Virginia Woolf Woolf, Virginia (Short Story Criticism) - Essay


(Short Story Criticism)

Virginia Woolf 1882-1941

(Born Adeline Virginia Stephen) English novelist, critic, essayist, short story writer, diarist, autobiographer, and biographer.

The following entry provides an overview of Woolf's life and works of short fiction.

Recognized as one of the major figures of modern literature, Woolf is highly regarded both for her innovative fiction techniques and insightful contributions to literary criticism. In her short fiction, she explored such themes as the elusive nature of storytelling and character study, the nature of truth and reality, and the role of women in society. Like her novels, these highly individualized, stylistic works are noted for their subjective explorations and detailed poetic narratives that capture ordinary experience while depicting the workings and perceptions of the human mind. Written in an elliptical and impressionistic style, Woolf's brief, apparently plotless stories are considered to have significantly influenced the development of modern short fiction.

Biographical Information

Woolf was born into a talented and distinguished literary family in London in 1882, the third of four children of Sir Leslie Stephen, a prominent literary scholar, and his second wife, Julia. Virginia's parents maintained friendships with figures of the Victorian intellectual aristocracy, often hosting visits from such eminent writers as Thomas Hardy, George Meredith, and Henry James. Virginia and her sister, Vanessa, did not receive a formal education, but access to their father's extensive library provided a rich source for their private learning. In 1895 the Stephens' comfortable existence was disrupted by the sudden, tragic death of their beloved mother, Julia. Virginia's subsequent mental breakdown was the first of several that troubled her throughout her life. After her father's death in 1904, Woolf, along with her sister, and two brothers, Thoby and Adrian, moved to the Bloomsbury district of London. It was there they met weekly with several of Thoby's Cambridge associates to discuss the arts and together formed what is now known as the Bloomsbury Group. Within this circle of friends that included, among others, John Maynard Keynes, Clive Bell, Vita Sackville-West, and Lytton Strachey, Woolf was exposed to a variety of modern theories on art and literature that deeply affected the development of her own ideas. Also during this time, she published her first essays and reviews, a practice she continued throughout her life. In 1912 she married Leonard Woolf, a writer and socialist political figure, also among the Bloomsbury circle, whose stabilizing influence on Virginia is considered to have nurtured her literary career. Nevertheless, in 1913, after completing her first novel, The Voyage Out (1915), she collapsed from mental exhaustion, and the ensuing breakdown, her most severe, lasted several years.

In 1917, following Virginia's recovery the proceeding year, she and Leonard founded the Hogarth Press—a business venture which was intended partly as a release from the anxiety she experienced when writing, and which subsequently kept her from having to send her work to an outside publisher. By 1924 Hogarth had grown into a successful and respected business, publishing all of Virginia's writings as well as the early works of such writers as Katherine Mansfield, T. S. Eliot, and Sigmund Freud. During the period 1922 to 1941, Virginia immersed herself in writing fiction, completing the critically acclaimed novels Mrs. Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927), and The Waves (1931), which form the foundation of her literary reputation. In addition, her nonfiction works from this time, particularly A Room of One's Own (1929) and Three Guineas (1938), established her as an important contributor to modern critical and feminist writing. Yet, despite these successes, Woolf feared the onslaught of another breakdown—from which, she believed, it would be impossible to recover—and in 1941, she took her own life by drowning. The posthumous publication of many of Woolf's essays, short stories, journals, diaries, and letters attest to an abiding interest in her career.

Major Works of Short Fiction

In her short fiction Woolf typically focused on minute physical detail and experimented with stream-of-consciousness techniques, interior monologue, and symbolism to capture the subjective workings of human thought. “Kew Gardens” typifies her lyrical portrayal of varied narrative perspectives through the interior monologue of an omniscient narrator. In this seemingly plotless story, Woolf creates the atmosphere of an afternoon at London's Kew Gardens by fusing the shifting points of view of several people with those of a snail, insects, flowers, and even such inanimate objects as buses and airplanes. In “Mark on the Wall” she employs interior monologue to impart the musings of a narrator who, in speculating about a small detail on a wall, ponders a variety of topics, including personal reminiscence, history, and nature. Every rumination returns to the mark only to stray anew into reverie, as each of the narrator's seemingly meandering thoughts builds upon one another to create an intricate discourse on the nature of reality and truth. Themes in Woolf's short fiction are intrinsically fused with narrative form. Similar to Joyce's short stories, in which epiphany is frequently an essential element, Woolf's short fiction often depends on “moments of being” to delineate themes. Whereas Joyce's notion of epiphany focuses on the power of a single event to reveal truth, Woolf's “moments of being” encompass various incursions into time and place. In “Moments of Being: ‘Slater's Pins Have No Points,’” the protagonist, Fanny Wilmot, searches for a lost pin while she simultaneously attempts to gain insight into the personality of her elderly piano teacher, Julia Craye. In the brief time she searches for the pin, Fanny juxtaposes thoughts about Julia's past with the present and speculates on Julia's happiness. The narrative returns after each rumination about Julia's life to Fanny's search for the pin until, finally, at the instant when Fanny finds the pin, she experiences the revelation that Julia is indeed happy.

Woolf's fascination with the elusive nature of storytelling, as well as the inherent difficulty of knowing character, provided subject matter for several of her short stories. In “An Unwritten Novel” she explored this theme through the capricious mind of the narrator as she rides a train with a stranger, observing details of the unknown woman's appearance and behavior to construct a story surrounding her life. At the end of the tale the narrator is stunned to realize that her conclusions are utterly incorrect. In this and in several other stories, Woolf overturned conventional Edwardian precepts that relied on observable details to discern veracity and illustrated the unknowable nature of truth and character. In both her fiction and nonfiction Woolf was devoted to raising the social consciousness of readers. Her disarming and often humorous feminist works are informed with pointed criticism of sexism, as well as praise for neglected women writers. For example, “A Society” highlights ten years in the lives of a group of women who meet regularly to question conventions of art, literature, scholarship, law, and military achievement in a male-dominated society. One of the group's vows is to forego having children until they have resolved their questions. However, when one woman, Castilia, becomes pregnant, a new resolution is adopted to allow only the unchaste into their society, and Castilia is appointed president. The story's ironic stance, humor, and extensive use of allusion to the Bible and mythology serve, for several critics, to elevate it above the level of polemic.

Critical Reception

Like her contemporary James Joyce, with whom she is often compared, critics argue that Woolf revolted against the traditional narrative methods of her time and experimented with stream-of-consciousness prose and interior monologue. They note that she first introduced many of these formal experiments in short stories that often present “moments of being”—instances of intense sensibility during which disparate thoughts and events culminate in a flash of insight. Recent critical studies of Woolf's short fiction have investigated the symbolism of mirrors and glass in her work, traced revisions of her stories, assessed the influence of Thomas Browne and Bertrand Russell on her fiction, and explored aspects of her alleged anti-Semitism. Commentators have discussed her as a lesbian writer, and have emphasized parallels between her lesbian-themed stories with those of Gertrude Stein. Most critics acknowledge that Woolf's short stories frequently served as experimental studies in which ideas for her longer works of fiction originated and developed. Yet many commentators have contended that Woolf's experiments with poetic style, her psychological focus, and her subjective point of view expanded the limits of time and perception within the framework of the short story, influencing and contributing significantly to the development of modern short fiction.

Principal Works

(Short Story Criticism)

*The Mark on the Wall 1917

Kew Gardens 1919

Monday or Tuesday 1921

A Haunted House, and Other Short Stories 1944

Mrs. Dalloway's Party: A Short Story Sequence 1973

The Complete Shorter Fiction of Virginia Woolf 1985

The Voyage Out (novel) 1915

Night and Day (novel) 1919

Jacob's Room (novel) 1922

Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown (criticism) 1924

The Common Reader (criticism) 1925

Mrs. Dalloway (novel) 1925

To the Lighthouse (novel) 1927

Orlando: A Biography (novel) 1928

A Room of One's Own (essays) 1929

The Waves (novel) 1931

The Common Reader: Second Series (criticism) 1932

Flush: A Biography (biography) 1933

The Years (novel) 1937

Three Guineas (essays) 1938

Roger Fry: A Biography (biography) 1940

Between the Acts (novel) 1941

The Death of the Moth, and Other Essays (essays) 1942

The Moment, and Other Essays (essays) 1947

The Captain's Death Bed, and Other Essays (essays) 1950

A Writer's Diary: Being Extracts from the Diary of Virginia Woolf (diary) 1953

Hours in a Library (essay) 1957

Granite and Rainbow: Essays by Virginia Woolf (essays) 1958

Collected Essays. 4 vols. (essays) 1966-67

The Letters of Virginia Woolf. 6 vols. (letters) 1975-80

Moments of Being: Unpublished Autobiographical Writings (autobiographical essays) 1976

Books and Portraits (essays) 1977; also published as Some Further Selections from the Literary and Biographical Writings of Virginia Woolf: Books and Portraits, 1979

The Diary of Virginia Woolf. 5 vols. (diary) 1977-84

The Essays of Virginia Woolf. 4 vols. (essays) 1986-93

A Moment's Liberty: The Shorter Diary of Virginia Woolf (diary) 1990

A Passionate Apprentice: The Early Journals, 1897-1909 (journals) 1990

*This work was also published with Leonard Woolf's “Three Jews” as Two Stories in 1917.

Marilyn Kurtz (essay date 1990)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Kurtz, Marilyn. “Glass Breaking: Later Fiction.” In Virginia Woolf: Reflections and Reverberations, pp. 115-23. New York: Peter Lang, 1990.

[In the following excerpt, Kurtz considers the symbolism of windows and mirrors in Woolf's later short fiction.]

Windows and mirrors play as compelling a part in the later fiction of Virginia Woolf as they do in the earlier works. Even the short stories are infused with images of glass, for here, as in the novels, Virginia Woolf makes explorations into personal identity and the human condition through vehicles of glass in a quest for meaning.

Because of their power to separate and divide (as the self...

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Wayne Narey (essay date winter 1992)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Narey, Wayne. “Virginia Woolf's ‘The Mark on the Wall’: An Einsteinian View of Art.” Studies in Short Fiction 29, no. 1 (winter 1992): 35-42.

[In the following essay, Narey views “The Mark on the Wall” as an “artistic manifesto” of time and perspective influenced by the theories of Albert Einstein.]

James Naremore's study of Virginia Woolf, The World without a Self, refers to her short story “The Mark on the Wall” as “a sketch in which the protagonist indulges in what appears to be a Freudian daydream” (58-59). The Freudian aspect of the story comes from the free-associative quality of the protagonist's thoughts, the only...

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Susan Clements (essay date spring 1994)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Clements, Susan. “The Point of ‘Slater's Pins’: Misrecognition and the Narrative Closet.” Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature 13, no. 1 (spring 1994): 15-26.

[In the following essay, Clements regards “Slater's Pins Have No Points” as an “emblematic representation” of difficulties faced by lesbian writers and focuses “on the destructive and ultimately self-effacing practice of misrecognition.”]

“Chloe liked Olivia,” I read. And then it struck me how immense a change was there. Chloe liked Olivia perhaps for the first time in literature.

—Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's...

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Marc D. Cyr (essay date spring 1996)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Cyr, Marc D. “A Conflict of Closure in Virginia Woolf's ‘A Mark on the Wall.’” Studies in Short Fiction 33, no. 2 (spring 1996): 197-205.

[In the following essay, Cyr explores the meaning of the mark in “The Mark on the Wall” and debates the sense of closure in the story.]

Virginia Woolf's “The Mark on the Wall” concludes with the identification of that mark as a snail, this after several pages of digressions—on history, reality, society, art, writing, and life itself—incited by the flimsy ruse of an ontological inquiry. Readers have reacted variously to this revelation: As T. E. Apter notes, some, like M. C. Bradbrook, have found it...

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Herta Newman (essay date 1996)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Newman, Herta. “Stories about Storymaking.” In Virginia Woolf and Mrs. Brown: Toward a Realism of Uncertainty, pp. 17-29. New York: Garland Publishing, 1996.

[In the following essay, Newman assesses Woolf's success as a storyteller, concluding that her stories “fail to satisfy the reader's desire for certainty.”]

But what are stories? Toys I twist, bubbles I blow, one ring passes through another. Sometimes I begin to doubt if there are stories.1

Virginia Woolf's stories have not generally received the acclaim accorded to her novels and essays. Yet she is an inveterate storyteller, and it is in...

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Sally Greene (essay date fall 1997)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Greene, Sally. “Brownean Motion in ‘Solid Objects.’” Virginia Woolf Miscellany, no. 50 (fall 1997): 2-3.

[In the following essay, Greene assesses the influence of Thomas Browne on Woolf's fiction, particularly “The Mark on the Wall.”]

As Woolf refashioned her early empirical realism into a modernist practice, her work began to reflect a deeper engagement with the Renaissance, including the works of an old friend, Sir Thomas Browne. While she was finishing Night and Day (1919), she was embarking on a new direction in short fiction. “The Mark on the Wall” and other stories collected in Monday or Tuesday (1921) reflect, in their...

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Nóra Séllei (essay date 1997)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Séllei, Nóra. “The Snail and The Times: Three Stories ‘Dancing in Unity.’” Hungarian Journal of English and American Studies 3, no. 2 (1997): 189-98.

[In the following essay, Séllei finds thematic and stylistic similarities in “The Mark on the Wall,” “Kew Gardens,” and “An Unwritten Novel.”]

“[Y]esterday I … arrived at some idea of a new form for a new novel. Suppose one thing should open out of another—as in ‘An Unwritten Novel’—only not for 10 pages but 200 or so—doesn't that give the looseness and lightness I want; doesn't that get closer and yet keep form and speed, and enclose everything?” asks Virginia Woolf...

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Corinne E. Blackmer (essay date 1997)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Blackmer, Corinne E. “Lesbian Modernism in the Shorter Fiction of Virginia Woolf and Gertrude Stein.” In Virginia Woolf: Lesbian Readings, edited by Eileen Barrett and Patricia Cramer, pp. 78-93. New York: New York University Press, 1997.

[In the following essay, Blackmer analyzes the lesbian-themed short stories of Woolf and Gertrude Stein to gain insight into their “distinctive approaches to creating lesbian modernist literature.”]

To the extent that lesbians have been associated with the obscure, the neglected, and the marginal, there is something quintessentially “lesbian” about bringing the shorter fictions of Virginia Woolf and Gertrude Stein...

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Michael Lackey (essay date winter 1998)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Lackey, Michael. “The Gender of Atheism in Virginia Woolf's ‘A Simple Melody.’” Studies in Short Fiction 35, no. 1 (winter 1998): 49-63.

[In the following essay, Lackey perceives “A Simple Melody” to be a transitional work in Woolf's short fiction oeuvre and examines her portrayal of male atheism in the story.]


Posthumously published, the 1925 short story “A Simple Melody” is one of the most pivotal works in Virginia Woolf's corpus, signaling a decisive break with her first four novels, yet anticipating the central issues of her last five. Typical of Woolf's fiction, the story features a main character who is an...

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Annette Oxindine (essay date autumn 1998)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Oxindine, Annette. “Sexing the Epiphany in ‘Moments of Being,’ Woolf's Nice Little Story about Sapphism.” Journal of the Short Story in English, no. 31 (autumn 1998): 51-61.

[In the following essay, Oxindine links the homoerotic and epiphanic moments in “Slater's Pins Have No Points.”]

You remember there is a very fine instinct wireless telepathy nothing to it—in women—the darlings—which fizzles up pretenses, and I know what you mean though you don't say it …

—Virginia Woolf to Violet Dickinson, 1903

Critical avoidance of the lesbian intimacy at the conclusion of...

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Ellen Tremper (essay date 1998)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Tremper, Ellen. “Prologue: ‘The Journal of Mistress Joan Martyn’ and Wordsworth's Guide to the Lakes.” In “Who Lived at Alfoxton?”: Virginia Woolf and English Romanticism, pp. 35-61. Cranbury, N.J.: Bucknell University Press, 1998.

[In the following essay, Tremper investigates the influence of William Wordsworth's Guide to the Lakes on Woolf's “The Journal of Mistress Joan Martyn.”]

Here are the poets from whom we descend by way of the mind.

Between the Acts

Virginia Woolf's relations with her father, Leslie Stephen, were exceptional. Beyond...

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Natania Rosenfeld (essay date 2000)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Rosenfeld, Natania. “Incongruities; or, The Politics of Character: Departures.” In Outsiders Together: Virginia and Leonard Woolf, pp. 81-95. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2000.

[In the following essay, Rosenfeld juxtaposes the style and themes of the two pieces collected in Two Stories: “The Mark on the Wall,” and Leonard Woolf's “Three Jews.”]

Five years after their [Virginia and Leonard Woolf's] marriage, in 1917, the newly founded Hogarth Press issued its first publication. The Woolfs saw their press as an opportunity for creative and intellectual freedom, and as a respite from mental labor. It would enable Virginia to...

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Kathryn N. Benzel (essay date 2000)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Benzel, Kathryn N. “Woolf's Early Experimentation with Consciousness: ‘Kew Gardens,’ Typescript to Publication, 1917-1919.”1 In Virginia Woolf: Turning the Centuries, edited by Ann Ardis and Bonnie Kime Scott, pp. 192-99. New York: Pace University Press, 2000.

[In the following essay, Benzel speculates about the origin, creation, and revision of “Kew Gardens.”]

In Michael Cunningham's novel The Hours, he describes a park that his character Virginia Woolf envisions in a dream:

It seems, suddenly, that she is not in her bed but in a park; a park impossibly verdant, green beyond green—a Platonic...

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Jane de Gay (essay date 2000)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: de Gay, Jane. “An Unfinished Story: The Freshwater Drafts of ‘The Searchlight.’” In Virginia Woolf: Turning the Centuries, edited by Ann Ardis and Bonnie Kime Scott, pp. 207-15. New York: Pace University Press, 2000.

[In the following essay, de Gay traces the revision of “The Searchlight” into “A Scene from the Past,” and contends that the final version deserves more critical attention than it has been given.]

This paper will focus on a collection of drafts relating to Woolf's short story “The Searchlight,” which differ significantly from the version published by Leonard Woolf in A Haunted House (1943). Unlike the published version,...

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Karin E. Westman (essay date spring 2001)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Westman, Karin E. “The First Orlando: The Laugh of the Comic Spirit in Virginia Woolf's ‘Friendships Gallery.’” Twentieth-Century Literature 47, no. 1 (spring 2001): 39-71.

[In the following essay, Westman maintains that “Friendships Gallery” best represents Woolf's development of a “new ‘art’ of biography that could negotiate the tension between fact and fiction” and identifies the story as the roots of her novel Orlando.]

The Comic Spirit laughed meanwhile.

—“Friendships Gallery” (284)

If Orlando (1928) has typically been read as the literary...

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Anne Besnault-Levita (essay date spring 2003)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Besnault-Levita, Anne. “What ‘It’ Is About: The Implicit in Virginia Woolf's Short Fictions.” Journal of the Short Story in English, no. 40 (spring 2003): 135-47.

[In the following essay, Besnault-Levita analyzes Woolf's use of the pronoun “it” in her short fiction and explores “the implicit theories of meaning and interpretation behind the implicit as they are put to the test by Woolf's fictional prose.”]

How does “it” mean, what is “it” about and what does “it” reveal about the ethics of Virginia Woolf's poetics of the implicit, and therefore of fiction, are the three questions I would like to raise in this paper. My starting point...

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Leena Kore Schröder (essay date fall 2003)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Schröder, Leena Kore. “Tales of Abjection and Miscegenation: Virginia Woolf's and Leonard Woolf's ‘Jewish’ Stories.” Twentieth-Century Literature 49, no. 3 (fall 2003): 298-327.

[In the following essay, Schröder explores elements of anti-Semitism in Woolf's short story “The Duchess and the Jeweller” and Leonard Woolf's “Three Jews.”]

There can be no straightforward account of attitudes toward Jewishness in the work of Virginia Woolf. This is a woman who lived happily married to a Jew and whose private references to Leonard as “my Jew” are marital jokes (Diary [The Diary of Virginia Woolf] 1: 11), yet whose diaries regularly...

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Holly Henry (essay date 2003)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Henry, Holly. “Maps, Globes, and ‘Solid Objects.’” In Virginia Woolf and the Discourse of Science: The Aesthetics of Astronomy, pp. 71-92. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

[In the following excerpt, Henry investigates the influence of Bertrand Russell's theories of material phenomena on her “Solid Objects.”]


In her short fiction experiments like “Solid Objects,” “Kew Gardens,” and “The Mark on the Wall,” Woolf explored the questions that Russell and Whitehead were working out in their own theories regarding what can be known of the material world....

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Heather Levy (essay date spring 2004)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Levy, Heather. “‘These Ghost Figures of Distorted Passion’: Becoming Privy to Working-Class Desire in ‘The Watering Place’ and ‘The Ladies Lavatory.’” Modern Fiction Studies 50, no. 1 (spring 2004): 31-57.

[In the following essay, Levy argues that “The Watering Place,” “The Ladies Lavatory,” and “The Cook” reveal Woolf's exploration of the “fricative interrelationships between class, lesbian desire, and the occupation of public and private space.”]

The bodies and minds of working-class women are elided in most of Virginia Woolf's earliest shorter fiction and then only partially or unflatteringly staged in most of her middle and...

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Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)


Abbott, Reginald. “What Miss Kilman's Petticoat Means: Virginia Woolf, Shopping, and Spectacle.” Modern Fiction Studies 38, no. 1 (spring 1992): 193-216.

Offers a consumer/commodity perspective on Woolf's short fiction.

Banfield, Ann. “Time Passes: Virginia Woolf, Post-Impressionism, and Cambridge Time.” Poetics Today 24, no. 3 (fall 2003): 471-516.

Argues that Woolf's literary impressionism developed through her short stories.

Bishop, Edward. “‘Kew Gardens’ and Jacob's Room: Pursuing ‘It’ and the ‘Greek Spirit.’” In Virginia Woolf, pp. 32-48. New...

(The entire section is 653 words.)