Version classiqueVersion mobile

Criticism of Society in the English Novel between the Wars

Hena Maes-Jelinek

Virginia Woolf

Texte intégral

Ah, love, let us be true To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and fight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
(Matthew Arnold, Dover Beach)

  • 1 Mark Schorer, Society and Self in the Novel, New York, 1956, p. viii.
  • 2 Virginia Woolf, “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown,” in The Captain’s Death Bed and Other Essays, London, (...)
  • 3 Ibid., p. 103.

1In his introduction to Society and Self in the Novel Mark Schorer writes that “the problem of the novel has always been to distinguish between the self and society, and at the same time to find suitable structures that will present them together.”1 It is often denied that Virginia Woolf was concerned with this problem; a current opinion is that she neglected the social scene and was solely concerned with the individual. Actually, she presented the two in a new relationship. She reacted against the realistic novel and refused to assume that to describe the social context and the individual’s relation to it was the only way of interpreting life. In contradistinction to the “materialists,” who, she said, “laid an enormous stress upon the fabric of things,”2 but neglected “life, human nature,”3 she attempted to re-define the individual’s relationship with his surrounding world and reversed the usual process of exploration by doing away with the external approach and going straight to what was essential to her: the inner life of human beings and the quality of their experience rather than experience as such.

  • 4 Virginia Woolf, The Common Reader, First Series, London, 1957, p. 189.

2The often-quoted passage in which Virginia Woolf describes life as a “luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end,”4 is the key to her fiction. It is prompted by an approach to life which had been gaining ground since the beginning of the century: the new assumption was that perceptions, sensations, thoughts, feelings, what Virginia Woolf calls “the unknown and uncircumscribed spirit,” are as real as the material reality which gives rise to them:

  • 5 Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own, London, 1931, pp. 165-6.

What is meant by ‘reality’? It would seem to be something very erratic, very undependable—now to be found in a dusty road, now in a scrap of newspaper in the street, now a daffodil in the sun. It lights up a group in a room and stamps some casual saying. It overwhelms one walking home beneath the stars and makes the silent world more real than the world of speech—and then there it is again in an omnibus in the uproar of Piccadilly. Sometimes, too, it seems to dwell in shapes too far away for us to discern what their nature is. But whatever it touches, it fixes and makes permanent. That is what remains over when the skin of the day has been cast into the hedge; that is what is left of past time and of our loves and hates. Now the writer, as I think, has the chance to live more than other people in the presence of this reality.5

  • 6 Virginia Woolf, “Phases of Fiction,” in Granite and Rainbow, London, 1958, p. 144.
  • 7 Virginia Woolf, A Writer’s Diary, London, 1959: “Have I the power of conveying the true reality? O (...)
  • 8 Jean Guiguet, Virginia Woolf et son oeuvre, Paris, 1962, p. 732.

3To deal with “reality” as Virginia Woolf understands it, requires a more perceptive investigation of the human personality in order to bring out a complexity which does not arise from the intricacy of situations but from the subtlety of feelings and intuitions. In “Phases of Fiction” she writes that “always more of life is being reclaimed and recognized.”6 Yet she is often accused of having limited instead of enlarging the material of fiction. Now, is that part of life which she reclaims, that new reality which the writer endeavours to catch, reconcilable with the interrelation between the individual and society? Does Virginia Woolf ignore the social world? Are her novels “essays about [herself],”7 and does she explore the sensibilities of people who are never subjected to the crises inherent in all human lives? It is hard to imagine a character in fiction who would be completely cut off from society, engrossed in thoughts exclusively about himself. One must distinguish between thoughts aroused by contact with the external world and thoughts which are purely self-centered. As Jean Guiguet writes, “le monologue intérieur — et la psychique qu’il prétend exprimer — est toujours lié à un contexte circonstanciel précis, dont il est en quelque sorte l’émanation.”8 The strictly lyrical is usually expressed in poetry. It is perhaps significant that Virginia Woolf seldom wrote poetry. But she thought that the novel must perform what poetry has always done: epitomize, present life in symbols, divested of superfluous external elements. This does not mean rejecting facts; she refines them by a process of abstraction and builds the novel on their significance. If her novels appear to have no bearing on the external reality, it is because she refuses to consider the surface of things as the main substance of human experience and tries to seize the movement of life under the surface. Her novels do not describe the data of experience but the emotions and sensations they give rise to. These emotions are fugitive and ephemeral; they can be aroused by the memory as well as by the anticipation of events. Hence the emotional content of an experience is not limited in time, and conversely, the whole experience of an individual can be apprehended in a moment. This is an important aspect of Virginia Woolf’s work which is not directly relevant to this analysis but must be mentioned since it is paramount in her apprehension of life as a whole. Experience is thus not important in itself but only proportionally to one’s capacity to transcend it and illuminate what is significant in it. Accordingly, its interpretation is entirely subjective:

  • 9 The Common Reader, First Series, pp. 189-90.

Examine for a moment an ordinary mind on an ordinary day. The mind receives a myriad impressions—trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpness of steel. From all sides they come, an incessant shower of innumerable atom; … Let us record the atoms as they fall upon the mind in the order in which they fall, let us trace the pattern, however disconnected and incoherent in appearance, which each sight and incident scores upon the consciousness. Let us not take it for granted that life exists more fully in what is commonly thought big than in what is commonly thought small.9

4The striking element in these words is the attempt to trace a pattern, to infer some kind of order and significance from a host of impressions apparently incongruous, as well as the fact that the act of living is as significant in the routine of everyday life as at moments of crises. While selecting those features in a character’s life that are most likely to become impressed upon his consciousness and mould his inner life, Virginia Woolf does not ignore the social context, though, except in her first two novels, it is not presented directly but through the consciousness of the individual. But her characters are keenly aware of the surrounding world, and their effort to maintain a harmonious relationship with it, while preserving their personality intact, is a major theme in her novels. If in her early work the individual gives his life significance through supra-social values and by rejecting the ordinary social conventions, the characters in her later novels try to harmonize their own existence with their social environment, though they still seek to protect themselves from the excessive, and in their eyes unfair, demands of conventions and institutions set up by society. At all stages in her work Virginia Woolf attempted to reveal an inner reality feeding on the external world; the tragedy of man was precisely that he could never ignore the pressures of his environment.

5Already in her first novel, The Voyage Out (1915), Virginia Woolf explores the nature of life and draws attention to the individual’s need to assess the meaning of existence. The main characters are isolated in a small South American resort, but English society is represented by the English colony staying at the hotel of Santa Marina; they form a rigid and conventional circle beyond which sensitive individuals wish to move because they feel imprisoned in a society whose code of manners is for them meaningless. The plot is insignificant, and its incidents only serve to bring out the contrast between facts, events and appearances on the one hand, thoughts and feelings on the other, or between the reality of the “materialists” and that which the characters try to apprehend. The first part of the novel is devoted to the description of Rachel’s ignorance and of the narrow-minded Victorian conventions of the milieu in which she has been brought up. By connecting Rachel’s lifelessness with the education she has received, Virginia Woolf achieves a twofold aim: she criticizes the position of women and she condemns those who are attached to rigid social attitudes:

  • 10 Virginia Woolf, The Voyage Out, London, 1929, p. 31.

She had been educated as the majority of well-to-do girls in the last part of the nineteenth century were educated. Kindly doctors and gentle old professors had taught her the rudiments of about ten different branches of knowledge, but they would as soon have forced her to go through one piece of drudgery thoroughly as they would have told her that her hands were dirty…. There was no subject in the world which she knew accurately…. She would believe practically anything she was told, invent reasons for any-thing she said. … The most elementary idea of a system in modern life—none of this had been imparted to her by any of her professors and mistresses.10

6Rachel knows nothing about “the facts of life”:

She was of course brought up with excessive care, which as a child was for her health; as a girl and a young woman was for what it seems almost crude to call her morals. Until quite late, she had been completely ignorant that for women such things existed. (p. 32)

  • 11 These views are developed in such essays as A Room of One’s Own and Three Guineas.

7When Richard Dalloway kisses her, she can hardly get over the shock, and Helen is surprised to realize how genuine her bewilderment is, and how important the problem of women’s education. Helen, a beautiful woman of forty, prefigures Mrs. Ramsay; she is the only woman in the novel whose intelligence and character have developed without the restraint imposed on women by their inferior position. She is straightforward, cultivated and able to think for herself. She hates sentimentality and domesticity and discourages “those habits of unselfishness and amiability founded upon insincerity which are put at so high a value in mixed households of men and women.” (p. 143) She is of course a mouthpiece for Virginia Woolf’s feminist views11:

If they [women] were properly educated I don’t see why they shouldn’t be much the same as men—as satisfactory I mean; though of course very different. The question is, how should one educate them? The present method seems to me abominable. The girl though twenty-four had never heard that men desired women, and until I explained it, did not know how children were born. Her ignorance upon other matters as important was complete. It seems to me not merely foolish but criminal to bring up people like that. Let alone the suffering to them, it explains why women are what they are—the wonder is they’re not worse. (p. 110)

8The position of women at the beginning of the twentieth century is one of the important sub-themes of the novel. The respect that even well-educated and very able women have for men is such that they find it natural that everything—their own education and life to begin with—should be sacrificed to men. Perhaps the main obstacle to be overcome before women can become the equals of men is their own unawareness of the inferiority of their position and their inability to stand for themselves:

It is the beginning of the twentieth century, and until a few years ago no woman had ever come out by herself and said things at all. There it was going on in the background, this curious, silent, unrepresented life. Of course we’re always writing about women … but it’s never come from women themselves. … It’s the man’s view that’s represented. (p. 258)

9Rachel sees life as “a light passing over the surface and vanishing … things as immense and desolate,” (p. 145) but she acquires a willingness to discover the true nature of things and to determine her own position in the elusive flow of life. She and Terence are drawn together by their common desire to find out what is behind things. It is significant, however, that even before meeting the Dalloways and before the subsequent discussions with her aunt, Rachel hardly suffered from her isolation and her ignorance of the external world, because reality to her had always been what one thought and felt. So that when she comes into contact with the English colony of Santa Marina, her first reaction is to question her relationship with her new environment. Though she gains in self-assurance and articulateness, her experience of society does not fulfil her; the complacent and conventional society she discovers can hardly help her in her search for truth and permanency. When the English residents come together at a picnic, Terence and Rachel observe them and are depressed by their superficial and insincere game:

They are not satisfactory; they are ignoble, he thought. … Amiable and modest, respectable in many ways, lovable even in their contentment and desire to be kind, how mediocre they all were, and capable of what insipid cruelty towards one another! … Yet these were the people with money, and to them rather than to others was given the management of the world. Put among them some one more vital, who cared for life or for beauty, and what an agony, what a waste would they inflict on him if he tried to share with them and not to scourge! (pp. 156-7)

10In different ways Rachel, Helen and Terence evade the mediocrity of social intercourse. Rachel is only conscious of the complexity of life, of its misery and of the incapacity of people to communicate. She is inclined to think that people should live separate because they only bring out what is worst in each other. Helen resents their lack of sensitivity, their curiosity, and their intrusion upon other people’s inner life. She is aware that life is more than the social intercourse which appears to play so big a part in people’s existence:

The little jokes, the chatter, the inanities of the afternoon had shrivelled up before her eyes. Underneath the likings and spites, the comings together and partings, great things were happening—terrible things, because they were so great. Her sense of safety was shaken, as if beneath twigs and dead leaves she had seen the movement of a snake. It seemed to her that a moment’s respite was allowed, a moment’s make-believe, and then again the profound and reasonless law asserted itself, moulding them all to its liking, making and destroying. (pp. 321-2)

11Her sense of the subjection of man to an irresistible destiny which shapes his life and is most often malevolent, makes her very anxious during their trip inland and gives her a foreboding of the coming catastrophe. Terence is also aware of a deeper and more significant flux of life under the uncertainty, the transitoriness, the chaos of appearances. But, unlike Helen, he believes that a certain order exists behind things, which it is sometimes possible to apprehend. And this belief in an ordererd reality beneath the superficial turmoil of life reconciles him to the external world and to society. Rachel is not so easily convinced of the necessity to adapt herself to the outside world. She can hardly believe that this is a way of discovering the meaning of life. Her refusal to fit in, her ability to withdraw within herself and to ignore even Terence, whom she loves, is a source of misunderstanding between them, for her attitude is not merely an expression of her grudge against society but also of her inability to communicate with people. The happiness she experiences through love does not silence her doubts about life. Moments of perfect bliss, when they are one and indivisible, alternate with moments of depression. Communication, which is the ultimate object of life and death, is from the start the main issue in Virginia Woolf’s work. She sees human beings as solitary creatures trying to give their life some sense of continuity through unsatisfactory relationships. Intuition, more surely than words, can lead to understanding. That is why Terence, who voices the author’s artistic aspirations, wants to write a novel about silence. Communication is a means of apprehending reality, of perceiving the pattern which emerges from the haphazard and apparently meaningless experiences of ordinary life. Even Rachel understands this shortly before her death in a moment of happy communion with Terence; she then experiences the peacefulness that comes from the apprehension of a superior reality:

That was the strange thing, that one did not know where one was going, or what one wanted, and followed blindly, suffering so much in secret, always unprepared and amazed and knowing nothing; but one thing led to another and by degrees something had formed itself out of nothing, and so one reached at last this calm, this quiet, this certainty, and it was this process that people called living. Perhaps, then, every one really knew as she knew now where they were going; and things formed themselves into a pattern not only for her; but for them, and in that pattern lay satis-faction and meaning. … So too, although she was going to marry him and to live with him for thirty, or forty, or fifty years, and to quarrel, and to be close to him, she was independent of him; she was independent of everything else. Nevertheless, as St John said, it was love that made her understand this, for she had never felt this independence, this calm, and this certainty until she fell in love with him, and perhaps this too was love. (pp. 384-6)

12Love, like intuition, opens the way to understanding. But we should note that it is love and not marriage which reconciles the individual with life. On the contrary, marriage is clearly not a happy end but a compromise imposed by society. Rachel and Terence pity Susan and Arthur when the latter fall in love and become engaged. When Terence realizes that he is in love with Rachel, his first reaction is horror at the idea of marriage, and he would like to say to her:

I worship you, but I loathe marriage, I hate its smugness, its safety, its compromise, and the thought of you interfering in my work, hindering me. (p. 298)

13Rachel also has her doubts about marriage. Virginia Woolf’s objection to marriage, apart from the change in character it entails in most people, is that it was considered as the only state in which a woman could reach fulfilment, as the only one that ensured her safety, whereas, in fact, it solved none of the problems of personality and only confirmed most women in their hypocritical submission to men. Consider the irony with which she describes Susan’s joy when the latter becomes engaged:

Marriage, marriage, that was the right thing, the only thing, the solution required by every one she knew, and a great part of her meditations was spent in tracing every instance of discomfort, loneliness, ill-health, unsatisfied ambition, restlessness, eccentricity, taking things up and dropping them again, public speaking, and philanthropic activity on the part of men and particularly on the part of women to the fact that they wanted to marry, were trying to marry, and had not succeeded in getting married. If, as she was bound to own, these symptoms sometimes persisted after marriage, she could only ascribe them to the unhappy law of nature which decreed that there was only one Arthur Venning, and only one Susan who would marry him. (pp. 211-12)

14Susan’s sentimentality about marriage is the result of her false conception of life and of the insincerity imposed on women by conventions. In the same way, religion is to Susan a source of sentimental self-satisfaction. Attending a service at the hotel, Rachel is struck by the insincerity of the people around her. She becomes indignant at the whole show which priest and congregation alike seem to put up merely out of self-righteousness, and she feels a violent dislike of Christianity.

15Rachel falls ill shortly after the party which celebrates her engagement and during which she achieves a new peace and understanding. Her illness brings home to Terence the fragility of human happiness, the tragedy of life and the power of fate to strike blindly:

He had never realised before that underneath every action, underneath the life of every day, pain lies, quiescent, but ready to devour; he seemed to be able to see suffering, as if it were a fire, curling up over the edges of all action, eating away the lives of men and women. … How did they dare to love each other, he wondered; how had he himself dared to live as he had lived, rapidly and carelessly passing from one thing to another, loving Rachel as he had loved her? Never again would he feel secure; he would never believe in the stability of life, or forget what depths of pain lie beneath small happiness and feelings of content and safety. It seemed to him as he looked back that their happiness had never been so great as his pain was now. There had always been something imperfect in their happiness, something they had wanted and not been able to get. It had been fragmentary and incomplete. (pp. 420-1)

16At the moment of Rachel’s death, they both experience perfect happiness and achieve a union impossible in life. Each has over-come his solitude and is perfectly fused with the other. This moment of certainty is the consummation after the dissolution of appearances. It is an instant of ecstasy and respite, for life will soon go on for Terence in a world from which Rachel is absent; already the others are absorbed in their own cares: Helen is thinking about her children in London, and St John is glad to resume a normal life at the hotel.

  • 12 Matthew Arnold, Culture and Anarchy, ed. by R.H. Super, Ann Arbor, 1965, p. 109.

17Although The Voyage Out was published in 1915, it looks forward to the post-war literature which inquires into the meaning of life and explores the new relation between the individual and society. The main characters ask the question that will be asked all through Virginia Woolf’s work: What is Life? The answer is to be found by moving away from a rigid social system towards a superior reality. The static world of appearances is being discarded in favour of a quest for a reality which is perhaps as yet not very clearly conceived. What is important here is the possibility of discovering some unity in life, the movement and the effort towards understanding and communion. The discovery of life is achieved through the discovery of the self. It does not entail a change in being, rather a coming to consciousness and to maturity through the realization of one’s nature. This is already a suggestion that people assert themselves by what they are, not by what they do. Most of the themes that Virginia Woolf was to develop in her later novels are hinted at: the solitariness of human beings and their anxious desire to communicate; the need to find a common ground of understanding between the individual and his environment, and to derive some significance or sense of permanency from the apparent chaos and fragmentariness of life; and finally, the exploration of the human personality, particularly that of women. The frustration of her female characters is linked up with their position in society, and their self-realization is achieved outside the social circle. Like Lawrence’s heroines, they are lost, although in a different sense. The poor education they receive, the atmosphere of self-righteous devotion in which they are raised, the monotonous mediocrity of their existence, make them either inarticulate or awkward, submitted to a false ideal or dissatisfied and revolted, longing for equality with men but utterly inefficient. Helen alone is an example of well-balanced feminine personality, of what women might be if they were properly educated. She possesses the maturity and the assurance which come from the exercise of reason, from experience and understanding and, above all, from an uncompromising insistence on sincerity and truth and a rejection of all the false ideas and prejudices of the Victorian era. Her feminine qualities make the fight for the vote of women seem irrelevant. She might be saying with Matthew Arnold that “an increased spiritual activity, having for its characters increased sweetness, increased light, increased life, increased sympathy,—is an idea which the new democracy needs far more than the blessedness of the franchise, or the wonderfulness of its own industrial performance.”12 For if Virginia Woolf wanted women to have the same rights as men, she also wanted them to develop and to come to maturity according to their own nature, not by imitating men. She may ridicule the outdated sentimentality of Clarissa Dalloway, but she is even more ironical towards Evelyn Murgatroyd’s desire to be a man and do great things. She is even slightly contemptuous of the life of action advocated by Richard Dalloway. For Virginia Woolf, real life means receptivity to the external world. If society is severely criticized in The Voyage Out, it is because it benumbs that receptivity. However, the criticism we find in this novel is too often theoretical. Virginia Woolf does not yet reveal life in a flash, and, like Rachel, she is not certain that literature can “render the moment whole” as music can. Like other writers of the Twenties, she is filled with a sense of the tragic destiny of man. She finds assuagement in a communion which transcends life and death and gives rise to a feeling of peace unattainable in a world where “chaos is triumphant, things happening for no reason at all, and everyone groping about in illusion and ignorance.” (p. 269)

  • 13 Virginia Woolf, Night and Day, London, 1930, p. 215.

18If Night and Day (1919) is less pessimistic, it is nevertheless melancholy, for though the characters enjoy the prospect of a long life of discovery, they also know that communion will always alternate with solitariness and that happiness must always be created anew. The novel takes place shortly before the First World War, and Virginia Woolf describes with great care the life of the English upper-middle class at the time. She may give the impression that her aim is to give a picture of English society, but she portrays society only to contrast it more strikingly with the dream-world of Ralph and Katherine. When the novel opens, Katherine is playing hostess to eminent people who discuss literature with her parents. She is an accomplished young woman, beautiful, rich, fairly cultivated. She gives an impression of great self-assurance, and she seems highly suited to control and to command. Yet the very first time he meets her, Ralph notices that she does all this with the superficial part of her being, and though he will not know for a long time what her real preoccupations are, he is struck with the certainty that she is given to contemplation and that her self-control and her composure hide another, mysterious, personality. In fact, Katherine is not as happy as she might be. Though she enjoys a relative freedom and the confidence of her parents, she resents their dependence on her. She is divided between on the one hand her affection for her mother and the family devotion to literature, and on the other hand her desire to be free as Mary Datchet is free to have a life of her own. As her cousin rightly says of her, “she hasn’t found herself yet.”13 Katherine feels she is a prisoner of her social duties; when she can escape, she studies mathematics or she dreams. The fact that she can only indulge her liking for mathematics in secret shows the pressure of social conventions on the life of a woman. Though this seems ridiculous now, it was real enough at the time. This pressure of society is better illustrated yet by the reaction of Katherine’s family to the situation of her cousin, who lives with a woman without being married to her and has three children born out of wedlock. In different ways their attitude is typical of their refusal to consider a man’s deeper feelings rather than his failure to conform to accepted standards. Katherine’s aunt shows a complete lack of understanding. Mr. Hilbery thinks Cyril was wrong to sin against established conventions, but he refuses to examine the implications of the situation:

How superficially he smoothed these events into a semblance of decency which harmonized with his own view of life! He never wondered what Cyril had felt, nor did the hidden aspects of the case tempt him to examine into them. He merely seemed to realize, rather languidly, that Cyril had behaved in a way which was foolish, because other people did not behave in that way. (p. 111)

19Mrs. Hilbery simply refuses to face the facts. Her indignation at Cyril’s behaviour soon gives way to her wish to find some way of escape, a sudden illumination “which would show to the satisfaction of everybody that all had happened, miraculously but incontestably, for the best.” (p. 124) As Katherine says, “Mrs. Hilbery’s bulls always turned conveniently into cows at the critical moment.” (p. 159) But now Katherine is irritated by her mother and aunts: “how they talked and moralized and made up stories to suit their own version of the becoming, and secretly praised their own devotion and tact.” (p. 125) Katherine doesn’t think Cyril’s action either good or bad, merely a thing that has happened. She is depressed by the elder people’s disregard of individual feelings, which makes them, perhaps unconsciously, hypocritical, insincere, and most of the time cruel. Yet Virginia Woolf’s attitude towards a generation whose standards she obviously criticizes is ambiguous. The ambiguity may come from the fact that she recognizes that Victorian values were good for the Victorians but have lost their significance, a fact which most people refuse to acknowledge. Through Mrs. Hilbery she expresses a certain nostalgia for better times and refers to them as “the period before things were hopeless.” Katherine herself musing about her ancestors thinks that “their behaviour was often grotesquely irrational; their conventions monstrously absurd; and yet, as she brooded upon them, she felt so closely attached to them that is was useless to try to pass judgment upon them.” (p. 115) Mrs. Hilbery asserts that “the women in her youth were and that’s better than doing.” (p. 117) For all her vagueness and dreaminess and her ability to ignore the ugly facts of life, Mrs. Hilbery is very good at solving problems and smoothing down the most difficult situations. She doesn’t understand why her sister-in-law tells Katherine that it is no good being married unless you submit to your husband, because she is one of those women who get what they want without saying a word about it and without claiming credit for it.

20Unless one is free from obligations towards others and emancipated in thought, truth towards oneself and towards others is impossible. That is why Katherine so much admires Mary and envies her, because she lives by herself and does the kind of work she likes, whereas she, Katherine, must always compromise. She has accepted William in a moment of pessimism, “a sudden conviction of the undeniable prose of life, a lapse of the illusion which sustains youth midway between heaven and earth, a desperate attempt to reconcile herself with facts.” (p. 254) In another moment of pessimism when William implores her not to break off their engagement, she accepts to submit to marriage. But she knows that submission means treachery, that feelings are being confused with the demands of society on a girl of marriageable age, whereas she wants to fathom the true nature of her feelings, and until she really falls in love, she can only do so in the world of dreams:

If she had tried to analyse her impressions, she would have said that there dwelt the realities of appearances which figure in our world; so direct, powerful, and unimpeded were her sensations there, compared with those called forth in actual life. There dwelt the things one might have felt, had there been cause; the perfect happiness of which here we taste the fragment; the beauty seen here in flying glimpses only. No doubt much of the furniture of this world was drawn directly from the past, and even from the England of the Elizabethan age. However the embellishment of this imaginary world might change, two qualities were constant in it. It was a place where feelings were liberated from the constraint which the real world puts upon them; and the process of awakenment was always marked by resignation and a kind of stoical acceptance of facts, (p. 145)

21There comes a moment when Katherine is despondent: she feels cut off from William by her lack of love and experiences the precariousness of her dream-world. But the example of Mary Datchet confessing to her with perfect sincerity “I’m in love with Ralph” encourages her to seek the truth:

She was ready to believe that some people are fortunate enough to reject, accept, resign, or lay down their lives at the bidding of traditional authority; she could envy them, but in her case the questions became phantoms directly she tried seriously to find an answer, which proved that the traditional answer would be of no use to her individually. … The only truth which she could discover was the truth of what she herself felt. … To seek a true feeling among the chaos of the unfeelings or half-feelings of life, to recognize it when found, and to accept the consequence of the discovery … is a pursuit which is alternately bewildering, debasing, and exalting. (pp. 329-31)

22The last sentence is the key to the novel; it describes the quest which Katherine undertakes and which proves successful when she acknowledges that she loves Ralph.

23Ralph’s real life also takes place in the world of dreams. The facts he wants to escape are not imposed on him by conventions but by poverty. However, it should be mentioned that Virginia Woolf’s conception of poverty is somewhat unrealistic. Ralph’s home may be ugly and shabby, but it is difficult to imagine that the kind of life he is shown leading at home can be “dreary and sordid.” This seems naive and unimaginative, as is Mrs. Ambrose’s discovery at forty that the majority of people living in London are poor. Such criticism may be irrelevant because Virginia Woolf is not concerned with poverty as a social condition but with the fact that poverty is a source of suffering. Still, her vision of society is extremely limited: although poverty is a recurrent tragedy in her novels, it is obvious that she knows little about it. To her, the poor are mostly those who do not belong to her class and resent its apparent futility when they come into contact with it. Doris Kilman in Mrs. Dalloway and Charles Tansley in To the Lighthouse also react in that way. Actually, Ralph’s torments about his family and their circumstances never seem very real to the reader, and the interest concentrates on the reality of his dream-world and on his efforts to reconcile dream and outer reality. His meetings with Katherine often lead to disappointment because he finds it difficult to see in the real Katherine the person of his dreams. When he tells her that she is the sole inhabitant of his dream-world, he is momentarily overwhelmed with a sense of fulfilment aroused by her presence but very soon he is only conscious of a loss:

He had lost something in speaking to Katherine, for, after all, was the Katherine whom he loved the same as the real Katherine? She had transcended her entirely at moments: her skirt had blown, her feather waved, her voice spoken; yes, but how terrible sometimes the pause between the voice of one’s dreams and the voice that comes from the object of one’s dreams! He felt a mixture of disgust and pity at the figure cut by human beings when they try to carry out, in practice, what they have the power to conceive. (p. 319)

24It is the same with Katherine when she endeavours to reconcile her two worlds:

As in her thought she was accustomed to complete freedom, why should she perpetually apply so different a standard to her behaviour in practice? Why, she reflected, should there be this perpetual disparity between the thought and the action, between the life of solitude and the life of society, this astonishing precipice on one side of which the soul was active and in broad daylight, on the other of which it was contemplative and dark as night. (p. 358)

  • 14 “Ralph began to draw little figures in the blank spaces, heads meant to resemble her head, blots f (...)

25Their first understanding comes from the fact that when they are together they can indulge their dreams. Love makes truth possible even in a world of appearances, and complete truth makes reconciliation of the dream-reality and of factual existence easier. Love can bring suffering, but it also unites, and it liberates the individual, “it is a soothing word when uttered by another, a riveting together of the shattered fragments of the world.” (p. 512) Union is not achieved without difficulty. Katherine and Ralph often find it hard to communicate, and, like Terence and Rachel’s, their relation-ship is fragmentary. But they discover each other’s reality through an understanding which makes them share the same vision of the world.14

26The truth of Ralph’s love for Katherine enables Mary to accept it without bitterness. Indeed, Mary, who represents a new type of woman, intelligent, free and working for a better world, whether in a suffrage office or a political society, acts throughout the novel as an agent of truth. Although Virginia Woolf is ironical towards the suffrage workers who take their task so seriously that they are blind to everything else, she makes it clear that through her renunciation of personal happiness Mary has conquered and reached a reality superior to the precarious happiness of lovers because it is “unimpaired by one’s personal adventures, remote as the stars, unquenchable as they are.” (p. 275) Katherine, who has exposed the insincerity of conventions and traditions and broken her engagement with William, is at first reluctant to marry Ralph and would be content to live with him. Her engagement to Ralph is not merely a compromise with conventions. Both Mary and Mrs. Hilbery have given marriage a new significance by their insistence on truth and sincerity. The attitude and the work of women like Mary are an instrument of regeneration in English society: their real achievement is to make it possible for women to be really themselves and to find a new basis for a true marriage relationship. Ralph and Katherine understand it and acknowledge Mary’s triumph when they go to tell her of their engagement and see the light in her room:

It was a sign of triumph shining there for ever, not to be extinguished this side of the grave. … They stood for some moments, looking at the illuminated blinds, an expression to them both of something impersonal and serene in the mind of the woman within, working out her plans far into the night—her plans for the good of a world that none of them were ever to know. (p. 536)

  • 15 Among them are D. Daiches, W. Holtby and James Hafley (see Bibliography).

27By drawing a contrast between two generations and their conception of the relation between the individual and society, Virginia Woolf records a change in moral values. She does so with more subtlety than in The Voyage Out. In her first novel society was a background which it was not very difficult to ignore since after all it hardly impinged upon the characters’ lives; in Night and Day society is real enough and must be resisted if personal happiness is to be achieved. Several critics have objected that the form of Night and Day is not suited to its subject.15 True, because the social context is described in detail it may take the reader some time to realize that the purpose of the author is not merely to give a picture of society. But he soon understands that the description of the inner life of the main characters is equally important. As the plot develops, life in society is contrasted with the inner life, and the conflict which opposes the formalists to the “dreamers,” society to the individual, appears as the real theme of the novel. Gradually, the Victorian world is rejected in spite of its solid virtues and advantages. The younger generation no longer believe that one can be fulfilled by “doing the right thing,” or reading Scott, or ignoring the meaning of one’s actions. They want to discover their deeper feelings and act accordingly. Virginia Woolf stresses the difficulty of discerning what one really feels in a society in which feelings hardly matter. She condemns the inadequacy of an outdated code of behaviour. The young can no longer comply with social habits; they want to live according to their own vision. But they are shown in relation to society. Whether they accept it, like William and Cassandra, or reject it, like Katherine and Ralph, or attempt to reform it, like Mary, their happiness depends on the possibility of reconciling the truth of feelings with the exigencies of society. Through their healthier attitude, they acquire freedom and regenerate personal and social relations. The author does not criticize Victorian values as such, she criticizes their survival and the fact that they are imposed on people for whom they have become meaningless. Thus, she does not object to marriage, provided it is founded on sincerity. The fusion of inner and outer reality is finally achieved through the characters’ stubborn will to unravel the truth from the confusion of every-day life and the prejudices of the past. Ralph and Katherine know that their union is fragile, that communion will always alternate with solitariness: “Moments, fragments, a second of vision, and the flying waters, the winds dissipating and dissolving; then, too, the recollection from chaos, the return of security, the earth firm, superb and brilliant in the sun.” (pp. 537-8) This alternation, this ebb and flow of life is the very nature of existence. Katherine and Ralph have learned in their quest for reality that “it’s life that matters—the process of discovering—the everlasting and perpetual process, not the discovery itself at all.” (p. 132)

  • 16 A Writer’s Diary, p. 35.
  • 17 Virginia Woolf, The Waves, London, 1933, p. 157.

28The portrayal of society takes up an important part of Night and Day. This is because Virginia Woolf had not yet discovered the form which was to allow her to suggest the social environment of a character through his reaction to it instead of depicting it directly. As she reported in her diary from a conversation with John Maynard Keynes, “you must put it all in before you can leave out.”16 Of course, even in her early novels criticism of society is part of a necessary process by which the individual frees himself from an oppressive environment in order to enjoy his own vision of life. Indeed, her characters are fulfilled when, in short moments of bliss, they perceive life as a whole above the fragments and chaos of the apparent world. This is the vision of Mrs. Dalloway when at the end of her party she thinks of Septimus’ death, sees her old neighbour going to bed, feels the presence in her house of Peter and Sally, and understands that the meaning of her life lies in “assembling” by bringing people together; and all this gives her “a moment whole.” It is the vision of Lily Briscoe when she finally succeeds in completing her picture, or the perfect moment experienced by the characters in The Waves when they meet before Percival leaves for India: “Let us hold it for one moment … the globe whose walls are made of Percival, of youth and beauty, and something so deep sunk within us that we shall perhaps never make this moment out of one man again.”17 Virginia Woolf wants to convey “life itself going on” and death itself, not the death of a person: she wants to convey the essence of experience or experiences stripped from their external circumstances. What is important is the faculty of the character to grasp the significance of experience, and this depends on the degree of consciousness he has achieved. It varies from the most ordinary sensations to the deepest process of thought. Sometimes her characters are what she calls “a sensibility.” Their receptivity to the universe determines their “being.” This seems to limit life to those who are capable of such consciousness. The characters in Virginia Woolf’s novels who lack sensibility seem more real but only in the same way as the external world is real: they give an impression of concreteness and fixity, but they lack the power to discover the real purpose of life. Thus individuality depends on the capacity to apprehend the inner reality and to give meaning to one’s experience in the world.

29It is obvious that society, like any other field of experience, is part of the universe with which the individual comes into contact. That is why it is wrong to say that Virginia Woolf turns her back on society. She does not: society is one of the constituent parts of life and is important in so far as it affects the individual or as the individual is conscious of it. This conception of the function of society reflects the feeling of many individuals, whose vision of society does not correspond to the vision which society has of itself. By acknowledging the right of the individual to his own vision, Virginia Woolf was interpreting a state of mind which was to be fairly general in the Twenties. If the individual often wants to escape society, it is because it appears to him so chaotic that he feels he is alone in a world too confused to support him. That is why he believes that unity can only be achieved through personal effort and through communion with another individual, which alone stimulates belief in some kind of order transcending ordinary life. From the start, then, the interest of her novels shifts from the traditional centre, since she does not consider human beings living in society but society as one of the components of human existence. Even in The Waves, in which the process of abstraction is driven to its utmost limits and each character is a consciousness experiencing intense moments of existence, the impact of society is strong and shapes their life. Bernard loves it, and his sociability is one of the main characteristics of his personality; Rhoda is afraid of it, and Louis, ashamed of his Australian accent and of his father, a banker in Brisbane, works hard to secure a respectable place in it. In Orlando Virginia Woolf shows her hero seeking life where it can be found: at court in the time of Elizabeth, in adventures in the seventeenth century, in “salons” and social intercourse in the eighteenth, in marriage in the nineteenth century and in the whirl of modern life in the twentieth. It is true that she seldom finds in society a satisfactory answer to the question: what is life? Society itself is not the true reality. It is, as we said, part of the field of experience in which that reality is apprehended. Hence society is secondary to “reality” in the same way as the character is secondary to it since he is himself a medium allowing the author to grasp life, love, nature, death, whatever that “reality” is. It is thus understandable that Virginia Woolf’s characters should not seek fulfilment in society, that they should not be interested in improving it, hardly in judging it, except, as we have seen in her first two novels, when it deprives them of their vision. They are what they are, and their self-discovery only serves to define their own nature; it does not make them change their way of life or their mode of being. It only gives them depth and knowledge of themselves, which entails truthfulness in human relations and makes communication easier. Their moments of happiness do not arise from fulfilment through a change in them-selves or their environment, but from the certainty that they are, and from other people’s awareness of their gift of presence. Such is Mrs. Hilbery’s conviction that the women of her generation were, or Peter Walsh’s renewed love for Clarissa simply because she is, and the harmonizing “presence” of Mrs. Ramsay felt even after her death. This capacity for “being” stresses by comparison the futility of “action,” through which characters were traditionally known in the novel. Moreover, the people who act, who run the world often impose conventions on individuals who want the freedom to be themselves.

30Given the relationship between the individual and society in the novels of Virginia Woolf, it is easy to understand that society plays a more or less limited part depending on whether the emphasis is on the discovery of a personality, as in Jacob’s Room (1922), or on society as a source of frustration or fulfilment, as in Mrs. Dalloway (1925). After criticizing in her first novels the deadening influence of Victorian society, she attempted to define the human personality in a new perspective and to find the adequate form to render it. Except in Mrs. Dalloway and in her last novels, the image of society she conveys is only incidental.

  • 18 Virginia Woolf, Jacob’s Room, London, 1929, p. 115.
  • 19 N.C. Thackur, The Symbolism of Virginia Woolf, London, 1965, pp. 46-47.
  • 20 Ibid., p. 49.

31The theme of Jacob’s Room and of Mrs. Dalloway is the discovery of a personality and the discovery of life through that personality. In Jacob’s Room, however, Virginia Woolf so refines the data of Jacob’s experience that his environment is too fragmentary and superficial to carry much significance beyond what it contributes to the prismatic portrait of Jacob. In order to convey the movement of life, the author accumulates impressions too rapidly to create a coherent picture of Jacob’s milieu. Nor is it her purpose to do so: she merely hints at the nature of Jacob’s world, since, as she says, “one must follow hints” in order to understand people. “In any case, life is but a procession of shadows,” Virginia Woolf writes, and she insists that it is impossible to have a “a profound, impartial, and absolutely just opinion of our fellow creatures.”18 Indeed, most characters in the novel are hardly more than shadows. Jacob’s encounters with prostitutes, with dissipated artists and their models, or with the respectable middle class do suggest that London is unsatisfactory to a “free, venturesome, high-spirited” young man. But the city is chiefly the setting in which Jacob discovers both the ugliness and the beauty of life, women who lie, but also Clara, “a flawless mind, a candid nature.” I cannot agree with Mr. Thackur that in Jacob’s Room London is a symbol of a “perverted, corrupt, and diseased society” as well as of the “futility and barrenness of modern civilization.”19 Still less can I agree with his assertion that “In search of a better civilization, Jacob, like D.H. Lawrence who went away to Mexico, leaves London for Paris, Italy, and Greece.”20 The parallel with D.H. Lawrence is preposterous if we compare Lawrence’s grievances against modern civilization with Jacob’s. True, the latter writes to Bonamy: “I intend to come to Greece every year so long as I live. … It is the only chance I can see of protecting oneself from civilization,” (p. 238) but this, Virginia Woolf adds, is “a clumsy saying.” He does rank the ancient Greeks high above the moderns, but his enthusiasm for their spirit is no more than a young man’s love of freedom in reaction against frustrating conventions. At the time of his death, Jacob is only “beginning to think a great deal about the problems of civilization.” (p. 244) Actually, Jacob is a young man full of promise who does sense that something is wrong with the world as it is. However, when his life is cut short by the War he is still too much absorbed with living intensely and loving—as the last glimpse we have of him shows—to be seriously concerned with the state of society. If Virginia Woolf really intended to expose the corruption of modern civilization, as Mr. Thackur suggests she did, she failed to do so. In fact, the conciseness with which she reports the War and the few disconnected impressions she records fail to convey even the reality of that tragedy. “Darkness drops like a knife over Greece” is not only meant literally, but probably alludes to the sudden eclipse of what Greece stands for in Jacob’s life. The description of Jacob’s room suggests how far the twentieth century has declined from the order and distinction of the eighteenth. Betty Flanders exclaiming “Such confusion everywhere!” no doubt refers to the state of the world as much as to Jacob’s room. But these statements are too vague to express a real sense of the world’s chaos. Only Bonamy’s cry “Jacob! Jacob!” is an intimation of anguish and appeals to the reader’s imagination to realize the full impact of the War on individual lives.

32In Mrs. Dalloway the relation between the hero and society determines the life of the individual. Virginia Woolf wrote about it in her diary: “I want to give life and death, sanity and insanity; I want to criticize the social system, and to show it at work at its most intense.” (p. 57) Here society is the setting in which life is apprehended, and it cannot be ignored except by rejecting life itself, which is what Septimus is forced to do. Many critics have overlooked the social criticism in Mrs. Dalloway because they think it unimportant compared with the universal values Virginia Woolf tries to convey. Admittedly, society is not the object of her exploration, but the characters succeed or fail in their quest for the “real” according to their capacity to give meaning to their life in society. Wondering about the meaning of her existence, Clarissa thinks:

  • 21 Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway, London, 1933, p. 184.

But to go deeper, beneath what people said (and these judgements how superficial, how fragmentary they are!) in her own mind now, what did it mean to her, this thing she called life? Oh, it was very queer. Here was So-and-So in South Kensington; someone up in Bayswater; and somebody else, say, in Mayfair. And she felt quite continuously a sense of their existence; and she felt what a waste; and she felt what a pity; and she felt if only they could be brought together; so she did it. And it was an offering; to combine, to create.21

33Clarissa Dalloway, the perfect hostess, whose house is a frequent meeting place for the London upper-middle class and aristocracy, is an ordinary woman in that she is not exceptionally intelligent, nor highly sensitive; her great gift is intuition, knowing people by instinct, and a consciousness of her potentialities and role in society. It is the averageness of her personality which makes her so much at home in society and explains the abdication of her own self to it. It made her prefer the safety of marriage with Richard Dalloway to the adventurous and intense joy of living she would have shared with Peter Walsh. Peter has always criticized her subjection to society, and when he sees her after a long absence, he is again struck by it:

The obvious thing to say of her was that she was worldly; cared too much for rank and society and getting on in the world—which was true in a sense, she admitted it to him. … What he would say was that she hated frumps, fogies, failures, like himself presumably; thought people had no right to slouch about with their hands in their pockets; must do something, be something; and those great swells, these duchesses, these hoary old countesses one met in her drawing-room, unspeakably remote as he felt them to be from anything that mattered a straw, stood for something real to her. … In all this there was a good deal of Dalloway, of course; a great deal of the public-spirited, British Empire, tariff-reform, governing-class spirit, which had grown on her, as it tends to. With twice his wits, she had to see things through his eyes—one of the tragedies of married life. With a mind of her own, she must always be quoting Richard—as if one couldn’t know to a tittle what Richard thought by reading the Morning Post of a morning. (pp. 116-17).

34But beside the social hostess there is another Clarissa; there is the woman

with that extraordinary gift for making a world of her own wherever she happened to be. She came into a room; she stood as he had often seen her, in a doorway with lots of people round her. But it was Clarissa one remembered. Not that she was striking; not beautiful at all; there was nothing picturesque about her; she never said anything specially clever; there she was. (p. 116)

35Her gift for making her presence felt, for harmonizing and uniting, attracts Peter again in spite of his determination not to love her. And although Clarissa is always conscious in his presence that he criticizes her social attitude, his effect on her is to bring out her other self. She would not allow “perfect gentlemen” and snobs like Hugh Whitbread to be laughed at, but she loves Sally Seton, a rebel against society in her youth; she enjoys life immensely, is aware of everything around her and shares in it, but she always needs people to bring out her sense of the comedy of life. She is also a sceptic who senses the tragedy of humanity and the malevolence of fate towards human beings, and she tries to contribute her part to make life more pleasant and, when possible, mitigate its tragedy. And in spite of her public-spirited attitude, she has “none of that sense of moral virtue which is so repulsive in good women.” (p. 119)

36Although Clarissa has compromised with society, she is aware of evil forces in it, which she sees acting through Miss Kilman, the bitter and disillusioned teacher who tries to convert her daughter Elizabeth:

Love and religion! thought Clarissa. … How detestable. How detestable they are! For now that the body of Miss Kilman was not before her, it overwhelmed her—the idea. The cruellest things in the world, she thought, seeing them clumsy, hot, domineering; hypocritical, eavesdropping, jealous, infinitely cruel and unscrupulous, dressed in a mackintosh coat, on the landing; love and religion? Had she ever tried to convert anyone herself? Did she not wish everybody merely to be themselves? And she watched out of the window the old lady opposite climbing upstairs. Let her climb upstairs if she wanted to; let her stop; then let her, as Clarissa had often seen her, gain her bedroom, part her curtains and disappear again into the background. Somehow one respected that—that old woman looking out of the window, quite unconscious that she was being watched. There was something solemn in it—but love and religion would destroy that, whatever it was, the privacy of the soul. (p. 191)

37Whereas Clarissa feels that the evil power of conversion destroys the private vision, Rezia Smith realizes that this power is used by organized society to destroy individual freedom and eventually the individual himself:

Conversion feasts on the wills of the weakly, loving to impress, to impose, adoring her own features stamped on the face of the populace. At Hyde Park Corner on a tub she stands preaching; shrouds herself in white and walks penitentially disguised as brotherly love through factories and parliaments; offers help, but desires power; smites out of her way roughly the dissentient, or dissatisfied; bestows her blessing on those who, looking upward, catch submissively from her eyes the light of their own. This lady too (Rezia Warren Smith divined it) had her dwelling in Sir William’s heart, though concealed, as she mostly is, under some plausible disguise; some venerable name; love, duty, self-sacrifice. How he would work—how toil to raise funds, propagate reforms, initiate institutions! But conversion, fastidious Goddess, loves blood better than brick, and feasts most subtly on the human will. (pp. 151-2)

38After their visit to Sir William Bradshaw Rezia, who had not hitherto understood what was the matter with her husband, becomes his ally, though an impotent one, against the representatives of proportion, order and conversion who drive Septimus to suicide. Septimus Smith suffers from war shock; he is obsessed with visionary dreams of himself as a reformer of society. The beauty which, for years, he has tried to perceive in life is being destroyed or superseded by mediocrity and callousness.

For the truth is that human beings have neither kindness, nor faith, nor charity beyond what serves to increase the pleasure of the moment. They hunt in packs. Their packs scour the desert and vanish screaming into the wilderness. They desert the fallen. They are plastered over with grimaces. … In the street, vans roared past him; brutality blared out placards; men were trapped in mines; women burned alive; and once a maimed file of lunatics being exercised or displayed for the diversion of the populace (who laughed aloud), ambled and nodded and grinned past him, in the Tottenham Court Road, each half apologetically, yet triumphantly, inflicting his hopeless woe. And would he go mad? (pp. 136-7)

39Septimus “has gone through the whole show, friendship, European war, death.” (p. 131) He feels guilty for not feeling, but society is responsible for his inability to feel, although society wants to punish him for it:

Once you fall, human nature is on you. Holmes and Bradshaw are on you. They scour the desert. They fly screaming into the wilderness. The rack and the thumb-screw are applied. Human nature is remorseless, (p. 148)

40The sin of society consists in imposing meaningless rules, an order which the individual cannot understand because it is alien to his sensibility, so that he is reduced to indifference. Bradshaw and Holmes are organized society, “judges … who mixed the vision and the sideboard; saw nothing clear, yet ruled, yet inflicted” (p. 223) in obedience to their sense of proportion, supported by “the police and the good of society which would take care that these unsocial impulses were held in control.” (p. 154) But Bradshaw and Holmes are also human nature, and in Septimus’ sick mind human nature is identified with society because they both imprison man and destroy the moment of happiness which he experiences through communication. Septimus is not so alienated from life that he cannot value what he relinquishes by committing suicide. But when Holmes comes to fetch him, he finds no other way out than death: “he did not want to die. Life was good. The sun hot. Only human beings?” (p. 225) In spite of his madness, what Septimus says about society is coherent and derives from his own experience, so that his insanity appears mainly as an incapacity to identify himself with a social system which he despises because he has been forced to live through such an absurd catastrophe as the War, a catastrophe which society obviously thought of as a grandiose adventure. In the novels which Virginia Woolf wrote in the Twenties, Jacob’s Room, Mrs, Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, the death of young men killed in the War is presented as one of the most cruel blows dealt by the absurdity of life. However, it is only in Mrs. Dalloway that she conveys so eloquently the tragedy and despair brought to individual life by the War. Fate alone cannot be incriminated. Human beings, “these lustful animals, who have no lasting emotions, but only whims and vanities, eddying them now this way, now that” (pp. 135-6) are responsible for building a world into which “one cannot bring children.”

41Clarissa accepts, and Septimus rejects, society, whereas Peter Walsh compromises. He voices the author’s view on society for, after all, Septimus is insane and Clarissa too tolerant. He is the objective observer who, coming back from India, records the changes that have taken place in England between 1918 and 1923. During Clarissa’s party he observes her guests with Sally Seton, who has also compromised by marrying a rich man; he condemns their snobbery, their obsequiousness and their insincerity, but he can discern real sensitiveness even in Richard Dalloway. If Clarissa did not marry Peter, it is because he demanded complete and reciprocal emotional commitment and because he had no social ambition. Like many of Virginia Woolf’s characters, he is on the quest for truth beneath appearances, and on the whole he is not hampered by social motives. That is why he is a social failure. He has none of Septimus’ intransigency, he hates the smugness of the English middle class, but he loves English civilization. Wearing the contented look of one who has had a full life and feels young enough to start anew, yet complelled at fifty-three to ask Hugh Whitbread and Richard Dalloway to help him find a job, Peter is at the mercy of his nature and of society, bereft of the one person he has always loved, Clarissa. In a way his attitude is similar to Orlando’s, who acts alternately in obedience to her own nature and to conventions. Indeed, Peter may criticize hypocrisy, the mediocrity of many an English gentleman, the superficial character of social relationships, but he remains attached to his own class and its privileges and never questions their way of life or their attitude on important matters. The only character who criticizes the upper classes is Doris Kilman, whose silent diatribe against social injustice exemplifies the negativeness of class hatred.

42In Mrs. Dalloway Virginia Woolf describes life in society on different planes: some people are simply aware of their environment and of the life that goes on around them; others feel this environment as an obstacle to real life; others still, particularly Clarissa, find in social intercourse a means of reaching the essential meaning of their existence. Life in London becomes representative of that of the English people as a whole and of their different attitudes to life, As she walks in London on a June morning, Clarissa finds life “in people’s eyes, in the swing, tramp, and trudge; in the bellow and the uproar; the carriages, motor cars, omnibuses, vans, sandwich men shuffling and swinging; brass bands; barrel organs.” p. 9) As the day wears on, we are made to observe London life at closer range, in Bond Street, where all activity is momentarily interrupted by the passage of an important and mysterious personage, who arouses the same automatic reaction among the onlookers; “The spirit of religion was abroad,” says Virginia Woolf, “with her eyes bandaged tight and her lips gaping wide.” (p. 23) Near Whitehall, Peter is forced to stand like everybody else and to watch with respect boys in uniform who march on “as if one will worked legs and arms uniformly, and life, with its varieties, its irreticences, had been laid under a pavement of monuments and wreaths and drugged into a stiff yet staring corpse by discipline.” (pp. 78-79) In Regent’s Park he recalls his youth and what he suffered because of Clarissa, then witnesses the despair of Rezia and Septimus Smith. Both Peter and Rezia pity “the battered woman” who sings of love opposite Regent’s Park tube station. We are taken to Harley Street, where “the clocks … counselled submission, upheld authority, and pointed out in chorus the supreme advantage of a sense of proportion.” (p. 155) And so from one place in London to another, whether in Lady Bruton’s dining-room or in the Army and Navy Stores, the characters’ attitude to the people around them reveal their personality. Naturally, this evocation of London with its incidental snapshots of those who seem satisfied and those who suffer—the poor, the unemployed—is very superficial. Even though they belong to the same whole, people are held together by very fragile ties: Miss Kilman’s bitterness or Clarissa’s neglect of Ellie Henderson show that class-hatred or snobbery create a gulf that cannot be bridged by a common allegiance to institutions. It is on a supra-social level that human beings can meet as Septimus and Mrs. Dalloway do. They are identified with each other through their common belief in the privacy of the soul and their conviction that men like Bradshaw make life intolerable, as well as through their sense of the tragedy of life.

  • 22 Lady Ottoline Morrell, who was then famous as a hostess. A Writer’s Diary, p. 55.
  • 23 Ibid.

43Whether in The Voyage Out, in the stories in which she appears, or in Mrs. Dalloway Clarissa represents society. In the novel which bears her name she is in her favourite role, “the perfect hostess.” Through the people who attend her party Virginia Woolf satirizes the English upper-middle class. She ridicules Hugh Whitbread, the perfect public-school type: “Look at him now, on tiptoe, dancing forward, bowing and scraping, as the Prime Minister and Lady Bruton emerged, intimating for all the world to see that he was privileged to say something, something in private to Lady Bruton as she passed.” (p. 261) Another brilliant satire is that of the Bradshaws, whom Peter sums up very shrewdly as “damnable humbugs,” or that of the Prime Minister, who “looked so ordinary, you might have stood him behind a counter and bought biscuits—poor chap, all rigged up in gold lace.” (p. 259) Old Lady Bruton with her fine ancestors is presented as both a remarkable person and a grotesque old woman. As a matter of fact, for all her irony and apart from a few types whom she mocks ruthlessly, Virginia Woolf’s attitude towards society, i.e., to the upper classes, is ambivalent. She both criticizes and admires them: she criticizes their smugness, their snobbery, their insensitiveness, but she admires them for what they achieve. She pokes fun at Richard Dalloway, “grey, dogged, dapper, clean,” considering unimportant reforms yet unable to see what is really wrong with what he calls “our detestable social system.” He is an attractive man, though, as Sally rightly suggests, a second-class brain; but then “What does the brain matter … compared with the heart?” (p. 293) As to Mrs. Dalloway, she is the best illustration of the author’s ambivalence. Even though, as Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary, she meant “to bring in the despicableness of people like Ott,”22 she certainly created a character sensitive enough to perceive the nature of life and give it meaning in accordance with her gifts. Indeed, Clarissa is a snob, she is conventional, often insincere and sentimental. She does exemplify what Virginia Woolf calls “the slipperiness of the soul,”23 being good to people in order to gratify her own good opinion of herself. But she is also aware of her own shortcomings, of pettiness and jealousy in her own motives, and she has that extraordinary capacity for being fulfilled through the people and the objects which surround her. She is, of course, typical of the milieu in which she lives, but she acquires dignity by finding in that milieu a means of realizing herself. Peter’s criticism prompts her to examine what she has made of her life. Because he calls it futile, she defines the part she has played in society, which has always been to assemble and create harmony. This is her way of “reaching the centre,” of communicating, of preserving her soul. Like Septimus, she is acutely aware of evil forces in society which threaten individual freedom and integrity. In fact, she feels Septimus’ suicide as a judgment upon the futility of her own life. But the meaning she gives to death, her belief in the individual’s right to be himself and her conviction that in her limited way she brings harmony into society, raise her, if only at rare moments, above the triviality of her ordinary existence.

44Truthfulness and fidelity to one’s self is the one fundamental rule of conduct that can be inferred from Virginia Woolf’s work. Whatever criticism there is in her novels is fused in the larger themes she develops and always refers ultimately to the possibility for the individual to realize himself. There is nothing systematic about it. It is a subtle comment on the human personality and its relationship to its environment. Because of her own conception of the human personality Virginia Woolf’s work is representative of the Twenties. R.L. Chambers defines as follows the three main intellectual assumptions which lay behind the mood of that decade:

  • 24 R.L. Chambers, The Novels of Virginia Woolf, London, 1955, p. 76.

the first was biological, that man is not a special creation; the second physical, that time and space and the whole visible universe are probably best described in subjective terms, as aspects of a state of mind; the third psychological, that the individual is a complex of consciousness, existing on more levels than that which is accessible to the normally conscious mind.24

  • 25 Night and Day, p. 534.

45Although the three statements help to understand the work of Virginia Woolf and the instability of the values of her time, it is mainly the third which, by suggesting that human consciousness exists at different levels, stresses the complexity of the human personality and brings to mind the possible consequences of such complexity on the relations between individuals. If we compare the personalities assumed by Orlando during the four centuries of her existence, we realize that it is only in the twentieth century that her selves multiply. Whereas previously she was only conscious of one self, she becomes aware that the oneness of her social self is mere appearance. We have seen that going beyond appearances is essential to the apprehension of truth, which alone can serve as an effective basis of communication between individuals. But the mystery which, because of its complexity, surrounds the personality of modern man, impedes communication, and if relations between two human beings are unsatisfactory, how much more disappointing social relations are. In all her novels Virginia Woolf stresses the loneliness of the individual, a loneliness which is mainly the result of his incapacity to communicate, except in very brief moments of ecstasy. When Katherine and Ralph at last succeed in meeting spiritually, she exclaims: “You’ve destroyed my loneliness.”25 But such communion is ephemeral. On the whole, the despair of her characters is due to a feeling of isolation and alienation from their fellow-beings.

46Another consequence of acknowledging the complexity of the personality is that one is led to question the essential nature of the sexes. Whereas for D.H. Lawrence the individual found fulfilment by being purely man or woman, for Virginia Woolf the most complete human personality is androgynous and possesses the best qualities of both man and woman, allying intellectual knowledge and a capacity for action with feminine sensibility and intuition. Androgyny helps to overcome isolation and makes for better understanding between persons of different sexes. Yet, if Virginia Woolf admires the individual who combines masculine and feminine qualities, it is none the less obvious that her whole work asserts the superiority of woman and that she wants woman to develop in accordance with her own nature, not in imitation of man. In spite of the many pamphlets and essays she wrote in support of the feminist cause, her aim was not to help women get the vote. Naturally, she demanded equal rights for men and women, and her claims, which seem old-fashioned now, were very much to the point in the Twenties. But the feminism which inspires her novels has none of the combativity of A Room of One’s Own or Three Guineas, in which she claims “equal opportunity” for all and protests against the egotism and vanity of men, who have always kept women away from the creative activities of society and held them in semi-slavery. In her novels feminism rests on the assumption that the intuitive understanding which is necessary for the apprehension of real life is peculiar to women. It is not by mere coincidence that her main characters are usually women: they are more inclined than men to withdraw from the agitation of ordinary life and perceive the real in silence. What Virginia Woolf most resents in men is their assurance that women must always sacrifice their personality to men. Even Mrs. Ambrose, who is obviously more emancipated and educated than most women, must compromise and flatter her husband’s vanity, while Mr. Ramsay literally feeds on his wife’s approval and admiration for him.

47To the Lighthouse is Virginia Woolf’s most feminist novel, for it conveys most subtly the feminine qualities of understanding, intuition and love which allow women to grasp the essence of life and the significance of experience, and make them perceive life as whole. Unlike D.H. Lawrence, in whose novels woman is often a destroyer of life because of her idealism, Virginia Woolf presents woman as a creative and fertilizing force, whereas man is sterile and destroys:

  • 26 Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse, London, 1952, p. 43.

Mrs. Ramsay seemed to pour erect into the air a rain of energy, a column of spray, looking at the same time animated and alive as if all her energies were being fused into force, burning and illuminating, and into this delicious fecundity, this fountain and spray of life, the fatal sterility of the male plunged itself, like a beak of brass, barren and bare. He wanted sympathy. He was a failure, he said. … It was sympathy he wanted, to be assured of his genius, first of all, and then to be taken within the circle of life, warmed and soothed, to have his sense restored to him, his barrenness made fertile, and all the rooms of the house made full of life … they must be furnished, they must be filled with life.26

48Women who are truly feminine are a source of life and create harmony: “They all sat separate. And the whole of the effort of merging and flowing and creating rested on her. Again, she felt, as a fact without hostility, the sterility of men.” (p. 97) Because of her sensibility, her intuition, her sympathy, woman creates life by unifying. The death of Mrs. Ramsay is followed by chaos and the disintegration of the house which she had filled with life. Man unmakes harmony through his vanity and his selfishness. Mrs. Ramsay is superior to her husband in her very effort to show that he is superior, and she always pities men as if they lacked something.

49Virginia Woolf’s male characters are far less developed psycho-logically than her women. They are often effeminate, or awkward in their masculinity like Richard Dalloway. There is a relation between men’s incapacity for “being” and the life of action they lead. Active life is necessary but it is inferior, for it is often considered as an end in itself, so that it obliterates the vision which the individual must perceive behind the agitation of ordinary life. After leading a life of action, Orlando appreciates the finer and more subtle existence which her change into a woman entails:

Better is it to be clothed with poverty and ignorance, which are the dark garments of the female sex; better to leave the rule and discipline of the world to others; better be quit of martial ambition, the love of power, and all the other manly desires if so one can more fully enjoy the most exalted raptures known to the human spirit, which are … contemplation, solitude, love. (pp. 100-1)

50In The Waves Bernard realizes that contemplation alone will lead him to the understanding he wishes to attain:

I wish to go under; to visit the profound depths, once in a while to exercise my prerogative not always to act, but to explore; … to indulge impossible desires to embrace the whole world with the arms of understanding—impossible to those who act. (p. 123)

51Since understanding and intuitive knowledge usually pertain to women, Virginia Woolf wants them to foster these qualities and to play in society and in life a part which is in harmony with their own nature. Her irony towards the benefactors and the reformers of society derives from her belief in the superiority of the contemplative life. On the one hand, she condemns the reformers who in the Twenties claimed for women the same prerogatives as for men, imitated them and destroyed in woman the essential qualities of her feminity. On the other hand, since it is the quality of “being” she most admires in women, her great female characters are devoid of any desires to reform the world or to lay down a moral code. If she admires women who, like Mary Datchet, work seriously for the improvement of the world, she doesn’t spare the women who claim to lead a life of action for its own sake. She merely demands for woman the same opportunity to manifest herself as a woman as man enjoys to assert his manliness. She herself writes with the sensibility and the understanding of a woman, and one realizes that the perfect human character in her work combines, like Helen Ambrose, physical consciousness with the mental consciousness newly acquired by women or at least by some of them.

  • 27 A Writer’s Diary, p. 71.
  • 28 The Waves, p. 100.
  • 29 To the Lighthouse, pp. 74 and 68.

52Virginia Woolf’s art is never didactic. Rather, she invites the reader to cooperate and to infer her conceptions from her vision of life and of people. The values she prizes are integrity and the right to be oneself. She thinks that these values have driven women to claim emancipation as the slaves had done, or oppressed people, or the working classes. Her pessimism finds its source not merely in the individual’s essential loneliness but in her “great sense of the brutality and wildness of the world.”27 A sense of the tragic in life hangs over all her novels. In the midst of active London Louis is “conscious of flux, of disorder, of annihilation and despair,”28 and Mrs. Ramsay “always seized the fact that there is no reason, order, justice: but suffering, death, the poor. … There were the eternal problems: suffering, death, the poor.”29 True, the values which Mrs. Ramsay asserts are supra-social as are the values asserted by the characters in The Waves, who are “creators … striding not into chaos, but into a world that our force can subjugate and make part of the illumined and everlasting road.” (p. 158) But this is precisely because the individual finds certainty only in himself and not in a society made of “scraps, orts and fragments.” From one novel to another Virginia Woolf’s characters are increasingly haunted by the sight of a disintegrating society, which the anxiety and the instability of the age greatly emphasize. Her hope for a better world is expressed in The Years and her disappointment at the outbreak of the Second World War in Between the Acts. She wrote in her diary:

  • 30 A Writer’s Diary, pp. 197-8.

I want to give the whole of the present society—nothing less; facts as well as the vision. And to combine them both. I mean The Waves going on simultaneously with Night and Day…. I should aim at immense breadth and immense intensity. I should include satire, comedy, poetry, narrative. … And there are to be millions of ideas but no preaching—history, politics, feminism, art, literature—in short a summing up of all I know, feel, laugh at, despise, like, admire, hate and so on.30

53This ambitious design, which eventually gave birth to The Years (1937), was the inevitable development of Virginia Woolf’s art given her effort to render the wholeness of life. After the saturating process of The Waves which was intended to render the “moment whole” and to convey the essence of life, she was led to explore the value of the externality from which she had just divested the novel, and to conclude that the external world of matter, facts and events is also part of “the real.” It is not that she has ceased to believe that one must transcend the external in order to apprehend reality. But the external is no longer merely a means; it combines with the internal in order to give what she calls the facts and the vision and thus to convey life more completely.

54In a social panorama which covers approximately fifty years, from 1880 to the 1930’s, Virginia Woolf attempts to recreate the changing scene of English society through the individual lives of the Pargiters. The years are 1880, 1891, 1907, 1908, 1910, 1911, 1914, 1917 and the Present Day (the Thirties). In each period private lives are shown in their social context and related to the political events of the time. Social classes or events of a different nature are opposed, thus conveying the coexistence of wealth and poverty, happiness and pain. 1880 shows Colonel Pargiter and his numerous children given to different activities: studying, visiting the poor, playing, or simply waiting rather heartlessly for their sick mother to die. In Oxford their cousin Kitty enjoys the leisurely life of a girl who waits for the happy event that will transform her existence. In 1910 the same Kitty, now married to Lord Lasswade, attends a political meeting where most of the Pargiters are present, including Sara. After the meeting Kitty goes to the opera. All through the performance of Siegfried she fears that they will announce the King’s death, but we only hear of it at night, when it is announced in a poor London suburb where Maggie and Sara live. At each stage public events form a background to loves, marriages, births, deaths, conflicts, successes or failures, which bring joy or sorrow, fulfilment or disappointment, splendour or sordidness, until the present day, when Eleanor, the eldest of the Pargiter children, wonders what is the meaning of it all.

55The chapter entitled “1880” is certainly one of the best episodes. Virginia Woolf describes the conventions of Victorian society with its sacrosanct tea-ceremony, the routine of a Victorian house-hold resting on the responsible eldest daughter, the hypocrisy of the father who comes back from a visit to his mistress and is compelled to show a sorrow which he doesn’t feel for the death of his wife. The falsity and meaninglessness of Victorian standards are exposed by Delia, who longs for freedom and truth, admits to herself the intolerableness of her mother’s agony and her relief when the latter dies. She sees through her father’s hypocrisy, and at her mother’s funeral feels robbed of her one moment of understanding by the lies of the priest. In 1891 Eleanor is still the faithful daughter who takes care of her tyrannical father, while all the others have left home. Her own life is filled with her care for others and with numerous committee-meetings. Maggie and Sara are happy little girls enjoying a bonfire lit for Maggie’s birthday. The security of their lives is contrasted with the poverty of the place where Delia lives and where Eleanor goes to comfort her when she hears of Parnell’s death:

  • 31 Virginia Woolf, The Years, London, 1958, p. 121.

The streets they were driving through were horribly poor; and not only poor, she thought, but vicious. Here was the vice, the obscenity, the reality of London. It was lurid in the mixed evening light.31

56Eleanor guesses at the life that goes on behind the thick yellow curtains, and we are made to guess with her. We learn here that many people in London are poor, that some live in appalling circumstances, that Delia, who was passionate about freedom, has left home to devote herself to the Irish cause, which makes her father rejoice when he hears of Parnell’s death. But what deeper significance can we draw from the evocation of 1891? This is a question which we repeatedly ask as the years go by. Rose becomes a suffragette and goes to prison. Martin comes back from India and leaves the army; Morris, though a hard-working lawyer, doesn’t have a brilliant career; his daughter Peg becomes a doctor, while his son North sells his farm in Kenya and comes home dissatisfied. Maggie is happily married to a French scientist. The normal course of their lives is interrupted by the War, to which they react according to their nature: some care passionately, Eleanor hopes a new world will arise, Sara refuses to be affected by it. Each generation has its rebel, and Sara is the rebel of the second generation. She withdraws within a world of her own. She speaks in poetic terms which reveal her indulgence in her own thoughts and her refusal to compromise with a society she condemns. In the third generation it is North and Peggy who don’t fit and are dissatisfied with contemporary society for different reasons. Thus in their respective generations Delia, Sara, North and Peggy bring out what is evil in society: Delia, its hypocrisy; Sara, the super-ficiality of social intercourse and the meaninglessness of the War; North, the utter inexistence of people who are merely social creatures and the incapacity of others to communicate because of their fear to reveal themselves; Peggy, the anxiety and the threat to freedom in the Thirties. But what conclusion can we draw from the contrast between the characters’ material circumstances and their attitudes towards life and towards society? As North thinks after his dinner with Sara, “these little snapshot pictures of people leave much to be desired.” (p. 341) Except at the beginning and at the end of the novel, it is difficult to say in what particular way individual lives are affected by the important events which change English society. If we hear that Rose is in prison, we suppose that it is because she is a suffragette, but we are not made aware that her action has changed the life of English women. In the same way, we are struck by the contrast between society in 1880 and in the Present Day, but we do not know how the War, which we hear of through the description of air-raids and North’s departure for France, has affected people. As in Virginia Woolf’s other novels, the characters in The Yeats remain remarkably true to themselves. Their attitude towards life is not modified by social changes. They react to these with honesty, indifference or resentment. But it is the social scene that is transformed, not the characters who, except for Eleanor and Peggy, do not even understand the nature of this transformation.

57The significance of The Years is brought out by the summing up in the last chapter. Like Eleanor at seventy, we must seek meaning in the whole. For if at each period different characters ask the usual questions about their personality and the significance of their life, it is by surveying the fifty years and by contrasting 1880 with the Present Day that the full import of the evolution becomes apparent. It is seen by Eleanor as a change for the better. The English middle class have lost the security of the Victorians, but they have also done away with the hypocrisy and the rigidity of their standards. Modern society certainly appears more confused and chaotic, but the younger generation is competent and honest. All through the last chapter, Eleanor insists on the potential value of the present: “I do not want to go into my past. I want the present.” (p. 361) The past is important only in so far as it can contribute something to the present. Regretfully but firmly, Eleanor dismisses Crosby, the old servant, who is symbolical of a past age; she tries to understand her young nieces and nephews, travels around the world with an ever fresh mind. It is not so much modern society itself that she values as its determination to progress and its capacity for doing so. At seventy she can still turn towards the future and say: “And now?” (p. 469) Yet one suspects that when Eleanor says that things have changed for the better and that “we’re happier—we’re freer,” (p. 469) she expresses no more than her own opinion. Her optimism seems to spring more from her indefatigable nature and from the satisfaction of her fulfilled life than from a development in society which gives one reasons for hope. This is particularly striking when one compares the “visions” of the characters through whose consciousness Delia’s party is described. Questioned about her life, Eleanor is puzzled because it is not something she can visualize as a whole. To her it has been a “perpetual discovery,” a miracle, but how can she sum it up?

Oughtn’t a life to be something you could handle and produce? But I’ve only the present moment, she thought. … Atoms danced apart and massed themselves. But how did they compose what people call a life? … Perhaps there’s ‘I’ at the middle of it, she thought; a knot; a centre…. My life has been other people’s lives, Eleanor thought—my father’s; Morris’s; my friends’ lives; Nicolas’s. (pp. 395-6)

58Towards the end of the party, Eleanor has a vision of the continuity of existence. It only lasts a moment, but it gives her confidence in the future. It is curious that compared to the younger generation, the older people seem full of expectation: At sixty Rose enjoys living and is proud of it, particularly as she now lives in an interesting world; Delia, almost seventy, still draws the same distinction between the “unconventional and the English”:

All sorts of people were there, she noted. That had always been her aim; to mix people; to do away with the absurd conventions of English life. And she had done it tonight, she thought. There were nobles and commoners. (pp. 429-30)

59Peggy envies the older generation their joy of living. She thinks they were wonderful because they were believers. She is honest but embittered by the death of her younger brother in the War. She adopts an almost clinical attitude towards her feelings and analyses her smallest sensations and reactions. She is too much aware of the distress around her to be able to enjoy life:

Far away she heard the sounds of the London night; a horn hooted; a siren wailed on the river. The far-away sounds, the suggestion they brought in of other worlds, indifferent to this world, of people toiling, grinding, in the heart of darkness, in the depth of night, made her say over Eleanor’s world, happy in this world, happy with living people. But how can one be ‘happy’? she asked herself, in a world bursting with misery. On every placard at every street corner was Death; or worse—tyranny; brutality; torture; the fall of civilization; the end of freedom. We here, she thought, are only sheltering under a leaf, which will be destroyed. And then Eleanor says the world is better, because two people out of those millions are ‘happy’. (pp. 418-19)

60Yet shortly afterwards she also has her moment of vision when she sees a “state of being in which there was real laughter, real happiness, and this fractured world was whole; whole and free.” (p. 420) But when she tries to convey it, she only succeeds in hurting her brother, and she is left with a feeling of desolation. North is no happier than his sister. Just back from Africa, he finds England changed and feels lonely, an outsider. He can’t be interested in people, for whom his stock-phrase is that they only talk about money and politics. He rejects political commitment; what he wants is to remain true to his individual self and to discover what is real:

For them it’s all right, he thought; they’ve had their day: but not for him, not for his generation. For him a life modelled on the jet, on the spring, on the hard leaping fountain; another life, a different life. Not halls and reverberating megaphones; not marching in step after leaders in herds, groups, societies, caparisoned. No; to begin inwardly, and let the devil take the outer form, he thought…. Not black shirts, green shirts, red shirts—always posing in the public eye; that’s all poppycock. Why not down barriers and simplify? But a world, he thought, that was all one jelly, one mass, would be a rice pudding world, a white counterpane world. To keep the emblems and tokens of North Pargiter—the man Maggie laughs at; the Frenchman holding his hat: but at the same time spread out, make a new ripple in human consciousness, be the bubble and the stream, the stream and the bubble—myself and the world together—he raised his glass. Anonymously, he said, looking at the clear yellow liquid. But what do I mean, he wondered—I, to whom ceremonies are suspect, and religion’s dead; who don’t fit, as the man said, don’t fit anywhere? He paused. There was the glass in his hand; in his mind a sentence. And he wanted to make other sentences. But how can I, he thought … unless I know what’s solid, what’s true; in my life, in other people’s lives? (pp. 442-3)

61Like Peggy, he is unable to communicate and realizes that fear separates people, “fear of criticism, of laughter, of people who think differently.” (p. 447) Before they separate, Peggy and North, who have been hurting each other all evening, have a moment of understanding in which they apprehend a new world. Yet North thinks that it is only in stillness and solitude that the mind can be free. His conclusion is very pessimistic. It implies that in spite of the interest of life and the promise of the future, the individual of the younger generation finds freedom only in himself. So that one cannot help feeling that Eleanor’s vision is obscured by the anxiety and the confusion of the generation of the Thirties.

  • 32 Virginia Woolf, “Letter to a Young Poet,” in The Death of the Moth and Other Essays, Penguin Moder (...)

62The novel ends on the expression of Eleanor’s hope in the future, which is undeniably the “message” conveyed by The Years. It is justified by the progress accomplished in fifty years and by the constant change in society. But it doesn’t mean that man’s fundamental nature has changed, for he is still thwarted by the limitations of his being. This appears clearly from the confrontation in the last chapter of all that has contributed to define man and his place in society. In this chapter Virginia Woolf carries out her intention of presenting the whole of society in a “condensed and synthetized way.”32 As the characters appear at Delia’s party and reveal by their attitude what they have become, the pattern reaches completion, and from this the significance of the whole can be derived in spite of the apparent chaos. We are again faced with the unavoidable co-existence of poverty and abundance, sordidness and beauty, the same distinctions characterize people: there are the unadapted like Sara and her friend Nicholas Pomja-lowski, honest men like Renny, women who look beautiful and fulfilled in their old age, social beings “prolific, profuse, half-conscious,” and people for whom nothing changes, who merely make social noises like tut-tut-tut and chew-chew-chew and can never be shaken out of their complacency. Social intercourse is still marked with insincerity, and sensitive human beings are still hampered by their inability to communicate; yet though talk is often nonsense, it is the only way we have of knowing each other.

63Thus attitudes are contrasted, but they are little more than attitudes. The theme of The Years is, as in Virginia Woolf’s other novels, the discovery of personality and of life, the effort conscious human beings make to grasp the continuity and fullness of existence. But the novel hardly provides an interpretation of the social scene or the deeper meaning that the reader expects from such a panorama. Certainly, the rejection of a rigid social code in favour of a continual process of transformation which leaves room for improvement is important; but the only significant change which appears from the social development is the emancipation of women, and the revelation of the opportunities which the new society offers them. Otherwise, although we are told of momentous events, we are not made aware of the way in which these affect society. To present an ordered world, then a chaotic one, and to say that the War took place in between does not explain how or why the world became chaotic. Virginia Woolf records more than she interprets. In this respect, Septimus’ anxiety and suicide are a much better comment on the War than anything in The Years. She does not show insight into the forces at work in society, and her vision of a united world and a harmonious life does not result, as in her other novels, from a “quest” for the real but simply from a moment of serenity in the midst of a social gathering. Even if Eleanor has a glimpse of a more continuous, less confused existence, she has not sought to give meaning to her life by attempting to find a different reality beyond appearances. She never looked for a personal truth, never wondered whether she was right to be satisfied with the existing social order. Her behaviour, like that of all the other characters, is in harmony with the society she lives in. Even Sara, the least adapted of all, may feel that society is corrupt, cruel, hypocritical, her attitude is none the less negative; it is not counterbalanced by the apprehension of another life, and she is content enough with her social relations. So that the fullness of the last chapter does not quite cancel the impression that the whole lacks substance.

64The combination of facts and vision which Virginia Woolf hoped to achieve in The Years could hardly have been entirely successful considering the method she used to express the external. She does not describe it as she did in Night and Day. She synthetizes it as in the novels where it serves as a means of access to an intangible reality. Facts and events are perceived indirectly through a newspaper heading, a conversation, sometimes a thought or a comment, they are seldom observed in their immediacy. But since it is a picture of society she wants to give, it is in the picture itself that one expects to find meaning, whereas here the rendering of facts and events through the people who are affected by them, divests them of their substantiality. This effect may be desirable when the external is a means to reach the internal as in Mrs. Dalloway. But events and facts become pointless if they are divested of the externality in which their significance must be found. Curiously enough, the passages in which the external is actually described are the most successful and the most significant, such as the Victorian age or the short episode in 1918 when Crosby, the old servant, is seen alone and unhappy in the streets of London. As it is, the novel is a compromise. The last chapter alone achieves the author’s purpose of fusing the external and the internal. However, if she has not succeeded in giving it the solidity which a work of that kind requires or in fusing in a harmonious whole the facts and the vision, she has endowed The Years with an indefinable richness of life; this impression is created by the continuity, the flux of life which is sensed beneath the multiplicity of beings and the fragments of existence as well as by the suggestion of the different levels of experience which the individual goes through. The vision of society that Virginia Woolf wanted to convey is blurred. However, her interpretation of the mood of the Thirties is a positive achievement, for she has rendered in a masterly way the sense of conflict between fear of further disintegration and hope in a better world which prevailed at the time.

  • 33 “She felt that though we were aware of the calamitous condition of the world, we reacted to it wit (...)

65If Virginia Woolf sounded hopeful in The Years in spite of the anxiety she seemed determined to dispel, she could not maintain her hope in the future for very long. In 1939, on the eve of the Second World War, the picture of society evoked only a few years before seemed already remote; it was now obvious that man could not escape his doom. Individual lives were stamped with a sense of impending catastrophe. Of course, Virginia Woolf did not express directly the anxiety people felt at the time. She retained her approach to art, and she criticized the younger writers of the Thirties for writing about the social and political situation without transmuting it into art.33 Her own view of that situation remains implicit in her work: it is only the atmosphere, the uneasiness of the times that she renders in Between the Acts (1941). As usual, uncertainty and anxiety are experienced in individual lives. Only at rare moments—and then very briefly—do the characters seem free from strain and sadness:

  • 34 Virginia Woolf, Between the Acts, Penguin Books, 1953, p. 123.

Giles said (without words) ‘I’m damnably unhappy.’
‘So am I,’ Dodge echoed.‘And I too,’ Isa thought.
They were all caught and caged; prisoners, watching a spectacle. Nothing happened. The tick of the machine was maddening.34

66These words refer both to the characters’ personal life and to the historical context in which they live. They reflect the misery of those who felt the inevitability of the coming disaster and were mad with the strain of waiting.

67The story develops within twenty four hours. The main characters are Mr. Bart Oliver, his son Giles, his daughter-in-law Isa, his sister Mrs. Swithin, his grand-children, and Mrs. Manresa, who comes for lunch with a young friend of hers, William Dodge. The gentry make up the audience for the pageant written by Miss La Trobe, and the villagers act it. The historic pageant takes place every year at the Olivers’ house, in the barn or on the terrace, in the natural scenery provided by the beautiful house and its surrounding park. It is the central event in the novel, and it presents different periods of the history of England starting with the time of Chaucer. The different episodes are seen in relation to the present and make clear the complexity of attitudes to be found in English society. Between the acts the characters, who remain under the impression of the scenes they have just watched, resume their conversations, their thoughts, or the surface life created by social intercourse, waiting until evening to reassume their real selves. The themes of the novel are developed through three centres of consciousness: the pageant, the audience and the individual characters. Actually, the pageant and the audience provide the historical and social back-ground for the characters’ introspective life. Isa watching the sixteenth-century play within the pageant is moved to assert that there are only three emotions in life: love, hate, peace—the peace of death. Giles, inspired by the moral of the eighteenth-century play, “where there’s a will, there’s a way,” invites Mrs. Manresa, to whom he is attracted, to see the greenhouse. The “Victorian Age,” still fresh in the memory of many in the audience, gives rise to censorious remarks. But Mrs. Swithin, a product of that age, is not interested in the peculiarities of a period; she believes only in human beings. When Isa, who thinks she must be extinct since she has lived in the reign of Queen Victoria, asks her: “‘Were they like that?’” she answers: “‘The Victorians, … I don’t believe that there were ever such people. Only you and me and William dressed differently.’” (pp. 121-2) The first periods presented by the pageant bring to light the contribution of the past to the political and social situation of present-day England and to the nature of the English character, such as its capacity for endurance or its sense of humour. But the song of the villagers at the end of the eighteenth-century scene asserts the unchangeableness of the human condition throughout the centuries: “Digging and delving, hedging and ditching, we pass … summer and winter, autumn and spring return. … All passes but we, all changes … but we remain forever the same.” (p. 98) The Victorian age and the present day account for the contemporary English spirit. While waiting for the Victorian age to be shown in the pageant, some people in the audience are already induced to make comparisons between conditions under Victoria and in the twentieth century. Many are led to protest when they sense the irony and the criticism aimed at England’s prosperity and respectability, at its exploitation of the thousands who had to pay the price for the Empire. Yet even the traditionalists must admit that children did draw trucks in mines, that the basement was anything but healthy, that the Victorians ate too much and that if change hadn’t come “there’d be yards and yards of Papa’s beard, of Mama’s knitting.” (p. 121) The audience are then kept waiting while Miss La Trobe wonders how to douche them with present-time reality. Nature comes to her rescue by sending an actual shower probably meant to symbolize the First World War, for the rain was “sudden and universal and the blots of rain were all people’s tears weeping for all people.” (p. 126) After this, the wall of civilization, which is in ruins, is rebuilt by human effort. Then, the audience, who are anxious to see how Miss La Trobe will represent them, are caught in the mirrors carried by the players in order to reflect them. With the exception of Mrs. Manresa, they are all afraid to look at themselves and would gladly escape if they were not forced by the comments of the actors to acknowledge that the pageant is not over:

Let’s consider ourselves. Ourselves. Some bony. Some fat. Liars most of us. Thieves too. The poor are as bad as the rich are. Perhaps worse. Don’t hide among rags. Or let our cloth protect us. Or for the matter of that book learning; or skilful practice on pianos; or laying on of paint. Or presume there’s innocency in childhood. Consider the sheep. Or faith in love. Consider the dogs. Or virtue in those that have grown white hairs. Consider the gun slayers, bomb droppers here or there. They do openly what we do slyly. … Look at ourselves, ladies and gentlemen! Then at the wall; and ask how’s this wall, the great wall, which we call, perhaps miscall, civilization, to be built by orts, scraps, and fragments like ourselves? All the same here I change to a loftier strain—there’s something to be said; for our kindness to the cat; note too in to-day’s paper ‘Dearly loved by his wife’; and the impulse which leads us—mark you, when no one’s looking—to the window at midnight to smell the bean. Or the resolute refusal of some pimpled dirty little scrub in sandals to sell his soul. There is such a thing—you can’t deny it. What? You can’t descry it? All you can see of yourselves is scraps, orts, and fragments? (pp. 130-1)

68Having thus rather cruelly exposed people for what they are, Miss La Trobe finds it difficult to express in words what quality unites them. Music brings them together for a brief moment, for as The Voyage Out suggested, it conveys in a flash a vision of life as a whole:

Like quicksilver sliding, filing magnetized, the distracted united. The tune began; the first note meant a second; the second a third … and dawn rose, and azure; from chaos and cacophony measure; but not the melody of the surface sound alone controlled it; but also the warring battle-plumed warriors straining asunder: to part? No. Compelled from the ends of the horizon; recalled from the edges of appalling crevasses; they crashed; solved; united. And some relaxed their fingers, and others uncrossed their legs. Was that voice ourselves? Scraps, orts, and fragments, are we, also, that? The voice died away. (pp. 131-2)

69If the conclusion of the pageant is that we are scraps, orts, and fragments, it also allows for hope of unity, although this unity seems very fragile and very artificial. The audience disperse to the sound of the song which marked the intervals “Dispersed are we”; comments on the pageant are interspersed with comments on the political situation in Europe.

70As the pageant shows, Virginia Woolf is concerned with the fragmentary and chaotic aspect of life, felt all the more acutely because of the threat of war. On coming home for the week-end, Giles is deeply irritated at having to submit to the requirements of social life while on the Continent men are already being shot. He is enraged with

old fogies who sat and looked at views over coffee and cream when the whole of Europe—over there—was bristling like…. He had no command of metaphor. Only the ineffective word ‘hedgehog’ illustrated his vision of Europe, bristling with guns, poised with planes. At any moment guns would rake that land into furrows; planes splinter Bolney Minster into smithereens and blast the Folly. He, too, loved the view. And blamed Aunt Lucy, looking at views, instead of—doing what? (p. 42)

71This hesitancy over the right attitude to adopt was characteristic of the confusion of people who recognized the necessity of action, yet felt both impotent and repelled by the horror of war.

72As usual, it is through the sensibilities of women that the important themes are expressed since, as in all novels by Virginia Woolf, they are more fully drawn than men. Each of them represents a particular aspect of feminine sensibility, contemporaneous to the author and perceived by her. Miss La Trobe, the author of the pageant, “seethes wandering bodies and floating voices in a cauldron, and makes rise up from its amorphous mass a recreated world.” (p. 108) The pageant is to her a source both of torment and of joy according to her failure or success in communicating her vision and the audience’s reaction to it. But she is at least fulfilled in the act of creation. Old Mrs. Swithin remains true to traditional values because they still answer for her the same living purpose. Her innocence is very much like that of Mrs. Hilbery and makes it possible for her to ignore the ugly facts of life. Her attitude is complementary to that of her brother, a rationalist and a separatist, while she is intuitive and a unifier. She is the only character who ignores appearances and believes that all is harmony beneath the apparent chaos. Like Mrs. Ramsay, who took Charles Tansley with her because he was unhappy, she senses unhappiness in William Dodge and takes him around the house to soothe him. Unlike Giles, she ignores William’s perversion and is only conscious of his suffering. William words for Isa the indefinable malaise she feels hovering over them: “the doom of sudden death hanging over us. … There is no retreating and advancing.” (p. 82) These words apply to everyone since war threatens to affect everybody. But Isa is particularly conscious of an uneasiness, a restlessness felt by the people of her age—the age of the century—and for which there is no remedy. She feels the future shadowing the present, and we see her through the book avoiding the crowd to indulge her melancholy:

‘Dispersed are we,’ she murmured. And held her cup out to be filled. She took it. ‘Let me turn away,’ she murmured, turning, ‘from the array’—she looked desolately round her—‘of china faces, glazed and hard. Down the ride, that leads under the nut tree and the may tree, away, till I come to the wishing well, where the washer-woman’s little boy . .. dropped a pin. He got his horse, so they say. But what wish should I drop into the well?’ She looked round. She could not see the man in grey, the gentleman farmer; nor anyone known to her. ‘That the waters should cover me,’ she added, ‘of the wishing well.’ (p. 75)

73Isa’s only certainty is her fierce love for her children. Her rejection of the strain imposed by social intercourse, her frustrate desire for the gentleman farmer, her death-wish (expressed several times in the novel) are different expressions of the unrest, con-fusion, and feeling of impotence which beset the individual. They are also characteristic of the complex sensibility of the modern woman, who is no longer entirely fulfilled in a husband and children. This is the more striking when Isa is contrasted with Mrs. Swithin. The opposition between these two characters brings out the gentility, the feeling of peace, the optimism of the late Victorians and the restlessness, the anxiety of Virginia Woolf’s own contemporaries, two attitudes to life which still co-existed in the Thirties. Isa also brings into play an aspect of human relationships which Virginia Woolf had never treated so unambiguously before: physical desire. It is felt as a strain drawing the characters together or separating them: Giles and Mrs. Manresa, Isa and the gentleman farmer, whose presence she feels though she seldom sees him, William’s admiration for Giles and the latter’s repulsion, and the final confrontation of Isa with Giles. Until evening comes, the latter are aware of each other’s presence only during brief moments, although Isa is all the time conscious of the dual quality of their relationship: love and hate. When they meet in the silence and solitude of the evening, freed from the conventions imposed by society, they are again simply man and woman facing each other in the nakedness of their nature and ready to start life:

Left alone together for the first time that day, they were silent. Alone, enmity was bared; also love. Before they slept, they must fight; after they had fought, they would embrace. From that embrace another life might be born. But first they must fight, as the dog fox fights with the vixen, in the heart of darkness, in the fields of night. Isa let her sewing drop. The great hooded chairs had become enormous. And Giles too. And Isa too against the window. The window was all sky without colour. The house had lost its shelter. It was night before roads were made, or houses. It was the night that dwellers in caves had watched from some high place among rocks. Then the curtain rose. They spoke. (p. 152)

  • 35 Warren Beck, “For Virginia Woolf,” in Forms of Modern Fiction, pp. 231-2.
  • 36 Jean Guiguet, op. cit., p. 321.

74The last sentence, unexpected and enigmatic, marks the beginning of Giles’s and Isa’s real life. This sentence has led to many interpretations of the novel and its title. To Joan Bennett, “Between the Acts” suggests the three main aspects of the novel: the pageant, between the acts of which the human comedy is played; the interval between the First and the Second European War; and the interval in the love of Isa and Giles. For Warren Beck, the novel is “fundamentally historical and sociological, representing the English between the acts of appeasement and war, and tracing down the roots of traditional English attitude then being subjected to disturbing strains.”35 Guiguet explains that the interval is that of ordinary life while the essential, “le drame miraculeux de la vie et de la mort se poursuit, inéluctable, dans les ténèbres.”36 Considering the close relation between the historical and the individual in the novel, there is no doubt that the title refers to both these aspects of the book. Whether the acts are the Munich agreement and the Second World War rather than the two Wars, as it is more generally believed, is difficult to say. It is true that the novel emphasizes the bewilderment and the feeling of impotence which prevailed during the period of appeasement. On the other hand, it also characterizes the attitude and the mood of the generation whose youth was spent between the Wars. As to the private meaning of the novel, it seems obvious that the real action, or real life, begins when the curtain rises for Isa and Giles.

75The characters of Between the Acts are more evanescent and more lightly drawn than in any of Virginia Woolf’s preceding novels; yet their coming together at the end suggests an intensity and a realness which she had hitherto seldom attained. This may be due to Isa and Giles’s composite relationship of love and hate, or to the impact produced by physical desire. The futility of appearances which they have been forced to keep up all day, the uncertainties and infidelities, all are swept away, become insignificant as they set about their fundamental life in all truthfulness. Yet, the fact that they “must fight as the dog fox fights with the vixen, in the heart of darkness, in the fields of night,” (p. 152) the suggestion that the house no longer protects and that man faces the night “before roads were made, or houses,” the night “that dwellers in caves had watched from some high place among rocks,” (p. 152) these are very disquieting. The real life Isa and Giles are now going to experience is very different from the spiritual reality that Katherine and Ralph, for instance, wanted to reach. In the solitude of the night Isa and Giles are comparable to the prehistoric men about whom Mrs. Swithin has just been reading. But whereas for the latter the passing of centuries since the prehistoric times leads to an optimistic assertion of the unchanging nature of man, it seems that for the younger generation, the only reality is physical. If this is so, if there is no certainty outside this dark night and physical being, then there is little hope of salvation, for it means the negation of the spiritual understanding which made belief in the wholeness of life possible. The novel as a whole doesn’t sound so desperate; if it evokes a world on the brink of catastrophe and the absence of spiritual values to support man, the fact that real action begins at the end may suggest that life goes on, giving birth to new life and a new generation.

76In Between the Acts personal relations, however imperfect, still make up the real substance of life. This is made clear by the characters’ repeated attempts to establish some kind of relation with one or several other human beings. They cannot escape or ignore the pressure of the outside world; some, like Giles or Miss La Trobe, do not even want to, but they still exist as individuals who try to overcome their isolation. The realities of every-day life and the conflicts which arise from the difficulty of understanding one another are not obliterated. On the contrary, they become more acute, for the threat of destruction in the world at large is reflected in individual life and personal relations are rendered more difficult by circumstances against which the individual is powerless. However, it must be pointed out that if the individual’s confusion is intensified because of the social context, it does not arise from it. Still, the kind of harmony created by Mrs. Ramsay in To the Lighthouse is inconceivable in Between the Acts, and this shows how much more sensitive Virginia Woolf is to the contemporary mood than it is generally assumed. It is true that the women who are capable of creating harmony belong to an earlier generation which is disappearing. Isa is definitely incapable of unifying or of bringing people together. On the contrary, she is hostile to most people except one or two individuals. Mrs. Swithin, who survives from another age, is the only person who sees beyond appearances and comforts those who feel frustrated, but her capacity for creating harmony is much more limited than that of Virginia Woolf’s earlier heroines. As a matter of fact, the social gathering in which women unify and create harmony reflects the kind of society they live in. Mrs. Ramsay, who belongs to an earlier age than Mrs. Dalloway, brings harmony in her family with its small circle of friends and acquaintances. This may be because in her time the individual, woman in particular, still found fulfilment in family life. In Mrs. Dalloway it is not in the family but in a worldly gathering that Clarissa can assemble and unite. She does nothing of the sort in her family, and in this respect, it is interesting to compare her attitude towards Miss Kilman, the friend of her daughter, with Mrs. Ramsay’s attitude towards Charles Tansley, the friend and admirer of her husband. In The Years Delia’s party has nothing in common with the harmonious atmosphere which Mrs. Dalloway creates among a carefully selected group: it is a large assembly to which all sorts of people have been invited. If the older generation are fairly happy and look back with satisfaction upon their past life, the younger people are often frustrated and fail to establish the personal contacts they had hoped for by coming to the party. In Between the Acts Miss La Trobe’s attempts to integrate and unite are not very successful. “Dispersed are we” is the leitmotive of the novel, and we have seen how precarious and limited the relations between individuals have become.

  • 37 Warren Beck, “For Virginia Woolf,” op. cit., p. 328.
  • 38 Jean Guiguet, op. cit., pp. 319-20.
  • 39 A Writer’s Diary, p. 359.
  • 40 John Lehmann, Iam My Brother, London, 1960, p. 113.

77Critical opinions about Between the Acts differ as much as they do about Virginia Woolf’s other novels. Some consider it as a substantial work because its social implications are more obvious than in any of her other novels.37 Others think that it is obscure and that only a reader familiar with Virginia Woolf’s world can recognize her usual themes.38 Virginia Woolf herself wrote that it is more quintessential than her other books,39 but in a letter to John Lehmann written only a few days before her death she called it “slight and sketchy.”40 However, considering the nervous strain under which she was no doubt labouring so shortly before committing suicide, it is perhaps permissible to question such a judgment. The unsubstantiality of the novel may be due to the elusiveness of the relations between the characters: they share a sort of intuitive understanding and apprehend each other’s feelings or thoughts in spite of the clumsiness of speech, or even without words at all. For instance, Miss La Trobe understands that Mrs. Swithin meant: “you’ve stirred in me my unacted part” when she said: “I might have been—Cleopatra.” Actually, Between the Acts might be the novel about silence that Hewett so much wanted to write. It is certainly “quintessential,” its material “refined” to the utmost. Yet, Virginia Woolf does convey with remarkable subtlety the malaise which man experiences in the expectation of catastrophe, together with a sense of the continuity of life which transcends all human experience, whether individual, social, or historical.

78In her essays on modern fiction Virginia Woolf stresses the difficulty for the writers of her generation to convey the reality of life. She rejects the materialists’ assumption that a character is what his social and material circumstances make him. Reality is spiritual; it is to be found in the meaning of experience as the individual grasps it, rather than in experience itself. It is the pattern that emerges from the individual’s interpretation of the sensations that fall upon his consciousness, a pattern woven with all the imponderables of our every-day life. In this pattern society may be widely represented or almost non-existent. What we perceive of society is what, according to Virginia Woolf, the individual perceives of it; save in flashes of insight he is mostly aware of his environment as a complex and often hostile world, though he himself is blinded by his selfish and confused vision of life. The main centre of consciousness in Virginia Woolf’s novels is usually a woman, perhaps because she felt she could better express a woman’s sensibility. But she was also indulging in the peculiar form of feminism manifest in her belief that the more perceptive sensibility of women makes them keenly alive to the world around them. It is through their consciousness that she renders the individual’s loneliness, his anxiety, or despair, and his sense of the absurdity of life. She criticizes Victorian values and their persisting influence on English society from a woman’s point of view, prompted by her belief that woman is the chief victim of the conventionality and insincerity which underlies them. Her feminism is now largely outdated, but the qualities which produced it, truth and integrity, are universal values which make for under-standing between individuals, enable them to communicate, and are the sole basis of personal relations, the redeeming feature of her characters’ life. There is nothing sentimental about her exploration of the feminine sensibility; on the contrary, it brings out the moral vigour and creative energy of woman.

  • 41 The Common Reader, First Series, p. 194.
  • 42 Irène Simon, “Some Aspects of Virginia Woolf’s Imagery,” English Studies, XLI, 3 (June 1960), 188.

79Though she is obsessed with the individual’s feeling of isolation and his frequent inability to fit into the world of men, Virginia Woolf’s work ultimately illustrates the rewarding reciprocity of the individual’s relation to society. Confused as he is by the versatility of his emotions and the apparent triviality of his actions, the individual perceives only at privileged moments, in the recollection of his experience, that he belongs to a whole to which he contributes a small but essential part. Conversely, enigmatic and chaotic as this whole may appear, on a higher and usually hidden plane it is coherent and permanent and is apprehended as such by the individual when he can see beyond its changeableness and derive from it a feeling of security. This changeableness and perpetual movement is the very source of its continuity and capacity for progress. In the course of her work we see Virginia Woolf attempting more and more to define this whole in concrete terms by giving it a social, or as in Between the Acts a historical, perspective. Tradition and English civilization impose themselves increasingly upon her characters’ consciousness, as is obvious in her last two novels. In the end the impression created by her work as a whole is one of permanent conflict: despair alternates with happiness, solitariness with communion, hopelessness with faith in life. The bleak world which makes Septimus despondent is also one “in which an ancient civilization … seems to have bred in us the instinct to enjoy and fight.”41 Like Matthew Arnold, she admires the “courage, high spirit, self-confidence” of those of her countrymen who have made England what it is, though she can also ridicule their shallowness and obtuseness. In fact, there are two sorts of characters in her novels: those who don’t fit in, hypersensitive beings whose desire to be truly themselves is frustrated by society, and those who are mainly conscious of existing for the part they play in society. In all her novels except The Waves the woman who is the centre of consciousness creates harmony, though of a precarious kind, by her intuitive understanding of human beings, and by bringing together if only momentarily, the disparate members of human society. This harmony sometimes appears as an insignificant achievement. As Professor Simon rightly points out, “assembling people in a drawing-room does sound a little trivial as an answer to the problem of life.”42 Virginia Woolf herself was aware of it: she found Mrs. Dalloway “tinselly,” and, after all, the latter’s “offering” is in keeping with what she is. Moreover, apart from Mrs. Ramsay, none of her creative female characters contributes in a lasting way to the improvement of personal relationships, but this is precisely an instance of the tragedy of life.

  • 43 William Troy, “Virginia Woolf: The Novel of Sensibility,” in Literary Opinion in America, ed. by M (...)
  • 44 Matthew Arnold, Culture and Anarchy, p. 108.
  • 45 Virginia Woolf’s concept of time has been touched upon by almost every critic who has analysed her (...)

80In his article “Virginia Woolf: The Novel of Sensibility” William Troy writes: “Mrs. Woolf has written almost exclusively about one class of people, … a kind of super Bohemia, as acutely refined and aristocratic in its way as the world of Henry James, except that they concentrate on sensations and impressions rather than on their problems of conduct. .. . Through solitude these people are able to relieve themselves with finality from the responsibilities of living.”43 It is true that Virginia Woolf’s characters mostly belong to the leisured middle class; she wrote about what she knew best, and we have seen that she did not write successfully on poverty because, as she was well aware, she didn’t know what real poverty was. However, the aspects of life she describes, loneliness, the complexity of human relationships, the transitoriness of experience, the desire to create beauty, these are universal themes. The real privilege of a minority in her novels is to be aware of these aspects of life and to be able to reflect upon them; and this is hardly a question of class, as the obtuse and insensitive upper-class characters in her novels show. Moreover, her characters do not relieve themselves from the responsibilities of living as William Troy suggests; only Virginia Woolf’s notion of what is important in life differs from Mr. Troy’s, and it is misleading to interpret her work without taking into account her conception of life and the way in which she tries to convey it. When interpreting “human nature, the spirit we live by, life itself,” she does concentrate on the sensations and impressions of her characters. To describe a person’s inner life is to her the nearest way of grasping what this person is. It is also a way of expressing her belief in the value of thought as opposed to action. She does not despise action, but she objects to its being considered as the main criterion of the significance of life, “teaching a man to value himself not on what he is, … but on the number of railroads he has constructed, or the bigness of the tabernacle he has built.”44 Action for its own sake and as the sole purpose of life develops one side of the personality and atrophies the other, whereas conscious-ness and thought make for completeness by illuminating the individual’s experience and thus make it possible for him to identify action with its import. On the metaphysical plane it gives man a sense of order and unity beyond the apparent chaos and flux in the world. By perceiving the wholeness of life in a visionary moment, or by tracing its pattern in the complexity of experience, Virginia Woolf’s characters become aware of the permanency of life, which makes up, however imperfectly, for the confusion and transiency of their personal experience. Through their subjective perception of time45 they momentarily escape the conventional and consequently the external reality in which they live in society. Their awareness of life as a perpetual movement and discovery is incompatible with the fixedness of conventions. Moreover, it is in their moments of vision that they overcome loneliness and are able to communicate with other human beings.

  • 46 Matthew Arnold, op. cit., p. 168.
  • 47 “So our contemporaries afflict us because they have ceased to believe.” See “How it Strikes a Cont (...)

81William Troy’s assertion that Virginia Woolf’s characters “relieve themselves from the responsibilities of living” also suggests that they elude the moral obligation for the individual to take part in the life of society through action or through his respect for established standards. Indeed, she definitely objects to moral pressure, whether induced by conventions or by institutions. Here again we find an echo of Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy and of his discrimination between the Hellenists’ “spontaneity of consciousness” and the Hebraists’ “strictness of conscience. ” “As Hellenism speaks of thinking clearly, seeing things in their essence and beauty, as a grand and precious feat for man to achieve, so Hebraism speaks of becoming conscious of sin … as a feat of this kind.”46 The pressure of religion in The Voyage Out, of public opinion in Night and Day, or of love and conversion in Mrs. Dallo-way are of the same kind as the moral pressure described by Arnold and can be contrasted with Jacob Flanders’s admiration for the free spirit of the Greeks. But does this mean that Virginia Woolf’s novels are devoid of moral significance? Her exposure of selfishness and hypocrisy, her implicit denunciation of war and other calamities provoked by man, are certainly of a moral nature. So is her insistence on charity and understanding as a contribution to man’s happiness. Her moral ideal is illustrated in such characters as Mrs. Ramsay or Mrs. Swithin, who combine a belief in the individual’s right and freedom to be himself with a sense of duty towards one’s fellow-beings. In her attitude to morals Virginia Woolf is fairly representative of the period in which she writes, for, like her contemporaries, she has no set of beliefs universally and unquestionably accepted by the society mirrored in her novels.47 Actually, her fiction reflects the different states of mind which prevailed between the Wars: the reaction against a lingering Victorianism, the confusion of the individual bereft of social support in the Twenties, and the veiled apprehension and anxiety in the Thirties. To the problem of living in the modern world she gives a strictly personal answer: understanding, however ephemeral, between individuals. Virginia Woolf mistrusts all conventions, even language, which is so inadequate to convey the true being of man; she trusts to intuition to allow individuals to communicate. Her exploration of supra-social values is partly the consequence of her lack of faith in society. When the individual sees nothing but chaos in his most immediate environment, he is naturally led to seek another reality. Self-knowledge, truth, and integrity are the positive values which enable the individual to have his moment of vision.


1 Mark Schorer, Society and Self in the Novel, New York, 1956, p. viii.

2 Virginia Woolf, “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown,” in The Captain’s Death Bed and Other Essays, London, 1950, p. 106.

3 Ibid., p. 103.

4 Virginia Woolf, The Common Reader, First Series, London, 1957, p. 189.

5 Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own, London, 1931, pp. 165-6.

6 Virginia Woolf, “Phases of Fiction,” in Granite and Rainbow, London, 1958, p. 144.

7 Virginia Woolf, A Writer’s Diary, London, 1959: “Have I the power of conveying the true reality? Or do I write essays about myself?” p. 57.

8 Jean Guiguet, Virginia Woolf et son oeuvre, Paris, 1962, p. 732.

9 The Common Reader, First Series, pp. 189-90.

10 Virginia Woolf, The Voyage Out, London, 1929, p. 31.

11 These views are developed in such essays as A Room of One’s Own and Three Guineas.

12 Matthew Arnold, Culture and Anarchy, ed. by R.H. Super, Ann Arbor, 1965, p. 109.

13 Virginia Woolf, Night and Day, London, 1930, p. 215.

14 “Ralph began to draw little figures in the blank spaces, heads meant to resemble her head, blots fringed with flames meant to represent — perhaps the entire universe.” (p. 516) When Katherine sees them, she simply says: “‘yes, the world looks something like that to me too.’” (p. 522)

15 Among them are D. Daiches, W. Holtby and James Hafley (see Bibliography).

16 A Writer’s Diary, p. 35.

17 Virginia Woolf, The Waves, London, 1933, p. 157.

18 Virginia Woolf, Jacob’s Room, London, 1929, p. 115.

19 N.C. Thackur, The Symbolism of Virginia Woolf, London, 1965, pp. 46-47.

20 Ibid., p. 49.

21 Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway, London, 1933, p. 184.

22 Lady Ottoline Morrell, who was then famous as a hostess. A Writer’s Diary, p. 55.

23 Ibid.

24 R.L. Chambers, The Novels of Virginia Woolf, London, 1955, p. 76.

25 Night and Day, p. 534.

26 Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse, London, 1952, p. 43.

27 A Writer’s Diary, p. 71.

28 The Waves, p. 100.

29 To the Lighthouse, pp. 74 and 68.

30 A Writer’s Diary, pp. 197-8.

31 Virginia Woolf, The Years, London, 1958, p. 121.

32 Virginia Woolf, “Letter to a Young Poet,” in The Death of the Moth and Other Essays, Penguin Modern Classics, 1961, p. 189.

33 “She felt that though we were aware of the calamitous condition of the world, we reacted to it with our intellects and wills, before we had experienced it fully through our sensibilities.” Stephen Spender, World Within World, London, 1951, p. 158.

34 Virginia Woolf, Between the Acts, Penguin Books, 1953, p. 123.

35 Warren Beck, “For Virginia Woolf,” in Forms of Modern Fiction, pp. 231-2.

36 Jean Guiguet, op. cit., p. 321.

37 Warren Beck, “For Virginia Woolf,” op. cit., p. 328.

38 Jean Guiguet, op. cit., pp. 319-20.

39 A Writer’s Diary, p. 359.

40 John Lehmann, Iam My Brother, London, 1960, p. 113.

41 The Common Reader, First Series, p. 194.

42 Irène Simon, “Some Aspects of Virginia Woolf’s Imagery,” English Studies, XLI, 3 (June 1960), 188.

43 William Troy, “Virginia Woolf: The Novel of Sensibility,” in Literary Opinion in America, ed. by M.D. Zabel, New York, 1962, pp. 325-6.

44 Matthew Arnold, Culture and Anarchy, p. 108.

45 Virginia Woolf’s concept of time has been touched upon by almost every critic who has analysed her work. For a clear explanation of this concept as well as of the influence on her in this respect of Bergson, Proust, and Joyce, see Margaret Church, Time and Reality, Studies in Contemporary Fiction, Chapel Hill, 1963.

46 Matthew Arnold, op. cit., p. 168.

47 “So our contemporaries afflict us because they have ceased to believe.” See “How it Strikes a Contemporary, “in The Common Reader, First Series, p. 302.

© Presses universitaires de Liège, 1970

Conditions d’utilisation :

Cette publication numérique est issue d’un traitement automatique par reconnaissance optique de caractères.
Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search