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Analysis of Virginia Woolf’s Stories

Perhaps related to her mental condition is Virginia Woolf’s (25 January 1882 – 28 March 1941) interest in perception and perspective, as well as their relationship to imagination, in many stories. In two short avant-garde pieces—“Monday or Tuesday” (six paragraphs) and “Blue and Green” (two paragraphs, one for each color)—Woolf attempts to convey the reality of the urban and natural worlds through discrete, apparently disconnected associative impressions.

Monday or Tuesday and Blue and Green

In “Monday or Tuesday,” a series of contrasts between up and down, spatially free timelessness (a lazily flying heron) and restrictive timeliness (a clock striking), day and night, inside and outside, present experience and later recollection of it conveys the ordinary cycle of life suggested by the title and helps capture its experiential reality, the concern expressed by the refrain question that closes the second, fourth, and fifth paragraphs: “and truth?”

Similar contrasts inform the two paragraphs describing the blue and green aspects of reality and the feelings associated with them in “Blue and Green.” These two colors are dominant and symbolic throughout Woolf’s short stories. Differing perspectives, which are almost cinematic or painterly, also structure “In the Orchard,” as each of the story’s three sections, dealing with a woman named Miranda sleeping in an orchard, focuses on, in order, the sleeping Miranda in relation to her physical surroundings, the effect of the physical surroundings on Miranda’s dreaming (and thus the interconnection between imagination and external world), and finally a return to the physical environment, with a shift in focus to the orchard’s apple trees and birds. The simultaneity and differing angle of the three perspectives are suggested by the narrative refrain that closes each section, a sentence referring to Miranda jumping upright and exclaiming that she will be late for tea.

The ability of the imagination, a key repeated word inWoolf’s short stories, to perceive accurately the surrounding world is an issue in many of the stories. In “The Mark on the Wall,” a narrator is led into associative musings from speculating about the mark, only to discover, with deflating irony, that the source of the imaginative ramblings is in reality a lowly snail (with the further concluding ironic reversal being an unexpected reference toWorldWar I, whose seriousness undercuts the narrator’s previous whimsical free associations). Even more difficult is the imagination’s perception of people (who and what individuals really are) in the surrounding world. This is the chief problem of the biographer, a task at whichWoolf herself was successful, though not the self-centered and somewhat dishonest novelist’s biographer who narrates “Memoirs of a Novelist.” In the four stories “An Unwritten Novel,” “Moments of Being: ‘Slater’s Pins Have No Points,’” “The Lady in the Looking Glass: A Reflection,” and “The Shooting Party,” a major character or the narrator is led through small details into imaginative flights about the life and personality of an individual— only, in the story’s concluding reversal, to be proved incorrect or be left very doubtful about the picture or account created. Likewise showing a connection between the literary artist’s problem of depicting the truth and the imagination’s problem in probing reality is the story “The Three Pictures,” in which the first picture, of a sailor’s homecoming to a welcoming wife, leads the narrator to imagine further happy events, undercut by the second and third pictures revealing the sailor’s death from a fever contracted overseas and the despair of his wife.

The problem of “and truth?” (as phrased in “Monday or Tuesday”) can be comically superficial, as in the narrator’s wasted sympathetic imaginings in “Sympathy” in response to a newspaper account of Humphrey Hammond’s death, only to discover in the story’s conclusion that the article referred to the elderly father rather than the son (with ironic undercutting of the genuineness of the narrator’s sympathy because of her chagrin about the “deception” and “waste”). In contrast, in “The Fascination of the Pool,” the deeply evocative imagery and symbolism of never-ending layers of stories absorbed by a pool over time, and always going inexhaustibly deeper, have a meditative and melancholic solemnity.

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Kew Gardens

Related to imagination and art (which may or may not bridge the gap between human beings), as well as to social criticism and feminist issues (whether roles and identities unite or divide, fulfill or thwart people), is the motif of isolation and alienation in many of the stories. In “Kew Gardens,” the first paragraph’s twice-repeated detail of the heart-and-tongue shape of the colorful plants symbolizes the potential of love and communication to effect communion, while the colors projected by the flowers from sunlight on various things (mentioned in the first and last paragraphs) symbolize the various couples’ imaginations projected on the environs. In the social context of the park, however, the four sets of strollers are isolated from one another, as is the other major “character” described, the snail; each is solipsistically involved in its own affairs. Only in the fourth set, a romantic young couple, do love and communication seem to promise, though not guarantee, the hope of communion.

Solid Objects

In “Solid Objects,” the first paragraph’s emphasis on a changing perspective (a black dot on the horizon becomes four-legged and then two men) symbolizes how the protagonist’s, John’s, perspective changes from imaginative engagements with people, politics, and ideas, to engagements with small things or concrete objects, beginning with his discovery at the beach of a smooth, irregular fragment of glass. While Charles, John’s friend, at the beach casts flat slate stones into the water, aware of objects only as a means of allowing physical action and release, John becomes attached to them with the child’s and artist’s fascination, which lures him away from the practical and pragmatic adult world of action and politics, in which he had a bright future. John thus becomes alienated from all those around him, including Charles. Symbolically during their last encounter, both end up conversing at cross purposes, neither person understanding the other.

A Haunted House and Lappin and Lapinova

“A Haunted House” and “Lappin and Lapinova” show, respectively, success and failure in human communion. The former story uses the convention of the ghost story and gothic fiction, almost satirically or ironically, to suggest the broader theme of the mystery of the human heart. Implicitly two kinds of mystery are contrasted: the mystery of ghosts, haunted houses, secret treasures, and so on, and the real, important mystery of what is most worthwhile in the universe—the ghostly couple’s lesson at the story’s close that the house’s hidden treasure is love, “the light in the heart.” The implicitly living couple presumably have love, paralleling the ghostly couple’s bond. The cyclical repetitions in the story help convey, stylistically, the pulsation or beating of the human heart, the seat of this love. In contrast, the married couple in “Lappin and Lapinova” become alienated because the husband cannot genuinely share in the wife’s imaginative fantasy of the two of them as rabbit and hare, reverting to his pragmatic and stolid family heritage and an arrogant masculine impatience.

Mrs. Dalloway Party Cycle

Most of the nine stories constituting the Mrs. Dalloway party cycle (“Mrs. Dalloway in Bond Street,” “The New Dress,” “Happiness,” “Ancestors,” “The Introduction,” “Together and Apart,” “The Man Who Loved His Kind,” “A Simple Melody,” “A Summing Up”) naturally deal, by their focus on a social occasion, with communion or alienation, as suggested by the title “Together and Apart.” In “Mrs. Dalloway in Bond Street,” the title character remains isolated or insulated from the surrounding world, symbolized by the gloves that she is going to buy (perhaps for the party), by her general disregard of traffic and other phenomena while she muses about the death of a recent acquaintance, and by her disregard of a literal explosion that ends the story (though paradoxically she communes with an acquaintance by remembering and uttering the name while ignoring the explosion). At the party itself, Mabel Waring, the protagonist of “The New Dress,” is alienated because her new dress, owing to her limited means, seems a failure and source of embarrassment; Stuart Elton, protagonist of “Happiness,” remains withdrawn in himself to preserve an egocentric equilibrium that is his happiness; Mrs. Vallance, protagonist of “Ancestors,” is alienated by the superficial and undignified talk and values of the young around her, in contrast to her past.Woolf’s feminist concerns about the unjust subordination and oppression of women (prominent in “Phyllis and Rosamond,” “The Mysterious Case of Miss V.,” “The Journal of Mistress Joan Martyn,” “A Society,” “A Woman’s College from Outside,” and “The Legacy”) are suggested by the isolation and alienation of Lily Everit, who feels inadequate when introduced to Bob Brinsley, symbol of thoughtless male power and conceit. Despite Everit’s esteemed essay writing (paralleling Woolf’s), Brinsley negligently assumes that she must, as a woman, write poetry, as his initial question shows. Everit feels crushed, stifled, and silenced by the weight of masculine accomplishment in the arts and sciences.

Two impromptu pairings in the Dalloway party cycle—Roderick Serle and Ruth Anning of “Together and Apart,” and Prickett Ellis and Miss O’Keefe of “The Man Who Loved His Kind”—achieve temporary communion: Serle and Anning when they imaginatively attune to each other, sharing profound emotions about experiences in Canterbury; Ellis and O’Keefe when the latter concurs with the former’s concern about the poor excluded from affairs such as Mrs. Dalloway’s party. These couples, however, driven apart at story’s end by the evening’s experience—Serle and Anning when the former is mockingly accosted by a female acquaintance, and Ellis and O’Keefe when the former fails, with some self-centered posturing, to appreciate the latter’s understanding of the need for beauty and imagination in the life lived at all social levels. Only the protagonists of the last two stories of the cycle, George Carslake in “A Simple Melody” and Sasha Latham in “A Summing Up,” achieve a transcendence over isolation and alienation. Carslake melds all the partygoers and himself through a blend of imagination, art, and nature by meditating on a beautiful painting of a heath in the Dalloways’ house and imagining the various partygoers on a walk there that reduces them all to fundamentally decent human beings coalesced in a common enterprise. Like Carslake, Latham achieves wisdom by fixing on inanimate objects, the Dalloways’ beautiful Queen Anne house (art) and a tree in the garden (nature), and meditating on them; like Carslake, Latham sees people admirably united in motion—in her reverie, adventures and survivors sailing on the sea.

Major Works
Novels: Melymbrosia, wr. 1912, pb. 1982, revised pb. 2002 (early version of The Voyage Out; Louise DeSalvo, editor); The Voyage Out, 1915; Night and Day, 1919; Jacob’s Room, 1922; Mrs. Dalloway, 1925; To the Lighthouse, 1927; Orlando: A Biography, 1928; The Waves, 1931; Flush: A Biography, 1933; The Years, 1937; Between the Acts, 1941.
Nonfiction: The Common Reader: First Series, 1925; A Room of One’s Own, 1929; The Common Reader: Second Series, 1932; Three Guineas, 1938; Roger Fry: A Biography, 1940; The Death of the Moth, and Other Essays, 1942; The Moment, and Other Essays, 1947; The Captain’s Death Bed, and Other Essays, 1950; A Writer’s Diary, 1953; Letters: Virginia Woolf and Lytton Strachey, 1956; Granite and Rainbow, 1958; Contemporary Writers, 1965; Collected Essays, Volumes 1-2, 1966; Collected Essays, Volumes 3-4, 1967; The Flight of the Mind: The Letters of Virginia Woolf, Vol. I, 1888-1912, 1975 (pb. in U.S. as The Letters of Virginia Woolf, Vol. I: 1888-1912, 1975; Nigel Nicolson, editor); The London Scene: Five Essays, 1975; Moments of Being, 1976 (Jeanne Schulkind, editor); The Question of Things Happening: The Letters of Virginia Woolf, Vol. II, 1912-1922, 1976 (pb. in U.S. as The Letters of Virginia Woolf, Vol. II: 1912-1922, 1976; Nicolson, editor); A Change of Perspective: The Letters of Virginia Woolf, Vol. III, 1923-1928, 1977 (pb. in U.S. as The Letters of Virginia Woolf, Vol. III: 1923-1928, 1978; Nicolson, editor); Books and Portraits, 1977; The Diary of Virginia Woolf, 1977-1984 (5 volumes; Anne Olivier Bell, editor); A Reflection of the Other Person: The Letters of VirginiaWoolf, Vol. IV, 1929-1931, 1978 (pb. in U.S. as The Letters of Virginia Woolf, Vol. IV: 1929-1931, 1979; Nicolson, editor); The Sickle Side of the Moon: The Letters of Virginia Woolf, Vol. V, 1932-1935, 1979 (pb. in U.S. as The Letters of Virginia Woolf, Vol. V: 1932-1935, 1979; Nicolson, editor); Leave the Letters Til We’re Dead: The Letters of Virginia Woolf, Vol. VI, 1936-1941, 1980 (Nicolson, editor); The Essays of Virginia Woolf, 1987-1994 (4 volumes); Carlyle’s House and Other Sketches, 2003 (David Bradshaw, editor).

Bibliography
Baldwin, Dean R. Virginia Woolf: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne, 1989.
Barrett, Eileen, and Patricia Cramer, eds. Virginia Woolf: Lesbian Readings. New York: New York University Press, 1997.
Bleishman, Avrom. “Forms of the Woolfian Short Story.” In Virginia Woolf: Revaluation and Continuity, edited by Ralph Freedman. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980.
Briggs, Julia. Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life. Orlando, Fla.: Harcourt, 2005.
Dalsimer, Katherine. Virginia Woolf: Becoming a Writer. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2002.
Dick, Susan, ed. Introduction to The Complete Shorter Fiction of Virginia Woolf. 2d ed. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1989.
Head, Dominic. “Experiments in Genre.” In The Modernist Short Story: A Study in Theory and Practice. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1992.
Heilbrun, Carolyn G. Women’s Lives: The View from the Threshold. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999.
King, James. Virginia Woolf. New York: W. W. Norton, 1995.Lee, Hermione. Virginia Woolf. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997.
May, Charles E., ed. Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition. 8 vols. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 2004.
Roe, Sue, and Susan Sellers, eds. The Cambridge Companion to VirginiaWoolf. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

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Categories: Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, Modernism, Short Story

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