- Moments of Meaning Dearly Achieved:Virginia Woolf's Sense of an Ending
Virginia Woolf's Comments on Chekhov's Endings in "The Russian Point of View," first published in The Common Reader in 1925, come close to describing her own:
These stories are inconclusive, we say, and proceed to frame a criticism based upon the assumption that stories ought to conclude in a way that we recognize. In so doing, we raise the question of our own fitness as readers. Where the tune is familiar and the end emphatic . . . as it is in most Victorian fiction, we can scarcely go wrong, but where the tune is unfamiliar and the end a note of interrogation or merely the information that they went on talking, as it is in Tchekov, we need a very daring and alert sense of literature to make us hear the harmony. Probably we have to read a great many stories before we feel, and the feeling is essential to our satisfaction, that we hold the parts together, and that Tchekov is not merely rambling disconnectedly, but struck now this note, now that with intention, in order to complete his meaning.
Like Chekhov, Woolf sought a final harmony, a completed meaning growing out of an embodied intention. Like him she also recognized that fictional worlds resist closure because they continue to reverberate in the [End Page 521] imagination; they go on just as life goes on. But Woolf saw even further. While unity, coherence, resolution, and a completed meaning were essential to her satisfaction and to her art,1 she also perceived that the moments of meaning at the ends of her novels must be placed in the wider context of a vital but unfathomable cosmos, a cosmos that paradoxically frustrates human attempts to achieve certainty yet contains within it our ultimate raison d'être.
Her tune, like Chekhov's, baffled her original audience, accustomed to the marriage or death that comfortably ended Victorian novels. In our time, the apparent absence of resolution has become a virtue, especially to deconstructionists. For example, in Fiction and Repetition J. Hillis Miller finds in Mrs. Dalloway and Between the Acts a richness of linguistic and symbolic suggestion that leads not to a completed meaning but to aporia, that exhiliarating moment when we recognize that oscillating ambiguity is the essence of great literature. But Woolf's novels, and her endings, are both open and closed. After unsatisfactory experimentation with the traditional form and the traditional ending in The Voyage Out (1915) and Night and Day (1919), she forged a form and an ending more compatible with the complexity of her outlook. From Jacob's Room (1922) on, her endings resolve the central tensions of her novels without subverting her larger cosmic vision. Endings become her chief means of expressing deeply felt values and convictions explored, examined, and sometimes even apparently contradicted in middles. She uses the rhetorical power of the ending, "the tyranny of the last chapter" as John Fowles calls it (318), not to impose last-minute order but to create a hard-won emphasis, an oasis of meaning duly tested and dearly achieved. At the ends of her novels, Woolf affirms life over death, the power of recovery over the power of pain, the continuity of the species and of civilization over the claims of the individual, and progress over regress.2 That she juxtaposes these affirmations with suggestions of ongoing life, of incompletion, does not invalidate [End Page 522] them. Instead, the juxtaposition invites us to share in a complex vision that embraces a "both-and" rather than an "either-or" ontology.
Contemporary thinking about fictional closure is split along the very lines Woolf identified in her comments on Chekhov: the major theorists tend to champion the cause of either the open or the closed ending. Deconstructionists such as Hillis Miller and D. A. Miller have extended the arguments of those early proponents of the open ending, Robert M. Adams and Alan Friedman. Adams had posited a purposeful "unresolvedness" (13) that Friedman came to see as the distinguishing feature of the modern novel. But the deconstructionists find that resolution is...