Virginia Woolf's essay on Mary Wollstonecraft in the Common Reader is essentially, an active continuation of the experimental method on which Mary Wollstonecraft based her life. "The high-handed and hot-blooded manner in which she cut her way through life" is in essence what Woolf is trying to replicate in this essay, in particular through her method of writing which is based very much on the stream of consciousness style. Woolf here attempts to vividly reconstruct the thoughts and ideas on which Wollstonecraft not only based her life on, but by which she was influenced for her own writing. Her writing is certain, yet a work in process. The purpose of the essay, is to convey to the common reader, that the legacy of Wollstonecraft's writing lives on in Woolf and also perhaps to obscurely suggest to the reader that the role of nature and inevitability is decisive in the actions of a woman despite how certain in her convictions of the female equality she may be in her writings.
The essay begins with Woolf referring to the French Revolution; an event which she argues "took some people and tore them asunder" . By doing this and also by quoting Wordsworth's 'The Prelude' Woolf is asserting a contemplative narrative tone, she references Austen, Lamb and Brummell in order to create comparisons between them and Godwin, Barlow, Holcroft and Wollstonecraft. She is creating two opposing sides here, one of which she is firmly supportive of and the other one which she dismisses outright due to their overlooking of the revolution. It is noteworthy that Woolf decides to write in this manner as she is introducing her female heroine by situating her with a group of men, immediately setting the scene for the main parallels between herself and Wollstonecraft, as Virginia Woolf herself frequently met with the Bloomsbury group and took an active part of discussing "the future of man, and his rights in general" - or in this case the rights and futures of women.
Woolf uses somewhat of a mocking tone to dismiss Brummell and his colleagues, implying that they shy away from the serious matters of life, and in contrast uses humorous anecdotes to introduce the "excited young men" concerned with the "perfectibility, ideal unity and the rights of men" . Not only do these devices serve the purpose of drawing the attention of the common reader into Woolf's discussion, but more importantly they serve to remind the reader of the theme she intends to focus on - namely the rights of humanity.
The narrator of this particular essay, Woolf, is perhaps unsurprisingly enough very decided on her support for Mary Wollstonecraft. The narrative voice is subjective, biased but very much motivated to convey to the reader what kind of a woman Wollstonecraft was. As one of the originators of feminist literary work Wollstonecraft was adamant that "independence was the first necessity for a woman...energy and courage to put her will into effect" as Woolf so clearly states it. Similarly Woolf's writing, and this essay especially is independent of negative influence from others, it stands adamant in its support for Wollstonecraft despite perhaps her contradictory life changing decisions. Woolf uses hypothetical situations to relate the life of her heroine to that Austen and others and suggests that childhood experiences have "influence...upon opinions". The use of hypothetical situations serves to create images in the readers mind regarding these figures and consequently them having gone through the same experiences as Wollstonecraft.
Woolf repeats her reference of Jane Austen in order to emphasise and show to the reader, that perhaps Austen wasted her talents as she did not serve justice in a sense. Woolf here, is being very determined and single minded with regards to dismissing other female authors which again supports the point that she would rather be dismissive of other females than to tarnish and criticise her own view of Wollstonecraft. With regards to the language choices of Woolf, one might argue that she is being far too complementary and flattering of Wollstonecraft, whereas she is being rather critical of the "treacherous Imlay" . She uses hyperbolic language where Wollstonecraft is concerned, as the author refers to her as being "so resolute...dreamy....sensual...intelligent" and so forth, the image created here is one of Wollstonecraft being a brave heroine of kind. Woolf says of Wollstonecraft, phrasing it rather poetically, that "the revolution thus was not merely an event that happened outside her; it was an active agent in her own blood" , just like the French revolution created a reinforced and re-awakened Wollstonecraft, so did her writings create a re-awakening within Virginia Woolf herself. We may therefore say that without Mary Wollstonecraft, the works of Virginia Woolf that we, as the common reader read today would not exist.
More importantly, Woolf uses this quote to tie in with the Wordsworth quote that she used earlier in the essay - Wordsworth was writing with regards to the revolution being a metaphor for rebirth of human nature, and in the same manner the revolution within Wollstonecraft was to be the rebirth of the feminist writer, as Woolf would suggest. Woolf's essay somewhat also reads as a lecture or speech at times. It is motivating, interesting and most importantly educating. Woolf's use of the stream of consciousness style only further serves the purpose of the essay being educating.
On numerous occasions in the essay we come across Woolf's frequent use of dashes, the semi-colon and in her syntax; typically long sentences all used in order to add something to an already made statement. Woolf has a habit of making a point and following it up with several other points in this essay which inevitably result in somewhat longer sentences. As she does this the reader notices that she is attempting to include another theory to her experiment, she is trying to recreate the thoughts and ideas of Wollstonecraft. Or perhaps another interpretation for the frequent use of these grammatical devices is simply that Woolf is trying to justify to those who oppose of Wollstonecraft, why it is that they are wrong. She is trying to persuade and educate the common reader, as well as the Lambs, Austen's and Brummell's of the world, and again this supports the point that the essay reads arguably like a speech or an educating lecture. Similarly to how Wollstonecraft was playing at theory-making, so too was Woolf with regards to her writing - stream of consciousness is not typically the form that a lecturer or an essayist uses and as such Woolf was as a result of Wollstonecraft's legacy now writing in a uniquely new manner.
As the essay goes on, and the use rhetorical questions only increase within the syntax, one might argue that the role of nature and inevitability takes the place for the quest of freedom in both the essay and in the subsequent lives of both figures. The loss of independence and freedom is represented by the increasingly vocal use of questions to symbolise that both authors have lost their fights, and inevitably resulted in both their deaths. Wollstonecraft died only after "nature again intervened" in her life and she married Godwin - only after she reversed her views with regards to an independent life, and similarly the essay by Woolf ends on a significantly comparative note. The essay begins to end only as Woolf starts to question both herself and the choices of Mary. Woolf ends with saying that "immortality is hers undoubtedly" despite the fact that the reversal of Wollstonecraft's theories were "incompatible with other feelings", her legacy lives on, but perhaps ultimately when it comes to the quest for a "girlish creed of independence" within women, nature and fate will always stand against her.
For both Wollstonecraft and Woolf this is evident. Perhaps Woolf deliberately chose to end her essay in this manner in order to create a sense of self-independence for the common reader - she chose to write in this manner so that the common reader becomes critical in their own criticism and form interpretations of their own as this will ultimately be more useful for the futures of both men and women than to remain passive and unconcerned with revolution.