My Personal Response to Virginia Woolf 's Works

by Gayla Nelson

thinkbar.jpg (1504 bytes)

A brief look at the following works by Virgina Woolf: The Waves, Three Guineas, Mrs. Dalloway, Orlando, Flush, Moments of Being, and To The Lighthouse.

THE WAVES

        The experimental type of writing found in The Waves is difficult, yet fascinating to read.  I found that if I could spend more than half an hour at a time reading it without interruption that it flowed more easily and I could keep track of characters and what was being said and thought.  It must be read without distraction. It is almost incomprehensible to me that someone could express such ideas of how the universe is, or should be, within the context of such an unusual writing format.  

        I know that Virginia Woolf tried to experiment with writing styles, but not matter her genre - novel, biography, criticism, whatever - her style is always unmistakably Virginia Woolf.  I cannot think of another writer that I have studied that matches her.  While of her writing is poetic, which I do like and appreciate, I am most interested in her development of character.  Her characters are not the unforgettable ones such as Lennie and George and John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men.  Obviously, character is not her primary focus. By reading through her works chronologically, I have been intrigued in the development and refinement of her craft.

        Leaving my propensity to look for character development and view her works from a different prospective, I tried the feminist approach.  However, that tends to become repetitious for me, so finally I stepped back and read The Waves looking for deeper meaning.  And I found it.  the voices of the characters became one to me.  They were representative of all mankind: men, women, children, the old, and the hopeful. It takes all of us to make the world - it cannot exist without all parts.  Her joy of writing flows through this book. I found myself caught up, swept up, in it.  And although Percival never speaks, that is the character I felt the closest to. Life truly is "imperfect, an unfinished phrase."

        Yes, there is something to be said for solitude. There is a time for everything and everything happens in its own time.  The sun rises and the sun sets.  She wrote of the most ancient and basic of all human experience.  She set aside the manmade ideas of class and status and gender difference and looked at all human beings as a whole, rather than as separate and unequal parts.

        The Waves is musical.  I experimented with reading some passages out loud and there was a rhythm to it that nearly made me hear a melody.  When I stopped trying to make Woolf's work fit what I wanted in a book, I was able to enjoy and appreciate it. 

thinkbar.jpg (1504 bytes)

THREE GUINEAS

        What a tedious and laborious read this book is. I discovered in a book of literary criticism that Woolf wrote Three Guineas while she was collecting material for Roger Fry - research that sank her into a deep depression - and they certainly seeped over into Three Guineas. I cannot help but wonder why she undertook projects that obviously caused her such distress.  I do not think it is so much the idea of her refusal to take the path of least resistance, but to question to death those concepts and ideas about life and the inequality of the sexes enough to make anyone go mad.

        She also sold her interest in Hogarth Press the same year that she published Three Guineas, which I think had some influence on her opinions on finance, which she expressed.  The title, referring to money, deals with 3 requests, hence the 3 guineas: one for women's education, one for employment opportunities, and one to prevent war.  The topic holds merit, but her handling of it did not impress me.

        My favorite aspect (found in desperation) of this novel was her distrust of photographs.  It was an idea that I could both relate to and also agree. The manipulation which she discusses and proves, is much the same as the manipulation of statistics. I can't help but wonder what she would think of "glamour shots" today. Women are made up, dressed up in clothes they never wear, and the pictures retouched to the point that the plainest of women become movie-star beautiful, if not totally unrecognizable, by the time the picture is printed.  I am sure Virginia Woolf would offer a guinea to anyone who could eradicate that whole venture completely.

thinkbar.jpg (1504 bytes)

MRS. DALLOWAY

        I loved the emotional range seen in this novel over the course of one day.  The realism, unexpected events and suicide may not be something that happen every day, but they do happen. Clarissa is a fascinating character.  Her preparations for the party occupies her time throughout the day, but they are not demanding enough to occupy her mind.  It is easier to reflect on the past when you are busy with details that don't require great concentration and attention. Her discomfort with the people she must interact with during the day are intriguing and led her through a roller coaster ride - yet she handles it all with poise and manners and pulls off a lovely little party that evening.

        The relationship with her daughter is odd.  She was detached and distant from her, yet totally wrapped up in memories and wonderings about other people who had just been in and out of her life.  Perhaps because Woolf never had children she did not understand how to write about parenthood.  

        A movie starring Meryl Streep was made called Mrs. Dalloway which, while different from the book, gives you a whole new insight into it.

thinkbar.jpg (1504 bytes)

ORLANDO

Challenging to read and open to a wide variety of interpretations, some people may consider it a feminist work because it does show quite plainly the stark contrast between the life of a man versus the life of a woman within the very same character.  The metamorphosis from woman to man allows the reader to see the world in a new way.  The theme of the differences between the limits of women to those of men within a 300 year span, explores the interest of time and the nature of the individual as a multi-leveled and complex creature.  The perceptions in the broad range of time that this novel covers Orlando as a character liberated from the restraints of time and sex. Ot to look at it in a completely different way, ignoring the time span, it can be seen as a story completely saturated with a lack of liberation.

As a writer, when Orlando is a man he is proud of his work, but as a woman she becomes more modest and tender hearted.  I also think that the time period in which the reader approaches this book will skew their reaction to it.

thinkbar.jpg (1504 bytes)

FLUSH

This is the biography of the famous poet, Elizabeth Barrett Browning's cocker spaniel. This was a whole new side to Woolf! Her descriptions of this dog's feelings and thoughts seemed totally plausible!  In the beginning, when she discusses the origins of the spaniel and the naming of the various dog breeds, I was a bit concerned with the direction that she was going, but it very quickly gave way to the humor and warmth that continued throughout the remained of the book.  Her descriptions of Flush's slow recognition that he was an aristocratic dog and knew his place in dog world society were wonderful.  It was fascinating to view Miss Barrett from his perspective.  His understanding of the difference between the tension and energy within the house before she got married compared to the anticipation of an addition to the household, when her baby was born, helped the reader know what was coming next.  The descriptions of the house and furnishings gave a true sense of the style in which Miss Barrett lived, while the descriptions of the people in her life led you to hold certain opinions of the people, totally based from a dog's perspective.  Her father was overbearing and controlling. Mr. Browning was kind, even when bitten, yet stubborn, as seen when he strongly argues against paying a ransom for Flush's safe return after the dog-napping.

        I was appalled when Flush was stolen.  I had never heard of such a thing, but apparently it was common in that era.  My understanding is that in real life, Elizabeth Barrett Browning's dog was stolen and a ransom paid on three different occasions.  This was an interesting contrast to the comment of Miss Mitford who says of Flush, "but to sell Flush was unthinkable.  He was of the rare order of objects that cannot be associated with money...beyond price..."  Woolf managed to describe his captivity in such a realistic way that you understood their desperation to get him back.  Flush may have seemed a bit of a snob of a dog, but he knew his place and recognized the differences in things like water bowls, chains, roasted chicken wings, and soft cushions to lie upon.  He had been rich and he had been poor and he had decided that rich was definitely better than poor.

        The descriptions of London and Wimpole street, of Italy and the market, the people of each class and area, all were beautifully written and unique in the context of being described from the viewpoint of the ground level which was the view which a dog of Flush's size would have.  The suicidal dog, the mongrels, the fleas and haircut, the lovely cakes, and the attempts to "Murder" Mr. Browning - all these elements made the cook come alive and I enjoyed this one thoroughly.

thinkbar.jpg (1504 bytes)

MOMENTS OF BEING

        This is an autobiography.  Virginia Woolf suffered from depression and struggled insanity and ultimately committed suicide.  Knowing this prior to reading her works can sometimes taint your objectivity.  I read a description somewhere once in which  Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury group were described as a comfortable group of snobs stretched out on couches, brought together by their love of the written word, their love of fine art, and love of their own voices.  I found that rather harsh and judgmental, especially considering the wealth of literary contributions made by this ground and  Virginia Woolf in particular. A snob is a snob is a snob, but an intellectual snob is far superior than any other snob.  

        In Moments of Being there were certain passages that held particular meaning for me.  She describes a scene in "Sketch of the Past" when she was very young, in which she was molested by Gerald Duckworth.  Her response to this was highly intellectual: the concept of being ancient and having thousands of years to develop this instinctive ness. Yet, the shame is one her, the one being molested, rather than on the molester himself. Nothing seems to change this feeling in women or girls - that idea that if you are sexually molested it is somehow your fault or something for which you should be ashamed.  It is difficult to be self-defined as a snob when you have this inferiority complex re-enforced in youth.  These events stand out in memory while others do not.  Her focus on those "non-being moments" and her desire to remember every aching moment of life would be enough to drive anyone insane.

        The most powerful point to me occurs in the second half of the book with her moment of realization in "Old Bloomsbury" with Thoby's friends when she states that never has she listened so intently or been at such pains for each of her ventured remarks. the greatest compliment she could receive would be one of, "I must say you made your point rather well," rather than "you looked lovely."  It was a moment of relief for her.  She says, "All that tremendous encumbrance of appearance and behavior which George had piled upon our first years vanished completely." She admits that her view of marriage is one of "a very low down affair" yet she does admit that the appearance of those men was one of dinginess - and that is was precisely that shabbiness that proved their superiority to her.  Her concept of feminism is evident here in that beauty was not an issue and sex was not an issue.  She could hold her own with those whom she perceived as intellectually superior, regardless of her gender, for here, gender did not matter.  The only thing that mattered was one's ability to talk abstractly about the topic of the moment.  It is only fitting that the marriage of her sister ( although I believe the marriage of anyone within her group would have sufficed) that marks the end of Old Bloomsbury - a time when I think  Virginia Woolf was at her happiest.

thinkbar.jpg (1504 bytes)        

TO THE LIGHTHOUSE

           I am in the minority here, but for what it is worth, here is my opinion on this book.  I hated it.  I would recommend thousands of other books to spend your time reading that will offer you a great deal more in intellectual growth  than this one does.  It covers the vast gender separation between men and women of her time - Mrs. Ramsey's ignorance about math and science or what she calls "masculine intelligence" and her superior depth of character.  Her husband is detached from her and their children and is a self-absorbed chauvinistic pig.  Despite the fact that Mrs. Ramsey is the mother of 8 children, she is also self-absorbed, detached and isolated. She focuses totally on her son, James.  I can only guess at the reason for the title of this novel.  Is the lighthouse the symbol of the purely unattainable - that for which we continually strive and never reach? Or is it really just the story of a lost happiness that lives on in the memory?  I still have no clue.  

My final thoughts on the writings of  Virginia Woolf 

I consider myself well-read and knowledgeable, but that in no way guarantees one the ability to understand the writings of  Virginia Woolf.  What I do find interesting about her work is how she would often begin to tell an anecdote and preface it with a comment that it may or may not have actually happened.  That it could have been a dream or something of her own invention.  She had trouble distinguishing between reality, dreams, illusions, and sometimes may have suffered from delusions. As I read her works I can discount much of what I know of her as a person and a writer and remind myself that this may or may not be true or real, and instead, simply focus on the characters and events which only a mind such as hers could create and reveal in such a unique manner. 

thinkbar.jpg (1504 bytes)

back to "I was thinking" Menu

thinkbar.jpg (1504 bytes)

Gayla's Garden 1997-2007  Celebrating 10 years on the World Wide Web  All rights reserved