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Female Interpretation of the Modernist Reality: Virginia Woolf

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The beginning of the 20th century was a time of confusion and tension that resulted in revolutions, uprisings and eventually World War 1. It was also a time of innovative inventions, new philosophies and attempt to be liberated from the bonds of everything conventional; it was the rise of the modernist era. Modernism, as many critics believe, was a response to the scientific, political and economic developments of the time and the transformed human perception of the "new" reality. The movement arose from the international sense of depression, and the realization of many that there was nothing concrete or reliable anymore. It dealt with the way human personality has changed, as Virginia Woolf once defined it, embraced chaos and absurdity as the way to move beyond the simplistic.

Since gender has always been the topic discussed in literature and philosophy, it has earned some attention in the time of modernism as well. In the past, women were considered inferior to men in their judgment and abilities. Male philosophers and social theorists identified woman "with disorder, savagery, chaos, unreason, and the excluded 'other'". Thus, women writers were a rarity at the time when modernism began to sprout around the world. This paper will analyze the writing of one of the most prominent female modernist writers - Virginia Woolf, whose narrative was innovative, sentence structure - impeccable, and language - imaginative.

Fragmentation and the Broken Narrative

Rachel Blau DuPlessis suggests that ruptures executed on a narrative level by the 20th century women writers represent or even sometimes create disruptions in the often sexist pattern of society. (DuPlessis 21) Male works on female characters often failed to represent the complex female psychology. In To the Lighthouse Woolf presents female psychology as constantly divided between her domestic duties and artistic impulse. With the use of broken sentences, Lily's thoughts jump from tablecloth to her painting to her marriage, embracing in a single line of thought what appear to be disconnected elements, which demonstrates that the psyche of the female artist is often structured on opposing forces. (McLauren 32)

In "Modem Fiction", Woolf expresses a desire to break free from the representational chains of the past. In their stead, she defines the aesthetic vision which she believes will capture the true "reality" of a contemporary world. "Materialist" is the label she reserves for those writers of the past who hold on to simplistic or outmoded conceptions of reality and its relationship to art. In contrast to the materialists, she praises writers like James Joyce for their "spirituality". She expresses her vision of this new aesthetic in the following manner: "let us record the atoms as they fall upon the mind in the order in which they fall, let us trace the pattern, however disconnected and incoherent in appearance, which each sight or incident scores upon the consciousness." The "atoms" which she describes here are a perfect analogy for the kind of reality which she thinks that fiction ought to capture, because atoms constitute matter, but are somehow more elusive than the concrete manifestation of bodies and objects. By breaking the art form down and examining its component "atoms", Woolf is disrupting the unbroken "verisimilitude" of realist art. (Virginia Woolf: Writer's Diary 45)

In Woolf's fiction any kind of social interactions seems riddled with inconsistencies, oscillating between the ecstatic desire to join the communal circle and the discomforting realization that such complete union is never entirely possible. Her perception if disintegrating social bonds leads her to construct narrative techniques which rather than emphasize social cohesion, embody the fragmentation of society. While composing Mrs. Dalloway in 1922, Woolf hits upon the "tunneling process"- her particular version of stream-of-consciousness - as a way to transfer significant form from a visual to a literary medium. The critic R. Brimley Johnson relates this technique to the rejection of the "old reality", and describes it as a search for "that reality which is behind the material, the things that matter, spiritual things, ultimate truth."(McLauren 233)

Her actual execution of her aesthetic strategy in her fiction remains true to her impulse towards fragmentation. In breaking the linearity of realist narrative, she fragments a Victorian world view that operated on an unquestioned belief in objective observation of facts. Woolf replaced this concern for surface details with a stream-of-consciousness technique that taps into the deeper truth that captures a more private and subjective reality. Even the most formalist of her narrative concerns always seek to recreate a pattern that, though abstracted, mimics the rhythm of human life, emotion and interaction.

Jacob's Room is one of Woolf's most radical experimentations with narrative; it is a textual representation of incompletion of narratives and of lives. Fragmentation is realized in the very layout of the novel. The white spaces that Woolf used on the page are gaps which provide the reader with a sequence of separated scenes rather than a narrative and create new forms of connection. Woolf gives us in Jacob's Room the "glimpse of a nose, a shoulder, something turning away, always in movement" (Jacob's Room 143) which she describes as the stress on the figurative nature if the human subject echoes numerous moments in her essays in which she refers to "life" escaping the novelist.

At the same time Woolf possesses a "strongly mystical streak" that contradicts her tendency towards fragmentation because it presupposes the universal and unquestioned existence of such concepts as "truth" and "freedom". Though Woolf views and presents reality as fragmented and ambiguous, this rather modernist impulse always calls for its remedy. Her novels often close with "summation scenes" such as deaths, gatherings, and weddings, in which Woolf seeks a sense of completion and order, which sets her apart from other modernist writers.

Mrs. Dalloway

Mrs. Dalloway's inception was largely influenced by two significant events in her life - her reading of James Joyce Ulysses, the vast modernist novel of the city, and her decision to leave suburban Richmond and return to London.

Although Woolf was obviously impressed by Joyce's stream-of-consciousness technique and his ability to come so "close to the quack of the mind," she also suggests that Joyce's method circumscribes the reader "in self which... never embraces or creates



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