In Elizabeth Gilbert’s book Eat, Pray, Love, she uses the work of Virginia Woolf to explain the choice she faces in her divorce, her journey, and her life. Gilbert faces the choice to exist on either side of the “shadow of the sword;” she writes,
“Across the broad continent of a woman’s life falls the shadow of a sword.” On one side of that sword, she said, there lies convention and tradition and order, where “all is correct.” But on the other side of that sword, if you’re crazy enough to cross it and choose a life that does not follow convention, “all is confusion. Nothing follows a regular course.” Her argument was that the crossing of the shadow of the sword may bring a far more interesting existence to a woman, but you can bet it will also be more perilous. (95)
For Gilbert, the decision first appears as to have children or not to have children, but as her journey develops, greater questions of ethical concern become apparent. Is Gilbert selfish because she does not want to have children? What does she want or deserve? For whom should she make this decision? Who will she be in the outcome of each decision? It is obvious that the side of “convention and tradition and order” have an expectation that Gilbert will not only have children, but also desire to have children. She does not. “On the other side of that sword,” Virginia Woolf writes that there is “confusion” because there is no mold to fit oneself into. Gilbert asks, “I love children, but what if I don’t have any? What kind of person does that make me?” (95). She is literally asking, who will she be if she does not have children? What will she look like? There is no model for her to conform to, no “regular course,” which is what creates the “perilous” journey for the woman who breaks “convention.”
Gilbert’s quest for self-discovery is marked by her image. She moves from resembling the men in her life (65) towards finding what she looks like and allowing her outside to match her inside, her truth. Following the advice of the Bhagavad Gita, “that it is better to live your own destiny imperfectly that to live an imitation of somebody else’s life with perfection,” Gilbert claims, “Now I have started living my own life. Imperfect and clumsy as it may look, it is resembling me now, thoroughly” (95). Because the “other side of the sword” has no pre-made path or expectation, it allows for more freedom, more self-expression, and more variety. Virginia Woolf also said, “The eyes of others our prisons; their thoughts our cages.” Society limits the expression of each and every individual, and Gilbert is no exception. Her decision is to break out of this “cage,” and liberate herself or to allow herself to be “imprisoned” by society’s expectations for her. Both selfishness and selflessness are defined by society; her decision should not be in response to these definitions or she too will be defined. In contrast, if her decision is made by her for her, Gilbert will come out resembling herself once more.