Virginia Woolf’s Art and the Silent World of Things

The following is a guest post by Pauline Schnoebelen:

One of Virginia Woolf’s main concerns was to reconsider the conventional thinking of what is worth being represented as art. Although she considered every vision worth being pondered, she believed far more in the representation of the ordinary and the mundane as a genuine way to consider the world:

“Let us not take it for granted that life exists more fully in what is commonly thought big than what is commonly thought small.”

Indeed, she highlights the chief importance of the inanimate world of “things” to understand the individual’s emotions. As she wrote to Vanessa Bell, saying: “I shall have to write a novel entirely about carpets, old silver, cut glass and furniture”, she asserted the central place of the world of objects in her writing as a means of defining the self.

In one of Virginia’s most acclaimed novels, To the Lighthouse, when the young painter Lily asks Andrew what his father’s books are about, he answers: “’Subject and object and the nature of reality’”, before adding: “’Think of a kitchen table then’, he told her, ‘when you’re not there.’”

Through her characters, it is precisely this “reality of kitchen tables” as Lily calls it, and its impact on the self that Woolf attempts to capture in her writing.

Her characters are thus intensely aware of the world of the inanimate, especially in her most experimental novel The Waves where the six protagonists rely on the concrete and palpable aspect of the objects to assert their sense of self.

As we see the children grow up and their sense of identity fluctuate, the objects become reassuring as enduring items for some of them, like Rhoda who constantly needs to touch hard objects:

“Let me touch the table — so — and thus recover my sense of the moment. A sideboard covered with cruets; a basket full of rolls; a plate of bananas — these are comfortable sights.”

In moments of instability, Rhoda tries to recover her sense of self by touching “the rail at the end of the bed” or resting her hand “against a brick wall.” Woolf herself wrote about this need to cling to “something definite, and something real,” essentially “worshipping the impersonal world which is proof of some existence other than ours.” In The Waves, Bernard longs for the silence and solitude of objects:

“‘How much better is silence; the coffee-cup, the table. How much better to sit by myself […] Let me sit here for ever with bare things, this coffee-cup, this knife, this fork, things in themselves, myself being myself.”

Similarly, Bernard notices that “Rhoda loves to be alone. She fears us because we shatter the sense of being which is so extreme in solitude – see how she grasps her fork – her weapon against us.” As the pressure of the eye is removed, Bernard and Rhoda both retire into an impersonal world, just like Mrs Ramsay in To the Lighthouse whom Lily describes as “uncommunicative”, resting in “the extreme obscurity of human relationships.” Mrs Ramsay is very receptive to objects, as she realizes while knitting:

“It was odd she thought, how if one was alone, one leant to things, inanimate things; trees, streams, flowers; felt they expressed one; felt they became one; felt they knew one, in a sense were one.”

This affinity with objects leaves Woolf’s characters with an acute sense of self such as when Lily feels cut out from the world of human relationships:

“Sitting alone […] among the clean cups at the long table, she felt cut off from other people, and able only to go on watching, asking, wondering.”

In a letter to her close friend, the painter Roger Fry, Woolf wrote: “You don’t want human beings”, for she truly envied the ability of visual artists to withdraw into the silent world of objects “for weeks alone with a dish of apples and a paint-box”, while she believed that novelists stayed far too confined in the world of human relationships and “terribly exposed to life.”

Interestingly, Roger Fry considered a “man’s head” as artistically important as “a pumpkin” and he thought it was the artist’s duty to spot and render the special arrangements of objects that “arouse the creative vision, and become material for creative contemplation.”

Influenced by Roger Fry, Woolf’s treatment of objects is thus very close to that of Post-Impressionists artists. In fact, this creative contemplation is manifest in The Waves’ interludes where “a plate” is compared to “a white lake” and a knife looks like “a dagger of ice.”

The chairs also reveal themselves as they are “filmed with red, orange, purple like the bloom on the skin of ripe fruit”, while “the veins on the glaze of the china, the grain of the wood, the fibres of the matting [become] more and more finely engraved.”

The six protagonists truly see things for their unconventional beauty. Bernard realizes “how beautiful are even the crumbled relics of bread”, and as he observes a sparrow, he jubilates: “To see things without attachment, from the outside, and to realize their beauty in itself – how strange.”

One of the most significant examples of a character’s absorption in a composition of objects for its aesthetic qualities is that of Mrs Ramsay at the dinner party in To the Lighthouse.

In this passage, as she observes the dinner table serving the “Beauf en Daube” or beef stew, a simple “yellow and purple dish of fruit” becomes the artistic product of her daughter, namely “Rose’s arrangement”, and makes Mrs Ramsay think about “a trophy fetched from the bottom of the sea.” Gradually, light makes the arrangement look like “a world in which one could take one’s staff and climb up hills, she thought, and go down into valleys.”

According to text/image specialist Liliane Louvel, Mrs Ramsay can therefore be compared to a “visual artist” who “composes and recomposes forms and colours” as she marvels at the view of what she calls “the aesthetic arrangement.”

Indeed, as Mrs Ramsay unconsciously preserves the dish of fruit “hoping that nobody would touch it”, her eyes keep “going in and out among the curves and shadows of the fruit, among the rich purples of the lowland grapes […] putting a yellow against a purple, a curved shape against a round shape.”

As she contrasts colors and emphasizes forms and lines in a Post-Impressionist construction, Mrs Ramsay experiences the pleasure of seeing the object as it is, beautiful, for separated for a brief moment of acute perception from its practical use. Thus rejoining Mrs Ramsay’s aesthetic experience and reasserting Woolf’s artistic thinking, Lily treasures the silent and ordinary while painting:

“One wanted, she thought, dipping her brush deliberately, to be on a level with ordinary experience, to feel simply that’s a chair, that’s a table, and yet at the same time, It’s a miracle, it’s an ecstasy.”

Woolf, Virginia. A Haunted House: The Complete Shorter Fiction. London: Vintage Book, 2003
Woolf, Virginia. Collected Essays.Vol.2. [1925]. London: The Hogarth Press, 1966
Woolf, Virginia. Granite and Rainbow. [1958]. New York: Harvest Book, 1975
Woolf, Virginia. The Diary of Virginia Woolf. Volume I, 1915-1919. [1977]. London: The Hogarth Press, 1977
Woolf, Virginia. The Question of Things Happening: The Letters of Virginia Woolf. Volume II, 1912-1922. Eds. Nigel Nicholson, Joanne Trautmann. London: The Hogarth Press, 1976
Fry, Roger. Vision and Design. [1920]. London: Chatto and Windus, 1925
Louvel, Liliane. L’oeil du texte: texte et Image dans la littérature de langue anglaise
Toulouse: Presses Universitaires Du Mirail, 1998


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