Virginia Woolf as a Novelist
Table of Contents
Mrs. Virginia Woolf is a great experimenter who tried many methods and imparted to the stream of consciousness technique a new pattern and infused into it a new life. She achieved mastery over her art gradually and rarely repeated herself. Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse are her supreme achievements. She, in the words of R. L. Chambers, in these novels
“advanced the frontiers of the English novel by the mastery of a new and potentially fruitful technique, and so, in the list of great novelists, she will find a place perhaps not without honour. She learnt her skill in the use of this technique from James Joyce, which passed through a process of gradual evolution till it almost reached perfection.”
Her first two novels viz., The Voyage Out (1915) and Night and Day (1919) are largely traditional in their technique. They belong to the early traditional phase, when the novelist was yet in a stage of workshop. The Voyage Out is an immature work, its form is imperfect and it lacks unity, being a series of satiric observations of civilized life. Night and Day has also a traditional technique, but it certainly marks an advance towards maturity. It has greater coherence and unity and there is more of poise and sanity in it. The novelist in both these novels is caught in a sort of double vision and tries to reconcile the real and ideal.
Jacob’s Room, Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse are novels of the Middle Phase, which exhibits that she was, in her evolution, proceeding towards maturity. Jacob’s Room is her first novel in which she attempts to practise her theory of the craft of fiction. It is her first successful attempt in the use of the stream of consciousness technique: In relating the life and death of Jacob Flanders, instead of giving a direct description of Jacob, she reveals his journey of life through well-defined incidents and characters What we find here is at best an impression of the significance of his personality which is constructed from what he thinks and says and from what others think and say of him. The story-interest is reduced to a minimum and emphasis is laid only on the inner life of Jacob Flanders.
The stream of consciousness technique reaches its high-water mark in her next two novels viz., Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse. Their success is the outcome of “a rigorous process of selection and clarification of her material. (each of these books has a vigorous and positive structure).” The action of the first novel is restricted to a single day in the life of its main character, Mrs. Dalloway and to a single place, London and emotionally to her relations with a few other people. The mind of these persons is opened and their past, more than their present, is revealed. The novel lacks movement forward in a chronological order, and it involves backward and forward movement. We are introduced to the consciousness of Mrs. Dalloway from where we shift to the consciousness of Septimus, Rezia, Peter Walsh, Kilman and others, returning eventually to the consciousness of Mrs. Dalloway. It is on this pattern (style) that the entire structure of the novel is built up and out of a series of incomplete pieces a complete whole is constructed.
The novel gives us a vital picture of both Mrs. Dalloway and the upper middle-class London world in which she has her being. There is greater concentration on inner experience in To the Lighthouse which as a whole exhibits Mrs. Woolf’s increased maturity and greater command over technique. The change of scene is rather slight and the movement from one consciousness to another is rather easy and natural. The novelist strikes a compromise or balance between the need for formal clarity and the requirements of the stream of consciousness method.
Her novels of the last phase, viz., Orlando, The Waves and The Years do not adhere to the logic of artistic development and strike at new and separate and unconnected by ways, obviously because she was an indefatigable experimenter. Although there is much in them that is of great value and of great beauty, conspicuous by an absence of clarity and balance, which were characteristic features of the novels of the middle period. The subjective element is wholly eliminated in The Waves, Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse with the result that she had gone beside the mark and injured the structure of the novel.
In The Years the novelist reverts to the traditional method of the earlier phase, The presentation is objective, but it lacks life and vitality. It has neither formal clarity, nor striking characterization nor driving purpose. The novel is a failure by and large. It shows retrogression, and not progression. The Between the Acts is her baffling work both on account of her intricate symbolical pattern and technique and construction. The two characters, Isabelle and Giles are introduced through the stream of consciousness method but our knowledge of much else about them comes from the objective description and straight-forward statement of the author. And in this it is different from the novels of the middle phase. The world of the novel is divided into two ports or emotional centres, which have no inherent or necessary connection between them. The novel lacks both unity of purpose and design.
Orlando is sui generis (a class by itself). The contemporary world of the other novels here is not present with the result that the novelist loses hold of fact and reality. It is a historical fantasy, which traces the biography of a family through three and a half centuries of English history in the person of a single character.
Departure from tradition
Mrs. Woolf breaks from the traditions of the Victorian novel and gives a new direction, a new form and new awareness to the English novel. She belongs to the “stream of consciousness” school. She started her career as a novelist in the set tradition and her first novels are largely traditional (The Voyage Out and Night and Day). Her third novel, the Jacob’s Room marks a complete break from the traditional novel as by now she had come to realize that the traditional method was inadequate, so she took recourse to the stream of consciousness technique. Her art as a novelist shows gradual progression towards maturity and she reaches the very apotheosis (apex, highest point of the novel of subjectivity in Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse.
Order and Balance in Her Novel
The “stream of consciousness” technique, it is said, witnessed order and balance in her novels. The novel of subjectivity starts on the assumption of chaos and disorder, but it goes to her credit that she has imparted form and order into it. She has in this way made this kind of novel as a respectable and acceptable art form; what was considered to be stunt literature has been elevated to the position of one of the excellent kinds of coherent art forms. She is also one of the most enthusiastic and forceful exponents of the theory and aesthetics of this kind of novel, thereby throwing a flood of light on its technique and bringing out its superiority over the traditional novel
Musical Symphony in Her Novel
The mind really speaking is a confused welter of sensations and emotions and its atmosphere cannot be created by the ordinary means of prose. In order to manifest it effectively we need the vivid metaphors and symbols which are peculiar to poetry and music. Virginia Woolf employs the language of poetry and her prose-style abounds in the assonances, refrains, the rhythms and the accents of poetry and music itself. Her novels possess the intensity and immediacy of a lyric: they manifest “innerness of life” and the sensation of living. They have a narrow framework and are composed on the pattern of a musical symphony. There are discordant notes within, but they are artistically constituted into a single piece of a harmonious whole.
Depiction of inner reality
She, unlike H. G. Wells, John Galsworthy and Arnold Bennett devotes herself to the rendering of inner reality. She is in this sense spiritualist. The novel as she conceived of it and put it into execution is not a means of entertainment, or propaganda, or a social document or a vehicle of some fixed ideas or theories. It is on the contrary, a journey or a voyage of exploration in order to find how life is lived and how it can be rendered as it is really lived without distortion. She is called by Bernard Blackstone a philosophical writer because she is concerned more with the how of knowing, which has to be resolved before we proceed to find what is known. She sets on to see the universal and the eternal in the particular and avoids over-abstraction and over particularisation of the philosopher and the novelist respectively. Men and women are presented by her in all kinds of combinations and the reality about life is thus explored and depicted. The inner world of the spirit finds a more prominent place in her novels that the external world of social and political reality.
Artistic integrity in her novels
She possesses an original vision of life, which she pursues faithfully throughout. Her truthfulness or artistic integrity is the outcome of her detachment from all sorts of personal prejudices and preconceived notions and the spirit of the ego so far as they obstruct the expression of truth. She writes freely according to her vision or the ideal which exists in her mind. While writing she does not in the least care for the literary conventions and traditions and the social and literary problems of the day. The artistic sincerity and integrity impart to her works freshness and originality, which is, indeed rare.
Naturalist and Contemplative Tone
She is a pure artist, who turns her gaze from the outer to the inner. She is a naturalist and a contemplative writer, for she sees new facts and the old facts in a new way. “The outer is not only related, but it is absorbed into the inner life.” (Bernard Blackstone). She takes the help of contemplation (or the mind) in combining the outer world into new shapes and the inner world with the outer with all its thought, passions, feelings, intuitions, sensations and interests. They change their shapes in this process and assume new shapes and patterns. The power of the mind which she uses, leads her readers to think and her novels stimulate and provoke thought.
She is described by David Cecil as one of the most successful aesthetes of the time. She loves the beautiful and it is her appreciation of this which lends form and pattern to her novels. Her material undergoes a constant strain of selection and ordering and this kind of artistic colouring is brought about by her sense of the beautiful. The ugly and the unpleasant is introduced to serve as a foil to the beautiful. The attraction which the beautiful has in it is accentuated by the introduction of what is repellent and disgusting. The beauty which she sees even in the most unlikely or unexpected places is not always treated by her as a serious and rhapsodic thing: it is treated humourously and this constitutes her distinctive contribution to fiction.
Many-faceted and Round Characters
She is pre-eminently interested in human life, and nothing else attracts her. Her objective is to show the very sources of human action or the hidden motives which prompt a man or a woman to act in a particular way, and this is effected by the “interior monologue“, or the stream of consciousness technique. She delves deep directly into the minds of her characters and shows how ideas, sensations and impressions flow in them in a chaotic manner. We draw closer to the psyche thus, which could not have been achieved by conventional methods of characterisation. Both the externals as well as the very minds and souls of her characters are portrayed by her with intensity and immediacy. Some of her characters are memorable, because they are many sided and rounded figures. Her novels present a well-stored picture gallery of vivid and immortal men and women, whose minds are laid base before the reader.
Presentation of the woman’s point of view
Since she is a woman, she exclusively gives the woman’s point of view. Intuition, and not reason, guides her. Her interests are not to draw merely the relations of men and men or men and women, but also women with women. She discovers greater fascination in the life of snails and trees than in the social, political and economic movements of the times. The world of societies, churches, banks and schools does not engage her attention; likewise she looks upon with disfavour sordidness and vice, brutality and criminality. They do not find a place in her novels, for a woman of her times who was supposed to lead a retired sort of life, did not have a knowledge of them. She feared public censure, so she banished unpleasant scenes and details from them.
Mrs. Woolf possesses a rare artistic integrity, which gives to her a highly developed sense of form. The scenes and images in her novels are constructed with rare emotional intensity and vividness. Besides they are closely connected with other scenes and images. The result is that her novels constitute an artistic whole, the later novels appearing as a sequences from the former one, as an egg is related to caterpillar and the butterfly. The germ of the preceding ones seems to be contained in the later ones. One novel is related to the other and each contributes to the understanding of the other. Artistic integrity does not characterise merely the individual novel when they are judged singly, but all her works taken together form a single whole. There is not only the relationship between character and character, between character and environment and character and the world of things but also between the internal and the external. The outer life of trees, birds and fish, of meadow and sea-shore, is a sort of stimulant to evoke responses of memoirs or sensations in the mind, which when portrayed, are fresh and unique.
Her greatness and influence
Although her novels require from the readers considerable painstaking in order to fully understand them, they possess in them the potency to illuminate, elevate and transform, in case they are read imaginatively. “She offers us a lyrical abstraction from the path”, writes G. G. Frazer in his The Modern Writer and His World, “with which she felt the world; the quality of her mind and spirit has a distinction that will make some readers always grateful to accept the offering.” Although not the greatest of the English novelists, she is certainly the most delicate and a subtle artist amongst them, whose objective was to uphold spiritual and aesthetic values in a world which was vulgar, coarse and materialistic. She cast her not wide and exercised an all-pervasive and profound influence. R. A. Scott James’ remark is significant in this respect:
“After her in her own country, the serious novel could never again be just what it had been before.”
As F. R. Karl and Marvin Magalener remark,
“Her novels endure though they lack most of the ingredients that publishers consider essential today: brutal realism, detailed exposure of sexual passion, violently frank dialogue, and the sense of material immediacy.”
Her limitations or shortcomings
As a woman novelist she had limitations of her own. Her world is a limited one, in which the passion of love does not find a place at all. She cannot write of sex freely and frankly, so it is excluded from her works. She also ignores certain worlds of the unconscious which she could have explored, but she does not. She could depict only middle-class life and portray only certain kinds of characters. She cannot tell a story. She does not deal with humanity in action, but what she treats of is humanity in a state of infinite perception. Her knows is a limited one and her range of experience is restricted. She knows nothing of life in the raw; she is also unable to probe the hearts of the poor people. She is bloodless and anemic, a flow which is redeemed, if at all, by the poetic quality of her fancy and the lyricism behind her writings.