Woolf's Style in Her Late Writings Essay

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Virginia Woolf

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To read the Death of the Moth is a peculiar experience in light of Virginia Woolf's suicide: it comprises the last essays she published during her lifetime, and the first collection of her work that her widower would publish after her death. Leonard Woolf's introduction emphasizes that Virginia Woolf undoubtedly would have insisted on revising most of the pieces for book publication, and at least one of the pieces ("Middlebrow") has a headnote indicating it was not published at all during Woolf's lifetime. But perhaps this slightly unfinished character makes the Death of the Moth a useful glimpse into Woolf's own stylistic methods: the wide variety of pieces collected, ranging from straightforward literary criticism to more belletristic essays, gives us a deeper and more complicated sense of the persona behind all of this occasional work. In one of the several pieces herein where Virginia Woolf discusses the novelist Henry James, "The Old Order," she makes the following observation: "All great writers have, of course, an atmosphere in which they seem most at their ease and at their best; a mood of the great general mind which they interpret and indeed almost discover, so that we come to read them rather for that than for any story or character or scene of separate excellence." It is true that reading the Death of the Moth for the "story" would be a disappointment: this is a congeries of disconnected pieces, a snapshot of the day-to-day jobs of a writer, not an organized coherent masterpiece. But it is possible to read the Death of the Moth and discover something of that "mood" peculiar to Woolf herself which distinguishes her as a great writer.

Essay on Woolf's Style in Her Late Writings Assignment

One crucial feature that we may note of Woolf's identity as a writer is her gift for constructing a larger generalization -- often surprising, but never unfounded -- from the buildup of smaller close observations. So her short character sketch of an ninety-two-year-old woman, "Old Mrs. Grey," constructs the portrait from the physical infirmities and the bleak observations offered by its subject -- with the specificity of the "seven foot by four" that comprises the precise size of Mrs. Grey's view of the outside world (these are the dimensions of the door to the room she occupies) and the way in which her pain "jerked her body to and fro like a marionette" -- but then in its final paragraph it veers away from the specific to the astonishingly general: "So we -- humanity -- insist that the body shall still cling to the wire. We put out the eyes and the ears; but we pinion it there, with a bottle of medicine, a cup of tea, a dying fire, like a rook on a barn door; but a rook that still lives, even with a nail through it." By the end of the sketch, old Mrs. Grey has been made into an emblem for all of us. The title essay of the volume, written in much the same vein, takes the struggles and eventual death of a moth, struggling by daylight against a window, as being somehow indicative of a larger significance than this miniature portrait: "Watching him, it seemed as if a fibre, very thin but pure, of the enormous energy of the world had been thrust into his frail and diminutive body."

Without over-interpreting it, his seems to be an image itself for Woolf's notion of how the generalization is constructed from the minute specific observation: just as her comments on Henry James's gift for recollection see his writings as focusing on one aspect of the "great general mind," here we can see a commonality of "enormous energy" shared by all living things. Woolf sees the world as comprising a vast and interconnected whole in the physical and mental energies taking place in it: it would seem that she is willing to discern from the part some aspect of the whole. This would appear to be the progress of the title essays, as Woolf herself gradually watches the struggles of the trapped insect, but cannot help seeing this smallest possible incident in the largest possible terms: "It was as if someone had taken a tiny bead of pure life and decking it as lightly as possible with down and feathers, had set it dancing and zig-zagging to show us the true nature of life." This true nature, of course, is revealed at the end -- life is fragile. As she examines the moth finally deceased, its body stiff, she discerns a final message: "O yes, he seemed to say, death is stronger than I am."

Yet if this is a major tendency in Woolf's style, to extract generalized meaning from the buildup of specific particulars, it is worth noting that she is fully aware of the limitations of the method -- in fact, she addresses them directly in one of the more literary essays in the collection, a review of a biography of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. As the essay begins, Woolf seems to like Shelley: she finds him "half heroic and wholly delightful." Yet she wishes to make clear that Shelley's idealism -- his dedication to larger causes and beliefs which frequently badly disrupted his private life, and drove his first wife to suicide -- has a problematic aspect: "There was something inhuman about Shelley. Godwin, in answer to Shelley's first letter, noticed it. He complained of the 'generalizing character' of Shelley's style, which, he said, had the effect of making him 'not an individual character' to him…Shelley was 'not one of us.' He was, even to his wife, a 'being,' some one who came and went like a ghost, seeking the eternal. Of the transitory, he had little notion."

This last sentence is crucial, because it summarizes precisely what Woolf is trying to accomplish in the more belletristic pieces in this volume, like "The Death of a Moth" itself: this is a study of the transitory, and is founded on the firm belief that the eternal is best approached through contemplation of the transitory phenomena (however seemingly insignificant) that comprise it. Woolf's essay on Shelley emphasizes this strange metastasis of idealization -- indeed the title of the essay, "Not One of Us," is taken from this passage -- but it implies that Woolf is constructing an "us" of her own readers who can agree with her own premises. And chief among these premises is an attention to seemingly insignificant detail as having a broad significance -- otherwise, the writer runs the risk of becoming like Shelley, who is so interested in the "eternal" that he alienates and ruins every personal relationship he has. This seems to indicate a sense on Woolf's part of the ethical responsibilities of the artist, although she is careful not to stress it too hard: it is merely enough for her to observe that Shelley did drive his first wife to suicide, while at the same time trying to observe what it is that the first wife might have seen in Shelley in the first place.

But when it comes to an artist that Woolf seems to embrace wholeheartedly, like Henry James, we see that her criteria for highest praise are couched in similar terms. In the last of three pieces on James printed here, on James's letters published after his death, she finds that he does not neglect the quotidian for the eternal, as Shelley did, but instead finds that nothing (small or large) is lost on him: "There, portentous and prodigious, we hear unmistakably the voice of Henry James. There, to our thinking, we have exploded in our ears the report of his enormous, sustained, increasing, and overwhelming love of life. It issues from whatever tortuous channels and dark tunnels like a flood at its fullest. There is nothing too little, too large, too remote, too queer for it not to flow round, float off and make its own." What Woolf admires here is that there is "nothing too little, too large" for James to approach as an artist, but also that the sinuosity of his style permits him to apprehend virtually anything. We wonder how James would have handled the subject of the death of a moth, but it is clear that with "nothing too little" to be worthy of his notice, James is considered to be more like Woolf herself than like Shelley.

Perhaps it is only when Woolf comes down to considering a contemporary novelist, E.M. Forster, that we only get a real glimpse into how she views her own method. Woolf is largely sympathetic to Forster, and she is unstinting in admiration especially for his biggest most recent novels (a Passage to India and Howards End) at the time of her review. But she offers her critique in a way that gives us some hint as to her own methods as well, when she describes Forster vacillating between "the two great camps to which most novelists belong." Here Woolf offers a basic division… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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