Virginia Woolf: Vérité in Narrative

Upon analysis of Virginia Woolf’s oeuvre, the tendency residing in the modernist community of developing a metaphoric representation of experience via a metonymic is often exemplified. In Woolf’s discourse, the exploration of modernism and the transition of literature is demonstrated through her argument of perspectivism and fluctuating truth. The essay provides an analysis of the state of modern fiction through the juxtaposition of two generations of writers – Edwardian and Georgian. Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown’ is a response to novelist Arnold Bennett’s essay, in which he declares that the contemporaneous generation of Georgian authors had failed as writers as they did not create real, convincing characters. In retaliation to Bennett’s criticism, Woolf questioned the notion of reality: “And who are the judges of reality?”. Upon describing a scenario in her essay, Woolf reinforced the idea that literature has changed along with the passage of time, applying the idea of perspectivism and reinforcing the fluctuating notion of truth throughout her argument.

In Nietzschean terms, perspectivism is the philosophical view that all ideations take place from particular perspectives, and that there are many possible conceptual schemes, or perspectives in which judgment of truth or value can be made. Under the critical lens of philosophy, Woolf analyses modern literature as a stylistic and hyperbolic narrative of reality, in which she demonstrates a correlation between various characters in ‘Mrs Dalloway’ through third person narrative. One can postulate that Woolf’s novel ‘Mrs Dalloway’ is an extended metaphor for the notion of truth- that within the same reality and within the same time period distinct versions of truth have existed in distinct individuals, which relates to Woolf’s argument in the essay ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown’ in a sense that truth is dynamic- that it is always alternating, hence conveying the argument that ’character-making’, which Bennett finds crucial for successful novel writing, is not the most significant factor.

In the words of Joanna Teske: ”the characters’ inner life (in Mrs Dalloway) is of primary importance; meaningful details of life replace the former panoramic vision.”. This relates to Woolf’s argument ‘the tools of one generation are useless to the next’.  ‘Tools’ are a metaphor for literature, conveying Woolf’s idea that new forms should be explored if writers are to capture the rapidly changing pace as the world heads towards modernism. Woolf continues to explain that, through an impressionistic and fragmented technique, the essence of reality can be captured, which links to Woolf’s ‘Mrs Dalloway’, utilising a fragmented narrative to demonstrate the flowing stream of consciousness in the association of one character with another. Indubitably, the characters all exist in a relationship regardless of interpersonal relationships, backgrounds and social statuses- they are all inherently tied together in a relationship through the omniscient narrator.

An example of the dynamic nature of truth is shown through the scenario of the aeroplane skywriting, in which each individual has their own interpretation of the words written in the sky. What Mrs Coates perceives as the letters ‘K, E, Y’ is the exact same image as another would perceive as ‘E, G, L’, which shows that solid objects and events are used as a transition from the mind of one character to the mind of another. Such transitions seem to suggest that the solid existence of things of the external world unify the minds of separate people because although each person is trapped in his or her mind, they all have private responses to the same external object, which again reinforces the idea that all individuals have ‘private truths’ to the same reality.

Similarly, the idea of perspectivism is applied to Woolf’s essay, in which she describes Mrs Brown as an old woman of sixty. Woolf uses Bennett’s work ‘Hilda Lessways’ as a comparison to her own short scenario and as a foregrounding of her argument that the Edwardian writers write only from their perspective, stating that Bennett is ‘trying to make us imagine for him; he is trying to hypnotise us into the belief that, because he has made a house, there must be a person living there’. Woolf continues by asserting her perspective through ‘Mrs. Brown is eternal, Mrs, Brown is human nature, Mrs. Brown changes only on the surface, it is the novelists who get in and out’, which again relates to the stream of consciousness communicated by the omniscient narrator, who has no identity, but flows in and out of the individual’s subconscious mind to demonstrate their version of truth in the same reality.

In the words of Woolf, who expresses that ‘A writer is never alone. There is always the public with him—if not on the same seat, at least in the compartment next door.’, dependence of truth is indicated through author and reader, which is mirrored by the narrator and the characters in ‘Mrs Dalloway’. Both are not mutually exclusive- writers of the Georgian period depend on readers and the general public’s existence for stories established in reality, whereas readers depend on writers for the hyperbolic expression of their stories in order to generate stimulation and a sense of belonging. Likewise, the mind of the omniscient narrator of ‘Mrs Dalloway’ depends on the characters of the story, preserving their evanescent thoughts, sensations, mental images and interior speech, rescuing them from the passing of time and presenting them again through words and language to the readers. Correspondingly, the minds and individuality of the characters are dependent on the narrator, in which the novel itself is almost entirely without passages of illustration which are exclusively in the narrator’s private voice. The parallelism of character and narrator; of reader and author demonstrates an interdependence of truth and reality, that differing perspectives of truth are not mutually exclusive within the same reality, again accentuating Woolf’s argument of perspectivism and the significance of perspectivism in a novel- not solely from the author’s own perspective, but a well rounded narration of reality that involves the truths of both the author and the readers themselves.

The theme in ’Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown’ is merely a fraction of Woolf’s novel ‘Mrs Dalloway’, and is merely a fragment of reality, yet both the essay and the novel convey the essence of truth through perspectivism, and the significance of perspectivism in literature. Like the narrator in ‘Mrs Dalloway’, who acts as a great tree who binds all living things together in the manifold of embrace of her leaves and branches, Woolf acts as our narrator in reality, branching together our stories, our mentality and our emotions, fabricating fluctuating truths within the same sphere of reality, therefore foregrounding how no character or reader is limited to himself or herself, but each is joined to others by the means of the tree, ‘being laid out like a mist between the people (Clarissa) knew best’. 

The Featured Image is free for use as it is in the public domain: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Virginia_Woolf_1927.jpg 

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