Realism Revoked



There is an obvious issue with arguing that Woolf’s fiction and her characters are ‘realistic’ portrayals. In many of her novels, the reader is allowed insight into the thoughts and minds of characters and many of these thoughts are relayed through a narrator via indirect free speech. If one views Woolf’s presentation of life as being one that is centred around showing it in its most natural form, then why is there a narrator? Moreover, why is the presence of the narrator made apparent as it is in Jacob’s Room?


The issue is certainly troubling, but there is one explanation that would seem to help resolve it. In her excellent book ” Harvena Richter argues that Woolf is “more concerned with giving the illusion of the flow of thought than creating the impression of transcribing it verbatim.” Although her remarks centre specifically on Woolf’s attempts to represent fluid consciousness, they have a striking relevance to the problem at hand. Woolf is not trying to create a completely accurate experience of a personal life for the reader, she is not trying to write a ‘realistic’ fiction in the sense that one feels as if they are the protagonist. If she was then her narratives would not jump from mind to mind, from character to character, with the same fluidity and ease that one can see in her prose throughout her career. Instead she is attempting to create the conditions in which the reader can interact with the text in order to allow them to form their own subjective constructs of character.


As stated several times already in this dissertation, Woolf believed that the novel was a medium suited to expressing the true essence of life. To her, a good novel was one that didn’t focus on the practical “body” like the Edwardians, but instead captured the essential “spirit” of life, of character. It would be one that allowed the reader the subjective scope to impress themselves upon the reality unfolding from its page and in turn help form characters that were more than an amalgamation of facts and figures. For her, character, like all of life, is indefinite and fluid, shifting and translucent. One of Woolf’s most famous quotes concerning the nature of reality is her analogy of life as light: “Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semitransparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end.” The message of the imagery is as powerful as it is evocative: life is not clear cut and definite but indistinct and almost incorporeal. The very medium that she chooses, light, is an interesting one because of its nature existing as it does not as particles but as waves. Of course, when one thinks of Woolf and waves, a certain novel comes to mind and it’s quite revealing to look at the similarities between Woolf’s idea of life and waves. Both are bizarre in that they exist, but are not tangible entities in their own right but rather invisible, incorporeal things, the exact manner of  which is unclear and imprecise. Woolf was obviously very interested in this bizarre duality of something that was real and yet seemingly non apparent, remarking in her diary.


“Now is life very solid or very shifting? I am haunted by the two contradictions. This has gone on forever; goes down to the bottom of the world — this moment I stand on. Also it is transitory, flying, diaphanous. I shall pass like a cloud on the waves. Perhaps it may be that though we change, one flying after another, so quick, so quick, yet we are somehow successive and continuous we human beings, and show the light through. But what is the light?”


Again there is a seemingly conflicting duality invoked between the physical “bottom of the world”- which invokes images of solidity, of earth and stone- and the transitory, flying nature of the object, which is a collection of dispersed elements gathered as if a solid, like “a cloud”. It is a contrast that occurs in the previous description of life, between a halo and a series of gig lamps. The latter is a number of ordered, definitive sources of lights that can clearly be identified. The phrase “systematically arranged” and the word “series” give the impression of an artificial construction, one an instalment that’s created unintuitively. By contrast, the former is a fluid mix of light itself and one cannot identify the source, instead they can only see the effect which is the glowing ring of light.


The fact that it comes from the beginning of consciousness to the end is what makes it explicitly clear that Woolf is talking about reality in relation to the person. The typical paradigm is reversed and life is made apart of us, rather than us being a part of life. It is dependent on our consciousness to exist because it is our consciousness that interprets every aspect of life, that colours it without us ever realising that everything that we see comes through the filter of subjectivity. Again, we return to the conflict between actuality and reality. The world, of course, does not cease to exist if we do not perceive it but reality- the subjective interpretation of it and the only accessible form we have- does.

Woolf balances this duality beautifully in the very form and theme of her prose. She conceals the conclusions, the stereotypes and the labels of her characters, refusing to give neatly parcelled summaries of motives, dreams, ambitions, essences. Instead, her forays into her characters’ minds reveals hints and clues, little scraps and fragments of personality because this is how life itself functions. The final result is a portrayal of life that is both personal and indefinite, a personally constructed mesh of ideas, judgements and impressions. The presence of the narrator, which at first seems to be a failing is instead an acceptance of the limitations of both the medium and of the fundamental experience of life. The narrative voice will always be there regardless of the amount of effort dedicated to remove it because it is a fundamental component of a story: the sharing of a story between two parties. The restrictions of the form cannot be removed. One will never be able to fully mimic life within prose because of its very nature. Instead Woolf creates a realm in which the reader can apply their own methods of reality to a fictional space and she is ultimately able to use conventional unconventionally to create a realistic portrayal of life.

April 26, 2018


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