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Throughout a wide variety of cultures in history, women have had to endure an inferior status to men. Many women and feminists have risen to combat or oppose this inequality, and Virginia Woolf was no exception. In order to convey her disapproval for the underlying attitude toward women’s place in society, Woolf portrayed a situation in which women were deprived of the pleasures of expensive foods. During her visit to a university, Woolf witnessed two vastly different meals. The extravagant feast was reserved for men, while the women received a far less glamorous meal. Through her usage of details, syntax, and imagery, Woolf contrasted the privileges of men with the bare necessities granted to women.
Through her recollection of specific details, Virginia Woolf recounted the stark contrasts between the meals that were served for the men and the women’s colleges. While the men received “partridges, many and various, with all their retinue of sauces and salads,” the women received beef, more specifically, “the rumps of cattle in a muddy market.” The men also had a confection for dessert which was so elegant that “to call it pudding and so relate it to rice and tapioca would be an insult.” On the other hand, the women had to swallow prunes that “even when mitigated by custard, are an uncharitable vegetable.” Even the beverages that the individuals in this university were allowed to consume depended on their gender. The men’s wine glasses were repeatedly refilled throughout the course of the meal, yet the women were only granted a water jug which was “liberally passed around.”
Not only did the content of Woolf’s sentences depict the differences between the treatment of males and females during this time period, her sentence structure also suggested that Woolf was outraged by the discrimination against women. Contrary to the eloquent, complex sentences found in the passage which depicted the meals of the men, the passage which portrayed the dining conditions of the women utilized short, simple sentences. Woolf opened the scene by stating that, “It is part of the novelist’s convention not to mention soup and salmon and ducklings as if soup, and salmon, and ducklings were of no importance whatsoever, as if nobody ever smoked a cigar or drank a glass of wine” among the men. On the other hand, Woolf introduced the passage about the ladies’ meal with a blunt statement: “Here was my soup.” Futhermore, the men were described in elegant sentences which confirmed that they were all “going to heaven… in other words, how good life seemed, how sweet its rewards, how trivial this grudge or that grievance, how admirable friendship and the society of one’s kind as lighting a good cigarette, one sunk among the cushions in the window seat” after the meal had concluded. Conversely, for the women, Woolf simply stated that “the meal was over” and the women all dispersed from the dining hall. The lengthy sentences exuded a sense of contentment, while the abrupt sentences used to describe the women’s meal gave off a sense of frustration and and anger.
In addition to the usage of syntax, Woolf also utilized imagery to provoke the realization that even though women and men received similar food at the university, the quality of the men’s food surpassed the quality of the ladies’ food. Although they both received sprouts, the men’s sprouts were described as “foliated rosebuds, but more succulent,” meanwhile the women’s sprouts were “curled and yellowed at the edges.”
Even the physical presentation of the meals varied vastly for the men and the women. The men’s soles were exhibited in a “deep dish over which the college cook had spread a counterpane of the whitest cream.” In contrast, the women received a transparent soup that would have shown the pattern on the plate beneath it, but the plate was plain. Furthermore, the men received an aesthetically appealing confection “which rose all sugar from the waves” for dessert. However, the dessert, supposedly the most enjoyable portion of the meal for the women, was depicted as prunes, “stringy as a miser’s heart and exuding a fluid such as might run in the miser’s veins who have denied themselves wine and warmth for eighty years.”
Overall, sexism and the inferior position of women has been so deeply ingrained within societies worldwide that they continue to affect the decisions and treatment of women today. However, writers such as Virginia Woolf and the feminists of this generation strive to condemn this belief. In choosing to juxtapose the dining conditions of men and women at a university which she traveled to, Woolf attempted to convey the fact that women were deprived of privileges in the most basic area of life: the food necessary for living. Through her usage of details, syntax, and imagery, Woolf portrayed the radiance of the meals at the men’s college compared to the bleakness of the meals at the women’s college. Through her portrayal of a basic situation, Virginia Woolf succeeded in raising concern for the double standards and gender inequalities that have been prevalent in society.
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