Virginia Woolf strongly felt that the great conventional writers like Bennett, Wells and Galsworthy with their well-constructed novels did not write like free men. It seemed they wrote like one who was compelled to write in a particular way by some powerful force outside them. In fact they were slaves to convention—the 18th century Fielding convention of the well-made novel with a closely knit plot, with well-marked characters and with a climax and denouement. As a result they would write artificially and unnaturally, sacrificing ‘the soul’, the content, at the altar of formal perfection. Mrs. Woolf has called these writers materialists, because ‘they are concerned not with the spirit, but with the body’. So these great writers seemed to her extremely disappointing.
Mrs. Woolf’s dissatisfaction with the current form of the novel as represented by the novel of Arnold Bennett has been very clearly and strongly expressed in her essay, ‘Modern Fiction, included in the Common Reader First Series.
“Can it be that, owing to one of those little deviations which the human spirit seems to make from time to time, Mr. Bennett has come down with his magnificent apparatus for catching life just an inch or two on the wrong side? Life escapes; and perhaps without life nothing else is worth while…..Admitting the vagueness which afflicts all criticism of the novel, let us hazard the opinion that for us at this moment the form of fiction most in vogue more often misses than secures the thing we seek. Whether we call it life or spirit, truth or reality, this, the essential thing has moved off, or on, and refuses to be contained any longer in such ill-fitting vestments as we provide. Nevertheless we go on perseveringly, conscientiously, constructing our two and thirty chapters after a design, which, more and more ceases to resemble the vision of our mind.”
Emergence of a New Conception
While the great traditional novelists were still at the peak of their glory a new conception of the novel was emerging. The innovation of Henry James and Conrad had made their limitation clear. And the Georgians, the writers of the new school, wanted to probe beneath the surface of society and human character down to where they felt the truth was hidden. Thus the emergence of this new conception of the novel was really due to this desire to cast off what is mere an appearance and to find underneath the reality that has been hidden by a super-imposed husk. And meanwhile James Joyce had published his Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man. Ulysses, his epic novel, was also being serialised. After reading the former, and three instalments of the latter, Virginia Woolf was very much impressed by the originality of such a powerful writer who could render the very experience of living. Her comments on the early work of James Joyce will enable us to understand how her mind was working on the same line. This is what she says in her essay already referred to:
“Let us record the atoms as they fall upon the mind in the order in which they fall, let us trace the pattern, however disconnected and incoherent in appearance, which each sight or incident scores upon the consciousness. Let us not take it for granted that life exists more fully in what is commonly thought big than in what is commonly thought small. Any one who has read The Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man or, what promises to be a far more interesting work, Ulysses, now appearing in the Little Review, will have hazarded some theory of this nature. In contrast with those whom we have called materialists, Mr. Joyce is spiritual; he is concerned at all costs to reveal the flickerings of that innermost flame which flashes its messages through this brain, and in order to preserve it he disregards with complete courage whatever seems to him adventitious, whether it be probability, or coherence or any other of those signposts which for generations have served to support the imagination of a reader when called upon to imagine what he can neither touch nor see. The scene in the cemetery, for instance, with its brilliancy, its sordidity, its incoherence, its sudden lightning flashes of significance, does undoubtedly come so close to the quick of the mind that, on a first reading, at any rate, it is difficult not to acclaim it a masterpiece. If we want life itself, here surely we have it.”
Mrs. Woolf’s own Views on Aesthetics
Virginia Woolf has not left with us any systematic treatise on theories about the form and substance of a good novel. But she expressed her views on this topic in a number of letters, articles and of some very notable critical essays, one of the most important of which is her essay on ‘Modern Fiction’ included in The Common Reader-I. And it is from this essay that we get to a great extent a coherent and systematic theory of fiction from her. In fact the form of the novel that prevailed in the first quarter of this century seemed to her to obscure or even to falsify her experience. But for every form that is defied, new forms or conventions arise. This is because the human mind is so constituted that it cannot deal with chaos, it sees only what is selected or arranged. That is why Virginia Woolf first set herself to destroy the current form of the novel and was then driven to invent one which would express her own vision of life. And Virginia has expressed with great insight and penetration her own thoughts and views in her inimitable poetic style in an oft quoted passage in this very famous essay:
“Look within and life, it seems, is very far from being ‘like this’. Examine for a moment an ordinary mind on an ordinary day. The mind receives a myriad impressions—trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpness of steel. From all sides they come, an incessant shower of innumerable atoms; and as they fall, as they shape themselves into the life of Monday or Tuesday, the accent falls differently from of old; the moment of importance come not here but there; so that, if the writer were a free man, and not a slave, if he could write what he chose, not what he must, if he could base his work upon his own feeling and not upon convention, there would be no plot, no comedy, no tragedy, no love interest or catastrophe in the accepted style…..life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end. Is it not the task of the novelist 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? We are not pleading merely for courage and sincerity, we are suggesting that the proper stuff of fiction is something other than custom would have us believe it.”
Stress on Flowing Stream of Consciousness
So for Virginia Woolf—‘there would be no plot, no comedy, no tragedy, no love interest or catastrophe in the accepted style.’ And the great task of the novelist should be ‘to convey this varying, this unknown and uncircumscribed spirit’ of man. Human consciousness is a chaotic welter of sensations and impressions. It is fleeting, trivial and evanescent, and the business of the novelist is just to convey these sensations and impressions to bring us close to the quick of the mind. So the purpose of the novelist should be the rendering of inner reality or psyche of his characters, the inner reality rather than the outer one. We may call it ‘the stream of consciousness technique.’ And the novels revealing such technique have as their essential subject-matter the consciousness of one or more characters. We find the depicted consciousness serving as a screen on which the material of these novels is presented. We are introduced into the interior life of a character by means of interior monologue with very little intervention in the way of explanation or commentary on the part of the novelist, who cares very little for the conventions of plot, comedy, tragedy, climax or catastrophe. But it must also be noted here that in her own practice she did not follow her own theory in every detail, as she knew that art requires a selection and ordering of material. That is why her novels have a form and pattern, but it is clearly different from that of the conventional novels.
Stuff of Fiction
Virginia Woolf has also her own clear view about the theme of the modern novel: “The proper stuff of fiction does not exist; everything is the proper stuff of fiction, every feeling, every thought; every quality of brain and spirit is drawn upon no perception comes amiss.” In this respect she points out that James Joyce has shown great originality and boldness in disregarding convention, and by writing in his own way, according to his own vision of life, he has contributed to an increased understanding of the human soul by rendering both the trivial and the petty. She is clear in her opinion that ‘any method is right, every method is right that expresses what we wish to express.’
Mrs. Woolf aims at confronting the reader with the direct mental experience of the characters. This is a distinct departure from the conventional novels, unrolling themselves in majestic leisure, with the author constantly telling the story, omniscient to the extent of knowing everything about the characters. But Virginia Woolf is bent on effacing herself in her novels. And if the writer is removed from the scene, it means a significant shift in the narrative; it creates the need to use the memory of the characters in place of the reader’s in a relationship with the past. Thus it becomes clear that fiction for Mrs. Woolf is not a ‘criticism of life’ in any Arnoldian sense, but rather a recreation of the complexities of experience. Life is a most subtle and complicated succession of experience, hence fiction must be infinitely supple in order to catch the ‘tones’, the light and shade of experience. The art of the novelist is similar to that of the painter, and painting for Virginia Woolf did not mean the Dutch School, who were admired by George Eliot, but Roger Fry and the post-impressionists.