Virginia Woolf’s life
Virginia Woolf was born in London in 1882. She grew up in a literary and intellectual atmosphere with free access to her father’s library and was educated at home with her sister Vanessa. Soon she came into contact with The Bloomsbury group, the avant-garde of early 20th century London of which she did part. She developed the stream of consciousness style and followed the pacifist philosophy of Russell but despised the traditional Victorian morality and respectability and rejected the bourgeois sexual codes. Besides Virginia dedicated herself to the feminist movement, campaigning for votes for women and writing about the women’s cause. She married Leonard Woolf and started the literary career as a talented novelist, essayist and critic. However the death of her mother when she was 13 and the sexual abuse from her stepbrothers led her to depression, so she had to spend some time in a private rest home for depression suicide attempts. In 1941 Virginia committed suicide by drowning in River Ouse at the age of 59.
Her main works are Mrs Dalloway, to the lighthouse, Orlando: a biography, Jacob’s room, night and day and the voyage out.
In Mrs Dalloway and To The Lighthouse she develops the stream of consciousness, in Jacob’s room she presents a narrative experimentation with the novel and in Night and Day and In The Voyage Out she uses the traditional narratives.
A feminist writer
Virginia is a feminist writer and deals with the themes of Androgyny, women and writing: for example MRS DALLOWAY describes Clarissa Dalloway and Sally Seton’s relationship as young women and ORLANDO deals with Androgyny. In her works she wants to give voice to the complex inner world of feeling and memory and develop a continuous shift of impressions and emotions in the human mind. There is no more the omniscient narrator and she shifts the character’s minds through flashbacks, associations of ideas, momentary impressions presented as a continuous flux.
As regards the stream of consciousness and the traditional technique: In the stream of consciousness
• the action or plot is revealed through the mental processes of the character and the character develops through the revelation of his personal thoughts.
• The action of the plot doesn’t respect a chronological order: it starts with the present time, continues with the memories of past events and ends with the dreams of the future.
• the events are told with a dramatic monologue and free association.
The traditional technique consists of narration, description and commentary done by an omniscient narrator and it follows a real and chronological time.
The novel of Mrs Dalloway reflects Virginia Woolf’s influence of The First World War and its consequences. This is expressed in the character of Septimus Smith, a sensitive man, victim of a mental breakdown caused by the trauma of shell-shock after the war. Besides Woolf didn’t believe in the so-called establishment or in the supremacy of European culture and colonialism and understood the countries of the Empire who demanded independence. Peter Walsh embodies this attitude as, despite working in the Indian Civil Service, he doesn’t like the Empire. Richard and Clarissa Dalloway represent the establishment: while Richard is a member of Parliament and part of the land-owning gentry, Clarissa is a wealthy London hostess. She’s characterized by opposing feelings: her need for freedom and independence and her class consciousness. To overcome her weakness, she imposes severe restrictions on her spontaneous feelings. She recalls her life before The First Word War, before her marriage with Richard and her relationship with Peter Walsh. The plot is very simple and takes place in one single ordinary day in June in London. The novel begins in the morning when Clarissa Dalloway goes out to buy flowers for a dinner party and ends with the end of the party close to midnight. The main plot is enriched by many other events like Clarissa who buys flowers, the suicide of the young war veteran Septimus Smith. There is also the surprise visit during the day of Clarissa’s old flame, Peter Walsh. When she meets him, she remembers a summer when she was 18 and rejected him in favour of his actual husband and in that summer she also had had a strong attraction for her rebellious friend Sally Seton. These events, thoughts and memories all take place around and inside Clarissa who acts as the common like between characters, events and memories. The simple plot provides the framework on which Woolf makes a complex analysis of her characters: the story is set in London presented in many points of view and in one day during which all the events take place and the reader is aware of the passing of time by the chiming of Big Ben close to Clarissa Dalloway’s house and through the use of flashbacks.
In the novel there are important changes in the social life of the time like: the spread of newspapers, the increasing use of cars and planes, the new standards in the marriage and the success of the cinema.
Similarities and differences with Joyce
Woolf’s writing doesn’t centre around a complex plot but captures flashes of reality. Perceptions, thoughts, memories and feelings of the main characters are expressed in her original use of the stream of consciousness. We can make a comparison between Joyce’s Ulysess and Mrs Dalloway since both works concentrate their events on one day. Woolf’s style is different from Joyce because the thought patterns follow a coherent and logical order with the use of grammar and punctuation and they show a reality behind appearences. Besides she uses indirect interior monologue and an omniscient narrator who becomes a link between the characters and the reader. There is no judgement and the reader is free to make an own idea. Instead, Joyce’s stream of consciousness style show characters’s thoughts directly through an interior monologue in an incoherent and syntactically way and he expresses a sudden spiritual manifestation caused by a banal gesture which leads the character to a self-realization about himself/herself.