→ Analytical essay – Philosophy
North Carolina State Univ.
FALL 2022

Honesty in Community has a Point

Heteronormativity, though itself a relatively new term, has long been present in human societies. There are myriad ways in which one may examine its impacts—from the consideration of queer peoples’ daily life experiences with having to hide their true selves from others, to the much grander scope of how queer people have been systematically denied the rights that their straight counterparts have. There is a lot that is inaccessible about the queer experience to straight people, and literary explorations are no different. In Virginia Woolf’s “Moments of Being: Slater’s Pins Have No Points,” Woolf utilizes Fanny as a vehicle for authentic exploration of her own sapphic experiences, from the internal road to self validation to the external journey towards social acceptance. These journeys create a clear microcosm of the oppressive nature of heteronormativity.

From the very beginning of the story, Fanny considers her teacher, Miss Craye, in a rather strange context. Though she doesn’t note this aloud in any capacity, in the first few paragraphs she finds herself considering all of the intimate details of her teacher’s life—the fact that she’d never married, and all of the questions she had about if she was happy or unhappy as a result. In this way, Fanny engulfs the reader in this same mystery—and thus leads the reader to consider the very same about Fanny. Is she happy or unhappy? What about her personal experiences might lead her to one side or the other? An important thing to note about the time period in which this story was published is that lesbianism (or queerness in any of its forms) was widely regarded as being socially abhorrent. This social norm would certainly keep a young queer person (such as Fanny) from realizing this core truth about themselves, which is a form of oppression. The pivotal moment of the story is Fanny’s realization that “Julia possessed it,” and even though Woolfe leaves exactly what “it” is unspoken, a reader may surmise that “it” refers to Julia’s self confidence and identity (Woolf 8). This is the answer to the question Fanny has had for the entire duration of the story. To understand this, then, one must consider the “elaborate interpretation” Fanny has in order to “assign meaning to the experience itself,” (D’hoker 164). In this way, the experience was never truly about understanding Julia but rather about Fanny understanding herself through the lens of her teacher’s identity. Fanny is able to find her own authenticity in the fact that Julia experiences authenticity in the same way: through loving other women. 

Though this revelation seems quite obvious to the modern reader, plenty of Woolf’s contemporaries missed the story’s point. Around the time Woolfe wrote “Slater’s Pins Have No Points,” she was at the height of her relationship with Vita Sackville-West, another poet. Even editors in the 1970s described her as Woolf’s “most intimate friend,” which is a frank step down from the reality of their relationship—they were lovers (Nicolson, et al. xi). Even beyond the scope of the story, the world’s inability (or even refusal)—decades after Woolf’s death—to see the true authenticity in her relationships with other women is something that modern readers must take into account when considering the message and emotional experience of her work. Within the story, the truth of both Fanny and Julia’s authentic selves feels shrouded by the expectations placed upon them by the social norms of the time. Fanny’s preoccupation with Julia’s marital status and hypothetical loneliness is directly juxtaposed by Julia’s nonchalance about Slater’s pins—a rather obvious euphemism, certainly, but a contrast that enables the reader to more fully understand the difference between the social experiences of the two characters. Fanny seems to be much more bound by heteronormative structures, considering her concern with marriage and men while Julia states outright that perhaps the pins have no point.

Upon the story’s initial circulation, its reception nearly mirrored Fanny’s initial lack of clarity with herself. In a letter to Vita, Woolfe wrote that she had received payment for her “little Sapphist story,” but despite this, “the Editor has not seen the point, though he’s looking for it in the Adirondacks,” (Nicolson, et al. 431). The humor with which Woolf considers this reception is indicative of just how oppressive the structures of heteronormativity were in the early twentieth century—it was a systemic structure that spared no society. Even though Woolf addresses the misunderstanding of her work with humor, it is important to consider the recognition this kind of fumble takes away from the identities that are represented. It is most definitely critical that individuals are able to see themselves represented in meaningful ways in the media they consume—even something as seemingly small as this can provide essential validation in one’s own authenticity. Alongside this, however, it is important that those outside of the represented group also recognize the authentic experiences of the represented group. The lack of this understanding is how heteronormative oppression manifests itself: if the only validation of authenticity for one’s own identity comes from one’s in-group, there is space outside of that group for distrust to manifest itself. While outside validation is not at all a requirement for one’s own authentic identity to exist, it certainly helps with one’s own feelings of security.

Woolf’s decision to have Fanny spent the bulk of the story flip-flopping between feeling as though Julia is lonely, unhappy, independent or blissful mimics the inability that the rest of the heteronormative world seems to have with regard to recognizing the experiences of queer people. For this reason, it is amusing that the American editor “has not seen the point” of the story, just as Fanny spends almost the entire duration of the story searching for a point as well—her point, of course, being the pin that’s fallen out of her dress (Nicolson et al. 431). Even in the later sections of the story, Fanny asks herself “where had that pin fallen?” (Woolf 6). This preoccupation with locating a point, both inside and outside of the story, is indicative to the reader of the importance of locating that internal authenticity within a world that may never give external validation. This is how heteronormativity functions in an oppressive manner: it actively slows the process of both internal and external validation. Even though Fanny realizes she is a lesbian at the end, it takes her the entire duration of the story—and another lesbian’s actions—in order to recognize it in herself.  The ambiguous pinning of “the flower to her breast” at the end of the story—whose breast, Woolf does not specify—points back to his very same overbearing nature of heteronormativity (Woolf 8). Queer people must tell their stories, but in a world that so actively attempts to silence them, they must include ambiguity.

Fanny spends the majority of the story boxing her authentic self in, much in the way that heterosexuals have spent a large swath of history boxing the authentic experiences of queer people in. True authenticity, in its most honest form, requires a village—without understanding from others about one’s own identity, it can be incredibly difficult to find solace in knowing oneself. Woolf does an excellent job utilizing Fanny’s character to mirror the reluctance of society to recognize the honesty of queer relationships—and certainly this is a point that may be found both in and far beyond the Adirondacks.

Woolf, Virginia. “Moments of Being. ‘Slater's Pins Have No Points.’” Yumpu.com, https://www.yumpu.com/en/document/read/12345501/moments-of-being-slaters-pins-have-no-points.

Woolf, Virginia. The Letters of Virginia Woolf. 1923-1928. Edited by Nigel Nicolson and Joanne Trautmann, III, Harcourt Brace Jovanovitch, 1978.

D’hoker, E. “Moments of Being: Carol Shields’s Short Fiction”. Studies in Canadian Literature, vol. 33, no. 1, Jan. 2008, https://journals.lib.unb.ca/index.php/SCL/article/view/11214.