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Toward Virginia Woolf

ISSUE:  Autumn 1934

Virginia woolf, once only a priestess and of Bloomsbury alone, has now become the reigning goddess of contemporary English letters. Her novels sell even when the buyer knows, either from past experience or from reviews, that he probably will not understand them. Now specialists begin to write interpretations, offering to the “common reader” guides and suggestions* toward comprehension. She is talked about everywhere: sometimes with distrust because she is not interested in how people make their livings, sometimes with bewilderment because her meaning is elusive, but in spite of some fear and a great deal of confusion, almost universally with adoration. Her wit, her psychological subtlety, her style—to these qualities of the goddess the smoke of incense rises. But as it curls about her, carried heavenward on the songs of her worshippers, it serves, unfortunately, to obscure her chief attribute—her conception of character in fiction, which was already, even before the incense rose, hidden behind a glittering screen of allegories, symbols, and, let it be admitted, words themselves.

When in 1924 Mrs. Woolf published the essay “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown” and thereby issued her manifesto concerning the past and future of the English novel, she had already written three pieces of fiction—two of them, “The Voyage Out” (1915) and “Night and Day” (1919), belonging frankly to the tradition she labels “Edwardian,” the third, “Jacob’s Room” (1922), already venturing into the unsurveyed opportunities of the “Georgian.” “The Voyage Out” and “Night and Day” have plot and situation; they move forward in time; the people in them sit in three-dimensional rooms, perform recognizable acts, and speak a familiar language neatly surrounded by quotation marks. Even here, to be sure, the author is primarily interested in character rather than story, but like good novelists for generations, she accepted character conventionally and story as one—perhaps the most important—approach to it. Rachel Vinrace in “The Voyage Out” is revealed to us through her awakening and confused response to a world of human relationship and love; Katherine Hilbery in “Night and Day” performs a veritable social comedy of an approved drawing-room type in shifting her attachment from William Rodney to Ralph Denham. It was in “Jacob’s Room,” partially anticipating by example the theory to be expressed later, that Mrs. Woolf threw away plot and episode and direct narrative and began to portray people—in this case, Jacob primarily—from the inside rather than from the out, sometimes within their own “stream of consciousness,” sometimes in the minds of others. The result, admittedly not as yet a perfect example of the author’s powers, showed fascinating possibilities at the same time that it disclosed the difficulties inherent in the method—difficulties that arise chiefly from its unfamiliarity and its (to some, perverse) neglect of what the reader traditionally expects.

To those who, somewhat impatiently, asked why this desertion of the old method, tried and true, Mrs. Woolf responded directly in “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown.” But she had already replied by implication in the novels mentioned. In “The Voyage Out,” for example, in spite of the fact that it is itself written in the old form, she creates the character of Terence Hewet, an embryonic novelist—or perhaps it would be better to call him a theorist on novels. He contemplates writing an historical novel, a “Stuart tragedy,” in which, apparently, he is going to divorce his characters from their conventional surroundings and “treat people as though they were exactly the same as we are.” This annihilation of the time convention is to result, he says, in making them “more intense and more abstract.” It is the correlation here of intensity and abstraction that is of importance. For Virginia Woolf becomes increasingly interested in an abstraction of character as a means toward greater intensity. Terence, continuing his discussion, further elucidates the point when he says that in writing a novel he wants to find out “what’s behind things.” Not what things merely are on the surface; but what lies behind them and beneath them. “Things I feel come to me like lights,” he says. “I want to combine them. Have you ever seen fireworks that make figures? I want to make figures.”

And Virginia Woolf wants to make figures. Patterns. Human beings must be seen not in terms of external details, but in terms of the below-surface force to which the individual merely responds, in terms of the inner design of life. And design (or force) is of itself, and by definition, an abstraction. The problem of expressing design becomes Mrs. Woolf’s problem as a novelist—one not easy to solve, and certainly not to be solved by the old technique. In trying to describe Jacob, for example, she says, “Distinction was one of the words to use naturally, though from looking at him, one would have found it difficult to say which seat in the opera was his, stalls, gallery, or dress circle. A writer? He lacked self-consciousness. A painter? There was something in the shape of his hands . . . which indicated taste. Then his mouth—but surely of all futile occupations this of cataloguing features is the worst. One word is sufficient. But if one cannot find it?” There is, of course, no hope of finding one word, for the simple reason that, as she says in another place in “Jacob’s Room,” “Nobody sees any one as he is, let alone an elderly lady sitting opposite a strange young man in a railway carriage.” External observation is no solution to the problem of trying to express humanity.

It was against the insistence on external observation— and again she used the symbol of strangers on a train—that Mrs. Woolf argued in “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown.” Mrs. Brown, a little old woman in a third-class railway carriage, cannot be recreated in fiction by telling about her appearance and (as Arnold Bennett did with Hilda Lessways) enumerating the number of chimney-pots to be seen from her bedroom window. Edwardian realism, constantly documenting, listing, cataloguing, forever supplying characters with addresses, telephone numbers, and a calendar of social engagements, succeeds only in building an empty frame. Or if it is not exactly empty, it is filled with the wrong thing, a concretely externalized character or set of characters presented to point some humanitarian purpose or social criticism so that the reader is forced to do something himself to complete the author’s intention; he must, as Mrs. Woolf wittily suggests, “join a society, or, more desperately, write a cheque.” What Mrs. Woolf would have in the frame is Mrs. Brown. Nor is there any question of what she means by Mrs. Brown, for the little old lady, we are told, is “the spirit we live by—life itself.” Mrs. Brown is not the widow of Adam Brown, living at 92 Northumberland Gardens, Haverhold Crescent, London, S. W. 7. She is not an individual aged sixty-four, dressed in black silk or brown cotton, subsisting on an income of five thousand or five hundred pounds a year. She is not a person at all. She is life—that is, she is human nature. She is character, not a character. The novel’s function, according to Mrs. Woolf, is to “describe beautifully, if possible—truthfully at any rate—our Mrs. Brown”; to capture the spirit of life.

The theme, therefore, that presents itself in Virginia Woolf’s later work is not materialistic realism with its social implications; it is something self-contained. It is the very mystery of living. It is whatever word you choose that expresses the abstract idea of human existence—the whole substance and fabric of human nature out of which any particularized being is made. It is for this reason that I now suggest that it is wrong to think of any person in Mrs. Woolf’s work after “Jacob’s Room” down through “The Waves” as an individual. She wants to portray the great sum-total of livingness that lies beneath the individual and is common to all people. Mr. Bennett and Mr. Wells and Mr. Galsworthy have created persons a plenty and in doing so have, according to Virginia Woolf (though she gives them full credit for their accomplishments), missed the point. They have left life itself alone.

That Mrs. Woolf does not intend to leave life itself alone at once becomes clear in “Mrs. Dalloway” (1925). Here, from any point of view, is a brilliant novel. Its structure is superb, its style a miracle of beauty. Not even in Joyce has the associative train of thought been so skilfully portrayed. But marvelous as these things are, they are merely the tools used toward a greater end. For “Mrs. Dalloway” is a novel which presents Mrs. Brown, that symbolic figure of human nature. Here is life—not a life. And yet I suggest, at the risk of putting myself in an absurdly pontifical position, that for most readers this book is merely a clever, even subtle, portrayal of a day in Clarissa Dalloway’s career. Who is Clarissa Dalloway? The wife of a member of Parliament? A charming hostess? An old friend of Peter Walsh’s? Yes —she is all these things; but these things are unimportant. Who is Septimus Warren Smith? An ex-soldier suffering from shell shock? Yes. But he is also something much more significant. For Clarissa and Septimus and Peter and Dr. Bradshaw and all the rest of them are, aside from being the characters labeled by these names, not characters at all, but ingredients of abstract character, the “makings” of human nature.

In writing the Preface to the Modern Library edition of “Mrs. Dalloway,” Mrs. Woolf herself gave the clue to the above assertion. In that Preface she tells us that at one time in her scheme for the book she had planned to have Clarissa commit suicide; then had created Septimus to perform the act, adding the remark (in so casual a fashion that one is tempted to believe it almost malicious) that of course Clarissa and Septimus are one and the same person.

Let us see what that means—that Clarissa and Septimus are the same. In the novel they never meet; they merely exist together in London up to a certain moment and then Septimus flings himself out of his window and the news of the disaster almost by accident reaches Clarissa in the middle of her party. How can they be the same when Septimus dies and Clarissa lives? They can not, to be sure, if we insist on taking them as individuals; but Mrs. Woolf’s characters are not individuals (or if they are, the fact is merely incidental) but expressions of the great current that flows beneath the observed surface of life, which subterranean flow is, she insists, for her the only proper theme for fiction. If, then, we think of Clarissa and Septimus as embodiments of the inner force of life, what do we find? We find, first of all, that these two are complementary: that Clarissa is, let us say, positive; Septimus negative. Clarissa loves life and, although she has moments of doubt, accepts it; Septimus hates it and fears it and ultimately rejects it. Clarissa, in spite of her introspection, is almost wholly turned outward, her energies directed into enthusiasms for people, for things (flowers, traffic, clothes), for London; Septimus is turned inward, isolated, afraid. “The secret signal,” he says, “which one generation passes, under disguise, to the next is loathing, hatred, despair.” Under this burden he assumes the guilt of the world and like the kind of Christ he is obeys the clam-mor of humanity: “Kill yourself, kill yourself for our sakes.” Clarissa, on the other hand, aware of the universal riddle and, like Septimus, skeptical of any pat solution, does not, however, grow morbid, cry out in disgust, and die. She accepts. “The supreme mystery,” says Clarissa, “was simply this: here was one room; there another.”

Clarissa accepts life and goes on with it; Septimus rejects it and runs away. Mrs. Woolf would tell us that human nature is made up of these two “positions,” that everyone experiences both attitudes, and that the two, being a dialectical pair, are always together. Just as love and hate—so we are told—are not two different emotions, but merely different expressions of the same emotion, so the acceptance and the rejection of life are only two connected versions of the same fundamental relationship between man and existence. The closeness of the two is represented in Clarissa’s experience when she hears of Septimus’ suicide. “Death,” she muses, “was an attempt to communicate, people feeling the impossibility of reaching the center which, mystically, evaded them; closeness drew apart; rapture faded; one was alone. There was an embrace in death.” Whether one seeks that embrace, like Septimus, or avoids it, like Clarissa, depends in the eyes of the world on whether a coroner’s jury would label one of “sound” or of “unsound” mind. But Mrs. Woolf has no faith in a coroner’s jury. Who can glibly say “unsound,” for had not Clarissa remarked to herself once, coming down in white, “If it were now to die, ‘twere now to be most happy”?

Around this central combination of Clarissa and Septimus, Mrs. Woolf groups other people, each given a proper name, but each, in reality, representing what may be described as a variation on the theme. For each of these discloses a different way in which human nature faces the mystery of existence. Miss Kilman has embraced religion; Elizabeth, just emerging from adolescence, wants purpose; Peter Walsh seeks adventure and love; Dr. Bradshaw stands for the doctrine that “health is proportion” and for the will to force that doctrine on the race. Clearly individualized (if not externalized) as each of these is, it must be understood that they merely serve to fill out the composite picture. Almost all humanity lives by trying to solve the riddle—not by merely accepting or rejecting it, for unable to be satisfied with the simplicity of either acceptance or rejection, people must continually escape into the illusion of accomplishment. And to Clarissa-Septimus they are all obnoxious. Dr. Bradshaw is the best single illustration of this point, for it is Dr. Bradshaw, pompous, self-important, assertive, who has made up his little formula “health is proportion” and tries to cram it down the human throat. Septimus and Clarissa will have none of it. And each in his own way triumphs over the perversion that the Doctor represents. “Life is made intolerable,” cries Septimus through Clarissa’s mind; “they make life intolerable, men like that.”

All these others, each in his own fashion, display some kind of tampering. Taken together with Dr. Bradshaw they are those forces in human nature that will neither accept life whole as Clarissa did nor give it up as Septimus did. They must always make some fuss about it and end in unhappiness. Only Clarissa and Septimus know the road to happiness; but it is the irony of Mrs. Woolf’s point of view—her cynicism, if you will—that even Clarissa and Septimus must be adjudged by the world either trivial or insane.

If the “meaning” of “Mrs. Dalloway” is to be found in this composite picture of human nature, one can see how deliberately Mrs. Woolf has sought to capture the symbolic Mrs. Brown of the essay. The novel attempts to portray “the spirit we live by—life itself,” not a set of “realistic characters” moving through a series of events. We are given the pattern of human nature with its manifold details brought into focus. The novel is, as its author insisted, self-contained; there is no purpose in it unless that be called purpose which is only the desire to understand. Even Dr. Bradshaw is not so much condemned as explained.

But, one may ask, what about sex? Does it not belong in the design? Mrs. Woolf must answer, of course, that it does. But since she is not dealing with individuals, she is not concerned with case-studies. Sex, therefore, does not become for her a special interest. She sees it, rather, as a contributory factor in her larger, more generalized problem.

Clarissa, for example, being an embodiment of the accepting love of life, also accepts sex as one who understands it and does not fight or encourage it. To Peter, who places emphasis on it, she seems cold; she seems cold even to herself, though she loves Richard in a simple, domestic fashion and once, in her youth when she fell in love with Sally Se-ton, knew “something warm which broke up surfaces and rippled the cold contact of man and woman, or of women.” Clarissa’s emotions have gone out toward both sexes, as indeed they must, for our symbolic Clarissa is bisexual, just as Septimus, who loved both Rezia and the soldier Evans, is bisexual. “Male and female created He them,” is a pronouncement Mrs. Woolf does not believe in. The sexual characteristics are not so easily catalogued; male and female, like hate and love, are only two phases of the same thing and not clearly distinguishable one from the other. Indeed, since science has shown that life is not made up of creatures that can be guaranteed one hundred per cent male or one hundred per cent female, a novelist dealing with life itself, as distinct from an externalized character, must show how masculine and feminine, as in Septimus and Clarissa, merge and intermingle. This interest in double sex is a recurrent one in Mrs. Woolf’s work. A phase of it appeared in Richard Bonamy of “Jacob’s Room”; “Orlando” is built around it; in “A Room of One’s Own” appears the statement, “It is fatal to be a man or woman pure and simple; one must be woman-manly or man-womanly”; the theme moves, as we shall see, throughout “The Waves.” Clarissa’s capacity for two-directional emotions is nothing more than Mrs. Woolf’s understanding of the complicated truth.

After “Mrs. Dalloway” came “To the Lighthouse” (1927). Again the attempt is to capture “the spirit of life itself.” But here, having already given us in “Mrs. Dalloway,” under the guise of various people, a cross-section of life’s pattern, Mrs. Woolf narrows down her field to one all-important factor: the discovery of what it is that gives to the design its sense of reality. Having already denied that reality lies in external details, she now denounces another Edwardian principle—that concept of time by which an object is at one moment presumably the same as it is at another moment. This had already occupied her attention in “Mrs. Dalloway,” where the clock-time of one day yields to the power of memory, which can not only make the past as vivid as the present but can actually evaluate the present by showing its relation, through subconscious associations, with the past. This Bergsonian and Proustian treatment of time was, however, in “Mrs. Dalloway” a means rather than an end. In “To the Lighthouse” it becomes the end itself, for Mrs. Ramsay, in the final section of the book, though dead, lives as vividly in Lily Briscoe’s memory as she lived in reality—in fact, more vividly, for the memory of Mrs. Ramsay is for Lily a more powerful experience and a more positively influential one than was Mrs. Ramsay in real life.

But while it is true that “To the Lighthouse” succeeds, through the ever living personality of Mrs. Ramsay, in destroying the tyranny of time, such a comment states only half the truth. For we must ask the same question here that we did with the preceding novel: Who is this Mrs. Ramsay? Petulant critics have complained that Mrs. Ramsay, though one knows she is the wife of a scholar, has a large family of children, spends the summer in the Hebrides, and entertains there a conglomerate house-party, is not flesh and blood. Of course not! She is not intended to be corporeal. She is light; she is spirit; she is an undying (though she dies) spell. She is not Hilda Lessways; she is a luminosity whose rays, like those of dead stars, shine on into eternity. Mrs. Woolf has used the personality of Mrs. Ramsay and the lighthouse itself as symbols of the reality she is trying to portray, a reality that is an intangible and abstract force running through the pattern of life, connecting the past with the present, showing us that “nothing is simply one thing.” For no object, no event, no point in time is ever static, can ever remain discrete. It is this truth that young James Ramsay discovers. As a boy he never reached the lighthouse ; as a man he does.

“It will rain,” he remembered his father saying. “You won’t be able to go to the Lighthouse.”

The Lighthouse was then a silvery, misty-looking tower with a yellow eye that opened suddenly and softly in the evening. Now—

James looked at the Lighthouse. He could see the whitewashed rocks; the tower stark and straight; he could see that it was barred with black and white; he could see windows in it; he could see washing on the rocks to dry. So that was the Lighthouse, was it?

No, the other was also the Lighthouse. For nothing was simply one thing. The other was the Lighthouse too. It was sometimes hardly to be seen across the bay. In the evening one looked up and saw the eye opening and shutting and the light seemed to reach them in that airy sunny garden where they sat.

When James, having at last reached the lighthouse, makes the discovery that “nothing is simply one thing”; when Lily Briscoe, working on her picture begun so long ago, at last completes it, knowing James has landed, the novel ends. Nothing has happened except that both James and Lily have become integrated. Mr. Ramsay, too, and Mr. Car-michael. They all, like the composition of Lily’s picture, are now completed, for they have found that Mrs. Ramsay lives again among them. The lighthouse that was, “a silvery, misty-looking tower,” is as true as the lighthouse that is, the one where the washing lies on the rocks to dry. They both exist and fulfill each other. Mrs. Ramsay, like the theme of “Mrs. Dalloway,” is “the spirit we live by—life itself.” Without her there is no peace, no completion. It is only by discovering her—that is, discovering the existence of some inner, unknown force that runs through our lives, that connects the supposedly unconnected, makes design out of that which, without it, has no order, spans time, illuminates the conscious with signals flashing from the subconscious as from an unseen lighthouse, destroys the error of discreteness and establishes the truth of the relative whole —that humanity solves the mystery of life. Clarissa Dalloway had said, “The supreme mystery . . . was simply this: here was one room; there another.” And Clarissa accepted the mystery without trying to solve it; but at the same time she vaguely understood the truth, for once, sitting on a bus going up Shaftesbury Avenue, “she felt herself everywhere; not ‘here, here, here’; and she tapped the back of her seat; but everywhere. She waved her hand, going up Shaftesbury Avenue. She was all that. So that to know her, or any one, one must seek out the people who completed them; even the places. Odd affinities she had with people she had never spoken to, some woman in the street, some man behind a counter—even trees, or barns.” “To the Lighthouse” presents the “odd affinities” that, through the agency of Mrs. Ramsay, combine into the pattern; without her there is only chaos.

“The Waves” is the most surprising of Mrs. Woolf’s productions. Although more people have bought it than have bought any other of her works, nine out of every ten readers have missed its point; the critics, for the most part, have floundered sadly in bewildered efforts to explain it, or fallen back in defeat upon eulogies of its poetic style. And yet “The Waves” is by no means an impossible riddle if we keep in mind that the author’s purpose has been, as usual, to project “the spirit we live by—life itself,” and that her characters are not individuals but symbols created to illustrate that spirit. More than at any previous time she has, in “The Waves,” discarded externalities. The literary form is an admittedly stylized one—a series of soliloquies in a language that bears no relation to the phrasing actually used in speech. The characters at first glance number six with a shadowy seventh adored by the others. But at second glance we see that there are not six people here at all, but merely six expressions of humanity that are not, as a matter of fact, separate, but actually merge and mingle into the whole.

From the surface point of view Louis, Bernard, Neville, Jinny, Susan, and Rhoda are shown to us chronologically at various stages in their lives: their nursery days; school, where they know Percival; their pursuits after school; their reactions to Percival’s death; their maturity; and their final reunion at Hampton Court. Each one, moreover, is given a tag: Louis, sensitive to social classifications and conscious of his Australian accent, embraces, in defense, a successful business career which he finds in conflict with his dreams; Bernard, imaginative, the lover of words, goes through life making marketable phrases which protect him from the world; Neville, fastidious, homosexual, never destined to fulfillment, seeks in vain, though a poet, a perfection of beauty; Jinny, a sensualist, living for color, activity, love, finds old age, her bravery conquering her fear; Susan, domesticated, stands firm, though sometimes weary, on the rock of home and family; Rhoda, shy of the world, fearful of each moment, essentially alone, though once Louis’ mistress, commits suicide. Here are the triumphs and defeats of human life—never pure, always qualified. To them has appeared Percival, a conventional, self-satisfied, beautiful creature that all, in their various fashions, envy and love. His assurance, his grace, his power are a kind of equilibrium that they worship; but death takes Percival away—for is it not true that the equilibrium is unattainable? And is it not also true, as Neville understands, that if it were attained it would prove empty? All this is on the surface.

But the point beneath the surface, which is Mrs. Woolf’s chief concern, is that these people combine into the abstraction of human nature which does not itself change. Time passes; events occur; old age approaches. But humanity remains always the same. The deep, inner substance, in contradistinction to surface appearances, does not vary. That is the meaning of the title and of those magical italicized pages where there are sketched from dawn till nightfall the changing aspects of the sea under the shifting tone-values of light. Force in the form of waves moves through the sea; and the hues of morning grow intense and fade to darkness; but the sea is as it was. Just so is life itself. Events move through it—hopes, fears, love, death—like waves through water; the surfaces, the externals of Edwardian realism, respond; but the water itself, in spite of currents and commotions, remains as it has always been.

A careful reading of “The Waves” will allow of no other interpretation. Take, for example, anyone of the six “characters.” Bernard will do. When he first introduces himself to us as a little boy, he is full of curiosity about his surroundings, he loves words, is imaginative; at school he contemplates being a writer, knows he needs friends, admires the concrete, dramatizes people and events around him and realizes that in so doing he escapes activity himself. At college he is still inventing, grows intoxicated with his own expressions, though he knows they are only a substitute for any spiritual conviction. At the farewell party to Percival he recognizes that, lacking something “inner,” it is only through the stimulus of others and the agility with which he translates them into words that he lives. When news comes of the death of Percival and the birth of his own son, he is at first overcome with an agony of doubt about the meaning of life and death, but almost at once he yields to the old curiosity, finding pain exhausts him, and manufactures “phrases on the deaths of friends.” In Rome, now that he has grown middle aged and is a successful novelist, he stands outlined against the past and present, questioning the possibility of ever finding the final phrase, until his new surroundings, as always, lead him to more and ever more words, rising “like bubbles” in his brain; at the last meeting in Hampton Court he knows there is no final phrase, though phrases still pour out. Bernard remains true to his essential character, fundamentally unchanged no matter how many events roll through him.

The same is true of all of them. Rhoda sums them all up at the moment of Percival’s death, the most important single moment in their lives when, their surfaces shattered by the tragedy, there must be, if there ever is to be, some alteration from within. “I think,” she says, “of Louis, reading the sporting column of an evening paper, afraid of ridicule; a snob. He says, looking at the people passing, he will shepherd us if we will follow. If we submit he will reduce us to order. Thus he will smooth out the death of Percival to his satisfaction, looking fixedly over the cruet, past the houses to the sky. Bernard, meanwhile, flops redeyed into some chair. He will have out his notebook; under D he will enter ‘Phrases to be used on the deaths of friends.’ Jinny, pirouetting across the room, will perch on the arm of his chair and ask, ‘Did he love me?’ ‘More than he did Susan?’ Susan, engaged to her farmer in the country, will stand a second with the telegram before her, holding a plate; and then, with a kick of her heel, slam to the oven door. Neville, after staring at the window through his tears, will see through his tears, and ask, ‘Who passes the window?’—’What lovely boy?’”

In this passage and in the implications of the novel as a whole, falls still another precept of Edwardian fiction: that characters must grow. Mrs. Woolf does not believe it. Human nature itself does not grow; it is as changeless as the ever-changing sea is changeless; only its surfaces appear to change, a fact which, in contrast to the unalterable truth within, is of little or no importance. “The Waves,” fulfilling the principle laid down in “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown,” presents the inner, unvarying truth.

An illumination is thrown on this central theme by the relationship that the six “characters” have to each other. “To the Lighthouse” established the point that “nothing is simply one thing”; “The Waves” continues the idea, for, as I have already suggested, Bernard is not really distinct from the others. They must all be taken together, not, as M. Delattre suggests, “constituant le personnage du drame lui-meme,” but constituting the composite of human nature. These six symbolic “characters” lead us to understand the whole. And in that whole they merge until one is hardly different from another. Rhoda’s fear of each moment which finally drives her to suicide is not essentially different from Bernard’s realization that he will never find a final phrase. Louis’ materialistic success that leaves, as he says, his “soul unprotected” is not essentially different from Susan’s domestic solidity in which weariness is an important ingredient. Neville and Jinny both see their lives as a series of loves; both at the end are still waiting; only Neville, more fastidious, more subtle, waits for the sound of one approaching, while Jinny, in the Piccadilly Tube Station, powders, rouges, rises to the surface of the street, expectant. Thus they mingle. No wonder that Bernard, surveying their lives, remarks, “For this is not one life, nor do I always know if I am man or woman, Bernard or Neville, Louis, Susan, Jinny, or Rhoda—so strange is the contact one with the other.” When he asks himself, “Who am I?” he must answer only with another question: “Am I all of them? Am I one and distinct? I do not know.”

But Mrs. Woolf believes that she does know. “Nothing is simply one thing” — least of all a human being who is merely a particle in the totality of existence, having life only in its relation to the unalterable sum of which it is a part. The English novel, in her hands, has attempted to disclose this truth—this reality, so different from the realism of those writers who have been called the uncles of contemporary fiction. “Mrs. Dalloway” gave us the pattern to which all human life belongs; “To the Lighthouse” showed the power that annihilates time within that pattern and, flowing through it, makes any given moment or detail reflect all other moments or details; “The Waves” suggests that the pattern is itself the absolute, unchanged by no matter what forces play upon it.


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