‘The Legacy’ by Virginia Woolf: Short Story Analysis
‘The Legacy’ is a modernist short story by British writer Virginia Woolf. It is a story about how the wife of a well-known politician commits suicide to reunite with her lover. The lover is only known as ‘B.M.’ Later on in the story, we realize that B.M. was the brother of the politician’s wife’s secretary. He committed suicide because the politician’s wife was not ready to leave her husband and acknowledge their relationship. When the politician’s wife hears about his suicide, she leaves letters and gifts to her friends, and then one day steps off the curb and is run over by a car. She dies intending to reunite herself with her lover. The politician’s wife’s name was Angela Clandon. This is Angela’s story that her husband, Gilbert Clandon, reads about from her diaries’ pages. The story is narrated through numerous consciousnesses that Virginia Woolf was known for using in her prose. We drift from mind to mind trying to decipher the reason why Angela had to die. The story is suspenseful because of the excellent narrative skill of Virginia Woolf, who incidentally committed suicide herself.
The story begins on a calm note. We don’t seem to think that there could be anything fishy in Angela’s death until Gilbert is told by the secretary Sissy that he would need her soon. Gilbert is a person who had always put himself and his wants before everything and everyone else. For him, he was more important than his wife or even his wife’s secretary. When Sissy mentions that he will need her to clarify specific points, he self-indulgently presumes that she was probably in love with him. After reading the story in its entirety, we realize that a patriarchal set-up existed in Angela’s and Gilbert’s world. He had always taken center stage in their lives. Gilbert was fond of his wife. He indulged her as one would indulge a pet rabbit, but he did not respect her as a thinking individual with needs and wants of her own. Even when she dies, he merely thinks that there was nothing suspicious about the accident. He never once thought that his wife would think of committing suicide. At the end of the story, when Gilbert realizes she did precisely that, he is angry, in a rage, and trumped for once in his life. Angela had committed suicide to reunite with her lover B.M. and escape from Gilbert, who did not care about her.
We see the feminism of Virginia Woolf shining forth simplistically. Woolf is a great plot twister and a narrator par excellence. She manages to draw our attention to frivolities like the pearl brooch, Sissy’s statement, Gilbert probably having an excellent relationship with his wife et al. By doing so, Woolf makes us forget the mysterious circumstances mentioned at the beginning about Sissy’s brother’s death or accident. Gilbert’s good-natured behavior fools us at the initial stages that we are calmed into a sense of serenity when he picks up to read the green leather-bound diaries of Angela. We realize then that Gilbert was nothing but a self-conceited misogynist who treated his wife like a collectible. He couldn’t believe that there was a possibility that she could not have been happy with him, living in his large home all by herself, being his showpiece. Using diary entries, Woolf shows how Angela transforms from an innocent and naïve woman into an intellectual woman with her own mind and needs. Gilbert is startled at her audacity to fall in love with a socialist or communist sympathizer whom Angela notes by his initials, B. M. Gilbert had not been attentive to Angela and had remained absent most of the time, giving talks and speeches in different parts of the country. As he reads the diary, Gilbert realizes that Angela felt incomplete and useless with nothing concrete to do in his mansion. She wanted to help society, so with his permission had started doing charity work at the East End of London. It was there that she met B.M., the socialist or communist sympathizer. They fell in love and ultimately committed the ultimate sacrifice for their love.
Gilbert was more than just a misogynist; he was not even a real politician. Notice in the text how he mentions that he hated the simple way Angela would dress while doing her social service at the East End. Notice that Gilbert always dressed immaculately and only gave speeches to the rich and the elite. He cannot detect the obvious in his personal life because he is blind to his faults. He never respected his wife, and sadly, neither did he love her.
On the other hand, B.M. did not genuinely love Angela, nor did he emancipate her. Angela only manages to make a shift from one patriarch to another. She depended on Gilbert, and now on B.M. It seems like Angela had no mind of her own and always wanted to be guided than think for herself. Ultimately, she does think for herself, but that proved to be her last thoughts in this world. She chose B.M. over Gilbert and committed suicide by purposely stepping off the curb. The driver did not get a chance to pull up. It was apparent to the driver that the action was purposefully done, but Gilbert was still blind to that fact until he read Angela’s diaries.
B.M. is a remarkable though very vague character. He is down-to-earth, idealistic, well-read, and though a communist sympathizer, he valued his heart over his ideals for a social revolution. We know he is a genuine, down-to-earth individual because he shakes hands with the charwoman in Angela’s home. He did not know one did not shake hands with charwomen. Both Gilbert and Angela notice the handshake. B.M. was idealistic, for he dreamed of a better tomorrow for England, where there would not be people like Gilbert hogging most of the wealth and limelight. B.M. dreamed of a communist future for England. He was well-read and even shared Karl Marx’s book ‘The Coming Revolution’ with Angela. Note that there is no such book penned by Marx, but it is echoed in his varied socialist literature. B.M. shares the book and his views with Angela not because he looked at her as an equal, but because she was someone who absorbed everything he said, was a good listener, and who he thought he could mold into a future communist sympathizer. We are aware that he was not successful in that respect because Angela sticks by her husband’s views and had arguments with B.M. on socialist thought. B.M lastly was not a dedicated Communist, leftist or socialist, because he was madly in love with Angela and was ready to die for her. One sees the romanticism in his ideals of true love and stubbornness in his behavior. As Angela in no way could drift away from Gilbert, B.M. threatened to kill himself, which he ultimately did.
As he reads these jottings about B.M. and his wife, Gilbert keeps on making guesses about the man his wife loved. He keeps on defending himself, saying that if only Angela had confided in him instead of B.M., she would have been the wiser for it. However, that is ironic because, as we know, Gilbert was never around for Angela. Yet, he can’t bear the fact that B.M. came to his home, loved his wife here, and forced himself onto her when she tried to stand by her marriage to Gilbert. He can’t bear the idea because Gilbert hated to lose, and Angela and B.M. had proven that he was a loser in this game called love.
Concerning the title, there are many legacies in the story:
- Angela’s legacy of a pearl brooch for Sissy is a decoy for us readers inserted by Woolf to drive our thoughts away from the obvious.
- Angela’s 15-volume green leather-bound diaries were her material legacy to her husband Gilbert, the man who was never there for her.
- Angela’s gifts of necklaces, rings, and Chinese boxes for her friends before her death.
- B. M.’s legacy to Angela in the form of his death, which ended the soft spring of her little romance.
- Angela’s legacy to Gilbert of her fidelity to B.M. telling Gilbert indirectly that she cared more for her lover than him. By this act, she drifted forever away from Gilbert.
The story ends with Sissy divulging to Gilbert on the telephone that B.M. was indeed her brother. There is a possibility that Sissy knew everything about the affair but kept silent because she was loyal to Angela. She and Gilbert had lost their loved ones. However, Sissy was thinking about how cheated Gilbert would feel and tried to show solidarity with him. On the other hand, Gilbert proves to be a proud politician who had been trumped by his wife, whom he treated like a cute pet.
I enjoy reading Virginia Woolf’s short stories and novels. It is sad that she committed suicide and was taken from us so early. I have a lot of non-fiction books about her life, which I hope to read soon. They are all in boxes in my office-cum-writing hut, along with 9,000 of my other books. I have a modest collection of around 31,000 books, and the number is growing. If you want to read more about my life in books and with books, you can check out my memoir on my products page. It’s called Scenes of A reclusive Writer and Reader of Mumbai; try it and let me know what you think. I hope to read and review more short stories by Virginia Woolf soon. It was a pleasure to read and analyze this one.
If you are interested in book reviews, book analysis, short story analysis, poems, essays, essay analysis, and other bookish content, you can check out my blog insaneowl.com. If you are interested in purchasing my books, you can check out the products page on my blog. Happy reading to you always!
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