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Book Reviews277 ALEX ZWERDLING. Virginia Woolf and the Real World. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986. 374 p. In the last fifteen years we have seen a whole gallery ofportraits ofVirginia Woolf: the Bloomsbury aesthete gave way to the manic-depressive patient, and was in turn succeeded by the woman ofletters and the feminist androgyne. Now, in a work that seeks to locate Virginia Woolfin "the real world," another figure emerges from the ground. For Alex Zwerdling, Woolf is a writer subject to the stresses oflife in Britain between the wars, well positioned to articulate the imperatives for social reform, yet ultimately pushed to despair by the apparent failure of every movement she believed in. It is a striking and original portrait, though not everyone will find it an exact likeness. Zwerdling's purpose is to examine "Woolfs account ofthis complex relationship between the interior life and the life ofsociety" (3). His study, fastidiously written, alternates chapters on the historical context of Woolfs fiction with analyses ofindividual books. The result is a discussion that is an elegant whole. The emphasis falls on what have long been regarded as the major works (excepting TAe Waves, where the importance of "the real world" is deliberately minimized): Jacob's Room, Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, A Room ofOne's Own, Three Guineas, and Between the Acts. Each interpretation carries the authority of a discerning critical intelligence; each reading is a synthesis of intellectual and social history and keen close analysis. According to Zwerdling, Jacob's Room is a "satiric elegy" (62) whose "problematic tone" was meant to avoid the sentimentality Woolf detested in accounts of World War I (70). Mrs. Dalloway offers a critique of the social system that still "presents a sympathetic picture of someone who has surrendered to the force of conventional life and permitted her emotions to go underground" (137). In much of her fiction, Zwerdling suggests, "Virginia Woolf was interested in the situation of people whose desire for independence was eroded by their own residual conventionality" (155). The pictures of Leslie and Julia Stephen in To the Lighthouse are bolder and harsher in feature than the originals were. Leslie Stephen's tenderness toward Virginia and Julia's sense ofvocation are absent in the Ramsays, Zwerdling argues. Though the novel gives voice to "the powerless" (197), the resolution is finally "more willed and formulaic than emotionally convincing" (208). By the time she came to write Between the Acts, Woolfwas disillusioned by the new mood of aggression which was the response of English intellectuals to the crisis in Europe. The novel seems not "an essentially celebratory work affirming unity and continuity" (312) but "an attempt by Miss LaTrobe (and by her creator) to trace the pervasive sense of fragmentation and isolation in the modern world to its historical roots" (317). It is as if Woolf were examining her own "present moment" in relation to literary history and the history ofEngland in order to account for its oppressive bleakness, to explain the loss of any belief in "meliorism" (326). If she ever had felt "a sense of oneness with her kind," fostered by the blissful emotion which "Freud called 'the oceanic feeling' and saw as the basis of all religious faiths" (279), that faith was eroded at the end of her life. Perhaps the boldest reassessment in Virginia Woolf and the Real World comes in the discussion of the feminist books. Zwerdling argues that Woolfs entire oeuvre has wrongly been interpreted in the light ofpresent-day feminist theory: "the appropriation ofher works by some contemporary feminist critics has, I believe, produced serious problems of interpretation. Too often the ideological assumptions and imperatives ofthe late twentieth-century (chiefly American) women's movement have been superimposed on Woolfs own in order 278Rocky Mountain Review to minimize the distinctions between the two eras and cultures" (32). "Woolf has been turned into the matron saint offeminism" (33), when in reality (that is, seen from a presumably more correct historical perspective) she was "a feminist who disliked the label and frequently wrote for an audience of men; a pacifist who despaired of the movement; an uneasy woman of property who alternately denied and defended her establishment status...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1948-2833
Print ISSN
1948-2825
Pages
pp. 277-278
Launched on MUSE
2016-01-06
Open Access
No
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