Virginia Woolf

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Besides authoring short stories, Virginia Woolf was an acute and detailed diarist (her diary entries occupy five volumes in the authoritative collected edition); a prolific letter writer (six volumes in the authoritative collected edition); a biographer; a perceptive, original, and argumentative essayist and reviewer (her collected essays fill six volumes in the authoritative edition); and a pioneer of the modern novel in her ten works of long prose fiction, which include the acknowledged classics Mrs. Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927), and The Waves (1931).


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A distinguished and distinctive prose stylist, Virginia Woolf excelled in fiction, nonfiction, and her own unique hybrid of these genres in her two whimsical books Orlando: A Biography (1928) and Flush: A Biography (1933), which are variously categorized as fiction, nonfiction, or “other” by critics of her work. In nonfiction, essays such as “The Death of the Moth,” “How Should One Read a Book?” and “Shakespeare’s Sister” have been widely anthologized, and in their vividness, imagery, and keen analysis of daily life, literature, society, and women’s concerns assure Woolf a place in the history of the essay.

In fiction, Woolf’s classic novels, sharing much in style and theme with the nonfiction, have overshadowed the short stories. Reacting against the realistic and naturalistic fiction of her time, Woolf often emphasized lyricism, stream of consciousness, and the irresolute slice of life in both her novels and her stories, though she wrote more conventional fiction as well. Whether the conventional “well-made” or the experimental stream-of-consciousness variety, many of her approximately fifty short stories are accomplished works of art. Because of their precise and musical prose style, irony, ingenious spiral form (with narrative refrains), reversal or revelatory structure, and exploration of human nature and social life, they deserve to be better known and to be studied for themselves and not just for what they may reveal about the novels.

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To say that Virginia Woolf lived to write is no exaggeration. Her output was both prodigious and varied; counting her posthumously published works, it fills more than forty volumes. Beyond her novels, her fiction encompasses several short-story collections. As a writer of nonfiction, Woolf was similarly prolific, her book-length works including Roger Fry: A Biography (1940) and two influential feminist statements, A Room of One’s Own (1929) and Three Guineas (1938). Throughout her life, Woolf also produced criticism and reviews; the best-known collections are The Common Reader: First Series (1925) and The Common Reader: Second Series (1932). In 1966 and 1967, the four volumes of Collected Essays were published. Additional books of essays, reviews, and sketches continue to appear, most notably the illuminating selection of autobiographical materials, Moments of Being (1976). Her letters—3,800 of them survive—are available in six volumes; when publication was completed, her diaries stood at five. Another collection, of Woolf’s essays, also proved a massive, multivolume undertaking.


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From the appearance of her first novel in 1915, Virginia Woolf’s work was received with respect—an important point, since she was extremely sensitive to criticism. Descendant of a distinguished literary family, member of the avant-garde Bloomsbury Group, herself an experienced critic and reviewer, she was taken seriously as an artist. Nevertheless, her early works were not financially successful; she was forty before she earned a living from her writing. From the start, the rather narrow territory of her novels precluded broad popularity, peopled as they were with sophisticated, sexually reserved, upper-middle-class characters, finely attuned to their sensibilities and relatively insulated from the demands of mundane existence. When in Jacob’s Room she first abandoned the conventional novel to experiment with the interior monologues and lyrical poetic devices that characterize her mature method, she also began to develop a...

(This entire section contains 513 words.)

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reputation as a “difficult” or “highbrow” writer, though undeniably an important one. Not until the brilliant fantasyOrlando was published did she enjoy a definite commercial success. Thereafter, she received both critical and popular acclaim; The Years was even a bona fide best seller.

During the 1930’s, Woolf became the subject of critical essays and two book-length studies; some of her works were translated into French. At the same time, however, her novels began to be judged as irrelevant to a world beset by growing economic and political chaos. At her death in 1941, she was widely regarded as a pioneer of modernism but also reviewed by many as the effete, melancholic “invalid priestess of Bloomsbury,” a stereotype her friend and fellow novelist E. M. Forster dismissed at the time as wholly inaccurate; she was, he insisted, “tough, sensitive but tough.”

Over the next twenty-five years, respectful attention to Woolf’s work continued, but in the late 1960’s, critical interest accelerated dramatically and has remained strong. Two reasons for this renewed notice seem particularly apparent. First, Woolf’s feminist essays A Room of One’s Own and Three Guineas became rallying documents in the growing women’s movement; readers who might not otherwise have discovered her novels were drawn to them via her nonfiction and tended to read them primarily as validations of her feminist thinking. Second, with the appearance of her husband Leonard Woolf’s five-volume autobiography from 1965-1969, her nephew Quentin Bell’s definitive two-volume biography of her in 1972, and the full-scale editions of her own diaries and letters commencing in the mid-1970’s, Woolf’s life has become one of the most thoroughly documented of any modern author. Marked by intellectual and sexual unconventionality, madness, and suicide, it is for today’s readers also one of the most fascinating; the steady demand for memoirs, reminiscences, and photograph collections relating to her has generated what is sometimes disparagingly labeled “the Virginia Woolf industry.” At its worst, such insatiable curiosity is morbidly voyeuristic, distracting from and trivializing Woolf’s achievement; on a more responsible level, it has led to serious, provocative reevaluations of the political and especially the feminist elements in her work, as well as to redefinitions of her role as an artist.

Discussion Topics

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What contributions to Virginia Woolf’s literary success were made by her husband?

Woolf was not enthusiastic about James Joyce’s works, but there are patterns of resemblance in her novel Mrs. Dalloway and Joyce’s Ulysses (1922). How are the two authors’ depictions of one day in the life of the protagonist similar and in what major ways do they differ?

Does the children’s reconciliation with their father in To the Lighthouse reflect the course of Woolf’s relationship with her own father?

What is the essence of Mrs. Ramsay’s character?

Does Woolf push her idea of the structure of a novel to its ultimate limit in The Waves?

Did Woolf abandon the notion of plot or merely subordinate it to characterization?

Why did A Room of One’s Own have to wait until the 1960’s to receive full recognition?


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Abel, Elizabeth. Virginia Woolf and the Fictions of Psychoanalysis. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989. With a focus upon symbolism and stylistic devices, this book comprehensively delineates the psychoanalytic connections between Woolf’s fiction and Sigmund Freud’s and Melanie Klein’s theories. Sometimes difficult to follow, however, given Abel’s reliance on excellent but extensive endnotes.

Baldwin, Dean R. Virginia Woolf: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne, 1989. Baldwin’s lucid parallels between Woolf’s life experiences and her innovative short-story techniques contribute significantly to an understanding of both the author and her creative process. The book also presents the opportunity for a comparative critical study by furnishing a collection of additional points of view in the final section. A chronology, a bibliography, and an index supplement the work.

Banks, Joanne Trautmann. “Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield.” In The English Short Story, 1880-1945: A Critical History, edited by Joseph M. Flora. Boston, Mass.: Twayne, 1985. In about twelve pages, the philosophical themes of several stories (imagination, perception) are briefly explored, plus the affinities of the two writers, deriving from feminist concerns and admiration of Anton Chekhov’s short fiction.

Barrett, Eileen, and Patricia Cramer, eds. Virginia Woolf: Lesbian Readings. New York: New York University Press, 1997. This collection of conference papers features two essays on Woolf’s stories: one on Katherine Mansfield’s presence in Woolf’s story “Moments of Being,” and one that compares lesbian modernism in the stories of Woolf with lesbian modernism in the stories of Gertrude Stein.

Beja, Morris, ed. Critical Essays on Virginia Woolf. Boston: G. K. Hall and Co., 1985. This collection is divided into two sections: reviews of Woolf’s major works and essays on Woolf’s art and artistic vision. The various interpretations reflect the editor’s premise that Virginia Woolf, though claimed by several ages and schools of criticism, was unique and thus cannot be pigeonholed in any specific way.

Bell, Quentin. Virginia Woolf: A Biography. 2 vols. London: The Hogarth Press, 1972. Written by Virginia Woolf’s nephew, this biography is based upon Woolf’s memoirs, journals, and correspondence. While it is invaluable for its storehouse of information, it says little about Woolf’s fiction and the ways in which her life and work were interrelated.

Bennett, Joan. Virginia Woolf: Her Art as a Novelist. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1945. Reprint. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1964. Though a slim volume, this book offers a useful overview of Woolf’s innovations and her continuity with tradition. Chapters on Woolf’s fictional techniques are followed by chapters on her contributions to nonfiction through A Writer’s Diary (1953) and her many critical essays.

Bleishman, Avrom. “Forms of the Woolfian Short Story.” In Virginia Woolf: Revaluation and Continuity, edited by Ralph Freedman. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980. In twenty-six pages, abstract theoretical issues concerning genre are discussed; then several stories are divided into the two categories of linear (for example, “The New Dress” and “Kew Gardens”) and circular (for example, “The Duchess” and “Lappin and Lapinova”) in form.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Virginia Woolf. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1986. This volume is a collection of essays and excerpts ranging from 1951 to the time of the book’s publication. Arranged chronologically, the volume offers various interpretations of Woolf’s work, including the editor’s introduction, with its discussion of Woolf’s aesthetic ideas and several essays which offer feminist interpretations of Woolf’s novels.

Briggs, Julia. Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life. Orlando, FL: Harcourt, Inc., 2005. A thorough biography of Woolf, shedding light on her creative process as well as her own perceptions of her work.

Daiches, David. Virginia Woolf. Norfolk, Conn.: New Directions, 1942. Brief comments are offered on “A Haunted House,” “The Mark on the Wall,” “Monday or Tuesday,” “A Society,” “The String Quartet,” and “An Unwritten Novel.”

Dalsimer, Katherine. Virginia Woolf: Becoming a Writer. New York: Yale University Press, 2002. Woolf has long been associated with psychoanalysis as the first English-language publisher of Sigmund Freud. Dalsimer, a psychoanalyst herself, analyzes Woolf’s writings in all genres to uncover the psychology that underlies her literary persona.

DeSalvo, Louise. Virginia Woolf: The Impact of Childhood Sexual Abuse on Her Life and Work. Boston: Beacon Press, 1989.

Dick, Susan, ed. Introduction to The Complete Shorter Fiction of Virginia Woolf. 2d ed. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1989. Along with classification of stories into traditional ones and fictional reveries, with affinities in works of nineteenth century writers such as Thomas De Quincey and Anton Chekhov, invaluable notes are given on historical, literary, and cultural allusions, as well as textual problems, for every story.

Dowling, David. Mrs. Dalloway: Mapping Streams of Consciousness. Boston: Twayne, 1991. Divided into sections on literary and historical context and interpretations of the novel. Dowling explores the world of Bloomsbury, war, and modernism; the critical reception of the novel and how it was composed; Woolf’s style, theory of fiction, handling of stream of consciousness, structure, characters, and themes. Includes a chronology and concordance to the novel.

Ginsberg, Elaine K., and L. M. Gottlieb, eds. Virginia Woolf: Centennial Essays. Troy, N.Y.: Whitston, 1983. Sixteen papers cover, among other topics, Woolf’s style, gender consciousness, and feminist inclinations. Style, approach, and interpretation vary widely by presenter, and the text as a whole requires some familiarity with Woolf’s writings. Notes on contributors, endnotes following each paper, and an index are provided.

Goldman, Jane. The Feminist Aesthetics of Virginia Woolf: Modernism, Post-Impressionism, and the Politics of the Visual. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001. A feminist reading of Woolf’s works that focuses on the influence of literary and artistic modernism and places her in her historical and cultural context.

Gordon, Lyndall. Virginia Woolf: A Writer’s Life. New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1985. In this biography, Gordon looks not only at Woolf’s life in Bloomsbury but also at her works, including the unfinished memoirs, the drafts of novels, and some lesser-known and unpublished pieces. Divides Woolf’s life into three phases: her childhood, her time of literary apprenticeship and recurring illness, and her mature period of artistic achievement.

Guiget, Jean. Virginia Woolf and Her Works. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1965. This book begins with a study of Woolf’s world, the cultural milieu which shaped her and within which she wrote. It then focuses on specific works, beginning with the nonfiction and working through the novels, stories and sketches, and biographies. The final section considers basic problems Woolf faced in her search for a new literary form.

Head, Dominic. “Experiments in Genre.” In The Modernist Short Story: A Study in Theory and Practice. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1992. Head discusses Woolf’s search for a narrative texture that would adequately portray her notion of life as amorphous.

Heilbrun, Carolyn G. Women’s Lives: The View from the Threshold. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999. This volume discusses George Eliot, Woolf, Willa Cather, and Harriet Beecher Stowe. Focuses on the female view and feminism in literature.

King, James. Virginia Woolf. New York: W. W. Norton, 1995. A literary biography that relates Woolf’s life to her work. Shows how the chief sources of her writing were her life, her family, and her friends.

Lee, Hermione. Virginia Woolf. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997. A detailed biography of Woolf, her complex family relationships, her lifelong battle with mental illness, and her relationship to the Bloomsbury group.

Marder, Herbert. The Measure of Life: Virginia Woolf’s Last Years. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2000. An examination of the life and work of Woolf during her final, suicide haunted decade.

Marcus, Jane, ed. Virginia Woolf: A Feminist Slant. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983. In this second volume of feminist essays (the first, New Feminist Essays on Virginia Woolf, was published in 1981 and was also edited by Marcus), the diversity within the discipline of feminist scholarship is apparent. The editor writes about Woolf’s aunt, Caroline Emelia Stephen; Louise De Salvo explores Virginia Stephen at fifteen; Emily Jensen examines the lesbian content of Mrs. Dalloway; and other essays consider still more diverse aspects of Woolf’s life and works.

Meyerowitz, Selma. “What Is to Console Us? The Politics of Deception in Woolf’s Short Stories.” In New Feminist Essays on Virginia Woolf, edited by Jane Marcus. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1981. In fourteen pages, in contrast to formal aspects or general philosophical themes such as the quest for reality, the political and social content of several stories is stressed, particularly feminist issues of subordination and powerlessness, alienation, negative male traits, class conflict, and oppressive social institutions.

Reid, Panthea. Art and Affection: A Life of Virginia Woolf. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. Drawing on the wealth of material available about Woolf and her circle, Reid reexamines the writer’s personal relationships and literary theories.

Roe, Sue, and Susan Sellers, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Virginia Woolf. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000. A landmark collection of essays by leading scholars that addresses the full range of Woolf’s intellectual perspectives—literary, artistic, philosophical and political.

Rose, Phyllis. Woman of Letters: A Life of Virginia Woolf. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978. In this biography, Rose assumes a feminist perspective, asserting that Woolf’s feminism was the crux of her life and literature. Explores in great detail Woolf’s recurrent bouts with madness.

Warner, Eric, ed. Virginia Woolf: A Centenary Perspective. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1984. With a nonpartisan approach, this text offers seven papers and two panel discussions from Fitzwilliam College’s Virginia Woolf Centenary Conference in Cambridge, England. Notes at the end of each presentation, notes on the contributors, and an index are provided.

Woolf, Virginia, and Sackville-West, Vita. The Letters of Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf. Edited by Louise DeSalvo and Mitchell A. Leaska. 2001. 500 letters. Photos.


Critical Essays