Woolf Comes Out Second Best

Virginia Woolf and James Joyce

Perhaps she was tired of the comparisons, or of being perceived as a practitioner of someone else’s art form, but when Virginia Woolf famously dissed Ulysses–and she held absolutely nothing back in her assault–she created one of the unintentional ironies of the time.

Her criticism came after she had written the subject of today’s post: Mrs Dalloway.  Incensed by the comparison between her work and Joyce’s magnum opus, she claimed that Joyce was just striving for effect, doing schoolboy tricks to make his work stand out.  She also claims to have been bored by the book and abandoned around page 200… so I assume she never read Molly’s sentence at the end, which would likely have enraged her…

Now, while I’m not going to say that Ulysses is either fun or particularly entertaining–and she joins millions of other readers in having given up on the Joyce–calling any book boring is a bit rich coming from a woman who defended Middlemarch–a paragon of absolute stultification–as one of the few novels suitable for grownups.

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

Woolf’s problem is that, unlike Joyce, she appears not to have realized–at least in this book, I still need to read To the Lighthouse to give a final verdict–that interior monologue doesn’t need to be prim and proper.  Where Joyce delves into the deeper depravities of the psyche, Woolf contentes herself with excellent writing and conventional morality.

Joyce has been proven right by history.  His work is more widely read today (or more widely abandoned, at least), and the prurient passages are a big reason for it.  I bet millions of undergrads have opened the book to scan for the masturbation scene.  And the schoolboy tricks–the endless sentence, for example–have attracted an equal number.  I’ve heard Molly’s monologue referred to as “that sentence”.

In contrast, Mrs. Dalloway is… properly experimental in form.  (No matter what we might think of the plot and its comparisons with Joyce today, we need to remember that Woolf was helping to build the foundations of modern fictional style.  Even if her work is dull by today’s standards, it is still hugely influential).  But it’s boring and unmemorable.

My conclusion is that Woolf encountered the same problems that Joyce did in the development of modernist literature: where to cut off the internal monologue to keep the reader from becoming bored.  Joyce decided to use the literary equivalent of clowns and dancing bears to keep his readers with him, while Woolf stuck strictly to the manifesto.

Joyce, apparently, chose more wisely.

So Woolf still has one book that I recommend heartily, A Room of One’s Own, but apart from that, I’ve been unimpressed by both her fiction and her criticism of others’ work.  Perhaps To the Lighthouse will change all that, but I’m much less enthusiastic about reading that than I was after reading A Room of One’s Own.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer with more than two hundred published stories.  His latest collection is Virtuoso, which you can check out here.

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