As a single footstep will not make a path on the earth, so a single thought will not make a pathway in the mind. To make a deep physical path, we walk again and again. To make a deep mental path, we must think over and over the kind of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives.
– Wilferd Arlan Peterson
The human mind is reservoir of endless thoughts, the thoughts which not just shape the actions but also mould the personality of the person to be perceived by the world. Amidst trying to understand the ideas, thoughts and personality of human mind, the study of meaning is placed in association to the context. Generation after generation, masses have been lured by the words of Virginia Woolf without understanding just why her fiction is so engageing. This discussion will approach a few semantic discourses which may help clarify why the latent meaning of Woolfs oeuvre has been tempting for so many.
The impetus for the thesis began with the observation of recurrent ingression of ideas in Woolfs fiction in addition to her diaries and letters. The thesis examines the effect produced when the author consistently sets up the backdrop of her fiction by placing several specific personal, temporal, spatial and social lexical expressions in The Voyage Out (1915), Mrs Dalloway (1920), To the Lighthouse (1927), The Waves (1931) and Between the Acts (1941) at various intervals subconsciously. The deployment creates a lexical field in which the expressions used by the characters are placed at the overt centre and the subtle terms indicating Virginia Woolfs autobiographical nuances are placed in a guise. Through a textual and semantic analysis of lexical expressions, the study asserts that not only on the fictional podium but also on the personal level, Woolf bears the analogous tendencies of her characters quite robustly.
The study employs the technique of Semantic Tradition, particularly Fillmores Frame Semantics, which falls under the category of Cognitive Semantics, to draw attention to Woolfs perspective on visions of death, development of female consciousness, tussle in conjugal life and the arduous social life of her epoch by discussing the emerging meaning, contextual meaning and textual meaning in The Voyage Out, Mrs Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, The Waves and Between the Acts.
1.1. Virginia Woolf: To Look Life in the Face
To look life in the face, always, to look life in the face, and to know it for what it is…at last, to love it for what it is, and then, to put it away…
A prominent member of the avant-garde, intellectual Bloomsbury circle in London from the years directly preceding World War I until her suicide in 1941, Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) is best known for her novels representing the peak of British modernist stream of consciousness style characterized by the focus on everyday action, representation of characters inner thoughts and the pervasive instability of narration. Woolfs novels are widely discussed in academia, with a reputation that runs the risk of pigeonholding her as a feminist writer, an idea which the present study attempts to dismantle.
In order to understand her literary framework, it is essential to dig her early life. Her parents, Leslie and Julia Stephen, both previously widowed embarked on their conjugal journey in 1878 with four young children- Laura, the daughter of Leslie Stephen and his first wife, Harriet Thackrey and George, Gerald and Stella, the children of Julia Prinsep and Herbert Duckworth. Together, Leslie and Julia gave birth to four more children- Virginia, Vanessa, Thoby and Adrian.
Her access to her father, Leslie Stephens massive library brought her within the highest circles of British cultural life, providing her an opportunity to understand her time on finer scale. Dark experiences overpowered her adolescence, which were not widely known until after her death, where there were expositions describing Woolf being sexually abused in her tender age. The gravity of the circumstances further intensified when Julia Stephen, her mother died in 1895, leaving behind 13 years old Virginia Woolf alone. This trauma not just shaped Woolfs youth and her outlook towards further life but also complicated her mental health, leading to her several periodic nervous breakdowns and bouts of mental illness. Her situation was further aggravated in 1897 when her half sister, Stella Duckworth passed away. In 1904, the 19 years old, Virginia Woolf lost her father, Leslie Stephen, only to intensify her grief in 1906 when her brother, Thoby Stephen breathed last.
Marrying Leonard Woolf, whose Jewishness she loathed and whom she could dominate with her intellect and madness, solved her problem of spinsterhood in 1912, but created a host of new problems. Before consenting to enter the wedlock with Leonard, she wrote him a significant letter, warning him of the challenges that would await them. However, she expressed her compliance to take him as her husband. The letter is an apprehensively forthright document, articulating the problems fated to cause them melancholy. Dated 1st May, 1912, the letter said- It seems to me that I am giving you a great deal of pain… and therefore I ought to be as plain with you as I can… (p.70) The theme of Woolfs giving pain to Leonard recurs throughout their conjugal journey and the words I am giving you a great deal of pain are repeated almost verbatim, 29 years later in the suicide note she leaves behind for him.
Later in her life, Virginia Woolf engaged in passionate flirtations with Vita Sackville West, a fellow author in her social circle. Though both the ladies were married, they engrossed in a scandalously open love affair for about a decade. Despite her marriage of over a decade to British diplomat, Harold Nicolson, Vita was raring for their inamoratas relationship to proceed further. After they met in 1922, their relationship lasted until Woolfs death in 1941. Their divulging correspondence leaves no aspect of their lives untouched: the strains and pleasures of writing and the ecstasy of their company.
If we dig in deeper it is apparent that apart from the misfortune she encountered in the in initial period of life, the fundamental aspects of Woolfs writings are related to the threat of war. Her response to First World War and its aftermath, new social attitudes in the post-war period and the social effects it had are evident in her diaries and letters apart from her fictional canvas. The political tensions of 1930s that observed the ascension of Hitler and the brutality of Fascism played a vital role in the Spanish Civil War that caused the death of Julian Bell, Woolfs nephew, a noteworthy event that provided a focus for her anxieties about the contemporary political circumstances.
Subsequent to the Second World War, Woolf subjected to the feeling of constant trepidation and fretfulness, which she herself ended by committing suicide in 1941. In the fall of 1940, Woolfs London abode was damaged by German bombs during the initial phases of London Blitz. Upon learning about the damage to Mecklenburgh Square, she recorded the incident in her diary dated 18th September, 1940:
We have need of all our courage are the words that came to the surface this morning: upon hearing that all our windows are broken, ceilings down most of our china smashed at Meck square. The bomb exploded. Why did we ever leave Tavistock? whats the good of thinking that?… A grim morning. (p.491)
Five months later, on 28th March, 1941, she left behind a note to her sister, Vanessa Bell and her husband, Leonard Woolf. The notes indicated that Woolf was going to kill herself but did not mention where and how. It was later found that Woolf drowned herself by filling her overcoat pockets with stones and walking into the River Ouse near her home. Her corpse went missing for about three weeks, until some children made the ghastly discovery of her remains washed up near the bridge at Southease. Her cremated remains were buried beneath an elm tree in the garden of Monks House, which Woolf earlier named as Virginia and Leonard at their home in Rodmell, Sussex. Leonard marked the spot with a stone tablet engraved with the poignant last lines from her novel, The Waves- Against you I fling myself, unvanquished and unyielding O Death! The waves broke on the shore.
1.2. Virginia Woolf and Her Canvas
Woolfs writing is replete with several personal details extracted from her own life, which gave her an escape to articulate emotions and experiences which were not in vogue of Victorian standards. Woolfs relationship with her parents, as well as their untimely deaths, played a huge role in why Woolf eventually turned to writing as a coping mechanism, giving her leeway to subtly present her problems.
Woolfs work captures the fluctuating world in which she was living, exploring the key motifs of modernism, including the time, subconscious, perception, the impact of war and the city. The stream of consciousness technique popularly employed by Woolf in her work, enabled her to portray the interior lives of her characters apart from depicting the montage like imprint of memory.
Woolfs debut novel, The Voyage Out (1915) follows a fairly conventional form in narrating the story of a female protagonist, Rachel Vinrace, who is exploring her inner life through an epic voyage. Often termed as a traditional novel, the narrative follows a linear chronology, observing middle class social life and the coming of age heroine. Considered to be her first full length novel, The Voyage Out was written and rewritten several times between 1907 and its eventual publication in 1915. Originally titled as Melymbrosia, the novel is an exploration of a young lady who has been deprived from formal education and has been brought up in a manner which does not prepare her for any kind of independent life. The only consolation for the protagonist is found in her artistic flair for piano playing. The authorial presence of Virginia Woolf is apparent in The Voyage Out despite of the narrator not directly participating in the story. The Voyage Out turns out to be the perceptive interpretation of the intellectual and literary tradition she inherited, apart from being considered an exigent and idiosyncratic response to modern life and problems.
Woolfs marriage to Leonard Woolf in 1912 finds reflections in The Voyage Out as the nature of their nuptial bond occupies the ideas of the protagonist, Rachel Vinrace, thereby asserting Woolfs own preoccupations at the time. Hermionee Lee in Woolfs biography assumes that Woolf began her work on The Voyage Out as early as 1906, which could be evidently gauged from the letters written in 1908 where Woolf refers to the work as Melymbrosia. After undergoing several drafts and revisions, The Voyage Out was put aside for a period when she was too unwell to continue with it following the bouts of depression and nervous breakdown in 1910. When Woolf finished writing the novel and gave the manuscript to the publisher, Gerald Duckworth, she was totally exhausted and had made many failed suicide attempts, which partially explains why the publication of her first novel took an additional two years.
Mrs Dalloway (1925) represents the epitome of Woolfs distinct style, containing a multilayered plot. Woolf interweaves interior monologues in Mrs Dalloway, thereby raising issues of mental illness, homosexuality and feminism in post World War I England. The novel opens with the protagonist, Clarissa Dalloway talking about hosting a party and follows the trajectory of her preparations throughout the day culminating in the event itself. The story of Clarissa is twinned with the tale of World War I veteran, Septimus Smith, a victim of shell shock, who suffers from haunting reminiscences and hallucinations. While demonstrating the feelings of vulnerability, alienation and fear, through Mrs Dalloway, Woolf confronts the bouts of nervous breakdown and mental illness she underwent during the period, which is evident in the creation of two personae embodied by Septimus Smith and Clarisssa Dalloway. Set on a single day in 1923, the details of the day expand voluminously to