The Problem of Martha


AN American lady has asked me to discuss a problem which, since she is troubled by it, must exist for you in America as for us in England — the problem of the many women for whom, as she says, ‘Life is going by like time spent in a trolley station, waiting for a car that is indefinitely late and whose destination is unknown.’ Such women, she adds, do not rebel; ‘they are only mildly cynical, for they do not consider it wellbred or intelligent to go bawling about the stale, flat unprofitableness of all the life they get a chance at.’

How are they to be cured of their malaise and indifference? or, rather, how are they to cure themselves? for no one else can cure them. This lady is not to be put off with vague talk about finding an aim in life. ‘It takes more intelligence and will,’ she says, ‘to mark out an arbitrary course and follow it, where one has no guiding inclination and taste, than most men of the highest genius evince.’

I would not, myself, put it that way, but I see what she means. Men of genius never mark out an arbitrary course: they are at one in conscience and inclination. With the whole of themselves they wish to do what they do; and they excel in doing it because there is no friction within them. I do not think that will or intelligence is ever employed to mark out an arbitrary course and to follow it: a course that is arbitrary is one imposed, by whatever means, from outside, and the function of will and intelligence is to discover and pursue the course sought within. All doctors now know that it is vain to tell listless patients to ‘take an interest in something.’ Their disease itself is that they cannot take an interest in anything, and they are not helped by the advice to go and cure themselves. There is some conflict within them which, unknown to themselves, prevents them from taking an interest; and they must be shown how to end this conflict.

Of course, most of the women of whom this lady speaks are not invalids; but there is a conflict within them which leaves them no overflow of energy; a little thing may turn them into invalids, and often does. They live from hand to mouth, without momentum or reserve of power, occupied with trivial tasks which they perform without knowing why. Life to them is like a meal at a bad, pretentious restaurant, where all dishes taste alike and never of themselves; how are they to get the taste of things in themselves ?

It is vain to preach at them, for what right has anyone to preach? and they may return the compliment. They may tell us busy, eager people that we are busy and eager because we have not the wit to see what shadows we pursue. The worst of preaching is that it begets preachers; anyone can do it to others, but the only useful sermons are those we address to ourselves. Yet we may say to these women — a thing they know too well already — that what they need is a faith; and we may help them to it, not by suggesting some faith ready-made and to them arbitrary, but by reminding them of the rudimentary faith which they, in common with all human beings, possess to start with: the faith which itself makes them discontented with their life as it is. This faith, at first hearing, is not satisfying, for it amounts only to this — that there is latent within them a further faith which they might discover and believe; and that, if they have not discovered it, the reason is in themselves — not, perhaps, in any sin of theirs, but in some inner, unconscious conflict which can be ended if it is known. This rudimentary faith, lacking, I believe, in no one, will give hope, as soon as it is clearly stated, since it will give a preliminary aim in life, namely, to discover the conflict and by discovering end it.

We are learning more and more certainly that it is useless to set your teeth and say you will do or believe this or that, so long as the conflict within you remains unperceived. Your first task, the task set you by your rudimentary faith, is to discover the conflict, and then, one way or another, to end it. There is a mental sanitation needed, so that your will and conscience alike may not be slowly poisoned. If you are a Christian, you will not believe that God sets you impossible tasks; if you are not, you will not believe that ‘Nature,’ or anything else, sets them for you; the very sense of impossibility or futility is itself a sickness that can be diagnosed and cured. To believe this, is the rudimentary faith that promises a further faith on which you can act and by which you can live — one that will grow within you and be utterly your own, and yet universal.

Now the commonest of hidden conflicts in women is one between the just desires of the spirit and some duty imposed and performed but resented. So long as it is hidden, it cannot be ended; often, when it is discovered, the victim can end it at once. The desires of her spirit become to her her duty, and she achieves that unity of the self which always she has unconsciously desired. Often this conflict is between the desires of the spirit and particular, imposed duties; as where an unmarried daughter ‘sacrifices herself ’ to exacting parents, and all the while dislikes them for the sacrifice they exact of her. She is set a particular problem, and no one can advise a particular solution without knowing all the circumstances.

But the conflict from which many women suffer is, I believe, more general. It is between the desires of the spirit and a general vague sense of duty or obligation. This sense, indefinite, threatening, and exacting, both irks and constrains them; there are always things they must do, yet they get no satisfaction from doing them because they do not see why they should be done. What they really wish to do with the whole self never presents itself clearly to them. All life is to them provisional, ‘like time spent in a trolley-station, waiting for a car that is indefinitely late,’ because of this obligation imposed on them from outside; and by whom or what?

It is, I believe, imposed upon them by their own fears, of which they are unaware. If you told them that their lives were ordered by fear, they might deny it angrily; they might prove to you that all their conscious actions are brave enough. But often those who suffer from unconscious fear do conceal the fact from themselves by acts of conscious bravery. Fear, being entirely negative and so entirely unpleasant, always seeks to disguise itself in some positive transformation. In the conscious mind it becomes anger, or hatred, or even a desperate kind of courage. But these disguises do not remove the original fear; the only way to do that is to be aware of it. The way to happiness is by confession of our deepest cowardice; that is the true conviction of sin, without which we cannot be saved. It is not conscience, but the unconscious, that makes cowards of us all; for the fear we face we can deal with.

But the commonest disguise of hidden fear, in modern educated men and women, is cynicism; the lady who has suggested this problem to me says that the women she has in mind are mildly cynical; they would not consider it well-bred or intelligent to be violent. In this cynicism, with its facile, impotent wit, the thwarted spirit makes a safe and so futile rebellion. No one minds the cynic; she may laugh at the machine, but it works just the same; her omelettes are made without the breaking of any eggs. It is only in words that she has her revenge; and she is allowed it so long as she does not proceed to deeds. Cynicism, in fact, is the art of those who dare not be artists, the courage of those who will not confess their own cowardice. If we knew this, we should none of us be cynics: we should look for the fear of which our cynicism is a symptom; should seek joy in faith and not in the denial of it.

But this mild cynicism, so common and so enervating to the mind that enjoys it — what fear does it disguise? Usually, I think, the very fear that it repudiates: fear of what ‘everybody’ thinks and does and says. There is something, commonly called the ‘ herdinstinct,’ which makes us do, say, and even think things because other people do, say, and think them. I do not like this name for it, because it implies that it is an inheritance from our remote animal past, which may not be true. It may rather be a result of our long efforts to civilize ourselves, to become social beings; it may be a kind of superfluous momentum, an irrational habit attached to an effort in itself entirely rational. The phrase ‘herdinstinct’ is dangerous because it seems to imply that we cannot overcome it. Often those who talk of the herd-instinct tell us that our morality, our values, our whole mental content, are products of it. In which case we may name it and dislike it, but we cannot resist it; for it is ourselves.

Those, however, who are aware of their instinct to do things merely because other people do them, can resist it. They can face the fear of the world if once they confess it in themselves. They can distinguish between what part of convention is rational and what irrational, what part eases and what irks them. Only, they must, first of all, be aware of their own fear of convention, they must confess it to themselves, and observe its workings in their own minds. To rail against convention in others will not help you to resist it in yourself. The world is full of men, and especially of women, who rail and obey, who are unconventional in small things and conventional in great. It is full of cynics, the iconoclasts of toy-idols, who worship the great tyrannous idols without even knowing it.


Women, I believe, are at the same time more subject to convention than men and secretly more rebellious against it. It imposes on them incessant duties or obligations which they perform without satisfaction or inward consent. And, the more they perform them, the more these obligations increase; so that life seems to them to be all duty without any pleasure, and the mind all conscience without the unity of conscience obeyed. They are disciplined like recruits drilled by a stupid sergeant; it is always ‘eyes right’ and ‘present arms’ — exercises imposed because they are against the grain. The recruit must be broken in, must lose his self in the army or herd; and all the while the drill-sergeant who gives these tyrannous commands is an abstraction, and the victory to be won far away and in an unknown cause.

There are all these trivial, meaningless duties to society; but how society will profit by them, or what, ultimately, society is after, remains unknown. Only the recruit obeys, lest something dreadful should happen to him if he disobeys. This something dreadful is general disapproval, and it imposes an alien, unvalued conscience on those who fear it. They are forever doing things they do not wish to do, without asking themselves why they should do them: why they should spend so much time in tidying the house, to satisfy, not their own æsthetic standard of neatness, but an exterior one; or why they should wear clothes that cost so much time and money, yet do not express their own sense of beauty. Neatness, smartness, in home and in dress, is the only ideal; and it is an ideal abstract, general, and imposed. The real self in every woman wishes to be neat, not as an end but as a means; wishes to be individual, expressive, in clothes and furniture; and often it dares not, without even knowing that it dares not. It is this secret fear that imposes the tyranny on others: because I am afraid, I am resolved to make others afraid. If I could confess my own fear, I should wish to free others from it also.

And then there is conversation — rightly, the means of communication between spirit and spirit, but often, in fact, the repeating of what everybody says and nobody means: often, too, a combination of the present against the absent. Fear makes you wish to form a party, to take the offensive, to criticize lest you be criticized. It is the opposite of the Christian truth — Judge not that ye be not judged. For the more we judge each other, the more others judge us, their fear of our judgment taking the offensive. Even intellectual conversation is often like the food in a bad, pretentious hotel, or like fashions in clothes. There is assumed to be, somewhere, a great intellectual process carried on by writers and professors, of which the noise is heard in books and magazines; and this noise is echoed in conversation. But the real intellectual process is individual: it must be your own, or you have no part in it: it must come out of your own experience, if it is to have precision, conviction, beauty, or joy.

America and England call themselves free; but they will never be free in fact until we all, and especially women, have learned to rebel against this imaginary intellectual process, which is not ours or anyone’s; until the phrase, ‘think for yourself,’ ceases to be a formula and becomes a fact. We cannot acquire opinions by buying a magazine, or even a book. There is no need for us to have opinions that are not our own, earned by knowledge and experience. Democracy is merely a tyranny so long as it is the rule of a majority which does not really exist, and against which every individual unconsciously rebels; a majority which is merely a composite photograph, unlike every individual, expressing only the abstract irrelevant part of everyone, as our pictures of Christ express centuries of misunderstanding. I believe, as I have said, that women submit more even than men to this tyranny, and yet secretly rebel more against it. Certainly it imposes on them petty, meaningless, and joyless duties, more than on men; and they have naturally more sense of duty, a sense which is abused by the duties imposed on them. Civilization presents itself to them as something huge, complicated, and threatening; demanding far more than it gives, yet seeming to be a reality without any alternative. Thus unconscious rebellion increases within them like a cumulative poison, and robs them more and more of hope, energy, gusto. As Blake says, ‘He who desires but acts not breeds pestilence’; and where there are many desiring but not acting, unaware even of their desires, there will be a malaria of the mind, cynicism, and that absence of love which is apt to express itself positively as dislike, if not as hatred.

It is a fact, I think, that women look at each other more coldly, critically, even hostilely, than men do; they expect to be judged, and they judge so as to be beforehand. But the standard by which they judge is often not their own, and upon trivial points; they cannot give reasons for it and would resent being asked for them. Nothing is so intimidating, nothing lessens initiative, joy, happiness, faith, so much as the sense that you are being judged on points which you can neither foresee nor understand. It makes you feel like a new boy at a bad school, afraid of some irresistible, irrational tradition, to be revered without reason, which has grown up without you, and yet is your master. The boy cannot know it, and yet is punished for not knowing it; so he will do as little as possible until he knows it; and, when he does, he uses his knowledge to impose the same tyranny on other new boys and to punish them for their ignorance.

I would not speak thus freely of women’s fears, if I did not believe they were greatly the fault of men. Men laugh at them, but are not aware of their own sins, so often the secret cause. For, deep down in all the conventionality of women, even of women the most consciously unconventional, is sexual fear, the fear of being thought disreputable, and, still more, of being treated by men as if they were. The social tyranny of women over women, I believe, has its origin in this fear. They are all in a union, not only to preserve their sexual rights against men, but also to make it clear to men that they are members of the union; and it is an unwritten, almost unconscious, rule of the union, that they shall not lay themselves open to any misunderstanding. A man shall be able to know a member of the union at a glance, by her behavior. It is not temptation that frightens a member of the union, but the thought that she might lose her status, without committing any sexual crime, by a mere breach of the rules; the fear that women might think she was not respectable, and that men might behave to her as if she were not. This imposes a certain behavior, a certain dress, a certain kind of conversation even. They must all be, like Cæsar’s wife, above suspicion.

I may be told that in America, unlike our profligate Europe, this is not so. I do not know that we are more profligate than you are; but Englishmen tell me that you have better public manners than we have. You still retain the remembrance of a scarcity of women, which produces respect for them, since, where women are scarce, they are all wives or potential wives; and you have no tradition of a superior class which may behave as it chooses to the women of an inferior class.

All this I can well believe; but still I doubt whether you can have freed yourselves from the ancient fear of sexual misinterpretation. For there are, I take it, sexual irregularities in America as elsewhere; and wherever they exist, wherever there are profligate men, women are members of a union against them, with union rules and taboos and fears, often unnecessary and tyrannous.

At any rate, I would suggest this sexual fear as an explanation of social tyranny; and the greater the indignation aroused by my suggestion, the more I shall be inclined to believe it true. American women pride themselves upon being free, and yet there is somewhere in their own minds an obstacle to complete freedom, an obstacle that robs them of faith, aim, joy, conviction. May it not be, lurking deep in their passionately pure minds, the fear of being thought disreputable — an utterly groundless, unconscious fear, and for that very reason the more difficult to detect and expel? I put the question, and an answer in merely patriotic terms will be no answer. I speak, not as an Englishman, but as a human being to other human beings; and all human beings are more deeply alike than different.

It has often been noticed that women wrho conspicuously defy convention on one point, especially if it be a sexual point, are most conventional on others. George Eliot, for instance, just because she lived with a man not her husband, was ruthless to her own Pletty Sorrel; she could not think freely about the passions; she was afraid lest the world should think she herself had sinned through passion. Priding herself upon her freedom of thought, she was not free; and the fear she would not confess to herself made her as sensitive to criticism as a wound in the flesh is sensitive to the touch. There was a wound in her mind that could not be healed, because she would not confess the fear that kept it raw. And, because she was afraid of the world, she saw the universe as ruthless to sin and forced herself to believe that ruthlessness just. Perfect love casteth out fear; but the converse is true, that fear casts out love, and George Eliot, in her novels, is a judge, rather than a lover, of women.

But Charlotte Brontë writes with freedom; she is not afraid of the world, like a boy who has never been to school, like a young home creature, full of loves and hatreds, but all of them free — her own and unimposed. Yet a woman writing of Jane Eyre in the Quarterly Review said that, if the author were a woman, she must be one who had forfeited all claim to respect from her own sex. There was the union feeling: the resentment against one who laid herself open to misinterpretation; the desire to break her in, to teach her the rules; and the envy of her unbroken spirit, which could express itself in terms of beauty and passion without asking, ‘What will the world think of me?’


Now a diagnosis of all mental trouble is half-way to a cure. But it must be a diagnosis which convinces the patient, and one which he himself can carry further. Know that you fear, and what you fear, and your fear will begin to weaken. For, when it is known, you rebel against it with all your will; you act against it, and so prove it less terrible than it seemed. But when fear is unconscious, and so known only by its effects, which, being cut off from their cause, seem a necessary part of your own nature, then these effects are indeed terrible to you. To see the connection between the fear and its effects is to see also the remedy. A plain task is set to the will, and it is braced to the accomplishment of that task.

At this point faith comes in, that rudimentary faith of which I have spoken and which I can now state more precisely. It is the faith that further faith will come by knowing your own weaknesses. Learn to know and forgive yourself, and you will learn to know and forgive others. Then you will no longer be afraid of them. This great intimidating world of everybody will consist for you merely of other women, afraid like yourself of the great intimidating world that does not exist. They will amuse you instead of frightening you, just as you will amuse yourself. For if once you can see that you, being a human being, are forgivable and lovable, however ridiculous, you will see that that is true of others also. But, because we never will confess that we ourselves are ridiculous, we cannot forgive ourselves, or others.

In the war, contrary to all expectation, a greater courage than ever before was shown on both sides, in spite of the fact that few soldiers had ever seen a shot fired in anger; and the greatest courage was shown by the most civilized armies. The reason, I believe, was that, in the most civilized armies, certain rudiments of psychology had been learned. In the past it was believed that, to conquer fear, you must never confess it to yourself. That is believed still by all savage peoples, with the result that they are brave enough until a sudden panic breaks out among them, after which they are but a terrified mob.

But civilized man has learned to say to himself, and to his fellows, ‘I am afraid; I am a coward by nature; we are all cowards by nature; we should all like to run away.’ The fact of fear is no longer a guilty secret which each must conceal within himself: it is common knowledge, an enemy that all have to face. So the soldier, confessing his fear and facing it from the first, is far less liable to sudden panic, especially when confronted with some new devilry, than ever before. Further, since he faces his fear and even talks about it, he suffers less often from sudden nervous collapse. It is the man who ‘has never known fear’ whom sudden panic, sudden nervous collapse, overtakes. The savage, or the man who does not know himself, is not so good a soldier as the man who does know himself; and so it is in all the trials of life. Life is not entirely a matter of moral problems; we cannot do everything with the blind will; or, rather, it is part of the moral problem to know yourself, to manage your own will, to confess your weaknesses so that you may overcome them. The Christian doctrine of conviction of sin, rightly understood, is good psychology as well as good morals. Be aware of your sin and it will no longer be terrible or devilish to you; it will be merely human, and you will see how to overcome it, and with it the fear which is your sin.

So I would suggest to women whose life is aimless that, before seeking an aim, they should ask themselves honestly whether they are not afraid of ‘everybody,’ and whether this fear does not impose upon them a number of duties which are not real duties to them. Let them say to themselves, like the modern soldier, ‘I am a coward and I know it.’ Let them say this also to each other, so that the consciousness of a common cowardice may grow among them; for the fear of everybody is a common enemy, a common disease, which may best be fought by all in common. People catch it from each other just because it is concealed; and they may also catch the antidote to it, if it is not concealed.

Fear, powerful as it is, has this weakness, that no one really wishes to feel it; we cling to our fears and side with them because, trying to escape from them the wrong way, we turn them into something more positive — hatred, judgment, self-approval. But, once convince anyone that these feelings are but disguised fear, and he will try to rid himself of them so that he may be rid of the fear. Thus women, now that we begin to understand something about our own minds, might make a collective attack on their own fears by means of a collective confession of them. They might begin to criticize the social obligations which seem to be imposed on them in the light of this new self-knowledge. ‘Do we do this,’ they might ask, ‘because we really wish to do it, or because we are afraid of each other?’ There is, of course, a common belief that the sense of duty is necessarily based on fear; that, if fear is abolished, the sense of duty will go with it; but this belief is itself a result of fear, a fear of human nature and, indeed, of the whole nature of the universe.


There is another conception of duty, based, not on fear, but on hope, namely, that it is identical with the desire of the whole self, if only that desire can be discovered. When we have a desire that seems to us contrary to our duty, it means that there is a conflict within us; it means either that our sense of duty is not a sense of the whole self, or that our desire is not of the whole self. According to this view, the whole self as a unity does not exist, to begin with, as something either good or bad; it is something to be achieved gradually and by continual effort; and, when achieved, it will be good. As Keats said, this life is not a vale of tears but a vale of soul-making, by which he meant a vale of self-making. When the self is made, then duty and desire are identical; and we know from our own experience that happiness, power, faith, mean the identity of duty and desire. It may happen to us rarely, but, when it does, then we recognize it as being the very aim of life suddenly and gloriously realized. But, where the conception of duty is separated from the conception of desire, there human beings are always fighting a losing battle: either desire or duty, both a part of them, must be worsted; and, whichever wins, the self is impoverished of a part of itself. This, then, is to be aimed at — the identity of duty and desire; and both duties and desires are to be criticized in the light of that aim.

It is a common error of professional rebels to rail at morality, duty, convention, just as blindly as they are obeyed by the mass of men. We cannot do without duty or convention; indeed, the rebels are themselves conventional; they form a small herd or crowd of their own in their very rebellion. What is needed is a clear discrimination between righteousness and convention. It is not in itself righteous to walk on one side of the path because others do so; but it is convenient; and it would be unrighteous to rebel against this convenience and cause inconvenience to others, merely in order to assert your own freedom from convention. But where conventions are themselves inconvenient, it is important to see that they are not duties, that it may be duty to break down their tyranny by asserting the rights of desire against them. Thus, if a woman has no time to read, to think, to practise some art for which she has a natural talent, because all day she is performing duties imposed on her by what she takes to be public opinion, then it becomes her duty to herself, and so to the world, to assert, her own just and natural desires, and to gratify them, so that she may be a human being, with joy, vitality, and purpose, and not a mere automaton resenting the fact that she is one.

If we are unhappy, we make others unhappy; if we are happy, we make others happy, not by any conscious effort to do good, but by the mere contagion of the realized self. The world now is full of people who disseminate unhappiness, discouragement, vague fear, disbelief in the rational order of the universe, by their own lack of purpose and lowered vitality. Often they seem to be energetic, but it is the energy of a machine doing something that nobody wants done; and it is an energy distressing to witness because it is always exhausting itself, threatening a nervous break-down, communicating to others its own aimless unrest. This kind of energy we all resent with a blind, natural inhumanity, just as we should resent the presence of someone with an infectious disease; but our resentment is futile, and merely increases the disease. What we need is a diagnosis which will make us humane. The blind energy exhausting itself comes of a separation of duty and desire, comes of a secret fear lest desire should master duty; and, where this fear is, there cannot be happiness or that harmony of the self which alone produces efficiency.

It is vain to rail at such ‘ martyrs to duty’ as slaves of convention—one might as well rail at influenza patients as slaves of bacilli. What is needed in both cases is a knowledge of the disease, its cause, and cure. The cure will not work in a moment; we are only at the beginning of self-knowledge; but at last it has begun. For ages man has been gaining power over the external world, but without any increase in self-knowledge, and so in self-control. The task for man now is to know himself, to enter upon a new age of achievement.

And, first of all, he needs to confess that, with regard to self-knowledge, he is still in the Stone Age. All our morals, our conventions, our scientific method even, have been evolved blindly in the past of self-ignorance; but at last we are being driven to self-knowledge by suffering. We see that it is useless to tell sufferers, including ourselves, to be men and overcome their troubles. We are not yet men, or women, because we do not yet know ourselves. But, with the desire for self-knowledge, with the first glimmering conception of what it means, an immense hope has entered the world. We see that the best of the old morality, that which appeals not merely to our sense of duty but to our hearts, is itself based upon the intuitions of genius. Pity is more understanding than judgment, for those who value pity most are those who know themselves best. Those who judge always do so because they have no self-knowledge. But, beyond these beautiful but blind affirmations of the Christian faith, we need now the knowledge that will make them, not less beautiful, but no longer blind.

‘Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things.’ It is not enough to say that with pity. Martha must know herself why she is careful and troubled, so that she may free herself from her troubles and cares.