A short summary and analysis of Virginia Woolf’s 1919 essay
Virginia Woolf’s essay ‘Modern Fiction’, which was originally published under the title ‘Modern Novels’ in 1919, demonstrates in essay form what her later novels bear out: that she had set out to write something different from her contemporaries. Analysis of this important short essay reveals the lengths that Woolf was prepared to go to discredit earlier writers and promote a new style of writing, which she calls ‘Georgian’ and was often referred to as ‘impressionist’ at the time, but which we now know better as ‘modernist’.
In ‘Modern Fiction’ (1919), Virginia Woolf takes issue with those Edwardian novelists writing in the early years of the twentieth century who, in some ways, might be seen as relics of the nineteenth-century realism outlined above: her three targets, Arnold Bennett, John Galsworthy, and H. G. Wells, are all labelled ‘materialists’ because of their preoccupation with predictable and plausible plots and their interest in describing the exterior details – the clothes a character wears, the furniture in a room – when what Woolf, as a reader, really wants to know is what is going on the heads of their characters. But we never get this from Arnold Bennett and his ‘materialist’ peers. Writers need to turn away from the material and instead embrace what she calls the ‘spiritual’ in order to make fiction new and relevant. Woolf mentions a short story by the Russian writer Anton Chekhov (1860-1904), ‘Gusev’, in which nothing much happens: the story is based on mood and character rather than action or plot. Such a story points a way forward for Woolf and other writers, whom she labels ‘Georgian’ – i.e. more ‘modern’ and progressive than the materialist Edwardians.
In a later essay, ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown’ (1924), Woolf attacked Bennett again, and summed up the difference between his type of fiction and the way life actually is:
In the course of your daily life this past week you have had far stranger and more interesting experiences than the one I have tried to describe. You have overheard scraps of talk that filled you with amazement. You have gone to bed at night bewildered by the complexity of your feelings. In one day thousands of ideas have coursed through your brains; thousands of emotions have met, collided, and disappeared in astonishing disorder. Nevertheless, you allow the writers to palm off upon you a version of all this, an image of Mrs. Brown, which has no likeness to that surprising apparition whatsoever. In your modesty you seem to consider that writers are of different blood and bone from yourselves; that they know more of Mrs. Brown than you do. Never was there a more fatal mistake. It is this division between reader and writer, this humility on your part, these professional airs and graces on ours, that corrupt and emasculate the books which should be the healthy offspring of a close and equal alliance between us. Hence spring those sleek, smooth novels, those portentous and ridiculous biographies, that milk and watery criticism, those poems melodiously celebrating the innocence of roses and sheep which pass so plausibly for literature at the present time. [Woolf, Selected Essays, ed. David Bradshaw (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 53.]
Readers need to say ‘enough is enough’ and embrace the kind of fiction Woolf had just started to write – her novel Jacob’s Room had appeared the year before, in 1922 – which sought to capture the wonder and reality of life more accurately than Arnold Bennett ever did.
Others had got there before Woolf: in ‘Modern Fiction’ she mentions Thomas Hardy and Joseph Conrad, praising them for moving away from such traditional realism or ‘materialism’ in fiction in favour of a newer and more subjective and psychological mode in English fiction. She also praises Anton Chekhov’s short stories – which would go on to influence Katherine Mansfield – and singles out his short story ‘Gusev’, in which nothing much happens, as a fine example of this new mode of fiction. This new impressionistic and psychologically focused mode of writing, which would move away from Victorian realism and push fiction into new territory, would later become known as ‘modernism’.
Discover more about female modernist writers with our pick of Woolf’s best novels and essays, our reappraisal of May Sinclair’s fiction, our introduction to the work of pioneering writer George Egerton, and our overview of the best stories by Katherine Mansfield.
Image: Portrait of Virginia Woolf by Roger Fry (c. 1917), via Wikimedia Commons.
Virginia Woolf 1882-1941
(Born Adeline Virginia Stephen) English novelist, critic, essayist, short story writer, diarist, autobiographer, and biographer.
The following entry provides an overview of Woolf's life and works of short fiction.
Recognized as one of the major figures of modern literature, Woolf is highly regarded both for her innovative fiction techniques and insightful contributions to literary criticism. In her short fiction, she explored such themes as the elusive nature of storytelling and character study, the nature of truth and reality, and the role of women in society. Like her novels, these highly individualized, stylistic works are noted for their subjective explorations and detailed poetic narratives that capture ordinary experience while depicting the workings and perceptions of the human mind. Written in an elliptical and impressionistic style, Woolf's brief, apparently plotless stories are considered to have significantly influenced the development of modern short fiction.
Woolf was born into a talented and distinguished literary family in London in 1882, the third of four children of Sir Leslie Stephen, a prominent literary scholar, and his second wife, Julia. Virginia's parents maintained friendships with figures of the Victorian intellectual aristocracy, often hosting visits from such eminent writers as Thomas Hardy, George Meredith, and Henry James. Virginia and her sister, Vanessa, did not receive a formal education, but access to their father's extensive library provided a rich source for their private learning. In 1895 the Stephens' comfortable existence was disrupted by the sudden, tragic death of their beloved mother, Julia. Virginia's subsequent mental breakdown was the first of several that troubled her throughout her life. After her father's death in 1904, Woolf, along with her sister, and two brothers, Thoby and Adrian, moved to the Bloomsbury district of London. It was there they met weekly with several of Thoby's Cambridge associates to discuss the arts and together formed what is now known as the Bloomsbury Group. Within this circle of friends that included, among others, John Maynard Keynes, Clive Bell, Vita Sackville-West, and Lytton Strachey, Woolf was exposed to a variety of modern theories on art and literature that deeply affected the development of her own ideas. Also during this time, she published her first essays and reviews, a practice she continued throughout her life. In 1912 she married Leonard Woolf, a writer and socialist political figure, also among the Bloomsbury circle, whose stabilizing influence on Virginia is considered to have nurtured her literary career. Nevertheless, in 1913, after completing her first novel, The Voyage Out (1915), she collapsed from mental exhaustion, and the ensuing breakdown, her most severe, lasted several years.
In 1917, following Virginia's recovery the proceeding year, she and Leonard founded the Hogarth Press—a business venture which was intended partly as a release from the anxiety she experienced when writing, and which subsequently kept her from having to send her work to an outside publisher. By 1924 Hogarth had grown into a successful and respected business, publishing all of Virginia's writings as well as the early works of such writers as Katherine Mansfield, T. S. Eliot, and Sigmund Freud. During the period 1922 to 1941, Virginia immersed herself in writing fiction, completing the critically acclaimed novels Mrs. Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927), and The Waves (1931), which form the foundation of her literary reputation. In addition, her nonfiction works from this time, particularly A Room of One's Own (1929) and Three Guineas (1938), established her as an important contributor to modern critical and feminist writing. Yet, despite these successes, Woolf feared the onslaught of another breakdown—from which, she believed, it would be impossible to recover—and in 1941, she took her own life by drowning. The posthumous publication of many of Woolf's essays, short stories, journals, diaries, and letters attest to an abiding interest in her career.
Major Works of Short Fiction
In her short fiction Woolf typically focused on minute physical detail and experimented with stream-of-consciousness techniques, interior monologue, and symbolism to capture the subjective workings of human thought. “Kew Gardens” typifies her lyrical portrayal of varied narrative perspectives through the interior monologue of an omniscient narrator. In this seemingly plotless story, Woolf creates the atmosphere of an afternoon at London's Kew Gardens by fusing the shifting points of view of several people with those of a snail, insects, flowers, and even such inanimate objects as buses and airplanes. In “Mark on the Wall” she employs interior monologue to impart the musings of a narrator who, in speculating about a small detail on a wall, ponders a variety of topics, including personal reminiscence, history, and nature. Every rumination returns to the mark only to stray anew into reverie, as each of the narrator's seemingly meandering thoughts builds upon one another to create an intricate discourse on the nature of reality and truth. Themes in Woolf's short fiction are intrinsically fused with narrative form. Similar to Joyce's short stories, in which epiphany is frequently an essential element, Woolf's short fiction often depends on “moments of being” to delineate themes. Whereas Joyce's notion of epiphany focuses on the power of a single event to reveal truth, Woolf's “moments of being” encompass various incursions into time and place. In “Moments of Being: ‘Slater's Pins Have No Points,’” the protagonist, Fanny Wilmot, searches for a lost pin while she simultaneously attempts to gain insight into the personality of her elderly piano teacher, Julia Craye. In the brief time she searches for the pin, Fanny juxtaposes thoughts about Julia's past with the present and speculates on Julia's happiness. The narrative returns after each rumination about Julia's life to Fanny's search for the pin until, finally, at the instant when Fanny finds the pin, she experiences the revelation that Julia is indeed happy.
Woolf's fascination with the elusive nature of storytelling, as well as the inherent difficulty of knowing character, provided subject matter for several of her short stories. In “An Unwritten Novel” she explored this theme through the capricious mind of the narrator as she rides a train with a stranger, observing details of the unknown woman's appearance and behavior to construct a story surrounding her life. At the end of the tale the narrator is stunned to realize that her conclusions are utterly incorrect. In this and in several other stories, Woolf overturned conventional Edwardian precepts that relied on observable details to discern veracity and illustrated the unknowable nature of truth and character. In both her fiction and nonfiction Woolf was devoted to raising the social consciousness of readers. Her disarming and often humorous feminist works are informed with pointed criticism of sexism, as well as praise for neglected women writers. For example, “A Society” highlights ten years in the lives of a group of women who meet regularly to question conventions of art, literature, scholarship, law, and military achievement in a male-dominated society. One of the group's vows is to forego having children until they have resolved their questions. However, when one woman, Castilia, becomes pregnant, a new resolution is adopted to allow only the unchaste into their society, and Castilia is appointed president. The story's ironic stance, humor, and extensive use of allusion to the Bible and mythology serve, for several critics, to elevate it above the level of polemic.
Like her contemporary James Joyce, with whom she is often compared, critics argue that Woolf revolted against the traditional narrative methods of her time and experimented with stream-of-consciousness prose and interior monologue. They note that she first introduced many of these formal experiments in short stories that often present “moments of being”—instances of intense sensibility during which disparate thoughts and events culminate in a flash of insight. Recent critical studies of Woolf's short fiction have investigated the symbolism of mirrors and glass in her work, traced revisions of her stories, assessed the influence of Thomas Browne and Bertrand Russell on her fiction, and explored aspects of her alleged anti-Semitism. Commentators have discussed her as a lesbian writer, and have emphasized parallels between her lesbian-themed stories with those of Gertrude Stein. Most critics acknowledge that Woolf's short stories frequently served as experimental studies in which ideas for her longer works of fiction originated and developed. Yet many commentators have contended that Woolf's experiments with poetic style, her psychological focus, and her subjective point of view expanded the limits of time and perception within the framework of the short story, influencing and contributing significantly to the development of modern short fiction.