PoMo No Mo’: What Virginia Woolf Teaches Us About How to Write Today

In the end, Virginia Woolf went for a walk, filled her pockets with rocks, and waded into the river. After a lifetime of struggling with her mental health, the onset of another depressive episode, in conjunction with the impending war, ultimately defeated her. Since then, women writers across the world have recognized fragments of themselves in her and her work. For my part, growing up in rural Massachusetts, I used to end long winter walks standing at the edge of the pond across the field from the house where I grew up, and the gentle pulse of the water’s surface felt like a promise to take me if I wanted to go.

I didn’t have a connection to Woolf growing up. I was nineteen the summer I first read Mrs. Dalloway, lonely again in my humid hometown. At first pass, I found it dense and perplexing; it was difficult to follow the thread that Woolf masterfully weaves from one character to the next. But I was drawn to her even then, to that breathless style, to life, London, that moment of June.

Perhaps, then, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise when I finally read all of Woolf’s novels and saw myself, not only in suicidal ideation but in literary aesthetic: in that persistent, if sometimes melancholy, optimism that pervades Woolf’s work despite mounting evidence that there is little left to hope for.

This realization came in my senior year of college, when I elected to put an end to my embarrassing lack of knowledge about one of history’s most prominent women writers by taking a senior thesis seminar on Woolf. Led by notable writer and Woolf scholar Mary Gordon, we read 10 books and two personal essays by Woolf, each student producing a 30-page thesis on the writer’s oeuvre.

I came to the class as something of a lapsed postmodernist. I’d taken a course in the literary school a few semesters prior and had only recently grown disillusioned with its tenets, the nihilistic rejection of reality and truth that filled me first with existential dread, then a numbing emptiness as I tried to apply it to my own writing. Reading Woolf with this lens, I found her work to present a thorough criticism of the ideas that would characterize postmodernism after her death. It wasn’t just that Woolf was a modernist, embodying the reassertion of reason against a growing alienation that individuals felt in response to advancing industrialization—this modernist aesthetic sets her up in obvious opposition to postmodernism, given that the latter movement grew out of a rejection of their modernist predecessors. Woolf’s work goes beyond this simplistic dichotomy, acknowledging and considering at great length the ideas that would later become postmodernism, but ultimately turning away from them in favor of what Woolf seems to consider the essential truth of being human. That is, the idea that while people’s true selves are masked beneath layers of constructed identities—making meaningful connection almost entirely impossible—the point of life, the beauty in it, is to continue to search for a glimpse at that true self below the surface. For Woolf, this is what makes life worth it all.

This aesthetic appears initially in Woolf’s first novel, The Voyage Out. Rachel Vinrace, the novel’s young leading lady, pushes against the boundaries of society, unable to conform to the polite expectations set for her. Her entrance into “proper” society midway through the book dovetails with her eventual death, with Rachel falling ill and never recovering soon after getting engaged. Once Rachel attains marriage, “the right thing, the only thing, the solution required by everyone she knew,” she is literally destroyed. In this way, Woolf seems to argue that the arbitrary structures of society do a sort of violence to individuals, taking away their agency in favor of fitting in with what is “proper.” This echoes the nihilist reaction to society that would come to characterize postmodernism after Woolf’s death.

However, an undercurrent of optimism flows through the novel. After Rachel dies, a thunderstorm hits, and the societal conventions that everyone adhered to throughout the book fall quite suddenly away. The otherwise relentlessly proper Mrs. Flushing asks her friends if they fear dying, and they all respond in turn. Unlike earlier in the book, when people would pointedly shy away from asking personal questions, the characters begin to say real, meaningful things. Rachel’s senseless death forces them to be more than they are; to create meaning, to communicate. While the spell breaks as the storm fades, Woolf is not pessimistic about the fact that meaning is only momentary. Rather, she notes the beauty in the fact that, despite this heartbreaking, meaningless death, the other characters go on living, as if to point out that there is something valuable in the going-on-ness of life. Even though meaning only comes in flashes, like lightning, people do not grow disillusioned in the face of the fact that they spend most of their lives stumbling around in the dark. One must push through these difficulties—that is, from a contemporary lens, push through postmodern solipsism—for the hope of momentary clarity. It is worth it for these moments.

In fact, beyond simply arguing for the existence of moments of clarity amidst the stilted performance of English society, Woolf seems to argue that these barriers preventing us from accessing this clarity are the only things that keep us alive. In The Voyage Out, Rachel finds herself paralyzed when she begins to consider the “unspeakable queerness” of life, which she considers “only a light passing over the surface and vanishing.” Through this paralysis, we see how it is destructive to think about the immense and desolate fact of human existence. In this way, while the barriers put up by the conscious presentation of society do serve the destructive end of making it impossible for people to really communicate with one another, these barriers also serve the very constructive end of making it possible to do anything at all. If one thinks too much about how, like Rachel, a person can die merely by forgetting to wash their vegetables before eating them, it becomes impossible to continue. This is why, as with lightning, clarity can only exist in moments. After any more than an instant, the absolute vulnerability of humans to the most absurd things becomes unbearable to consider. In Woolf’s formulation, the best we can hope for is to glimpse clarity in fragments. Any more would destroy us.

These ideas pervade all of Woolf’s novels. In Night and Day, she remarks that “to see the truth is our great chance in this world.” One of the novel’s heroines, Katharine, continually invokes Dostoyevsky, repeating, “It’s life that matters, nothing but life—the process of discovering—the everlasting and perpetual process, not the discovery itself at all.” In The Years, it’s the distant bombing of the war heard during a quiet English tea. In To the Lighthouse, Woolf re-emphasizes the beauty in the dogged going-on-ness of life, showing how even in the face of tremendous tragedy life continues as it did before simply because it must. The house is restored. Lily Briscoe returns to her painting. They finally sail towards the titular lighthouse, despite the deaths of Mrs. Ramsay, Prue, and Andrew.

Woolf is unquestionably a modernist, and the easy assumption would be to say that she has, as she might put it, “nothing whatever” to do with postmodernism as a school. Given that she died before postmodernism could begin to take hold, one might argue that her optimism has no purchase as a critique of contemporary postmodernism, and that to pose such a critique risks anachronism. But this argument falls apart under the weight of The Waves, that fluid and experimental work that firmly established Woolf not only as an extraordinary novelist but as an intensely conceptual writer fiercely pushing the boundaries of her craft.

Told in six soliloquies that ebb and break against each other, The Waves explicitly references numerous major tenets of what would become postmodernism without losing Woolf’s steadfast optimism. The character of Bernard destabilizes the strong sense of self inherent in many modernist texts, declaring, “To be myself…I need the illumination of other people’s eyes, and therefore cannot be entirely sure what is my self.” He goes further, pointing out a whole host of ideas that would later characterize the postmodern movement: the flimsy nature of socially constructed reality, the instability of language, the dubiousness of concrete knowledge. Woolf writes:
There is no stability in this world. Who is to say what meaning there is in anything? Who is to foretell the flight of a word? It is a balloon that sails over tree-tops. To speak of knowledge is futile. All is experiment and adventure. We are for ever mixing ourselves with unknown quantities. What is to come? I know not. But as I put down my glass I remember: I am engaged to be married. I am to dine with my friends tonight. I am Bernard, myself.
Throughout the passage, Bernard seems to be falling away from that optimism that carried Woolf throughout her literary career. Then, the word “but” in the middle. Despite all these grand questions, Bernard is able to situate himself in relation to his position in society. In this way, Bernard represents the point that Woolf makes again and again throughout her career: While nothing is perfect, it is all we have. While society is constructed, it is the only way that Bernard has to relate to the world, and that must be worth something. It must be worth fighting for. If not to keep it the same, then to salvage it, to turn it into something to hope for, rather than the postmodern alternative of nothing at all. As Bernard states, “Is this the utmost you can do? Then we have triumphed. You have done your utmost.”

Woolf’s relationship to postmodernism becomes more compelling when put in context with major critiques that postmodernists raised against modernism. In large part, literary criticism in Woolf’s time was dominated by men like Clive Bell, Joseph Frank, David Lodge, and John Barth. According to Patricia Waugh, a leading specialist in modern and postmodern literature, in her book Feminine Fictions, works by women were marginalized and misinterpreted by these critics. In Waugh’s formulation, fiction written by male modernists was characterized by splitting, fragmentation, and atomization of the story and of the self. In contrast, women’s writing at this time had more to do with dissolution and mergence. According to Waugh, this is because women were traditionally positioned as “other,” so the desire to become subjects overpowered the postmodern desire to deconstruct themselves. Rather, these women sought to experience their selves as strong and coherent while also acknowledging the socially constructed aspects of their identities. Thus, reading these women writers, including Woolf, with the lens of male modernists and critics would misrepresent their aims and concerns.

Furthermore, these women were not only misunderstood or overlooked in their time period, but formulations of modernism continue to misunderstand women like Woolf today. For example, Adam Kelly invokes modernism in his essay “David Foster Wallace and the New Sincerity in American Fiction,” setting up modernist sincerity in contrast with his idea of the New Sincerity, a burgeoning school of post-postmodernism. Kelly asserts that the modernist aesthetic was characterized by “impersonality,” but he exclusively cites male authors such as Joyce and Eliot to prove his point. It would certainly be strange to describe Woolf’s persistent search for meaningful connections between people as anything approaching impersonal, so one might think she was left out of Kelly’s formulation, destabilizing his arguments surrounding postmodernism and New Sincerity.

What does all this indicate? Given that postmodernism grew out of mainstream critiques of modernism, and given that these critiques generally did not focus on the work being done by women writers, the very existence of the school of postmodernism becomes suspect, because it appears to exclude women writers and writers of color. Woolf’s oeuvre is proof of this gaping oversight. While the world is in many ways more equitable than it was when Woolf was writing—at the very least, women can now enter the library at Cambridge without a male companion, unlike in A Room of One’s Own–the literary world remains troublingly gendered.

Ruth Franklin discusses this gendering in her article “Why the Literary Landscape Continues to Disadvantage Women.” According to VIDA, and advocacy organization for women in literary arts, in 2013 The New York Review of Books reviewed 636 books by men and only 164 by women. Franklin notes how even today women writers struggle to be seen as writing about anything other than women, while male narratives continue to be considered universal. This echoes the sentiment Woolf expressed almost a century ago in A Room of One’s Own. She writes:
Yet it is the masculine values that prevail. Speaking crudely, football and sport are “important”; the worship of fashion, the buying of clothes “trivial.” And these values are inevitably transferred from life to fiction. This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing-room. A scene in a battle-field is more important than a scene in a shop—everywhere and much more subtly the difference of value persists.
If literary problems from 1929 that a prominent woman writer like Woolf considered at length still remain unsolved today, it seems fair to say that our contemporary literary schools developed out of a deliberate exclusion of women writers. This indicates that postmodernism is not only passé, but, in fact, that parts of postmodernism were never going to be useful for a progressive society. This is because postmodernism began as a movement by white men critiquing previous work by white men, never pausing to look outside of themselves to consider if people of other genders or races might have something interesting to contribute. Woolf’s contradictory relationship to postmodern tenets is proof that she, and likely others, were overlooked.

This isn’t to say that the entire project of postmodernism was useless. It did its work in exposing the arbitrary nature of many, if not most, aspects of our lives. It questioned our assumptions, our values, asked if we knew where things began and then asked us to look again. But for all its good, postmodernism has been ripping a hole in the literary fabric by failing to address this gendered critique, dragging the tapestry down as it overstays its welcome.

For my part, I think there’s nothing left to be gained from this irony, this solipsism, the extinguishing emptiness of the postmodern world. In a world where violence and hate speech are skyrocketing perhaps in part due to this rampant postmodern depersonalization, maybe what we need is not more explorations of how meaningless everything is, but a radical reassertion of that meaning, the kind of hope that kept Woolf alive.

It was the war that ultimately killed Virginia. She had been deeply unsettled by the First World War, and her diaries and letters indicate a growing sense of dread as the Second World War advanced in the last years of her life. While we’re not on the obvious brink of a world war now, it feels similarly easy to despair at advancing right-wing populism across the globe. But having grown up in postmodernism’s grasp, I would rather write towards hope, that truth that Woolf considered our great chance in this world.

In order to be productive, post-postmodern fiction must let go of the solipsistic irony borne out of exclusionary white male narratives. These post-postmodern works must allow writers of all perspectives to dismantle societal narratives and structures like a postmodernist. At the same time, such works must illuminate unseen spaces in literature, like Woolf called for in A Room of One’s Own, and they must resist postmodernism by remaining optimistic and unironic in the process. Drawing on Waugh, these writers must seek to understand their (whole) self in terms of problematic social structures rather than denying the existence of the self because of these structures.

We are never going to see the world or ourselves with complete objectivity, nor should we have to. The intrinsic failure of objectivity should not be taken as cause for despair, because this despair then masks the simple beauty that keeps us alive, as Woolf argued. That humans are fallible is part of what makes us endearing to each other. Woolf writes in Jacob’s Room, “In any case life is but a procession of shadows, and God knows why it is that we embrace them so eagerly, and see them depart with such anguish, being shadows.” It is merely because, “Such is the manner of our seeing. Such the conditions of our love.”

Image credit: Flickr/Laura Miller.