Main Characteristics of Virginia Woolf Novels

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      We have already pointed out that Virginia Woolf was extremely dissatisfied with the current form of the novel as represented by the great Edwardians, Bennett, Wells or Galsworthy. The form of the novel that prevailed in the first quarter of this century seemed to her to obscure or even falsify her experience. She has very clearly and forcefully expressed her own views in her great essay, Modern Fiction. To her ‘life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged;’ but it ‘is a luminous halo, a semitransparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end.’ And task of the novelist, according to her, is ‘to convey this varying, this unknown and uncircumcised spirit, whatever aberration or complexity it may display....’ And then there were the prominent literary developments of the age, which were making it impossible for a sensitive writer to remain in a fixed and narrow groove. And Virginia Woolf had the courage to discard the orthodox linear narrative of the Edwardians after her first two novels and used instead a distinctive impressionistic technique, characterized by lyrical intensity and subtle penetration into the stream-of-consciousness. And gradually she established herself to be one of those great English novelists who have a new direction, a new form and a new spiritual awareness to the English novel.

      No Element of Story—Rendering of Inner Reality: As Virginia Woolf broke free from tradition, she had also to discard the current form of the novel. But then she was driven to invent her own technique which would express her own vision of life. And Mrs. Woolf had already expressed very strongly that if the novelist could base his work upon his own feeling and not upon convention, there would be no plot, no comedy, no tragedy, no love-interest or catastrophe in the accepted style. Hence in most of her novels there is hardly any element of story. Mrs. Woolf’s formula for the novel was not humanity in action but in a state of infinite perception. The novel in her hands is not just an entertainment, or propaganda, or the vehicle of some fixed ideas or theories, or a social document, but a voyage of exploration to find out how life is lived, and how it can be rendered as it is actually lived without distortion. Hence she concentrates her attention on the rendering of inner reality and gives subtle and penetrating inlets into the consciousness of her characters. She cares very little for narrating dramatic events.

      The World of Outer Reality not Ignored It is to be noted that because her main purpose as a novelist is to depict inner life of human beings, she has not ignored the world of outer reality, the warm and palpable life of nature. In fact, in her novels we find that the metaphysical interest is embodied in purely human and personal terms, that the bounding line of art remains unbroken, that the concrete images which are the very stuff of art are never sacrificed to abstraction, but are indeed more in evidence than in the work of such writers as Bennett and Wells. The essential subject matter of her novels is no doubt the consciousness of one or more characters, but the outer life of tree and stream, of bird and fish, of meadow and seashore crowds in upon her and leads her image after image, a great, sparkling and many-colored world of sight and scent and sound and touch. Herein lies the magic and miracle of her work.

      Emergence of an Art Form: In Virginia Woolf’s novels we find a rare artistic integrity and they display a well-developed sense of form. To communicate her experience she had to invent conventions as rigid or more rigid than the old ones that she discarded. And this she does in her best novels of the middle and the final period - Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, The Waves and Between the Acts. In each case a small group of people is selected, and through their closely interrelated experience the reader receives his total impression. We also find that in each case certain images, phrases and symbols bind the whole together. So there are certain resemblances between them in structure or style. Apart from these general resemblances each of these novels is a fresh attempt to solve the problems raised by the departure from traditional conventions. So it is observed that each of her novels grows out of the preceding one and we see the germ of her later works in their predecessors. Another significant point is that in Mrs. Woolf’s novels from Jacob's Rooms to The Waves there is far less scene-setting and none of it is obvious; deliberate stage-managing disappears, in fact concealed; hence the method is poetic, the unity is a poetic unity. But the unity is there and is deliberately achieved.

      Poetisation of the English Novel: One of the most outstanding achievements of Virginia Woolf is that she represents the poetisation and musicalization of English novel. Among the English novelists she is foremost in lyrical technique. She sets out on a quest for a mediating form through which she could convey simultaneously a picture of life and manners and a corresponding image of minds.

      She aimed at conveying inner life and this could be best done in a lyrical manner. Hence it is found that in order to enrich her language, she used vivid metaphors and symbols which are peculiar to poetry. Her language is the language of poetry, her prose style has the assonances, the refrains, the rhythms and the accents of poetry itself. Virginia Woolf’s lyrical narrative is based on a design on which various contents of consciousness are juxtaposed. The unstable equilibrium between the lyrical and narrative art shows how Virginia Woolf brilliantly achieves the telescoping of the poet’s lyrical self and the novelist’s omniscient point of view. It is a case of unified sensibility, that is, a blending of the objective and the subjective, which is considered to be the best form of poetry, particularly in modern poetry. Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse shows her lyricism in a superb manner and ‘Time Passes’, the second part of this novel, has been described by the novelist herself as particularly representative of her lyric vein.

      The Interior Monologue-Stream of Consciousness-Technique: To the novelists of the new school human consciousness is a chaotic welter of sensations and impressions; it is fleeting, trivial and evanescent. And according to Virginia Woolf, the great task of the novelist should be ‘to convey this varying, this unknown and uncircumscribed spirit’. His main business is just to reveal the sensations and impressions to bring us close to the quick of the mind. He should be more concerned with inner reality rather than outer. This is what is known as ‘the stream-of-consciousness technique’. And we are introduced into interior life of a character by means of interior monologue. There is very little intervention in the way of explanation or commentary on the part of the novelist. And this has been done by Virginia Woolf by a very skilful use of ‘the interior monologue’ or ‘the stream-of-consciousness technique. She has very successfully revealed the very spring of action, the hidden motives which impel men and women to act in a particular way. She has been able to take us directly into the minds of her characters and show the chaotic flow of ideas, sensations and impressions there. And thus Mrs. Woolf has been able to create a number of memorable, many-sided and rounded figures, such as Mrs. Ramsay or Mrs. Dalloway, which are among the immortals of literature.

      The Distinctive Nature of Reality: It will be clearly evident to a discerning reader of Mrs. Woolf’s novels that the reality that she deals with has a distinctness about it. Jean Guiguet’s comments on this are worth noting: “Her reality is not a factor to be specified in some question of the universe: it is the Sussex towns, the London streets, the waves breaking on the shore, the woman sitting opposite her in the train, memories flashing into the mind from nowhere, a beloved being’s return into nothingness; it is all that is not ourselves and yet is so closely mingled with ourselves that the two enigmas-reality and self-make only one. But the important thing is the nature or quality of this enigma. It does not merely puzzle the mind; it torments the Whole being, even while defining it. To exist, for Virginia Woolf, meant experiencing that dizziness on the ridge between two abysses of the unknown, the self and the nonself.”

      Artistic Sincerity and Integrity: Virginia Woolf had her own original vision of life and she has ever remained truthful to her vision. And this truthfulness and this artistic integrity is due to her perfect detachment from all personal prejudices and preconceived notions or from any personal end. Literary traditions and conventions, or social and political problems of the day-nothing could deter her from writing according to her vision, according to the ideal which exists in her mind with uncommon artistic sincerity and integrity. And then Mrs. Woolf was a ‘naturalist’ as well as a ‘contemplative’. In the words of Bernard Blackstone: “She observes new facts, and old facts in a new way; but she also combines them, through the contemplative act, into new and strange patterns. The outer is not only related to, it is absorbed into the inner life. Mrs. Woolf believed in the power of the mind and so she makes her reader think.”

      Aestheticism: We have already discussed in detail Mrs. Woolf’s aestheticism. The significant thing about her is that there is nothing languid or academic about her aestheticism. She could find beauty ‘as much in a scrap of orange peel lying in the gutter as in the Venus do Milo ....’ She was a great lover of beauty and this love of beauty guides her in her selection and ordering of reality.

      Woman’s Point of View; Feminisation of English Novel: It would have to be accepted that Virginia Woolf was a woman and naturally in her novels she gives us the woman’s point of view. That is why we find her relying more on intuition than on reason. We also find in her a woman’s dislike for the world of societies, churches, banks and schools and the political, social and economic movements of the day have hardly any attraction for her. As a sheltered female of her age she had hardly any scope to have any knowledge of the sordid and brutal aspects of life. Thus we find that her picture of life does not include vice, sordidness or the abject brutality of our age. So it may be inferred that Mrs. Woolf thus represents the feminization of the English novel.

      Limitations of her Range: The limited range of Mrs. Woolf’s characterization is clearly evident in her works. Her characters are definitely convincing in their own way, but they are drawn from a very limited range. They mainly belong to the upper-middle-class life and to a certain temperament too. She could paint only certain types of characters. They tend to think and feel alike to be the aesthetes of one set of sensations.

      Being a woman of her times she avoids the theme of passionate love. She could not write of sex freely and frankly and so has avoided it altogether in her novels. But still she achieved greatness and artistic perfection by a clear recognition of these limitations, and by working within them.

      Conclusion: Virginia Woolf’s greatest achievement is that in her novels the stream of consciousness technique finds a balance. She knew that art required a selection and ordering of material. Hence her work has a rare artistic integrity. In fact she wonderfully succeeded in imposing form and order on the chaos inherent in the novel of subjectivity or ‘the stream-of-consciousness’ novel. And it was Mrs. Woolf who was also one of the most forceful and original theorists of ‘the stream-of-consciousness’ novel, and by her exposition of aesthetics of this kind of novel, she did much to throw light on its technique, and to bring out its superiority to the conventional novel.

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