Virginia Woolf’s Modernist Response: Grasping the Essential Thing

The following is a guest post by Pauline Schnoebelen:

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.”

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 in 1902
Virginia Woolf in 1902

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. [1925]. London: The Hogarth Press, 1966


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