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Themes

The Experience of Time Is Subjective

Virginia Woolf was one of the trailblazers of modernism, a literary movement that tried to capture the subjectivity of human experience. This sense of subjectivity extended to her memoir writing. Woolf attempted to capture the past as she wrote, over a lifetime, the essays that comprise Moments of Being. However, she realized as she did so that every moment of time that makes up the past is not equivalent. Rational, empirical thinking had divided time into equal segments, such as the sixty equal seconds that comprise a minute, and the sixty minutes of an hour, but that is not how humans experience time. Instead, as she describes in "A Sketch of the Past," time can be divided into two types: being and nonbeing. Moments of being are the moments that we remember vividly, the moments when time slows down and awareness sharpens. For example, Woolf records seeing willows "all plumy and soft green and purple" and reading Chaucer with pleasure on a particular day. These are moments of being because they stick in her memory. However, she also notes the much vaster time she spends in the "cotton wool" of nonbeing on the same day, such as when she forgets what she and her husband, Leonard, talked about at lunch and tea. Likewise, whole weeks would pass, for example, unremembered by her at her family's Cornwall summer home in St. Ives, and then some event would etch itself forever into her memory. One such moment of being occurs when fighting her brother Thoby: she suddenly wonders, "why hurt another person?" and never forgets that moment. Although periods of nonbeing predominate in life, it is the moments of being that seem longer and preoccupy us, invading our memory.

Memoir and Autobiography Must Be Candid

Woolf and her Bloomsbury cohort reacted sharply against the way lives, both in biography and autobiography, were presented in the Victorian era. They found these presentations grossly dishonest, replacing the reality of people's experiences with whitewashed versions that left out the uglier, more real, and more interesting parts of who they were. As Woolf writes in "Reminiscences," the "written words of a person who is dead or still alive . . . [tend to] drape themselves in smooth folds annulling all evidence of life." She repeats this theme in "A Sketch of the Past" when she states that memoirs tell us what happened but "leave out the person to whom the things happened." She struggled in her Moments of Being essays with how to fully and truly convey the people she remembered, such as her mother. Most of all, she did not want to sanitize the past.

Woolf had felt this sanitizing constraint especially acutely, as she participated as a very young woman in helping write Maitland's biography of her own father, Leslie Stephen, in which most of the reality of who he was—such as his explosive temper—was airbrushed away in favor of an idealized portrait. She was determined not to do this in her own memoir writing. Thus, the essays in Moments of Being are shocking by Victorian standards in what they reveal—because Woolf fervently believed that a life could not be understood without capturing its darker side. She includes the details she does, however, not to shock but because of her deep conviction that future generations cannot learn from the past if the past is not revealed truthfully.

Thus in "A Sketch of the Past," she writes of her half-brother Gerald Duckworth, far older than she was, molesting her when she was about six at their family summer home in St. Ives: "his hand explored my private parts too." Her father's temper in this same essay is described without whitewashing it, depicting his shouting, breast-beating, melodramatic self-dramatization as he went over the weekly finances and her own fury over his behavior, calling this memory an "unexaggerated account" and his behavior "brutal." In the essay "22 Hyde Park Gate," she likewise is unflinching in depicting the embarrassing emotional cauldron and...

(The entire section is 1,163 words.)