Club Selection for September 2017
Carol's Rating: ★★★
This was my first Virginia Woolf novel. By definition, it really isn't even a novel. It was an experiment with writing the streams of consciousness of the characters at specific moments in time rather than the traditional writing of plot and dialogue between the characters.
I was intrigued by the concept and idea of following the characters from childhood to death and found it interesting to see the character's thoughts evolve from distracted observations of childhood to deeper contemplation as adults, but from the first sentence it was clear that this would not be an easy read. I had to work hard at placing myself in the mind of each character and the language was difficult for me interpret; It is more like poetry than prose.
If you like poetry and content that requires deliberate effort on the part of the reader, this may be a great choice for you. For me, it required more effort than I wanted to put into it and finishing it became more of a personal challenge than it was for the enjoyment. This is one I'd like to come back to in the future and see if I can do better with it.
About the Author
Virginia Woolf, original name in full Adeline Virginia Stephen (born January 25, 1882, London, England—died March 28, 1941, near Rodmell, Sussex), English writer whose novels, through their nonlinear approaches to narrative, exerted a major influence on the genre.
While she is best known for her novels, especially Mrs. Dalloway (1925) and To the Lighthouse (1927), Woolf also wrote pioneering essays on artistic theory, literary history, women’s writing, and the politics of power. A fine stylist, she experimented with several forms of biographical writing, composed painterly short fictions, and sent to her friends and family a lifetime of brilliant letters.
Her works are considered unique as they go deep into the psychology of a character, and show the way of their thinking. She published novels and essays as a public intellectual, and received both critical and popular success. She used to self-publish most of her works through the Hogarth Press which she had co-founded.
Throughout her life, she suffered from mental illnesses, probably including bipolar disorder, and she took her own life in 1941. She was 59. Her posthumous reputation suffered after the Second World War, but it was re-established with the growth of feminist criticism during the 1970s. Woolf’s novels can be described as highly experimental: a narrative, frequently uneventful, and commonplace, is seen to be refracted, or dissolved, in the receptive consciousness of the character.
About Virginia Woolf's Writing
Had I watched either of the videos below before I attempted reading this or any Virginia Woolf novel, I would have had much greater appreciation for her words. The 4 minute video below is loaded with powerful insight into her writing and what she was trying to accomplish. The narrator, Sue Asbee, Senior Lecturer in English, offers profound, thoughtful descriptions of her experiences with Virginia Woolf's writing and begins the narration with a completely relatable statement:
I first discovered Virginia Woolf as a student. I found the text completely baffling. I think I'd opened Mrs. Dalloway expecting a story and what I got was a flow of ideas. Memories."
I, too, found the text completely baffling. The difference is that I stayed in that mindset for the entire book. In contrast, Sue Asbee looked beyond the text and discovered something I wish I would have discovered:
When I began to understand what Woolf was trying to achieve in her writing, it made me rethink how memories from childhood, inconsequential moments, have actually come to be the basis of my own identity. There is always a desire to make the fleeting moments something permanent. And that's what she does in her patterning, the structure of her work, in her repetition of images. And the writing, once you stop looking for a story, is stunning."
"I first discovered Virginia Woolf as a student. I found the text completely baffling. I think I'd opened Mrs. Dalloway expecting a story and what I got was a flow of ideas. Memories. When I began to understand what Woolf was trying to achieve in her writing, it made me rethink how memories from childhood, inconsequential moments, have actually come to be the basis of my own identity. There is always a desire to make the fleeting moments something permanent. And that's what she does in her patterning, the structure of her work, in her repetition of images. And the writing, once you stop looking for a story, is stunning.
She felt that people who were writing fiction before she did were more interested in plot. She was interested in time, memory, association of ideas, and how anyone character in her fictional writing, in her biographies, and indeed, we her readers, how any of those establish a sense of identity.
I think her greatest legacy to other writers has been her development of what's often called stream of consciousness, what I prefer call interior dialogue where she tries to express the multiple layers of thought that are going on inside our heads all the time.
Woolf thought of herself as an outsider in the world of education and writing. In her long essay, A Room of One's Own, she describes how she's shut out of the university library because she's a woman. She decides that the fact that women are locked out of these priveleges could be turned to their advantage. If you're locked out, you have much more freedom.
This is a passage from Woolf's essay, A Sketch of the Past. It's a memoir, which she wrote very close to the end of her life and I think it's characteristic of the way she writes and the way memory helps to establish identity.
If life has a base that it stands upon, if it is a bowl that one fills and fills and fills -- then my bowl, without a doubt stands upon this memory. It is of lying half asleep, half awake, in the bed in the nursery at St. Ives. It is of hearing the waves breaking, one, two, one, two, and sending a splash of water over the beach;"
Woolf's achievements lie in her willingness to take risks, to experiment with form, and with subject matter.
Questioning, searching, fragments, patterns, unity."
- Sue Asbee, Senior Lecturer in English
Here's a few quotations from this video that I feel truly expresses the spirit, vision, and intent of Virginia Woolf's writing.
A Tour of Virginia Woolf's Enchanting Home
A country retreat, gardens, cigars, blue writing paper, women's rights, depression, Hogarth Press, the Bloomsbury Group, open relationships...
Learn some interesting tidbits about Viriginia Woolf and her humble home in Sussex in this 5 min video.
Book Club Mojo
Prior to our book club meeting a friend and I briefly discussed The Waves over coffee one day. We were talking about how the text was written as a stream of consciousness rather than a story with a plot. She mentioned that the thoughts of the characters jumped around so much that it was difficult to follow and that she was sure her own stream of consciousness did not jump around like that.
This sounded like a the perfect fixings for an experiment to me and hence, the birth of the following book club activity.
Stream of Consciousness Hip-Hop
- Set a timer to go off at a random time during the meeting. Be sure it's after everyone has settled in and conversation is flowing.
- Hand each member a blank slip of paper and a pen and announce to the group that when the timer goes off, they are to quickly write down what they were thinking about at that very moment. Fold and place slips of paper into a bowl.
- Mix them up then pass the bowl for each member to select one slip, preferably not their own, and read it aloud.
- Were they as random and jumpy as the thoughts of the characters in the book seemed to be?
I have to say, this made us laugh - Virginia Woolf sure knew her stuff!
🙂 🙂 🙂
Bring on the tough stuff - there’s not just one right answer.
- What is the significance of the book's structure? Why does Woolf begin each chapter of with an italicized introduction describing an ocean landscape at a particular point in the course of a day?
- The Waves presents six very different narrators (and describes a seventh main character, Percival, in great detail) but then suggests that their perspectives are somehow related or part of a larger whole. What do you think Woolf is trying to say about individuality?
- Bernard gets a lot more "air time" than the other characters; indeed, the entire last chapter is written from his perspective. What makes him so special?
- Percival is clearly central to the narrative, but he never serves as narrator. Why?
- The Waves uses a lot of natural imagery, but it also highlights technology (e.g., the repeated references to trains) and other aspects of modernity. How does the book make use of images of the natural and the modern? Are the references to each balanced? Is one more valorized or demonized than the other?
- The novel makes frequent references to language and art, alternately highlighting its power and emphasizing its impotence. Ultimately, does one of those perspectives take precedence? Is "making phrases" powerful and meaningful, or ultimately futile? Why or why not?
- What's with the frequent references to death? Why is this an obsession for the novel's characters, even before Percival's death?
- The book is one of Woolf's most experimental, breaking a lot of the conventions of traditional plotting, narrative, and characterization. Do you think it counts as a novel? Why or why not?