘dualistic’, predicated as it is on an explicit call for a ‘marriage of opposites,’ expressed not only by the androgynous ideal of the writer’s mind, put forward in A Room of One’s Own, but also by Woolf’s emblematic urge for an ‘amalgamation of dream and reality’, of ‘granite and rainbow’ in her 1927 essay, ‘The New Biography’, and, more widely, for a merging, in modern writing, of the material and the spiritual, the inner and the outer, the poetic and the prosaic, truth and fiction, in, for example, ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown’ (1924), ‘Modern Fiction’ (1925), and The Pargiters (1978), alongside A Room of One’s Own and a series of other essays in which her aesthetic project is sketched out. (Spiropoulou 102)

  • 12 See, for instance, Mrs Ramsay’s moment of being (and fusion) with the lighthouse’s beam (Woolf 2000 (...)
  • 13 For example, the impossible ‘arrow-like stillness of fine weather’ in ‘Times Passes’ (TL, 146), con (...)

22Paying attention to other instances of Woolfian ambivalence, it is clear that many of her wider artistic stances belong to a feminist perspective on society and the individual. Let us not forget the boundaries she crossed between the inside and the outside of the self through uncanny relations between subject and object in her works,12 between present and past via her ‘tunnelling process’ or between the species in Flush (1933). Let us insist on her compounds, oxymorons and other tropes founded on gaps, distance/difference, or even stark opposition.13 Let us go back to her stylistic ideal, the ‘razor edge of balance’ (TL 209), to her wave-like rhythm, similar to the human breath, the yes and no, the on and off, the absence and presence of the mother—her personal version of Freud’s Fort-Da (Freud 1922, 7)—and the corresponding ambivalence towards love objects. Her oscillating androgynous figures must be read within the broader context of tension as protective against master discourses. It is her own weapon against ‘unitary truth claims’ (Spiropoulou 101) as much as a poetic rendering of lived experience: ‘Indecision, the affirmation of both poles of a dualism, should thus be seen as an essentially ethical stance, . . . in that it takes into consideration the demand made by the other, by what is “not I” with which the I thus enters into a relationship’ (Spiropoulou 106). As Carolyn Heilbrun recalls (Heilbrun 1998, 154–55), other androgynous images in Woolf, such as the lighthouse and the snail are really about opposites and not sexual opposites per se: voids or slippery cores enclosed by hard structures. Perhaps these polarities should not be identified with gender oppositions but rather understood as Woolf’s images for the phenomenological tensions at play in our lives.

  • 14 Laura Marcus depicts Woolf as ‘one of th[e] most significant forerunners’ of ‘the feminisms of the (...)

23In any case, it is Virginia Woolf’s uses of tension themselves that enable us to overcome her ‘ambivalent activism’ (Jones 2015) and qualify her as a feminist—however contradictory (Marcus 2000, 211).14 A conversation with psychoanalytic readings contributes to further reveal the feminist legacies contained in her androgynous visions, to give a more fluid and generative image of it—not one which would be the ‘true’ one, the ‘actual’ one, the one Woolf actually ‘meant’ to produce, but one which is, nevertheless, very present. Yet it may be that feminist criticism also highlights Woolf’s deconstructive potential for psychoanalytic literary frameworks. As Jacobus argues, ‘Reread, not as given, but as produced, ‘femininity’—woman—also demands a rereading of the text of psychoanalysis. Hence the importance of feminist criticism for any account of the constitution of psychoanalytic discourse’ (Jacobus 21). Woolfian androgyny not only is a ceaseless shift between gender roles—anticipating much later research—but it also reads, psychoanalytically speaking, as a feminist reserve for the texts of the future. If Woolf’s writing displays a form of Lacanianism avant la lettre, her practice of the not-all disrupts psychoanalytic frameworks and calls for heterogeneous uses of its interpretative metaphors within the context of the written text.

  • 15 (Swarbrick 148) The image of the key rings rather powerfully in our ears: Woolf herself had employe (...)

24Woolf’s play on the many layers of (sexual) identification highlights the impact of our interpretative frameworks and calls for new representations: ‘[t]here is no self of hers [Orlando] that is not a possible experience, but not all selves are possible to experience as we do not have room for them all in representation’ (Swarbrick 148, my emphasis). Woolf’s writing encourages us to ‘reinterpre[t] the feminine in its relation to the border of the Symbolico-Real rather than envisaging its unique route of escape in an Imaginary pre-Oedipal situation’ (Swarbrick 148). The ‘feminine’ can be more productively read as a binding of language with what lies outside it, rather than as a dangerous flirt with the maternal. It is what Minow-Pinkney hints at: ‘Does the “call of the mother” [the pre-Oedipal], then, only generate “voices, “madness”, “hallucinations”, as Kristeva claims?’ (Minow-Pinkney 196) We could ‘forg[e] a new kind of subjectivity for which the call of the mother and the fall of the paternal order would not mean its foundering’ (Minow-Pinkney 196; the author’s emphasis). This can be heard as a gesture towards what psychoanalyst Jan Campbell has endeavoured to do. Her ‘situated bodily imaginary’ and re-formulation of ‘maternal lived form’ reimagine the Oedipal narrative and queer the phallus. Campbell explains: ‘[M]y argument for a postmodern bodily imaginary . . . does not recognise a hierarchical division between the Oedipal and the pre-Oedipal. The body as a lived body within culture is always within language . . . I . . . put forward a re-reading of this phallic, symbolic law through a notion of the bodily imaginary’ (2000, 14–15). In the context of the written text, Woolf’s androgyne as metaphor for the not-all makes psychoanalysis newly legible. Her fiction participates in a feminist re-writing of discourses on the individual and as such ‘proves to be a key unlocking multiple doors’ indeed.15

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Abel, Elizabeth, Virginia Woolf and the Fictions of Psychoanalysis (1989), Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1993.

Bowlby, Rachel, Still Crazy After All These Years: Women, Writing, and Psychoanalysis, London: Routledge, 1992a.

Bowlby, Rachel, ed., Virginia Woolf, London: Longman Critical Readers, 1992b.

Bowlby, Rachel, Feminist Destinations and Further Essays on Virginia Woolf, Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 1997.

Campbell, Jan, Arguing with the Phallus: Feminist, Queer, and Postcolonial Theory: A Psychoanalytic Contribution, London: Zed Books, 2000.

Cramer, Pamela, ‘Virginia Woolf and Sexuality’, ed. Susan Sellers, The Cambridge Companion to Virginia Woolf, 2nd ed, Cambridge: CUP, 2010, 180–96.

Farwell, Marilyn, ‘Virginia Woolf and Androgyny’, Contemporary Literature 16.4 (1975): 433–51.

Fassler, Barbara, ‘Theories of Homosexuality as Sources of Bloomsbury’s Androgyny’, Signs, 5.2 (1979): 237–51.

Freud, Sigmund, ‘Three Essays Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality’ (1905), ed. James Strachey, The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud Vol. 7, London: Hogarth, 1953, 133–245.

Freud, Sigmund, ‘Beyond the Pleasure Principle’, International Psychoanalytic Press, MCMXII, International Psycho-Analytical Library 4, 1922.

Frøsig, Anna, ‘“Something intricate and many-chambered”: Sexuality and the Embodied Sentence’, eds. Elsa Högberg and Amy Bromley, Sentencing Orlando: Virginia Woolf and the morphology of the modernist sentence, Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2018, 32–43.

Goldman, Jane, ed., Virginia Woolf: To the Lighthouse/The Waves, London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1997.

Heilbrun, Carolyn, Toward a Recognition of Androgyny, Bridgewater, NJ: Replica Books, 1998.

Helt, Brenda S., ‘Passionate Debates on “Odious Subjects”: Bisexuality and Woolf’s Oppositions to Theories of Androgyny and Sexual Identity’, Twentieth-Century Literature 56.2 (2010): 131–67.

Högberg Elsa, and Amy Bromley, ‘Introduction: Sentencing Orlando’, eds. Elsa Högberg and Amy Bromley, Sentencing Orlando: Virginia Woolf and the Morphology of the Modernist Sentence, Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2018, 1–14.

Jones, Clara, Virginia Woolf: Ambivalent Activist, Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2016.

Jacobus, Mary, Reading Woman: Essays in Feminist Criticism, London: Methuen, 1986.

Kolocotroni, Vassiliki, ‘Orlando, Greece and the Impossible Landscape’, eds. Elsa Högberg and Amy Bromley, Sentencing Orlando: Virginia Woolf and the Morphology of the Modernist Sentence. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2018, 92–103.

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1 After Rachel Bowlby’s project to ‘weave from Woolf’s writing some answers and some more questions for the things that matter now, or mattered when they were written.’

2 Rachel Bowlby later speaks of ‘‘the force of censor-ship’ in this regard (Bowlby 1997, 39).

3 Hermaphroditism refers to the coexistence of female and male sexual organs or sexual characteristics in a person (OED). Transgenderism (or transsexuality) means that an individual’s sense of gender identity does not match the sex that was assigned at birth or the traditional representations of sex and of gender (OED). The term ‘transsexual’ is being gradually replaced by ‘transgender’ to emphasise the difference between sex and gender as well as the fact that both are medical and social constructs.

4 However, it is only the neurotic subject who finds itself divided by castration. For the psychotic subject, on the contrary, the Symbolic is deficient. See for instance Abelhauser 2013, 257. Not referenced in the works cited.

5Lalangue sert de toutes autres choses qu’à la communication. […] cette lalangue dont vous savez que je l’écris en un seul mot, pour désigner ce qui est notre affaire à chacun, lalangue dite maternelle, et pas pour rien dite ainsi.’ (Lacan 2005, 174) In other words, ‘a primordial linguistic mode called ‘lalangue’ (before the Symbolic cut orders la langue into lexicon and grammar)’ (Paccaud-Huguet 2006, 280).

6 This obviously convokes the much debated ‘écriture féminine’ which Minow-Pinkney explores at length but which I choose, for lack of space, not to include in the present discussion.

7 This argument indeed falls within one of Abel’s main theses, that Woolf goes back to patrilineage in the novels of the 1930s (Abel xvi, 130).

8 See also Abelhauser 296–97.

9 After Freud’s use of the term, and not as describing sexual orientation (today’s most common usage): ‘bisexual refers to psychological double-sexedness, as it consistently does in Freud’s work with one exception in 1937. In the Three Essays and elsewhere, Freud refers to people we today would call bisexuals as “amphigenic inverts” or “psychosexual hermaphrodites”’ (Helt 161). See Freud 1953, 133–245, 136.

10 ‘On the one hand its [Woolf’s work] complexity and obliquity render it virtually inexhaustible by interpretation and limitlessly re-readable.’

11 In this regard, Minow-Pinkney also reminds us that Woolf was highly aware that genius was only possible in good material conditions—hence her emphasis on a salary and room of one’s own (Minow-Pinkney 6). As for her, Catharine Stimpson insists that ‘Woolf . . . fuses economic independence and the textualized female imagination’, reinforcing the view of genius as dependent on means (Stimpson 1992, 169).

12 See, for instance, Mrs Ramsay’s moment of being (and fusion) with the lighthouse’s beam (Woolf 2000, 69–70).

13 For example, the impossible ‘arrow-like stillness of fine weather’ in ‘Times Passes’ (TL, 146), conveniently combining a bit of all of the above.

14 Laura Marcus depicts Woolf as ‘one of th[e] most significant forerunners’ of ‘the feminisms of the second half of the twentieth century’ partly because her work was so ‘intertwined with the feminist ideas of the first half of the century’ even if ‘[h]er responses to the feminist ideas of her time were, however, complex and often contradictory’ (Marcus 211).

15 (Swarbrick 148) The image of the key rings rather powerfully in our ears: Woolf herself had employed it to oppose the use of psychoanalytic theories for novel-making in ‘Freudian Fiction’ (1920): ‘We must protest that we do not wish to debar Mr Beresford from making use of any key that seems to him to fit the human mind. Our complaint is rather that in An Imperfect Mother the new key is a patent key that opens every door. It simplifies rather than complicates, detracts rather than enriches. The door swings open briskly enough, but the apartment to which we are admitted is a bare little room with no outlook whatever’ (Woolf 1988, 197).

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Marie Allègre, « ‘Psychoanalytic Receptions of Woolf’s Vision of Androgyny: Feminist Uses of Ambivalence?’ »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 58 | 2020, mis en ligne le 01 mars 2020, consulté le 26 mai 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Marie Allègre

Marie Allègre is a second-year PhD student in English Literature at the University of Birmingham, working under the supervision of Professor Lyndsey Stonebridge and Professor Stephen Forcer. Her master’s dissertation on ‘The Whole, the Hole, and the Border in To the Lighthouse’, supervised by Josiane Paccaud-Huguet (2017–2018, Lyon 2), focused on the rendering of the Real in Woolf’s novel. She is now exploring the English and French psychoanalytic receptions of Virginia Woolf (1980s–2010s) to demonstrate Woolf’s impact on psychoanalytic literary criticism in the idea that her writings make psychoanalysis newly legible.

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