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The Modern Turn (Away & Toward); Benjamin Boyce

The Modern Turn (Away & Toward)

Situating Woolf’s Aesthetics in the History of Literature

Benjamin Boyce

 In The Rise of the Novel[1], Ian Watts concentrates on the early British novel, and ascribes a variety of social, political, and religious factors as leading to the novels development. A quick summary of these forces would include, a rising middle class (literate and with some amount of free time), Puritanism (which put the onus of spiritual growth upon the individual, allowing for a profusion of personal interpretations of the public sacred text), and capitalism (which followed this spiritual accounting with a material accounting—an exactness that I think gave Britain the edge over other civilizations and propelled it into a world power).

After the novel caught on, it went through certain developments. In the early 18th century the novel was often introduced by an argument by the author as to the “authenticity” of the document—that it was taken from a real man’s or woman’s journals or letters. (Robinson Crusoe by Defoe, and Richardson’s Pamela). But these apologetics were abandoned as the reading public became used to thinking in the way that the novel was thinking—that is, the presentation of fictional events and persons that more or less matched up with common people’s common experience. This was in contradistinction to the Medieval Romance, which presented heroes and scrubs undergoing repetitive events that provided opportunities for triumph (for the heroes) and downfall (for the scrubs). In the novel, the sense of a real person undergoing some form of personal development was conveyed.

Soon enough the novel developed into a romantic period, where the efficacy of the events and the characters were not as realistic, or, rather, their dramatic, thematic, and cinematic qualities were “turned up” to render heightened states of experience. About midway through the romantic period, in France the idea of realism took root, where authors returned with a renewed gusto to describing as clearly as possible the real world, how people really thought and experienced things.

I believe that Woolf’s work is in part a response to realism, which, in her essay Modern Fiction[2] she calls “materialism”, about which she writes:

The writer seems constrained, not by his own free will but by some powerful and unscrupulous tyrant who has him in thrall, to provide a plot, to provide comedy, tragedy, love interest, and an air of probability embalming the whole so impeccable that if all this figures were to come to life they would find themselves dressed down to the last button of their coats in the fashion of the hour. They tyrant is obeyed; the novel is done to a turn. But sometimes, more and more often as time goes by, we suspect a momentary doubt, a spasm of rebellion, as the pages fill themselves in the customary way. Is life like this? Must novels be like this?

Now, if she is reacting against this materialism, this tyranny of the supposedly real, what is she aiming toward? Woolf argues that, if novels are about life, then the issue is if life is true to realism, if realism is true to life.

Life is not a series of gig lamps[3] symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end. Is it not the task of the novelist to convey this varying, this unknown and uncircumscribed spirit, whatever aberration of complexity it may display, with as little mixture of the alien and external as possible? We are not pleading merely for courage and sincerity; we are suggesting that the proper stuff of fiction is a little other than custom would have us believe it.

She then speaks of Joyce, and about reading Ulysses:

In contrast with those whom we have called materialists, Mr. Joyce is spiritual; he is concerned at all costs to reveal the flickers of that innermost flame which flashes its messages through the brain, and in order to preserve it he disregards with complete courage whatever seems to him adventitious, whether it be probability, or coherence, or any other of these signposts which for generations have served to support the imagination of a reader when called upon to imagine what he can neither touch nor see.

Woolf then goes on to very indirectly criticize Joyce and his methods. Writing that while Ulysses is brilliant, it gives us the sense that we are constrained in the author’s head, to a sense of

…being in a bright yet narrow room, confined and shut in, rather than enlarged and set free, to some limitation imposed by the method as well as by the mind. Is it due to the method that we feel neither jovial nor magnanimous, but centered in a self which, in spite of its tremor of susceptibility, never embraces or creates what is outside itself and beyond? Does the emphasis laid, perhaps didactically, upon indecency, contribute to the effect of something angular and isolated?


In our reading of Mrs. Dalloway we might have seen how a multiple points in the novel, Woolf uses “angularity” in reference to men.

I would like to propose that what Woolf found lacking in Joyce was something that she might of thought of as a masculine preoccupation with form, whereas she was more concerned with the halo, the “frequency” of consciousness, which is not situated in forms or formality, but that drifts atop them, variates them, organizes them with a deftness and arbitrarity that is itself the form of consciousness—not formless but over, between, around—a movement, a “halo.” In Mrs. Dalloway, she uses the form of a single day-in-the-life (perhaps following Ulysses), but whereas Ulysses is filled with method, with symbols, and themes subdivided and subdivided into smaller and smaller symbolic units which Joyce then fills with consciousness, Mrs. Dalloway only uses as much form as is necessary for Woolf to enter into the profusion of consciousness, to convey that consciousness in a manner that the reader can follow and can reconstruct in their own imaginations.

In Modern Fiction she writes:

The problem before the novelist at present, as we suppose it to have been in the past, is to contrive means of being free to set down what he chooses. He has to have the courage to say that what interests him is no longer ‘this’ but ‘that’: out of ‘that’ alone must he construct his work. For the moderns ‘that’, the point of interest, lies very likely in the dark places of psychology.


I wonder if, at this point in the history of the arts, we can afford to be for ‘this’ as opposed to ‘that’ or that as opposed to ‘this.’ What we have to always account for is that there is already so much art out there, there are already so many artists out there. We might seek to build monuments, such as did Joyce, or seek to give the imaginal sea as minimal a form as possible, in order to study and to immerse ourselves and be swept along with its flow, as did Woolf—especially in The Waves, written after Mrs. Dalloway. We have to be concerned with getting attention and keeping attention, while at the same time trying to trick our readership into a deep and lasting experience of something profound—profound even in its pettiness, in its birdlike chatterliness or angular indecency.

[1] The Rise of the Novel; Studies in Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding. Berkeley: U of California, 1957. Print.


[3] A gig lamp is the headlamp of the horse-and-buggy generation.

rachel hatfield – She Must Assemble: The Inner Life in Mrs. Dalloway

(Close reading of the passage between pages 184-186, “What business had the Bradshaws to talk of death at her party? . . . She must assemble. She must find Sally and Peter. And she came in from the little room.”)

In Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf explores themes like mortality, repression, and the richness and importance of the inner life. The brilliance of the novel is not the rise and fall of the action in the story, but the way Woolf uses a modern, descriptive internal narrative structure as a way to build insight into the motivations of each character, rather than relying on purely on character interaction and exposition. Since the characters tell the story to us through their internal monologue, and since each character has their own agenda, the reader is allowed the time to slowly build and change their perception of each player in the story. Nothing is objectively stated. The narration follows a cast of interconnected characters, hour by hour, over the course of a single day in post-World War I Britain, centering on the titular Mrs. Dalloway, an aging society wife, as she makes last-minute preparations for a party.

The climax of the novel, as I see it, takes place as the party finally comes together. Sometime after midnight, Clarissa overhears some of her guests discussing the tragic suicide of a young veteran earlier that afternoon, and she is incensed to have the specter of death descend on her meticulously planned party. She retreats to another part of the apartment to think, away from her guests. The fear of mortality has been troubling Clarissa for a while, having recently recovered from a bout of ill health. During the course of the story, the constant tolling of Big Ben follows Clarissa and other characters as they go about their day, representing the constant flow of time and often inspiring reflection. Her daughter is nearly grown and the relics of her past at Bourton are just memories—Sally is now the picture of a wife and mother, Peter is in town purely to arrange his girlfriend’s divorce, and her relationship with Richard is seemingly successful but notably distant. Though she tries to deny it, Clarissa is a woman with regrets. Her internal monologues are extensive and she clearly has an active mind, a fact of which she is aware, and her self-consciousness about aging and the passing of time is amplified by it. She is a woman defined by her passions and her subsequent attempts to suppress them, and she finds it hard to believe all that activity will end at her death. Early in the novel, she allays her fear of death with the thought that a piece of her would go on living in her home, the streets she walked, in her relationships with her friends and family. But Clarissa is also aware that every day, something in her becomes more “obscured” in her efforts to conform to society life—she “lets drop” the thing that most matters, her own self.

Septimus Smith, however, sees death in another way. Very much a parallel character to Clarissa, his shell-shock and inability to communicate with those around him fuels his isolation. He sees death as the ultimate act of self-determination, especially when faced with Doctor Holmes’ and Bradshaw’s plans for his treatment. Clarissa also sees the autonomy in his suicide; she compares it to her own most defiant moment—throwing a shilling into a lake (184). While Clarissa is so scared of death that she would continue living in a society where her identity is stunted daily, Septimus chooses death rather than life in this “wicked” place. Clarissa feels ashamed; she sees much of the same corruption and wickedness as Septimus, but she chooses to continue her life of comfort rather than dying on principle.

As Clarissa leaves her party guests to think in solitude, the metaphor of the room comes to prominence. In Mrs. Dalloway, the “room” is representative of the inner self. Throughout the novel, Clarissa’s drive to properly socialize is often at odds with a desire for solitude and quiet, and the points when she is alone in a room are points at which her internal monologues become even more personal, like when she retreats to the attic room she stayed in during her sickness. Other characters, like Mrs. Kilman, also emphasize the “room” as a personal, introspective space. Sir Bradshaw invokes the room metaphor when confronted with Septimus’ madness; he is offended by Septimus’ disregard for order and distrust of doctors. Bradshaw twice mentions that action must be taken when someone “comes into your room” (99) and challenges your beliefs. Septimus, feeling trapped by the expectations of a society he doesn’t respect, throws himself from a window to escape the room, representing his freedom from the frustration he feels at his surroundings. He states he didn’t want to die; it was other humans, not life itself, which troubled him.

Clarissa looks out the window across the way and is startled to finally see her neighbor looking back at her. For a minute, Clarissa watches this other old woman in her own bedroom go about her nightly routine. There’s a loud party going on outside in Clarissa’s apartment, but this other individual is quietly going to sleep. Clarissa feels more at ease and she notes the beauty of the late sky, like she had always done at Bourton and Manchester. The clock strikes three and for the first time Clarissa is unconcerned with what time it is, instead refocusing on her earlier conclusion that she lives her life because she enjoys the act of living, regardless of her regrets. She refuses to pity Septimus as she still sees the merit in his act, but Clarissa makes a different choice. She leaves her little room to return to her party.

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