Virginia Woolf

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Virginia Woolf World Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Anyone unfamiliar with the work of Woolf will doubtless be perplexed and confused by the apparent incoherence of her novels. She provides little background for the narrative situation, major characters are often difficult to distinguish from minor ones, and there is usually no important romantic interest. Instead of a story with a beginning, middle, and end consisting of events arranged in chronological order with occasional flashbacks and leading to a satisfying climax, Woolf presents instead an exploration of minds that perceive subtle variations among almost insignificant details (which themselves seem to flow at random), occasionally interrupted by essaylike commentaries. Her nine novels include Jacob’s Room (1922), Mrs. Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927), The Waves (1931), and The Years (1937). Many of her excellent essays are to be found in The Common Reader: First Series (1925), The Common Reader: Second Series (1932), and The Death of the Moth, and Other Essays (1942).

Though her aesthetic roots are firmly established in the European literary tradition, her genius lies in exploring the inner world of her characters, leading her to elaborate a psychological complexity without parallel in the literature of the past. She invents new methods that permit her to explore this inner world of her characters by allowing them to express their abstract thoughts and feelings in mental monologues that externalize the hidden and secret by means of metaphors, poetic images, and symbols. Thus her novels fall into the realm of psychological studies rather than the adventure stories written by authors she referred to as “materialist writers.” She deals primarily with the spiritual side of humanity, not its activities and adventures, by presenting a synthesis of an individual’s total response to life and reality, for these responses, colored by the emotions of the character, are never static. The inner world of her characters is constantly shifting and changing, for them as well as for the reader, since their inner life approximates the reader’s. Moreover, an individual is not the same from one moment to the next—his or her identity is unstable and changes as his or her perceptions change. Reality becomes a series of momentary fragments that ebb and flow; the reader must mentally arrange them into a story. A reader is not a passive spectator of events in Woolf’s novels but must become actively involved emotionally in the character’s thoughts, feelings, and senses.

Woolf’s preoccupation with the representation of this reality made up of fleeting moments (the “incessant shower of innumerable atoms,” as she put it) leads her to deal extensively with the passing of time and the changes that measure it, whether that duration is only one day or many years. Since the mind is capable of mingling past, present, and future simultaneously, a few seconds of present experience can include variable patterns of memories and fantasies. For example, a woman simply walking down the street may be thinking primarily about her destination, but thousands of other conflicting and divergent thoughts and sensations may flash through her mind in only a few seconds. This stream of thoughts, sometimes tranquil and sometimes troubled, constitutes the true subject matter of all Woolf’s novels.

If thoughts tumble so helter-skelter through the mind, reflecting different atoms of reality moment by moment, then often they will be incomplete, interrupted by others before they can be finished. These fragments of thoughts and feelings are certainly related to one another—one thought or sensation has suggested or inspired another—but the connections are not particularly logical. Or rather, the logic is one of suggestion, or of association of ideas, perceptions, feelings, or emotions. Woolf enters into this process and reveals these fragmentary, interrupted thoughts while they are occurring by developing a kind of “mental speech” with which to express them....

(The entire section is 3,883 words.)