Memory and Desire. Two words most important to the literary work of Virginia Woolf are memory and desire. In some ways, these two words describe the modernist movement in which Woolf played a part.
Woolf wrote great works, plain and simple. Among many other things, she wrote two novels that you should know and one famous essay/speech.
To The Lighthouse
To The Lighthouse follows the life of the Ramsay family, who own a summer house off the coast of Scotland. The book begins like this:
“Yes, of course, if it’s fine tomorrow,” said Mrs. Ramsay. “But you’ll have to be up with the lark,” she added.
To her son these words conveyed an extraordinary joy, as if it were settled, the expedition were bound to take place.
Thus, the book opens with an pre-existent desire, unspoken but known. Mrs. Ramsay’s son wants to travel to the lighthouse. Such an expedition would require more than walking on the beach, it would require rowing a boat out to sea a little ways in order to dock at a small island. Mrs. Ramsay would like to take her son there, she is not opposed to it in anyway, but she, nor anyone else, cannot predict the weather. And she needs her son to know that it will take real effort. He must get up very early.
Woolf’s opening lines set up the important relationship between Mrs. Ramsay and her son, the quest to go see the lighthouse–which becomes layered with new anxieties as time goes on, and the unpredictability of the future. Though the opening lines may feel trivial, the novel is an experiment in how the memory of an unfulfilled desire festers into psychological trauma. Consider how painful it must be if such a simple desire is never realized! Or, consider how bittersweet it must be if by the time they reach the lighthouse everything has changed—people grew, family members died, houses lost. How does one handle the ever-present memory of what going to the lighthouse once meant to them, when it now means something completely different?
To The Lighthouse is a modernist masterpiece for how it bends, plays, and experiments with the intricate relationship between what someone remembers and what they want from their life. Her other novel does much of the same.
Mrs. Dalloway follows Mrs. Dalloway in her quest to prepare a party. She lives in London, she loves to walk, and her ex-lover has just come back into town. An important word for this novel, and for much of Woolf’s writing, is subjectivity. By this word I don’t necessarily mean the assertion that nothing is true other than one’s own perspective—that subjective truth is more important than objectivity—but I mean to indicate the phenomenon in which ten people can witness the same event and think about in ten different ways.
If you want to sound smart at a party, you could read this novel and discuss the peculiarities of Woolf’s stream of consciousness style. Her narrative will be locked on someone’s inner thoughts—giving us their view of the world and only theirs—and then it will switch to another person’s in the nearby vicinity and act as if we had been listening to them the whole time.
Every time I approach this novel I am struck by how it accomplishes something I desperately wish to do in my own writing: use an intentionally-heightened focus on the subjective as a means to demonstrate objectivity to the reader. In other words, Woolf paradoxically shows her readers the truth most clearly in her most self-absorbed characters.
A Room of One’s Own
This essay, published in 1929, was originally a speech giving at a women’s conference. Woolf was asked to speak about women in the workplace, so to speak, since she was well-known as a professional writer. How was it that she succeeded in the male dominated field? The colleges wished to know.
Perhaps the most inviting text to read from all of this, the one with the juiciest thesis, is A Room of One’s Own. Woolf begins her essays by reflecting on the Elizabethan literary era (think Shakespeare), which was dominated by male authors despite the female name given to it. In fact, she writes concerning this time that:
It is a perennial puzzle why no woman wrote a word of that extraordinary literature when every other man, it seemed, was capable of song or sonnet. (35)
To explore this matter further, Woolf imagines a fictitious past in which Shakespeare himself had a sister named Judith, endowed with the same genius DNA as her brother. Would she have produced the same quality of work as he? Read the essay yourself to learn more.
People call this essay a feminist work, and I suppose there is no way to avoid that description any time a woman writes about women writing. But the fact of the matter is that most new-wave feminists wouldn’t agree with the otherwise largely patriarchal Woolf. We should not call this feminist, considering it is merely and importantly a speech delivered by a woman for the betterment of women, betterment being defined by Woolf’s own perspective of the world. What need have we to associate it with the tangled word that either inspires or frustrates?
Woolf’s assessments are fair and timely. She is no feminist trailblazer—she is more than that. She is a literary great. She is timeless.