By Megan Powell, Michael Calder, Lucy Carr, Yagmur Dur and Dani Basina
During the modernist movement of the early 20th century, several authors became recognised figures within the literary community for revolutionary writing styles which challenged the standardised modes of narrative. Amongst these coveted names, Virginia Woolf stands as a pioneer of modernist literature, securing the stream of conscious narrative within the landscape and encouraging extensive discourse surrounding gender inequality amongst 20th century society.
Born during the closing years of the nineteenth century, Virginia was the seventh child within a family which oozed artistic talent, including the modernist painter, Vanessa Bell. She was married to Leonard Woolf during 1912, before publishing her first novel, The Voyage Out, during 1915 and publishing a further eight novels.
Mrs Dalloway is perhaps one of Virginia Woolf’s most recognisable novels. The plot follows Clarissa Dalloway, who is preparing to host a party. She is a high class woman and as she prepares for the evening, Clarissa thinks back on her life and Woolf introduces many of the party guests throughout Clarissa’s day. The novel is set in England after the First World War, allowing the structural themes of society and the aftermath of the war to be presented. The narration uses flashbacks to help the plot and break up the story of Clarrisa’s day. Her character is juxtaposed with observations of Septimus Warren Smith. He is a war veteran who suffers from ‘shell-shock’, and Woolf presents his distance to society as a consequence of his condition, contrasting Clarissa.
Woolf’s novel is full of imperative themes such as mental illness, post-war society, homosexuality and feminism. Through the various characters that are presented, Woolf uniquely uses a day in the life of Clarissa to examine these aspects and present a thoughtful narrative.
To the Lighthouse
Since publication in 1927, To the Lighthouse has been accredited as a standout amongst Virginia Woolf’s novel collection, relaying the complexity of human behaviour and relationships via narrative structure which mirrors the chaos that can descend upon our closest connections – even our family.
Depicting the extensive journey of a family and their many guests across a decade, Woolf demonstrates the passage of time and intricacy of the human condition, as the Ramsay family continuously delay their visit to the lighthouse located near their holiday home on the Isle of Skye. While the novel depicts little in the way of tangible narrative, there’s an innate relatable thread that encompasses the fluctuating resentment, self-loathing, tragedy and intrinsic love borne by the family and friends’ ongoing entanglement.
Written by Virginia Woolf and published in 1928, Orlando is a historical fiction/biography considered to be one of Woolf’s best works, which follows the life of Orlando, our protagonist, over the course of approximately 400 years. The novel explores themes such as gender, self-identity and sexuality from the perspective of Orlando. At the beginning of the novel, Orlando is introduced to the reader as a young nobleman/ a poet, who then later in the novel awakens from a trance-like state to find himself mysteriously having gone through a sex change which results in him becoming a woman. Throughout the novel, Woolf implies that our understanding of gender and characteristics of male-versus-female are socially constructed, and therefore, gender is fluid and cannot be simply defined. Woolf also uses Orlando’s experiences as a way to explore how women are treated differently in comparison to men and emphasises that the everyday expectations/pressures put on women are also socially constructed. Orlando is a classic which explores the boundaries of gender and literature in an exciting and thrilling way and is a must-read for Woolf fans.
First published in 1931, The Waves is widely considered to be Woolf’s most experimental work, as the author forgoes traditional narrative structure and boldly explores the possibilities of the novel form. Set on the coast of England, the novel revolves around six characters whose lives are intertwined due to the death of a cherished friend named Percival.
The Waves is split into nine sections, with each one corresponding to a different phase in the characters’ lives: from childhood, to adulthood, to old age. Woolf blurs the distinction between poetry and prose in this novel, especially through the six character-blurring soliloquies which characterise the story. Woolf masterfully uses this unique adaptation of the stream of consciousness style to explore themes of self-definition, death and the desire for meaning - exhibiting why she’s one of the most prolific Modernist writers.
Published in 1937, The Years was the last print work of Virginia Woolf. In the novel, Woolf links social issues and fiction. This took her about six years to plan. Separated into two sections (Present Day and 1880), the novel also consists of nine shorter sections. Except for the first section, covering three days, each of the other sections goes through just one day. Some of the characters from one of the sections are Colonel Abel Pargiter, Rose (his wife) and their children. It is through the stories of those characters’ lives that Woolf manages to portray the aforementioned link between social issues and fiction.