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The relationship between form and content in Virginia Woolf's novels The relationship between form and content in Virginia Woolf's novels

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How far do the author's main concerns and beliefs dictate the narrative techniques she (he) adopts in her (his) novels? This is an intriguing question which, depending on the author, will probably require different answers. Relationally, and "a priori", one would think that there should be a strong relationship between form and content in a novel so as to make it an aesthetic, coherent whole. In what concerns Virginia Woolf's novels one notices, after a close analysis, that there is such a relationship between some of the ideas conveyed by her characters, in a significative number, and some of the narrative techniques she adopted. And this is what we shall be examining next. How far do the author's main concerns and beliefs dictate the narrative techniques she (he) adopts in her (his) novels? This is an intriguing question which, depending on the author, will probably require different answers. Relationally, and "a priori", one would think that there should be a strong relationship between form and content in a novel so as to make it an aesthetic, coherent whole. In what concerns Virginia Woolf's novels one notices, after a close analysis, that there is such a relationship between some of the ideas conveyed by her characters, in a significative number, and some of the narrative techniques she adopted. And this is what we shall be examining next.
THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN FORM AND
CONTENT IN VIRGINIA WOOLF'S NOVELS
BERNADETE PASOLD
How far do the author's main concerns and beliefs dictate the
narrative techniques she (he) adopts in her (his) novels? This is an
intriguing question which, depending on the author, will probably
require different answers. Relationally, and "a priori", one would think
that there should be a strong relationship between form and content
in a novel so as to make it an aesthetic, coherent whole. In what
concerns Virginia Woolf's novels one notices, after a close analysis,
that there is such a relationship between some of the ideas conveyed
by her characters, in a significative number, and some of the narrative
techniques she adopted. And this is what we shall be examining next.
Concerning point of view, for example, and adopting Friedman's
categories
l
, we notice a predominance in Mrs. Woolf's fiction of the
multiple selective omniscience, in which there is a composite of
viewing angles, no narrator or a neutral one, and the story comes
directly through the minds of the characters. This is the case of
Mrs.
Dalloway
2
in which the reader forgets about the existence of a
narrator, except for one or two slight interferences only acknowledged
in a second reading. The multiple selective omniscience comes
combined with neutral omniscience in The Voyage Out
3
, Night and
Day
4
, To the Lighthouse
s
and
The Years
6
,
and combined with the
dramatic mode in
The Wa
y
es.
7
Well, the neutrality or absence of the
narrator configures an author who did not wish to be didactic and
moved him or herself into anonymity, but it also fits Virginia Woolf's
characters' rejection of tyranny and the writer's attack on man's wish
of command. Thus, in
Mrs. Dalloway,
Clarissa hates religious and
idealist people because they do not respect people's privacy, "the
104
llha do Desterro
privacy of the soul", as she calls it, and cover their wish of command
with idealism and/or religion. And she seems to summarize her point:
Had she ever tried to convert anyone herself?
Did she not wish everybody merely to be themselves?(p.191)
In
To the Lighthouse it is
a character, Mr. Ramsay, who
personifies man's inclination to authoritarianism. His aloofness and
tyranny turn him into an unsympathetic character in contrast with his
wife, tolerant and beloved by her family and friends.
In
The Years,
Nicholas reaffirms man's impossibility of judging
anyone when he asks, `If we do not know ourselves, how can we know
other people?' (p.236). And a similar idea is conveyed by Ralph, in
Night and Day: "'I doubt that one human being ever understands
another', he had said..." (p.226) and by Isa in
Between the Acts:
"Well,
was it wrong if he was that word? Why judge each other? Do we know
each other? Not here, not now."
8
In
The Voyage Out
characters discuss
different topics and it is up to the reader to side with any of them.
Indeed, this impossibility of judging anyone is based on the
assumption that man is composed of several selves and is therefore
unknown to himself and
even
more acutely to the others. Such ideas
are conveyed by several characters in Mrs. Woolf's novels. By Mrs.
Ramsay, for example: "Who knows what we are, what we feel? Who
knows even at the moment of intimacy, this is knowledge?"
(To the
Lighthouse,
p.159-60) Also by Rachel, in
The Voyage Out:
"So too,
although she was going to marry him and to live with him
for
thirty,
forty, of fifty years, and to quarrel, and to be so close to him, she was
independent of him; she was independent of everything else" (p.322).
The narrator in
Orlando
reinforces a similar idea: "... these selves of
which we are built up, one on top of another, as plates are piled on a
waiter's hand, have attachments elsewhere, sympathies, ... so that one
will only come if it is raining, another in a room with green curtains,
another when Mrs. Jones is not there ...."9
This impossibility of knowing each other leads inevitably to
solitude, as it is put in
Jacob's Room: "...
it was not that he himself
happened to be lonely, but that all people are,"
1
° and also to the idea
that love may bridge the natural gap between human beings, as
Eleanor seems to say: "Anyhow, she thought, they are aware of each
other, they live in each other; what else is love, she asked, listening to
their laughter"
(The Years,
p.282).
Thus one notices that there is a chain of ideas connected in
Virginia Woolf's fiction based on the individuality of human beings,
and the awareness of such an individuality seems to be reinforced by
Bernadete Pasold /
The Relationship Between...
105
the several points of view — the multiple selective omniscience — she
adopted in most of her novels. Plainly speaking, she seems to say:
"People are different and they think differently!"
The lack of didacticism is also evident in her preference for open
plots, plots that convey no theses. This is the case of
Mrs. Dalloway,
To the Lighthouse, Orlando, The Years, The Waves
and
Between the
Acts,
in fact, of all the novels she wrote after
Jacob's Room.
The multiple selective omniscience by itself or combined with a
neutral narrator seems also to fit an idea concerning art conveyed by
Miss La Trobe, the playwright in
Between the Acts:
the necessity of art
to create illusion, the illusion of reality: "This is death, death, she noted
in the margin of her mind; when illusion fails" (p.131). She seems to
echo Ford Madox Ford's words: "The object of the novelist is to keep
the reader entirely oblivious of the fact that the author exists — even
of the fact that he is reading a book."11
Another technique we find in Virginia Woolf's fiction is
time-montage. As we know, it is the superimposition of images or ideas
from one time on those of another, and in this case the subject can
remain fixed in space and his consciousness can move in time.12
Flashbacks and flashforwards are the two types of time-montage, and
we find innumerous examples of the first type in
Mrs. Dalloway, To the
Lighthouse, The Waves, The years
and
Between the Acts,
and fewer
examples of flashforwards. The opening page of
Mrs. Dalloway is
a
good example of time-montage, with flashbacks and flashforwards, for
Clarissa remembers her youth in Bourton and foresees Peter Walsh's
visit on his coming back from India, as she opens the window of her
house in London.
This going back and forth in time so that chronological time
seems unimportant and with little connection with psychological time
finds echo in some ideas conveyed by her characters. Thus, in
Between
the Acts,
Isa reinforces the discrepancy between clock-time and
internal time: "It took her five seconds in actual time, in mind time
ever so much longer" (p.11).
In
Orlando
the author really plays with time, since Orlando grows
during 342 years from an Elizabethan boy of sixteen to a
twentieth-century woman of thirty-six, without forgetting any of the
events of his/her life and without changing inwardly.
The frequent use of flashbacks is also in accordance with the
character's acknowledgement of the importance of the past. Thus,
in
Night and Day
Mrs. Hilbery
says:
"'After all, what is the present? Half
of it's the past, and the better half too, I should say', she added ..."
(p.7). In the same book, her daughter feels suffocated by it: "The depth
of her own pride and love were not more apparent to her than the
106
Ilha do Desterro
sense that the dead asked neither flowers nor regrets, but a share in
the life which they had given her, the life which they had lived" (p.338).
The same kind of feeling is shared by Isa, in
Between the Acts,
and by
Bernard, in
The Waves:
"It is strange how the dead leap out on us at
street corners or in dreams"
(The Waves, p.185) Eleanor, in
The Years,
is also keenly aware of the actuality of her past: "Her past seemed to
be rising above her present" (p.129).
Louis, in
The Waves,
and Mrs. Swithin, in
Between the Acts,
are
not only aware of their past but seem to carry with them the burden
of an historical past, of the histoy of mankind:
.
I force myself to state, if only in one line of unwritten
poetry, this moment; to mark this inch in the long, long
history that began in Egypt, in the time of the Pharaohs,
when women carried red pitchers to the Nile. I seem already
to have lived many thousand years
(The Waves,
p. 45)
In
To the Lighthouse
Mrs. Ramsay, although dead, lives in the memory
of those who loved her.
Thus, the superimposition of the past upon the present seems to
convey the importance of the past in people's lives, providing people
with identity and experience. Even the unity of time in
Mrs. Dalloway
and Between the Acts
(roughly one day) seems to corroborate the
author's belief in the importance of psychological time. So much
happens in the minds of the characters in less than twenty-four hours
that the day as a compound of those hours ceases to exist.
Another feature of Virginia Woolf's novels is "epiphany" or
"moment of vision", that sudden revelation of truth that occurs
generally once in a lifetime and to very special people. A quite
explained epiphany occurs in the
The Voyage Out
and
Between the Acts.
The epiphany as Joyce's first conception of it
13
, without development
or explanation, appears in
Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, The
Waves
and
The Years.
This sudden moment of illumination seems to fit
some characters' unsuccessful attempt to find a meaning for life.
Instead, they find moments of meaning, as Lily Briscoe explains in
To
the Lighthouse:
What
it the meaning of life? That was all a simple question;
one that tended to close in on one with years. The great
revelation had never come. The great revelation perhaps
never did come. Instead there were little daily miracles,
illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark; here
was one. This, that, and the other.... (p.150)
Bernadete Pasold /
The Relationship Between...
107
Interestingly, when she finishes her picture and says: "I have had my
vision", it is already past.
The small amount of dialogues in Mrs. Woolf's fiction as
compared to the amount of interior monologues —
Mrs. Dalloway, To
the Lighthouse, The Years —
or soliloquies -
The Waves —
seems to
emphasize her characters' idea that words are inefficient for
communication. Thus, in
To the Lighthouse
Lily thinks: "... one could
say nothing to nobody. The urgency of the moment always missed its
mark. Words fluttered sideways and struck the object inches too low"
(p.165). And Eleanor, in The Years, reflects: "She was sorry she had
spoken; and the words were not the ones she had meant to use"
(p.219).
Instead of words, gestures, the senses, silence or music can
achieve communication. Thus, in
Mrs. Dalloway
Richard holds
Clarissa's hand and she understands that he is making her a love
declaration; in
Night and Day
Katharine and Ralph finally comunicate
through his drawings and her calculi; in
The Years
and in
Between the
Acts
characters communicate through their eyes, in silent dialogues.
Rachel, in
The Voyage Out
can only communicate through the music
she plays on the piano.
The concern with man's individuality and unattainableness,
human solitude and the difficulty of communication, configures a
writer worried with human relationships. The question seems to be:
how to establish relationships without sacrificing one's privacy? This
question is discussed indirectly in all Mrs. Woolf's novels through
different situations of which love, marriage and family life seem to be
central ones. And this question, which embodies a basic concern, may
explain the large number of characters one finds in her novels and the
well-peopled world they inhabit. Even
The Voyage Out
and
To the
Lighthouse,
which are set on islands, present a great number of
characters in contact with each other so that there is an ironic contrast
between the heroines' urge for privacy and their environment.
London is the setting of
Night and Day, Jacob's Room, Mrs.
Dalloway
and
The Years, what
made Bernard Blackstone remark that
Virginia Woolf belongs to the great tradition of London novelists."
Clearly an urban novelist, Virginia Woolf's characters' paradoxical
urge for both communication and solitude seems more poignant
exactly because they inhabit a well-peopled world. Such a dichotomy
Would not be so evident if they were physically alone, and clearly
transmits what the author herself once wrote: "Incessant company is
as bad as solitary confinement."15
Thus we see that in what concerns Virginia Woolf's novels there
is a strong connection between form and content, as if the ideas
108
Itha do Deslerro
conveyed by her characters dictated the narrative techniques she
adopted, such as the multiple selective omniscient point of view,
epiphany, time-montage, open plots, well-peopled setting, interior
monologues. Or perhaps the techniques dictated the ideas? Anyway,
such a connection, responsible for the organicity of her best novels
may explain the unique aesthetic and intellectual pleasure one
experiences in reading her fiction.
NOTES
Norman Friedman, "Point of View in Fiction. The Development of a Critical
Concept".
PMLA.
LXX (1955): 108-37
2 Virginia Woolf,
Mrs. Dalloway
(New York, Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., n.d.);
subsequent references to this edition.
3 Virginia Woolf,
The Voyage Out
(London, Granada Publishing Ltd., 1981);
subsequent references to this edition.
4 Virginia Woolf,
Night and Day
(London, The Horgarth Press, 1950); subsequent
references to this edition.
S Virginia Woolf,
To the Lighthouse
(Great Britain, Triad/Panther Books, 1977);
subsequent references to this edition.
6 Virginia Woolf,
The Years
(London, Granada Publishing Ltd., 1979); subsequent
references to this edition.
7 Virginia Woolf,
The Waves
(London, Granada Publishing Ltd., 1982); subsequent
references to this edition.
8 Virginia Woolf, Between the Acts (London, Granada Publishing Ltd., 1982), p.49;
subsequent references to this edition.
9 Virginia Woolf,
Orlando: A Biography
(Great Britain, Penguin Books, 1963)
10 Virginia Woolf,
Jacob's Room
(London, Granada Publishing Ltd., 1981), p.130
11 Quoted by Miriam Allot,
Novelists on the Novel
(London, Routledge & Kegan Paul,
1968), p.273
12 Carlos Alberto Rabaca & Gustavo Barbosa,
Dicionario de Comunicacdo
(Rio,
Editora Codecri, 1978).
13 For a thorough analysis of epiphany as used by Joyce see Olga de 5d,
A Escritura
de Clarice Lispector
(PetrOpolis/Lorena, Ed. Vozes Ltda., Faculdades lntegradas
Teresa d'Avila, 1979), p.130-60
14 Bernard Blackstone,
Virginia Woolf A Commentary
(London, The Hogarth Press,
1949), p.62
15 Leonard Woolf (editor),
A Writer's Diary
(Great Britain, Triad/Granada, 1981),
p.324
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