Virginia Woolf was born in a family with high literary and cultural standards. Her literary career began in 1905 when she started writing critical reviews in the Times Literary Supplement and in some other periodicals. Contribution of such reviews and essays to literary journals for a decade or so gave her sufficient training in literary craft and enabled her to acquire a certain maturity of outlook.After her marriage with Leonard Woolf they started the Hogarth Press in 1917 which published the writings of eminent men of letters of the day. She also liberally contributed to this Press. She first made her mark as a critic of great insight and sound literary judgement. She also wrote a fairly good number of short stories of considerable merit. Her first novel The Voyage Out came out in 1915 and others followed. Her last novel was published posthumously in 1941. Mrs. Woolf is best known as a novelist and some of her novels are undisputedly great works of art. Outline sketches of her major novel are here.
“The Voyage Out”
Virginia Woolf’s first novel, The Voyage Out was published in 1915. The action of the novel begins in October, 1908 and concludes in the following May. The structure of her first novel is rather conventional. Like most of the first novels of an author it seems to lack strength and conviction. The main story is about Rachel Vinrace. She is a young and inexperienced girl whose practical education is taken up by Helen Ambrose at Santa Marina, a small town to which they have come aboard a Cargo ship from London. She comes across a large number of people there. But still she is troubled by the mysterious immensity and loneliness of existence. She falls in love with Terence Howet. But sadly enough when she has just begun to emerge as a normal young woman, she dies of a tropical fever. In fact the real interest of the novel does not lie in the incidents but the inner world of the character. The novel cannot be described as a typical example of the stream consciousness technique, but still the emphasis on the exploration of inner reality reveals her originality of treatment.
“Night and Day”
Mrs. Woolf s second novel Night and Day was published in 1919. This work of hers unmistakably points out that she was earnest about making use of her own theories in writing. It is a comedy of manners and is most conventional in form. It deals with the life of Katharine Hilbery, a clever and cultured young woman who rejects one lover and accepts another. The theme is love, marriage and family. While comparing it with her first novel one can agree with the writer’s own contention that Night and Day has more depth and is a more mature, finished and satisfactory work than the previous one. Some critics have pointed out that the writer has imparted some autobiographical elements to the heroine, Katherine Hilbery. It may be noted that it was in this very year that Virginia Woolf wrote an essay entitled Modern Fiction. In this she clearly distinguished between the Edwardians and the Georgian novelists, labelling them as materialists and spiritualists respectively.
Whatever may be the opinion of the critics regarding the novel, one cannot but admit that the proud, introspective Katherine Hilbery is undoubtedly a far more convincing piece of characterisation than Rachel Vinrace in The Voyage Out.
Virginia Woolf’s third novel, Jacob’s Room was published in 1922. Certain features of this novel give us a clear indication that Virginia Woolf was on her way to adopt the ‘stream of consciousness technique’. The life of Jacob Flanders is no doubt the theme of the novel, but it is not the life as we normally think of it. After discarding superfluous events the novelist’s entire attention is centred on characterisation through the impressionistic method. Jacob Flanders is not a character seen in the round, but in a series of psychological aspects, or impressions, or moments of deep spiritual insight. Jacob Flanders is one of the three children, all boys, of Betty Flanders. The novel describes a few incidents connected with the life of Jacob who visits places like France, Italy and Greece and his love affairs, adventures and studies also form the subject matter of the novel. But actually in place of the plot there are impressions. So there is very little plot or story in the traditional sense. An eminent critic has rightly commented “Virginia Woolf’s aim is to make human personalities real by absorbing the reader’s interest in their thought-processes, in the working not only of memory but of anticipation, and in the impressions which such personalities make on the minds and memories of those around them.”
This was published in 1925. And this is her first great novel or her greatest claim to immortality. This novel shows how remarkably the novelist has succeeded in adopting ‘the stream of consciousness technique’. The action is limited temporarily to a single day in the life of its chief character, Mrs Dalloway, specially to a single place,
, and emotionally to her relations with a few other people. As the heroine shops or talks, dresses or eats, we are inside her mind, seeing her as she sees herself, sharing her memories and knowing the people she knows or has known through her own eyes. London
In the novel the major characters are only five and they stand out from the rest with a distinctive pre-eminence. It is they alone who reveal their thoughts to the reader in prolonged and repeated interior monologues as well as in conversation. And we find these five major characters moving round each other in two concentric circles, Clarissa, Peter Walsh and Richard Dalloway in the one Septimus and Rezia and Warren Smith in the other. And then around each of these two circles we find a ring of minor characters such as, Sally Seton, Lady Bruton, Hugh Whitbread, Elizabeth Dalloway and the important foil to Clarissa, Dovis Kilman.
The entire action takes place in one day. It moves between Mrs. Dalloway’s preparation for her party in the morning and her presiding over it in the evening on the same day. Within this narrow frame we are also to know her life story from girlhood to her present age of fifty. The story is gradually unfolded by means of the contacts she makes with others.
“To The Lighthouse”
Mrs. Dalloway was followed by To The Lighthouse in 1928. This is considered to be in many ways Mrs. Woolf’s most popular work. This is probably because it makes easier reading and is largely traditional in its structure. But this novel reveals increased maturity and even greater command over her technique. In it the outward structure is simple. It consists of three movements of unequal length and of two different kinds, as it were two acts linked by a chorus. Only ten characters make any prominent appearance and of those ten only seven, Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay, Lily, Mr. Bankes, Mr. Tansley, James and Cam reveal themselves fully in speech and soliloquy.
Of the three parts into which the novel is divided, Part I, ‘The Window’, describes a house party on the island of Skye. The second part, ‘Time Passes’, describes how during the long years of war the house is left to dust and silence and loneliness till Mr. Ramsay is back with two children. Part III, the Lighthouse’, tells us about Mr. Ramsay’s arrival at the Lighthouse with two children after the lapse of ten years and about Lily’s making the last stroke of her brush after having her vision at last.
Mrs. Woolf’s next novel
was also published in 1928 the same year as To The Lighthouse. Orlando is actually a fantasy that moves in time from about 1856 to October, 1928. It may be taken as a fantasy biography. The hero-heroine Orlando grows during 342 years from an Elizabethan boy of sixteen to a twentieth century woman of thirty-six. He is magically changed into a woman. It is based on the life, personality, ancestry and literary background of her friend Victoria Sackville-West. Orlando
Orlando has been given innumerable interpretations. Some critics take it to be ‘a study in a multiple personality, and a pretext against the too narrow labelling of anybody’. Ruth Gruber calls it a satire on criticism. According to another critic: “The book is remarkable not merely for the originality of its construction but for the clearness and pictures queness of its descriptions.”
Virginia Woolf’s next novel, The Waves published in 1931, is in every way an innovation. In this book we find Mrs. Woolf’s furthest extension of the form of the novel proper. In The Waves she throws off completely the old shackles of plot, dialogue and exterior description and achieves an entirely new mode of communication. The Waves seems simple enough in its external pattern. It is written in two types of prose— descriptive and dramatic. The soliloquies of six persons—Bernard, Susan-Neville, Jinny, Louis and Rhoda—constitute the dramatic sequences of The Waves. The dramatic sections have definite place settings but not always definite time settings. In spite of their individual differences, these characters are the same in one way, as all of them are asking questions about the meaning of life and experience. None of them is content with a day-to-day living regulated by the social standard and patterns.
The Years was published in 1931, six years after the publication of The Waves. The Years, in certain respects, may resemble The Waves, but it is not a repetition of that book. In fact The Years deals with material ignored by The Waves. Of course like the previous novel The Years follows a number of people from youth to age. We get ten relatively short sections followed by a long summing up. The central idea traced in the life of the Pargiter family from 1880 onwards is still that of the overflowing nature of the consciousness, and of time as a meeting place of past, present and future. The descriptions of the weather begin each section of The Years, and such descriptions also begin many of the subdivisions within each sections. And the important function of these descriptions is to produce a union of apparent opposites within the novel itself. But the novel makes difficult reading as order and coherence have vanished entirely from it, and hence the novel is generally considered a failure.
“Between the Acts”
Virginia Woolf’s last novel, Between the Acts, was published posthumously in 1941. It was written under the direct shadow of the Second World War. The title is very appropriate for it deals with the events which happen during the intervals between the Acts of a pageant staged in the barn or the neighbouring manor house, according to the whims of the weather. The main characters belong to the family which owns the house. The action is limited to twenty-four hours and the simple plot provides a view point from which the various aspects of the present are seen in relation to the past history of England. The novel has been described as the most symbolical of Virginia Woolf’s novels.
“It allows also for the recurrence of certain themes which are important in the writer’s vision of human life, such as the isolation of human beings, the rhythmic ebb and flow of love, the impulse to find or to create beauty and significance.”