The University of Toronto at Scarborough

ENGB02Y: English Literature: Historical Survey (SpringTerm)

Instructor: Melba Cuddy-Keane

Virginia Woolf (1882-1941)

"Modern Fiction"

What aspects of the traditional form of the novel does Woolf reject as non-viable for her time, for the way she experiences life? Why does she think that the plot of the Victorian novel doesn't reflect life as it really is? What images does she use to describe the old "false" sense of what is "lifelike" and what images does she use to describe the new sense of reality that she thinks modern fiction will try to capture?

Woolf urges writers to "Look within" and to examine the thoughts of "an ordinary mind on an ordinary day" (p. 1923). Her approach seems to echo Wordsworth's, who, in his "Preface to Lyrical Ballads" wrote that his aim was to represent "incidents and situations chosen from common life" and, in doings o, to trace "the primary laws of our nature" which he went onto define as "the manner in which we associate ideas in a state of excitement" (p. 143).

But although Virginia Woolf, like Wordsworth, emphasizes the workings of the common mind, her depiction of consciousness is much more fluid, multiple, and "atomistic" than Wordsworth's. The impressions of an ordinary day, she writes, fall upon the mind like "an incessant shower of innumerable atoms" or surround and envelop us like a "luminous halo"; this language seems more to recall Walter Pater's "impressions, unstable, flickering, inconsistent, which burn and are extinguished with our consciousness of them" (p. 1533).

But Woolf seeks a good deal more from art than Pater's heightened intensity or "quickened consciousness"; she seeks an art than comes "closer to life," that is exacting in its attempt to capture what life is really like: "let us record the atoms as they fall upon the mind in the order in which they fall, let us trace the pattern, however disconnected and incoherent in appearance, which each sight or incident scores upon the consciousness" (p. 1996)..

And although Woolf uses the word "spiritual" to describe those writers who are returning to the recording of inner life, her explanation indicates that she does not mean "spiritual" in the traditional religious sense. For the moderns, the inner spirit is associated with the "incomprehensible" and "inconclusive" realm of the unconscious: "For the moderns, 'that', the point of interest, lies very likely in the dark places of psychology" (p. 1925).

"A Sketch of the Past"

What is striking about this piece of writing as a form of autobiography?

What does Woolf think about the importance of knowing such things as facts, genealogies, dates in someone's life? Woolf states that we need to know the person to whom things happened, but what does she reveal about the complexity, the difficulty of getting to know this "person"? Is anyone "knowable"?

Compare Woolf's autobiographical writing to the selection from John Stuart Mill's autobiography. How does Mill tell a story and how does Woolf resist that kind of story-telling (e.g. replacing linear time with fragmented moments; suggesting multiple "epiphanies" rather than one decisive conversion experience; describing multiple, diverse, unconnected and even contradictory experiences and sensations rather than giving herself a clear, definite character). In writing her life, does Woolf convey as sense of experiencing her life as "an incessant shower of innumerable atoms"?

"The Legacy"

While life may not be like a "story,"" we still individually construct stories or fictions out of our lives. What "story" about his wife (Angela) has the husband (Gilbert Clandon) constructed here? What view of her--her character, her role in life, her interests--has allowed him to construct such a story?

You might compare this story to Christina Rossetti's "In an Artist's Studio." How has the man's "dream" about "woman" prevented him from seeing the real woman who had been in front of his eyes?

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