“Mysterious figures”: character and characterisation in the work of Virginia Woolf
Sandberg, Eric Peter
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This thesis argues for a reading of Virginia Woolf’s work based on notions of character and characterisation as a primary interpretative perspective. The bulk of Woolf scholarship, particularly in recent years, has not been directed towards the study of character, due to both general theoretical discomfort with the category of character, and a sense that Woolf’s work in particular, as that of a feminist and modernist writer, may not respond well to traditional readings of character. However, Woolf’s exploration of the human self and its relations with other people is best understood by looking at her formal experiments in characterisation. Her writing was consistently engaged with questions of character, as an examination of her early journalism makes clear. In the years before the publication of her first novel, Woolf articulated a broad theory of character in her reviews of contemporary literature and in essays on Gissing and Dostoyevsky. In The Voyage Out, Woolf began a writing career of experiment in character, examining a continuum of character ranging from complete nonidentification to a consuming over-identification. A key element here is the introduction of the notion of the Theophrastan type as an alternative form of fictional characterisation that corresponds to a way of knowing real people. In Jacob’s Room, Woolf continued to focus on the speculative nature of characterisation and its demands for imaginative identification demonstrated by her short story collection Monday & Tuesday. The importance of this issue is clear from the debates she engaged in with Arnold Bennett during the 1920s, a debate re-framed in this paper as focussing on characterisation. Jacob’s Room initiates a quest for an elusive ‘essence’ of character that may, or may not, exist outside of the structuring forms of social life, and may or may not be accessible through speculative imaginative identification. This elusive essence of character is a primary focus of Mrs. Dalloway, a novel which explores the ways the self can be shaped under social pressures into more permanent and stable structures. This is explored in the novel in a series of metaphors circling around treasure and jewels. While alert to the role of exterior factors, including time and memory, the novel maintains at least the possibility that some more internal form of the self exists and can be represented in fiction. This possibility is explored further in Woolf’s short story cycle Mrs. Dalloway’s Party, and leads into To the Lighthouse’s study of character and its ability to represent essential or internal aspects of self, the self as it exists in relation to other selves, and ultimately a projected or created version of character that reconciles this complexity. This is again carried out through the use of a extensive chain of metaphors which function symbolically in the text, and through a meditation on the nature of the relationship between real people and their fictional counterparts. While the novel offers no clear resolution, it gestures towards a type of characterisation, and hence a type of relationship, based on limited understanding and acceptance. This notion is picked up in The Waves, a novel which both explores the continuity of the self as represented by character over time - something that is also important in The Years - and explores the ways that characters can be represented and the implications this has for the types of unity that can, for good or for ill, be achieved. Again, a notion of a limited character, closer in form to caricature than to the whole and rounded characters often associated with Woolf, is proposed by the novel as a possible solution to the problem of character. In Woolf’s last two novels, The Years and Between the Acts, many of these themes reappear, and Woolf simultaneously situates her characters more firmly than ever in a comprehensible physical and social context, and uses them to explore areas where language and rationality cease to function.