Virginia Woolf

November 6, 2012 1:46 pm
Virginia Woolf (1882-1941), British novelist, essayist, and critic, who helped create the modern novel. Her writing often explores the concepts of time, memory, and people’s inner consciousness, and is remarkable for its humanity and depth of perception.
Before the early 1900s, fiction emphasized plot as well as detailed descriptions of characters and settings. Events in the external world, such as a marriage, murder, or deception, were the most important aspects of a story. Characters’ interior, or mental, lives served mainly to prepare for or motivate such meaningful external occurrences.

Woolf’s novels, however, emphasized patterns of consciousness rather than sequences of events in the external world. Influenced by the works of French writer Marcel Proust and Irish writer James Joyce, among others, Woolf strove to create a literary form that would convey inner life. To this end, she elaborated a technique known as stream of consciousness, recording, as she described it, ‘the atoms as they fall upon the mind in the order in which they fall,’ tracing ‘the pattern, however disconnected … in appearance, which each … incident scores upon consciousness.’ Her novels do not limit themselves to a single consciousness, but move from character to character, using interior monologues to present each person’s differing responses, often to the same event. Her specific contribution to the art of fiction was this representation of multiple consciousnesses hovering around a common center.

In Woolf’s best fiction, plot is generated by the inner lives of the characters. Psychological effects are achieved through the use of imagery, symbol, and metaphor. Character unfolds by means of the ebb and flow of personal impressions, feelings, and thoughts. Thus, the inner lives of human beings and the ordinary events in their lives are made to seem extraordinary. Woolf’s fiction was drawn largely from her own experience, and her characters are almost all members of her own affluent, intellectual, upper-middle class.
Woolf had several major concerns other than her expressed desire to represent consciousness. She was, for example, fascinated with time—both as a sequence of moments and in terms of years and centuries—and with the differences between external and internal time. This preoccupation is often evident in the structure of her novels; Mrs. Dalloway (1925) occurs within the consciousness of several people during the course of one day, whereas Orlando (1928) traces the history of a single character who reappears over several centuries.
Woolf was also interested in defining qualities specific to the female mind. She saw female sensibility as intuitive, close to the core of things, and thus able to liberate the masculine intellect from what she viewed as its enslavement to abstract concepts. It is not surprising that her most memorable characters, such as Mrs. Dalloway, and Mrs. Ramsay in To the Lighthouse (1927), are women.
Concerned with the inner life of individuals, Woolf attempted to represent not only the social relationships of her characters but also their solitude, when they were most themselves, forming silent relationships with the things around them. She was, in fact, quite interested in the things of the natural world, such as rocks and plants, because of their solitude and self-sufficiency; her books contain many detailed descriptions of such things. Her concern with things for their own sake influenced Alain Robbe-Grillet and other French novelists of the nouvelle vague (new wave) movement, who attempted to write purely objective fiction in which the author does not intrude with commentary.
Born Adeline Virginia Stephen in London, Woolf was the daughter of biographer and critic Leslie Stephen (later Sir Leslie) and Julia Jackson Duckworth. She was educated at home by her father. After his death in 1904, she, her sister Vanessa, and her brothers Adrian and Thoby moved to Bloomsbury, then a bohemian section of London. In 1912 she married Leonard Woolf, a critic and writer on economics and politics. Virginia Woolf, her husband, her siblings, and their friends became known as the Bloomsbury Group. Meeting frequently until about 1930, the group included novelist E. M. Forster, biographer and essayist Lytton Strachey, painter Duncan Grant, art critics Roger Fry and Clive Bell (Vanessa’s husband), economist John Maynard Keynes, and editor Desmond McCarthy. Although the group shared certain values, it had no common doctrine. It was simply a number of friends, wrote McCarthy, ‘whose affection and respect for each other … stood the test of thirty years, and whose intellectual candor made their company agreeable to each other.’
In 1917 the Woolfs founded Hogarth Press, which became a successful publishing house, printing the early works of authors such as Forster, Katherine Mansfield, and T. S. Eliot, and introducing the works of Sigmund Freud, founder of psychoanalysis, to English readers. Except for the first printing of Woolf’s first novel, The Voyage Out (1915), Hogarth Press also published all of her works.
From the time of her mother’s death in 1895, Woolf suffered from what is now believed to have been bipolar disorder, which is characterized by alternating moods of mania and depression. In 1941, at the apparent onset of a period of depression, Woolf drowned herself in the Ouse River. She left her husband a note explaining that she feared she was going mad and this time would not recover.
Woolf’s early novels—The Voyage Out (1915), Night and Day (1919), and Jacob’s Room (1922)—offer increasing evidence of her determination to expand the scope of the novel beyond mere storytelling. Her fourth novel, Mrs. Dalloway, is considered by many to be her first great novel, revealing a mastery of the form and technique for which she would become known. The novel centers on the separate worlds and interior thought processes of two characters: Clarissa Dalloway, a gracious London hostess in her 50s whose husband is an uninspired politician, and Septimus Warren Smith, a young ex-soldier suffering a mental illness triggered by a friend’s death in battle during World War I (1914-1918). The two do not know each other and never meet, but their minds have curious parallels. Although Septimus is considered mentally ill by society and Clarissa is considered sane, both experience dizzying alternations in feeling: joy over the tiny leaves of spring, dread of onrushing time, terror over impending extinction, and guilt over the what they feel is the crime of being human. The story takes place on one June day in London after the war, and it explores the idea of time by including past memories and future hopes of the characters. The novel ends with a party given by Clarissa, at which Septimus’s cold but distinguished doctor tells Clarissa of Septimus’s suicide. ‘Here is death, in the middle of my party,’ she thinks. Instinctively she feels she understands her symbolic double, Septimus—his sensitivity, despair, and defiance. Some critics maintain that Clarissa and Septimus represent two aspects of the same personality, and that both are semiautobiographical representations of Woolf.
The power of Woolf’s fifth novel, To the Lighthouse, lies in its brilliant visual imagery, extensive use of symbolism, and use of the characters’ stream of consciousness to evoke feeling and demonstrate the progression of both time and emotion. Behind the backdrop of ordinary domestic events, the novel’s real concern is with the impact of the radiant Mrs. Ramsay—representing the female sensibility—on the lives and feelings of the other characters, even long after her death.
The story draws on Woolf’s childhood experiences at a summer home by the sea. The novel investigates the contrasts in the behavior and thinking of Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay, the father and mother of the household. The couple are often considered loose portraits of Woolf’s own parents. To the Lighthouse is split into three distinct parts. The first section, ‘The Window,’ covers a September day, before World War I, in the lives of the Ramsays, their eight children, and their four houseguests, who include Lily Briscoe, a young painter, and Augustus Carmichael, an older poet. In this section Woolf explores the impressions each character has throughout the day. The Ramsays’ six-year-old son, James, talks about his most cherished dream, which is to go to the nearby lighthouse, whose beacon flashes at night. Mr. Ramsay, however, says the weather will not permit such a trip. As the day passes the friends chat and dream; Lily starts a painting of Mrs. Ramsay and James sitting at a window; meals are eaten; the children go to bed; and the Ramsays read.
The second part of To The Lighthouse, ‘Time Passes,’ starts as the night of that first day, but is then fused with another night, ten years later. In the course of those ten years, Mrs. Ramsay has died; the Ramsay’s eldest son, Andrew, has died in World War I; and their daughter Prue has died in childbirth. Lily and Augustus return to visit Mr. Ramsay and James, who is now 16 years old, at the house.
The third section, ‘The Lighthouse,’ covers the following day, on which James and his father finally make their trip to the lighthouse and Lily finishes the painting she started ten years earlier. Although Mrs. Ramsay is dead, her presence haunts the thoughts and feelings of the other characters throughout this section. The successful trip to the lighthouse by father and son, and the completion of the painting seem to represent some completion to the purpose of Mrs. Ramsay’s life.
Orlando, loosely based on Woolf’s friend, writer Vita Sackville-West, is a historical fantasy and an analysis of gender, creativity, and identity. The writing is a succession of brilliant parodies of literary styles, and the work satirically comments on society’s changing ideas and values. The story traces the life of Orlando, who is both a boy in 16th-century Elizabethan England and a 38-year-old woman four centuries later.
The Waves (1931) is Woolf’s most experimental and difficult work. It is organized into nine units, each of which records a series of stream-of-consciousness monologues given entirely in the present tense by six characters, one after another. The monologues reveal the personalities of each character in their inner experiences of external events. Each of these nine units is introduced by an italicized passage describing the sea, the sky, a garden, hills, and a house during some imaginary day. As in her other novels, Woolf is primarily concerned with rendering the quality of inner life, but here inner life is presented in a highly stylized, unrealistic way. While the voices uttering the monologues have different names, sexes, and histories, the similar language of their monologues often seems more like different aspects of the same consciousness, perhaps representing the various aspects of humankind as a whole.
Besides novels, Woolf also published many works of nonfiction, including two extended essays exploring the roles of women in history and society: A Room of One’s Own (1929) and Three Guineas (1938). Her works of literary criticism include The Common Reader (1925) and The Common Reader: Second Series (1932). After her death, Woolf’s diaries were edited and published in five volumes between 1977 and 1984 as The Diary of Virginia Woolf. The Letters of Virginia Woolf appeared in six volumes from 1975 to 1980.
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