Besides authoring short stories, Virginia Woolf was an acute and detailed diarist (her diary entries occupy five volumes in the authoritative collected edition); a prolific letter writer (six volumes in the authoritative collected edition); a biographer; a perceptive, original, and argumentative essayist and reviewer (her collected essays fill six volumes in the authoritative edition); and a pioneer of the modern novel in her ten works of long prose fiction, which include the acknowledged classics Mrs. Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927), and The Waves (1931).
A distinguished and distinctive prose stylist, Virginia Woolf excelled in fiction, nonfiction, and her own unique hybrid of these genres in her two whimsical books Orlando: A Biography (1928) and Flush: A Biography (1933), which are variously categorized as fiction, nonfiction, or “other” by critics of her work. In nonfiction, essays such as “The Death of the Moth,” “How Should One Read a Book?” and “Shakespeare’s Sister” have been widely anthologized, and in their vividness, imagery, and keen analysis of daily life, literature, society, and women’s concerns assure Woolf a place in the history of the essay.
In fiction, Woolf’s classic novels, sharing much in style and theme with the nonfiction, have overshadowed the short stories. Reacting against the realistic and naturalistic fiction of her time, Woolf often emphasized lyricism, stream of consciousness, and the irresolute slice of life in both her novels and her stories, though she wrote more conventional fiction as well. Whether the conventional “well-made” or the experimental stream-of-consciousness variety, many of her approximately fifty short stories are accomplished works of art. Because of their precise and musical prose style, irony, ingenious spiral form (with narrative refrains), reversal or revelatory structure, and exploration of human nature and social life, they deserve to be better known and to be studied for themselves and not just for what they may reveal about the novels.
To say that Virginia Woolf lived to write is no exaggeration. Her output was both prodigious and varied; counting her posthumously published works, it fills more than forty volumes. Beyond her novels, her fiction encompasses several short-story collections. As a writer of nonfiction, Woolf was similarly prolific, her book-length works including Roger Fry: A Biography (1940) and two influential feminist statements, A Room of One’s Own (1929) and Three Guineas (1938). Throughout her life, Woolf also produced criticism and reviews; the best-known collections are The Common Reader: First Series (1925) and The Common Reader: Second Series (1932). In 1966 and 1967, the four volumes of Collected Essays were published. Additional books of essays, reviews, and sketches continue to appear, most notably the illuminating selection of autobiographical materials, Moments of Being (1976). Her letters—3,800 of them survive—are available in six volumes; when publication was completed, her diaries stood at five. Another collection, of Woolf’s essays, also proved a massive, multivolume undertaking.
From the appearance of her first novel in 1915, Virginia Woolf’s work was received with respect—an important point, since she was extremely sensitive to criticism. Descendant of a distinguished literary family, member of the avant-garde Bloomsbury Group, herself an experienced critic and reviewer, she was taken seriously as an artist. Nevertheless, her early works were not financially successful; she was forty before she earned a living from her writing. From the start, the rather narrow territory of her novels precluded broad popularity, peopled as they were with sophisticated, sexually reserved, upper-middle-class characters, finely attuned to their sensibilities and relatively insulated from the demands of mundane existence. When in Jacob’s Room she first abandoned the conventional novel to experiment with the interior monologues and lyrical poetic devices that characterize her mature method, she also began to develop a reputation as a “difficult” or “highbrow” writer, though undeniably an important one. Not until the brilliant fantasy Orlando was published did she enjoy a definite commercial success. Thereafter, she received both critical and popular acclaim; The Years was even a bona fide best seller.
During the 1930’s, Woolf became the subject of critical essays and two book-length studies; some of her works were translated into French. At the same time, however, her novels began to be judged as irrelevant...
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What contributions to Virginia Woolf’s literary success were made by her husband?
Woolf was not enthusiastic about James Joyce’s works, but there are patterns of resemblance in her novel Mrs. Dalloway and Joyce’s Ulysses (1922). How are the two authors’ depictions of one day in the life of the protagonist similar and in what major ways do they differ?
Does the children’s reconciliation with their father in To the Lighthouse reflect the course of Woolf’s relationship with her own father?
What is the essence of Mrs. Ramsay’s character?
Does Woolf push her idea of the structure of a novel to its ultimate limit in The Waves?
Did Woolf abandon the notion of plot or merely subordinate it to characterization?
Why did A Room of One’s Own have to wait until the 1960’s to receive full recognition?
Abel, Elizabeth. Virginia Woolf and the Fictions of Psychoanalysis. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989. With a focus upon symbolism and stylistic devices, this book comprehensively delineates the psychoanalytic connections between Woolf’s fiction and Sigmund Freud’s and Melanie Klein’s theories. Sometimes difficult to follow, however, given Abel’s reliance on excellent but extensive endnotes.
Baldwin, Dean R. Virginia Woolf: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne, 1989. Baldwin’s lucid parallels between Woolf’s life experiences and her innovative short-story techniques contribute significantly to an understanding of both the author and her creative process. The book also presents the opportunity for a comparative critical study by furnishing a collection of additional points of view in the final section. A chronology, a bibliography, and an index supplement the work.
Banks, Joanne Trautmann. “Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield.” In The English Short Story, 1880-1945: A Critical History, edited by Joseph M. Flora. Boston, Mass.: Twayne, 1985. In about twelve pages, the philosophical themes of several stories (imagination, perception) are briefly explored, plus the affinities of the two writers, deriving from feminist concerns and admiration of Anton Chekhov’s short fiction.
Barrett, Eileen, and Patricia Cramer, eds. Virginia Woolf: Lesbian Readings. New York: New York University Press, 1997. This collection of conference papers features two essays on Woolf’s stories: one on Katherine Mansfield’s presence in Woolf’s story “Moments of Being,” and one that compares lesbian modernism in the stories of Woolf with lesbian modernism in the stories of Gertrude Stein.
Beja, Morris, ed. Critical Essays on Virginia Woolf. Boston: G. K. Hall and Co., 1985. This collection is divided into two sections: reviews of Woolf’s major works and essays on Woolf’s art and artistic vision. The various interpretations reflect the editor’s premise that Virginia Woolf, though claimed by several ages and schools of criticism, was unique and thus cannot be pigeonholed in any specific way.
Bell, Quentin. Virginia Woolf: A Biography. 2 vols. London: The Hogarth Press, 1972. Written by Virginia Woolf’s nephew, this biography is based upon Woolf’s memoirs, journals, and correspondence. While it is invaluable for its storehouse of information, it says little about Woolf’s fiction and the ways in which her life and work were interrelated.
Bennett, Joan. Virginia Woolf: Her Art as a Novelist. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1945. Reprint. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1964. Though a slim volume, this book offers a useful overview of Woolf’s innovations and her continuity with tradition. Chapters on Woolf’s fictional techniques are followed by chapters on her contributions to nonfiction through A Writer’s Diary (1953) and her many critical essays.
Bleishman, Avrom. “Forms of the Woolfian Short Story.” In Virginia Woolf: Revaluation and Continuity, edited by Ralph Freedman. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980. In twenty-six pages, abstract theoretical issues concerning genre are discussed; then several stories are divided into the two categories of linear (for example, “The New Dress” and “Kew Gardens”) and circular (for example, “The Duchess” and “Lappin and Lapinova”) in form.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Virginia Woolf. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1986. This volume is a collection of essays and excerpts ranging from 1951 to the time of the book’s publication. Arranged chronologically, the volume offers various interpretations of Woolf’s work,...
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