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The Public and Private Spheres in Mrs. Dalloway and The Color Purple

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The ‘public’ and ‘private’ spheres are often held as two separate entities, both representing opposing positions of social freedom or restraint. Whereas the public realm is the more conformed-to and socially hegemonic of the two, the private is associated with an unseen process of identification, allowing private thoughts to remain free. In spite of this, the authors of Mrs Dalloway and The Color Purple attempt to reconcile the two spheres, developing initially private thoughts into the public realm in their texts by removing personal privacy altogether. Although the public advancement of restricted characters demonstrates the authors’ success in moving the focus from private to public, some concerns arise as to whether reconciliation is truly achieved or whether it even can be. Whilst both authors view the shift into a public society as the path to liberation, the violation of privacy opens up both the authors’ and characters’ personal opinions to public criticism. The complete destruction of the private sphere – and what it represents – then appears as the only way to progress into the public realm, as Walker’s and Woolf’s characters adhere to the conventions of the public sphere in order to release themselves from the alienation of the private sphere.

In an attempt to reconcile the public and private realms, Woolf violates the mental and personal privacy of her protagonists to integrate her characters into a public society that is reliant on sociability and union. The free indirect discourse of the narrative removes the privacy of thought, as it provides no separation between individual thoughts and vocalized speech, instead portraying the narrative as a shared voice. When an important car passes characters in the street, “nobody [in the crowd] knew whose face had been seen”; the use of “nobody” aligns the group as sharing one perception and integrates her protagonist, Clarissa Dalloway, into society’s voice when she “comes to the window”. It brings her individual character to be lost as she enters into a shared narrative. The preceding question wondering whose car the group saw – “Was it the Prince of Wales’s, the Queen’s, the Prime Minister’s?” – is then constructed as a communal query, which removes the privacy of individual thought to place Clarissa immediately within the public sphere of thought. A mental violation is created, shifting all private affairs – such as Septimus’ ultimate expression of mentality that he is said to share with Clarissa – to public affairs, which reflects the feeling of Woolf at this time. Whilst private thoughts regarding her depression were concealed within her diary, where she writes, “My depression is a harassed feeling”, this illustrates how she felt attacked by society, as she mirrors in Septimus’ publicized mental illness. Therefore, an indication to Woolf’s ability to reconcile the public and private spheres can begin to be perceived as being hindered by her own alienation from a public society.

In comparison, Walker’s breach of mental privacy in The Color Purple initially appears as a positive way to transfer the otherwise hidden voice of her main character into the public sphere as part of Celie’s mental healing. However, similar to Woolf, concerns arise regarding the violation of privacy being the only way to let her protagonist’s voice exist within society. The use of an epistolary narrative allows the voice of Celie to be transferred through another mode of communication, as she is speaking to “nobody but God” due to her father’s threat to her before the narrative starts to remain isolated from society. As the reader of Celie’s private letters, it is us who force the voice of Celie to be publicized, consequently reconciling her with the public sphere once more, which is reflected by the progression of the plot, where Celie begins “writing to [Nettie] instead of God”, which could be seen as Celie finding a harmony with a public society. However, this simultaneously implies that the reader breaches her mental privacy in order to achieve public unification too, as Celie’s private letters were not constructed to be viewed, as we see in the confessional tone that Walker uses when Celie expresses opinions, such as “I don’t never git used to it”. Although Walker has stated that, “If knowledge of my condition is all the freedom I get from a ‘freedom movement’, it is better than unawareness”, advocating the black female voice in America, her approach to reconciling this unheard voice with the public realm leads to a violation of personal privacy, which, like Woolf, does not successfully achieve reconciliation.

Throughout Mrs Dalloway, the protagonist’s shift into the public realm demonstrates the way that a social emancipation, and not solely the abolishment of mental and personal privacy, is used to reconcile the private with the public. Woolf portrays Clarissa’s liberation through her use of empowering language when introducing her. Clarissa is written as “an indescribable pause” and “a suspense (…) before Big Ben strikes”, with the importance of her position being reflected through the emphasized anticipation in the words “pause” and “suspense”, which is seen to figuratively pause the time of “Big Ben”. As the main focus of the story, Clarissa’s social position is important in the narrative to illustrate the reconciliation of the previously private role of women with the post-war public position that they rise into. Her importance as a woman against the pressures of society was important to Woolf, who knew how important it was for women to write themselves into the public world. The post-war society of the 1920s saw many women trying to remain in a work process that no longer needed them after the war had ended. Woolf constructs a society that is pressuring Clarissa into the private realm in contradiction to her protagonist’s public social position, as opposed to occupational position. Social emancipation does not successfully liberate women into a public realm founded upon business, which the women have been alienated from once again, therefore it suggests that the public and private are still antagonized and not fully reconciled.

Walker’s establishment of a public position for her female protagonist appears to be more emancipating than Woolf’s, as the liberation from the novel’s oppressive male figure, Mr.___, allows Celie to reconcile her private ambitions with the public realm. The female characters’ destiny is usually shown in opposition to man and society, pre-determining their life to be contained within a suppressed private sphere. Celie’s speech, “I’m pore, I’m black, (…) a voice say to everything listening. But I’m here,” portrays a diversion from this restricted private bracket as a move into public activism, with “I’m here” asserting the supremacy of speech and a voice opposing the pattern of female suppression in society. Walker’s attempt at reconciling the private with the public can therefore be seen as a consequence of women’s emancipation. However, Walker’s exertion can still only be defined as an attempt at reconciliation, as Celie’s newfound affirmation-of-self places her individual voice within a public patriarchal society at the expense of her independent womanhood. If her liberation is a response to men, with Mr.___’s actions being the cause of her speech, the activist voice of Walker that appears in Celie’s character does not appear as reconciling private thoughts with the public. Instead, her voice, still concealed within her letter, remains as opposed to the public patriarchal society. Both authors also shift the private into the public in an attempt at reconciliation through broadcasting the private sphere of the family home into society.

In Mrs Dalloway, Woolf exploits family life as a public and social affair, removing the privacy attached to family life and suggesting once more that destruction of privacy surpasses reconciliation. The character of Miss Kilman is important in the novel to recognize the decay of the family unit, as the absence of parental figures leaves Clarissa’s daughter in the hands of a “prehistoric monster”. The faded description of her “crumbled” appearance emphasizes the poor state that social reconciliation has brought upon the family and implies that dragging the two realms into reconciliation had led to this consequence. Furthermore, due to the demands of Clarissa’s social position, Miss Kilman adopts the mother-figure role for Clarissa’s daughter, Elizabeth, turning her into a pawn in their struggle for social dominance. The way Clarissa reminds her daughter about the party “with violent anguish” portrays how destroying family privacy leads to competition and violent tendencies, which does not successfully reconcile the public and the private. Snaith notes how Woolf found difficulty harmonizing her own public and private life as two separate entities. Woolf’s self-sacrificing nature in order to achieve Bloomsbury publication denied her freedom within her private family endeavors, which is reflected in Clarissa’s establishment of her social position compromising her relationship with Elizabeth. Therefore, whilst shifting the family position into the public sphere is portrayed as an attempt at reconciling the two spheres, the opposite effect occurs and privacy diminishes.

Walker explores how family life is essential to public establishment in a way contrasting to Woolf, as the completely private information of Celie’s children led to the lack of family existence, yet family became re-established after the whereabouts of her family became publicized. Celie’s discovery of Nettie’s letters, and the knowledge they granted her of children containing a “resemblance” to her, emphasizing a physical connection, provide a reconciliation of private information with public knowledge. Shifting family into the public sphere can then be suggested as a successful reconciliation in The Color Purple. However, the novel’s archetypal family unit appears disjointed, possibly due to the mayor’s public position, implying that a reconciliation of family privacy and the public sphere has not been achieved. Similar to Elizabeth in Woolf’s novel, Eleanor Jane turns to an outsider, Sofia, who has been granted access to the family through their public establishment, for emotional maternal support, as she “felt something” for her and not her own mother. This suggests that reconciling private family life with the public realm eventually destroys the foundations of a good family unit due to the public connection with society. Walker herself depicts this as the change in social culture of generations, suggesting how the archetypal family portray a family more integrated with society and constructed for public criticism, whereas black women are living the legacy of their suppressed grandmothers and are breaking through social barriers, such as maintaining a family in a public society, that have not yet been destroyed. The inevitability of a family in the public sphere being without privacy demonstrates the way that public and private reconciliation can never be achieved, despite the authors’ attempts to do so.

Overall, both authors attempt to reconcile the public and the private realms throughout their novels, yet the extent to which they successfully do this is questionable. Although they often manage to remove the social restriction placed upon their characters, it is usually at the expense of the private sphere, which is destroyed during the authors’ liberation of their protagonists. The attempted reconciliation manages to create a new version of the public sphere to replace the private, as the voice that characters find through removing privacy opens them up to criticism. Therefore, whilst reconciliation of the private and the public is attempted, the violation of privacy during public progression and pre-construction of the two separate realms stops reconciliation from ever being truly achieved.

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The Public and Private Spheres in Mrs. Dalloway and The Color Purple. (2018, April 18). GradesFixer. Retrieved February 1, 2023, from
“The Public and Private Spheres in Mrs. Dalloway and The Color Purple.” GradesFixer, 18 Apr. 2018,
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