‘To treat life in the spirit of art, is to make life a thing in which means and ends are identified to encourage such treatment, the true moral significance of art and poetry,” says Walter Pater. Aesthetism means the pursuit of beauty through the medium of art. So the pursuit of art becomes an end in itself. Virginia Woolf also thinks the novel to be a means to the lofty end.
It aims at exploration of the human soul. And just like all other artists she also wanted to paint a picture of real life as she saw it. But she had her own vision of life; she wanted to accept only the ultimate beauty of life, that is the beauty of the spirit and aimed at conveying it through her novels.
The Myriad Impressions—Fluidity of Life
To Virginia Woolf life appeared as a mass of myriad impressions, all beautifully and spiritually collected. And her chief aim was to communicate the sense of reality through fiction. But Mrs. Woolf’s conception of reality vastly differed from that of the materialists or naturalists or that of Arnold Bennett or Emile Zola. To her ‘life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end’ and the task of the novelist is ‘to convey this varying, this unknown and uncircumscribed spirit, whatever aberration or complexity it may display, with as little mixture of the alien and external as possible’. She strongly believed ‘that the proper stuff of fiction is something other than custom would have us believe it.’ Human consciousness is a chaotic welter of sensations and impressions. And as David Cecil puts it “Through the eyes of one or more of her characters she strove simply to record the actual process of living, to trace the confused succession of impression and thought and mood as it drifted cloud like across the clear mirror of consciousness”. But she knew that art requires a selection and ordering of material and hence only those aspects of experiences are picked out which harmonise with her sensibility, with her vision of life. And she has clear ideas of the proper stuff of fiction too—’everything is the proper stuff of fiction, every feeling, every thought; every quality of brain and spirit is drawn upon no perception comes amiss.’
Pursuit of Beauty—Satisfying Aesthete
Virginia was a great lover of beauty and this love of beauty guides her in her selection and ordering of reality. According to David Cecil, Virginia Woolf could find beauty “as much in a scrap of orange peel lying in the gutter as in the Venus de Melo; as easily walking down the Huston Road as within the consecrated portals of the National Gallery. There is nothing languid or academic about her aestheticism casual and zestful, it is the expression of an intense vitality, as, home in the bustle and clamour of the modern age, inspired by no fatigued desire to escape from a present, that is too much for her, into the safe calm of a dead past. As presented by her, the aesthetic life is vigorous and satisfying as any other kind of life. And for us too, while we are reading her books, as long as their spell is on us we do not bother about the limitations of her vision. Indeed these are seen to be a necessary condition of her success. In order to concentrate our eyes on the aesthetic aspects of experience, she has to exclude its other aspects. And they seem more beautiful for being thus isolated…what a relief for once in a way, freed from the claims of heart and conscience, to concentrate on the mere spectacle of a world so brimful of strangeness and fascination and delight.” Again the emphasis on the aesthetic aspect of life makes her novels contemplative, for aesthetic experiences are contemplative affairs.
Characters are Lonely Figures
Then again contemplation is a lonely affair. Hence we find that her characters as presented to us are essentially lonely figures. Her Mrs. Dalloway, Mrs. Ramsay, Lily Briscoe and many other important characters are really very lonely figures. Only their inner life matters to them, and this they do not share with anybody else. In fact their relations with others, are of significance to them, only in so far as they enrich their inner life.
Transience of Life and Beauty
Virginia Woolf is adequately conscious of the frailty of life and transience of beauty. This fleeting and changing life makes her sad and melancholy. According to a critic: “The fact of beauty, on the one hand, the fact of mutability, on the other, these are the two Poles on which her panorama of human experience revolves. In To The Lighthouse she seems to suggest that there is a permanent principle of beauty at work in the universe behind the visible and the palpable. But, in fact, the vision which permeates most of her books is that of a life so beautiful yet so sad and melancholy.”
Her Vision and the Form of the Novel
No clash, no Violent Passions: Her vision of life determines the form of her novels too. Almost all her characters are solitary, enveloped in their own ‘luminous halo’ or ‘semi-transparent envelope’. Hence there is hardly any drama in her novels as drama means a clash of characters. Hence we find her characters seldom coming into direct contact with each other.
Then as there is no clash of characters, there is hardly any scope for displaying intense or violent passion in her novels. Her vision of life makes her mainly concerned with the aesthetic aspects of life without caring very little for the moral ones. Hence her characters are shown as beautiful and ugly, happy or sad, but not bad and good. And the atmosphere is generally cold, unfit for love or hatred. We find Lily Briscoe admiring William Bankes and appreciating his friendly attitude. But even then she watches him with cool critical eyes. Again we find her characters not so keen on having intimate contacts with each other; they rather prefer isolation, and are happy in it. Thus Mrs. Ramsay longs for loneliness so that she may muse alone and give free rein to her thoughts. Lily remains an old maid to the end. And to Tansley and William Bankes social gatherings mean a sheer waste of time. So Mrs. Woolf’s novels are without clash of characters, without action and drama and with very little moral values. Intense love is outside her range. That is why she fails to convince of the reality of Razia’s grief at the death of her husband, or that of Ramsay at the death of his wife. In fact she is bound to fail when she wants to depict something outside the limitations of her vision.
Beauty of the Commonplace; Her accuracy
We have already mentioned that Mrs. Woolf’s appreciation of beauty is not just confined to what is commonly accepted as beautiful. And for this she very much succeeds in opening our eyes to new sources of aesthetic delight. She can discover beauty in ugliness—‘as much in a scrap of orange peel lying in the gutter as in Venus de Milo’ and hence can make her readers also see it and appreciate it. We find Lily Briscoe admiring the beauty of Mr. Ramsay’s boots and Mrs. Ramsay considering it wonderful to marry a man with a gold watch in a lovely wash-leather case in To The Lighthouse. In Mrs. Dalloway, Bond Street in a summer morning is made to appear beautiful to us. In her novels touched by her magic pen even very common views of life like the buses, the policemen, and the clamouring shoppers, are all aglow with the splendour of a picture by Vernier. And then she has the superb power of combining beauty with accuracy. According to a critic: “Not only does she illuminate our appreciation of what we already think beautiful, she opens our eyes; to the new sources ‘of delight’. Far more successful than any contemporary she has disengaged the aesthetic quality in the modern sense. She always combines beauty with accuracy, and gets the effects not by idealising and decorating it, but simply by isolating and indicating those aspects of her subject that appeal to the aesthetic sense.” That is why her Bond Street, is still Bond Street, and without casting any haze of romantic glamour it is made to look beautiful just because Mrs. Woolf has drawn our attention to its beautiful aspects while describing the flower shop there in her own inimitable way. She can also be solemnly serious and can burst into poetical rhapsodies in her descriptions of beauties of life and nature. Time Passes, the second part of To The Lighthouse illustrates it wonderfully and hence the credit of poetising and musicalising the novel of subjectivity must go to her.
While expressing the very essence of his artistic creed, Walter Pater has said: “To treat life in the spirit of art, is to make life a thing in which means and ends are indentified to encourage such treatment, the true moral significance of art and poetry.” And Mrs. Woolf also thinks the novel to be a means to that lofty end. Here is a temperament almost painfully alive to the feeling of life—the excitement aroused in her by the process of living and the perception of objects. We may conclude by quoting the very apt comments of David Daiches : “Her picture of life, as a thing of beauty, is enlivened all the time by little strokes of humour and observation, it is diversified by an incessantly changing procession of moods; it is made vital by her unsleeping curiosity about everything great and small that comes within her line of vision.”