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The Jew in the Bath:
Imperiled Imagination in Woolf's The Years
Many of the earliest critical discussions of Virginia Woolf suppressed her antifascist politics and polemical feminism, charging her with elitism and a fondness for the ivory tower. In an effort to counter such a limited portrait, much "second-wave" feminist discourse since the mid-1970s has, conversely, celebrated Woolf's progressive political views without spending sufficient energy interrogating their lacunae. In this essay I hope to join current efforts toward more nuanced inquiry into Woolf's often conflicting and sometimes troubling political positions. 1 In particular, this essay offers a corrective to a lingering critical reluctance to investigate Woolf's antisemitism. 2 Such reluctance may result in part from an unexamined assumption, common in post-Holocaust conceptualizations of the early-twentieth century, that those who protested fascism must also have harbored steadfast sympathy with Jews. It may also be the case that because Eliot's clear distaste for Jews and Pound's virulent antisemitism are more obviously germane to their work, Woolf's less dramatic antipathy has seemed incidental. A willingness to study Woolf's antisemitism, however, is essential for understanding her intellectual and political concerns in the 1930s. Analyzing antisemitism's role in these [End Page 341] concerns will allow us to map rich intersections among Woolf's anxieties about Jews, her worries about social, intellectual and imaginative freedom, and, indeed, her antifascist commitments.
The Years, which Woolf conceived in 1932 and published in 1937, offers material for analysis of just such intersections: a scene where a greasy Jew impedes the free imaginings and lyrical conversation of the novel's most charming and enigmatic character, Sara Pargiter. The fear that autonomous imagination was imperiled was an important component of Woolf's critique of militarism and fascism. If, in spite of the evidence, we read this scene as ironized, as critical of Sara and definitively distanced from Woolf's own point of view, we miss an opportunity to understand a cluster of ideas that permeates not only this novel and its draft versions in The Pargiters, but also its partner-text Three Guineas and Woolf's political vision of the 1930s.
The scene in question takes place in the "Present Day" section of The Years, as Sara sits in her "sordid" flat discussing poetry with her young cousin North. Their privacy is violated by the sounds of a Jewish neighbor taking a bath in the "room opposite." This man, Abrahamson, is not the first interruption in the scene: North's Aunt Eleanor has just phoned, intruding upon the cousins' colloquy. In fact, the novel is laden with interruptions, with truncated conversations and thoughts. The text emphasizes these intrusions when North begins to recite Andrew Marvell's poem of Edenic isolation, "The Garden."
But as he reached the end of the second verse—
Society is all but rude—
To this delicious solitude . . .
he heard a sound. Was it in the poem or outside of it, he wondered? Inside, he thought, and was about to go on, when she raised her hand. He stopped. He heard heavy footsteps outside the door. Was someone coming in? Her eyes were on the door.
"The Jew," she murmured.
"The Jew?" he said. They listened. He could hear quite distinctly now. Somebody was turning on taps; somebody was having a bath in the room opposite.
"The Jew having a bath," she said.
"The Jew having a bath?" he repeated. [End Page 342]
"And tomorrow there'll be a line of grease round the bath," she said.
"Damn the Jew!" he exclaimed. The thought of a line of grease from a strange man's body on the bath next door disgusted him.
"Go on—" said Sara: "Society is all but rude," she repeated the last lines, "to this delicious solitude."
"No," he said. (Years 339-40)
Just as Marvell's speaker discovers that innocence and quiet are precluded by "busie Companies of Men," Sara and North find their thoughts deflated...