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Life and In Her Novels

Virginia Woolf first learned to say ‘we’ as a woman. It was not so much freeing from her own ego, as liberation from the isolation of individual anxiety. Thinking back through her mothers gave her first combined identity and strengthened her creative capability. Her whole career was an exercise in the exclusion of the ego from fiction in author, characters and readers. It was the development of the word ‘we’ in a world of women writers past and future which grew finally to speak for all the alienated and oppressed. Virginia Woolf’s ‘mothers’ and aunts and women friends brought her into being as a writer, encourage her efforts.

In this circle of female companionship the members collected the letters and diaries of their mothers and aunts, wrote their biographies, and shared faded photos and tales of ancestresses. The first lives of the ambiguous which attracted Virginia Woolf’s romantic vision of herself as ‘deliverer’ were women’s. She would undo their tongues ‘the divine relief of communique will soon again be theirs’. Her essays provide an instance and a method for feminist critics and biographers, extending the literary and political rescue and deliverance to obscure and working-class men (such as Joseph Wright) and to ‘the eccentrics’.

‘Sometimes, though it happens far too hardly ever, lives have been written of these singular men and women, as, after they are dead, somebody half-shame facedly has put together their papers. ‘ Virginia Woolf’s novels are concerning adventures of the mind rather than of the body. They are openly concerned with the pursuit of legitimacy for both men and women, with the nature and dangers of love, with the value of life, and with the decisiveness of death.

Her writing was an effort to understand her own life concerning those first and last things, and in approaching her resourceful work she used intentionally to sink into a hypnoid reverie, permitting her ordinarily unconscious wishes and fears to attain some form of representation. But certainly there are limits to such self-examination. What Virginia Woolf sought in her forceful personal and artistic relationships with women might best be explained in fabled rather than psychological terms. The work of the great classical scholar Jane Harrison had an influential influence on Virginia Woolf’s imagery and metaphors.

Harrison’s work on mothers and daughters in pre-classical Greece, her study of the evolution of the powerful myths of mother-goddess worship into patriarchal Greek thought as we know it, was very significant to Virginia Woolf’s writing and thinking “‘The Years as Greek Drama, Domestic Novel and Gotterdammerung'”, Bulletin of the New York Public Library, Winter 1977, pp. 276- 301. Woolf’s mother died just as her daughter reached puberty, connecting sexuality and death forever in her mind. Marrying, she added a note of savagery to the chastity of her name and sense of self

To describe the process of writing she images a young woman fishing, “letting her imagination sweep unchecked round every rock and cranny of the world that lies submerged in the depths of our unconscious being. ” But there comes a crisis more common, she felt, for women writers than for men: Her imagination had rushed away. It had sought the pools, the depths, the dark places where the largest fish slumber. And then there was a smash. . . . The imagination had dashed itself against something hard. . . . She was indeed in a state of the most acute and difficult distress.

To speak without image, she had thought of something, something about the body, about the passions which it was unfitting for her as a woman to say. Men, her reason told her, would be shocked. The consciousness of what men will say about a woman who speaks the truth about her passions had roused her from her artist’s state of unconsciousness. She could write no more. ” Virginia Woolf, 1966-67, 2, pp. 287-88. The problem of men’s censoriousness over women’s sexuality was an actual one, but the matter for psychoanalysis is self-censorship, the power of which Woolf does not seem to distinguish here.

Yet, her search for self-understanding was a forceful and enduring one, and it informs her literary work from beginning to end. Primarily, it is the stages of her struggle with the inner image of her mother that link the novels together as episodes in a marathon journey. In 1925, just as Mrs. Dalloway was about to be published, Woolf wrote in her diary: “But my present reflection is that people have any number of states of consciousness and I should like to investigate the party consciousness, the frock consciousness, etc. The fashion world of the Becks.

is certainly one where people secrete an envelope which connects them and protects them from others, like myself, who am outside the envelope, foreign bodies” (Mrs. Dalloway’s Party11-12). Woolf writes that she gropes for words in order to describe this very difficult state; nonetheless, she is “always coming back to it. The party consciousness. ” In Mrs. Dalloway, Woolf forms a fictional form that suggests the sense that time has been suspended as the past becomes restricted in the present moment, and all that has been lost is lastly accessible through memory.

She writes: “I should say a great deal about The Hours and my discovery: how I dig out beautiful caves behind my characters: I think that gives exactly what I want; humanity, humor, depth. The idea is that the caves shall connect and each comes to daylight at the present moment” (D 2263). These beautiful caves can be seen not simply as a symbol for female sexuality but also, more prominently, as a symbol of what a definitely feminine aesthetic consists of, as Woolf uses her technique to detain the inner isolation of women that is beneath the chatter and gleam of the present moment.

The party similarly becomes part of a power struggle not simply with her husband’s well-meaning though controlling behavior, but with the artists and critics who do not take her work fatally. Woolf uses the party to convene people like Lubbock so she can show him that she is a woman who can talk sense, a woman whose thoughts must be measured. She writes: “I have been reflecting about society again, & think one of its merits is that it needs courage. The going into rooms properly dressed is alarming.

No one cares for one; that snubs vanity; one is on equal terms with one’s fellows” (D 2 239-240). As someone who is intensely aware of the trivial position women occupy in society, Woolf sees the party as a place where she can renegotiate and relocate power; however, at the same time, Woolf reveals her own class blindness when she writes that one is on “equal terms with one’s fellows. ” Woolf identifies as one who is outside the envelope of life, but then she feels she is on equal footing with other upper-middle-class or wealthy members of society. In Mrs.

Dalloway, Woolf has Clarissa wish to recreate and resume her passionate relationship with Sally. It is Clarissa’s lesbianism that makes her an interloper within the upper-class world she inhabits. And yet, in this same novel, Woolf forms another lesbian character, Doris Kilman, whom Woolf portrays as an unappealing, manly, evangelical working-class woman. Her very name, Kilman, suggests she is the type of woman who literally wants to kill men. Woolf clearly felt more comfortable writing concerning lesbianism within the framework of the safe, traditional world of upper-class British life.

As Woolf was revising Mrs. Dalloway, she wrote in her diary: “If one could be friendly with women, what a pleasure–the relationship so secret and private compared with relations with men. Why not write about it? Truthfully? ” (D 2320). As another subplot that resonates all through the text, Woolf attempts to do just that in her novel as she writes about the correlation between Clarissa and Sally. Thus, in this seminal story Mrs. Dalloway’s character is fairly out of sympathy with Woolf’s own and includes basics she could not endorse. The Mrs.

Dalloway of the novel may be a more comprehensive creature, but the remainder of the party stories (collected by Stella McNichol in Mrs. Dalloway’s Party) reveals it as a less benevolent affair than it first seems. Since they were written while the novel was in its closing stages or after it was finished, their cynical view of Mrs. Dalloway cannot be sacked as superseded in the novel. The outer action of the novel occurs in one day and evening, but the characters’ memories sort far back into the past, recovering material that illumines their present behavior.

The two main strands — of Clarissa Dalloway and Septimus Smith — have almost no spatiotemporal contact, yet their relation is contrapuntal and raises troubling questions about the hidden motives of social interaction, providing the raison d’etre of the book. The leading strand consists of Clarissa’s preparations for her party and her thoughts concerning the people who will be there, particularly Peter Walsh, a rejected suitor of many years ago who fortunately reappears on the morning of the party day, and concerning the differences between Walsh and her husband Richard.

The complementary strand is Septimus’s fall into psychosis and suicide, as well as his perceptions of his wife and his medical advisers, the legislative body of society. The only fundamental link between the two stories is an indirect one, almost at the end, when Smith’s psychiatrist, Sir William Bradshaw, at Clarissa’s party explains to Richard Dalloway that he has been delayed by Smith’s suicide.

While Clarissa hears of this, it causes a great commotion of feeling, out of which she comes to a confirmation of life (as she knows it) against death. To the Lighthouse is the first of Woolf’s novels in which she starts more fully to explore these strict internal tensions between “female” and “male” by permitting her mother, from whom she learned self-abnegation, to be portrayed in powerful conflict with her father, from whom she learned goal.

More considerably, Woolf shows the Ramsays through a narrator who, as carefully covering her tracks, is far from free of anger at the behavioral patterns which nurture male egoism at the expense of female ingenuity. Yet considerably enough, at the very moment of unleashing this conflict, Woolf efforts to resolve it. For she implants in this novel her first image of the asexual artist, although an unselfconscious one. Lily can end the novel; total her picture, because she “sees” both Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay.

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