Analysis of Virginia Woolf’s greatest works and assessment of her importance as a novelist.

Analysis of Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf‘s greatest works and assessment of her importance as a novelist.

In the twentieth century, the oblique method of Henry James with its “dramatised consciousness” has been modified by the experimental writers into what is known, after William James, as the stream of consciousness technique. Robert Humphrey defines stream of consciousness novel as “a type of fiction in which the basic emphasis is placed on exploration of the pre-speech levels of consciousness for the purpose of revealing the psychic being of the character”. Marcel Proust in France, Dorothy Miller Richardson, an English woman and James Jyoce, an Irishman wrote the modern psychological novels almost simultaneously between 1913 and 1915. Their novels turned fiction from external to internal reality, from the outer world to the hidden world of fantasy and reverie. Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage and Jyoce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man have striking similarities. According to the ‘stream of consciousness’ novelists, life is not a consistent, symmetrical and coherent affair. The numerous atoms of impressions which the mind receives everyday form a total pattern. This pattern has a different shape and outlook each day, and it is unreal to arrange them round one continuous and co-ordinate central impression. These novelists try to record the atoms of experience that fall on the mind from moment to moment. Because life is incoherent and disorderly, these novelists have abandoned the accepted conventions of literary art.

The stream of consciousness method has its philosophical basis in Bergson’s concept of time. Like William James Bergson taught that we are remoulded constantly by experience; that consciousness is a process of endless accretion, so long as mind and senses are functioning. And out of this comes also the pre occupation with time which is central to the psychological novel. Joyce records a single day in Ulysses; and throughout Virginia Woolf there is a pre-occupation with the ‘moment’. David Daiches has pointed out that ‘the stream of consciousness’ technique is a means of escape from the tyranny of time dimension. Ulysses records eighteen hours of experience retrieved from all eternity. This annihilation of the tyranny of time compels the minimisation of plot, the elimination of action and elaborate characterisation.

The stream of consciousness novelists are indebted also to symbolists. Bergson describes the flux of life. The symbolists sought to frame it in words. The evanescence of experience can be evoked in literature only through the use of images and symbols. These novelists try to catch the flow of life through intensely personal symbols and images. The use of rhetorical figures is a feature of stream of consciousness technique and this stems naturally from the attempt to reproduce the broken, seemingly incoherent, disjointed texture of the process of consciousness.

Dorothy Richardson was the first exponent in English literature of ‘the stream of consciousness technique. But a far more exciting use of the ‘stream of consciousness’ technique was made by Virginia Woolf. Jacob’s Room (1922) represents her first serious experiment in technique and shows and effect of Joyce’s Ulysses on her. In it an attempt is made to construct pictorially the personality of a young Englishman from his fancy to the age of twenty-six. His experiences are recorded in flashes, discontinuous and fragmentary, in a series of rapidly dissolving impressions. In Mrs. Dalloway (1925) the personality to be explored and recreated is that of a woman on the threshold of middle age. Incidents of a day in her life and the accompanying visual, mental and emotional impressions are set down from moment to moment in the style of Dorothy Richardson with a touch of Joyce. Mrs. Dalloway is intent on the preparations for her birthday party in the evening. The day in her life is expressed in terms of a long interior monologue, the smooth flowing stream of consciousness interrupted only by the striking hours of a clock that poignantly marks the drifting hours.

To The Lighthouse (1927) is another experiment in the new method of recreating the reality inherent in human personality, and the nature of human relationships. Mrs. Ramsay suffers from a sense of inadequacy in human relations. Virginia Woolf has assembled a strange pattern of symbolic ideas. Little is said; in consequent streams of thoughts, longings, apprehensions, musings on life pour out as they arise in the minds of all. The writer has found a method, that of symbolism, which enables her to present the inner world of perceptions, and she tries to relate is to a deeper philosophic purpose. Orlando (1928) is the liveliest of her works. It attempts to relate, in a series of vivid scenes and dramatic climaxes, the psychological mental experiences of a poet while writing a prize poem.

Virginia Woolf’s masterpiece is The Waves (1931). The theme, the waves of experience breaking over a group of characters, offered a further opportunity for experiments in technique. Using the method of interior monologue, the author introduces us into the consciousness of six characters, all subtly differentiated, and observed at various stages as they pass from childhood to maturity and death. Narrative art in this novel is replaced by lyrical processes by which personality adjusts itself to life. Time, the main theme of The Waves is measured in nine symbolic interludes which mark the sun’s progress over the sea from dawn to light. Throughout The Waves, there is the ceaseless quest for the elusive meaning of life. There is a suggestion at the end that the meaning it implicit in every experience. Mrs. Woolf’s last novel, Between the Acts (1941) centres on a pageant organised by the village school mistress and which takes the form of scenes from the history of England. Mrs. Woolf is pre-occupied with the changes and diversity that underlie the most stable periods.

Virginia Woolf rejected the conventional conception of the novel. She believed that fiction is not a criticism of life but a recreation of the complexities of life. Just as life is a most subtle and complicated succession of experiences, so fiction must be infinitely adaptable and supple to catch the tones, the light and shade of experiences. She wanted to communicate a sense of reality and reality for her is an inward subjective awareness. She was aware that life is a luminous halo, a pure flame and in the illustration of this knowledge her work has an unfailing power. She worked out a boldly artistic form. Her novels are impressionistic renderings of the infinitely small and infinitely transient elements out of which the web of our daily experience is woven. The plot is quite simple, cut down to a minimum of facts. The world she describes is a limited one in which the characters ‘live in a luminous mist’. Her work has the form and substance of lyrical poetry. Her medium is the written word in the fullness of evocative magic through pattern, colour and harmony. She has indeed added a new dimension to prose fiction. Prose fiction attained the highest degree of inwardness in her hand and absorbed the lyrical qualities into itself.

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