Social Background of Virginia Woolf

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      Introduction: The influences of environment, social, political, cultural as well as intellectual are supreme on man. Naturally no writer can escape such influences, as he or she is also a product of the age in which he or she is born and bred. To understand the works of a writer, specially those of a novelist, we must have a clear understanding of the times in which he lived and worked, as it is her novel which reflects the time-spirit to a far greater extent than other art forms.

      The Effect of Rapid Industrialisation: In England, by the last decade of the nineteenth century there was a complete breakdown of the agrarian way of life and economy. The year 1880 was a landmark in the social and literary history of England. An era of rapid social change was ushered in. The change was to be noticed in every sphere of life. The increased urbanization and industrialization brought in their wake various problems. There was a housing shortage, over-crowding, increase in crime and vice and a rapidly increasing ugliness. There was also a considerable fall in the standard of sexual morality. City slums raised their ugly heads in all directions, Taboos and public opinion on sex were no longer able to keep under control sexual promiscuity in a crowded city life. It led to some healthy reaction. The Victorian ethics of competition and money-relationship had to give place to a new concept of social responsibility and morality. A new concept of the welfare state emerged. The state or society was considered to be responsible for education, health and the well-being of its citizens. Though private morality took a nose-dive, the sphere of social morality expanded.

      Rationalism and Traditional Values: A blind faith in traditional values slowly gave way to a scientific spirit and rationalism. This led to a questioning of accepted social beliefs and conventions. Traditional religious ideas and notions were shaken by skepticism and agnosticism. In the Victorian era also there was much criticism of traditional beliefs, but the writers of that age, like Dickens or Thackeray, never challenged the very fundamentals, the very basis of their social and moral order. But by the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century there came on the literary scene writers like Shaw, Wells and Galsworthy who started criticizing the very basis of the existing social, economic and moral system. The common man was perplexed as this marked a wholesale criticism of the existing order from different angles and points of view, often opposite and contradictory. The common man was at a loss to know what to accept and what to reject.

      The New Psychology: Power of the Unconscious: It was Freud who first emphasized the power of the unconscious to affect conduct, The breakdown of accepted values resulted in an increased introvertism with the individual's withdrawal into his own shell. Freud declared that human beings are not so rational as they make themselves out to be. He pointed out that intellectual convictions were based on a rationalization of emotional needs. According to him, the conduct of human beings is not all guided and controlled by the conscious; it is, in fact, at the mercy of the force lying buried, deep within the sub-conscious and the unconscious. Then came Jung and Bergson who carried Freud’s formulations to their logical conscious. Thus more and more emphasis is being laid on the study and assessment of human behavior.

      Changed Attitude Towards Sex: The epoch-making ideas of Freud and his followers had far-reaching influence on the moral attitudes of the 20th century significantly in matters of sex. According to them, repressed sex instincts are at the root of much neurosis and other signs of abnormality. And Freud’s theory of ‘the Oedipus Complex’ has really caused a sensation. A major theme of modern literature is the study of unconscious, as the intellect is no longer regarded as the means of the true and real understanding of the human soul; instead the emphasis is placed on feeling and emotion. Modern psychology has boldly asserted that man is not to be considered as self-responsible or rational in his behavior. The theory of ‘the Oedipus Complex’ has had a profound impact on private and family relationship. Gone were the Victorian taboos on sex and there is a free and uninhibited discussion of sex.

      Break-up of Old Family Relationships: The notion of male superiority has suffered a serious blow and assessment of the relative roles of the sexes has already changed. The woman has come into her own. The old authoritarian pattern in family relationships is no longer operative. And there is a re-orientation of parent-child relationship.

      First World War and its Impact: It is impossible to overestimate the effects of the First World War in any attempt to assess the prevailing tone of the contemporary world-picture of the nineteen-twenties. The credit of the old world was falling. The war suddenly and violently brought the collapse of the whole edifice. It increased tension, frustration and neurosis. It strained the authoritarian pattern of family relationship. It could be described as a revolt against authority. Political and religious skepticism, cynicism and general disillusionment became the order of the day. The interest shifted from the ‘extrovert’ to the ‘introvert’, from outer to the inner. Economic depression, unemployment, overpopulation, acute shortages have increased the hardships of life. And the enormous storms and strains of life caused nervous breakdowns. To the younger survivors of the war, Gertrude Stein had said: ‘‘You are a lost generation.” And to T.S. Eliot the world became indeed a ‘Wasteland’ and its denizens ‘The Hollowmen’. The hero in the inter-war novels is rather an ‘anti-hero’ to whom things happen. He is a neurotic, a cripple, emotionally if not physically. Moral and ethical values were no longer accepted to be absolute. Philosophy and Metaphysics began to show keen interest in the study of the nature of man. To Freud man is a biological phenomenon and to the Marxist, he is an outcome of economic and social forces. The Victorian ideas about man and his essential rationality were thrown overboard.

      Socialism and Internationalism: The Victorian notion of the supremacy of the Whites also had to be changed. It was replaced by the ideas and ideal of socialism and internationalism. Nationalism lost its aureole and imperialism came in for a great deal of criticism. The idea that the relations between the nations should be based on equality and mutual respect and not on the political subjection and imperial supremacy began to prevail. Gone were the days of Kipling, and Tennyson, their place was taken by great modern writers like T.S. Eliot and Forster to propagate the new thoughts arid ideals.

      In Quest of New Value and Systems: The disintegration of faith and traditional beliefs was almost complete. But a thoroughly disillusioned society is fundamentally a disintegrated society, a mere aggregate of individualities. So man was in quest of new values and systems.’ And this led writers, like D.H. Lawrence, to seek refuge from uncertainty and perplexity in some mystic religion of blood. T.S. Eliot is found searching for this pattern in the close similarity between the myths of different peoples, and the European literary tradition. And on the other side, Marxism with its emphasis on class war provided many with the vision of a new society which will replace the present one in the not too distant future.

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