Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8027
In one of her most famous pronouncements on the nature of fiction—as a practicing critic, she had much to say on the subject—Virginia Woolf insists that “life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; but a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end.” In an ordinary day, she argues, “thousands of ideas” course through the human brain; “thousands of emotions” meet, collide, and disappear “in astonishing disorder.” Amid this hectic interior flux, the trivial and the vital, the past and the present, are constantly interacting; there is endless tension between the multitude of ideas and emotions rushing through one’s consciousness and the numerous impressions scoring on it from the external world. Thus, even personal identity becomes evanescent, continually reordering itself as “the atoms of experiencefall upon the mind.” It follows, then, that human beings must have great difficulty communicating with one another, for of this welter of perceptions that define individual personality, only a tiny fraction can ever be externalized in word or gesture. Yet, despite—in fact, because of—their frightening isolation as unknowable entities, people yearn to unite both with one another and with some larger pattern of order hidden behind the flux, to experience time standing still momentarily, to see matches struck that briefly illuminate the darkness.
Given the complex phenomenon of human subjectivity, Woolf asks, “Is it not the task of the novelist to convey this varying, this unknown and uncircumscribed spiritwith as little mixture of the alien and external as possible?” The conventional novel form is plainly inadequate for such a purpose, she maintains. Dealing sequentially with a logical set of completed past actions that occur in a coherent, densely detailed physical and social environment, presided over by an omniscient narrator interpreting the significance of it all, the traditional novel trims and shapes experience into a rational but falsified pattern. “Is life like this?” Woolf demands rhetorically. “Must novels be like this?”
In Woolf’s first two books, nevertheless, she attempted to work within conventional modes, discovering empirically that they could not convey her vision. Although in recent years some critics have defended The Voyage Out and Night and Day as artistically satisfying in their own right, both novels have generally been considered interesting mainly for what they foreshadow of Woolf’s later preoccupations and techniques.
The Voyage Out
The Voyage Out is the story of Rachel Vinrace, a naïve and talented twenty-four-year-old amateur pianist who sails from England to a small resort on the South American coast, where she vacations with relatives. There, she meets a fledgling novelist, Terence Hewet; on a pleasure expedition up a jungle river, they declare their love. Shortly thereafter, Rachel falls ill with a fever and dies. The novel’s exotic locale, large cast of minor characters, elaborate scenes of social comedy, and excessive length are all atypical of Woolf’s mature work. Already, however, many of her later concerns are largely emerging. The resonance of the title itself anticipates Woolf’s poetic symbolism; the “voyage out” can be the literal trip across the Atlantic or up the South American river, but it also suggests the progression from innocence to experience, from life to death, which she later depicts using similar water imagery. Her concern with premature death and how survivors come to terms with it prefigures Jacob’s Room, Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, and The Waves. Most significant is her portrayal of a world in which characters are forever striving to overcome their isolation from one another. The ship on which Rachel “voyages out” is labeled by Woolf an “emblem of the loneliness of human life.” Terence, Rachel’s lover, might be describing his creator’s own frustration when he says he is trying “to write a novel about Silence, the things people don’t say. But the difficulty is immense.”
Moments of unity amid seemingly unconquerable disorder do occur, however. On a communal level, one such transformation happens at a ball being held to celebrate the engagement of two English guests at the resort’s small hotel. When the musicians go home, Rachel appropriates the piano and plays Mozart, hunting songs, and hymn tunes as the guests gradually resume dancing, each in a newly expressive, uninhibited way, eventually to join hands in a gigantic round dance. When the circle breaks and each member spins away to become individual once more, Rachel modulates to Bach; her weary yet exhilarated listeners sit quietly and allow themselves to be soothed by the serene complexity of the music. As dawn breaks outside and Rachel plays on, they envision “themselves and their lives, and the whole of human life advancing nobly under the direction of the music.” They have transcended their single identities temporarily to gain a privileged glimpse of some larger pattern beyond themselves.
If Rachel through her art briefly transforms the lives of a small community, she herself privately discerns fleeting stability through her growing love for Terence. Even love is insufficient, however; although in the couple’s newfound sense of union “divisions disappeared,” Terence feels that Rachel seems able “to pass away to unknown places where she had no need of him.” In the elegiac closing scenes of illness (which Woolf reworked many times and which are the most original as well as moving part of the novel), Rachel “descends into another world”; she is “curled up at the bottom of the sea.” Terence, sitting by her bedside, senses that “they seemed to be thinking together; he seemed to be Rachel as well as himself.” When she ceases breathing, he experiences “an immense feeling of peace,” a “complete union” with her that shatters when he notices an ordinary table covered with crockery and realizes in horror that in this world he will never see Rachel again. For her, stability has been achieved; for him, the isolating flux has resumed.
Night and Day
Looking back on The Voyage Out, Woolf could see, she said, why readers found it “a more gallant and inspiring spectacle” than her next and least known book Night and Day. This second novel is usually regarded as her most traditional in form and subject—in its social satire, her obeisance to Jane Austen. Its dancelike plot, however, in which mismatched young couples eventually find their true loves, suggests the magical atmosphere of William Shakespeare’s romantic comedies as well. References to Shakespeare abound in the book; for example, the delightfully eccentric Mrs. Hilbery characterizes herself as one of his wise fools, and when at the end she presides over the repatterning of the couples in London, she has just arrived from a pilgrimage to Stratford-upon-Avon. Coincidentally, Night and Day is the most conventionally dramatic of Woolf’s novels, full of dialogue, exits and entrances; characters are constantly taking omnibuses and taxis across London from one contrived scene to the next.
Like The Voyage Out, Night and Day does point to Woolf’s enduring preoccupations. It is, too, a novel depicting movement from innocence to maturity and escape from the conventional world through the liberating influence of love. Ralph Denham, a London solicitor from a large, vulgar, middle-class family living in suburban Highgate, would prefer to move to a Norfolk cottage and write. Katharine Hilbery measures out her days serving tea in her wealthy family’s beautiful Chelsea home and helping her disorganized mother produce a biography of their forebear, a great nineteenth century poet. Her secret passions, however, are mathematics and astronomy. These seeming opposites, Ralph and Katharine, are alike in that both retreat at night to their rooms to pursue their private visions. The entire novel is concerned with such dualities—public selves and private selves, activity and contemplation, fact and imagination; but Woolf also depicts the unity that Ralph and Katharine can achieve, notwithstanding the social and intellectual barriers separating them. At the end, as the couple leaves Katharine’s elegant but constraining home to walk in the open night air, “they lapsed gently into silence, travelling the dark paths side by side towards something discerned in the distance which gradually possessed them both.”
The sustained passages of subtle interior analysis by which Woolf charts the couple’s growing realization of their need for each other define her real area of fictional interest, but they are hemmed in by a tediously constrictive traditional structure. Except for her late novel, The Years, also comparatively orthodox in form, her first two books took the longest to finish and underwent the most extensive revisions, undoubtedly because she was writing against her grain. Nevertheless, they represented a necessary apprenticeship; as she would later remark of Night and Day, “You must put it all in before you can leave out.”
Woolf dared to leave out a great deal in the short experimental novel she wrote next. Described in conventional terms, Jacob’s Room is a bildungsroman, or “novel of formation,” tracing its hero’s development from childhood to maturity: Jacob Flanders is first portrayed as a small boy studying a tide pool on a Cornish beach; at twenty-six, he dies fighting in World War I. In structure, style, and tone, however, Jacob’s Room defies such labeling. It does not move in steady chronological fashion but in irregular leaps. Of the fourteen chapters, two cover Jacob’s childhood, two, his college years at Cambridge, the remainder, his life as a young adult working in London and traveling abroad. In length, and hence in the complexity with which various periods of Jacob’s existence are treated, the chapters range from one to twenty-eight pages. They vary, that is, as the process of growth itself does.
Individual chapters are likewise discontinuous in structure, broken into irregular segments that convey multiple, often simultaneous perspectives. The ten-page chapter 8, for example, opens with Jacob’s slamming the door of his London room as he starts for work in the morning; he is then glimpsed at his office desk. Meanwhile, on a table back in his room lies his mother’s unopened letter to him, placed there the previous night by his lover, Florinda; its contents and Mrs. Flanders herself are evoked. The narrator then discourses on the significance of letter writing. Jacob is next seen leaving work for the day; in Greek Street, he spies Florinda on another man’s arm. At eight o’clock, Rose Shaw, a guest at a party Jacob attended several nights earlier, walks through Holburn, meditating bitterly on the ironies of love and death. The narrator sketches London by lamplight. Then, Jacob is back in his room reading by the fire a newspaper account of the Prime Minister’s speech on Home Rule; the night is very cold. The narrator abruptly shifts perspective from congested London to the open countryside, describing the snow that has been accumulating since midafternoon; an old shepherd crossing a field hears a distant clock strike. Back in London, Jacob also hears the hour chiming, rakes out his fire, and goes to bed. There is no story here in any conventional sense, no action being furthered; in the entire ten pages, only one sentence is direct dialogue. What Woolf delineates is the texture of an ordinary day in the life of Jacob and the world in which he exists. Clock time moves the chapter forward, while spatially the chapter radiates outward from the small area Jacob occupies. Simultaneously, in the brief reference to the Prime Minister, Woolf suggests the larger procession of modern history that will inexorably sweep Jacob to premature death.
Such indirection and understatement characterize the whole novel: “It is no use trying to sum people up,” the narrator laments. “One must follow hints.” Thus, Jacob is described mainly from the outside, defined through the impressions he makes on others, from a hotel chambermaid to a Cambridge don, and by his surroundings and possessions. Even his death is conveyed obliquely: Mrs. Flanders, half asleep in her Yorkshire house, hears “dull sounds”; it cannot be guns, she thinks, it must be the sea. On the next page, she stands in her dead son’s London room, holding a pair of Jacob’s old shoes and asking his friend pathetically, “What am I to do with these, Mr. Bonamy?” The novel ends.
To construct Jacob’s ultimately unknowable biography out of such fragments, Woolf evolves not only a new structure but a new style. Long, fluid sentences contain precise physical details juxtaposed with metaphysical speculations on the evanescence of life and the impossibility of understanding another person. Lyrical descriptions of nature—waves, moths, falling snow, birds rising and settling—are interspersed to suggest life’s beauty and fragility. Images and phrases recur as unifying motifs: Jacob is repeatedly associated with Greek literature and myth and spends his last fulfilling days visiting the Parthenon. Most important, Woolf begins to move freely in and out of her characters’ minds to capture the flow of sense impressions mingling with memory, emotion, and random association, experimenting with thatnarrative method conveniently if imprecisely labeled “stream of consciousness.”
Jacob’s Room is not a mature work, especially with its intrusive narrator, who can be excessively chatty, archly pedantic, and sententious. Woolf protests the difficulties of her task (“In short, the observer is choked with observations”) and cannot quite follow the logic of her new method; after an essaylike passage on the necessity of illusion, for example, she awkwardly concludes, “Jacob, no doubt, thought something in this fashion.” Even the lovely passages of poetic description at times seem self-indulgent. The book definitely shows its seams. Woolf’s rejection of traditional novel structure, however, and her efforts to eliminate “the alien and the external” make Jacob’s Room a dazzling advance in her ability to embody her philosophical vision: “Life is but a procession of shadows, and God knows why it is that we embrace them so eagerly, and see them depart with such anguish, being shadows.”
Within three years, Woolf had resolved her technical problems superbly in Mrs. Dalloway. The intruding narrator vanishes; though the freedom with which point of view shifts among characters and settings clearly posits an omniscient intelligence, the narrator’s observations are now subtly integrated with the thoughts of her characters, and the transitions between scenes flow organically. Woolf’s subject is also better suited to her method: Whereas Jacob’s Room is a story of youthful potential tragically cut off, Mrs. Dalloway is a novel of middle age, about what people have become as the result of choices made, opportunities seized or refused. Jacob Flanders had but a brief past; the characters in Mrs. Dalloway must come to terms with theirs, sifting and valuing the memories that course through their minds.
The book covers one June day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway, fifty-two years old, an accomplished London political hostess and wife of a Member of Parliament. A recent serious illness from which she is still recovering has made her freshly appreciate the wonder of life as she prepares for the party she will give that evening. Peter Walsh, once desperately in love with her, arrives from India, where he has had an undistinguished career; he calls on her and is invited to the party, at which another friend from the past, Sally Seton, formerly a romantic and now the conventional wife of a Manchester industrialist, will also unexpectedly appear. Running parallel with Clarissa’s day is that of the mad Septimus Warren Smith, a surviving Jacob Flanders, shell-shocked in the war; his suicide in the late afternoon delays the arrival of another of Clarissa’s guests, the eminent nerve specialist Sir William Bradshaw. Learning of this stranger’s death, Clarissa must confront the inevitability of her own.
Mrs. Dalloway is also, then, a novel about time itself (its working title at one point was The Hours). Instead of using chapters or other formal sectioning, Woolf structures the book by counterpointing clock time, signaled by the obtrusive hourly tolling of Big Ben, against the subjective flow of time in her characters’ minds as they recover the past and envision the future. Not only does she move backward and forward in time, however; she also creates an effect of simultaneity that is especially crucial in linking Septimus’s story with Clarissa’s. Thus, when Clarissa Dalloway, buying flowers that morning in a Bond Street shop, hears “a pistol shot” outside and emerges to see a large, official automobile that has backfired, Septimus is standing in the crowd blocked by the car and likewise reacting to this “violent explosion”(“The world has raised its whip; where will it descend?”). Later, when Septimus’s frightened young Italian wife Rezia guides him to Regents Park to calm him before their appointment with Bradshaw, he has a terrifying hallucination of his dead friend Evans, killed just before the Armistice; Peter Walsh, passing their bench, wonders, “What awful fix had they got themselves in to look so desperate as that on a fine summer morning?” This atmosphere of intensely populated time and space, of many anonymous lives intersecting briefly, of the world resonating with unwritten novels, comic and tragic, accounts in part for the richly poignant texture of nearly all Woolf’s mature work.
In her early thinking about Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf wanted to show a “world seen by the sane and the insane, side by side.” Although the novel definitely focuses on Clarissa, Septimus functions as a kind of double, representing her own responses to life carried to an untenable extreme. Both find great terror in life and also great joy; both want to withdraw from life into blissful isolation, yet both want to reach out to merge with others. Clarissa’s friends, and indeed she herself, sense a “coldness” about her, “an impenetrability”; both Peter and Sally believe she chose safety rather than adventure by marrying the unimaginative, responsible Richard Dalloway. The quiet attic room where she now convalesces is described as a tower into which she retreats nunlike to a virginal narrow bed. Yet Clarissa also loves “life; London; this moment of June”—and her parties. Though some critics condemn her party giving as shallow, trivial, even corrupt (Peter Walsh could make her wince as a girl by predicting that she would become “the perfect hostess”), Clarissa considers her parties a form of creativity, “an offering,” “her gift” of bringing people together. For Septimus, the war has destroyed his capacity to feel; in his aloneness and withdrawal, he finds “an isolation full of sublimity; a freedom which the attached can never know”—he can elude “human nature,” “the repulsive brute, with the blood-red nostrils.” Yet just watching leaves quivering is for him “an exquisite joy”; he feels them “connected by millions of fibres with his own body” and wants to reveal this unity to the world because“communication is health; communication is happiness.”
Desperate because of his suicide threats, Septimus’s wife takes him to see Sir William Bradshaw. At the center of the novel, in one of the most bitter scenes in all of Woolf’s writing (certainly one with strong autobiographical overtones), is Septimus’s confrontation with this “priest of science,” this man of “lightning skill” and “almost infallible accuracy” who “never spoke of ’madness’; he called it not having a sense of proportion.” Within three minutes, he has discreetly recorded his diagnosis on a pink card (“a case of complete breakdownwith every symptom in an advanced stage”); Septimus will be sent to a beautiful house in the country where he will be taught to rest, to regain proportion. Rezia, agonized, understands that she has been failed by this obtuse, complacently cruel man whom Woolf symbolically connects with a larger system that prospers on intolerance and sends its best young men to fight futile wars. Septimus’s suicide at this point becomes inevitable.
The two stories fuse when Bradshaw appears at the party. Learning of the reason for his lateness, Clarissa, deeply shaken, withdraws to a small side room, not unlike her attic tower, where she accurately imagines Septimus’s suicide: “He had thrown himself from a window. Up had flashed the ground; through him, blundering, bruising, went the rusty spikes.So she saw it.” She also intuits the immediate cause: Bradshaw is “capable of some indescribable outrage—forcing your soul, that was it”; seeing him, this young man must have said to himself, “they make life intolerable, men like that.” Thus, she sees, “death was defiance,” a means to preserve one’s center from being violated, but “death was an attempt to communicate,” and in death, Septimus’s message that all life is connected is heard by one unlikely person, Clarissa Dalloway. Reviewing her own past as she has reconstructed it this day, and forced anew to acknowledge her own mortality, she realizes that “he had made her feel the beauty.” Spiritually regenerated, she returns to her party “to kindle and illuminate” life.
To the Lighthouse
In her most moving, complexly affirmative novel, To the Lighthouse, Woolf portrays another woman whose creativity lies in uniting people, Mrs. Ramsay. For this luminous evocation of her own parents’ marriage, Woolf drew on memories of her girlhood summers at St. Ives, Cornwall (here transposed to an island in the Hebrides), to focus on her perennial themes, the difficulties and joys of human communication, especially as frustrated by time and death.
The plot is absurdly simple: An expedition to a lighthouse is postponed, then completed a decade later. Woolf’s mastery, however, of the interior monologue in this novel makes such a fragile plot line quite sufficient; the real “story” of To the Lighthouse is the reader’s gradually increasing intimacy with its characters’ richly depicted inner lives; the reader’s understanding expands in concert with the characters’ own growing insights.
Woolf again devises an experimental structure for her work, this time of three unequal parts. Approximately the first half of the novel, titled “The Window,” occurs during a single day at the seaside home occupied by an eminent philosopher, Mr. Ramsay, his wife, and a melange of children, guests, and servants, including Lily Briscoe, an amateur painter in her thirties, unmarried. Mrs. Ramsay’s is the dominant consciousness in this section. A short, exquisitely beautiful center section, “Time Passes,” pictures the house succumbing to time during the family’s ten-year absence and then being rescued from decay by two old women for the Ramsays’ repossession. Periodically interrupting this natural flow of time are terse, bracketed, clock-time announcements like news bulletins, telling of the deaths of Mrs. Ramsay, the eldest son Andrew (in World War I), and the eldest daughter Prue (of childbirth complications). The final third, “The Lighthouse,” also covers one day; the diminished family and several former guests having returned, the lighthouse expedition can now be completed. This section is centered almost entirely in Lily Briscoe’s consciousness.
Because Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay are both strong personalities, they are sometimes interpreted too simply. Particularly in some readings by feminist critics, Mr. Ramsay is seen as an insufferable patriarch, arrogantly rational in his work but almost infantile emotionally, while Mrs. Ramsay is a Victorian earth mother, not only submitting unquestioningly to her husband’s and children’s excessive demands but actively trying to impose on all the other female characters her unliberated way of life. Such readings are sound to some extent, but they undervalue the vivid way that Woolf captures in the couple’s monologues the conflicting mixture of motives and needs that characterize human beings of either sex. For example, Mrs. Ramsay is infuriated that her husband blights their youngest son James’s anticipation of the lighthouse visit by announcing that it will storm tomorrow, yet his unflinching pursuit of truth is also something she most admires in him. Mr. Ramsay finds his wife’s irrational habit of exaggeration maddening, but as she sits alone in a reverie, he respects her integrity and will not interrupt, “though it hurt him that she should look so distant, and he could not reach her, he could do nothing to help her.” Lily, a shrewd observer who simultaneously adores and resists Mrs. Ramsay, perceives that “it would be a mistaketo simplify their relationship.”
Amid these typical contradictions and mundane demands, however, “little daily miracles” may be achieved. One of Woolf’s finest scenes, Mrs. Ramsay’s dinner, provides a paradigm (though a summary can scarcely convey the richness of these forty pages). As she mechanically seats her guests at the huge table, Mrs. Ramsay glimpses her husband at the other end, “all in a heap, frowning”: “She could not understand how she had ever felt any emotion of affection for him.” Gloomily, she perceives that not just the two of them but everyone is separate and out of sorts. For example, Charles Tansley, Mr. Ramsay’s disciple, who feels the whole family despises him, fidgets angrily; Lily, annoyed that Tansley is always telling her “women can’t paint,” purposely tries to irritate him; William Bankes would rather be home dining alone and fears that Mrs. Ramsay will read his mind. They all sense that “something [is] lacking”—they are divided from one another, sunk in their “treacherous” thoughts. Mrs. Ramsay wearily recognizes that “the whole of the effort of merging and flowing and creating rested on her.”
She instructs two of her children to light the candles and set them around a beautiful fruit centerpiece that her daughter Rose has arranged for the table. This is Mrs. Ramsay’s first stroke of artistry; the candles and fruit compose the table and the faces around it into an island, a sheltering haven: “Here, inside the room, seemed to be order and dry land; there, outside, a reflection in which things wavered and vanished, waterily.” All the guests feel this change and have a sudden sense of making “common cause against that fluidity out there.” Then the maid brings in a great steaming dish of boeuf en daube that even the finicky widower Bankes considers “a triumph.” As the guests relish the succulent food and their camaraderie grows, Mrs. Ramsay, serving the last helpings from the depths of the pot, experiences a moment of perfect insight: “There it was, all around them. It partookof eternity.” She affirms to herself that “there is a coherence in things, a stability; something, she meant, that is immune from change, and shines outin the face of the flowing, the fleeting.” As is true of so much of Woolf’s sparse dialogue, the ordinary words Mrs. Ramsay then speaks aloud can be read both literally and symbolically: “Yes, there is plenty for everybody.” As the dinner ends and she passes out of the room triumphantly—the inscrutable poet Augustus Carmichael, who usually resists her magic, actually bows in homage—she looks back on the scene and sees that “it had become, she knewalready the past.”
The burden of the past and the coming to terms with it are the focus of part 3. Just as “a sort of disintegration” sets in as soon as Mrs. Ramsay sweeps out of the dining room, so her death has left a larger kind of wreckage. Without her unifying artistry, all is disorder, as it was at the beginning of the dinner. In a gesture of belated atonement for quarreling with his wife over the original lighthouse trip, the melodramatically despairing Mr. Ramsay insists on making the expedition now with his children James and Cam, although both hate his tyranny and neither wants to go. As they set out, Lily remains behind to paint. Surely mirroring the creative anxiety of Woolf herself, she feels “a painful but exciting ecstasy” before her blank canvas, knowing how ideas that seem simple become “in practice immediately complex.” As she starts making rhythmic strokes across the canvas, she loses “consciousness of outer things” and begins to meditate on the past, from which she gradually retrieves a vision of Mrs. Ramsay that will permit her to reconstruct and complete the painting she left unfinished a decade ago, one in which Mrs. Ramsay would have been, and will become again, a triangular shadow on a step (symbolically echoing the invisible “wedge-shaped core of darkness” to which Mrs. Ramsay feels herself shrinking during her moments of reverie). Through the unexpectedly intense pain of recalling her, Lily also comprehends Mrs. Ramsay’s significance, her ability “to make the moment something permanent,” as art does, to strike “this eternal passing and flowinginto stability.” Mrs. Ramsay is able to make “life stand still here.”
Meanwhile, Mr. Ramsay and his children are also voyaging into the past; Cam, dreamily drifting her hand in the water, begins, as her mother did, to see her father as bravely pursuing truth like a tragic hero. James bitterly relives the childhood scene when his father thoughtlessly dashed his hopes for the lighthouse visit, but as they near the lighthouse in the present and Mr. Ramsay offers his son rare praise, James too is reconciled. When they land, Mr. Ramsay himself, standing in the bow “very straight and tall,” springs “lightly like a young manon to the rock,” renewed. Simultaneously, though the boat has long since disappeared from her sight and even the lighthouse itself seems blurred, Lily intuits that they have reached their goal and she completes her painting. All of them have reclaimed Mrs. Ramsay from death, and she has unified them; memory can defeat time. “Yes,” Lily thinks, “I have had my vision.” Clearly, Woolf had achieved hers too and transmuted the materials of a painful past into this radiant novel.
Although Woolf denied intending any specific symbolism for the lighthouse, it resonates with almost infinite possibilities, both within the book and in a larger way as an emblem of her work. Like the candles at the dinner party, it can be a symbol of safety and stability amid darkness and watery flux, its beams those rhythmically occurring moments of illumination that sustain Mrs. Ramsay and by extension everyone. Perhaps, however, it can also serve as a metaphor for human beings themselves as Woolf portrays them. The lighthouse signifies what can be objectively perceived of an individual—in Mrs. Ramsay’s words, “our apparitions, the things you know us by”; but it also signals invisible, possibly tragic depths, for, as Mrs. Ramsay knew, “beneath it is all dark, it is all spreading, it is unfathomably deep.”
In The Waves, widely considered her masterpiece, Woolf most resolutely overcomes the limits of the traditional novel. Entirely unique in form, The Waves cannot perhaps be called a novel at all; Woolf herself first projected a work of “prose yet poetry; a novel and a play.” The book is a series of grouped soliloquies in varying combinations spoken by six friends, three men and three women, at successive stages in their lives from childhood to late middle age. Each grouping is preceded by a brief, lyrical “interlude” (Woolf’s own term), set off in italic type, that describes an empty house by the sea as the sun moves across the sky in a single day.
The texture of these soliloquies is extremely difficult to convey; the term “soliloquy,” in fact, is merely a critical convenience. Although each is introduced in the same straightforward way (“Neville said,” “Jinny said”), they obviously are unspoken, representing each character’s private vision. Their style is also unvarying—solemn, formal, almost stilted, like that of choral figures. The author has deliberately translated into a rigorously neutral, dignified idiom the conscious and subconscious reality her characters perceive but cannot articulate on their own. This method represents Woolf’s most ambitious attempt to capture the unfathomable depths of separate human personalities, which defy communication in ordinary life—and in ordinary novels. The abstraction of the device, however, especially in combination with the flow of cosmic time in the interludes, shows that she is also concerned with depicting a universal pattern that transcends mere individuals. Thus, once more Woolf treats her theme of human beings’ attempts to overcome their isolation and to become part of a larger stabilizing pattern; this time, however, the theme is embodied in the very form of her work.
It would be inaccurate, however, to say that the characters exist only as symbols. Each has definable qualities and unique imagery; Susan, as an example, farm-bred and almost belligerently maternal, speaks in elemental images of wood smoke, grassy paths, flowers thick with pollen. Further, the characters often evoke one another’s imagery; the other figures, for example, even in maturity picture the fearful, solitary Rhoda as a child rocking white petals in a brown basin of water. They are linked by intricately woven threads of common experience, above all by their shared admiration for a shadowy seventh character, Percival. Their gathering with him at a farewell dinner before he embarks on a career in India is one of the few actual events recorded in the soliloquies and also becomes one of those miraculous moments of unity comparable to that achieved by Mrs. Ramsay for her dinner guests; as they rise to leave the restaurant, all the characters are thinking as Louis does: “We pray, holding in our hands this common feeling, ’Do not move, do not let the swing-door cut to pieces this thing that we have made, that globes itself here.’” Such union, however, is cruelly impermanent; two pages later, a telegram announces Percival’s death in a riding accident. Bernard, trying to make sense of this absurdity, echoes the imagery of encircling unity that characterized their thoughts at the dinner: “Ideas break a thousand times for once that they globe themselves entire.”
It is Bernard—identified, significantly, throughout the book as a storyteller—who is given the long final section of The Waves in which “to sum up,” becoming perhaps a surrogate for the author herself. (As a young man at school, worrying out “my novel,” he discovers how “stories that follow people into their private rooms are difficult.”) It is he who recognizes that “I am not one person; I am many people,” part of his friends as they are part of him, all of them incomplete in themselves; he is “a man without a self.” Yet it is also he who on the novel’s final page, using the wave imagery of the universalizing interludes, passionately asserts his individuality: “Against you I will fling myself, unvanquished and unyielding, O Death!” Life, however obdurate and fragmented, must be affirmed.
The Waves is without doubt Woolf’s most demanding and original novel, her most daring experiment in eliminating the alien and the external. When she vowed to cast out “all waste, deadness, and superfluity,” however, she also ascetically renounced some of her greatest strengths as a novelist: her wit and humor, her delight in the daily beauty, variety, and muddle of material existence. This “abstract mystical eyeless book,” as she at one point envisioned it, is a work to admire greatly, but not to love.
The six years following The Waves were a difficult period for Woolf both personally and artistically. Deeply depressed by the deaths of Lytton Strachey and Roger Fry, two of her oldest, most respected friends, she was at work on an “essay-novel,” as she first conceived of it, which despite her initial enthusiasm became her most painfully frustrating effort—even though it proved, ironically, to be her greatest commercial success.
In The Years, Woolf returned to the conventional novel that she had rejected after Night and Day; she planned “to take in everything” and found herself “infinitely delighting in facts for a change.” Whereas The Waves had represented the extreme of leaving out, The Years suggests the opposite one of almost indiscriminate putting in. Its very subject, a history of the Pargiter clan spanning fifty years and three generations, links it with the diffuse family sagas of John Galsworthy and Arnold Bennett, whose books Woolf was expressly deriding when she demanded, “Must novels be like this?”
Nevertheless, The Years is more original than it may appear; Woolf made fresh use of her experimental methods in her effort to reanimate traditional form. The novel contains eleven unequal segments, each standing for a year; the longest ones, the opening “1880” section and the closing “Present Day” (the 1930’s), anchor the book; the nine intermediate sections cover the years between 1891 and 1918. Echoing The Waves, Woolf begins each chapter with a short panoramic passage describing both London and the countryside. Within the chapters, instead of continuous narrative, there are collections of vignettes, somewhat reminiscent of Jacob’s Room, depicting various Pargiters going about their daily lives. Running parallel with the family’s history are larger historical events, including Edward VII’s death, the suffrage movement, the Irish troubles, and especially World War I. These events are usually treated indirectly, however; for example, the “1917” section takes place mainly in a cellar to which the characters have retreated, dinner plates in hand, during an air raid. It is here that Eleanor Pargiter asks, setting a theme that suffuses the rest of the novel, “When shall we live adventurously, wholly, not like cripples in a cave?”
The most pervasive effect of the war is felt in the lengthy “Present Day” segment, which culminates in a family reunion, where the youngest generation of Pargiters, Peggy and North, are lonely, cynical, and misanthropic, and their faltering elders are compromised either by complacency or failed hopes. Symbolically, Delia Pargiter gives the party in a rented office, not a home, underscoring the uprooting caused by the war. Yet the balancing “1880” section is almost equally dreary: The Pargiters’ solid Victorian house shelters a chronically ailing mother whose children wish she would die, a father whose vulgar mistress greets him in hair curlers and frets over her dog’s eczema, and a young daughter traumatized by an exhibitionist in the street outside. One oppressive way of life seems only to have been superseded by another, albeit a more universally menacing one.
The overall imagery of the novel is likewise unlovely: Children recall being scrubbed with slimy washcloths; a revolting dinner of underdone mutton served by Sara Pargiter includes a bowl of rotting, flyblown fruit, grotesquely parodying Mrs. Ramsay’s boeuf en daube and Rose’s centerpiece; London is populated with deformed violet-sellers and old men eating cold sausages on buses. Communication in such a world is even more difficult than in Woolf’s earlier books; the dialogue throughout is full of incomplete sentences, and a central vignette in the “Present Day” section turns on one guest’s abortive efforts to deliver a speech toasting the human race.
Despite these circumstances, the characters still grope toward some kind of transforming unity; Eleanor, the eldest surviving Pargiter and the most sympathetic character in the novel, comes closest to achieving such vision on the scale that Lily Briscoe and Clarissa Dalloway do. At the reunion, looking back over her life, she wonders if there is “a pattern; a theme recurring like musicmomentarily perceptible?” Casting about her, trying to connect with her relatives and friends but dozing in the process, she suddenly wakes, proclaiming that “it’s been a perpetual discovery, my life. A miracle.” Answering by implication her question posed fifteen years earlier during the air raid, she perceives that “we’re only just beginningto understand, here and there.” That prospect is enough, however; she wants “to enclose the present momentto fill it fuller and fuller, with the past, the present and the future, until it shone, whole, bright, deep with understanding.”
Even this glowing dream of eventual unity is muted, however, when one recalls how Eleanor’s embittered niece Peggy half pities, half admires her as a person who “still believed with passionin the things man had destroyed,” and how her nephew North, a captain in the trenches of World War I, thinks, “We cannot help each other, we are all deformed.” It is difficult not to read the final lines of this profoundly somber novel ironically: “The sun had risen, and the sky above the houses wore an air of extraordinary beauty, simplicity and peace.”
Between the Acts
Woolf’s final work, Between the Acts, also deals with individual lives unfolding against the screen of history, but her vision and the methods by which she conveys it are more inventive, complex, and successful than in The Years. Covering the space of a single day in June, 1939, as world war threatens on the Continent, Between the Acts depicts the events surrounding a village pageant about the history of England, performed on the grounds of Pointz Hall, a country house occupied by the unhappily married Giles and Isa Oliver. The Olivers’ story frames the presentation of the pageant, scenes of which are directly reproduced in the novel and alternate with glimpses of the audience’s lives during the intervals between the acts. The novel’s title is hence richly metaphorical: The acts of the drama itself are bracketed by the scenes of real life, which in turn can be viewed as brief episodes in the long pageant of human history. Equally ambiguous, then, is the meaning of “parts,” connoting clearly defined roles within a drama but also the fragmentation and incompleteness of the individuals who play them, that pervasive theme in Woolf’s work.
In The Years, Woolf had focused on the personal histories of her characters; history in the larger sense made itself felt as it impinged on private lives. This emphasis is reversed in Between the Acts. Though the novel has interesting characters, Woolf does not provide much information about their backgrounds, nor does she plumb individual memory in her usual manner. Instead, the characters possess a national, cultural, communal past—finally that of the whole human race from the Stone Age to the present. That Woolf intends her characters to be seen as part of this universal progression is clear from myriad references in the early pages to historical time. For example, from the air, the “scars” made by the Britons and the Romans can be seen around the village as can the Elizabethan manor house; graves in the churchyard attest that Mrs. Haines’s family has lived in the area “for many centuries,” whereas the Oliver family has inhabited Pointz Hall for “only something over a hundred and twenty years”; Lucy Swithin, Giles’s endearing aunt, enjoys reading about history and imagining Piccadilly when it was a rhododendron forest populated by mastodons, “from whom, presumably, she thoughtwe descend.”
The pageant itself, therefore, functions in the novel as more than simply a church fund-raising ritual, the product of well-meaning but hapless amateurs (though it exists amusingly on that level too). It is a heroic attempt by its author-director, the formidable Miss La Trobe, to make people see themselves playing parts in the continuum of British history. Thus, the audience has an integral role that blurs the lines “between the acts”; “Our part,” says Giles’s father, Bartholomew, “is to be the audience. And a very important part too.” Their increasing interest in the pageant as they return from the successive intermissions signals their growing sense of a shared past and hence of an identity that both binds and transcends them as individuals.
The scenes of the pageant proceed from bathos to unnerving profundity. The first player, a small girl in pink, announces, “England am I,” then promptly forgets her lines, while the wind blows away half the words of the singers behind her. Queen Elizabeth, splendidly decorated with six-penny brooches and a cape made of silvery scouring pads, turns out to be Mrs. Clark, the village tobacconist; the combined applause and laughter of delighted recognition muffle her opening speech. As the pageant progresses from a wicked though overlong parody of Restoration comedy to a satiric scene at a Victorian picnic, however, the audience becomes more reflective; the past is now close enough to be familiar, triggering their own memories and priming them for the last scene, Miss La Trobe’s inspired experiment in expressionism, “The Present Time. Ourselves.” The uncomprehending audience fidgets as the stage remains empty, refusing to understand that they are supposed to contemplate their own significance. “Reality too strong,” Miss La Trobe mutters angrily from behind the bushes, “Curse ’em!” Then, “sudden and universal,” a summer shower fortuitously begins. “Down it rained like all the people in the world weeping.” Nature has provided the bridge of meaning Miss La Trobe required. As the rain ends, all the players from all the periods reappear, still in costume and declaiming fragments of their parts while flashing mirrors in the faces of the discomfited audience. An offstage voice asks how civilization is “to be built by orts, scraps and fragments like ourselves,” then dies away.
The Reverend Streatfield, disconcerted like the rest of the audience, is assigned the embarrassing role of summing up the play’s meaning. Tentatively, self-consciously, he ventures, “To me at least it was indicated that we are members of one another.We act different parts; but are the same.Surely, we should unite?” Then he abruptly shifts into a fund-raising appeal that is drowned out by a formation of war planes passing overhead. As the audience departs, a gramophone plays a valedictory: “Dispersed are we; we who have come together. But let us retain whatever made that harmony.” The audience responds, thinking “There is joy, sweet joy, in company.”
The qualified optimism of the pageant’s close, however, is darkened by the bleak, perhaps apocalyptic postscript of the framing story. After the group disperses, the characters resume their usual roles. Lucy Swithin, identified earlier as a “unifier,” experiences a typically Woolfian epiphany as she gazes on a fishpond, glimpsing the silver of the great carp below the surface and “seeing in that vision beauty, power and glory in ourselves.” Her staunchly rational brother Bartholomew, a “separatist,” goes into the house. Miss La Trobe, convinced that she has failed again, heads for the local pub to drink alone and plan her next play; it will be set at midnight with two figures half hidden by a rock as the curtain rises. “What would the first words be?”
It is the disaffected Giles and Isa, loving and hating each other, who begin the new play. In a remarkable ending, Woolf portrays the couple sitting silently in the dark before going to bed: “Before they slept, they must fight; after they had fought they would embrace.” From that embrace, they may create another life, but “first they must fight, as the dog fox fights the vixen, in the heart of darkness, in the fields of night.” The “great hooded chairs” in which they sit grow enormous, like Miss La Trobe’s rock. The house fades, no longer sheltering them; they are like “dwellers in caves,” watching “from some high place.” The last lines of the novel are, “Then the curtain rose. They spoke.”
This indeterminate conclusion implies that love and hate are elemental and reciprocal, and that such oppositions on a personal level are also the polarities that drive human history. Does Woolf read, then, in the gathering European storm, a cataclysm that will bring the pageant of history full circle, back to the primitive stage of prehistory? Or, like W. B. Yeats in “The Second Coming,” does she envision a new cycle even more terrifying than the old? Or, as the faithful Lucy Swithin does, perhaps she hopes that “all is harmony could we hear it. And we shall.”
Eight years earlier, Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary, “I think the effort to live in two spheres: the novel; and life; is a strain.” Miss La Trobe, a crude alter ego for the author, is obsessed by failure but always driven to create anew because “a vision imparted was relief from agonyfor one moment.” In her brilliant experimental attempts to impart her own view of fragmented human beings achieving momentary harmony, discovering unity and stability behind the flux of daily life, Woolf repeatedly endured such anguish, but after Between the Acts was done, the strain of beginning again was too great. Perhaps the questions Virginia Woolf posed in this final haunting novel, published posthumously and unrevised, were answered for her in death.
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