“Here came the sun, an illimitable rapture of joy, embracing every flower, every leaf. Then in compassion it withdrew, covering its face, as if it forebore to look on human suffering.”
Virginia Woolf, from “Between the Acts”
Virginia Adelina Stephen was born in London in 1882. Her father, Leslie Stephen, was a well-known and appreciated Victorian intellectual and she grew up in a lively literary environment. She was educated mostly at home, some private Greek lessons, a few courses at King’s College, London and free access to whatever she could find in her father’s rich library.
Her family was quite peculiar, both her parents were at their second marriage and she had several half-siblings from her parents’ previous marriages. Some of these relationships proved to be very disturbing and traumatic for her during her younger years. She was sexually assaulted by one of her half-brothers and, at 13, right after her mother’s Death – an event that affected her deeply – she had her first nervous breakdown. She then rebelled against her father who was a despotic and selfish individual. Her mental stability never really recovered after her first nervous breakdown and she attempted suicide several times.
The Bloomsbury Group and Stream of Consciousness
When her father died, in 1904, she was finally free to live her life and begin her writing career. She moved to Bloomsbury and, together with her sister Vanessa, she contributed to found the Bloomsbury Group. A very active group of avant-garde and radical intellectuals who refused the traditional moral codes of the past, whether artistic or concerned with social conventions, they all embraced the anti-war sentiments and adhered to socialism in full contempt of the old bourgeoisie’s precepts and values. They outlined the new Modernist and Post-modernist aesthetics founded on the revolutionary stream-of-consciousness prose style developed by Virginia Woolf. During this time she also taught working people at an evening college.
In 1912 she married Leonard Woolf with whom she sets up the Hogarth Press publishing house, they published many avant-garde artists and her own writings. Eventually it became a thriving business. When World War II broke out her fears and qualms regarding racial persecutions against Jews, her husband had Jewish origins, gave her the last blow and she drowned herself in the river Ouse. It was 1941 and she was fifty-nine.
VIRGINIA WOOLF’S PHILOSOPHY AND LITERARY STYLE
A Continuous Flow of Thoughts as opposed to Conventionally Arranged Symmetry
Virginia Woolf’s approach to literature was completely different from the traditional outlook. Very strongly influenced by the works of James Joyce, Marcel Proust and William James, she believed that the orderly sequence of events that, until then had actually made up the traditional narrations, were no longer important. A new urgent need developed within her, that is the necessity to voice the inner world of the mind of characters. In other words, what was most important for her were not the situations or circumstances that could affect a character’s development, but the emotions and perceptions that the characters experienced by living through those situations and circumstances. Therefore, she developed a new writing technique that did not imply the complete disappearance of the omniscient narrator, as it did in Joyce, it allowed her all the same to portray the character’s point view through flashbacks, associations of ideas, momentary impressions laid out as a continuous flow of thoughts taking place inside the mind of the character. In her essay, Modern Fiction (1919), she writes:
“Examine for a moment an ordinary mind on an ordinary day. The mind receives a myriad impressions – trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpness of steel. From all sides they come, an incessant shower of innumerable atoms; and as they fall, as they shape themselves into the life of Monday or Tuesday, the accent falls differently from of old; the moment of importance came not here but there; so that, if a writer were a free man and not a slave, if he could write what he chose, not what he must, if he could base his work upon his own feeling and not upon conventions, there would be no plot, no comedy, no tragedy, no love interest or catastrophe in the accepted style, and perhaps not a single button sewn on as the Bond Street tailors would have it. Life is not a series of gig-lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning to the end”.
The Subjective Reality in the Stream of Consciousness and Moments of Being
The subjective reality that she portrays through her writing is exemplified by the writing technique known as stream-of-consciousness. Yet, she never allows her characters’ thoughts to flow without any control, on the contrary she is very careful to maintain logical and grammatical organisation. She combines the character’s thoughts with a third-person, past tense narrative, this way she can put together close connections between the happenings of the outside world and its effects on the mind of the character, so that the past and the present, the speech and silence blend together. In addition, what will be referred to as the ‘epiphany’ by Joyce, Woolf defines it ‘moments of being’, these are rare moments during which the character reaches insight and is capable of seeing reality beyond its surfacing appearances.
Her language flows easily through the choice of words that evoke emotions, they are, in fact, poetic and allusive and she does work her way through the most intricate thoughts to stretch so far out as to express the most intimate feelings.
Virginia Woolf’s themes can be summarised as such:
- The passing of time and man’s difficulty to deal with this inevitable event
- A decaying society lacking any stable point of reference
- The subjectivity of reality
- The gender issue and personal identity
Virginia Woolf’s Literary Production
- The Voyage Out, (1915) is Woolf’s first novel and it still followed a traditional scheme, still conventional in style and form are also Night and Day, Monday or Tuesday.
- Jacob’s Room, (1922) clearly shows her early attempts towards experimental writing. The novel lacks any plot, the life of the main character, Jacob, is portrayed in different moments of his life through a series of flashes that do not follow chronological order, and are used to describe the protagonist through the eyes of his friends or the women he loved and are accounts of the impressions of the people he met by using the technique of the interior monologue. Jacob is tailored on Woolf’s brother Thoby, who had died of typhoid fever at 26.
- Mrs Dalloway, (1925) here Woolf successfully experimented her writing techniques. The novel unravels its action during one day alone. Woolf shows her characters busy with ordinary actions on an ordinary day. All her characters are shown while walking the streets of London while carrying out their errands, and at the same time, lost in their train of thoughts, giving the reader hints and information regarding their past, their personal backgrounds and their feelings. Often defined as a ‘drama within the mind’ what matters is not so much the action, rather the flow of time in line with Bergson’s concept of durée.
- To The Lighthouse, (1927), in this work her style and technique acquire maturity, many believe that it is her masterpiece among others, the lighthouse is the stable point of reference around which the entire novel develops. The novel is a series of experiences, memories, emotions and feelings that are held together by symbols. The story told unfolds over a period of time of ten years, it centres around the difficult relationships and conflicts within the Ramsay family and its components and it is divided into three sections: “The Window”, which takes place in a summer afternoon and evening. The window is one of two recurrent symbols in Woolf, it is both the dividing and connecting point between the self and society. The second major symbol is the lighthouse, like we mentioned above, it is, on the one hand a positive symbol of stability in a constantly changing world, on the other hand it is the inaccessible destination leading to frustration and threatening danger. The second part is the “Time Passes” and it covers ten years and finally “The Lighthouse” which lasts only one day. During this last part, back in the island-house years later the initial events, the surviving members of the family realise that in contrast to their lives, which have taken unexpected turns, the lighthouse still stands there, a motionless reality versus the fluid one of human subjective perception.
- Orlando, (1928), this novel is, as stated by Woolf herself, a biography of Vita Sackville West, a minor writer of the time with whom Woolf had an intense relationship. The structure of the novel is apparently traditional, yet it contains all those themes and elements that we have mentioned above. The plot is rich in coups de thêatre, and Orlando who, at the beginning of the novel is a man eventually will become a woman and then a man again. The time spans over more than 400 years and in, a sense, it can be said that the protagonist is also the personification of Britain and its history along with British literary developments. A very important element in the narration is the issue regarding clothing and how it is identified by Woolf as the distinctive tract of gender identity. It is only when Orlando begins to wear female’s attire that he actually feels as a woman, in fact regardless the sudden shift in gender he/she remains at heart the same person, the individual identity doesn’t change, what does change is the perception that he/she has of social conventions, thus achieving the insight that, in point of fact, society does put enormous pressure on women; moreover, social conventions put up those role boundaries that confine men and women within personal identities that are not freely chosen by the individual, but, are on the contrary imposed by external forces and pressures to conform to conventions.
- The Waves, (1931) here Woolf seems to link her illness and her creative process. This is probably Woolf’s most symbolic work, obsession with death and the echo of the sea are the main symbols. The sound of the flow and backflow of the waves represent the changing moods of the human mind, while the decay produced by the sea reminds us of death, the prose in this novel reaches peaks of lyricism.
- The Years, (1937) marks Woolf’s return to realism and her art seems to reach climax, it is about the lives of a family group narrated through their everyday crises over several years going from the 1880s until Woolf’s own time.
- Between the Acts, (1941) it was published after her death and it conceals many hidden allusions. She started writing it between 1937 and 1938, the Second World War was about to destroy everything, many of her close friends, first Lytton Strachey and after Roger Fry, had died and left her mourning and awaiting for her own dismissal which became ever so protruding and disturbing. Furthermore, the Bloomsbury home and another house belonging to her had been destroyed during London’s bombing. The world appeared to come apart. All these elements make up the bulk of Virginia Woolf’s last novel. As written in his book review published on the New York Times of October 1941, Professor Strode , says:
“At once a woman of profound erudition and intuitive intelligence, she is also the most poignantly sensitive of English novelists. Yet there was a leaven of zest and humor in her make-up, and her wit was akin to that slyly malicious kind that ran in the veins of Prince Hamlet. Steeped in the classical tradition, she was an audacious experimentalist. She looked upon existence as a maze of paradoxes, but she was continually uplifted and renewed by the transient beauty of the world. “
VIRGINIA WOOLF AND THE GENDER ISSUE
A talented literary critic and a brilliant essayist as well, she collected articles that she published on magazines in The Common Reader, (1952), the same can be said for the various conferences and lectures she delivered which were gathered in The Three Guineas, (1938). In this book we can find the essay, A Room of One’s Own, a collection of two lectures she delivered at Cambridge in 1929 in defence of women’s rights, to explain its title and polemical tone Woolf said:
“Poetry depends upon intellectual freedom. … Women have had less intellectual freedom than the sons of Athenian slaves. Women, then, have had a dog’s chance of writing poetry. That is why I have laid so much stress on money and a room of one’s own”.
She did, in fact, emphasise the strong connection between economic independence on the part of women to achieve artistic independence. This book had great impact on the feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s.
In conclusion we can turn to Professor Strode, one last time, by saying with him:
“In ten novels Mrs. Woolf lifted veil after veil to reveal what she perceived as the secret meaning of life. When one finishes a book of hers it is not characters he remembers but their spiritual emanations, which are in reality manifestations or facets of Virginia’s Woolf supervision. Her peculiar interest not in surfaces but in mysterious motivations and subterfuges that do not meet the eye. And no other English novelist has ever written more dazzling passages of poetry undefiled than Virginia Woolf. Like the great poets–Shakespeare, Donne, Shelley, Blake–Mrs. Woolf could say the unsayable, and it is there in her books for those who have ears attuned to unheard melodies, even if they can never recommunicate it in any language except Mrs. Woolf’s own precisely”.
Strode, H. The Genius of Virginia Woolf, “The New York Times”, October 5th, 1941.
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© L. R. Capuana