Virginia Woolf Essay - Critical Essays

Virginia Woolf Short Fiction Analysis

Perhaps related to her mental condition is Virginia Woolf’s interest in perception and perspective, as well as their relationship to imagination, in many stories. In two short avant-garde pieces—“Monday or Tuesday” (six paragraphs) and “Blue and Green” (two paragraphs, one for each color)—Woolf attempts to convey the reality of the urban and natural worlds through discrete, apparently disconnected associative impressions.

“Monday or Tuesday” and “Blue and Green”

In “Monday or Tuesday,” a series of contrasts between up and down, spatially free timelessness (a lazily flying heron) and restrictive timeliness (a clock striking), day and night, inside and outside, present experience and later recollection of it conveys the ordinary cycle of life suggested by the title and helps capture its experiential reality, the concern expressed by the refrain question that closes the second, fourth, and fifth paragraphs: “and truth?”

Similar contrasts inform the two paragraphs describing the blue and green aspects of reality and the feelings associated with them in “Blue and Green.” These two colors are dominant and symbolic throughout Woolf’s short stories. Differing perspectives, which are almost cinematic or painterly, also structure “In the Orchard,” as each of the story’s three sections, dealing with a woman named Miranda sleeping in an orchard, focuses on, in order, the sleeping Miranda in relation to her physical surroundings, the effect of the physical surroundings on Miranda’s dreaming (and thus the interconnection between imagination and external world), and finally a return to the physical environment, with a shift in focus to the orchard’s apple trees and birds. The simultaneity and differing angle of the three perspectives are suggested by the narrative refrain that closes each section, a sentence referring to Miranda jumping upright and exclaiming that she will be late for tea.

The ability of the imagination, a key repeated word in Woolf’s short stories, to perceive accurately the surrounding world is an issue in many of the stories. In “The Mark on the Wall,” a narrator is led into associative musings from speculating about the mark, only to discover, with deflating irony, that the source of the imaginative ramblings is in reality a lowly snail (with the further concluding ironic reversal being an unexpected reference to World War I, whose seriousness undercuts the narrator’s previous whimsical free associations). Even more difficult is the imagination’s perception of people (who and what individuals really are) in the surrounding world. This is the chief problem of the biographer, a task at which Woolf herself was successful, though not the self-centered and somewhat dishonest novelist’s biographer who narrates “Memoirs of a Novelist.” In the four stories “An Unwritten Novel,” “Moments of Being: ‘Slater’s Pins Have No Points,’” “The Lady in the Looking Glass: A Reflection,” and “The Shooting Party,” a major character or the narrator is led through small details into imaginative flights about the life and personality of an individual—only, in the story’s concluding reversal, to be proved incorrect or be left very doubtful about the picture or account created. Likewise showing a connection between the literary artist’s problem of depicting the truth and the imagination’s problem in probing reality is the story “The Three Pictures,” in which the first picture, of a sailor’s homecoming to a welcoming wife, leads the narrator to imagine further happy events, undercut by the second and third pictures revealing the sailor’s death from a fever contracted overseas and the despair of his wife.

The problem of “and truth?” (as phrased in “Monday or Tuesday”) can be comically superficial, as in the narrator’s wasted sympathetic imaginings in “Sympathy” in response to a newspaper account of Humphrey Hammond’s death, only to discover in the story’s conclusion that the article referred to the elderly father rather than the son (with ironic undercutting of the genuineness of the narrator’s sympathy because of her chagrin about the “deception” and “waste”). In contrast, in “The Fascination of the Pool,” the deeply evocative imagery and symbolism of never-ending layers of stories absorbed by a pool...

(The entire section is 1786 words.)