The following is a guest post by Pauline Schnoebelen. Schnoebelen is a PhD student in British Literature and History of Art at Paris Diderot University. She become interested in Virginia Woolf’s work while studying abroad at the University of Reading in England in 2010. Also a qualified pianist and cinema lover, Pauline writes stories and screenplays in her spare time:
As Art Historian and Virginia Woolf’s nephew, Quentin Bell, once highlighted, “by 1900 it seemed that the time [had] come for re-examination of human emotions” with the desire to leave the Victorian age behind.
This early-modernist period of artistic innovation was mainly a reaction against the past, but also a way for the avant-garde artists to defend expression and creation over imitation. As Woolf argued, in her essay Modern Fiction, the Modernists’ inspiration asked for a proper style: “at once a different outline of form becomes necessary, difficult for us to grasp, incomprehensible to our predecessors.”
This sense of difficulty in Woolf’s conception of literature opposes the traditional tendency to convey a vision of reality far too simplified. In her essay, Modern Fiction, Woolf denounces the Victorian use of descriptions, generic characters and plot, saying that “whether we call it life or spirit, truth or reality, the essential thing, has moved off, or on, and refuses to be contained any longer in such-ill fitting vestments as we provide.”
Virginia Woolf, photographed by Lady Ottoline Morrell, circa 1926
These very terms – life, spirit, truth and reality, and especially the essential thing – cannot for Woolf be trusted when conveyed by conventional fiction.
Virginia Woolf refuses to consider any mimetic writing following a clear pattern as able to convey real life, as she also states in Modern Fiction: “Life is not a series of gig-lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end.” Thus, convinced that “’The proper stuff of fiction’ does not exist,” Woolf follows her own technique.
Virginia Woolf’s novel The Waves is often classified as one of the most ambitious works of Modernist fiction. Indeed, the conventional ingredients of fiction – time, plot, character and place – are adapted to Woolf’s redefinition of the concept of the novel.
The text is divided into nine sections without chapter or number indications, and the six main characters are essentially known by their names and their respective thoughts or interior monologues.
The plot consists in following their mental progression from childhood to adulthood through a succession of simple facts of minor importance, yet essential.
Places do not exist outside the consciousness of the characters as the garden, the house, Louis’ office, Susan’s farm or Jinny’s room cannot be mapped in a fictional landscape. Apart from very few blurred indications, “May or November” “first day of summer holidays” there is no proper notion of time. Therefore, everything is turned inward and the characters seem to be separated from the outside world.
Thus, reality lies in the often-overlooked minor events, more than in the traditional occurrences upon which most of the Victorian novels were built. Woolf herself in her essays advocated for the importance of trivial events in the course of a life: “Examine for a moment an ordinary mind on an ordinary day.”
Neville, one of the six characters of The Waves even wonders “They want a plot, do they? They want a reason. It is not enough for them, this ordinary scene.” While Bernard raptures over a simple vision: “’That is a wood-pigeon breaking cover in the tops of the beech trees,‘” the painter Lily Briscoe in To the Lighthouse is captivated by Mr. Ramsay tying shoes: “Three times he knotted her shoe; three times he unknotted it.”
Woolf encouraged writers to take risks and go against established techniques, observing that only then, “the story might wobble; the plot might crumble; ruin might seize upon the characters. The novel, in short, might become a work of art.”
Bell, Quentin, Art. London: Chatto & Windus, 1914, p.28
Woolf, Virginia. Collected Essays.Vol.2. . London: The Hogarth Press, 1966
About Rebecca Beatrice Brooks
Rebecca Beatrice Brooks is a freelance writer and history lover who got her start in journalism working for small-town newspapers in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. Rebecca graduated from the University of New Hampshire with a B.A. in Journalism in 2001.
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Virginia Woolf was one of the great literary figures of the twentieth century, and The Waves (1931) represents, in a career filled with bold experiments, her most audacious exploration of the possibilities of the novel form. The Waves abandons traditional structure and plot as practiced in the English novel since the days of the writer Henry Fielding, in favor of a lyrical, almost dreamlike evocation of character. Instead of narrating her characters’ outward actions, Woolf enters their minds and reports their thoughts and perceptions as they occur, with few external clues to provide shape or context. Woolf builds her characters from the inside out, and one of the concerns of the novel is the way individual personalities and sensibilities are shaped by relationships with others. The resulting work still presents unique challenges and rewards for the reader, even more than fifty years since its publication. Woolf herself, however, worked hard in her lifetime to create an intellectual and critical environment in which such formally adventurous works as The Waves could be understood and appreciated.
Woolf was born in 1882 into an already distinguished literary and artistic family. Her father, Sir Leslie Stephen, was one of the most notable intellectuals of his day, and her sister, Vanessa, went on to become a well-regarded painter. Along with her husband, the publisher Leonard Woolf, whom she married in 1912, Woolf became one of the leading figures in the Bloomsbury Group of artists and writers. Named for the London district in which the Woolfs lived, the Bloomsbury Group was an informal circle of writers, artists, and thinkers who formed one of the most well-known branches of the literary avant-garde of the early twentieth century. Not so much a “movement” as a collection of like-minded friends, Bloomsbury stood for a moderately leftist political stance, a commitment to formal innovation in the arts, a refined critical and aesthetic sensibility, and an intensely inward focus on the way the mind translates experience into language and meaning. The Bloomsbury Group also tended to define itself in opposition to the Victorian period, the era of their parents and grandparents. As avowed modernists, they turned their backs on what they saw as the stuffy formality and hypocritical morality of the Victorians. Through their experiments in art and literature, they hoped to discover a new artistic method to match the new century.
Woolf was at the forefront of these efforts. In her critical writing, she championed the work of such contemporaries as James Joyce, whose novel Ulysses (1922) set the standard for modernist writing and is—apart from Woolf’s own work—the most obvious forerunner of The Waves. She also pioneered efforts to establish a canon of women writers. Her influential readings of such authors as Jane Austen and George Eliot help to locate her own work within a tradition of female novelists.
In her famous essay “Modern Fiction,” Woolf distinguishes between those writers she labels “materialists,” who focus on the surface of things and events at the expense of inner meaning, and those such as Joyce and herself, who are “spiritual” and want to convey “that innermost flame” of people and events, even if this concern leads them away from what we are used to thinking of as realistic writing. For Woolf, capturing the “innermost flame” is the most important task of the modern novelist, who tries to reveal the extraordinary quality of “an ordinary mind on an ordinary day.” In her greatest works, such as Mrs. Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927), and The Waves, Woolf epitomizes such a modern writer, leaving behind the conventional structures of the novel in order to pursue the fleeting impressions within the minds of her characters, capturing them in flight within a net of language and imagery.