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On Her 136th Birthday: Traveling Through the Works of Virginia Woolf

The Major Works of Virginia Woolf

2017 brought the best of times and the worst of times. I married my best friend in our favorite place with some of our closest family and friends. I lost my greatest living mentor to cancer on the same day I was at the Cimetiere Du Montparnasse in Paris visiting the final resting place of Samuel Beckett and Susan Sontag. On that same trip, I made—what I call my VW Pilgrimage—a journey through Virginia Woolf’s most frequented locations in London, including, at the end, a stop to her last residence and burial site in the countryside of London.

I wrote in my notebook: Depart by Train from The Tower Hotel to Monk's House (2h 43 min) - Virginia and Leonard's Residence/Burial Site (Tower Hill Station -District Ealing Broadway-Victoria Station-Lewes-Southease- THEN walk 1.5 mi to Monk’s House)

Virginia Woolf's Writing Room




Happy Birthday, VW

Today marks Virginia Woolf’s 136th birthday. Though she died at only 59, her words, in her fiction, essays, and diaries continues to resonate in and out of our minds, beyond school, and certainly into everyday life.

I finished Mrs. Dalloway on the train for the second time having debated which Woolf book to read, oscillating between my edition of The Waves published by her and Leonard’s press, Hogarth Press, The Years, To The Lighthouse, Between the Acts, or hearing the familiar voice of Mrs. Clarissa Dalloway.Though the Dalloway household won out, I’d like to spend some time sharing what made the decision difficult so that you may, in some small way, experience parts of each, as these books, literature really, reflect our lives back to us like fractions of mirrors more than we often know.

Through the Waves With Woolf

In The Waves, Virginia Woolf constructs each character much the way she has consistently done in each of her novels describing: how the character interprets reality, what if any relationship exists among characters, and his or her own sense of desire or purpose. One of the most ubiquitous methods Woolf uses to characterize individuals in The Waves manifests in the descriptions of connectivity between characters and the construction of each character within the limits of language. Bernard, deemed the storyteller, is best described by his desire to understand the fluidity of people existing together. He is the most interested, out of all the characters, with other people and the notion of separation and connection. Here, Bernard comments on this notion of separateness and connectedness as it relates to language: “‘But when we sit together, close,’” said Bernard, ‘we melt into each other with phrases. We are edged with mist. We make an unsubstantial territory’” (The Waves 9). Woolf characterizes Bernard with how he articulates the nature of connectedness and language’s ability to offer an opportunity to express it. In a later passage, Bernard articulates a moment of connection among the characters that characterizes his main desire and primary self-focus as well as the notion of connectedness whereby love for another person can link other people together, which is also a theme explored in Woolf’s Jacob’s Room: “‘But here and now we are together,’ said Bernard. ‘We have come together, at a particular time, to this particular spot. We are drawn into this communion by some deep, some common emotion. Shall we call it, conveniently, ‘love’? Shall we say ‘love of Percival’…” (The Waves 91).

The theme of connection is prevalent throughout the works of Woolf, and she uses the theme often to describe one’s relation to the world as well as to others. Susan is characterized by her connectedness with nature as she feels that she is “the seasons, [she] think[s] sometimes, January, May, November; the mud, the mist, the dawn” (The Waves 70). Likewise, her connectedness is also depicted in diction that parallels The Waves as she states that she cannot “be tossed about, or float gently, or mix with other people” (The Waves 70). Rhoda has a hard time grounding herself in any solid reality, which characterizes her lack of connection to the external world. Here is a passage addressed by Rhoda: “We may sink and settle on the waves. The sea will drum in my ears. The white petals will be darkened with sea water. They will float for a moment and then sink. Rolling me over the waves will shoulder me under. Everything falls in a tremendous shower, dissolving me” (The Waves 151). Jinny is characterized by her strong grounding in the body. She experiences her life perhaps in the most corporeal ways compared to any other character, and this firm stance in the body signifies her connection to the body in a way antithetical to Rhoda. Jinny is described by her dialogue, “I burn, I shiver” (6).

The lyrical interludes in The Waves are an example of natural symbolism whereby the crashing of waves is representative of a natural rhythm or sense of fluidity, which is reminiscent of Bernard’s desire for fluidity in experience and existence, and the mention of rhythm in language where Bernard states, “Now I am getting his beat into my brain (the rhythm is the main thing in writing). Now, without pausing I will begin, on the very lilt of the stroke—” (The Waves 56).

Like the characters’ desires and dialogue, the descriptions of the lyrical interludes are another mechanism Woolf uses to articulate notions of separation and connection such as with this passage taken from this interlude: “The Bird, whose breasts were pecked canary and rose, now sang a strain or two together, wildly, like skaters rollicking arm-in-arm, and were suddenly silent, breaking asunder” (The Waves 19). Here the syntactical phrasing of “arm-in-arm” immediately before “silent, breaking asunder” signifies the violent and fickle nature of connectedness whereby connection is predisposed to instant separation (19).

This example also shows the use of syntax, a device frequently deployed in poetry, for conveying another layer of meaning to the words. In other words, the physical proximity of the two phrases is one layer of meaning contrasted against what the meaning of the diction implies, which serves to further ground Woolf’s assertion of The Waves existing as a “play poem.” In addition to the notion of separation and connection, the interludes often contain diction specific to the notion of falling in the text as with this description: “But the waves, as they neared the shore, were robbed of light, and fell in one long concussion, like a wall falling, a wall of grey stone, unpierced by any chink of light” (The Waves 152). Here the notion of falling is communicated through the breaking of the waves.

The notion of falling, or more so the lack of achieving some sort of steady ground, or alternatively the rapidity of the rising and falling rhythm in life serves as a motif in the text as seen in this passage: “We are cast down on the platform without handbags. We are whirled asunder. My sense of self almost perishes; my contempt. I become drawn in, tossed down, thrown sky-high. I step out on to the platform, grasping tightly all that I possess—one bag” (The Waves 51). Here, the phrases “cast down,” “whirled asunder,” “drawn in,” and “tossed down,” likened to the action of a wave often described in the interludes. In this vein, the waves in the interlude typify one’s placement in life whereby life affords the susceptibility for one to be torn in multiple directions rapidly, fluidly, and constantly. In this context, the notion of fluidity, as described by Bernard and used to describe language, further extend to characterize the fluidity of force in impacting the self. In this way, Woolf has created simultaneous meaning for phrases and themes that interrelate to one.

Each interlude seemingly describes many of the themes explored by the characters in The Waves in the form of the description of the waves. The separation and connection of the waves analogize to the relationships among characters. The sun’s role in rising and falling on the waves likens to the physical exteriorizations of the constant cycle of time experienced by the characters. The waves constantly ascending to the shore and descending back into the ocean parallels the dichotomous emotional states of characters such as Rhoda and Jinny.  The rolling of the waves signifies a person’s ability to enact a kind of “devastating presence,” one that lays bare “the pebbles on the shore” of one’s “soul” (The Waves 63). The use of wave imagery enacts not only a rhythm to the writing, but serves to ground the writing in this rhythm. Every image interrelates with the text such as with the character’s interior thoughts and/or assertions made in language. How many of us have stood by the ocean not able to articulate the calm but nevertheless ascertain its psychological effect? Woolf deconstructs it all for us like an eloquent interpretation of a dream.

Through the Years

The Years stands as one of Woolf’s most conventional novels. The text is largely about characters, connection, and communication. Not unlike other texts, the notion that a person’s presence can impede on communication occurs in The Years just as a similar theme appears with Mr. Ramsay’s oppressive presence in To The Lighthouse on his children. In The Years, Sara opens a prayer book and begins to read:

‘The Father incomprehensible; the son incomprehensible— she spoke in her ordinary voice. ‘Hush!’ he stopped her. “Somebody’s listening.’ In deference to him she assumed the manner of a lady lunching with a gentleman in a city restaurant. …He spoke emphatically. ‘Hush,’ she whispered. ‘Somebody’s listening.’ (The Years 217)

This passage directly informs the notion of communication and the hindrance of communication by the presence of others whether it be a character, or in the context of this passage, a patriarchal dominance. Instead of communication, silence ensues. The same notion of silence in relation to communication occurs when Sally and Martin attempt to communicate and thus connect:  

‘…and now’—he lit a match,’ and now, Sally you can say whatever you like. Nobody’s listening. Say something,’ he added, throwing his match overboard, ‘very profound.’

He turned to her. He wanted her to speak. Down they dipped; up they swooped again. He wanted her to speak; or he must speak himself. And what could he say? He had buried his feeling. But some emotion remained. He wanted her to speak it: but she was silent. No, he thought, biting the stem of his pipe. I won’t say it. (The Years 224)

A similar type of silence occurs, as it is characterized by its role as an agent for the separation between people. Sally and Martin are not connected in their silence but rather distanced from it. In a similar vein, the notion of silence as precipitated by outside forces parallels the influence of outside forces on communication outside of silence. In the passage below, Maggie and Martin censor their communication so as not wake others:

“My father,” he said suddenly, but softly, “had a lady…. She called him ‘Bogy.’” And he told her the story of the lady who kept a boarding house at Putney—the very respectable lady, grown stout, who wanted help with her roof. Maggie laughed, but very gently, so as not to wake the sleeps. Both were still sleeping soundly” (The Years 233).

And Between the Acts

 In Between the Acts, the theme of communication and community is often linked with the adequacy and inadequacy of language.  Language, unspoken and spoken, is how people communicate, a theme often explored in Woolf’s other works. However, in Between the Acts, characters elect for silence over speaking at some points, which correlates to the inadequacy of language as a means of articulation.

In addition, the theme of communication and community also correlates to the notion of separation and connection. For example, when Mrs. Manresa’s phrase, also a refrain throughout the work, “Dispersed are we” is an articulation of the disconnection among people, which suggests an underlying distance among the collective (Between the Acts 133). In one instance where the refrain appears, Isabella replies “All is over. The wave has broke. Left us stranded, high and dry. Single, separate on the shingle” further instilling the notion of disparity among the community.  Alternatively, the presence of a strong community is perhaps no more apparent when the characters come together to watch the play. However, earlier in the text, the characters' relationship to each other is described in terms of distance:

They were silent. They stared at the view, as if something might happen in one of those fields to relieve them of the intolerable burden of sitting silent, doing nothing, in company. Their minds and bodies were too close, yet not close enough. We aren’t free, each one of them felt separately, to feel or think separately, nor yet to fall asleep. We’re too close; but not close enough. So they fidgeted. (Between the Acts 45).

Later, the play brings the characters together, bridging the gap between separation and connection. This is carefully crafted on the part of Woolf, as a play signifies performance and representation, which are two features inextricably linked to the nature of language. Furthermore, the theatre and language hold the possibilities for imagination and self-awareness.

Separation and connection are also linked to the nature of communication and community. The dichotomous characterizations of Lucy and Bart illuminate the opposition in two states of being: unified and separate, for “she belonged to the unifiers; he to the separatists” (Between the Acts 81). She is largely connected with her understanding of music unlike her brother Bart. She is interested in superstition, whereas her brother is rational, reasonable, and seen reading the Times. In an articulation of what makes Bart happy, he proclaims: “Books: the treasured life-blood of immortal spirits. Poets; the legislators of mankind” (Between the Acts 79). Lucy and Bart’s relationship act as binaries in language, in that one is largely representative of the abstract and the other exists in the concrete.

Between the Acts is, in fact, a culminating, albeit unfinished, “statement” on Woolf’s part. Between the Acts contains many of the themes, motifs, techniques, etc. explored in Woolf’s earlier novels. Perhaps, what truly sticks out to me in her final, unfinished work is the function of the play as a possible commentary on the medium of writing (thus language) in its relation to the articulation of existence. It is as if Woolf, with the scene where all the characters are at the play, addresses the notion of separation and connection, to say that it is through the adequacy of language that the characters can even feel the connection and a sense of community. Of course, this statement cannot stand alone, as the scene also depicts the inadequacy of language in that language can only provide communication through performance and representation. A character’s interior self connected with another is perhaps the most authentic and deeply-seeded connection one can find.

In the End, But Certainly Not the End

Woolf unfailingly addresses and progresses in this quest for a better articulation of existence through writing, specifically form, in each of her novels. Connection and separation take place in first novel The Voyage Out in the dance scene, in the dinner scene in To the Lighthouse, at the party in Mrs. Dalloway, amongst the ascending and descending rhythm of the waves in The Waves. In Between the Acts, the notion of connection and separation and thus communication is, for me, the most stripped articulation of connection and separation out of any of her novels. Yes, the characters’ collective presence at the play is still an imagistic scene. But never has the paradoxical link between both the inadequacy and adequacy of language as a tool for connection and communication been so clear and externalized with the milieu of the play. I understand the presence of the play in Between the Acts to be a comment on the function of language to consistently explore themes of connection and separation, internalization of self, identity formation, a self outside of societal roles, gender constructs and time, uncertainty/certainty, fixed state/flux, changed/changed, unification, love/hate etc.

Through reading most all of Virginia Woolf’s major works, I sense that I have an understanding of her values and philosophies as a writer on writing. Her avoidance of using tricky metaphors or abstract symbols is a clear stance on the fact that language is full of inadequacies enough without needing to add additional writing that would only require a psychoanalysis of the text. Woolf experiments with each writing form, whether it be through appropriating the conventions of the autobiographical form in Orlando, or using the form of a “play poem” in The Waves. It avoids the focus of her technical prowess as a writer, though she had it, but rather an exploration of the search for the best way to convey the many facets of existence that influence the self through writing.

Between the Acts also addresses the juxtaposition of what is going on contrasted against what takes places in the interior mind. The same sort of distance that can occur in language can also occur in the metaphysical space. Characters can be standing right next to each other, and yet be very far away mentally, or vice versa. This is a theme largely explored in scenes such as when Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay communicate to each other without words across the dinner table in To the Lighthouse, or the clear connection between Peter Walsh and Clarissa in Mrs. Dalloway through their ability to navigate each other’s interior thoughts.

In Between the Acts, the novel ends with the curtains rising and Isa and Giles speaking. It is as if their life is a part of the play. Furthermore, the curtains rising implies a potential for perhaps connection and life through the appropriation and re-appropriation of language. Between the Acts is a fitting end to the VW saga as each of the novels contains a kind of looming darkness (see the interludes in The Waves or Septimus’ death in Mrs.Dalloway. With the ending of Between the Acts, there lies an element of hope whereby language allows for the curtains or waves to rise and people to continue to speak, living each day---one day at a time.

Stairway in Monk's House




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