Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Reading any of Woolf’s stories for the first time, the reader may be struck by how little physical action takes place in them, yet this author’s stories always contain much action—thought-as-action—because her characters’ conflicts are, with few exceptions, psychological ones. In “Together and Apart,” for example, Miss Anning and Mr. Serle sit down on a sofa and—except for when he occasionally crosses or uncrosses his legs—that is all the physical movement the story provides. However, even though the story consists of approximately three thousand words, only a hundred and fifty of which are actually spoken by the two characters, the reader learns about both characters’ lives—their feelings of inadequacy and incompleteness, their aspirations and frustrations, and their essentially inescapable feelings of aloneness. It is a testament to Woolf’s mastery of prose and storytelling that, while it takes place in a superficial and boring context, the story itself is neither. However, why would Woolf choose such a context?

In Moments of Being (1976), Woolf suggests that most individuals are not static personalities but are, instead, fluid and subject to constant changes in being and perception. Although a seemingly constant, continuous identity is imposed on people as they inhabit the finite world of physical and social existence, during “moments of being” this identity is transcended, and the individual consciousness becomes an undifferentiated part of a greater whole; at such a moment all limits associated with the finite world cease to exist. With this in mind, then, the reader is better able to understand why “Together and Apart” takes place in the limited confines of an artificial setting, for the setting itself heightens and intensifies the “moment of being” that Miss Anning and Mr. Serle experience. In fact, the limits imposed on Miss Anning, by the finite setting and the identity that it forces her to project, goad her into demanding more of herself, Mr. Serle, and their situation. Although in the story’s first paragraph Miss Anning’s perception of the infinite (the sky) is “shored up” by Mr. Serle’s presence (himself representing the restrictions of the finite world), she becomes the catalyst for her companion’s transcendent moment of communion with the infinite behind the “cloak.”