Virginia Woolf is regarded as one of the most significant authors of the modernist period. She experimented with different techniques, forms and structures and it is this experimentation and introduction of a new style that defines her as a modernist writer. Modernism was a cultural movement over the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries that was not only in literature but in art, music and architecture. It was a rejection of the traditional, conventional past and embodied experimentation and the challenging of established conventions.
There were many factors that lead to the establishment of modernist characteristics such as WWI, Sigmund Freud’s theory on psychoanalysis, Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution and the Industrial Revolution. These introduced a new way of thinking which was ideas of existentialism, the subconscious, and the sense of a lonely, isolated individual trying to make sense of a fragmented and almost alien society. I will explore these ideas further in this essay with discussion of how Virginia Woolf represents a modernist writer by using the following points.
Virginia Woolf was influenced by events and developments to challenge the classic writing conventions, and Virginia Woolf not only used the conventions of the modernist period but developed them further. Virginia Woolf was influenced by events and developments to challenge the classic writing conventions. In the previous literary period, writers spoke in a third person omniscient voice with patriarchal values, religion and a clear unchangeable social hierarchy present. Sigmund Freud’s theory of psychoanalysis was not the first but was the one that became popular and well-known around the world.
Virginia Woolf became inspired by the writing of Freud and therefore incorporated the exploration of the subconscious and the underlying psychological and emotional motives of characters in her writings. The facets of Freudian aspects that Woolf mainly focuses on are especially evident through her use of stream of consciousness, where the thoughts and feelings of a character are written simply as a jumble of thoughts that however are still connected. The syntax gives a long flow of sentences and continuous access into the characters mind which, before this time, was not done.
An example of this is in Woolf’s novel Mrs Dalloway where it is narrated through the point of view of what is happening inside the characters minds. Another major event of the time was WWI. This novel is based post-WWI and consequently reflects the insecurities felt after this war. For example, in Mrs Dalloway Woolf writes in such a way that produces confusion for the reader, especially through the lack of closure in the novel leaving the reader more uncertain. Woolf also directly focuses on the war and its unsettling consequences in Mrs Dalloway as she talks about how a boy was killed and now his Manor House must go to a cousin.
The traditional English hierarchy has been disturbed and the war has directly damaged their conventional world. This changing of conventions is a key factor of modernist writing. Another major occurrence in the modernist period that Virginia Woolf took inspiration from was the technological advancements which were the first stages of globalisation. The invention of the wireless and other communications made people feel so much smaller in contrast to the huge and growing world. This idea is emphasised by the discovery of other galaxies, playing with people’s conceptions of time and space.
Ideas about time and space play a major role in modernist writing and the writings of Virginia Woolf are no different. In her novel Mrs Dalloway all the action happens over the course of one day. Novels before this time took much longer for the plot to unfold, from weeks to even decades. However Woolf also incorporates flashbacks which play with the idea of time further producing an unnerving effect from this change of tenses. The effect of Woolf’s short time frame is that it varies with the reader’s expectations of the novel and changes the way they look upon the passing of time.
Another interesting aspect is that the novel, instead of focusing on the unfolding of events, focuses on the characters and their thoughts and impressions of everything around them. This again relates both to the short time frame and also the stream of consciousness that Woolf uses in many of her writings, and is a key theme of modernist writing. Virginia Woolf was influenced by events and developments to challenge the classic writing conventions. Virginia Woolf not only used the conventions of the modernist period but developed them further.
She was one of the first modernist writers so society took notice of her as a radical writer challenging the boundaries of writing. This was because her writing style and novel structure was different to what was previously used, for example the use of the short time frame and stream of consciousness allowing access into the readers head. These conventions had not been used before so Woolf was noticed as the author who moved the world into a new, radical, less traditional era. Woolf developed the conventions of the modernist period as her style changed subtly through each new novel that was published.
The main way that this occurred in was that Virginia Woolf created inspiring impressions on her readers rather than recreating reality, and she experimented with her writing rather than conforming. Another example of how Woolf developed the conventions of the modernist period further is that she explores aspects of society that were issues at the time. She took inspiration from previous female authors such as Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters and examined women and their struggles in society. An example of this in her literary work is her creation of William Shakespeare’s sister, a woman named Judith.
Woolf incorporated this into her extended essay A Room of One’s Own to try to get her point across about women’s need for independence. Gender issues is one of Woolf’s themes common to her works, along with the hierarchy of society and the consequences of war, as discussed in her novel Mrs Dalloway. The final way in which Virginia Woolf developed the conventions of the modernist period further is how she reflects her personal life within her work. Woolf had a nervous breakdown at age 13 after the death of her parents and from then on she was battling a mental illness for most of her life.
This is incorporated in her work in her novel Mrs Dalloway where she incorporates most likely the experiences of herself into the character Septimus Smith who was shell-shocked from the war. Woolf imagined her novel Mrs Dalloway as a “study of insanity and suicide; the world seen by the sane and the insane side by side”. Mental illnesses were not something that were well known and widely accepted in Virginia Woolf’s context, and Woolf’s incorporation of this in her writings progressed the modernist era by the introduction of a new issue discussed.
In these ways, Virginia Woolf not only used the conventions of the modernist period but developed them further. In this essay I have discussed the ways in which Virginia Woolf is regarded as one of the most significant authors of the modernist period using the two points that Virginia Woolf was influenced by events and developments to challenge the classic writing conventions, and Virginia Woolf not only used the conventions of the modernist period but developed them further.