Below is an excerpt from my honours thesis on Virginia Woolf. It was written at the University of Melbourne, Australia, in 2006-2007.

“[W]e are sealed vessels afloat on what it is convenient to call reality; and at some moments, the sealing matter cracks; in floods reality”.[1]

Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf’s fiction is an attempt to represent life as she saw it – but what exactly did she see?  Despite her preference for the anti-conventional, often subjective and fragmented Modernist style, Woolf had a “remarkably steady perception of the world”.[2]  There is a sense, throughout her writing, that although her characters seem to be “always in flux”, Woolf believed “there was a point at which things would cohere”.[3]  This point of cohesion allows us to glimpse “some real thing” – reality, as Virginia Woolf understood it.[4]  The underlying goal of Woolf’s art is to reconcile the fragmentary nature of the world with its unity – to present “simultaneously the change and continuity of the individual identity”.[5]

Virginia Woolf believed in two types of reality, or a “dual sense of life”.[6]  The first type can be called ‘surface reality’ – the “external” reality of the everyday, the things we can see, feel, hear and understand.[7]  The second type is more complex and “ephemeral” – consisting of something beneath the surface reality.[8]  While the first reality is a part of everyday life, and therefore a part of community and language, the second is not.  Description of this reality by conventional means, then, is impossible, as it is made up of “things that are unsayable”.[9]  Hence Woolf’s “quest” to find a new form of representation that would give us access to this “ineffable” but essential part of life.[10]  This Chapter will describe as clearly as possible what Woolf “might call a philosophy” or “constant idea”.[11]

Woolf’s art, unlike the novels of the Victorian era, is not about painting a detailed picture of “external, objective Reality”.[12]  Rather, as Mark Hussey recognises, her novels strive to present “our basic experience of the world”.[13]  This experience is “different for everyone”, although all individual lives have important elements in common and belong to “a larger pattern”.[14]  This larger pattern of experience is broken up into what Woolf calls moments of “being” and “non-being”.[15]  Most of us live most of our lives in a state of non-being, or a state of “the ordinariness of daily life”.[16]  ‘Non-being’ is a way of describing our day to day existence – eating, sleeping, cleaning, paying bills, watching Big Brother.  Virginia Woolf believed that in “daily life” we are “sealed vessels afloat on what it is convenient to call reality”, but which is not true or complete reality.[17]  Moments of being, on the other hand, show us “‘some real thing behind appearances’” – a reality that we are unaware of in our everyday lives.[18]  These moments are “rare” but cause “shock” when they occur.[19]  Woolf describes the experience of such a moment as a crack in the “sealing matter . . . in floods reality”.[20]  According to Jeanne Schulkind, when a person experiences a ‘moment of being’ the “self is transcended and the individual consciousness becomes an undifferentiated part of a greater whole.”[21]  We come to realise, in these moments, that “life is surrounded by a halo of beauty”, and that there is something indescribable that runs beneath everyday reality, and gives life meaning.[22]  Both types of reality, however, are necessary to our experience.  As Stella McNichol notes, “the self grows through ‘moments of being’, but it also evolves through long periods of non-being”.[23]  Although Woolf believed in the power of the world’s underlying reality to give life meaning, she did not ignore the “routines and obligations which serve to hold us together through life.”[24]  Rather, she accepted “the discontinuities and jaggedness of living” and combined them with “transcendent” reality in an attempt to create a “single unity”.[25]  Her novels serve to illustrate the “self-awareness” instilled by moments of being, particularly in her “female characters”.[26]  Perhaps the most famous example occurs in Mrs. Dalloway (1925), where Clarissa marvels at an ordinary day in London – “the triumph and the jingle and the strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead was what she loved; life; London; this moment of June.”[27]  In the same way, Mrs Ramsay’s dinner party in To The Lighthouse (1927) creates “inside the room . . . order . . . there, outside, a reflection in which things wavered”.[28]  In this scene, Mrs Ramsay feels that “[f]or the moment she hung suspended.”[29]  Both of these examples demonstrate the way in which moments of being can occur in the midst of the everyday, and that they are in fact stimulated by awareness of the marvellousness of ordinary experience.

Despite Modernism’s preoccupation with fragmentation, subjectivity and unconventionality, the idea of “wholeness” is “at the centre of Modernist literature.”[30]  And although Virginia Woolf often presents her characters as “[f]ragmented . . . disparate, isolated selves” she is at the same time trying to present “an overriding . . . unity”.[31]  As Jeanne Schulkind notes, in Woolf’s work “the fragments do arrange themselves into a meaningful order”.[32]  The best example of Woolf’s attempt to represent unity is her novel The Waves.  Eric Warner notes that in her earlier novels, such as Mrs. Dalloway and To The Lighthouse, there is an abundance “of the character’s mental world, a rapid whirl of perception, memory, emotion and thought”.[33]  In The Waves, however, “such interior levels of awareness disappear” and are replaced by a more “general and universal perspective”.[34]  One of Woolf’s later novels, The Waves was written after plenty of experimentation, and it seems she felt that she had begun to perfect her method, calling it “my first work in my own style”.[35]  The Waves tells the stories of six different but related characters in their own voices, as though each character is speaking his or her thoughts – “‘I see a ring,’ said Bernard . . . ‘I see a slab of pale yellow,’ said Susan . . . ‘I see a globe,’ said Neville”.[36]  The characters have grown up together, essentially shared their entire lives with each other, and although they are at times undeniably separate, they remain “facets of a single unity which has been momentarily shattered into fragments.”[37]

The driving force of The Waves is its analysis of the relationship between the interior lives of individuals and “the vast, impersonal, and irrational world of phenomena.”[38]  That is, the meeting of the underlying ephemeral, complex reality and the reality of the everyday.  The way in which the six characters in The Waves each tries to negotiate their own place in the world, “to wrench some coherent meaning out of the flux around them”, demonstrates the importance of individuality while also making it clear that community and wholeness are just as necessary to existence.[39]  As Michael Rosenthal notes, the individual characters in The Waves “can actually be thought of as a single, multifaceted sensibility” that gains strength, in its experience of reality, from its unity.[40]

For Stella McNichol, The Waves is an example of the need for human beings to achieve completeness by moving “from their separateness into a sense of relatedness to other human beings”.[41]  Rhoda, for example, is desperate to be in ‘the loop’ – “‘[t]he world is entire, and I am outside of it, crying, “[o]h save me, from being blown for ever outside the loop of time!”’”[42]  Bernard, coming home from dinner with his friends proclaims “‘I do not want the connection which has bound us together sitting opposite each other all night long to be broken.’”[43]

Such longing for unity coupled with an equal recognition of the need for separateness makes Virginia Woolf seem a paradoxical author.  Her writing emphasises the importance of individual, discrete identities, but at the same time the unity of a connected, continuous whole – a “ring” that is “beyond space and time, beyond the individual.”[44]  Woolf is concerned to present on one hand the extraordinary detail of “the routine dailiness of life”, while on the other she believes reality to be “an ultimate and unchanging pattern” that is “behind appearances” – a “ ‘reality’ apart from actual life and yet rooted in it”.[45]

The idea of a reality that is beyond the surface of everyday life is also “beyond words”.[46]   Language, and the ways in which we communicate our ideas and feelings about life, in Woolf’s philosophy is consequently problematic.  As T.E. Apter notes, Woolf believed “that there is something real to be communicated, but language is always insufficient.”[47]  Woolf’s struggle to discover a form that would represent reality as she saw it was due to the fact that she was trying to say “things that are unsayable”.[48]  Many of Woolf’s novels, including The Waves, exhibit this “disjunction between language and reality”.[49]  The best example, however, of Woolf’s attempt to discuss and resolve this problem is her final novel, Between the Acts.  In this novel the sense that “the potential of language cannot be realised” is pervasive.[50]  Isa, in seeking to describe her feelings for Rupert Haines “groped . . . for a word”.[51]  Giles has “no command of metaphor”.[52]  Even in the conversations that do occur between characters there is a lamentation over language – “‘We haven’t the words – we haven’t the words,’” Mrs. Swithin says, to which her brother replies – “‘Thoughts without words . . . Can that be?’”.[53]  This seems to be the question Woolf has asked herself: can reality be portrayed without words, or at least without traditional methods of representation?  Jane Wheare understands Woolf as feeling “the limitations of conventional language”, rather than language as a whole.[54]  Certainly, Woolf’s writing is in many ways far from conventional – “in constant flux, rather than linear.”[55]  Mark Hussey suggests that by moving away from a “linear progression” and by “circling backwards and forwards . . . the suggestive power of language can be realized”.[56]  Between the Acts certainly challenges the conventional narrative form – encouraging itself to “break the rhythm and forget the rhyme.[57]  It also draws attention to the clichés and inadequacies of more traditional fiction – William Dodge compares the relationships around him to what “people say in novels”, and Isa wonders “[d]id the plot matter?”[58]  Woolf introduces a new kind of language in her writing, a kind where plot doesn’t matter and the interiority of her characters is of the utmost importance.  Makiko Minow-Pinkney calls this style “‘stream of consciousness’” and points out that writing in this way “can to a certain extent go beyond its essential linearity.”[59]  ‘Stream of consciousness’ writing allows a reader to follow a character’s thought processes as they occur, however circling and non-linear these processes may be.  In Between the Acts we follow Lucy’s mind as it jumps from thought to thought while she cuts bread – “[a]nd so skipped, sidelong, from yeast to alcohol; so to fermentation; so to inebriation; so to Bacchus; and lay under purple lamps in a vineyard in Italy, as she had done, often”.[60]  It also allows great insight into how characters really feel about a situation – in The Waves, for example, we are privy to what characters think rather than what they say.  Woolf has created a new language that describes the interior world of her characters rather than the exterior.

The exterior world, however, and communication between individuals is just as important to Woolf’s philosophy of reality as the acknowledgement of each person’s private interiority.  Although we must recognise the existence of inner worlds unable to be described by everyday language and convention, we must not forget the external, ordinariness of day to day life.  T.E. Apter calls this “the difficult balance between the need for solitude and silence . . . and the need for society”.[61]  We must understand the affect the external world has upon our internal selves, as well as the necessity of communication and interaction with other people, and the influence these people have over us.  Ruth Miller emphasises Woolf’s belief that identities “are the products of perception” – not just our own perceptions but also those of our peers.[62]  She is very aware of the ways in which the thoughts and words of other people can alter “the shape of the self that is presented to the world.”[63]  The characters in The Waves, for example, “realise that it is necessary to be seen in order to establish their identities”.[64]  As Bernard notes, “[t]o be myself . . . I need the illumination of other people’s eyes”.[65]  A cursory examination of Woolf’s work may result in the feeling that her idea of reality is self-centred, that her characters are all absorbed completely in their interior lives.  However, upon closer inspection it is clear that what Woolf is trying to encourage is the recognition of individuality and subjective perception in everybody.  It is not about being selfish or self-absorbed, but rather about striving for a unified world where “individuals recognise and accept their community with all human beings.”[66]  The Waves exemplifies this notion by concentrating on the interior lives of six different characters, as well as their communal interactions.  Mrs. Dalloway presents a woman who is incredibly social, who enjoys throwing parties and yet also “never permits the privacy of the individual soul to be entirely obscured from her view.”[67]  And in Between the Acts, the novel Woolf felt most completely embodied her idea of reality, there is a definite “community feeling”.[68]  The characters recognise that “[i]f it was painful” it was also “essential” to be unable to escape society.[69]  And it is even quite “pleasant, to run slap into Mrs Manresa and an unknown young man with tow-coloured hair and a twisted face.”[70]  Miss LaTrobe’s pageant is a device to “hold them together”, and its meaning, as the Reverend Streatfield surmises, is that “we are members of one another.  Each is part of the whole.”[71]

“[B]ehind the cotton wool is hidden a pattern . . . that the whole world is a work of art; that we are parts of the work of art.”[72]

Virginia Woolf

In summary, Virginia Woolf believed in an “ineffable” quality of life beneath the surface of everyday reality.[73]  In her writing she strove to demonstrate this inner reality, but also to describe its relationship to external, day to day existence.  Her novels emphasise the importance of the fragmented and random events of our daily lives, but also hint at a unity that runs beneath this.  Woolf encourages us to appreciate the privacy of our individual perception, but also to recognise that everybody sees things differently, everybody has their own inner life.  External experiences of language and community are essential to the creation of these lives, and to unity.  Woolf wants us to recognise our part in the whole, to understand that our lives hold meanings that are not always apparent on the surface.


[1] Virginia Woolf, “A Sketch of the Past”, in Moments of Being; edited with an introduction and notes by Jeanne Schulkind, London: Hogarth, 1985, p. 122.

[2] Michael Rosenthal, Virginia Woolf, New York: ColumbiaUniversity Press, 1979, p. 42.

[3] Woolf, above n 1, 12, Schulkind’s Introduction; Stella McNichol, Virginia Woolf and the Poetry of Fiction, London; New York: Routledge, 1990, p. 119.

[4] Woolf, above n 1, 72.

[5] Ibid, 14, Schulkind’s Introduction.

[6] Rosenthal, above n 2, 90.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid, 90.

[9] Patricia Ondek Laurence, The Reading of Silence: Virginia Woolf in the English Tradition, Stanford, Calif.: StanfordUniversity Press, 1991, p. 2.

[10] Rosenthal, above n 2, 40; Laurence, above n 9, 1.

[11] Woolf, above n 1, 72.

[12] Mark Hussey, The Singing of the Real World: The Philosophy of Virginia Woolf’s Fiction, Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1986, p. xiii.

[13] Ibid, xiv, Hussy’s emphasis.

[14] Ibid, xiii; Rosenthal, above n 2, 92.

[15]  Woolf, above n 1, 70.

[16]  McNichol, above n 3, 119.

[17] Woolf, above n 1, 17, Shulkind’s Introduction; 122.

[18] Woolf, above n 1, 17, Schulkind’s Introduction.

[19] Ibid, Schulkind’s Introduction.

[20] Ibid, 122.

[21] Ibid, 18, Schulkind’s Introduction.

[22] Hussey, above n 12, 151.

[23] McNichol, above n 3, 133.

[24] Rosenthal, above n 2, 160.

[25] Ibid, 166; 196; 144.

[26] Hussey, above n 12, 148.

[27] Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway, in Selected Works of Virginia Woolf, Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions, 2005, p. 130.

[28] Virginia Woolf, To The Lighthouse, in Selected Works of Virginia Woolf, Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions, 2005, p. 318.

[29] Ibid, 323.

[30] N., Takei da Silva, Modernism and Virginia Woolf, Windsor, England: Windsor Publications, 1990, 203.

[31] Rosenthal, above n 2, 92; 90.

[32] Woolf, above n 1, 12, Schulkind’s Introduction.

[33] Eric Warner, Virginia Woolf, The Waves, Cambridge [Cambridgeshire]; New York: CambridgeUniversity Press, 1987, p. 40.

[34] Ibid, 40; 38.

[35] Virginia Woolf, A Writer’s Diary, Suffolk: Triad Granada, 1978, p. 172.

[36] Virginia Woolf, The Waves, in Selected Works of Virginia Woolf, Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions, 2005, p. 640.

[37] Pamela Transue, Virginia Woolf and the Politics of Style, Albany: StateUniversity of New York Press, 1986, p. 132.

[38] Ibid, 127.

[39] Rosenthal, above n 2, 157.

[40] Ibid, 149.

[41] McNichol, above n 3, 129.

[42] Woolf, above n 36, 646.

[43] Ibid, 690.

[44] Woolf, above n 1, 22, Schulkind’s Introduction.

[45] McNichol, above n 3, 72; Transue, above n 120, 174; Woolf, above n 84, 72; Hussey, above n 95, 141.

[46] Hussey, above n 12, xvi.

[47] T.E. Apter, Virginia Woolf: A Study of Her Novels, New York: New YorkUniversity Press, 1979, p. 153.

[48] Laurence, above n 9, 2.

[49]  Hussey, above n 12, xx.

[50]  Apter, above n 47, 153.

[51] Virginia Woolf, Between the Acts, in Selected Works of Virginia Woolf, Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions, 2005, p. 934.

[52] Ibid, 950.

[53] Ibid, 951.

[54] Jane Wheare, Virginia Woolf: Dramatic Novelist, Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Macmillan, 1989, p. 4.

[55] Hussey, above n 12, xii.

[56] Ibid, xviii.

[57] Woolf, above n 51, 1005, Woolf’s emphasis.

[58] Ibid, 973; 966.

[59] Makiko Minow-Pinkney, Virginia Woolf and the Problem of the Subject, New Brunswick, N.J.: RutgersUniversity Press, 1987, p. 55; 57.

[60] Woolf, above n 51, 942.

[61] Apter, above n 47, 154.

[62] C. Ruth Miller, Virginia Woolf: The Frames of Art and Life, Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1988, p. 23.

[63] Woolf, above n 1, 15, Schulkind’s Introduction.

[64] Miller, above n 62, 23.

[65] Woolf, above n 36, 692.

[66] Miller, above n 62, 28.

[67] Rosenthal, above n 2, 98.

[68] McNichol, above n 3, 144.

[69] Woolf, above n 51, 943.

[70] Ibid.

[71] Ibid, 991; 1008.

[72] Woolf, above n 1, 72.

[73] Laurence, above n 9, 1.

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