by Jacob Allen
In its barest form, a house is little more than a chasm—a shell enveloping an empty center. It seems, though, that when humans take up dwelling in a house their most private selves begin to reverberate off of the walls of the enclosure, leaving, the traces and remnants, both physical and psychological, of life. These traces, as they seep into the walls and as they give texture to empty space, may change a house into a home.
The door that closes and completes the home creates a sort of polarity: The first side of this polarity is the prison: the home may lock in, keep, and hold. The second, and the one most discussed here, is the virgin: the home is able to lock out and remain unpolluted. For nineteenth-century art critic John Ruskin, this virgin image emerges most lucidly amidst talk of the “Angel in the House.” Here, Ruskin paints the home’s virginal qualities as its most cardinal:
This is the true nature of home—it is the place of Peace; the shelter, not only from all injury, but from all terror, doubt, and division. In so far is it As not this, It is not home; so far as the anxieties of the outer life penetrate into it, and the inconsistently-minded, unknown, unloved, or hostile society of the outer world is allowed by either husband or wife to cross the threshold, it ceases to be home (Ruskin 1615).
Ruskin’s definition of home is here one free from all contagion and externality. What must be asked in this case, is what Ruskin believes inhabits the home if it is not anything from the “hostile society of the outer world.” What can grow in these circumstances? How can any home be free, completely, from these germs? It could be that the “true home” does not exist in this world according to Ruskin’s perceptions. Ruskin’s enforcement of this chastity and his close association of it with the home help him enforce the normative behavior modeled by the Angel in the House. While the Angel may subtly follow a woman everywhere, more subtly reminding her that she is enclosed, Ruskin illustrates this point blatantly: “Wherever a true wife comes, this home is always round her. The stars only may be over her head; the glowworm in the night-cold grass may be the only fire at her foot; but home is yet wherever she is” (1615).
On the one hand, this constant force field allows a woman to walk the earth protected. She is always within a home, and, according to Ruskin, as a home is no longer such once contaminated by outside forces, the “true wife” must be incorruptible. Even when she is outside, home extends around her and makes her impervious to external forces. She is always internalized. This internalization doubly binds the woman to a “purity” that is only ascribed to her from outside sources; she becomes a prisoner—invoking the other side of the home polarity.
Some years after Ruskin’s outline, a woman emerges, taking up battle with the Angel whose power still looms. Virginia Woolf recognizes the defensive, virgin-like agency of the Angel, noting her utmost quality was that of chastity: “Her purity was supposed to be her chief beauty – her blushes, her great grace” (“Professions” 2273). Purity was the ultimate value of the Angel and the blush of shame and humiliation it seems was the central tool in the maintenance of this quality. What Virginia Woolf fails to realize is that this purity-upholding quality of the Angel had rooted itself so deeply in her that she was unable to properly kill the Angel, an accomplishment she assigns herself. It seems Woolf was only able to rip off a wing; she claims, when speaking about two great struggles in her professional life that “the first – killing the Angel in the House – I think I solved. She died. But the second, telling the truth about my own experiences as a body, I do not think I solved” (“Professions” 2275).
When we look into this matter of truth and bodies, however, we find Woolf precariously ignorant of the Angel’s presence. Watch as she begins to discuss a matter of such psychological primacy that she must shift her narrative out of the “I” that makes up the rest of the section, to a “she” that emerges only in this important paragraph. She then further distances herself from this urgent truth by separating out the imagination of the “she” into an “it”:
It had sought the pools, the depths, the dark places where the largest fish slumber. And then there was a smash. There was an explosion. There was foam and confusion. The imagination had dashed itself against something hard. . . she had thought of something, something about the body, about the passions which it was unfitting for her as a woman to say” (“Professions” 2275).
Woolf had found herself clambering towards the ultimate hole—the very nexus of ambiguity. Yet she was locked out of the secret room. She found something impassible there. She was restrained by humiliation. She could not ruin her own purity. She had attempted to penetrate into the utmost depths of self and truth but had been stopped in the muddy underwater by a concrete figure; perhaps it was the murk of the deep water that caused her to swim back towards the surface, unaware that the hard thing which barred her way looked, beneath its barnacles, like a winged creature.
We find in this the beginning of the tragic reality of the Angel in the House: though it locks the woman in the house, so too does it lock her out of this house. Woolf had killed half the Angel and, in doing so, had established her publicity—her intellectual repute keeps her in the public eye to this day, but half of her domain, the dark, underwater throne was still guarded by the Angel. Purity is the Angel’s chief beauty, and it was this chastity that barred Virginia Woolf from completion of the perfect descent into truth. That is the hardness against which she battered. We find that the home must encapsulate the woman at all times in order to secure her virginity—she must be free from contaminants, as Ruskin sees it. Yet she must be denied full access to the estate. She cannot wander freely, and Woolf saw this, yet somehow failed to recognize it as part of the Angel’s function. Meaning, she had recognized that the Angel performed the prison function, but the more dangerous virgin remained unseen. She knew the Angel locked her in, but she did not know that it was the same creature locking her out.
Woolf appropriately addressed this problem under the title of “A Room of One’s Own” where she explained that, for most women contemporary to her time and previous, “to have a room of her own, let alone a quiet room or a sound-proof room, was out of the question” (“Room” 2271). We see here that, though home was the woman’s domain, and she was arbiter of it, her constant surveillance within it was a must. Neither man nor Angel trusted her there. She cannot be touched by the outside world, but this the forces that be were willing to concede so long as they might keep her from being contaminated by something else—something worse. The Angel let herself be half-killed so that Woolf did not discover the more dangerous truth, a truth which the Angel herself, standing behind Vir
ginia, illuminates in a whisper: “Never let anybody guess that you have a mind of your own. Above all, be pure” (“Professions” 2274). Here we have stumbled upon a great secret of the virgin: If a woman must be selfless—or mindless—to be pure, then we must conclude that impurity arises from the self. Ruskin’s pure home must be protected from the outside world, but so too must it be protected from the inside world. There is dirt, we find, inside of Woolf, but the Angel has wrapped her concrete figure so thickly around Woolf’s own room—her own privacy—that she is unable to ever truly know what grows in this central-most soil.
Knowing this, we must turn to other sources to discern the contents of the secret and innermost room. What happens in the depth Woolf was banished from? Ralph Waldo Emerson, in the comforts of his own private room provides us with an answer that Ruskin seems to hint at. In his essay “Nature,” Emerson highlights the fact that, “a man needs to retire as much from his chamber as from society. I am not solitary whilst I read and write, though nobody is with me” (2). Who is this “nobody” that interrupts Emerson’s writing? Could it be the “chamber” itself, or perhaps the writer himself—a fractured piece of his personality?
Emerson provides only one further piece of information in his sudden disclosure of this unseen watcher: “if a man would be alone, let him look at the stars. The rays that come from those heavenly worlds, will separate between him and vulgar things” (2). What Emerson has unwittingly established in this statement is that the reason he was not alone in his chamber was because of a vulgarity—Emerson also paints this vulgarity as in some way connected to his being. The stars “separate between him and vulgar things.” This separation between him and vulgarity was, we must remember, a manner of achieving solitude. The vulgarity that is somehow connected to him keeps him from being alone in the chamber. It seems, by this logic, that the chamber must defend, harbor or connect the vulgar “nobody” with Emerson—as it is only under the light of the stars that the separation can be completed. The home, or more specifically the private chamber, for Emerson is protector, if not creator, of the vulgarity. Is this the very same room that Woolf was locked out of? Is this vulgarity the same “biggest fish” she sought in her dive?
The Angel, in her submerged, statuesque purity seems to, with her skin, encapsulate a center of pure filth: a chastity belt built in the shape of a woman. Emerson agrees with the Angel in that his own imagination, his mind, and his private room all attract vulgarity, just what the Angel is attempting to stifle as she warns Woolf against the dangers of one’s own mind and personality.
Finally, if we are to attempt a closer look at this odd horror that the Angel was summoned to protect against, that Emerson must bathe in starlight to exorcise—we may find a clue in Woolf’s seemingly tangential conclusion in “A Room of One’s Own.” Woolf begins to, as she discusses the value of woman having a room of her own, muse on the subject of androgyny. When this mental androgyny is attained, she explains, “the mind is fully fertilized and uses all its faculties” (“Room” 1025). This cryptic statement, and its parent concept of mental androgyny, may be the explanation for the Angel’s vigorous restriction of the self as a means of maintaining chastity. It may also give us the face of the vulgar “nobody” who kept Emerson company when he was alone—the presence of this character in Emerson’s private room may also serve to show that Woolf’s musing was no tangent.
Jacob Allen is a recent English graduate from the University of Maine at Augusta. He resides in central Maine as a builder, piano player, and amateur astrologer.
Photo credit: EDWARD HOPPER. – ‘House by the Railroad’. Oil on canvas, 1925.. Fine Art. Encyclopædia Britannica ImageQuest. Web. 8 Jun 2016. http://quest.eb.com/search/140_1647272/1/140_1647272/cite