Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Virginia Woolf's success in creating 'Modern Fiction'

Inspired by Amateur Reader's post - Herman Melville's Mardi was written by Herman Melville:

Read Virginia Woolf's essay Modern Fiction HERE, The Mark on the Wall HERE, and To The Lighthouse (Chapter 6 - Starting with the words "He was safe..." to end of chapter) HERE. Because To The Lighthouse is a novel, I figured it would make the most sense to tackle a representative except for readers not familiar with the book.

I love to read because the things I learn from books inform the choices I make when writing. A close reading of any great piece of literature can guide its reader through the author's processes and intentions, can influence (not define) an aspiring writer's style and motivate him or her to take care that each word tell. Virginia Woolf is one of my favorite authors for this reason. She not only provides the active reader stimulating and instructing fiction, but in her essay Modern Fiction, she outlines criteria by which modern fiction should be evaluated - and holds herself to her own standards. By her own definitions, Woolf creates, in varying degrees of success, modern fiction.

In 1921, Virginia Woolf's The Mark on the Wall was published, in 1925, her book The Common Reader, which contained Modern Fiction, and in 1927, To the Lighthouse. In this 6 year period we see Woolf's work progress from exemplary, but aimless, to challenging and purposeful - and have her own words as the bellwether by which to measure that progress. I consider these my formative literary years, and what better example
than Woolf for taking literary matters in one's own hands can a girl have!

In Modern Fiction, Woolf defines two types of fiction, that which is concerned with the body, and the most desirable - that which is concerned with the spirit. Novels concerned with the spirit, she claims, are "what it is we exact." If that is true, then we as readers get exactly what it is we exact from Woolf's To The Lighthouse - and while we come closer to the spirit, to "life" in The Mark on the Wall than in what Woolf terms as "materialist" fiction, the piece still does not satisfy the readers quest for "the essential thing" it is we search for in fiction, "whether we call it life or spirit, truth or reality." For that reason, I believe Virginia Woolf truly becomes VIRGINIA WOOLF in To the Lighthouse - and in The Mark on the Wall, she is well on her way. Woolf assigns properties to what she considers fiction concerned with both the body and with the mind - and believes that "life exists more fully in what is commonly thought big than in what is commonly thought small." In that sense, both To The Light House and The Mark On The Wall contain some aspect of "life" by Woolf's own definition - but To The Lighthouse succeeds in adhering to more of the properties that readers now know to be hallmarks of Woolf's best work.

To The Lighthouse, the character Mr. Ramsay contemplates his place in the world while in real time observing his wife read to his son. In The Mark On The Wall, Woolf's speaker chronicles random thoughts while in real time looking at the titular mark on the wall. In exploring the thoughts of their respective speakers, both pieces capture the "myriad impressions" that Woolf claims "the mind receives" in Modern Fiction. However, these impressions are to an end in To The Light House, whereas in The Mark On The Wall they seem scattered, and to have no specific purpose.

In being concerned with the spirit, a piece of fiction must focus on the abstract rather than the concrete and in
The Mark On The Wall, the speaker's thoughts are centered on physical objects (trees, birds, wood); in To The Light House Mr. Ramsay's abstract thoughts are only spoken of in concrete terms to make tangible abstract concepts. Just as with the literal body and spirit, both can be perceived, but only the body physically.

To The Lighthouse, while it employs a stream of consciousness style is less self-concerned than The Mark On The Wall. Because The Mark On The Wall is written in first person, with phrases "I like," "I understand," "I should," "I feel," repeated as often as they are, the piece seems selfish and "never embraces or creates what is outside itself or beyond"; it has "the effect of something angular and isolated", all of which are qualities Woolf attributes to "materialist" fiction.

In both pieces, "emphasis is laid in unexpected places." Because Mr. Ramsay in
To The Lighthouse grapples with his position in his own life and family, this emphasis is in unexpected, yet logical places - always keeping in mind the book's overall aim and maintaining an "obedience to vision." Historical figures of questionable importance, how a dying soldier will be remembered, the alphabet used as a concrete analogy for Mr. Ramsay's quest through his own mind - these seemingly disparate mentions all converge to illuminate Mr. Ramsay's existential musings. The emphasis in To The Light House don't seem to achieve any greater purpose than to "record the atoms as they fall upon the mind... however disconnected and incoherent in appearance."

Like the works of the Russian artists Woolf praises as "saintly" in Modern Fiction,
To The Lighthouse appears "vague and inconclusive" only in that it asks many unanswered rhetorical questions. Similarly, Woolf states in her essay that "life presents question after question which must be left to sound on after the story is over". Mr. Ramsay's vacillating between a life dedicated to family and one to work constantly begs the question "Who shall blame him?" while suggesting his favoring the former. Of course, no one could blame a man for choosing his family over his work - though it's a question people struggle with every day.

The Mark On The Wall asks questions as well, but they are self-involved, have no larger implications beyond the story's speaker and give the reader no incentive to want to know their answers. They do not "endeavor to reach some goal worthy of the most exacting demands of the spirit".

To the Lighthouse is by Woolf's own definition a true work concerning the spirit in that it embodies "life" - which is what Woolf believes modern fiction should always endeavor to do. The Mark on the Wall was a valiant effort, but pales in comparison to Woolf's later work. In To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf becomes VIRGINIA WOOLF.

*The Amateur Reader said this would be a tricky post and it WAS! I'm not even sure I'm saying everything I mean to say, but this is my first go at explaining an author's coming into her own. I may rehash this later with more textual examples from TTLH and TMOTW - because I only used quotes from Modern Fiction in the post above.

IN OTHER NEWS - tomorrow is Becca's Book Blog's

So far, So good!


Amateur Reader said...

So I read "The Mark on the Wall" last night - like I have anything better to do - and I see just what you mean. Knowing what came later, I can hear hints of Woolf's mature voice, but the early story is so stiff and self-conscious.

For example, the passage where the narrator is thinking about her thoughts - "let me catch hold of the first idea that passes". I don't know who this sounds like, but it's not quite natural, and it's not the author of Mrs. Dalloway.

I loved the passage about the antiquarian colonel and his elderly wife who wants to either make plum jam or clean out the study.

Rebecca V. O'Neal said...


In The Mark on the Wall, Woolf is telling the reader what and how she wants to write - narrating her process. By Mrs. Dalloway, it's all been internalized.

thanks for commenting!

Flo said...

What a great insight intp the progression of Woolf's work. I have not read any of her essays but am currently reading her early work and diaries. I am fascinated by the progression of her work. I'll come back to this post when I've read Mark on the Wall