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The Search for Identity in the novels of Virginia Woolf

The First World War was one crucial event that changed the face of literature forever.  A generation of writers became paralyzed by the extreme destruction that war brought about, showing a face of human nature that was never before seen. Gertrude Stein liked to refer to this generation as „the lost generation” because for the first time the vision upon the world was fully shattered and writers could not find anything else to envision but the absurdity of human destiny in the cataclysmic context. The changing times demanded different, new modes of expression. Modern writers, like James Joyce made use of stream of consciousness techniques to crystallize the inner monologue of characters. But these were not simple stylistical devices. Their main role was to convey the irregularities of thought, but this further led to underlining the irregularities of human experience. For the first time, existence is hopeless, idenitity is void and writers themselves sought to discover a new sense of identity, as if the human spirit had once again lost its innocence and had been cast away from the Garden of Eden. Among all the writers, Virginia Woolf is probably the best one to describe this modern interbelic search of identity.

“In the vast catastrophe of the European war,” wrote Woolf, “our emotions had to be broken up for us, and put at an angle from us, before we could allow ourselves to feel them in poetry or fiction” (The Common Reader). A literary genius, her identity crisis was doubled by her battle with mental illness. Virginia Woolf experienced her first bout of mental illness after her mother’s death, and she suffered from mania and severe depression for the rest of her life.She lost weeks of precious work time due to her bouts with mania or with depression, and it is said that she was plagued, during these times of madness, by voices in her head.

Mrs. Dalloway, published in 1925, is one of the best novels to express the identity confusion in post-war England. The novel is centered on the subjective experiences and memories of characters over a single day in post–World War I London. It is divided into parts, rather than chapters to underline the fine thread of interwoven thoughts. Woolf focuses here on commonplace tasks, such as shopping, throwing a party, and eating dinner, her intention being to show that no act is too small to trigger feelings and memories in the characters (and further down the line, in the reader). The writer chooses to underline this loss of sense of identity even through the technique of the novel. Although it has a main protagonist, Clarissa Dalloway, several other characters and over one hundred minor ones appear to orbit her and surpress her inner thoughts with little pause for transition. All their thoughts spin out confusingly like spider webs, suffocating all sense of existence with impressions that saturate the mind. It’s almost as if the reader is listening to a multiple broadcast of voices, out of which he only manages to discern one at a given time. What is most important is that sometimes the threads of thought cross and characters succeed in communicating. But, more often, these threads do not cross, leaving the protagonists isolated and alone in their search for identity. Woolf herself terms this vortex of thoughts as the “cotton wool” of life in her autobiographical collection of essays Moments of Being (1941).

It is in this confusion of thoughts and feelings that the heroine of the novel, Clarissa Dalloway, struggles to balance her internal life with the external world. At the surface, her world is glittering with fine fashion, parties, and high society, but as she moves through that world she is in a continuous search for deeper meanings. There is a constant tension between the private world and the public one in Mrs. Dalloway. For example, Clarissa has a tendency toward introspection, which makes her always desire a silent space for her emotion. At the same time though, she is always concerned with appearances and keeps herself tightly composed, seldom sharing her feelings with anyone.

She likes to draw people away from her true nature with a constant stream of trivial chatter which may make her shallow for those who don’t know her well. There is a second tension of a different nature that shatters Clarissa apart and that is the conflict between the present and past memories. Clarissa cannot shake away the omnipresence of death, even when she makes life-affirming actions, such as buying flowers. She constantly has doubts about her relationship with Richard and sometimes believes she could have been happy with Peter. And she cannot forgive herself for giving away passion in order to benefit from the comodity of an upper-class life. The protagonist’s search for identity is so dire, that she even gets to the point of doubting her sexual nature.

The image of her kissing the best childhood friend Sally Seton haunts her all throughout the book as one of the most pleasurable moments of her existence. This image is not only of a Sapphic but also of a feminist nature, as the two girls are shown as kissing eachother while Clarissa’s father (the symbol of patriarchy) and other young men discuss on very serious subjects:

Sally stopped; picked a flower; kissed her on the lips. The whole world might have turned upside down! The others disappeared; there she was alone with Sally. And she felt that she had been given a present, wrapped up, and told just to keep it, not to look at it – a diamond, something infinitely precious, wrapped up, which, as they walked (up and down, up and down), she uncovered, or the radiance burnt through, the revelation, the religious feeling!

Although every character in Mrs. Dalloway is of interest, one character in particular has been constructed as the exact mirror of the main character. This character is Septimus, a veteran of World War I who was injured in trench warfare and now suffers from shell shock. Before the war, Septimus was quite a successful young poet and lover of Shakespeare, but when the war broke out, he enlisted immediately for romantic patriotic reasons. He became numb to the horrors of war and its aftermath. Now Septimus sees nothing of worth in the England he fought for, and he has lost the desire to preserve either his society or himself. Suicidal, he believes his lack of feeling is a crime. Clearly Septimus’s experiences in the war have permanently scarred him, and he has serious mental problems. However, his psychiatrist does not listen to what Septimus says and plans to separate Septimus from his wife and send him to a mental institution in the country. At this point, he commits suicide.

But we could say Septimus is Clarissa’s substitute. Actually, Woolf originally planned to have Clarissa die at the end of Mrs. Dalloway, but she decided instead to create a double for her. Septimus would die in Clarissa’s place, while Clarissa continued to endure. There are some differences between the two, apart the obvious physical and social ones. Clarissa can still cling to social meanings, while Septimus sees them as meaningless. While Clarissa is able at any point to gather her thoughts and greet the world as a sharp diamond (Woolf uses this metaphor to convey the rough power the character has to make people come together), Septimus has lost the ability to focus or distinguish reality from his own visions. Septimus’s inner world overflows into the public sphere, whereas Clarissa’s interior remains contained. Septimus cannot continue his search for identity, while Clarissa remains determined in her search. At the same time though, the two are very much alike. Each enjoys being at home in the domestic sphere, and quotes Shakespeare. Both have an instinctive horror of those who crave power. And both Clarissa and Septimus see the importance of nature. In fact, at the end of the novel, in a very direct link, Clarissa “felt somehow very like him—the young man who had killed himself.” She realizes that Septimus’s death is, like her party, an attempt to communicate in a world that has stopped listening. This moment is an epiphany, when Clarissa realizes that Septimus is in some way a part of herself.

And this is how we get to the means in which characters can escape from their identity crisis and find temporary healing. In Virginia’s fiction, characters occasionally perceive life’s pattern through a sudden shock, or what Woolf called a “moment of being” – a feeling of extreme pleasure often accompanies epiphanies, which grants intensified knowledge about one’s state of being in the world. Suddenly, the person can discern reality and his or her place in it, clearly. Virginia Woolf’s “moments of being” occur when one receives an emotional blow similar to a physical “shock” that disrupts the ordinary flow of perception and manages, as Wordsworth phrases it to “see into the life of things”: a moment in which we know that we are. That is why her novels attempt to uncover fragmented emotions, such as desperation or love, in order to find, through “moments of being,” a way to endure.

The search of identity theme is also central in To the Lighthouse. Although all the characters engage themselves in the same quest for meaningful experience, the three main characters have vastly different approaches. Mr. Ramsay’s search is intellectual; he hopes to understand the world and his place in it by working at philosophy and reading books. Mrs. Ramsay conducts her search through intuition rather than intellect; she relies on social traditions such as marriage and dinner parties to structure her experience. Lily, on the other hand, tries to create meaning in her life through her painting; she seeks to unify disparate elements in a harmonious whole.

Just like the characters in Mrs. Dalloway, these ones experience varying degrees of success in their quest for meaning, but none arrives at a revelation that fulfills the search. As an old man, Mr. Ramsay continues to be as tortured by the specter of his own mortality as he is in youth. Lily, too, manages to wrest a moment from life and lend to it meaning and order. Her painting is a small testament to that struggle. But, as she reflects while pondering the meaning of her life, there are no “great revelations” but only “little daily miracles” that one, if lucky, can fish out of the dark. Mrs. Ramsay, as she resembles Mrs. Dalloway most closely, is the only one which achieves “moments of being” in which life seems filled with meaning, but, as her dinner party makes clear, they are terribly short-lived. Virginia Woolf insists on the fleetingness of these intense feelings, and on a concomitant desire to preserve some essential truth about these moments through textuality.

What is more fascinating is that Woolf believes the material of memory and the material of writing are generated from the same thread. Writing occurs as a response to being, while being itself is experienced most fiercely in the fleetingness of epiphanic time. Writing the past constitutes both the possibility for healing and the source of what she calls the “real.” The “real” exists both “behind appearances,” as though it were a secret, hidden from everyday view, empirically inaccessible in all but the most intense moments, and it is simultaneously what Woolf fashions for herself with language. In this formulation, transcribing or translating experience into words is the means through which a trace of the “real” becomes actualized and “whole,” as Virgnia Woolf articulates a theory of experience where the written word not only marks but makes reality. The word thus repeats what has been indistinctly perceived, and it is precisely this repetition that brings existence, proper, to prior experience. Language in this way is necessary to the very condition of being and knowing. For Woolf, a “real” exists, always, somewhere, as though it were associated with place, but for the most part we are unable to access or perceive it, unless it is through memory: certain moments from the past “can still be more  real than the present”.

This is why, only one month after the First World War armistice, Virginia Woolf was disappointed with the fact that “The war is already almost forgotten.” The devastation of the war, although only a few weeks old, had ceased to properly signify. The war would not be “already almost forgotten” if the population felt connected to the war, not as history, but as memory – as an event intimately bound up with their own desires, aspirations, and subjectivities. This is a point Virginia Woolf repeats in Mrs. Dalloway, when Richard Dalloway moves through the London cityscape with a rare gift for Clarissa, “grasping his red and white roses together”: “Really it was a miracle thinking of the war, and thousands of poor chaps, with all their lives before them, shovelled together, already half forgotten.” Fighting against cultural amnesia Virginia Woolf was already diagnosing a failure to incorporate the Great War into existing structures of cultural cognition. And with it, the source of this loss of identity went suddenly down the drain, leaving people to forever feel in the dark for a deeper meaning.

Ana Todor is a Computer Scientist with a playful and literary twist. She has a Bachelor of Science degree in Engineering, a Bachelor of Arts degree in Cultural Studies and a Master of Science degree in Computer Science, Digital Interactive Entertainment.

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