Near the start of college, I first came across the work of Virginia Woolf through her greatest novels—Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, and The Waves—and I instantly knew I’d found an author whose books I would always appreciate.
The three novels, published respectively in 1925, 1927, and 1931, all share features common to Woolf’s work. Written in the stream-of-consciousness mode, the novels delve into the interior lives of characters, experiment with perspective, and examine the role of women in British society. The prose of each is lyrical and affecting, the pacing smooth. Woolf’s novels sometimes are denigrated as plotless, because they focus on women’s daily lives, but they are in fact intricately plotted and meticulously structured.
A part of the Bloomsbury group, a circle of intellectuals, artists, and writers, Woolf had published three novels before Mrs. Dalloway: The Voyage Out, Night and Day, and Jacob’s Room. The first two are heavily influenced by the work of Jane Austen and the conventions of the Edwardian novel, while the last is more experimental. To varying degrees all three anticipate the concerns of Woolf’s mature fiction, but none are as imaginative or successful as the books that followed them.
Reading Woolf introduced me to the possibilities of what well-written literary fiction could be, and she remains one of my favorite British authors from the interwar period. Mini reviews of her most famous novels are included below.
Although famous for focusing upon a single day in the life of one woman, Mrs. Dalloway in fact ricochets from one interior life to the next, collapsing the present into the past as it does so. The novel is far less interested in defining Clarissa Dalloway as an individual than in exploring the many-sided effects she has on an assortment of others; by the end of the narrative, Woolf has offered her readers not a neat portrait of a personality but several impressionistic sketches of the same subject. Woolf’s multifaceted characterization successfully thwarts attempts to sum up Mrs. Dalloway or to reduce her to her relationship with any one person. Likewise, the author’s elaborate but accessible prose resists careless reading, forcing her readers to approach the short novel deliberately. Mrs. Dalloway was Woolf’s first success at writing experimental long fiction, and it remains the perfect introduction to her mature work.
At its core a story about the attempt to respond to time’s passing, To the Lighthouse brings into tension two days a decade apart from each other. Both days take place on the Isle of Skye in the early decades of the twentieth century, and focus on the social life of the Ramsay family and the small circle of friends that they bring with them to their summer home. The novel’s second main part ceaselessly echoes and recalls the first, while its short interlude glides over the depths of the many things that change between the two days. A catastrophic war erupts, the summer home deteriorates, loved ones die. Throughout all of the short novel, though, Woolf’s prose is iridescent, her narrative intricate, her characterization multifaceted; each experience of the text is bound to clash with past readings, expanding your understanding of the book. To the Lighthouse is at once somber and life affirming, and makes for the perfect read on quiet mid-summer evenings.
Often considered to be one of the greatest works of literary modernism, as well as Woolf’s masterpiece, The Waves follows the inner lives of six friends from birth to death: the novel rejects conventional notions of plot in the interest of tracking the ebb and flow of consciousness over the course of a lifetime. The author alternates between the main characters’ perspectives in each of the novel’s nine sections, focusing upon the ways in which the friends’ perception of each other and their environment shifts over time, and she breaks the sections up with poetic interludes that sketch from an omniscient viewpoint a portrait of the sea at different times of the day. Even as Woolf explores the interiority of each character, then, she frames selfhood as neither stable nor unitary, in addition to highlighting the artifice of her project.