Call her Mary Beton, Mary Seton, or Mary Carmichael—but definitely call her Mary. So, what's up with Woolf's fictional narrator?
After a preamble about how hard it is to write about Women and Fiction, Woolf launches into the story that will take up most of the essay: "Here then was I (call me Mary Beton, Mary Seton, Mary Carmichael, or by any name you please—it is not of any importance" (1.2).
Wha?? How could the name of the protagonist not be important?
Well, for one, Woolf is calling attention to how fiction is, you know, fake. But more to the point, Mary could be anyone—anyone with a large bookshelf and an axe to grind (sorry, Virginia) about women's opportunities.
But we do know a few things about her.
When we meet our protagonist, she's hanging out on the campus of Oxbridge, a fictional university not-so-subtly combining the names of Oxford and Cambridge. She thinks some deep thoughts, has some run-ins with guys who want to keep her off the grass and out of the library, has a tasty lunch, and then moseys on over to the women's school Ferhnam to have a bad dinner. After that, she researches her question at the British Library, consults her bookshelf, and then looks out the window.
And that's it. That's what she does in the story that Woolf tells. It doesn't exactly sound gripping, does it? That's because the intrigue of the story isn't in what she does (like watching two people get into a taxicab), but the mental voyages these small actions send her on.
Protagonists are supposed to change over the course of a book. They grow a little, learn a few lessons, and maybe even hug it out at the end.
So does Mary Beton change? In a sense, she's really only a mouthpiece for Woolf's lecture, a fictional hanger for Woolf to air her thoughts on. You wouldn't think a clothes hanger could change, right?
But she does. Let's check it out: in the British library, she finds herself pitting one sex against another, angry at the powerful men who insist that women are inferior to them. And by the end of the lecture, she's concluded that the only way for a woman or a man to create a truly great work of art is to put aside those differences, to allow the male and the female parts of their brain to come together.
After watching a man and a woman meet on a street corner and get into a taxi, she realizes that "perhaps to think, as I had been thinking these last two days, of one sex as distinct from the other is an effort. It interferes with the unity of the mind" (6.3). If the mind itself has two sexes, then the whole boys-versus-girls mentality is just so middle school.
We really have to admire Mary's determination to get to the bottom of this puzzle of Women and Fiction. She's not satisfied with simply saying that things are very hard for women and that men are to blame. Instead, she comes up with her own theory of writing that shows a way for both sexes to improve their writing. How's that for working together?
We're not saying that she's perfect, since she does make fun of herself for being fanciful (imagining men and women humming poetry at luncheon parties) and a little ADD (doodling a picture of the evil Professor von X instead of doing diligent research at the library).
But you know what? Those two flaws actually help her make her argument. Mary's weird fantasy about humming poetry leads her to think about how World War I and the women's rights movement have affected the relationship between men and women. And that idle doodling helps her realize that these men haven't written coldly scientific books about how women are inferior. They're angry, so they're obviously untrustworthy (3.11-12).
Our thought? If Mary Beton is supposed to be Virginia Woolf, the she's painted a pretty flattering portrait of herself.