Saturday, October 17, 2009

Virginia Woolf and her Characters

In Both “Modern Fiction” and “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown,” Virginia Woolf emphasizes the importance of characters and characterization in the novel. In “Modern Fiction,” she talks about how old form of the novel is centered on plot and writing style, and this is the reason why modern writers do not like the old form of the novel. She says the way they write is not how life is and that free of this model writers would base writing on their “own feeling and not upon convention” (Woolf “Modern” 3). She says of Mr. Bennett, “His characters live abundantly, even unexpectedly, but it remains to ask how do they live, and what do they live for?” (2). This shows the concern with character and the relation to the focus on the writer’s concern, which for her is psychology (she notes this later in the essay as the concern of the modern writer). This focus on psychology makes the character more important than a focus on the plot. In “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown,” Woolf says, “Most novelist have the same experience. Some Brown, Smith, or Jones comes before them and says in the most seductive and charming way in the world, ‘Come and catch me if you can.’ . . . they flounder through volume after volume, spending the best years of their lives in pursuit . . .” (Woolf “Mr. Bennett” 234). This is chase after a character or an idea for character, and Woolf says in the next paragraph, “men and women write novels because they are lured on to create some character” (234). To Woolf, the characters are more important to the reader (and to her, the writer) than any other aspect of the novel.
In Mrs. Dalloway, we see how important the characters are to Woolf. Her seamless, and sometimes confusing, transitions between voices show that she is focused on the characters of the novel rather than the events. The characters mull over their life, which gives us insight into the psychology of the character. The majority of the novel is focused solely on thoughts, feelings, and emotions; the plot is secondary to this. The events that happen take place in the span of one day, but Woolf is able to fill 200 pages. Virginia Woolf says of Mrs. Dalloway, “[i]n this book, I almost have too many ideas,. I want to give life & death, sanity & insanity. I want to criticize the social system, & to show it all at work, at its most intense” (qtd. in Steinberg 6). Woolf intertwines her ideas about life and death, and sanity and insanity into her characters emotions. From the switch between Septimus’s voice and Rezia’s voice, we understand the insanity that he is going through. The scene in the party is particularly interesting because we get society’s view of death, through Clarissa. At first, she is angry that this death would be talked about at her because it would ruin the party. Clarissa thinks, “[w]hat business had the Bradshaws to talk of death at her party? A young man had killed himself. And they talked of it at her party” ( Woolf Dalloway 179). However, later Clarissa begins to relate to Septimus, and she thinks, “death was an attempt to communicate. . .She felt glad that he had done it; thrown it all away” (180-182). Woolf uses Septimus’s death and Clarissa’s reaction to it to show all the things that she said she wanted to show in this novel.
The end of the novel also reveals her focus on character. Instead of focus on what is going on around them, Sally and Peter are engaged in a deep talk. In the last glimpse of the story, we get Peter’s intense emotions. Instead of knowing that Clarissa has entered the room through a description of her, we get Peter’s emotions and the revelation of her presence.
"What is this terror? what is this ecstasy? he thought to himself. What is it that fills me with extraordinary ecstasy?
It is Clarissa, he said.
For there she was" (190).
Here the character’s emotions are put before the action of plot, and it shows how Woolf saw her character as more important than anything else in the novel, and it elicits more emotion from the reader.

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