Sunday, October 31, 2010


I read an article by Allen McLaurin, “Virginia Woolf and Unanimism”. I chose to read this particular article, because it talked about The Waves, but it also relates to the topic on which I plan to write my paper, which is the opposite of unanimism in Woolf’s work. I thought it would be a good idea to read something opposing this particular theme of alienation, loneliness and subjective experience I found in her writing.

McLaurin’s main point in the article is that Woolf creates a certain “group mind”, a unity of consciousness, in her works. He brings up the example of The Waves, as the characters gather round Percival after his death and likens this to Woolf’s experience of being a part of the Bloomsbury group, which, he argues, shared this same kind of unity of consciousness and likens the character of Percival to Woolf’s brother Thoby, whom many of the Bloomsbury members admired greatly. He also mentions Jules Romains, a figure of great importance in French unanimism in literature and a figure well known to Woolf. McLaurin argues that Woolf actually wrote a favorable review of Romains’ work for a magazine in which she often wrote, despite the fact that the review is anonymous. McLaurin also argues that Woolf’s works – The Voyage Out, Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, The Years, Between the Acts as well as The Waves present the unanimous themes found and championed in Romains’ work. In Between the Acts McLaurin argues that the gramophone represents a means of unity between people. In The Waves, the characters share each other’s innermost thoughts and images, according to McLaurin. He emphasizes the importance of Bernard, as the one character who feels most explicitly the notion of the group, a group mind, especially at the death of Percival.

However, in response to this article, I have began reading another article relating to Between the Acts and it compares the gramophone to fascist propaganda, uniting people into an easily controlled herd. Thus, this article undermines the benign nature of unanimity that McLaurin focuses on. Also, he mentions that at the end Bernard abandons this notion of unanimity, which points to the idea that maybe Woolf was not entirely convinced that such a “group mind” could be achieved. After all, even though Bernard says all the characters felt the same, common emotion at Percival’s death, it is not entirely clear that they did. Also, McLaurin cites Neville’s love for watching people pour out of the Tube in what he perceives as harmony, unanimous, but this kind of unanimity does not seem possible for an extended period of time; once people pour out of the Tube and into the streets, they are dispersed again. Thus, the theme of unanimity, although perhaps present in Woolf’s work, is not followed entirely – Woolf recognizes that this unity cannot be sustained for long and if it is present at all, it is perhaps superficial.

McLaurin, Allen. "Virginia Woolf and Unanimism." Journal of Modern Literature 9.1 (1981-1982): 115-122. JSTOR. Web.

Monday, October 25, 2010


The Waves is definitely a very interesting form of novel. I have not read anything like it before and I guess Virginia Woolf was the first one to write this way? It’s a very modernist form, in the vein of Joyce’s stream of consciousness, except this stream of consciousness, extremely poetic, is externalized through dialogue.
But what I found really interesting about the “dialogue” is that even though the characters technically speak, at least that’s what the quotation marks indicate and every time there is an indication of “so and so said”, the characters do not seem to be speaking to each other or anyone in particular. This, in turn, brings me again to the notion of alienation throughout Woolf’s works. And so far, in this particular work, there are quite a few instances that point to this theme.

First is, of course, the form itself. The characters take turns and speak, externalize their thoughts and feelings, describe what is going on around them, but there is no clear recipient. Also, no character really directly responds to what has already been said, no character reacts to it and it seems that the only persons that hear what these characters say are the reader and the speaker himself or herself. This way, Woolf shows us different perspectives on certain events – such as Jinny kissing Louis (we get Louis’ view, as well as that of Jinny, Susan and Bernard, also a bit of Neville’s) – and through this, the alienation of personal, subjective experience of certain things is very clear. It is almost as if Woolf shows us that we are essentially locked into ourselves, separated from others, even though others can look at us and experience us in their own subjective way, which will not always be compatible with the real way we are. And thus, every character gets his or her separate paragraphs, which may, at times, describe the same events or similar things, but are always separate and in no way reference anything that has been said previously. There is no relation between these characters’ experiences. Thus, when the three boys go to school for the first time, Bernard perceives the other two as not scared, while he himself is terrified. However, Louis is scared as well, but chooses to follow Bernard, because he doesn’t look nervous. Here the incompatibility between the self and the way other people see the self is quite clear.

Thus, different characters have different ways of alienation. Louis, for instance, sees himself as separated from everybody else, because he is from Australia. The issue of colonialism separates him from the other English kids. He continuously mentions his Australian accent and attempts to speak like the other kids: “I will not conjugate the verb until Bernard has said it. My father is a banker in Brisbane and I speak with an Australian accent. I will wait and copy Bernard. He is English. They are all English” (12). Here the issue of British colonialism is quite clear. Louis, even though he is intelligent (as he says, “I could know everything in the world if I wished”), is perceived as inferior to the other kids, because of his colonial heritage, especially Australian, which was a convict settlement.

Bernard also has his moment of alienation, as he likes to relate everything into stories (which is why he is seen as Woolf’s alter ego, I suppose), he finally bores his peers with this, despite some elaborate phrases. Here Woolf writes, perhaps out of personal experience, “Among the tortures and devastations of life is this then – our friends are not able to finish their stories” (26).

It is similar with the girls. Each is by herself with her own loneliness. Rhoda is perhaps the most obvious – her insecurity completely bars her from her peers, as does her childhood presumably – Louis says she has no father (I am not sure about whether the incident with the math problem indicates she’s not as intelligent as the other kids?). Susan is alone with her anger, which she likes to project on physical things and bury them. Jinny is also self-conscious, although she may not show it. What is very interesting is that Susan suffers at the thought of even the teachers loving Jinny as opposed to her (unlike what she experiences at home, which is why she only loves her father, I am guessing), while Jinny looks at herself and sees Susan as more beautiful, more inspiring. This once again, points to the fact that all characters are locked into their own selves, unable to transcend themselves, unable to see themselves or anything else outside of their own experience, which sometimes points them in erroneous directions. This is very similar to the themes of Woolf’s other works, where subjective experience is of utmost importance, but at the same time, can be very destructive

Tuesday, October 5, 2010


Clearly the character of Mr. Ramsay is based on Virginia Woolf’s own father and in the third part of To the Lighthouse especially, the portrait of Mr. Ramsay is based on Leslie Stephen after his wife has died. This brings up the question of whether Virginia herself identifies with the character of the artist Lily Briscoe – had she too, been eclipsed by her father’s self-indulgent grief to the extent that it hindered her artistic ability? After all, Lily cannot focus on painting, while Mr. Ramsay storms up and down the patio, blaming Mrs. Ramsay for her husband’s behavior – she had been the self-surrendering wife and now that she was dead, there was nobody left to quietly give Mr. Ramsay some sympathy.

This question of sympathy is a very curious one in Woolf’s works. At least, it was one of the primary themes in her short story “The New Dress”. In it, both the main character as well that of Mrs. Holman constantly focus on some sort of sympathy from the people around them. The main character of Mabel Waring obsesses over her new dress that she supposedly loved in the privacy of the dressing room and her seamstress. Now, that she has stepped out in it and into Mrs. Dalloway’s party, the dress has become the central point of her “frock self-consciousness”, but the question is whether this self-consciousness is actually true. On the one hand, she could simply be unsure of how she looks among other people, whom she sees as better dressed. On the other, she says things such as, “It’s so old-fashioned” in reference to her dress (and not the picture), which could essentially be considered pity-fishing. When Charles, for example, does not fulfill her expectations in regards to offering her sympathy, she regards him as “malice itself”, simply because he says, “Mabel’s got a new dress” as opposed to “you’re looking charming to-night!” At the same time, there is Mrs. Holman, whose family is always ill with something. She is very similar to Mabel in that she fishes for sympathy as well, which, in turn, makes Mabel dislike her, even though they are doing the same exact thing, just in slightly different ways – Mabel criticizes her own dress, so that someone will tell her she is wrong, that she looks beautiful, while Mrs. Holman preys upon the sympathy of others offered due to her family’s constant poor health. Woolf essentially compares this greed for sympathy and assurance to a form of currency – she describes Mrs. Holman “taking” the sympathy offered and looking at it as if it was a halfpenny, when it should have been a pound. Woolf even finishes one paragraph, “Ah, it was tragic, this greed, this clamour of human beings, like a row of cormorants, barking and flapping their wings for sympathy — it was tragic, could one have felt it and not merely pretended to feel it!” indicating that she saw this clamoring for sympathy among various people, most notable example of whom would probably be her own father. After all, she writes in To the Lighthouse, “this was one of those moments when an enormous need urged him, without being conscious what it was, to approach any woman, to force them, he did not care how, his need was so great, to give him what he wanted: sympathy” (154).

Thus, Woolf presents this greed, this clamoring for sympathy, as something that transcends gender; in the story, it is the two women, while in the novel it is a man. However, in To the Lighthouse, Woolf makes another, further claim that, as Lily Briscoe thinks, “and it was all Mrs. Ramsay’s fault. She was dead” (153), and as we also have discussed in previous classes, the blame for Mr. Ramsay’s behavior is partly upon Mrs. Ramsay for allowing him to be this way, extremely childish, except that after her death she was not there anymore to give her husband all he wanted (his arms were left empty) and so he begins clamoring for sympathy from other people.

The fact that Lily eventually realizes her point of view, her last brilliant stroke of paint that finishes the painting, exacting her own, subjective, distinct vision and the fact that the novel ends on this note may signify Woolf’s own overcoming of her father’s ways as well as the pressures of society as a whole and exacting her own vision through the act of writing.