Virginia Woolf (1882-1941)
She was the daughter of an eminent Victorian man of letters, Leslie Stephen, so she grew up in a literary and intellectual atmosphere. Her education was informal: she took private Greek lessons, some courses at King’s College and freely explored her father’s library. Her mother died when she was thirteen, which brought about her first nervous breakdown.
Her relationship with her father got difficult, she afterwards stated he was aggressive and tyrannical and had a conventional idea of the woman as the “angel of the house”.
The Bloomsbury group
In 1904 her father died and she and her sister Vanessa moved to Bloomsbury and joined the Bloomsbury group.
They were an avant-garde group of writers, artists and thinkers who despised conventional morality, rejected artistic conventions and condemned middle class sexual moralism.
The members of the group gained the fame of radical thinkers thanks to Virginia Woolf’s revolutionary prose style, Bertrand Russel’s pacifist philosophical theories, Vanessa Bell’s and Duncan Grant’s post-impressionist paintings.
The Bloomsbury group attitudes anticipated the trends of mid 20th century: unconventional sexual practices, anti-war feelings and socialism.
In 1912 she married Leonard Woolf, a writer who afterwards engaged in politics, joining the Labour Party, and in sociological studies.
According to some, he was not only supportive of his wife but enabled her to live as long as she did by providing her with the comforts and the atmosphere she needed to live and write; others hold that Leonard Woolf's treatment of his wife encouraged her ill health and ultimately that he was responsible for her death.
In 1915 she published her first novel, The Voyage Out, still traditional in pattern, entered a nursing home and attempted suicide.
In 1925 Mrs. Dalloway appeared, followed by To the Lighthouse and Orlando (devoted to Vita Sackwille-West), both experimental novels. She was also a literary critic and an essayist. One of her most famous volumes is A Room of One’s Own, where she explores issues connected with women and writing and states economical independence is vital to artistic independence. This work had a great impact on the feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Her last novel is The Waves (1931), where she seems to recognize a link between her creative process and her illness. Her mental illness deteriorated, her depression was aggravated by World War II.
On 28 March 1941, she put on her overcoat, filled its pockets with stones, and walked into the River Ouse near her home and drowned herself. In her last note to her husband she wrote:
“Dearest, I feel certain that I am going mad again. I feel we can't go through another of those terrible times. And I shan't recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can't concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don't think two people could have been happier 'til this terrible disease came. I can't fight any longer....
A modernist writer
V. Woolf wanted to represent her characters’ inner world of feelings and memories. According to her, human personality is shaped by the continuous shifts of impressions and emotions. As a consequence, the events that traditionally made up a story were of no importance to her. What really mattered was the impression the events produced on the characters’ minds.
The omniscent narrator disappears. The point of view shifts into the characters’ minds, where flashbacks, anticipations, associations of ideas, momentary impressions are represented as a flux. “Examine for a moment an ordinary mind on an ordinary day. The mind receives a myriad of impressions… From all sides they come, an incessant shower of innumerable atoms…so that…if a writer… could write what he chose…there would be no plot, no comedy, no tragedy…in the accepted style.”
(V. Woolf, Modern Fiction, 1919)
Woolf and Joyce
While Joyce shows his characters’ thoughts directly, sometimes disregarding grammar and syntax, V. Woolf maintains logical and grammatical organization. While Joyce was interested in language experimentation, V. Woolf’s use of words is poetical, allusive and emotional. Similar to Joyce’s epiphanies are V. Woolf’s moments of being, the rare moments of insight during the characters’ daily life when they can see reality beyond appearance.
Clarissa Dalloway wanders around in London in a sunny morning, getting ready for the party she’s going to give in the evening. She visits several shops and meets acquaintances and friends.
She remembers her youth, when she decided to marry Richard Dalloway, a reliable man, instead of Peter Walsh, ambiguous and demanding. Later in the morning, when she’s at home, Peter pays an unexpected visit to her.
Setpimus Warren Smith, a veteran of the war suffering from post-war traumatic stress, spends the day in the park with his wife. They are observed by Peter Walsh, who envies them, as they look like a happy couple.
Later in the day, Septimus, who suffers from hallucinations mainly connected with the death of a friend in the war, learns his psychiatrist is going to commit him to a mental asylum. The man commits suicide jumping out of a window.
At Mrs. Dalloway’s party most of the characters who have appeared in the novel come up. Mrs. Dalloway learns of Septimus’ suicide from his psychiatrist, who’s one of her guests. She secretly admires the act of this stranger, she considers an effort to preserve his purity of feelings.
She looks like a quite superficial woman, interested only in fashion and parties. She’s talkative, as if wanting to keep conversation going in order to avoid any serious topic. Actually she’s uncommonly introspective and dwells on memories she does not share with the other people. She’s always been aware that in choosing to marry Richard instead of Peter she’s preferred a quiet upper-class life to adventure, but she also learns, after meeting Peter again, that his charm could have been superficial. She often thinks about death, and at the end of the novel she suddenly realizes it can be a way of keeping purity of feelings alive. Anyway, her choice is not to commit suicide, but to go on living.
Septimus Warren Smith
He is obsessed by his own choices: to fight in the war as a volunteer, to have saved his life but be responsible of his friend’s death, to have married a woman who loves him but he actually does not love at all.
In being so often concentrated on his memories and internal life, he’s similar to Clarissa, which makes the boundary between sanity and insanity quite thin. Anyway, he chooses to escape his problems and reality committing suicide, while Clarissa, even if in a way she admires him, chooses to take on the responsibility of her own choices.
He’s an artist, deeply critical of society and the others, but he doesn’t seem to have made much of his life.
He’s always been so concentrated on himself he’s actually incapable of real love or sympathy, even if he seems to have loved and still love Clarissa.
He cannot accept the idea he’s getting old and refuses the very thought of death.
He’s simple, faithful, stable and loves Clarissa.
He’s built a life of comfort, safety and wealth around her, but he has never and will never really understand her.
Once he tries to overcome his stiffness and decides to tell her he loves her, but he’ll never manage to do it.
Lack of communication: the characters are all basically unable to communicate. Both Clarissa and Richard and Septimus and his wife are aware of it, but they are also deeply aware honest and sincere communication at this point of their life would destroy the bond of reciprocal affection they share, however thin it is.
The fear of death: the characters have gone through the war, which means they’ve experienced the loss of relatives and friends, so the thought of death is constantly in their mind, but their reaction is different. Richard accepts it, as the price paid to defend the traditions of the country he believes in, and as part of human destiny. Septimus is so obsessed with it he prefers to face death instead of go on living with his memories of the war. Clarissa alternatively dreads it, sees it as a liberation, ultimately accepts to go on living with her memories and fears.