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  • Literary Aesthetics of Trauma: Virginia Woolf and Jeanette Winterson by Reina van der Wiel
  • Sarah J. O’Connell
Literary Aesthetics of Trauma: Virginia Woolf and Jeanette Winterson. By Reina van der Wiel. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014. v + 255 pp.

Reina van der Wiel’s Literary Aesthetics of Trauma: Virginia Woolf and Jeanette Winterson adopts critical vocabulary from Freudian psychoanalysis and British object relations theory to develop an argument that could be useful for scholars of literary modernism and trauma studies. Van der Wiel’s project demonstrates what she sees as a critical need to reimagine the relationship between modernist aesthetics and trauma in the works of an early twentieth-century modernist like Virginia Woolf and a late twentieth-century figure like Jeanette Winterson. Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and The Waves as well as Winterson’s Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? use modernist techniques such as fragmentation to gain control over traumatic events instead of being controlled by them. These works transform private experience into public moments in which art allows traumatized people to witness the events that hurt them. Woolf and Winterson analyze pain instead of simply describing it.

In the first of three parts, van der Wiel painstakingly lays out her text’s connections to the larger field of trauma studies. She “outlines the theoretical underpinnings of […] a revised literary aesthetics based on symbolization and containment” (49). Van der Wiel implements terms from psychoanalysis (and particularly from Melanie Klein) to argue that Woolf and Winterson manipulate literary form in order to gain distance from the pain that haunts them or their characters. She argues that both authors contain violent emotions within their prose. They do not simply capture the pain by reliving it; rather, they enlist fractured language to see and think about pain in new ways. [End Page 255]

Van der Wiel devotes considerable critical attention to the “Time Passes” section of To the Lighthouse. She looks at Woolf’s diaries and the manuscript that preceded the novel’s final publication; her readings of To the Lighthouse illuminate the personal struggles that inspired the novel through her strategic use of Freudian theory. However, van der Wiel contends that a Freudian analytic of trauma only takes readers so far. She argues that Freudian analysis must also consider Klein’s contributions to trauma theory. In van der Wiel’s view, “(neo) Kleinian psychoanalysis” arms readers with a critical vocabulary for “thinking within trauma.” This critical language provides a way to articulate how painful feelings become sublime thoughts. Her formulation helps readers understand how one of Woolf’s most experimental novels does more than develop a style influenced by music, art, and other literature. The ultimate goal of this work, and others from Woolf’s oeuvre, is to examine trauma without becoming overwhelmed by it (1). Van der Wiel concludes that Woolf’s choice to set the “Time Passes” section of the text apart from the other sections without detracting from the stylistic unity of the novel proves her unique ability to craft a text that “symbolizes trauma rather than [a text that is] compulsively driven by it” (105).

The next chapter explores The Waves and Woolf’s earlier essay “Poetry, Fiction, and the Future.” Van der Wiel posits that Woolf’s essay anticipates Susanne K. Langer’s notion of “cognitive aesthetic theory by thirty years.” Woolf’s essay and Langer’s scholarly work share a “concern with the intricate correlation between perception, cognition and intuition within subjective experience” (126). Van der Wiel follows her discussion of the essay with an examination of the poetic structure of The Waves by showing how the characters face the trauma of daily life and the shock of Percival’s death with varying levels of success. She determines that the characters’ experiences of trauma might leave some of them hopelessly fractured, but Woolf’s text represents exactly what she strove to create: “a form that not only functions as a container but also engenders the articulation of a perception or experience as a whole” (Chaplin-Dengerink qtd. in van der Wiel 135). Ultimately, van der Wiel claims that The Waves induces “aesthetic pleasure” in readers because of its...


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pp. 255-258
Launched on MUSE
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