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12. THE CLAIMS OF LANGUAGE: VIRGINIA WOOLF AS SYMBOLIST By Warren Ramsay (French Department, University of California, Berkeley) No reader of TO THE LIGHTHOUSE (1927) is likely to have forgotten Charles Tansley, a rather disagreeable young man, on the whole, whose dissertation is variously described as being about the influence of somebody on something or something on somebody. I should say at the outset that my essay is neither a dissertation nor a study of influence. I simply wish to note, in the first place, ways of feeling about words, and, in the second, ways of using them, that Virginia Woolf shared with other writers of the 1880-1920 period. Her major novels appeared in the •twenties or shortly afterward; she has been called a novelist, sometimes the novelist, of that decade. But chronology, even granting that JACOB'S ROOM (1922) represented something new, does not bear out that judgment. THE VOYAGE OUT (1915) was mostly written in 1906, though it went unpublished for another nine years. NIGHT AND DAY (1919) was not an experimental novel; but by 1922 Virginia Woolf had done critical, reflective, formative work of such importance that the dates of publication of the great novels have more sociological than aesthetic relevance. Mrs. Brown of Mrs. Woolf's most famous essay ("the spirit we live by, life itself," as she is identified in "Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown") was, after all, the spirit of a certain time. Mrs. Brown was there when "suddenly, like a chasm in a smooth road, "the war came." The letter's own distinction between Edwardians and Georgians: Wells, Bennett and Galsworthy on the one hand, Forster, Lawrence and Joyce on the other, is the one to be kept in mind. Proust's subject was also the sudden chasm in the smooth road. He also populated the spaces on either side with characters that begin as classical types and end— the major ones—in a becoming that acknowledges no Balzacian norms, no linking of distinctive trait to individual or of individual to group. The conception of character in fiction changed about 1910, even if human nature did not. Proust, of whom Mrs. Woolf wrote with such appreciation and conviction, gave the broadest formal expression to that change. Her work is much better understood in the light of his; and if this were a discussion of several aspects of the English novel in transition Proust's name would come up frequently. So, certainly, would Dostoievsky's, whose conception of character Mrs. Woolf knew from the close quarters of the translator, and as a sort of literary public defender. Dostoievsky's example was no less decisive for her than for Proust, about 1910. But her pronouncements on characterization are often more arbitrary than accurate. Why, for example, should the objects of a novelist's world be endowed with less visionary intensity if aligned at the beginning of a novel by Balzac (or even by Arnold Bennett if he had happened to possess visionary intensity) than if distributed at various points in TO THE LIGHTHOUSE? If the problem of subject and object, the interplay of character and environment, is never met in Virginia Woolf's criticism, the characters in her novels are lyric fractions, intense divisions of her own poetic consciousness rather than independent novelistic characters. Her unquestionable accomplishment, her unique excellence, is in the use of language. Over and over again she discovers the metaphor at once original and appropriate; and she can reduce language to profounder patterns. 13. It seems to me, in short, that Virginia Woolf shared theories and uses of language with writers ordinarily called Symbolists; and in an article that should not be unreasonably long I should like to concentrate on an essential aspect of her writings. It seems to me that she belonged to a family of minds for whom Mallarmé said that there is no such thing as prose, only lines of verse more or less tautly woven, and that by studying certain family resemblances we may hope to learn more about the nature of language. We will find ourselves using the terms "symbolism" and "symbolist"—mindful, however, that symbols cannot be clues to set or predictable meanings, as...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1559-2715
Print ISSN
0013-8339
Pages
pp. 12-17
Launched on MUSE
2010-05-21
Open Access
No
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