restricted access The Reading of Silence: Virginia Woolf in the English Tradition, and: Virginia Woolf and Postmodernism: Literature in Quest and Question of Itself (review)
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Reviewed by
Patricia Ondek Laurence. The Reading of Silence: Virginia Woolf in the English Tradition. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1991. 241 pp. $29.50 cloth.
Pamela L. Caughie. Virginia Woolf and Postmodernism: Literature in Quest and Question of Itself. Champaign: U of Illinois P, 1991. 236 pp. $39.95 cloth, $15.95 paper.

These two carefully reasoned studies, read against one another, provide as good an overview as I can imagine of Woolf studies upon arrival in the postmodern critical era. As critical models, they offer different options, since they vary greatly in tone, in selection of postmodern approach, and in attitude toward feminism. Yet there is also some consistency. These accounts of Woolf emphasize the active, ongoing, qualities of writing, with the emphasis on the -ing. They call for repositioning and relentless questioning. Following Woolf's own inclination, Laurence and Caughie give heightened attention to the process of reading, integrating this with the writing as process. Each has one outstanding chapter that escapes the controls of the rest of their books. Both endeavor to redirect Woolf criticism by encouraging a reexamination of its basic centers and assumptions.

As her subtitle betrays, Patricia Laurence is the more traditional thinker, though both authors have thought about the modernist relation to tradition, which was an obvious concern of Woolf. Laurence is much more accommodating in tone and treatment of critical differences in Woolf studies. She enters into a stage of feminism, while Caughie resists all feminisms as oppositional. Laurence's making room for multiple critical perspectives is in keeping with her finding that Woolf multiplies the forces at work in a novel.

Laurence focuses upon silence as a key formal and thematic aspect of Woolf, vital to understanding Woolf's art and her repositioning of woman. Beginning with her consideration of inferiority, Lawrence guides the reading silence in a different register in each chapter. It emerges as a condition that postmodernists can follow through traditions of the novel and analyze formally, developing a general ability to read silence through the examples of Woolf's novels. The Voyage Out, To the Lighthouse, The Waves, and Between the Acts are the favored texts in this study. Laurence identifies various categories of silence—the "unsaid," the "unspoken," and the "unsayable," borrowing her terms from Woolf's essays, which are a major source of Laurence's ideas about silence. Laurence sets narrative conventions of silence such as the soliloquy and the meditation in solitude in philosophical and novelistic traditions. She argues in chapter two that women writers (Austen, Charlotte Brönte, Woolf) have a positive view of women in a perceiving position, and thus build a tradition of "keeping the silence." On the other hand, nineteenth century men (Richardson, Dickens, Meredith and Hardy) "break" or demean the expressions of women, when women characters utter anything. Though sensitive to the drawbacks of essentializing, particularly as practiced by other feminist critics, Laurence runs the [End Page 176] risk. The negative male sample is small and exceptions for even these four male writers spring to mind.

Laurence also functions as an empiricist. She has painstakingly collected and examined examples of silence in Woolf's work. Chapter three, "The Reading and Writing of Silence," provides a summary of Woolf's techniques for conveying silence. These include: scenes which offer metaphoric structures of the mind, narrative distance that has a muffling effect, punctuation that achieves suspension, and a lexicon of words favored by Woolf for two combinations—silence with time, and silence with space. Silence is an expandable subject which can take on aspects of space and rhythm, art and music. Laurence's cultural background in the fields of art and music are evident in chapter four, "Escaping the Alphabet," which makes outstanding comparisons to surrealist art, and chapter five, "Listening to Silence." Laurence selects the postmodern constructs of Jacques Derrida, George Steiner, Gerard Génette, Dorrit Cohn, and Jacques Lacan, among others, applying their views of semiotics, speech, presence, and hieroglyphic codes to a positive rendering of women's silence. Laurence makes theory accessible by providing definitions of key terms, such as Derridian différance, and Steiner's lost covenant of word and world in the twentieth century...