“A Word We Use to Plug Holes With”: The Concept of Love in Poetry

By Julia Bifulco

The topic of love is ever-present in art, and despite how often we see it, we are always eager to revisit it. Throughout the centuries, however, the word ‘love’ has been used less and less sparingly. Instead of reserving it for the utmost special and overwhelming emotions, it is thrown at any feeling that slightly resembles joy, no matter how fleeting. Sonnet 130 by William Shakespeare, written in 1609, presents a romantic interest with realistic qualities, and the speaker expresses how passionate his love for her is, while also spoofing the idealization of the beloved’s beauty in the earlier Italian sonnets of Petrarch. Margaret Atwood’s “Variations on the Word Love,” written in 1981, strips the word ‘love’ of the power it has over us, questioning the word’s ability to convey pure feelings of affection. Through an analysis of the development of the history of love poetry, as well as a close reading of Shakespeare’s sonnet and Atwood’s poem, I will argue that the concept of love does not have to represent an ideal sentiment, but rather something raw and real.

In thirteenth-century Sicily, Giacomo da Lentino was the first poet to write a sonnet (Rivers 42). The structure he used was fourteen lines that follow a specific rhyme scheme. The first eight, known as the octet, propose a question or an issue that is meant to be resolved by the final six lines, or sestet, of the poem. After the octet, a volta, or turn, signals a shift in tone for the final lines of the sonnet. Other early Italian sonneteers, such as Francesco Petrarca—more commonly known as Petrarch—wrote in the same fashion as da Lentino. Petrarch’s octets typically follow the rhyme scheme of ABBAABBA, while his sestets follow those of CDECDE or CDCCDC (Wilkins 197). He does not include rhyming couplets at the end of his sonnets, as later poets such as Shakespeare do, in order to avoid suggesting that both parts of the sonnet must logically fit within one another; instead, Petrarch suggests that two thought processes or feelings presented naturally go together (Storey 19).

Many of Petrarch’s sonnets are devoted to Laura, a woman whom he caught a glimpse of whilst in church and immediately fell in love with; she rejected his romantic advances because, according to Petrarch himself, she was married (Bates 91). This, however, did not stop him from engaging in a passionate love affair with his own idea of what Laura was like. Their relationship existed only within the sonneteer’s work, and although Petrarch did have two children, the woman (or women) who bore them are not mentioned in his writings, despite the evidence of their association to Petrarch (Abbott 319). His sonnets instead focus on the idealized form of Laura, whom he very briefly encountered.

 Laura is often referred to by scholars as “Petrarch’s imaginary beloved,” (Trapp 58) such as by J.B. Trapp in his article “Petrarch’s Laura: The Portraiture of an Imaginary Beloved.” Laura is only ever given a physical description in the sonnets; various traits such as her family name, where she lives, and her personality are not disclosed, making her a mere fragment of a person (Dubrow 19). Petrarch creates what he believes to be the ideal Renaissance woman, and his writings are a tribute to his overwhelming love for her. He picks qualities that he deems important and gives them to Laura in order to perfect her, thus perfecting his love. Due to Petrarch’s idealization of Laura, Petrarch’s love for her is romanticized as well. Future poets, such as Shakespeare, spoof this representation of love in their own romantic sonnets, while also paying their debts to their predecessors’ works.

Shakespeare wrote a total of 154 sonnets in his lifetime; they were all published together in 1609 (Garrigues 248). Similarly to traditional Petrarchan sonnets, Shakespearian, or English, sonnets are composed of fourteen lines. Unlike Petrarch, however, Shakespeare’s sonnets are divided into four quatrains and include a rhyming couplet at the end. The rhyme scheme Shakespeare uses is also different; his sonnets follow that of ABAB CDCD EFEF GG (Garrigues 257). Both poets focus on the concept of love in their writings, as well as their or their speaker’s infatuation with their respective lovers. While Petrarch writes about an idealized form of Laura, Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130 presents a speaker that makes a point of expressing that he loves a real person with genuine human qualities, making his love for her more valuable.

According to philologist Oliver Farrar Emerson, Shakespeare bases the content of his sonnets on those of earlier English poets instead of Italian ones. He argues that “there is no reason to believe [Shakespeare] knew anything of Italian sonnet literature” (Emerson 119) given that it was not as accessible to him as English sonnets were. This statement, however, can be challenged when analyzing many of Shakespeare’s sonnets, namely, Sonnet 130, which parodies the idealization of the beloved found in Petrarchan sonnets.

Shakespearean sonnets typically “promote the status quo by celebrating the fair,” literary scholar Robert Matz explains (Matz 480), the ever-popular Sonnet 18 being an example of this. Sonnet 130, however, features the Dark Lady, a recurring character in Shakespeare’s sonnets who is often used to spoof what is typically praised in poetry. Sonnets 127 to 154 are known as the Dark Lady sequence; these are the sonnets that most strikingly parody conventional love sonnets, such as Petrarch’s (Bates 101). It is with Sonnet 130 that the speaker explicitly claims that his feelings of love are the truest, because they are for a real person, and not an idealized, false version of one.

 Using male lust as the lens through which he views his beloved, the speaker suggests that traditional beauty, as is explored in earlier love poetry, is unnecessary to provoke passionate and affectionate sentiments. The sonnet begins with “my mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;” (Shakespeare 1) the speaker uses the word ‘my’ here to emphasize that he, as a writer, is differentiating himself from most traditional love poets. He is referring to his own beloved, who will later be revealed to have very realistic qualities, instead of the romanticized traits that many earlier sonnets have been celebrated. The speaker also comments on his lover’s eyes to disallow the romanticization of them, contrasting what many earlier poets do when making reference to their beloved’s eyes. Eyes have often been romanticized in writing, and Shakespeare himself has played with this in his earlier work. In Sonnet 18, the speaker once again associates the sun with eyes. This poem is part of the Fair Youth sequence of Shakespeare’s sonnets, which primarily revolves around the speaker’s admiration for the Fair Youth himself. When dealing with love, this sequence’s point of view is in keeping with Petrarchan traditions. In the sonnet, the speaker declares that “sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines” (Shakespeare 5) in reference to the sun. The ferocity of the sun can be juxtaposed with the intensity of the speaker’s love. By immediately dismissing the possibility of beauty in his beloved’s eyes, the speaker in Sonnet 130 rejects a trope often used in romantic poetry, including in Shakespeare’s own work.

In Elizabethan England, the ideal woman had bright eyes, red lips, pale skin, blonde hair, and rosy cheeks (Tilley 208). All of these traits are explicitly removed from the image of the speaker’s beloved in Sonnet 130, emphasizing the unconventionality of her beauty with each line. In reference to his lover, the speaker remarks that “if snow be white, why then her breasts are dun” (Shakespeare 3). Having very pale skin was a sign of wealth and power in the Renaissance (Tilley 210). The speaker’s explanation regarding his beloved’s lack of this highly-regarded quality affirms that she truly is an average woman. The poem later affirms that his beloved is still deserving of love. She will not bring him money or ameliorate his social status, but the speaker loves her nonetheless, contrasting most earlier sonneteers’ perspectives on love (Dubrow 15). According to literary theorist Michael Bryson in his book Love and its Critics: From the Song of Songs to Shakespeare and Milton’s Eden, in his sonnets, Shakespeare presents “a love that is freely chosen, freely given, and freely received,” (Bryson 9) instead of something forced upon people by societal expectations and obligations. Despite his beloved’s inability to benefit him in these ways, and her physical traits that are not conventionally beautiful, the speaker expresses his love for her because he knows she is still deserving of it.

The speaker compares parts of his lover’s physical appearance with aspects of nature, explaining that she is unlike anything beautiful in nature. This rejects the popular idea that women are connected to nature, and that just as ‘Mother Nature’ is, they can be exploited for the benefit of man (Furlanetto 199). The speaker states that he has “seen roses” (Shakespeare 5) in his life, none of which are present “in her cheeks” (Shakespeare 6); this suggests that he has seen many submissive women in earlier poems, but does not see the same traits in his own lover. Poems that celebrate idealized versions of the beloved value qualities that benefit only the male speaker, such as Laura’s chastity or her image as a pure being in Petrarch’s works (Trapp 63). The speaker of Sonnet 130 does not love the subject of his poem because of trivialities such as these, but instead cherishes her in a more profound manner. He distinguishes his lover from the popular trope of associating women with natural phenomena, expressing that he does not see her as someone he has the power to dominate. This is yet another instance of the speaker separating his relationship with his beloved from others explored in earlier sonnets. He believes his love is more authentic than that of poets like Petrarch, who loved an ideal and not a real person.

A comparison can be drawn between the way in which the speaker of Sonnet 130 describes his beloved’s movements and Petrarch’s illustration of Laura’s movement in his Sonnet 90. The Shakespearean speaker clarifies that he “never saw a goddess go” (Shakespeare 11) when referring to his lover. In contrast, Petrarch’s speaker refers to his beloved as “a celestial spirit” (Petrarch 12), painting a beautiful, ideal picture of her. Shakespeare’s speaker emphasizes that the image of his mistress walking is not a pleasant sight, working against what a traditional love poem would propose, such as in Sonnet 90. He says that she “treads on the ground” (Shakespeare 12), which does not make her seem at all desirable. The speaker of Petrarch’s poem, however, refers to Laura as “angelic” (Petrarch 10), equating her to immortal, heavenly beings. The speaker of Sonnet 130 explicitly does the opposite of this in order to reinforce that not only does his beloved not fit the physical description for someone a poet would love, but her mannerisms, as well, are different from what is typically celebrated.  He argues that, despite this, she provokes what Petrarch would describe as “the lure of love” (Petrarch 7) just as well as an idealized version of a woman would.

The rhyming couplet at the end of Shakespeare’s poem reinforces the fact that the purpose of Sonnet 130 is not for the speaker to tell his beloved how much he loves her, but instead, to suggest that romanticizing one’s feelings of love is not genuine love. He believes his sentiments are more valuable than those of, for example, Petrarch: “I think my love as rare/As any she belied with false compare,” (Shakespeare 13-14) he states, placing more importance on his own love. The speaker does this to explain that, despite the aforementioned undesirable description he attributes to his lover, he is still capable of loving her, and that because of this, his love has more worth. Due to the fact that he rejects traditional tropes in love poetry when exploring his emotions, he believes his feelings are more powerful. He describes a true human with palpable qualities, making his love for her real, instead of something based on an idealization.

In her book Writing the Yugoslav Wars: Literature, Postmodernism, and the Ethics of Representation, professor Dragana Obradović defines postmodern art as “summarized through its features of ironic, self-reflexive playfulness, formal inventiveness, and heterogeneity of genres” (Obradović 20). Following the events of the Second World War, the postmodern literary movement was born. As is the norm with literary movements, it rebels against its predecessor, modernism. Sociologist and Holocaust survivor Theodor Adorno famously says “there can be no poetry after Auschwitz” (Adorno 15) in his book Can One Live After Auschwitz? A Philosophical Reader, because he was unsure if humans could or should produce anything beautiful after the atrocities of the Holocaust. Postmodern works share Adorno’s belief, and they reject the existence of an absolute truth and focus mainly on skepticism and irony[1]. Postmodern poets question themselves and their own work through their work, and Margaret Atwood is no exception to this.

Atwood has published 18 poetry collection books in her lifetime. The topics range from gender equality, climate justice, power dynamics, and, as is explored in her poem “Variations on the Word Love,” the power of words and language (Wood 30). This poem, published in 1981, is a companion poem to Atwood’s “Variation on the Word Sleep.” At first glance, it seems as though the speaker has a negative view of the concept of love, but Atwood herself has declared “I am not a pessimist” (Brans 304).

The speakers of Atwood’s love poems have been described by literary scholars, such as Gayle Wood in “On Margaret Atwood’s Selected Poems,” as “full of fear. They are contemporary lovers, approach-avoidance lovers” (Wood 31). Atwood’s poetic speakers are often cautious when it comes to expressing their feelings of love, directly contrasting with Petrarch’s speakers in his sonnets. “Variations on the Word Love” is no different; this free-verse poem is divided into two stanzas that present different opinions regarding the expression of one’s love. 

The first stanza explores the popularization of public expressions of love, which devalues the word ‘love’ itself. The poem opens with a description: “this is a word we use to plug/holes with” (Atwood 1-2), implying that we use the word too often without thinking about it.  The word ‘love’ is supposed to describe the utmost special and overwhelming emotions, and the speaker is criticizing our throwaway use of the word. She mentions “those warm/blanks in speech” (Atwood 2-3), in reference to empty space in conversation that we often fill with “love you!” or a variation of that. Telling someone we love them has become a salutation rather than an intimate expression of our affection, as is further reinforced by using the word “vacancies”  (Atwood 4) to describe where we place our love. If we feel that a sentence is too empty, according to the speaker’s experiences, we will insert the word ‘love’ in order to fill it with meaning.

The speaker also comments on the commercialization of love and how it has seemingly become something that we can purchase. She criticizes the romanticized shapes of hearts, which “look nothing/like real hearts” (Atwood 4-5). Instead of using an image of the human heart, which would represent raw human emotion, the shape of hearts typically used to illustrate love are fluffy and unrealistic. The speaker reminds us that despite how powerful we consider the word ‘love’ to be, we “can sell/it,” (Atwood 6-7) as well as find it in “magazines,” (Atwood 11) and “cook with it” (Atwood 14). This word has become mundane and common, which reduces its value, despite the fact that it is meant to signify a powerful emotion. She asks how we, as humans, know that we are the ultimate definers of love, and that love is not what takes place “at the cool/debaucheries of slugs under damp/pieces of cardboard” (Atwood 14-16). The speaker implies that because these animals are not occupied with the image of their love, they are able to experience it to its fullest extent. “The Act of Love Poetry and Personality,” written by literary critic Hayden Carruth, describes the feeling of love as “a spiritual happening,” (Carruth 307) and the second stanza of Atwood’s poem further explores this by effectively contrasting with the first stanza. While the first stanza describes our conscious idea of love, the second one reminds us what our unconscious understanding of this feeling is.

It is in the final lines of the poem that the speaker acknowledges the relationship between herself and the reader; she refers to them as “the two/of us” (Atwood 21-22). She goes on to explain that, despite the aforementioned connotations of the word ‘love,’ it is “too sparse/to fill those deep bare/vacuums between the stars” (Atwood 24-26). Due to the love she shares with whomever the poem has been written for, the speaker is unable to find a concrete definition for it, and therefore leaves it up to the reader. What we do not want to fall into, she explains, is not love, but rather “that fear” (Atwood 29) associated with that which we do not know about love. Despite the previous criticism of our many conscious ideas of love, the speaker clarifies that the word is still “not enough” (Atwood 30) to describe the pure emotion we feel when we love someone. We fill numerous gaps in our lives with the word ‘love’ to temporarily solve any issues we see present, according to the first stanza, and yet, when the time comes to truly express our raw human sentiments, the speaker suggests that the word is inadequate. She describes the significance of the word as “a cliffside” (Atwood 36), something we have the choice to “hold on or let go” (Atwood 37) of. Ultimately, the speaker of Atwood’s poem suggests that, although we have so many ways to use the word ‘love,’ they are oftentimes trivial, so when we attempt to use it to describe our genuine feelings, it falls short.

The concept of love is an unwaveringly popular subject in poetry, and throughout the years, we have used the word ‘love’ more and more often, diminishing the power it once held. Some of the earliest love sonnets, written by Petrarch, are devoted to an idealization of the beloved, a trope that is spoofed by Shakespeare in Sonnet 130. Atwood’s poem “Variations on the Word Love” presents varying interpretations of the word, ultimately reducing its importance in our lives. Through an analysis of the history of love poetry, as well as a close reading of these poems, it is arguable that love does not have to represent an idealized feeling, as was the norm in most earlier poetry, but rather something real and human.

[1] Liana Bellon, Integrating Activity. Winter 2020.

Works Cited

Primary Sources

Atwood, Margaret. “Variations On The Word Love”. Selected Poems II: Poems Selected & New 1976-1986. Oxford University Press Canada. 1986. Page 85.

Petrarca, Francesco. “Sonnet 90” The Worlds of Petrarch ed. Giuseppe Mazzotta. Duke University Press. 1993 Pages 60-61.

Shakespeare, William. “Sonnet 18”. Shakespeare’s Sonnets, ed. Katherine Duncan-Jones. Revised edition. Bloomsbury Publishing Plc. 2010. Page 147.

Shakespeare, William. “Sonnet 130”. Shakespeare’s Sonnets, ed. Katherine Duncan-Jones. Revised edition. Bloomsbury Publishing Plc. 2010. Page 375.

Secondary Sources

Adorno, Theodor W. Can One Live After Auschwitz? A Philosophical Reader, ed. Rolf Tiedemann, 3-18. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press. 1960.

Brans, Jo, and Margaret Atwood. “Using What You’re Given: An Interview with Margaret Atwood.” Southwest Review, vol. 68, no. 4, 1983, pp. 301–315.

Bryson, Michael and Arpi Movsesian. “Love and Authority: Love Poetry and Its Critics.” Love and Its Critics: From the Song of Songs to Shakespeare and Milton’s Eden. 1st ed., Open Book Publishers, Cambridge, UK, 2017, pp. 1–36.

Carruth, Hayden. “The Act of Love Poetry and Personality.” The Sewanee Review, vol. 84, no. 2, 1976, pp. 305–313.

Emerson, Oliver Farrar. “Shakespeare’s Sonneteering.” Studies in Philology, vol. 20, no. 2, 1923, pp. 111–136.

Matz, Robert. “The Scandals of Shakespeare’s Sonnets.” ELH, vol. 77, no. 2, 2010, pp. 477–508.

Obradović, Dragana. “War, Postmodernism, and Literary Immanence.” Writing the Yugoslav Wars: Literature, Postmodernism, and the Ethics of Representation. University of Toronto Press, Toronto; Buffalo; London, 2016, pp. 20–36.

O’Connor, Brian. “Adorno on the Destruction of Memory.” Memory: Histories, Theories, Debates, edited by Susannah Radstone and Bill Schwarz, Fordham University Press, New York, 2010, pp. 136–149.

Trapp, J. B. “Petrarch’s Laura: The Portraiture of an Imaginary Beloved.” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, vol. 64, 2001, pp. 55–192.

Wood, Gayle. “On Margaret Atwood’s Selected Poems.” The American Poetry Review, vol. 8, no. 5, 1979, pp. 30–32. JSTOR.

Works Consulted

Abbott, Frank. “Petrarch’s Letters to Cicero.” The Sewanee Review, vol. 5, no. 3, 1897, pp. 319–327.

Bates, Ernest Sutherland. “The Sincerity of Shakespeare’s Sonnets.” Modern Philology, vol. 8, no. 1, 1910, pp. 87–106.

Dubrow, Heather. “Petrarchan Problematics: Tradition and the Individual Culture.” Echoes of Desire: English Petrarchism and Its Counterdiscourses. Cornell University Press, Ithaca; London, 1995, pp. 15–56.

Furlanetto, Elena and Peter Lang AG. “Ottoman Nature: Natural Imagery, Gardens, Wells, and Cultural Memory in Republican Turkey.” Towards Turkish American Literature: Narratives of Multiculturalism in Post-Imperial Turkey, Wien, 2017, pp. 199–252.

Garrigues, Gertrude. “Shakespeare’s ‘Sonnets’” The Journal of Speculative Philosophy, vol. 21, no. 3, 1887, pp. 241–258.

Rivers, Elias L. “Certain Formal Characteristics of the Primitive Love Sonnet.” Speculum, vol. 33, no. 1, 1958, pp. 42–55.

Storey, H. Wayne. “The Formation of Knowledge and Petrarch’s Books.” Petrarch and Boccaccio: The Unity of Knowledge in the Pre-Modern World, edited by Igor Candido, 1st ed., De Gruyter, Berlin; Boston, 2018, pp. 15–51.

Tilley, Morris P. “The ‘White Hand’ of Shakespeare’s Heroines.” The Sewanee Review, vol. 19, no. 2, 1911, pp. 207–212.

Wilkins, Ernest H. “Notes on Petrarch.” Modern Language Notes, vol. 32, no. 4, 1917, pp. 193–200.

Finding Absurdity to Cope with Literary Tragedies: An Analysis of Kafka’s Metamorphosis, Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles and Brontë’s Wuthering Heights

By Talia Kliot

After two years in English literature at Dawson, I have noticed that the works we study tend to be analyzed from a melancholic angle. Examples of such works include Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891), a heartbreaking story of a fallen woman, and Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1847), an unfortunate tale of two lovers. While the material itself is certainly important, I have had trouble with the constant onslaught of tragedy, and have thus tried to find ways to detach myself critically from the texts by employing the concept of the absurd, which calls attention to the rupture between what we view as important versus what actually is.[1] Although some writers, such as Kafka, use the absurd to deliberately distance readers from the tragic events of their stories, others require the readers to implement this strategy themselves. Following a scholarly survey of the literary absurd, this essay will examine this dichotomy between the absurd as a literary technique and the absurd as a technique employed by readers. Through an analysis of Kafka’s Metamorphosis (1915), Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles, and Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, I will argue that it is salutary to apply this technique to novels that do not apply it themselves. 

In The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms (2008), Chris Baldick defines the absurd as “a term derived from the existentialism of Albert Camus, and often applied to the modern sense of human purposelessness in a universe without meaning or value”[2]. The concept of the absurd emphasizes that humans over-dramatize the trivial aspects of life and highlights the futile quest for meaning and purpose through the presentation of ridiculous situations. 

Some writers anticipated the movement of the absurd in literature as early as the end of the nineteenth century (Cornwell 67). However, this movement truly took shape after World War II (Abrams 1), thus making the absurd a convention of literary postmodernism.[3] Many texts studied in literature classes were written in the Victorian era, which precedes the literary absurd. Therefore, the necessity for absurdist reading becomes apparent in order to reduce the sadness we are often left feeling after reading them. 

In his book, The Absurd in Literature (2006), Neil Cornwell, a literary scholar, explains that the absurd “is born of nihilism, out of existentialism, fuelled by the certainty of death (anxiety, dread and death being the scourge of the existentialist)” (5). Despite the connotations surrounding these philosophies, philosopher Donald A. Crosby suggests that “not everything in nihilistic philosophy” (6) or existentialism, for that matter, “needs be considered purely destructive or negative, because it contains important truths that can be put to positive use” (6). The insight gained from the absurd teaches us about societal issues such as the unrealistic expectations imposed on women and the damaging effects of self-absorbed human nature while also giving us the tools to try to fix them. Furthermore, Crosby’s point allows one to explore the idea that though the term itself deals with melancholic themes, the art that is produced with elements of the absurd is distanced enough from the bleak and nihilistic reality, thus making the absurd an effective technique to detach ourselves from the melancholic aspects of literature. While some might argue that doing this belittles the important subject matter, Cornwell writes that although the absurd, and the nonsense it entails, is humorous at a glance, it is “far from always being completely divorced from any semblance of surrounding reality […], nonsense does tend to interact with society or civilization” (19). The absurd allows readers to find a middle ground between diminishing sadness while still discussing serious topics.

The work of Franz Kafka is often an example of the absurd in literature. Kafka’s writing contains elements of this technique and many other writers have been inspired by his mastery of it (Cornwell 184). Kafka uses the absurd to shed light on important topics while expressing them in a lighter manner. After finishing a Kafka story, in addition to gaining insight on social class, isolation and other important points of discussion, one is not left with the typical sense of dread imparted by most works touching on similar themes. In fact, Kafka’s goal when writing is not to solicit a serious reaction from his readers. Rather, his desired response is a laugh. A popular anecdote, as recounted by philosopher Anke Snoek, states that “Kafka was known for laughing exuberantly when his stories were read aloud at reading evenings with friends – and he was apparently the only one who did so” (3). Kafka being the only one who laughed points to the fact that his works are commonly misread and often perceived to be more somber than he intended.[4]

Benjamin Walter, a philosopher and cultural critic, explains that “there are two ways to miss the point of Kafka’s works. One is to interpret them naturally, the other is the supernatural interpretation” (806). This emphasizes Kafka’s nuanced perspective with his use of the absurd. Readers must find a middle ground between the literal and the metaphorical instead of getting caught up in the sheer absurdity of the writing or its melancholic, existentialist themes. 

Kafka does not want to leave his readers feeling hopeless despite the purposelessness associated with the Existentialism that fuels the absurd. Snoek suggests that his “hope is not a matter of revolution: the way out is not heroic resistance, not a heroic act or active revolution. Rather, it is a very subtle possibility that is often in front of us without our seeing it” (11). This statement perfectly reflects Kafka’s choice to implement the absurd. 

An analysis of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis makes evident the deliberate use of the absurd to diminish the emotional turmoil experienced when reading about Gregor’s situation. For example, when a newly transformed Gregor attempts to get out of bed, he recognizes the absurdity of his situation. While this challenge brings him immense “misery” (Kafka 417), “he [cannot] suppress a smile at the thought of [calling for help]” (Kafka 417). His struggle can be said to evoke the silencing of those who are suffering from mental health issues but at the same time, Kafka adds a lighter perspective by offering a comical image. The fact that the comedy is even recognized by the character himself further shows the versatility of the absurd. 

Another instance of the absurd in The Metamorphosis is when Gregor’s father throws apples at him. The thought of Gregor “shying apple after apple” (Kafka 435) is a funny image. This can be read as a commentary on the ridiculousness of war, as well as a metaphor for the Samsa parents’ imposition of Judeo-Christian and conservative values on Gregor. Since apples are associated with the creation story, they have a religious connotation of temptation and knowledge. Gregor cannot dodge these forceful ideological impositions, which also emphasizes Kafka’s personal stance towards these outdated religious and conservative ideals. Kafka continues to poke fun at religion when he describes Gregor being “nailed to the spot” (Kafka 436). This reference to crucifixion provides support for the fact that his parents have flawed values. On the other hand, however, it can also be seen as a joke. Usually, those who sacrifice themselves are celebrated. In this case, however, after Gregor sacrifices himself by working hard to support his family, he turns into a giant insect and becomes an outcast.[5] In addition Gregor also sacrifices himself by deciding to die rather than continuing to burden his family, yet is reproached rather than celebrated. These instances of the absurd, along with numerous others in this work, prove that its use allows us to gain insight into serious topics such as religion and alienation while still making us laugh.

In Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, tragedy is rampant; however, as previously stated, by reading with an absurdist lens, we can distance ourselves from the sadness. The opening scene in which John Durbeyfield learns of his “ancient and knightly” (Hardy 31) descent, proves a prime example of this possibility. A melancholic reading of Durbeyfield’s encounter with parson Tringham would focus on the importance of social status in rural Victorian England and the suffering of the lower class. In fact, Peng Yuan-yuan and Yan Rao, literary scholars, explain that among many other aspects, “family economic situation and irresponsible parents destined [Tess’s] tragic fate” (74). Moreover, class mobility was virtually impossible during this time, which explains John Durbeyfield’s willingness to grasp onto this newfound part of his identity. He desperately hopes that becoming “Sir John d’Urberville” (Hardy 34) will help him diminish his family’s poverty. His dialect shows a clear lack of education, making it hard for the educated readers to understand. Phrases like “leastwise ‘twddn’ when I was there” (Hardy 34) are almost unintelligible to modern literature students, so much so that teachers have advised us to read passages out loud to interpret the meaning. This implies the inability of the upper classes, or of later readers, to understand the plight of the lower class and reflects the important disparity in the education that these classes receive. In addition, Durbeyfield is portrayed as a “market-nitch” (Hardy 38), further stressing his upsetting circumstances. He is constantly drinking to suppress his troubles, which impairs his power to make his life better. There is a sense of hopelessness that even this seemingly great revelation about their ancestry will have no effect on the family, leading readers to lament the injustice of the D’Urbervilles fall from grace. 

The absurdist reading of this scene would use this sense of hopelessness and find humour in it. John Durbeyfield’s portrayal, although a commentary on the cultural and societal problems of the era, can be perceived as comical. Imagining him drunk, with “his eyes closed luxuriously” (Hardy 38), shouting out his newfound heritage in front of Tess’s peers can be distanced from the underlying hardship it represents because of the humorous nature of the image. Tess’s reaction to her father making a scene can be read as absurd as well: “Her eyes grew moist, and her glance drooped to the ground” (Hardy 38), showing her deep embarrassment. Tess places too much importance on how others perceive her family and herself, and therefore her intensely emotional reaction to something so trivial seems absurd, especially if one has previously read the novel and knows the actual hardships that Tess will face later on.

The dream sequence is another instance in which both a melancholic and absurdist reading coexist. A traditional reading would call attention to the awful double standard that Tess is held to. While Angel is permitted by society to admit that he had relations with someone before Tess, when she explains that she was raped, he says that “forgiveness does not apply to the case! [She was] one person; now [she is] another” (Hardy 232). After this revelation, Angel sleepwalks and carries Tess into a casket. In the process, Angel “imprint[s] a kiss upon her lips” (Hardy 249) and praises her virtue. Tess finds this “consoling” (Hardy 250), which is heartbreaking not only because she still seeks validation from someone who has rejected her, but also because she finds solace in that fact that “did not cast her off, even if in the right of harming her” (Hardy 250). She is willing to be harmed if it means that their relationship will revert back to how it was before she told him about her rape. In reality, Angel is only in love with the idea of Tess as a “pure” (Hardy 240) woman. By placing her in the “coffin” (Hardy 251), he buries the virtuous Tess he fell in love with and, by extension, their relationship. Although it was a love based on ideals rather than the person itself, this is possibly the only positive experience Tess has throughout the novel, so when it ends, readers feel a deep sense of loss and pain. 

The previous statement in itself shows the absurdity of this scene. While this novel is a tragedy, the fact that there are so few positive outcomes for Tess is ridiculous. In addition, the fact that such an elaborate sleepwalking situation could arise is silly, especially since it takes place in Hardy’s realist world. Absurdist readers can also call attention to Tess’s immense amount of faith in Angel despite his horrid betrayal. Angel “inspire[s] her with no sort of personal fear” (Hardy 248) when she is in serious danger since she could fall into the water. The calmness she exudes is almost funny and emphasizes the unrealistic expectations of women in Victorian England; regardless of their own safety, they were meant to serve the men who surround them. This is further shown when Tess feels that drowning would “be better than parting to-morrow to lead severed lives” (Hardy 250). It is absurd that she would rather suffer a painful death than live without him. Tess believes that this falsified relationship with Angel is more important than her own life, showing the human tendency to place importance on the wrong aspects of life. 

Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights is the next example of classic literature that will be examined through an absurdist and traditional lens. In an essay that is a rare instance of literary criticism that does not focus on the more melancholic aspects of the novel, David Galef, a fiction writer and literary critic, explains that in Wuthering Heights, Brontë uses irony in the discourses of Lockwood and Isabella. While Isabella later loses her ironic tone and ability to distance herself from the horrific events of being married to Heathcliff, Lockwood’s ironic way of talking remains throughout the novel (Galef 248). Galef writes that Lockwood, the “only figure capable of remaining apart, like the artist, survives” (249), showing Brontë’s own advocacy for distance from the tragedy. While Brontë already uses irony in her writing, an absurdist close reading of the text offers even more distance that benefits the reader. 

After Catherine Linton’s death, Heathcliff is devastated, exclaiming that he “cannot live without [his] life! [He] cannot live without his soul!” (Brontë 122). He sees her as an extension of himself and has a love for her that defies his savage disposition and his hatred for everyone else. When recounting his feelings on the day of her passing to Nelly, he explains that he “went to the churchyard” (Brontë 209), determined to “have her in [his] arms again” (Brontë 210), essentially planning to dig up her grave. A traditional and melancholic reading of this incident would focus on Heathcliff’s emotional state, calling attention to the immense amount of distress one would have to be in to consider “disturb[ing] the dead” (Brontë 209). Heathcliff describes the graveyard as “solitary” (Brontë 209). This mirrors his state in the wake of Catherine’s death, since she was the only person who treated him as an equal and was able to stomach his crude and unpleasant demeanour. The only way he can survive this loss is by deluding himself into thinking that she is still alive: “if she be motionless, it is sleep” (Brontë 210).  Therefore, regardless of our disgust and horror towards the act that Heathcliff attempts to commit, we commiserate with the lovers who never had the chance to be together and feel badly about the constant cruelty that Heathcliff suffered throughout his childhood that led him to become such an unsympathetic person. 

An absurdist reading, though, would, of course, consider Heathcliff’s mental trauma, but would also call attention to the absurdity of burying the dead and the ridiculousness of Heathcliff’s reasoning. The relative ease Heathcliff has in reaching Catherine’s coffin implies our arbitrary way of honouring the dead. It seems almost laughable that just about any lovesick person could desecrate such a holy ritual with a shovel and physical force. Furthermore, by referring to Heathcliff’s digging as a “labour of agony” (Brontë 210), a comical image is created in the minds of readers. His effort is over-dramatized; he “wrenche[s] desperately” (Brontë 210) and one can also laugh at how easily he gives up on his mission when he “[feels] that Cathy was there” (Brontë 210). The idea that his manic desire could be satisfied by the supposed presence of a ghost shows that this sequence of events can be taken more lightly than a more serious reading would suggest. 

The absurd is a versatile technique that is a staple of postmodern literature. Despite this, it can be applied to works that predate the postmodern period and should be further analyzed in the scholarship on works that do employ it. Through an analysis of Kafka’s Metamorphosis, Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles and Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, I have argued that absurdist close readings are beneficial because they allow readers to distance themselves, healthily, from the tragedy of the types of novels that have become classic literature. 

Works Cited

Primary Sources

Brontë, Emily. Wuthering Heights. 1847. Wordsworth Editions Limited, 1992. 

Hardy, Thomas. Tess of the D’Urbervilles. 1891. Ed. John Paul Riquelme, Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1998.

Kafka, Franz. “The Metamorphosis.” 1915. The Story and Its Writer. Ed. Ann Charters. Boston:  Bedford, 1995. 414-447. 

Secondary Sources

Abrams, M. H., and Geoffrey Galt Harpham. A Glossary of Literary Terms. Cengage Learning, 2012. 

Baldick, Chris. The Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms. 3rd ed. Oxford University Press, 2008.

Benjamin, Walter. Franz Kafka: On the Tenth Anniversary of his Death. 1934. Selected Writings, Volume 2. Trans. Rodney Livingstone and Others. Ed. by Michael W. Jennings, Howard Eiland, and Gary Smith. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press: 1999. 

Cornwell, Neil. The Absurd in Literature. Manchester University Press, 2006. eBook Academic Collection.       

Crosby, Donald A. The Specter of the Absurd : Sources and Criticisms of Modern Nihilism.          SUNY Press, 1988. eBook Academic Collection.

Galef, David. “Keeping One’s Distance: Irony and Doubling in ‘Wuthering Heights.’” Studies in   the Novel, vol. 24, no. 3, 1992, p. 242-51. JSTOR Journals.

Snoek, Anke. Agamben’s Joyful Kafka : Finding Freedom Beyond Subordination. Bloomsbury   Academic, 2012. eBook Collection.

Yuan-yuan, Peng, and Yan Rao. “An Analysis of Tragedy of ‘Tess of the D’ Urbervilles”.’” English Language Teaching, vol. 11, no. 7, Jan. 2018, pp. 71–75. ERIC.

Works Consulted

Ingham, Patricia. Language of Gender and Class : Transformation in the Victorian Novel.            Routledge, 1996. EBSCOhost

Joudrey Thomas J. “‘Well, We Must Be for Ourselves in the Long Run’ : Selfishness and            Sociality in Wuthering Heights.” Nineteenth-Century Literature, vol. 70, no. 2, 2015, p.      165. JSTOR Journals, doi:10.1525/ncl.2015.70.2.165.

Kariko, Abdul Aziz Turhan. “Humorous Writing Exercise Using Internet Memes On        English   Classes.” Lingua Cultura, no. 2, 2012, p. 188. Directory of Open Access Journals, doi:10.21512/lc.v6i2.406.

Myburgh, Albert. “Spaces of Death in Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights.” Journal of Literary Studies, no. 1, 2014, p. 20. Gale Academic OneFile, doi:10.1080/02564718.2014.887615.


[1] Lowe, Chad. Literary Movements. Fall 2018.

[2] Accessed on the online Oxford Dictionary Database.

[3] Lowe, Chad. Literary Movements. Fall 2018.

[4] Bellon, Liana. Integrating Activity, Winter 2020. 

[5] Bellon, Liana. Introduction to College English, Fall 2018. 


“Perpetual Female Entrapment:” An Analysis of Identity in Mrs. Dalloway and The Bell Jar

By Anastasia Kolokatsis

The Modernist movement is renowned as being a period of tension and change. This atmosphere is translated into the literary works of the time, in which authors reflected on the disillusionment brought on by the events of World War 1. They wrote openly about their collective anxiety and helplessness concerning these topics and, particularly, the female modernist writers were concerned with making gender a focus in the movement. Many of their works reflected the alienation felt by many women living in a patriarchal society. The female protagonists in Sylia Plath’s The Bell Jar (1963)  and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (1925) both experience the negative effects of living in a male-dominated society, where their individuality and identity is repressed due to the harsh constructs imposed on them. In different ways, the novels suggest that Dalloway and Greenwood come to internalize these stereotypes, which then leads to their psychological demise. In Plath’s novel, Esther feels isolated from the rest of society because of the limitations imposed on her as a woman, which ultimately contributes to her rapidly declining mental health. In Woolf’s work, Clarissa performs the role of a conventional woman to remain consistent with what society expects of her, however, she also fights her own internal battle as she feels the need to keep parts of herself concealed. Through an analysis of both novels and a close reading of the way female characters are presented in the modernist period,  I will argue that these characters have internalized the concept of being an ideal woman which has, in turn, stood in the way of their ability to uncover other aspects of their identities. However, while Clarissa performs the role of the traditional wife and throws parties to distract herself from the isolation and anxiety that she experiences, Esther’s internalization of the concept of the ideal woman manifests itself in the form of depression as she slowly detaches herself from reality. 

The Modernist movement emerged as a response to a universal sense of helplessness felt by the population because of World War 1. The disillusionment brought on by the war contributed to the creation of a completely new genre of literature (modernism) and many literary works employed a darker tone when expressing the detrimental effects that the war had. Other novels, such as Mrs. Dalloway, focused on the aftermath of the war and the impact it had on the masses. Virginia Woolf’s work is set in post-war British society and depicts the ways in which everyone remains deeply affected by the war and the changes that emerged because of it. The remarks about the degree to which society has changed are made by the character Peter Walsh, who returns to England from India for the first time since the war has taken place and comments on how “people looked different. Newspapers seemed different” (70), and how overall, morals and manners had shifted. Clarissa’s own anxiety comes out as she reflects on the people in her society as a whole by saying that “we are a doomed race, chained to a sinking ship”  (Woolf 76).  The memory of the war brings her a great deal of discomfort and as Judith P. Saunders, an author and researcher, mentions, “the war is presented throughout as an undercurrent in her thoughts: it provides occasion for her meditations on early deaths and wasted lives” (Saunders 143).

Alex Zwerdling, a literary scholar, says that “Woolf is deeply engaged by the question of how the individual is shaped (or deformed) by his social environment, by how historical forces impinge on his life and shift its course, by how class, wealth and sex help to determine his fate” (69), therefore, it is reinforced that the social system plays a crucial role in standing in the way of women who are trying to discover aspects of their identities that may not correspond with the norm. At first glance, it seems that Clarissa is in a place of privilege because she is a part of the governing class, however, her position in this societal category works to her disadvantage because people who belong to this group repress their true instincts and emotions even more. In fact, members of the upper class “turned away from the depth of feeling and towards a conventional pleasantness or sentimentality and frivolousness” (Zwerdling 72); this repression of emotion is yet another reason as to why Clarissa’s place in society does not allow her to uncover other aspects of her identity.  In his article, Zwerdling includes a passage from Woolf’s diary entries, in which she describes her intentions of writing her novel as an attempt to “criticize the social system, and to show it at work, at its most intense” (69).

Therefore, while many changes occurred within the world of literature, some other things remained static and unaltered, such as the role of women in society. Although everyone felt collective anxiety during this movement, women experienced higher levels of frustration and confusion because they lived in a society deeply embedded in patriarchal norms and conventions, which imposed countless limitations on them. E. Miller Budick, a literary scholar, said that some of the major themes explored in works written by women were “madness, powerlessness, betrayal and victimization” (872), issues that both Plath and Woolf write about in their novels. In fact, the symbol of the bell jar in Plath’s novel is used to relate to the notion of powerlessness and madness caused by the internalization of societal norms, seeing that anywhere she goes, Esther feels as though she is “sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in [her] own sour air (Plath 185).  Unlike Mrs. Dalloway, The Bell Jar is set in the period following World War 2; for a brief period of time prior to the war’s end, women felt a measure of freedom by taking over men’s roles in the workforce while they were on the frontlines and thus, felt angry when they lost their jobs once the men returned. Experiencing this slight amount of freedom motivated women to question themselves as well as their role in society[1]. They were seen as inferior to men and a successful woman was defined by the terms of the “Cold War Ideology” set by Vice President Nixon, who promulgated the idea that housewives (the ideal women at the time) were proof of the superiority of the United States over the USSR and proudly stated that women should not work because they belong in the house.  Kate A. Baldwin, a literary scholar, says that The Bell Jar was written “during a period of heated political debate about the future of Americanness” (22) and there are many moments in the novel which point to “a kind of female domestic incarceration” (23), meaning women were bound to live within the confines of their roles as traditional housewives. If a woman reverts from the traditional stereotype, she is seen as both a disgrace and “unamerican[2],” a theme that is explicitly touched upon in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. Choosing to adhere to the stereotype of the housewife was considered a patriotic act, and people like Esther who view marriage as “a dreary and wasted life for a girl” (Plath 84) are instantly labeled as unstable and insane; as a result, literary scholar Marjorie G. Perloff remarks that every woman “in some measure wears a mask” (509) and the way they present themselves is “simply a stylized or heightened version of the young American girl’s quest to forge her own identity” (509).

Esther is trapped in a theatrical society in which she has been forced to internalize the characteristics that constitute an ideal woman, contributing to her progressive detachment from reality as well as her rapidly declining mental health. Esther’s depression is reactive[3], meaning it does not necessarily have as much to do with her supposed mental instability but instead, could have a better correlation with the toxic social construct in which she lives in. Literary scholar Kate A. Baldwin says that The Bell Jar is a novel with an “uncanny sense of perpetual female entrapment” (21) because Esther, who is a woman living in the 1950s, represses her emotions in order to conform to a pre-designed model; by failing to relate to this idea, Esther expresses that she feels “dreadfully inadequate” (Plath 77). The symbol of the bell jar is the most prominent example of confinement and entrapment in the novel; it is both a metaphor for her suffocating mental state as well as for society altogether, since she is unable to break free of societal expectations and conventions. The bell jar stifles her completely and it is the ultimate obstacle that stands in the way of her quest for identity. We can get a sense of how the bell jar affects Esther’s point of view on life when she explains that “To the person in the bell jar, blank and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is the bad dream” (Plath 237). Though she tries to distract herself, Esther still lives with the perpetual worry that “the bell jar, with its stifling distortions” (Plath 241) will descend again and obstruct her from healing her inner fragmentation and uncovering her identity. Putting this idea to the forefront, Perloff says that “the central action of The Bell Jar may be described as the attempt to heal the fracture between inner self and false-system so that a real and viable identity can come into existence” (509), emphasizing the idea that Esther’s inner fragmentation is the result of her inability to embrace and even discover her true self due to the pressure of having to conform to the traditional role of the woman.

 Moreover, Esther’s “recovery” from her mental illness can also be seen as yet another attempt to comply with traditional stereotypes because the hospital itself represents the social order of the outside world, and the electroshock therapy she receives is meant to bring her back to an acceptable state of being; this idea is highlighted by Diane S. Bonds, a literary scholar who supports the idea that Esther’s recovery “merely leaves [her] prey to defining herself unwittingly and unwillingly in relation to all that remains to her: culturally- ingrained stereotypes of women” (49). Esther’s environment is toxic and contributes to “the self-annihilating distortion of Esther’s basic instincts, rendering them voiceless cries of help” (Budick 875), which then leads to her adopting a distorted image of herself. There are multiple occasions in the novel where Esther gazes at herself in the mirror and fails to recognize her reflection, one of them being when the nurse hands Esther a mirror and she says “It wasn’t a mirror at all, but a picture” (Plath 174), and refers to her reflection as “the person”(Plath 174); her inability to recognize her own face demonstrates how substantial the divide between her mind and her body has become. However, there are several more instances where we can notice this divide as “she repeatedly confronts her own unrecognized or distorted image in the mirror, mistaken on one occasion for “a big, smudgy-eyed Chinese woman”(16), and “ looking like a “sick Indian” (92)” (Bonds 50). Her foreign relationship with her reflection indicates the slipping grasp she has on her own identity and emphasizes her detachment from reality.

 Before being subject to electroshock therapy, Esther expresses her fear of it, notably in the very beginning of the novel when she references the Rosenbergs. When talking about the electrocution of the Rosenbergs, she says “the idea of being electrocuted makes [her] sick,” (Plath 1) but at the same time she “couldn’t help wondering what it would be like, being burned alive all along your nerves” (Plath 1). Esther already feels detached from reality and wonders if getting electrocuted will help her become happier and more in touch with what society expects of her, therefore “her musing is not merely a response to the electrocution of the Rosenbergs but to her own growing sense of alienation from the cultural demands and images of women with which she is daily bombarded during her guest internship at Ladies Day” (Bonds 51). She knows that she “should have been excited the way most of the other girls were, but [she] couldn’t get [herself] to react” (Plath 3) because she did not resemble these women, who embody traditional female characteristics of the time, and thus realizes rather quickly that she is disconnected from this ideal, leading her to continue the process of internalizing the concept of the ideal woman until the point of insanity.

Clarissa Dalloway’s internalization of the concept of the ideal woman prompts her to perform the role of the traditional wife, attempting to adhere to the standards that society has imposed on her and thus impeding her from acknowledging her true identity. Although Clarissa seems to adhere perfectly to the stereotype of the ideal woman and performs the role of the “perfect hostess”(Woolf 7), this comes at the expense of suppressing her true self to fulfill what this ideal demands and therefore, Shannon Forbes, a literary scholar and professor, emphasizes that we must “distinguish between the role Clarissa performs and her split, fragmented self” (Forbes 39). Her desire to perform this role stems from her concern with appearances which has been ingrained in her by the society in which she lives in; Vereen Bell, a novelist, suggests that “she frets constantly over what people in society must think of her, and this anxiety underlies her concern over the success of her party” (Bell 97-98), further explaining the pressure she feels to throw elaborate events. Hence, Clarissa preoccupies herself with the idea of living up to the standards of the ideal woman and “[cares] too much for rank and getting on in the world” (Bell 74) because she is aware that she would not be viewed as successful if she behaves as her true self within that “world.” Internally, Clarissa is aware that she is merely performing this role and knows that there is more to her than what she allows people to see, which is why “every time she gave a party she had this feeling of being something not herself” (Woolf 166) and her restraint from revealing too much of herself makes her seem as though she has a “coldness” or “impenetrability” (Woolf 166) about her when in reality, she is just guarding herself and “performs the role to the extent that it consumes her.” (Forbes 39)

Furthermore, Clarissa’s identity is defined by her marriage to Richard Dalloway. Woolf opts to choose the title of her novel for a reason because by introducing Clarissa as Mrs. Dalloway, she is reinforcing the idea that her identity is contained within the role of Richard’s wife and in this way, “Clarissa is absolutely defined in terms of the role she has chosen to perform.” (Forbes 39) By not being seen as a complete entity when she is not associated with her husband, Clarissa feels even more disconnected from herself and is once again, incapable of discovering who she is when she moves away from her role as Richard’s wife. She feels a great deal of isolation when she is confronted with this idea and says that “she had the oddest sense of being herself invisible, unseen; unknown” (Woolf 10) and “this being Mrs. Dalloway; not even Clarissa any more; this being Mrs. Richard Dalloway” (10). The fear of losing herself becomes more acute and it is clear that this thought causes her a great deal of anxiety; although she attempts to mask her fear by distracting herself and hosting a party, James Sloan Allen, a cultural historian and critic, emphasizes that Mrs. Dalloway is “an excursion into the psyche of an often joyous, yet emotionally fragile and circumstantially constrained woman.” (587) Clarissa is also “bound to the traditional female role of socialite” (Allen 589) and has an eagerness to conform to the ideals that men have defined for her, to the point where it has reshaped her own perception. She perpetually internalizes these stereotypes and she questions “did it matter that she must inevitably cease completely?” (Woolf 9) With this in mind, Saunders says that “her question becomes an outcry against biologically imposed limitation of gender” (141).

Additionally, Clarissa represses her sexuality and conceals her sexual orientation because otherwise, she would not properly adhere to society’s standards. When recounting on her years spent at Bourton, she reminisces on her romantic encounter with Sally Seton and considers that moment to be “the most exquisite moment of her whole life” (Woolf 35). Although her feelings for Sally are pure, she is unable to pursue the relationship any further because she is aware that women of her class are expected to marry men and repress their own desires and ambitions. As a result, author James Schiff states that “Clarissa Dalloway, whose sexual orientation would appear to be largely towards women, ends up in a rather chaste, heterosexual marriage that crushes her soul” (368). The way that Clarissa describes Sally is proof of her devotion to her, especially when she says that “Sally’s power was amazing, her gift, her personality” (Woolf 33) as well as remembering “the purity, the integrity, of her feeling for Sally” which was “not like one’s feeling for a man.” (Woolf 33) Clarissa is unable to fully discover and explore this important aspect of her identity because she has internalized the heteronormativity of her society and thus, she is “consumed by guilt at [her] repressed homosexuality” (Bell 93). Therefore, Clarissa’s sexual repression is yet another instance of the harmful consequences of internalizing the notion of the ideal woman. 

         In conclusion, both Esther and Clarissa are negatively affected by the social construct in which they live in because they have been forced to internalize stereotypes that constitute an ideal woman, such as the concept of the housewife, and ergo, neglect their true selves. As a result, they struggle to uncover other aspects of their identities in fear of failing to comply with these traditional standards, which leads them to endure varying degrees of psychological distress. Clarissa copes by repressing her sexual identity as well as performing the role of the traditional wife and hostess, while Esther’s response to internalizing the concept drives her to a point of extreme mental distress and a disconnection from reality.

[1] This idea comes from Marie-Thérèse Blanc’s lecture in the course “Literary Movements” (Fall 2018)

[2] This idea comes from Marie-Thérèse Blanc’s lecture in the course “Literary Movements” (Fall 2018)

[3] This idea comes from Marie-Thérèse Blanc’s lecture in the course “Literary Movements” (Fall 2018)

Works Cited

Primary sources

Plath, Sylvia. The Bell Jar. New York, Harper, 2013.

Woolf, Virginia. Mrs. Dalloway. New York, Harcourt, 2005.

Secondary sources

Allen, James Sloan. “‘Mrs. Dalloway’ and the Ethics of Civility.” The Sewanee Review, vol. 107, no. 4, 1999, pp. 586–594.

Baldwin, Kate A. “The Radical Imaginary of ‘The Bell Jar.’” NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction, vol. 38, no. 1, 2004, pp. 21–40.

Bell, Vereen M., and Vereen Bell. “Misreading ‘Mrs. Dalloway.’” The Sewanee Review, vol. 114, no. 1, 2006, pp. 93–111.

Bonds, Diane S. “The Separative Self in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar.” Women’s Studies, vol. 18, no. 1, Oct. 1990, p. 49.

Budick, E. Miller. “The Feminist Discourse of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar.” College English, vol. 49, no. 8, 1987, pp. 872–885.

Forbes, Shannon. “Equating Performance with Identity: The Failure of Clarissa Dalloway’s Victorian ‘Self’ in Virginia Woolf’s ‘Mrs. Dalloway.’” The Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association, vol. 38, no. 1, 2005, pp. 38–50.

Perloff, Marjorie G. “‘A Ritual for Being Born Twice’: Sylvia Plath’s ‘The Bell Jar’.” Contemporary Literature, vol. 13, no. 4, 1972, pp. 507–522.

Saunders, Judith P. “Mortal Stain: Literary Allusion And Female Sexuality in ‘Mrs. Dalloway in Bond Street.’”Studies In Short Fiction, vol. 15, no.2, pp.139-145.

Schiff, James. “Rewriting Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway: Homage, Sexual Identity, and the Single-Day Novel by Cunningham, Lippincott, and Lanchester.” Critique, vol. 45, no.4, pp.363-382.  

Zwerdling, Alex. “Mrs. Dalloway and the Social System.” PMLA, vol. 92, no. 1, 1977, pp. 69–82.



Dawson Library Daydream

By Talia Kliot


Even the plates have character in the country. I imagine that someone meticulously painted on the blue and yellow flowers, each petal a careful stroke. The pancakes are piled up and steam seeps out of their fluffy pores, the smell of browned edges wafting through the fresh, country air. If I make you pancakes, you know I love you. 

The napkins don’t fly away in the light breeze and neither does the copper bird that holds them down. The glass table ripples like the surface of a lake when it is just windy enough to sail, but we don’t think about the lake on our day off. The cutlery is not placed straight but it has a charming, nonchalant allure. “Have you ever seen such a perfect table?” Half the fun is setting up. 

I sit back in the flimsy plastic chair, shielded from the noon sun by the gazebo. Raspy voices of old friends meld with the silky silence of no responsibilities. The boys come up the wooden stairs that are older than them, but far more sturdy. They came over last night too, but nothing happened; thank goodness. We will stay there for hours, in old camp t-shirts and pyjama shorts, eating until the plates are as empty as when we began. 

These are the moments I remember when I float too close to the arched ceiling in my Dawson library daydream.


Speak to Me in Clichés

By Talia Kliot


Tell me you’re a kid in a candy store

When you gaze deep into my soft brown eyes.

Remind me to always think hard before

My sharp tongue lashes out to criticize. 


Tell me that you’re falling head over heels. 

We’ll run away; no time like the present. 

Yes, I woke up and reinvented wheels

On a summer’s day that smelled so pleasant.


While diamonds are formed under pressure,

My birthstone is ruby and I can’t read

Between the lines, ’cuz I’m blind like a bat.

Can’t play my cards right since they got declined. 


So if you love me, please don’t set me free;

Chained to fresh language is where I long to be. 


Broken Bones

By Sophia Canzonieri

It all just feels like broken bones,
Joints and teeth.
I wish the fracturing of my skull

Would allow me to be pretty.
The blood will seep through my pores.
I will finally be yours.

Divinity is not a perfect goal,
I know that, I know.
But if that’s the only way to feel beautiful,
Then that’s the way to go.

Hey I’m spilling my guts here man
They’re all on the floor
And as you play in the puddle,
Watching it seep through your fingers
Maybe then you’d finally remember,

In the end the meat will decay.
The bones will win.
I will finally be whole

The Decomposition of a Flower

By Sophia Canzonieri


Maybe I am withering

Who are you to say

It’s hard to understand

The things you can’t say

When you’re trying not to vomit

It all just comes, bubbles up

I thought I was hardened

Like the calluses on my feet

But really I am a fragile pansy

Too much of a wussy pussy cat

To tell you the things I need to know

“You’re not the only one here who’s helpless”

I feel the need to remind you

But would you care

If you stepped on

My already trodden flower?

Then will I be allowed to speak?

To let you know the things I need

Who’s to say?

Maybe I am withering.



By Benjamin Wexler

The sea monsters: these are the great fish in the sea, and in the legends, this refers to the Leviathan and its mate, for God created them male and female, and He slew the female and salted her away for the righteous in the future, for if they would propagate, the world could not exist because of them.                                                     Rashi, on Genesis 1:21

         The leviathan was blue. As blue as the beach you would never go back to. Blue like the heavens imagined by a painter with pigment from a fancy Afghan rock. Blue as your mouth after eating those popsicles that come in unmarked, transparent plastic. The blue shone through the plastic of the tank.

         The leviathan was thirty-five millimetres tall, or it had been the last time she measured it. At its shortest width it was two centimetres. However, trying to apply any accurate measurement to the creature was…complicated. It undulated in the water, tendrils curling and unfurling with lazy purposelessness. Of course, she was a biologist. She had no qualms about sticking a dead thing to a board with pins. In fact, some of her happiest childhood memories were of doing exactly that, and she had neatly colour-coded pins for the purpose. But whether the tendrils should be pinned with green for legs, grey for tentacles, or pink for phalluses seemed irrelevant, given that the creatures somehow kept wriggling. They did not respond to drugs, or oxygen deprivation, or any other banal method of assassination. They did not turn up desiccated on the shore. Some chucklef**k had even tried putting one under a hydraulic press, but the creature popped right back into shape once it could. Only those who were serious about killing had succeeded, and Josephine still suspected the shriveled grey corpses she had seen were just waiting to reanimate.

         “I wish I wasn’t a scientist.” Jo pulled away from the tank.

         “Hmm. Why is that?” Amy was busy on her notepad.

         “Because it would be so easy to just look at that thing and say…‘you know what? I’ve got it. It’s the semen of some virile God who got horny over the sea and couldn’t bother to wait until land appeared.’ ”

         “I think it would be unscientific of you to rule that out entirely,” said Amy.

“Well then scribble it down quick and we’ll pursue it tomorrow, because I’m sick of being a scientist.”

“You go ahead. My notes need patching up, and this is ten times quieter than the apartment. I was going to stay for another hour or so.”

“No you’re not,” said Jo, removing her lab coat and turning around with it neatly folded in her arms. “Come on, when was the last time you ate out?”

Amy blinked in the blue glow of the tank and did not move.

“Besides, I’m scared to leave you alone with that thing. Who knows what the fuck it’s going to do next.”

“You’re paying.”

“No way! I’m doing this for your benefit!”

“Sure you are. At least you have a gainfully employed roommate.”

“Kat is already pulling way above her own weight. To be fair, that girl is tiny.”

Jo told the campus bus terminal to take them to the downtown water. Their shuttle would arrive in –five– minutes, bring them to their destination in only –fifteen– minutes, and compromise –zero– passenger’s journeys. A late time of night, so there wasn’t much competition.

They hopped out a block above sea level, and then walked up the nearest dock towards the long barge. A sign proudly proclaimed one-hundred years on the Halifax water and fifty floating, the best vegetarian food in the city. The meals bore little resemblance to any live organism, and happily, none to wriggling blue ones. Jo paid under the agreement that drinks were on Amy the next time they had a real night-out. If they ever had a real night-out.

“Why do you think we call them leviathans?” asked Amy, in between crunching on noodles.

“Probably because of the enormous amount of time and thought wasted on them.”

“Funny. Seriously, don’t you have any idea? This has been your focus for much longer. And then I’ll stop talking about them, promise.”

“I don’t know. I always figured it was ironic. Small thing. Call it leviathan. Funny.” She contemplated their pad thai. “The world is disappearing up its own ass.”

Jo took one fortune cookie on the way out, Amy two. Amy’s first recommended she Seize the day. You do not know what will happen tomorrow. For all the teasing in the world she would not open the second, which she always saved for home. Because, she explained, the fortune was hers but she did not know it yet. If she waited a few hours her future would still be hers, and she could enjoy its unexpectedness while being comforted by the assurance of an orderly universe.

Jo’s opened neatly in half. There’s always a bigger fish.

The city was darker than she had ever seen it, and the ocean glittered with dots of the bluest blue as it lapped at the shore. She remembered when the high tide still had beach to swallow. As they passed over the dock, they let the papers slip through their fingers and into the crack between plates, where the day’s fortunes clogged and trickled into the murky water.


The Bowl is Upside Down

By Arueny


My roommates are funny.

  Sometimes they do this thing,


voices — run out of voice,

cupboards — arise from nothing, even the

floor — runs out of space,  but

Now my soup is stuck on the ceiling. 


A funny house made them that way;

Stick doors and stone walls

That want to breathe you out, like a paper bag in turbulence.


When they looked away, that one time,

The coal window that was meant to protect our eyes

Had aged itself into a diamond.

Now the sun is blinding — to everyone.


The Society of Frogs

By Tanis Korzekwa


The office is messy, file cabinets that line the south wall have the occasional random, half-open drawer. There’s a carpet on the floor in the center of the room with various stains on it. Its colors are so faded its old pattern is virtually unidentifiable. RANDAL, 39, Darwin’s frog, brown suit with gold pinstripes, sits at his desk, which lies in the southwest corner of the room, pondering at an old picture of a younger Randal and some friends which sits against a lamp among the clutter on his desk. A knock comes at the door which resides in the north. Randal adjusts himself, he dips his hands in a small bucket of water under his desk and begins rubbing his hands and forearms, covering them with water.  


Come in!

The door creaks open and in steps ELIZABETH, 27, strawberry poison-dart frog, long black dress, red satin gloves, holding a suitcase in her hands. She closes the door behind her and leans against it.


So what can I do ya for?

Elizabeth begins walking towards the desk.


Well, I was hoping you could find someone for me.

She opens the suitcase and pulls out a picture of ARTHUR, 38, northern red-legged frog, the picture has him wearing a white vest and a caramel shirt. She puts the picture on the desk.


Arthur Pond, mayoral candidate, 38, well-liked by enough of the right people.


He’s been gone for three days and so far the police haven’t been able to find anything substantial enough to say whether or not he was killed or kidnapped.

Randal looks at the picture a little more and then turns to the one against his lamp. He looks at Arthur in the picture.


I understand that you two knew each other so I was hoping-


If it’s been three days why wasn’t this in the papers?


We didn’t want to take any risks. Art is doing pretty well in the race thus far and him suddenly disappearing could throw off the voters.


Damn politicians.


I see…so who are you exactly, how’d you come across this?


I’m his secretary, last one to see him.

Randal takes a moment and stares at Elizabeth.


So you want me to find him because you think that the cops’ll pin it on you for an easy out then?

Elizabeth chirps a few times in astonishment.


Relax I just needed to take care of that possibility, most of the time stuff like this ends with the secretary getting got.


She’s not as dry minded as the last dart he had trailing behind him.


So you’ll look into this then?


Yeah I’ll take your case miss-


Elizabeth Strawberry-Dart, I go by Liza.


Might I ask how a dart frog such as yourself gets a secretarial job with a politician?


I did some interning for Art and his old business partner Adrian Wood a few years back. He called me when he decided he was running for office.

Randal nods. Elizabeth stands up after checking her watch. Randal stands up after her.


I am afraid I’m running late, thank you for taking my case, Randal.

She bows and chirps once. Randal responds the same. Elizabeth then leaves.


My first course of action was going to be checking in with the cops but Liza had mentioned Adrian which is a name I hadn’t heard in a while but one that rang a big enough bell to look into.

Randal begins to gather his things to leave, putting on a coat, hat, and taking a spray bottle with him as well.


So I gathered my things and left.

Randal leaves, locking the door behind him. Text on the door reads ‘Randal Darwin – Private Investigator.’