Critical Context

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Night and Day was Virginia Woolf’s second novel, following The Voyage Out (1915) and the last one in which she was content to follow a traditional form. The novel is indebted to Jane Austen, George Meredith, and the comedies of William Shakespeare. Shakespeare is referred to often throughout the novel; Mrs. Hilbery likens herself to one of the wise fools, and she also resembles Rosalind in As You Like It, particularly when she orchestrates the happy ending, during which Mr. Hilbery takes on the traditional role of the “blocking figure” who tries to obstruct the inevitable outcome.

Night and Day has never received the same amount of critical attention that has been paid to Woolf’s later novels, in which she developed a voice more authentically her own. Woolf herself described the novel as an “academic exercise” although she regarded it as “more mature and finished and satisfactory” than her first book. Certainly Night and Day is too long-drawn-out, which gives it a somewhat shapeless quality, but its value lies in Woolf’s attempt to articulate many of the themes with which she was concerned throughout her life: the need to reconcile the essential dualities of human experience, such as masculine and feminine, order and chaos, dream and reality, intellect and intuition, the private or solitary and the social. Because Katharine Hilbery and Ralph Denham seem to achieve such a reconciliation, Night and Day ranks as Woolf’s most optimistic novel.