Virginia Woolf was totally dissatisfied with the current form of the novel as represented by the novels of the Edwardians like Bennett, Wells and Galsworthy. According to her in their novels ‘life escapes’, because life is not what they, especially Bennett, present in their famous novels. The form of the novel which prevailed in the first quarter of this century seemed to her to obscure or even to falsify experience.Then the prominent literary developments of the age were making it impossible for a sensitive writer to remain in a fixed and narrow groove. The new interpretations of consciousness as a continuous stream, the initiation of the movement of time as a pervading quality of reality shook the accepted bases of artistic formula. Some other novelists of this period also felt that existing technique of the novel had outlived its utility; it was no longer able to deal with the complex life of the times. Thus we find Virginia Woolf setting herself to destroy the current form of the novel and then driven to invent one which would express her own vision of life. And Virginia Woolf was a great novelist, and by adopting and developing the ‘stream of consciousness’ technique to capture that ‘uncircumscribed spirit’, the fleetingness of life she advanced the frontiers of the English novel towards new horizons. Her skill in the use of this technique underwent gradual evolution and in some of her later novels her achievement was great and outstanding.
First Two Novels: First Phase
In fact Virginia Woolf started her literary career in 1905 when she began to write critical reviews in the Times Literary Supplement and a few other periodicals. But her first novel, The Voyage Out, was published in 1915 and the second one Night and Day came out in 1919. Both the novels are largely traditional in technique. As regards The Voyage Out the texture of incidents on which the novel is embroidered is really thin. It lacks unity and it cannot be described as an example of the stream of consciousness technique.
In her second novel, Night and Day, it seems she was earnest about making use of her own theories in her writing. But this novel is also an exercise in traditional technique. But in this novel we find her speaking of writing as that process of self-examination, that perpetual effort to understand one’s own feelings and express it beautifully or energetically in language. Night and Day seems to have more depth than the earlier novel and is also a more mature and finished work.
The Middle Phase
Virginia Woolf’s three novels of this phase—Jacob’s Room, Mrs. Dalloway, and To the Lighthouse—clearly reveal that she is coming of age as a novelist. Jacob’s Room was published in 1922. Certain features of this novel give a clear indication that Virginia Woolf was on her way to adopt the ‘stream of consciousness’ technique. It is her first, real and successful use of this new technique. Here we find that the superfluous events have been rejected and the novelist’s entire attention is centred on characterisation through the impressionistic method. Mrs. Woolf sets out to relate the life and death of Jacob Flanders. But she has not followed the technique of the traditional novelists. She simply gives us an impression of the significance of Jacob’s personality which is allowed to emerge from a statement of a few incidents taken from different stages of life, and from what he thinks and says, and from what others think and say of him. There is very little development of the story Virginia Woolf has concentrated on the ‘inner life’ of Jacob Flanders.
Mrs. Dalloway was published in 1925. This novel shows how remarkably Mrs. Woolf has succeeded in adopting the stream of consciousness technique. She no doubt began using the stream of consciousness technique with Jacob’s Room but it is in her next two novels, Mrs. Dalloway and To The Lighthouse, that this technique is carried to its highest level of achievement. In Mrs. Dalloway the action is limited temporarily to a single day in the life of its chief character, specially to a single place,
, and emotionally to the relations of Mrs. Dalloway with a few other people. But as the action is presented in the main through the minds of these few persons, and as the mind ranges without limitation of time and space, the novel is actually concerned more with the past of its characters than with the present of its single day, as much with other scenes as with London. Then the narration does not move forward in a chronological order, but there is much backward and forward movement. Then again just as the action moves in time and space, soon it also moves from one consciousness to another, and this movement throughout is an alternating one. From the consciousness of Mrs. Dalloway we move to the consciousness of Septimus, Rezia, Peter Walsh, Kilman, and others, and are then back again to the consciousness of Mrs. Dalloway. Hence according to R.L. Chambers, “it is on this pattern that the whole structure of the book is carefully built up, and the interesting result is that out of a series of incomplete pieces a complete whole is constructed.” Thus we find that in this novel Virginia Woolf has succeeded in imparting form and coherence to the apparently formless ‘stream of consciousness’ technique. London
Virginia Woolf’s next novel, To the Lighthouse, appeared in 1928 and it reveals greater maturity and even greater command over technique. It is a unique work of art and there is nothing second-hand about this novel. The convention in which it is written permit the novelist to convey with wonderful precision a certain intimate quality of felt life. The novel represents a prefect compromise between the need for formal clarity and the requirements of the ‘stream of consciousness’ technique. In this outstanding novel, the ‘stream of consciousness’ method achieves a balance which it had hitherto seemed to lack. That is why David Daiches justly remarked: “To the Lighthouse is a work in which plot, locale and treatment are so carefully bound up with each other that the resulting whole is more finely organised and more effective than anything else Virginia Woolf wrote.”
The Last Phase
‘The Waves’ and Other: Virginia Woolf was a tireless experimenter. In the last phase we get four more works of fiction from Virginia Woolf: Orlando in 1928, The Waves in 1931, The Years in 1937 and Between the Acts. The last one was published posthumously in 1941. Yet apart from Orlando which is a great book but not a great novel hardly indeed a novel at all—none of these can be said to follow by the logic of artistic development the lines laid down in the work of her middle period, from Jacob’s Room to To the Lighthouse. So in her works of the last phase we find her striking into separate and unconnected byways instead of carrying the ‘stream of consciousness’ method to its logical conclusions.
This is a fantasy-biography, rather a historical fantasy that moves in time from about 1586 to 1928. It belongs to a class by itself. It ‘stands alone, a fantastic and recalcitrant tailpiece to the progress which began with Jacob’s Room’. That is why it has been given innumerable interpretations. A critic has called it ‘a study in multiple personality, and a protest against the too narrow labelling of anybody; a dynamic fantasia on the history of England’s spirit; a learned parable of literary criticism.’ And according to some critics, Orlando seems not to be a novel in any rigid sense of the word.
This is in every way an innovation and it was acclaimed by a few critics as the best work of Virginia Woolf. But the novel has its characteristic defect such as its pattern is excessively formal, even artificial and though it is nearest to poetic drama, its limited mould ignores the wider world of outer reality. The chief merit of this novel lies in its inwardness and its concentratedness. It consists wholly of the mental monologues of its six characters and in this way the novelist has tried to eliminate altogether the subjective element. But the stream of consciousness’ does not require complete elimination of the artist, but its peculiar beauty arises from its fluidity of atmosphere in which the author’s and character’s impressions are convincingly compounded. A balance between the two must be struck and it was struck as perfectly as it has ever been struck in Mrs. Dalloway and in To the Lighthouse, thereby reaching the logical conclusion of artistic development in her method. She aimed at going further in this novel and went beside the mark and thus injured the structure of the novel.
We find Virginia Woolf In The Years reverting to the manner of her earliest phase which is largely traditional. The presentation is no doubt objective, but it is very much lacking in life and vitality. The Years is a scenic novel, so that the reader remembers people and action rather than individual mood and attitudes. But in spite of its striking scenes and beauties of style, the novel, on the whole, seems to be a failure.
“Between the Acts”
Mrs. Woolf’s last novel Between the Acts, published posthumously, has been described as the most symbolical of her novels. But it is also a baffling work, baffling in its symbolic significance as well as in its technique and construction. We have two central figures Isabella and Giles. The writer has presented the two characters through the stream of consciousness technique, but our knowledge of much else that is presented comes through objective description and straightforward statement by the author. And R.L. Chambers has justly remarked “In this respect it is an improvement over the novels of the middle phase, and seems to be the logical and natural development of the stream of consciousness technique.” But still the novel suffers from a serious fault of construction. It has two emotional centres, the pageant on the one hand and the mind of the characters on the other; but there is no inherent and necessary connection between the two. Even so, the excellence of the novel lies in its theme which is the ageless paradox between man’s insatiable thirst for the ideal and his constant preoccupation with the trivial, the dateless limit of human history and the brief candle of an individual life.
After the discussion it becomes crystal clear that Virginia Woolf was really a great experimenter. She experimented with many methods and gave ‘the stream of consciousness’ technique many twists and turns and finally achieved complete success in Mrs. Dallaway and To The Lighthouse. Thus her achievement in the realm of English literature was great and outstanding and according to R.L. Chambers, ‘she advanced the frontiers of the English novel by the mastery of a new and potentially fruitful technique; and so in the lists of great novelists, she will find a place perhaps not without honour’.