VIRGINIA WOOLF’S THE WAVES
ON THE MAKING OF FICTION AND THE CONDITION OF THE WRITER
Lector univ. dr. Anca Mihaela Dobrinescu
Universitatea „Petrol-Gaze”, Ploieşti
Virginia Woolf has been highly praised as an influential modernist writer, her work being generally analysed in terms of her contribution to the setting up of the twentieth-century modernist novel. Far less has been said about Woolf’s critical endeavours and her effort to highlight essential issues pertaining to the making of fiction. The process of theorising upon and unveiling the mechanisms of art was carried out from outside the work of art, in Woolf’s diary and critical essays. Yet, it was equally performed from within the work of art, in “Orlando” and “Between the Acts”, which may be included in the postmodernist paradigm, as a sign of Woolf’s clear intention to move beyond the dead end of modernism the writer seems to have been aware of. Surprisingly, one of Woolf’s most explicitly modernist novels, “The Waves”, fosters an interpretation which places it at the crossroads of two types of literature - modernist and postmodernist. In the former case, the work of art is seen as an end product, in the latter, it is approached as a process, meaning being the result of a negotiation between writer and reader. “The Waves” may be read, the enterprise being equally challenging and rewarding, both as a novel displaying the modernists’ often intriguing techniques, and as one which draws the reader’s attention to the illusional character of art, by focusing on the mechanisms whereby fiction comes into existence.
It is incontestably Virginia Woolf’s modernist narrative discourse that has aroused the interest of twentieth-century readers by its highly innovative character. Little has been said about, or at least little interpretative profit as regards the discourse of Woolf’s novels has been derived from the fact that the writer developed a critical system of her own highlighting relevant issues of literature in general, and of the art of novel writing in particular.
Virginia Woolf combines the endeavours of the creative artist with the lucid analysis of the critic, being at the same time an implicit theorist of literature whose efforts are directed towards defining the essence of literature. These issues are presented both in her diary and critical essays and in most of her novels. This paper will, therefore, focus on Woolf’s theories and theorising process starting from The Waves, one of her major modernist novels, but also making references to the same aspects as they are revealed by the writer’s critical work.
Virginia Woolf seems to invite the reader of her novels to see in the critic-creator combination a code of access to her work. In ‘The New Crusade’ she asserts: “[…] of all the makers poets are apt to be the least communicative about their processes, and, perhaps, owing in part to the ordinary nature of their material, have little or nothing that they choose to discuss with outsiders. The best way of surprising their secrets if very often to read their criticism.” (Essays, p.201)
The Waves is generally interpreted as a Bildungsroman following the development of the six characters from their childhood to death. From a technical point of view, it can be read as an extended monologue, the force or interest to communicate with each other. Yet, I should say that the novel as such is an act of communication between the producer of the text and its audience, the writer constantly drawing the reader’s attention to the fictional character of fiction, involving, thus, the reader in the process of meaning creation.
Any theorist of literature, and Virginia Woolf is definitely one, even if only implicitly, should necessarily start from a definition of the ontological status of literature. Of primary interest to writers and theorists of literature is the relationship between fiction and reality. Fiction finds itself in a paradoxical situation, because, while being different from reality, it uses reality as its material. The initial stage of the approach to the fiction/ reality relationship is the definition, or better said, constant re-definition of the concept of reality.
In her essay ‘How It Strikes a Contemporary’, Woolf offers an image of reality from the contemporary observer’s point of view. “[Ours] is a barren and exhausted age, we repeat, we must look back with envy to the past. Meanwhile it is one of the first fine days of spring. Life is not altogether lacking in colour. The telephone, which interrupts the most serious conversations and cuts short the most weighty observations, has a romance of its own. And the random talk of people who have no chance of immortality and thus can speak their minds out has a setting, often, of lights, streets, houses, human beings, beautiful or grotesque, which will weave itself into the moment for ever.” (The Common Reader, p.298)
The modernist writer concerns him/herself with grasping the meaning of a differently perceived reality, fiction becoming a way of shaping the continuum against which the creative ‘I’ defines his/ her identity. “When I am grown up I shall carry a notebook – a fat book with many pages, methodically lettered. I shall enter my phrases. Under B shall come “Butterfly powder”. If, in my novel, I describe the sun on the window-sill, I shall look under B and find butterfly powder. That will be useful.”(The Waves, p.26)
Virginia Woolf also tries to define life/ reality by the impact it has on the artist’s mind and sensibility, because she is definite about the fact that the literary work is dependent on the writer’s inspired response to some external stimuli. “Examine for a moment an ordinary mind on an ordinary day. The mind receives a myriad impressions – trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpness of steel. From all sides they come, an incessant shower of innumerable atoms; and as they fall, as they shape themselves into the life of Monday or Tuesday, the accent falls differently from of old; […].” (‘Modern Fiction’, p.154)
Adopting the theorist of literature’s position, Virginia Woolf cannot accept the idea that a book about literature is conceivable without ever mentioning a word about the medium of literature, the language. If one is not aware of the centrality of language to the creative process, one will never be able to argue in favour of literature being autonomous and “fiction is treated as a parasite which draws sustenance from life and must in gratitude resemble life or perish.” (‘The Art of Fiction’, p.93) Virginia Woolf’s conviction is that only language (she also implies form) makes a writer’s novel be seen as a work of art. Literature may be regarded as autonomous by complete awareness of the fact that its expression medium has specificity, and that the essence of ‘literariness’ resides in words, in language and not necessarily in a perfect handling of plot and character. “But then the story might wobble; the plot might crumble; ruin might seize upon the characters. The novel, in short, might become a work of art.” (‘The Art of Fiction’, p.93)
The new techniques and the shift of interest on language as such function as an organising principle of the world and of the system of thought. Kermode considers that “the technique of fiction was a matter of intense concern, not only because men wanted, as artists, to refine the instruments they had inherited, but because they felt with much urgency that the condition of the world required kinds of understanding which could not be provided otherwise than by technical innovation.” (Kermode, 1982, p.39)
Bernard may be seen as Woolf’s spokesman of a new conception of writing, he is the image of the writer in the novel. In a universe whose most obvious features are fragmentation and relativity, language and the narrative act become the ordering principles. “ ‘And now,’ said Neville, ‘let Bernard begin. Let him burble on, telling us stories, while we lie recumbent. Let his describe what we have all seen so that it becomes a sequence. Bernard says there is always a story. I am a story.” (The Waves, p.27) Bernard is the one who is aware of the ordering capacity of language. He understands that by talking he can impose coherence upon the incoherent material he seeks knowledge into. The narrative is seen as means of giving meaning to a dismembering and sometimes overwhelming reality. We can identify in Bernard both the writer’s and the reader’s condition, who are inextricably linked in the process of meaning creation, and especially in the making of the fictional world. Language also offers the possibility to reconcile the disconnected elements of one’s identity. “Wait though, Neville; let me talk. The bubbles are rising like the silver bubbles from the floor of a saucepan; image on top of image. I cannot sit down to my book, like Louis, with ferocious tenacity. I must open the little trap-door and let out these linked phrases in which I run together whatever happens, so that instead of incoherence there is perceived a wandering thread, lightly joining together one thing to another. I will tell you the story of the doctor.” (The Waves, p.36)
It seems that all the characters in The Waves relate themselves in one way or another to words, i.e. to language, and its potentialities to create a stable image of a fluctuating self and reality. It is through words that they get hold of a reality which otherwise menaces to push them into nothingness. Literature, conventionally conceived of as a mirror held to reality, can no longer satisfy the modernist writer’s intention to probe the depths of the human nature. Therefore, the literary work, by its technique, should be turned into an instrument flexibly used to analyse both the individual’s relations to the real world and his/her inner self. This idea is apparent in Rhoda’s investigating her faceless self, which is nothing but a multiple faced identity. “Other people have faces; Susan and Jinny have faces; they are here. Their world is the real world. […] whereas I shit and change and am seen through in a second. […] Therefore I hate looking-glasses which show me my real face. Alone, I often fall down into nothingness. I must push my foot stealthily lest I should fall off the edge of the world into nothingness.” (The Waves, p.31)
The importance Virginia Woolf attaches to form makes her permanently question the existence of a perfect one in her novels, perfection generated by the artful match of form and content. The questions she asks acquire a value of generality and may be applied to any type of writing. […] – a prose work. And is it good? That I cannot possibly tell. Does it hang together? Does one part support another? Can I flatter myself that it composes; and is a whole?” (Diary, Sunday, December 29th 1935, p.261) The form she was looking for had to be “Something loose knit, and yet not slovenly, so elastic that it will embrace any thing, solemn, slight or beautiful that comes into my mind.” (Diary, Easter Sunday, April 20th 1919, p.13) The novel, as she conceives it, becomes perfect evidence in favour of her approach to the fiction/ reality relationship based on the concept of mimesis. “Thus a kind of form is, I hope, imposing itself, corresponding to the dimensions of the human being.” (Diary, Wednesday, October 16th 1935, p.258) In a typically postmodern way, Woolf considers that the being of language may be equated to the human being. The dimension she wants to express is the inner one.
A tireless seeker, Virginia Woolf is aware of her being one of the experimental writers. Born and educated in the Victorian tradition, she admits that “[…] I have to some extent forced myself to break every mould and find a fresh form of being, that is of expression, for everything I feel or think.” (Diary, Friday, July 27th 1934, p.220)
Her approach to literature is always a sensible and pertinent one, but it seems to be permeated with the obsessions of the modernist writer in constant search for a new appropriate technique to render the meaning of what she considers to be life.
Virginia Woolf’s constant interest in form and structure may be a result of her not being satisfied with the proper material of art. The language the writer has to make use of is not suited to literature. “I’m going to […] talk about words. Why they won’t let themselves be made a craft of. They tell the truth: they aren’t useful. That there should be two languages: fiction and fact.” (Diary, Saturday, April 3rd 1937, p.260) She implies the concept of reality as used by the realist writers, mainly external reality, reality of facts as compared to the reality modernist writers try to find access to, the inner aspects of life. At the same time, she seems to be anticipating a postmodern anxiety that writers have no words to speak but the words of others and offers the solution of words becoming the drop of silence falling through silence.
Neville’s and Bernard’s counterpoint soliloquies echo Woolf’s concern with the correct relationship established between life and art, between reality and literature, also voicing the postmodernist worry that words are not capable of expressing the complexity of the world and the human nature. “ ‘In a world which contains the present moment,’ said Neville, ‘why discriminate? Nothing should be named lest by so doing we change it. Let it exist, this bank, this beauty, and I, for one instant, steeped in pleasure.’” (The Waves, p.60) versus “I am astonished, as I draw the veil off things with words, how much, how infinitely more than I can say, I have observed.” (The Waves, p.62)
From within a modernist novel par excellence, Virginia Woolf offers a postmodernist solution to a new type of literature, which, unable to use any other words but the words of others, chooses to turn into silence. This is a way of seeing the modernist writer’s attempt to move beyond the dead end of modernism, on the one hand, and a means of acknowledging the creator’s position as an ordering force, on the other. “Bernard’s power fails him and there is no longer any sequence and he sags and twiddles a bit of string and falls silent […]”(The Waves, p.28)
Woolf’s approach to Henry James’s work in ‘On Re-reading Novels’ may serve as a conclusion and an explanation for the writer’s conscious concern with form, technique and structure. “[…] when we speak of form we mean that certain emotions have been placed in the right relations to each other […], that the novelist is able to dispose these emotions and make them tell by methods which he inherits, bends to his purpose, models anew, or even invents for himself. Further, that the reader can detect these devices, and by so doing will deepen his understanding of the book, while, for the rest, it may be expected that novels will lose their chaos and become more and more shapely as the novelist explores and perfects his technique.” (The Moment and Other Essays, p.134) The use of the proper technique falls within the responsibility of the creator. Meaning, however, is a matter of co-operation between writer and reader. The perception of coherence is an act of literary awareness on the part of the reader.
To handle this abundant and complex material, the writer should free himself from any constraints imposed by the inappropriate conventional form. The newly shaped concept of reality “refuses to be contained any longer in such ill-fitting vestments as we provide. Nevertheless, we go on perseveringly, conscientiously, constructing our two and thirty chapters after a design which more and more ceases to resemble the vision of our minds.” (‘Modern Fiction’, p.153)
Interested in redefining the concept of reality, in order to identify the form most able to render it, the modernist writer places him/herself at odds with his/ her predecessors over those aspects of reality he/ she should give prominence to in his/her work. As the narrative focuses on the inner self of the character, probing the human mind, the exterior occurrences become less relevant. This is not to say that they are totally ignored or rejected, but they are given less importance as compared to the same occurrences filtered through and accounted for by the thinking mind. The immediate consequence of this change of interest is that the subjective time replaces the objective one. The mind is capable of uniting past and future, by living in a continuous present. Thus, the fleeting moment and the contingent represent the basis of a new view of chronology. We witness a certain arrest of time, the characters being conceived both in terms of time suspension and time passing. The modern mentality implies an intermingling of the timeless and the temporal, in T. S. Eliot’s terms. “[…] silence closes over our transient passage. This I say is the present moment, this is the first day of the summer holidays. This is part of the emerging monster to whom we are attached.” (The Waves, p.48)
Jinny’s incapability of “following any word through its changes, […] any thought from present to past” (The Waves, p.30) is indicative of the inappropriateness of conventional forms when the intricacies of the human mind and its perceptions of an entangled and relative reality should be expressed.
The relationship between fiction and reality also implies the writer’s attitude to reality and her approach to fiction. Highly modernist in her re-definition of the concept of reality, extremely subjective and individual in her creative activity, torn between these two tendencies, Virginia Woolf pleads, however, in favour of impersonality, seemingly sharing T.S. Eliot’s views of depersonalisation. What she really aims at is the fusion of objectivity and subjectivity by a proper use of the appropriate techniques. In ‘The Modern Essay’ she states: “It is only by knowing how to write that you can make use in literature of your self; that self which, while it is essential to literature, is also its most dangerous antagonist. Never to be yourself and yet always – that is the problem.” (The Common Reader, p.275) In ‘Jane Austen’ impersonality is assimilated to silence on the part of the writer, the narrator avoiding any generalisations which may be seen as interventions of the authorial voice under the form of value judgements sententially passed. “She wishes neither to reform nor to annihilate; she is silent.” (The Common Reader, p.143)
The main condition of existence of a writer is impersonality. The writer assumes a role in the narrative under the form of a literary construct, which is the narrator, effacing his personality and feelings to the benefit of the coming into being of the fictional world. Although often accused of isolation in the ivory tower and lack of interest in their audiences, the modernists always had in view the reception of the their work, being intent on the choice of that technique which could have the most certain effect on the reader. “But also I must give her the impression that though he – for this is not myself – is writing in such an off-hand, such a slapdash way, there is some subtle suggestion of intimacy and respect.” (The Waves, p.58) “My true self breaks off from my assumed. And if I begin to re-write it, she will feel ‘Bernard is posing as a literary man; Bernard is thinking of his biographer’ (which is true).” (The Waves, p.58)
The characters revealing one another, as they are essentially part of the whole, is associated with the use of the point of view and the presence of the narrator. Woolf has been accused of being too subjective, and expressing too obviously her own point of view, especially in the scenes without characters, which she tended to poeticise. She tried to detach herself from her creation by defining the narratorial voice.
While writing The Waves she asked questions relating to narrative technique. “[…] and several problems cry out at once to be solved. Who thinks it? And am I outside the thinker? One wants some device which is not a trick.” (Diary, Wednesday, September 25th 1929, p.146)
In search for a proper narrative voice, Woolf expresses her dissatisfaction with the technique of The Years, thinking over the possibility of using the first person narrative. Yet the technique she most often uses is third-person narrative, because, although she strives to silence her voice, she is not willing to completely give up the control of her narrative. The narrative will become a polyphonic one, the narrator being one of the interacting voices in the novel.
Bernard stands for the God-like presence of the literary work. He seems to hold a position that Woolf apparently criticised and rejected when she qualified writers such as Galsworthy, Bennett and Wells materialists. Bernard’s ‘story’ in Neville’s terms could be equated to the plot Woolf considered unnecessary and consequently sacrificed. This notwithstanding, on a closer analysis of the Woolfian text, the following quotation summarises Woolf’s narrative option, which implies a multiplicity of voices, while subtly preserving at the same time the auctorial presence, not as an intrusion, but as a way of guiding the reader’s interpretations. In addition, it evinces the writer’s contribution to the making of the fictional world, a world which exists in its own right, although it uses reality as its material. “He began it when he rolled his bread into pellets as a child. One pellet was a man, one was a woman. We are all pellets. We are all phrases in Bernard’s story, things he writes down in his notebook under A or B. He tells our story with extraordinary understanding, except of what we most feel. For he does not need us. He is never at our mercy.” (The Waves, p.51)
Bernard’s characterising himself is a hint at the writer’s necessary adoption of a technique involving a multiplicity of voices, among which the writer’s is one, equal yet distinct. “I am not one and simple, but complex and many.” (The Waves, p.56)
The position of the narrator is clearly explained when she analyses Conrad’s work. “It is clear that to admire such deed […] one must be possessed of the double vision; one must be at once inside and out. To praise their silence one must possess a voice. To appreciate their endurance one must be sensitive to fatigue. One must be able to live on equal terms with [the characters].” (‘Joseph Conrad’, p.284) The narrator, i.e. “an accurate and unflinching observer, schooled to that absolute loyalty towards his feelings and sensations, […] which an author should keep hold of in his most exalted moments of creation” (‘Joseph Conrad’, p.286), is the narrative category, which, according to Woolf, manages to strike the correct balance between subjectivity and objectivity, the writer being able to preserve his position of impersonality.
While questioning all aspects of her art, in quest for a perfect instrument able to convey her feelings and thoughts, Virginia Woolf regards the process of writing as necessarily implying the presence of a receiver – reader. Although she says that “I shall never write to ‘please’, to convert” (Diary, Friday, August 6th 1937, p.286), she is nevertheless aware of the necessity of a potential reader, whom she cannot define but whom she has in mind. “Do I ever write, even here, for my own eye? An interesting question rather.” (Diary, Tuesday, August 17th 1937, p.286)
Virginia Woolf often states in her diary that she writes without necessarily being interested in the reading public, that she is not willing to change her way of writing in order to encourage unanimous reception, and win popularity. Yet her theoretical views prove that she cannot be indifferent to the indispensable aspect of the creative process, the reader, and, by involving the reader in the process of meaning creation, Virginia Woolf clearly moves beyond literary text, towards the understanding of literature as discourse.
The effort to impose a new method is accounted for by the necessity of finding the best form for what the novelist wishes to express, on the one hand, and by his intention to prevent predictability, on the other. The novel as a work of art, from Virginia Woolf’s point of view, should not lend itself to predictable reading. The reader is encouraged to permanently discover the meaning according to the writer’s subtly and diplomatically traced pattern. “It seems to us extremely unlikely that anyone could hum the rest of that tune from hearing the first bars. It is plain that if you are ordering your imaginary universe from this angle your men and women will have to adapt themselves to dance to a new measure.” (‘Philosophy in Fiction’, p.209) This is Virginia Woolf’s way of pointing out that literature is ultimately communication, that it is to be seen as discourse. The essence of the whole literary enterprise is that meaning is a result of a negotiation between reader and writer. Novelty is the writer’s responsibility as much as it is the reader’s.
The condition of the modern poet is marked by an obvious duplicity. In ‘My Heart Laid Bare’, Baudelaire considered that “The poet enjoys the incomparable privilege of being, at will, both himself and other people. Like a wandering soul seeking a body, he can enter, whenever he wishes, into anybody’s personality.” (quoted in Nicholls, 1995, p.17) The same duplicity of the modern creator is apparent in Bernard’s definition of his own condition. “I am not part of the street – no, I observe the street. One splits off, therefore.” (The Waves, p.86) The creator’s identity shapes itself in the process of writing. The work of art is rounded off by the writer’s providing the disparate impressions. It gets completeness by the reader’s contribution, who imposes coherence upon the disconnected parts. “[…] I am a natural coiner of words, a blower of bubbles through one thing and another. And, striking off these observations spontaneously I elaborate myself; differentiate myself and […] I conceive myself called upon to provide, some winter’s night, a meaning for all my observations – a line that runs from one to another, a summing up that completes. […] I make my phrases and run off with it to some furnished room where it will be lit by dozens of candles. […] To be myself (I note) I need the illumination of other people’s eyes, and therefore cannot be entirely sure what is my self.” (The Waves, p.87) The condition of the modern writer is that of Proteus due to the endlessly meaning generating quality of the literary work, which is in its turn dependent on reception, therefore on the reader’s contribution. “ I am made and remade continually. Different people draw different words from me.” (The Waves, p.100) The same idea is expressed by: “My being only glitters when all its facets are exposed to many people.” (The Waves, p.142)
Bernard, just like the modernist writer, depends on art. He seems to paraphrase Henry James’ words according to which It is art that makes life, makes interest, makes importance … and I know of no substitute whatever for the force and beauty of its process.” (quoted in Gillie, C., 1975, p.1) “ ‘Had I been born,’ said Bernard, ‘not knowing that one word follows another I might have been, who knows, perhaps anything. As it is, finding sequences everywhere, I cannot bear the pressure of solitude. When I cannot see words curling like rings of smoke round me I am in darkness – I am nothing.” (The Waves, p.99)
The background against which Virginia Woolf created generated a “self-consciousness about art, and the processes whereby it is created.” (Stevenson, 1993, p.241) All twentieth-century writers, modernist and postmodernist alike, have to admit that their condition of modernity resides in the scrutinising of “the nature and validity of existing fictional forms, indirectly installing language, style, and fictional technique as subjects of the novel.”(Stevenson, 1993, p.242)
Through Bernard, Woolf draws the reader’s attention to the fictional character of her art, pointing to the autonomy of the literary act. She also asserts her artistic position, and, as a matter of fact, that of all modernist writers, as an investigator of previously unexplored zones of human existence. For this, she would need a language capable of unveiling the ineffable of life, which she seems unable to find. That is why she expresses her dissatisfaction with the imperfect language she had to use in order to present the complexity of a reality she sometimes felt as overwhelming and difficult to account for. Her discontent makes her look for a solution that the postmodernist writers were often tempted to offer, that of a literature of silence, made of ‘innocent’ words, words that are equally well suited to the material and the spiritual. “ ‘Now to sum up,’ said Bernard. Now to explain to you the meaning of my life. […] The illusion is upon me that something adheres for a moment, has roundness, weight, depth, is completed. […] But in order to make you understand, to give you my life, I must tell you a story – and there are so many, and so many – stories of childhood, stories of school, love, marriage, death, and so on; and none of them are true. Yet like children we tell each other stories, and to decorate them we make up these ridiculous, flamboyant, beautiful phrases. How tired I am of stories, how tired I am of phrases that come down beautifully with their feet on the ground! Also, how I distrust neat designs of life that are drawn upon half-sheets of notepaper. I begin to long for some little language such as lovers use, broken words, inarticulate words, like the shuffling of feet on the pavement. I begin to seek some design more in accordance with those moments of humiliation and triumph that come now and then undeniably.” (The Waves, p.183)
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