Virginia Woolf Modern Fiction Essay Outline

Considered one of the best of the Modernist writers, Virginia Woolf's personal life is almost as intriguing as her fiction. Troubled by mental instability for most of her life, Virginia composed her great works in bursts of manic energy and with the support of her brilliant friends and family. However, upon completion of a book, Virginia fell into a dangerously dark depression in anticipation of the world's reaction to her work. Despite her personal difficulties, Virginia Woolf's fiction represented a shift in both structure and style. The world was changing; literature needed to change too, if it was to properly and honestly convey the new realities.

Virginia Woolf was born into an intellectually gifted family. Her father, Sir Leslie Stephen, is the author of the massive Dictionary of National Biography, a sixty-two volume compilation of the lives of important British citizens. Virginia's sister Vanessa was a gifted painter, and her two brothers Thoby and Adrian were intelligent, dynamic University men. Despite this heady environment-and having the key to her father's library-Virginia was not afforded the opportunity to attend school like her brothers. This wasn't unusual for the time, but it was something Virginia never quite seemed able to forget. Despite becoming perhaps one of the most intelligent writers of the Twentieth Century, Virginia Woolf always thought of herself as ill educated.

After her parents' deaths, Virginia and her siblings moved out of their family home in Kensington and into a rather shabby London neighborhood called Bloomsbury, where they enjoyed the intellectual stimulation of socialists, artists and students. Thoby, who had made a number of extremely interesting friends while at Cambridge, instituted Thursday night get togethers with his old college buddies and other great London minds: Lytton Strachey, Roger Fry, Clive Bell, Leonard Woolf, Duncan Grant, Desmond MacCarthy and John Maynard Keyes. Virginia and Vanessa sat in on these conversations, which ranged from Art to philosophy to politics, and soon became a part of the Bloomsbury Group themselves.

As she came into her own, and comfortable in her new environment, Virginia began to write. She first produced short articles and reviews for various London weeklies. She then embarked on her first novel, The Voyage Out, which would consume nearly five years of her life and go through seven drafts. When that book came out to good reviews, she continued producing novels, each one a more daring experiment in language and structure, it seemed, than the last one. After a botched marriage proposal from Lytton Strachey, and after turning down two other proposals in the meantime, Virginia accepted Leonard Woolf's proposal of marriage, after recovering from a mental breakdown in a country nursing home.

Although she had affairs of the heart with other women like Vita Sackville-West and Violet Dickinson, Virginia remained very much in love with Leonard for her entire life. He was her greatest supporter, half-nursemaid, half-cheerleader. He was also a good novelist in his own right, and a publishing entrepreneur, having founded Hogarth Press with Virginia. Together, they scouted great unknown talents like T.S. Eliot, Katherine Mansfield and E.M. Forster. Hogarth also began publishing Virginia's novels.

When Virginia published To the Lighthouse and The Waves in 1927 and 1931 respectively, she had turned a corner and could now be considered more than simply avant-garde; she was now, by most critic's accounts, a literary genius. However, until the end, she remained insecure and fearful of the public's reaction to her work.

Virginia didn't only publish fiction; she was also an insightful and, at times, incisive literary and social critic. She was at her best when she took society to task for limiting the opportunities of gifted female writers. A Room of One's Own was a compilation of lectures Virginia gave at Cambridge on the topic of women and fiction, and in this slender volume she argues that talented female writers face the two impediments to fully realizing their potentials: social inferiority and lack of economic independence. Virginia proposed five hundred pounds a year and a private room for female writers with talent. She also published criticism, including two volumes of The Common Reader.

Despite her success, Virginia battled her own internal demons, and although she could quiet them through rest, sometimes she found it impossible to escape the voices in her head. She likely suffered from manic-depression, though doctors knew little about that disorder at the time. Leonard tried to monitor his wife's activities, going so far as to limit the number of visitors she had and to prescribe different kinds of food for her to eat. His efforts likely enabled Virginia to achieve as much as she did. However, he couldn't ultimately save her from herself. On March twenty-eight, 1941, Virginia wrote her husband two notes, both of which told him that if anyone could have saved her, it would have been him. However, she didn't feel she'd be able to come back from this latest episode of what was then called "madness" so she thought it best to end it all. She then picked up her walking stick and headed to the River Ouse. Once on the banks, she filled her pockets with stones, waded into the water, and drowned herself. She was fifty-nine years old.

Suggested Topics for Seminar Papers (due July 28)


Hussey’s Virginia Woolf: A-Z is the place to start on any of these topics.  Note that all of them require analysis.


Type AA Topics:  Argumentative Analysis

This is the typical seminar paper that develops an original idea.  It usually involves a close analysis of textual evidence, backed up by thorough grounding in the scholarship about the book in question.  This might be a close analysis of a theme or a pattern of imagery or a narrative technique.  Naturally, you would thoroughly research what others have said about the theme, image, technique, etc., indicating how your idea agrees with or contradicts other interpretations, but the focus is on developing your idea.  Sample proposal for this type paper.  Sample paper of this type.


Type IA Topics: Informative Analysis (applied to one book)

In a 5-week semester (really 4 weeks before the deadline), it may be difficult to develop an original idea and argue it persuasively.  You could easily spend 4 weeks getting grounded in the criticism about your book, and not get a good idea worth developing until days before the deadline.  If that’s the way you work best anyway, go with the Type AA paper.  If not, consider researching one of the following topics, synthesizing your findings, and applying them to one of the assigned books.  All of these are topics we will be considering in the class.


Woolf and Modernism – review Woolf’s contributions to (and attitude towards) the literary movement called Modernism and explore how this plays out in one of the books.  Mrs. Dalloway might be the easiest to apply this to.  “Modern Fiction” and “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown” are especially relevant essays.  Don’t try to cover every aspect of Woolf’s relation to Modernism, but rather focus in on what interests you, e.g., the way she develops characters or the way she warps time.


Woolf and Androgyny – way too much has been written on this topic, including whole books on Woolf’s “androgynous vision.”  It is a tricky topic in that it is all too easy to celebrate androgyny without examining the implications of erasing gender markers.  Orlando is the obvious book to work with here. See also the chapter toward the end of A Room of One’s Own in which Woolf explores whether the artist’s vision is necessarily androgynous.  Sample Proposal on this topic.


Woolf and War – Woolf and most of her friends were pacifists.  A defining event of their lives was World War I. The obvious book to focus on for this topic is Mrs. Dalloway, since a main character, Septimus Warren Smith, is a shell-shocked WWI veteran.  See also “Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid,” and if you want to understand Woolf’s most mature and radical analysis of war, read Three Guineas (1938).


Woolf and Feminism – this one is harder than it sounds, because the word “feminism” is variously defined.  The obvious book to focus on would be A Room of One’s Own, perhaps examining how it does or doesn’t define feminism (does it even use the word?).  It would be interesting to do a search on the term using the Woolf CD-ROM available at the library.  It will search all of her books, journals, essays, and letters.


Woolf and “Stream of Consciousness”  - Woolf’s narrative technique is one of her major contributions to Modernism, and is worth exploring on its own terms. The Mezei article about “free indirect discourse” is useful here, and the book where Woolf first hits her stride with it is Mrs. Dalloway.  It would be useful to synthesize what critics say generally about “stream of consciousness” and how Woolf does or does not use it.  You will find much comparison to James Joyce and Dorothy Richardson, both of whom used a similar narrative technique.  Keep the focus on Woolf.


Type CA Topics: Comparative Analysis

One good way to get a paper going is to find two things to compare.  The hard part is making a point, making the comparison matter.  With so little time, comparing two Woolf books may not be realistic, since that would double your research.  Instead, you might consider comparing one of the Woolf books to a movie based on the book, or even a contemporary book based on the Woolf book.  Your research would focus on the Woolf book and all the movie or book reviews you can find.  You would be answering the question “Does this movie (or book) develop the same theme as Woolf? If not how does the new version change, expand, warp, denigrate, etc., Woolf? If so, how does the new medium enrich our understanding of Woolf?”


I have a copy of all of the movies and books listed below, and some movies are available as rentals.


Orlando(1992)the movie version by Sally Potter has been much discussed, and we will discuss it in class.  Some critics feel it entirely misses Woolf’s point, while others feel it explores androgyny in ways that Woolf would have liked.


To the Lighthouse (1983) this made-for-TV movie starring Rosemary Harris as Mrs. Ramsay cuts out or combines some characters and has some very fine acting by British actors. 


Mrs. Dalloway (1997)  – the movie version stars Vanessa Redgrave as Clarissa and has been strongly condemned by some Woolf scholars.  See what you think.


Mr. Dalloway (1999)this short novel by Robin Lippincott uses the characters from Woolf’s novel and follows a day in the life of Richard Dalloway two years later.  He is planning a party to celebrate their wedding anniversary.  Lippincott imitates Woolf’s style.


The Hours (the movie or the book, I own the DVD) – the 2002 movie is based on a 1998 book by Michael Cunningham, which is a reworking of Mrs. Dalloway.  It would be interesting to analyze the movie informed by a reading of Mrs. Dalloway and by study of Woolf’s composition of that novel, which is a thread in the movie. Alternatively, you could read The Hours (the book) and explore how it does or doesn’t expand our understanding of Mrs. Dalloway.  Cunningham imitates Woolf’s style and narrative technique.


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