Remembering Virginia Woolf

by Asiya Haouchine

“Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.” — Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

Virginia Woolf in 1902. (Photo/George Charles Beresford/Hulton Archive/Getty Images| Public Domain)
Virginia Woolf in 1902. (Photo/George Charles Beresford/Hulton Archive/Getty Images| Public Domain)

English writer and modernist pioneer, Virginia Woolf was born one-hundred and thirty four years ago today. Woolf’s nonlinear, dream-like style was inspired, perhaps, by her childhood throughout which her parents cultivated her mind to appreciate the arts and the art of writing. Her parents were well connected in both art and social circles, and owned a large Victorian library whose books the young Woolf and her sisters were educated by—allowing Woolf to inundate her imagination with the English classics and the recent works of Henry James, James Russell Lowell, and George Henry Lewes, who were also frequent visitors of the family household.

Mrs Dalloway (1925), perhaps Woolf’s best-known novel, explored a relatively new style of writing that emerged with James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) and Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu (1913-1927)—the stream of consciousness. The narrative device gives the reader a front row seat to the character’s inner monologue and thought processes as connected to his or her actions and interactions. The term was coined in 1890 by the philosopher and psychologist William James:

Consciousness, then, does not appear to itself chopped up in bits. Such words as ‘chain’ or ‘train’ do not describe it fitly as it presents itself in the first instance. It is nothing jointed; it flows. A ‘river’ or a ‘stream’ are the metaphors by which it is most naturally described. In talking of it hereafter, let us call it the stream of thought, of consciousness, or of subjective life.1

Like the protagonists’ interior monologues in T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (1915) and Ulysses, Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway follows a single day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway as she prepares to host a party later in the evening and that of Septimus Smith, a World War I veteran suffering from hallucinations and posttraumatic stress disorder. Woolf expertly relays the human train of thought onto paper whilst dealing with mental illness, feminism, and time. Not a stranger to mental illness (Woolf herself suffering from what is now called bipolar disorder), Woolf intersperses Mrs. Dalloway’s inner musings with highs and lows:

He had thrown himself from a window. Up had flashed the ground; through him, blundering, bruising, went the rusty spikes. There he lay with a thud, thud, thud in his brain, and then a suffocation of blackness. So she saw it (Woolf 1211).2

…as she began to go with Miss Pym from jar to jar, choosing, nonsense, nonsense, she said to herself, more and more gently, as if this beauty, this scent, this colour, and Miss Pym liking her, trusting her, were a wave which she let flow over her and surmount that hatred, that monster, surmount it all; and it lifted her up and up… (Woolf 1115).3

As Mrs. Dalloway experiences the love she has for life, her thoughts flow easily rather than the disjointed and less complicated thoughts she has when thinking of death. As she buys flowers from Miss Pym, Mrs. Dalloway’s mood is lifted and is evident in her choice of language. When she turns her thoughts to Septimus’s suicide, her thoughts come out like short punches—blunt and morbid—knocking her down, unlike the flower shop that lifted her up.

Woolf makes a clear statement about Victorian attitudes toward mental illness as she juxtaposes Septimus’s mental illness with Mrs. Dalloway’s. Women’s roles were in the home—dedicated to their loved ones. Mental illness was viewed as feminine grief, thus forcing men to suppress their depression, anxiety, etc., in order to maintain their masculinity. Dr. Holmes and Sir William Bradshaw refuse to acknowledge that Septimus is actually ill, and as such, are unable to prevent his inevitable suicide. Women fared no better, as they were prescribed sham treatments such as “rest cure,” hoping to heal the mind by focusing on physical ailments. The lack of proper psychological treatment in Mrs. Dalloway reflected Woolf’s plight with manic depression and the danger of male medicine.

Though she suffered from four major mental breakdowns—the last contributing to her suicide in 1941—Woolf never stopped writing. Nine novels; six short story collections; countless non-fiction books and essays, including A Room of One’s Own (1929) and On Being Ill (1930), are left in Woolf’s wake as her legacy lives on, urging writers to write “what you wish to write, that is all that matters; and whether it matters for ages or only for hours, nobody can say.”4

End Notes

  1. James, William. The Principles of Psychology. New York: Dover Publications, 1950. Web. 25 Jan. 2016.
  2. Woolf, Virginia. “Mrs. Dalloway.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2013. Print.
  3. Woolf, Virginia. “Mrs. Dalloway.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2013. Print.
  4. Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. Project Gutenberg of Australia, 2002. eBook. 25 Jan. 2016.

Asiya Haouchine is an English and Journalism major at the University of Connecticut. She is the online and blog editor for the Long River Review.

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