Exploring the Frontiers of Fiction: Humour, Modernism and Narrative Form in Virginia Woolf's

Exploring the Frontiers of Fiction: Humour, Modernism and Narrative Form in Virginia Woolf's "Jacob's Room" (1922)

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Inhaltsangabe:Introduction: Virginia Woolf is not a popular writer. Despite a fierce pride in her work it was never her ambition to be one. Most people have heard of her work, vaguely associating it with the second wave of the women s liberation movement in the 1970s and the type of fiction that is commonly called difficult , and few people unfamiliar with her work would associate her reputation with humour. These are some of the first impressions of a writer who is now hailed by scholars of English literature as one of the icons of modernism. To speak of first impressions of Virginia Woolf s work is not as fatuous as it may seem. After all Woolf s fiction was initially founded on impressions, and I hope to show that one of the distinctive characteristics of her oeuvre compared to other modernists like T.S. Eliot, W.B. Yeats or James Joyce, is the intensely visual nature of her art. Furthermore, she is often associated with a movement of modern painting in the early twentieth century known as Post-Impressionism , including painters like CAczanne, Picasso and Georges Braque. Finally, laughter in all its registers - whether merry, cruel or parodic - runs like a golden thread throughout the texture of her essays, short stories and novels; as satire does more generally throughout modernism. I have chosen Virginia Woolf s third novel, Jacob s Room (1922), as the focus of my study of Woolf s modernism. It is not her best known novel, as most critical acclaim is reserved for Mrs. Dalloway (1925) or To the Lighthouse (1927). She started writing fiction in 1915 just as the First World War started and, for four reasons, I believe that Jacob s Room is the perfect starting point from which to survey Woolf s particular contribution to the Modernist Movement. Firstly, the social catastrophe associated with the First World War is widely considered to be the decisive historic event in the collective consciousness of early twentieth century Europe, its effects reverberating throughout the literary- and visual arts in the 1920s. Secondly, Jacob s Room was published in a year which falls nicely within the boundaries of the period of High Modernism, which culminated in the decades between 1910 and 1930. Indeed the year of 1922 marks the publication of two other seminal modernist works, T.S. Eliot s Wasteland and James Joyce s Ulysses. Thirdly, Jacob s Room is commonly regarded as Virginia Woolf s first experimental novel in which she, in her own phrase, began to find her own voice . Finally, and most importantly for this essay, even a casual reading of Jacob s Room reveals an extraordinary medley of genres, so that the reader is jostled between the experience of now reading a biography, now an essay, now an autobiography, now a poem; and ultimately, an extraordinary novel. The title of my essay suggests that the following pages are based on the fundamental premise that Jacob s Room represents an exploration of fictional form and not an exposition of any preconceived idea of the writer. This approach was suggested to me by G.S. Fraser s book, The Modern Writer and His World (1970): There are fictions like Bunyan s Pilgrim s Progress or his Life and Death of Mr Badman, or like Swift s Gulliver s Travels, which have a flavour that reminds us of novels, since they are full of everyday detail and natural-sounding conversation, but which are allegories or fables constructed to expound a previously determined scheme of ideas. The true novel rests on no such scheme; it is an exploration, not an exposition, and the true novelist arrives at his sense of life through his story, he does not construct his story to illustrate that sense. (p. 23) The sense of an allegorical journey through life - not unlike Bunyan s Christian or Sterne s Tristram Shandy - is deeply embedded in the text of Woolf s novel. Indeed, in its simplest form, Jacob s Room is a story about the life of a promising young man, Jacob Flanders, who dies in the First World War. Yet, for a writer, the difficult task of maintaining a delicate balance between an exploration and an exposition of life can be as complex and treacherous as life itself - as Christian himself was to find out. As a fascinated, if somewhat mystified, reader of Jacob s Room I am not concerned with the niceties of generic classification. I am primarily interested in exploring the frontiers or cross-sections between the traditional genres suggested by the text, i.e. the essay, the poem, the novel and biography in particular, although it will be shown that even strategies associated with impressionist painting are drawn into Woolf s experimentation with narrative techniques. Naturally, such a medley of styles impacts on the overall structure of the text, and my quest will be to see if the novel - as Henry James once famously suggested in a short story of that name - reveals a distinctive figure in the carpet . Jacob s Forum: Method and Hypothesis: In this essay it will be argued that Jacob s Room may be read as an aesthetic room for discussion on the nature of fictional form; That is, I propose to read the text as a psychological space in which various generic forms are juxtaposed, commented, analysed and explored by the author. In particular, I propose that Jacob s Room is utilised as a writer s (i.e. Woolf s) forum in which various points of view are aired, including the central question lingering on the minds of the author, the gallery of characters and the protagonist respectively: Who is Jacob Flanders ? As such, it offers an opportunity for uninhibited debate presided over, or argued by the narrator herself and the characters, yet always with the intention to include the reader in the fray. This central hypothesis will be referred to as Jacob s Forum. In addition, the essentially discursive nature of this exploration, which actively invites the participation of the reader, will be referred to as the Aesthetic Theme of the novel. Accordingly, the various rooms discussed in the novel, including the protagonist s (bachelor) rooms in London and his room at Trinity College, may be read on two levels of significance: The first being a narrative exposition of the life-journey of Jacob Flanders, and the second being a metafictional, or aesthetic level on which the author self-consciously explores the frontiers of the novel as a fictional form. The novel should therefore always be read with this additional, aesthetic connotation or level of significance in mind. It will be emphasised that the role of the narrator is crucial to the relative success of Woolf s narrative strategy. Accordingly, throughout my analysis I hope to demonstrate how Woolf s narrator negotiates the narrow bridge of art between narrative exposition and metafictional exploration. In particular, it will be argued that the inherent precariousness or uncertainty of Woolf s ambitious artistic endeavour results in a pervasive tension in the narrative. This tension or ambivalence manifests itself in the particular tone of the narrator that ranges from wistful, philosophical introspection to a playful mockery a kind of satirical lance - which the author alternately directs at her characters, the protagonist and/or herself. This pervasive, golden thread of laughter will be referred to as the Comic Spirit of the novel. The general theme of Jacob s Room goes to the very heart of the novelistic genre, i.e. the representation of human life itself. I do not propose to attempt an exploration of the concept of realism or verisimilitude, but hope to demonstrate how Woolf s personal search for this elusive quality of life is dramatised in the text. In her critical essays Woolf often refers to this essence of mankind as the soul of man. Similarly, in Jacob s Room the narrator, in a voice which is very close to that of the author, adopts an essentially solipsistic approach in this regard. This quest to find the meaning of existence in post First World War England will be referred to as the Epistemic Motif of the novel. In sum therefore, it will be a major concern of this essay to attempt to demonstrate how the narrator/author s sceptical stance manifests itself in relation to Woolf s characterization of her protagonist in particular. It will be argued that the primary technique adopted in this regard is an extensive use of literary allusion. As a point of departure the latter must be distinguished from literary influence. Literary allusion is a narrative technique connate with analogy and metaphor; literary influence is a measure of the extent to which an author s work reflects a particular literary antecedent - be it a previous writer, movement or style. I will hope to demonstrate that Woolf uses both metaphor and symbol in the text as literary devices of characterisation, and narrative form or structure respectively. Throughout this essay I will emphasise by means of italics in select citations that metaphors tend to occur in clusters or nodes of associated meaning, whilst symbols stand out by their boldness and self-conscious artificiality. Structure of Essay: Genre boundaries are by definition very difficult to study in isolation. Nonetheless, for the sake of convenience I have chosen to use generic classifications as a broad structural framework for the body of my essay in par. 5; whilst focussing on certain features specific to my hypothesis of the narrative structure of Jacob s Room, i.e. the influence of Woolf s own biography on the conception of the novel (par. 3) and her particular conception of comedy (par. 4), in the preliminary paragraphs. In addition, due to the significance of Woolf s involvement in the Modernist Movement, and the political upheaval surrounding the outbreak of the First World War to the texture of the novel, I will precede my close analysis of the novel with a discussion of the socio-historic context of modernism (par. 2). Inhaltsverzeichnis:Table of Contents: 1.Introduction4 1.1Jacob s Forum: Method and Hypothesis5 1.2Structure of Essay7 2.Modernism and the Modernist Novel8 2.1Periodization and Terminology8 2.2The Historic Context of Modernism9 2.2.1The Modern Age and the Age of Anxiety9 2.2.2The First World War and the Modernist Predicament13 2.3Woolf s Art of Fiction16 2.3.1The Woolfian Essay19 2.3.2The Aesthetic Movement and the Art of Fiction20 3.The Making of a writer23 3.1The Critical Reception of Woolf and Jacob s Room24 3.2The Sceptical Sensibility of Virginia Stephen27 3.3The Hogarth Press and the Conception of Jacob s Room30 3.4Bloomsbury and the Cambridge Apostles32 4.The Comic Spirit35 4.1The Comic Spirit Re-visited: The Value of Laughter and the Aesthetic Theme35 4.2The Comic Spirit and the Modernist Predicament39 5.Frontiers of Fiction: The Narrative Form of Jacob s Room42 5.1Symbolism, Literary Allusion and Impassioned Prose42 5.1.1Symbols and the Allusive Practice of Jacob s Room44 5.1.2Jacob s Forum and the Epistemic Motif45 5.1.3Vignettes and the Socratic Construction of Jacob s Room48 5.2The Role of the Narrator and Character in Jacob s Forum51 5.2.1The Self-Conscious Narrator and the Epistemic Motif51 5.2.2A Gallery of Observers56 5.2.3The Characterisation of Jacob Flanders60 5.3The New Biography and the Eminent Edwardians64 5.3.1Woolf s Theory of Biography64 5.3.2.Digression: The Art of Biography69 5.3.3Seabrook is Dead: Debunking the Eminent Edwardians74 5.3.4The English Bildungsroman Revisited81 5.3.5Educating the Jacobs, Joans and Peters84 5.4Painting, Poetry and the Modernist Novel91 5.4.1The Psychological Novel and the Rivalry of the Arts93 5.4.2Impressionism in Jacob s Forum95 5.4.3Cubism and the Cubist Novel101 6.Conclusion104 Appendix Deutsche Zusammenfassung106 Bibliography114 Textprobe:Text Sample: Chapter 4.2, The Comic Spirit and the Modernist Predicament: Woolf s literary allusions to Laurence Sterne, Jane Austen and George Meredith in Modern Fiction indicate the consistency with which she associates these novelists with her vision of the role of comedy in modern English fiction. Allusions to Meredith s fiction, in particular, recur again and again in her discussion of canonical fiction in her essays. However, I do not believe that she proposes to simply adopt their tools of fiction into Georgian fiction. On the contrary, their craft is regarded as a model to be adapted in order to reflect the Modernist Predicament as defined in par. 2.2 above. For example, in her essays On Re-reading Meredith and The Novels of George Meredith , she reviews the status of Meredith s novels in the English literary tradition - and finds them wanting. Accordingly, in her criticism of Richard Feveral she complains: The book is cracked through and through with those fissures which come when the author seems to be of twenty minds at the same time. Yet it succeeds in holding miraculously together, not certainly by the depths and originality of its character drawing but by the vigour of its intellectual power and by its lyrical intensity. (p. 227) In addition, the reader has no intuitive knowledge of Meredith s characters. For Woolf, [Meredith] is among the poets who identify the character with the passion or the idea; who symbolize and make abstract. ... His mind was too self-conscious, and too sophisticated to remain lyrical for long. He does not sing only; he dissects. Even in his most lyrical scenes a sneer curls its lash round the phrases and laughs at their extravagance. And as we read on, we shall find that the comic spirit, when it is allowed to dominate the scene, licked the world to a very different shape... His teaching seems now [1928] too strident and too optimistic and too shallow. It obtrudes; ... (p. 229; 230) In sum therefore, Woolf advocates that the Georgian novelists maintain the Comic Spirit, but adapt Meredithian characterisation to modern times. Contrarily, the characters of Jane Austen, Stendhal or Chekov, leave a lasting impression on the mind of the reader. Indeed, it has often been noted that Woolf s humour is distinctly Austenesque. In her essays Woolf consistently praises Jane Austen s exact brilliance . Indeed, she is hailed as one of the matriarchs of English literature in A Room of One s Own and Pride and Prejudice itself, as the perfect book , and in Character in Fiction Woolf asserts: Tristram Shandy or Pride and Prejudice is complete in itself; it is self-contained; it leaves one with no desire to do anything except indeed to read the book again, and to understand it better. The difference perhaps is that both Sterne and Jane Austen were interested in things in themselves; in character in itself; in the book in itself. Therefore everything was inside the book, nothing outside. But the Edwardians were never interested in character in itself; or in the book itself. (p. 44, my emphasis) Thus it seems that Woolf is not captivated by her impeccable sense of human values (p.177) and her comic genius (p.176), but also the Austenesque capacity to free herself from the compulsion of social ideas external to the novel. The emphasised phrases therefore echo a Kantian tone or perspective, which becomes part and parcel of the Aesthetic Theme through the Comic Spirit of the modern novel. Thus Woolf concludes her portrait of Jane Austen with the observation that: ...nothing is more obvious than that this girl of fifteen, sitting in her private corner of the common parlour, was writing not to draw a laugh from brother and sisters, and not for home consumption. She was writing for everybody, for nobody, for our age, for her own; in other words, even at that early age, Jane Austen was writing. (p. 170) Thus, in the final analysis, Woolf admires the universality of the Austenesque Comedy of Manners. Similarly, in How it Strikes a Contemporary , Woolf emphasises that the success of Austen s novels rested on the fact that there was a common set of values in her time which the writer could draw on in her fiction. Contrarily, in the current age of the Georgians there is no such common belief system: So then our contemporaries afflict us because they have ceased to believe. The most sincere of them will only tell us what it is that happens to himself. They cannot make a world, because they are not free of other human beings. They cannot tell stories because they do not believe that stories are true. They cannot generalise. They depend on their senses and emotions, whose testimony is trustworthy, rather than on their intellects whose message is obscure. (p.29, my emphases) In other words, Woolf s comments in this essay are a succinct anticipation of the Modernist Predicament. In addition, it anticipates the confessional tendency of the modernist age. In sum therefore, laughter is still of infinite value, yet the element of correction of traditional satire is no longer appropriate in the absence of a common value system. Similarly, in Jacob s Room the Woolfian narrator adopts a stance that is deliberately and self-consciously plural, and the music of laughter constantly sounds on in the background. In addition, Woolf s criticism of Meredith s art is instructive: It suggests that Woolf advocates a method that maintains Meredithian humour; the Georgian writer must adapt poetry to such an extent that it is congruent with prose, yet he is to avoid of any notion of didactism. In my preliminary discussion and analysis of Woolf s writings in par.2- 4 I have attempted to demonstrate Woolf s characteristic style of generic blending, whether her writing takes the superficial form of novel or critical- or biographic essay. In par. 5 below I will attempt to demonstrate how this technique is playfully extended and explored in the narrative structure of Jacob s Room. In particular, I will attempt to demonstrate more closely how Woolf remoulds the tools of the poet (par. 5.1), the painter (par. 5.4), the novelist (par. 5.2) and the biographer (par. 5.3).Joanne Shattock (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), pp. ... The Routledge History of Literature in English: Britain and Ireland, 2nd edition ( London and New York: Routledge, 2001) ... Leon, The Psychological Novel 1900 a€“ 1950 (London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1961) Fielding, Henry, The History of Tom Jonesanbsp;...

Title:Exploring the Frontiers of Fiction: Humour, Modernism and Narrative Form in Virginia Woolf's "Jacob's Room" (1922)
Author:Lindy van Rooyen
Publisher:diplom.de - 2012-02-14


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