Words Created Out Of Suffering And Satisfaction: The Writings Of Virginia Woolf

This coming Monday (the 28th of March) is the 75th anniversary of Virginia Woolf's death. She suffered from mental illness, had problems all her life with severe headaches, and experienced emotional breakdowns. Her illness eventually led to suicide, when she was 59. Nevertheless, she was an exceptional writer.

We wrote about Viarinia Woolf’s novel Waves  when we recommended books dealing with the topic of immortality. Now, to honor Woolf’s other great works and explore more of them, we recommend that you read three of her novels: Mrs. Dalloway , Orlando and To the Light House.

Virginia Woolf was one of the pioneer authors of modernist literature. In her private writings, Woolf explained how exactly she became a writer. Noticing despair in the world, but also great beauty in its other parts, she began to feel the need to reason out these questions. She could never fully understand why a human being would hurt another human being, and she had been struggling to comprehend prewar events as well as the outbreak of war. But she experienced these sudden contemplations after they had been triggered by something in the real world. She felt these moments as shocks, both unpleasant and pleasant ones, but later was grateful for them since this is how her art was born. Woolf believed that there is a universal pattern behind what is visible and touchable (she called this everyday life cotton wool). That is the first important thing to understand about her writing approach. Second, she was focused on developing the psychological profiles of her characters, with a strong belief that there is no theme too ordinary or insignificant for literature.

In Mrs. Dalloway, Woolf uses a specific writing style known as stream of consciousness to describe the inner world of Clarissa Dalloway. This style tries to convey faithfully the way humans think, which is not linear, but is instead rather chaotic as it works in an associative manner. This style became typical for modernism, and Mrs. Dalloway was one of the first novels to emerge from it. A new kind of novel was born. Typical moments of shock or sudden realization (about which Woolf wrote in her private writings) found their place in this novel. Woolf was particularly interested in how one’s identity changes in its interaction with the world, how we live through repressed emotions, and how all these experiences shape us. Clarissa Dalloway is an upper-class housewife, with duties that come with her role. At the begining of the novel, she is preparing a party, nothing unusual at the time. However, Woolf draws our attention to who Mrs. Dalloway really is by showing us her soul. The whole novel could actually serve as a great moral lesson not to judge people based on what we think we know about them. Mrs. Dalloway’s life and thoughts intertwine with other people’s destinies, as she tries to understand their actions and contemplate her own life simultaneously. This is clear when it comes to the destiny of Septimus, a man who was once an artistic soul and a poet, but was broken by war. His suicide pushes Mrs. Dalloway further into the depths of her inner quests. Although to others she may seem like a perfect wife and a great lady in higher social circles, the truth is stated in the novel:

            Mrs Dalloway is always giving parties to cover the silence.

In the novel Orlando, Woolf offers her readers something completely different. It is a one of a kind pseudo-biography about Orlando, a character who ages only 36 years in the novel, but experiences over 300 years of life, changing genders from a man to a woman. Although the plot is rather peculiar, you can see Woolf’s ideas in the subtext: the idea of multiple identities and how a person can accumulate different personalities inside herself. It is rather complex, but Woolf thinks that in order to be at peace – one must embrace all of his or her identities. Besides that, Woolf questions the true differences between men and women. Are the differences real, or are we pressuring them to be? Orlando experiences many love adventures and is heartbroken several times, so we may say that Orlando is one of the first novels to speak up about same-sex love and love as a higher entity that does not recognize any differences. Besides that, Woolf discusses conventions and sexual and gender identities:

As all Orlando’s loves had been women, now, through the culpable laggardry of the human frame to adapt itself to convention, though she herself was a woman, it was still a woman she loved; and if the consciousness of being of the same sex had any effect at all, it was to quicken and deepen those feelings which she had had as a man.

In the novel To the Light House, Woolf manipulates the dimension of time, similar to what James Joyce did in his novel Ulysses. In Joyce’s 700 pages long novel, the events actually last only for one day. But with many retrospectives, reminiscences, and descriptions of inner worlds of the characters – to readers, it seems a lot longer. Woolf does the same: by relativizing the notion of time, she focuses on how her characters perceive time. The story in To the Light House is about the Ramsay family, who is staying in the summer house. Different guests accompany them, so there is a lot of life and various stories that go around in their home. The outbreak of World War I crushes the family idyll; and Mrs. Ramsay, among others, contemplates time, memories, and our connection to them. The novel says:

What is the meaning of life? That was all – a simple question; one that tended to close in on one with years, the great revelation had never come. The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead, there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark; here was one.

To the Light House is a book about nothing and everything, all at once. It is important to say that the literature of modernism is not everyone’s cup of tea. Some readers are maybe more used to the traditional forms, where there is a clearer and more linear structure. Novels like these will always leave you with doubts and questions as things are often left unsaid. But, just as our thoughts are fragmentary and often vague, so are the storylines here. If you think twice, there are only a few ways to describe life with such accuracy: it can be confusing and hard to apprehend. If you wish to challenge yourself as a reader and as a person, there is no better way to do it than by grabbing some of Woolf’s novels. 

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