Virginia Woolf (1882-1941)
Virginia Woolf is by reputation one of the foremost modernist literary figures of the twentieth century. Though she is commonly regarded by many as feminist, it should be noted that she herself deplored the term, as she felt it suggested an obsession with women and women's concerns. She preferred to be referred to as a "humanist" .
Between the World Wars, Woolf was a significant figure in London literary society and a member of the Bloomsbury Group. Her most famous works include the novels Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, Orlando, and her essay A Room of One's Own.
Mrs Dalloway details one day in Clarissa Dalloway's life about post-World War I England.
The novel follows Clarissa Dalloway throughout a single day in post-Great War England in a stream of consciousness style narrative. The basic story is that of Clarissa's preparations for a party she is to host that evening. Using the interior perspective of the novel, Woolf moves back and forth in time, and in and out of the various characters' minds to construct a complete image, not of just Clarissa's life, but capturing the Edwardian social structure in the space of a single day.
Because of structural and stylistic similarities, Mrs Dalloway is commonly thought to be a response to James Joyce's Ulysses, a text that is commonly hailed as one of the greatest novels of the Twentieth Century. Woolf herself derided Joyce's masterpiece, even though Hogarth Press, run by her and her husband Leonard, initially published the novel in England. Fundamentally, however, Mrs Dalloway treads new ground and seeks to portray a different aspect of the human experience.
To the Lighthouse
Names to know:
~Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay
Part I: The Window
The novel opens just before World War I as the Ramsay family spends the summer at their second home in the Hebrides, on the Isle of Skye. In an incident that is bookended by the novel’s final section, six-year-old James Ramsay asks his father to take him to the lighthouse. While his sympathetic mother tries to assuage him by telling him they’ll go when the weather clears, Mr. Ramsay, whose icy, negative air savages his attempts to befriend various members of the group, always dashes James’ hopes by saying that the weather won’t be clear. We hear James’ thoughts of rage and even the desire to hurt his father.
The Ramsays are joined by a number of friends and colleagues, one of them being Lily Briscoe who begins the novel as a young, uncertain painter attempting a portrait of Mrs. Ramsay. Briscoe, though, finds herself plagued by doubt throughout the novel, a doubt largely fed by the cold taunts of Charles Tansley, who claims that women can neither paint nor write. Tansley, himself, is an admirer of Mr. Ramsay and his philosophical treatises.
The section closes with a large dinner party. Mr. Ramsay snaps at Augustus Carmichael, a visiting poet, when the latter asks for a second serving of soup. Mrs. Ramsay, who is striving for the perfect dinner party that no one could achieve, is herself out of sorts when Paul Rayley and Minta Doyle, two acquaintances whom she brought together in engagement, arrive late to dinner, as Minta lost her grandmother’s brooch on the beach.
Part II: Time Passes
The pace quickens appreciably in this short section, which exists primarily as a bridge between Parts I and III. The War hits home as one of the Ramsays’ sons, Andrew, is killed in action. Their daughter Prue dies while giving birth to her first child. And Mrs. Ramsay herself passes away suddenly one night, leaving Mr. Ramsay adrift without her there to praise him and comfort him in his fears over his mortality and that his best work is behind him.
Part III: The Lighthouse
In the final section, “The Lighthouse,” some of the remaining Ramsays return to their summer home ten years after the events of Part I, as Mr. Ramsay finally plans on taking the long-delayed trip to the lighthouse with his son James and daughter Cam(illa). The trip almost doesn’t happen, as Mr. Ramsay seems almost intent on finding excuses to delay it, but they eventually take off. En route, the children give their father the silent treatment in response to his criticism of the son of the sailor Macalister, both of whom have accompanied them on the trip. James handles the boat in a difficult spot, but rather than receiving the harsh words he has come to expect from his father, he hears praise, providing a rare moment of empathy between father and son.
During this trip, Macalister’s son catches a fish and cuts a piece of its flesh to use for bait, throwing the injured fish back into the sea. This serves as a metaphor for Woolf’s view of the world as a cruel, unfeeling environment where one must overcome one’s trials to survive.
While they set sail for the lighthouse, Lily attempts to complete her long-unfinished portrait of Mrs. Ramsay. She reconsiders Mrs. Ramsay’s memory, grateful for her help in pushing Lily to continue with her art, yet at the same time struggling to free herself from the tacit control Mrs. Ramsay had over other aspects of her life. Upon finishing the painting and seeing that it satisfies her, she realizes that the execution of her vision is more important to her than the idea of leaving some sort of legacy in her work – a lesson Mr. Ramsay has yet to learn. Lily states aloud to the poet Carmichael (and to herself), “It is finished,” a phrase uttered by Jesus in the Gospel of John during the moments immediately before his death.
**The famous opening words:
“Yes, of course, if it’s fine tomorrow,” said Mrs Ramsay. “But you’ll have to be up with the lark,” she added.
A Room of One's Own
The essay examines whether women were capable of producing work of the quality of William Shakespeare, amongst other topics. In one section, Woolf invented a fictional "Shakespeare's Sister", Judith, to illustrate that a woman with Shakespeare's gifts would have been denied the same opportunities to develop them because of the doors that were closed to women. Woolf also examines the careers of several female authors, including Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters and George Eliot. The author subtly refers to several of the most prominent intellectuals of the time, and her hybrid name for the University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge - Oxbridge - has become a well-known term in English satire.
The title comes from Woolf's conception that to be a successful writer, a woman needed space of her own in which to work and enough money to support herself. It also refers to any author's need for poetic license and the personal liberty to create art.
A Room of One's Own is written with supreme irony and sarcasm over the power-balance between men and women, and it is commonly accepted that Virginia Woolf succeeds in convincingly getting her view across to the reader. However one may analyze this book, it nevertheless stands out as one of the most important feminist essays of the early 20th century.