. If women had no existence save in the fiction written by men, one would imagine her a person of the utmost importance; very various; heroic and mear; splendid and sordid; infinitely beautiful and hideous in the extreme; as great as a man, some think even greater”( Shakespeare’s Sister, Woolf). Unfortunately, the greatness and extreme heroic acts in stories of women before the 1800’s, exist only within black inked pages. Women should be portrayed realistically.
Shakespeare’s Sister written by Virginia Woolf examines the reality of these women’s lives versus fictitious popular belief. She references professor Trevelyan’s History of England, and outlines the reality woman before the 1800’s faced. In doing so, Woolf seeks to raise awareness in the general populace by describing the conditions women before the 1800’s lived, and how society actually portrays them. She utilizes ethos, logos, and pathos in order to illustrate to the reader the importance of this misconception. Throughout her text Woolf establishes that the line between fiction and reality in society has been blurred when it pertains to the lives of women before the 1800’s. Emphasizing the fact that in fiction, women are portrayed as noble queens dominating their husbands. While in reality they were considered as no more than property owned by their husband. History rarely mentions women from the Elizabethan Era, occasionally, an individual adorned with the title of queen or great lady is mentioned.
Nevertheless, women of the middle class are never discussed. They are a mystery left unsolved in history, now just a shadow of an idea for the imaginative minds of fiction writers to distort as they please. Woolf uses appeals to ethos to make the reader understand and trust her point of view. There are several examples of this throughout her article. She describes her research from a book titled History of England by Professor Trevelyan. In the book, under the position of women, lists women’s role in marriage. Women were not allowed a choice in who they married and wife beating was a common practice. She formulates her ideals through her extensive research and status as a woman, which speaks of her ethical credibility.
Through these means she was able to develop an understanding of women’s role in fiction and their role in society. Woolf describes the lack of knowledge on how women lived as deplorable. She goes on to state “I am not sure how they were educated; whether they were taught to write;..
. how many women had children before they were twenty-one; what, in short, they did from eight in the morning till eight at night” (Shakespeare’s Sister, Woolf). Through her extensive research one might think Woolf would know the answer to all these questions, however this further proves that little is known about woman before the 1800’s, save for in the world of fiction. In her article she includes the information she has gathered through her research, illustrating the small amount, and allowing the reader to view her article as credible. Her quest to find what the average life of a Elizabethan woman entailed, and her findings speaks to the ethical value of her judgement in this area.
Woolf’s familiarity with the lives of women in fiction and actuality raises her credibility discussing why fictions view of women is a problem. This is crucial to her article as her goal is to emphasize the dangers of viewing women as they are in fiction. Through analogies, similes, and comparison examples she appeals to pathos, while still keeping her statements informative. She states “Fiction is like a spider’s web, ..
. when the web is pulled askew, hooked up at the edge, torn in the middle, one remembers that these webs are not spun in midair by incorporeal creatures, but are the work of suffering human beings, and attached to grossly material things, like health and money and the houses we live in” (Shakespeare’s Sister, Woolf). This simile is particularly effective as it appeals to the understanding of human desires and how they are reflected in people’s daily actions. Referencing suffering and the human tendency to be attached to material things allows readers to recognize these qualities in themselves. In addition, it depicts that it is often human nature to be entranced by works of fiction, being that they can escape their own imperfections, forgetting that what they are reading was written by an imperfect person. Later, she describes the fallacious writing of an “old gentlemen” an imperfect human being himself, “…
who declared that it was impossible for any woman, past, present, or to come, to have the genius of Shakespeare…
He also told a lady who applied to him for information that cats do not as a matter of fact go to heaven…”(Shakespeare’s Sister, Woolf) . “How the borders of ignorance shrank back at their approach! Cats do not go to heaven. Women cannot write the plays of Shakespeare” (Shakespeare’s Sister, Woolf). This comparison at first glance seems ridiculous, in consequence, it is akin to a slap in the face for the reader and immediately draws their attention. Her comparison of these seemingly unrelated views brings to light the dangers of groundless opinions.
Emphasizing the fact that most of society still considers parts of fiction to be fact. Continuing with her fact versus fiction theme she writes ” It was certainly an odd monster that one made up by reading the historians first and the poets afterwards —a worm winged like an eagle; the spirit of life and beauty in a kitchen chopping up suet. But these monsters, however amusing to the imagination, have no existence in fact”(Shakespeare’s Sister, Woolf). Through this simile Woolf is illustrating that in history fact and fiction cannot coexist, if they did it would be as absurd as a worm with the wings of an eagle. The ridiculousness of this winged worm creature brings out the senselessness of valuing fiction over reality.
This is an emotional subject, sparking uncomfortable feelings, as it involves facing reality rather than harboring fictitious beliefs, and thus her use of blunt analogies is very effective in arguing the need for women to be portrayed realistically. Her use of pathos forces the reader to see women as they are and realize the misconceptions they once had of women. She appeals to logos by making the reader more receptive to the logic behind the importance of valuing fact before fiction. The article is full of information on the role of women before the 1800’s. It shows how the details of these women’s lives are unknown, however it is illogical to fill in these details with pure fiction. She points out how women are portrayed in fiction versus how they were actually viewed before the 1800’s as “imaginatively she is of the highest importance, practically she is completely insignificant.
She dominates the lives of kings and conquerors in fiction; in fact she was the slave of any boy whose parents forced a ring upon her finger.” ( Shakespeare’s Sister, Woolf). The sharp contrast between fact and fiction is brought to the attention of the reader as Woolf describes fact versus fiction and shows the unreasonableness of confusing one for the other. She uses logos to show the reader the importance of having an understanding of reality without letting fiction distort the truth. Women need to be portrayed realistically in order for fiction not to become fact. Woolf effectively argues the importance of the actual facts by comparing them to fictitious beliefs. In this article she uses multiple examples of the differences and refers back to a history book throughout so as to give her facts credibility.
Her analogies and similes help the reader see the dangers of mistaking fiction for fact more clearly. While her lack of knowledge about the daily lives of women before the 1800’s serves as evidence that these fictitious beliefs are indeed dangerous misconceptions. Multiple comparisons she makes also illustrate the illogicality of mistaking fiction for reality or filling in the missing details with fictitious stories. By appealing to ethos, logos, and pathos, Woolf effectively: convinces the general public the reality of women’s role before the 1800’s, raises awareness of the missing details of their daily lives, illustrates the differences between how women are portrayed in fiction versus how they lived in reality, and emphasizes the importance of not mistaking fictitious beliefs for concrete facts.