Virginia Woolf Stood Apart from her Age? Discuss

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      It is often said about Virginia Woolf that she “stood apart from her age, for she had no part or parcel with the noisy trafficking of the years between the wars.” She was primarily interested more in investigating and rendering the inner realities of human mind. She was least interested in the happenings of external world, social and political life etc. Thus we can not say that novels of Mrs. Virginia Woolf reflect her age.

The Contemporary Significance of a Work of Art

      But a work of art like literature should in some way or other be of contemporary significance. Even a work of universal appeal essentially reflects its contemporary age. For example the works of Shakespeare. But this does not mean to say that an artist should always engage himself in social criticism. He should interpret the contemporary truth which is not mere a social criticism. The work should find out the truth and express it flawlessly. It means, the work of art should establish a relationship between subject and object. The subject may be the whole consciousness of the contemporary man, his entire environment physical and spiritual. A writer should provide the reader an insight into the essentials of his age, how is it different from other ages, what are its distinctive features, its essential form and color.

      The remark that Mrs. Woolf stood apart from her times is not agreeable. Her work bears considerable contemporary significance. As we know that the period in between the two great wars is called the period of transition, “a sort of cultural weekend between two full weeks of full-time cultural activity.” The two days of the weekend suggest the twenties and thirties regarding this century. There is a marked difference between these two decades. The literature of the twenties is not the study of man foremost as a member of community. It is of a very little sociological significance. The Waste Land, The Hollow Men do not interpret the community, both deal with the world of individuals but by definition of a community to exist, there must be some common purpose and values. A thoroughly disillusioned society is not more than a mere gathering of individuals. This kind of picture could be found in the early novels of Aldous Huxley but the common aspirations are ultimately provided by the logic of historical forces. Still, the age lacks the common belief and the artist’s aspirations are detached from the aspiration of the “social man”. This is the cause why great man of this age are either artists or thinkers not both. In the twenties there are artist, and social thinkers or reformers can be found in the thirties.

Mrs. Woolf’s Achievements

      It was twenties when Mrs. Virginia Woolf came out with the best of her creative work. In order to reflect the true picture of the time her work could only communicate the “orts, scraps and fragments” of a dispersed society. It had to deal with the personal elements or the lonely struggle to work out its own destiny in front of ‘supersocial forces’ of time and death. But Virginia Woolf achieved a relationship between individuals and the themes like time and death. In Mrs. Dalloway, we find Clarissa Dalloway, very sociable frequently making arrangements for gets together, but she is suffering from her “attic room”. She finds nothing common between herself and persons around her husband Richard Dalloway; Sally Seton, her girlhood friend; Bradshaws. Ironically she finds herself identical with a neurotic Septimus Warren Smith who commits suicide. Both are lonely and when Mrs. Clarissa Dalloway hears the news of Septimus’ suicide, she commends him for his courage to embrace death. She assumes that if she had done the same she would have been most happy. And we know that in the original novel it was Clarissa who was to die, not Septimus.

Mrs. Woolf and Jane Austen

      If by standing apart from her age means she is not involved in the material manifestations of her age, the problem of industry, politics and such vital concerns like fascism, the statement is correct. It is a very short indictment of the contemporary society and by this criterion Jane Austen also becomes the victim of this charge, standing apart from her age. Austen wrote of the very small incidents and relations between people which she understood and which attracted her. Virginia Woolf also did the same but she wrote about extraordinary rather than dealing with ordinary people. The character of her novels are the specimen of the people of their age. Indeed there is no denying the fact when the age has no solid norms, the extra-ordinary becomes normal.

Does Mrs. Woolf Stand Apart from Her Age?

      We don’t consent to regard Mrs. Woolf stood apart from her age because she has not neglected the fundamental values of literature that it should be spiritually significant to the contemporary people and age. If she had not followed the law of literature, no elite would have been taken interest in her works. Here David Daiches’ remark is worthy to notice. He says “The theme of time, death and personality that run through Mrs. Dalloway as many of Virginia Woolf’s novels are not in themselves unreal or insignificant; but when a twentieth-century novelist tries to present these themes through a picture, however, refined of post-war London society, they may become insignificant or unreal. True, a work of art once accomplished stands on its own legs, and is not good in one century and bad in another, but that does not mean that the artist is free to ignore the intellectual climate of his time in creating a work. You can bring your world into your study and deal with it in complete abstraction or you can go out to meet it and surrender freedom to substance. There are unfortunate extremes in both procedures, but latter is the safer way—one wonders if Mrs. Woolf’s conception of the novel in terms of poetry is not an excuse for remaining in her study.” “The lyrical mood has many disguises, but its basis, like that of the metaphysical mood, is egotism.” David Daiches further says, “egotism can be a virtue in art but it depends on the author’s right to speak for others.”

The Egotism of Mrs. Woolf

      David Daiches is right as he points out some of the flaws of Mrs. Woolf’s art—her highly distinctive and individual angle of approach, the very exceptional and peculiar atmosphere in which she sees her vision of life. But here R.L. Chambers remark defends Woolf because he says this vision was conferred to her in a highly individual age when egotism was the token of all original art in a higher degree in comparison to any other period in Western European culture.


      There is no doubt that Mrs. Virginia Woolf has egotism and she writes in a very distinctive manner but everybody understands it because it was a very peculiar and most impressive and effective means to communicate the reader.

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