Last Updated on January 21, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1168
Moments of Being by Virginia Woolf is a collection of five autobiographical essays that were published posthumously. They span over three decades. The earliest essay, “Reminiscences,” was written in 1907, and the last, "Am I a Snob?" was completed in 1940. Nevertheless, they are all written in Woolf’s iconic stream-of-consciousness style.
Woolf is among the twentieth-century writers credited with helping to develop this literary style, in which the individual thought processes of a character are portrayed almost in the form of an internal monologue where the character essentially addresses themself. This style represented a marked departure from traditional literary style in use up until then, where most of the narrative is conveyed through a first-person or narrator’s address to the reader or to a third-person.
Thus, using this stream-of-consciousness style throughout the essays, Virginia Woolf voices her internal feelings in Moments of Being, just as if she were one of her own fictional characters in one of her novels. This literary device enables her writings in the essay to break through any linear time barrier, to move back and forth between the present and the past and even the future. For instance, “A Sketch of the Past” opens with “Two days ago—Sunday 16 April to be precise,” but Woolf soon launches into her memories and is back in the past:
I begin: the first memory. This was of red and purple flowers on a black back ground—my mother’s dress; and she was sitting either in a train or in an omnibus and I was on her lap.
A few moments later, Woolf is no longer on the train, but at her family’s summer home, Talland House in St. Ives. A few paragraphs later and she is no longer (at least temporarily) in St. Ives, but in Garsington observing Julian Morrell, who “put on a new dress and scampered round and round like a hare.” This memory of Julian leads to Virginia’s thoughts about the importance of beauty in her family and immediately thereafter to thoughts of her father, who was “Spartan, ascetic, puritanical.” Her movement across places and times allows her writing to flow and draw the reader in.
Not surprisingly, given the stream-of-consciousness style and the fact that the essays were written to form a foundation for a future autobiography, the essays are extremely self-reflective and also draw strongly from Woolf’s interaction with other writers and artists. Specifically, Virginia Woolf belonged to a group of artists, writers, philosophers, and intellectuals who came to be known for the section of central London in which they lived and worked: Bloomsbury. The discussions and philosophies that the Bloomsbury members shared informed the work of Virginia Woolf, including the essays in Moments of Being.
The Bloomsbury group met frequently, and often their meetings were held at the home that Woolf shared with her sister, Vanessa Bell, and her brothers, meaning that she was a frequent participant in the conversations. Thus, much of Woolf’s writing was influenced by the discussions and thoughts of her fellow Bloomsbury members.
For the most part, they came from wealthy backgrounds and were well-educated. They were a group of socially advantaged people. However, in many ways, they eschewed elitist views (although one of the essays in Moments of Being, “Am I a Snob?” questions the negative connotations of being a snob). In fact, they shared a sense of rebelliousness against the prevalent conventions of the times. They were liberal in a variety of ways—in their thinking and in their lifestyles, as well as politically.
In fact, one of the essays in Moments of Being, titled “Old Bloomsbury,” is Woolf’s toast to that period of her life when she felt that she first was able to make independent choices and form independent thoughts. In a sense, her Bloomsbury years represent her coming-of-age as an adult and as a writer. The essays draw upon the independence that she began to develop with the other Bloomsbury thinkers.
In addition, in 1917, Woolf and her husband, Leonard, established a publishing house to publish contemporary fiction and political commentaries. This was before many of the essays in Moments of Being were written, and the publishing house and what they chose to publish probably had a significant impact on the essays. In fact, their publishing brand also translated the writings of Sigmund Freud, which was a likely influence on Virginia Woolf’s style and writings, as psychology played a significant role in the development of the stream-of-consciousness style.
In Moments of Being, Woolf reviews and explores her philosophy of life. She feels that life is full of seemingly ordinary “moments of being” that take on extraordinary sensations if they are savored and done with a sense of awareness. Thus, this is Woolf’s central motif in Moments of Being: that the ordinary can assume extraordinary meaning. Woolf writes,
we are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself . . . there is a pattern hid behind the cotton wool. And this conception affects me every day.
The “cotton wool” represents the ordinary, but the ordinary hides a pattern that imbues purpose and meaning. Even seemingly mundane actions can become moments of being versus moments of non-being. Yet, “every day includes much more non-being than being,” and so we must be aware of our thoughts and actions in order to ensure that we fill our lives with moments of being.
Some moments seem so intense and create such powerful memories that they can be recalled clearly even years later and even if they appear to be relatively inconsequential. For instance, she writes:
If life has a base that it stands upon, if it is a bowl that one fills and fills and fills—then my bowl without a doubt stands upon this memory. It is of lying half asleep, half awake, in bed in the nursery at St. Ives. It is of hearing the waves breaking, one, two, one, two, and sending a splash of water over the beach . . .
The description here is of a seemingly ordinary memory. Woolf is in her bed, and she hears the sound of the waves breaking on the beach beyond the nursery. Although there does not appear to be anything unusual, this is the memory that is the foundation for Virginia Woolf—it is a moment of being and not a moment of non-being. Perhaps this is because her philosophy is to embrace the ordinary (although it is also noteworthy that the memory likely recalls her beloved mother, who died at an early age).
Even when people perform routine tasks, they can experience moments of being if they act with awareness; these moments can become part of the “cotton wool” that hides a deeper meaning. That cotton wool hides what can be the intensity of feeling behind such mundane activities. Behind the cotton wool of ordinariness is a pattern, and we can make the ordinary action a “work of art” or a “bowl that one fills and fills and fills.”
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