Virginia Woolf (1882 –1941) was an well-known English novelist, essayist, feminist, to a greater degree, a modernist literary figures of the twentieth century. Unlike antecedent literary works of her time, she experiments with different techniques, forms, and structures – denouncing former Victorian, Romantic, realist conventional use of description, generic characters, and plot, yet, maintains concern for the depiction of the human experience, ultimately, defining her transformative style as a modernist writer. In this paper, I will closely examine Virginia Woolf’s famous works, which include the novel Mrs. Dalloway (1925), and the essay A Room of One’s Own (1929); first, I will analyze the early modernist perspective in terms of form, narrative technique, gender – next, I will conceptualize the socio-political context of the works, leading to the establishment of modernist characteristics: post-Industrial Revolution technological advancement, WWI after-math sentiment, and Sigmund Freud’s theory of psychoanalysis. Arguably, demonstrating how the modernist era of innovation was a reaction against the past, moreover, a new medium for artists to defend their expression and creation, over imitation – paradoxically, leaving Woolf to be categorized as contributor to the realist fiction literary canon.
In Mrs. Dalloway (1925), Woolf pioneers a classical fiction novel possessing notable features of modernism. Subtly, preoccupation – both physically and mentally – within an urban city, a focus on the inner thoughts of characters, and an interest in experimenting new ways of literary forms. More blatantly, she incorporates modernist elements, such as: stream of consciousness, timelessness, and psychological analysis. The novel circles around the day in the life of central character Clarissa Dalloway, a middle-aged woman, on a summer day in post-World War I English society. She is presented as an upper-class woman, brought up in a pre-Victorian society filled with servants, formal parties, and social status, perhaps explaining why Clarissa is concerned solely with organizing her party, along with other social aspects of her life. Her life is a constant engagement with society, and as a result, experiences oppression in form of societal judgement. Though she lives a bourgeoisie lifestyle – always well-dressed and married to an elected-official, she recollects potent memories and contemplates death often. Throughout the entirety of the novel Clarissa is described to be very pensive and vigilant, for example, she questions her happiness in terms of marriage, discusses the insecurities of her physique: “a ridiculous little face, beaked like a bird’s” (Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway, 1:17), and observes things very keenly when she writes:
She had a perpetual sense, as she watched the taxi cabs, of being out, out, far out to sea and alone; she always had the feeling that it was very, very dangerous to live even one day (Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway, 1:15).
Ultimately, revealing how Clarissa as constantly thinking, caught up in the world, and every minute detail which she is vividly presenting.
On the contrary, her foil character, Septimus Warren Smith, is presented as shell-shocked war veteran who is emptied of human feelings and unable to communicate with his wife. As a solider, he fought to preserve the established society, and the horrors of war have a profound impact on him – not physically, but psychologically, unable to appreciate the trivial things in life causes him great despair. His gradual mental deterioration is captured through his wife, Lucrezia:
For she could stand it no longer. Dr Holmes might say there was nothing the matter. Far rather would she that he were dead! She could not sit beside him when he stared so and did not see her and made everything terrible (Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway, 2:30).
Further, his struggle is intensified by the lack of empathy and knowledge provided by medical practitioner, Sir. William Bradshaw “the priest of science” (Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway, 7:2) et. al, therefore stirring Septimus’ cynical and near depressing outlook on British society, consequently, magnifying his suicidal tendencies.
Furthermore, as a modernist, Woolf denounces the linear storyline format as the novel consists of two unrelated plots: one concerning Mrs. Dalloway’s preparation for a party, and the other, Smith’ mental deterioration – and eventual suicide. In juxtaposing the two characters Woolf represents the conflict of two lifestyles, old and new, that never formally meet. By drawing a connection between two unrelated characters in the novel, it becomes evident that Woolf is making a commentary about mental health– ironically, Septimus whose mental state is the result of conditions out of his control, killed himself. On the other hand, Clarissa whose unhappy disposition is a result of her own choices, continues to live without consequences. Congruently, both feel somewhat connected, alienated from society and uncertain about their purpose that is, supported when Woolf writes:
She felt somehow very like him—the young man who had killed himself. She felt glad that he had done it; thrown it away. The clock was striking. The leaden circles dissolved in the air. He made her feel the beauty; made her feel the fun. But she must go back. She must assemble (Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway, 9:62).
In the selected excerpt, at the end of the novel Clarissa emphasizes how Septimus’ suicide allows her to see the beauty in life, death here is oddly glorified and compared to rebirth.
At the level of style, it is easy to classify Woolf as a modernist. We can consider Woolf’s “stream of consciousness” literary technique as support for this. A work that parallels, and possibly influenced Woolf’s works is James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), another famous modernist text that follows a similar pattern – several character’s stream of conscious over the course of a singular day. Reading Woolf’s works, the impression of entering her character’s mind – allowing the audience to follow the author as the character’s feelings, flashbacks, thoughts, ideas, associations, and near perceptions. Although Clarissa is the protagonist, it is worth noting the actions moving the storyline occur through the minds of various characters around her. Hence, inner-conflict is one of the main underlying themes of the novel. Most notably, Woolf applied, and further developed such literary technique in order to emphasize psychological and emotional forces of her characters – straying away from nineteenth century convention of omniscient narration, simultaneously pioneering a multi-perspective style. As a result, she is considered an undisputed master of the stream of consciousness literary technique.
Modernism grew into prominence and has come to be defined as the response to the scientific and political developments of the time. Woolf’s use of indirect discourse and stream of consciousness shifts, moreover, memories and associations, between characters is implemented effectively, consequently, bringing to light the major changes in taste taking place in English society through the motifs of technology and war. Woolf uses Clarissa’s character to explore the impact of cultural change by emphasizing the technological advances – cars and airplanes. One particular scene reveals how five years passed since the armistice, when Peter Walsh returns, he is overwhelmed by change: “People looked different. Newspapers seemed different” (Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway, 5). Later in the novel, Peter reflects on technology in form of an ambulance, labeling it “one of the triumphs of civilisation” (Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway, 9:1) – paying homage to human advancements. A final instance of technology is found when Elizabeth Dalloway takes the bus on her own in that it a woman would not be allowed to travel, let alone, with such ease, demonstrating a shift in English culture and attitudes. Similar altering attitudes are present earlier in the novel when she states, “Before the war, you could buy almost perfect gloves” (Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway, 1:20) – the glove symbolizing pre-Victorian society, and her daughter is not interested, since she belongs to a newer “modern” generation. Hence, technology represents progression, freedom, and individuality for women.
On that premise, gender issues have always been a topic of debate in society, as well as in literature, so inevitably, gender became a major focus of the modernist movement of the early twentieth century. Through the course of history women have been seen and treated as complements to the men in their lives – such as, husbands and fathers – rather than as autonomous individuals. Woolf novel begins in media res – “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself” (Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway, 1:1), illuminating a view on female emancipation from patriarchal oppression of the time. By presenting Mrs. Dalloway as an independent woman right off the bat, she unapologetically reveals her feminist perspective, and a modernist representation of women. To add, Clarissa’s relationship with other female characters in the novel such as Sally, Lucrezia, Miss Kilman, are clustered together in different contexts throughout the novel, nonetheless providing insight about the physical and psychological world of being a woman, each with their own dilemmas, sexuality, desires, and subjectivity.
Woolf modernist attitude about women representation is amplified in her later work, A Room of One’s Own (1929). She famously states: “women need money and rooms of their own in order to write fiction’ (Woolf, A Room of One’s Own, 1) in order to examine the connection between women, literature, and soco-economics. She ultimately urges women to break free from