Virginia Woolf was born in 1882 in London, of a well-to-do family.
Her father was Sir Leslie Stephen, a well-known essayist and the editor of the English
Dictionary of National Biography; he had a talent for drawing (inherited by Virginia's sister,
Vanessa), and was able to tell enchanting adventure stories and recite poetry (this was
Virginia's inheritance). So she grew up in a literary and intellectual atmosphere; her father's
friends were some of the most important 19th-century writers — Thomas Hardy, George
Meredith, Henry James.
Her mother (Julia Duckworth) was a beautiful and sensitive woman, who also belonged to the
Virginia was the third of four children (Toby, Adrian, Vanessa plus two half-brothers, and two
half-sisters:, Laura (Both parents had been married before: her father to the daughter of the
novelist, Thackeray, by whom he had a daughter Laura (1870-1945) who was intellectually
backward; and her mother to a barrister: ); they all received their elementary education
mostly at home, from their parents, or from Swiss and French governesses.
The unforgettable paradise of Virginia's youth was Talland House, a big house at St. Ives in
Cornwall. The family went there every summer, with several relations and such friends as
Meredith and Henry James. Virginia adored the ocean, the sound of the waves, the ebb and
flow of the tides. All this provided a treasure-house of reminiscences, which she drew on for
such works as To the Lighthouse, Jacob's Room or The Waves. The variety of her experience found
its synthesis in the symbols of water, sea and waves. For Virginia, water represented two
things; on the one hand, it represented what is smooth-flowing, harmonious, feminine. On
the other hand, it stood for the possibility of the resolution of intolerable conflicts in death.
But this happy period was soon to end. In 1895 Virginia's mother died and her father, unable
to bear the idea of going to Talland House without her, sold it. Virginia was thirteen, but she
was deeply affected by her mother's death, and for a long period she suffered from
depression, becoming shy and moody; it was the first sign of how frail her nerves were. In
these years she used to read for long hours in her father's library and began writing articles
and essays. She began to be in revolt against her father's aggressive and tyrannical character
and his idealization of the domesticated woman.
In 1904 Sir Leslie Stephen died; it was only with her father's death that Woolf began her own
life and literary career.
She felt isolated and afraid, and later, in 1913, in a moment of mental anguish, she attempted
suicide by taking drugs.
The Stephen children abandoned their house at Hyde Park Gate, and settled in Bloomsbury, in
Gordon Square. Virginia was now writing for literary reviews, and for a short time she gave
lectures in English history to young students at Morley College. Their spacious Bloomsbury
home became the centre of the famous Bloomsbury Group, a circle of intellectuals such as the
biographer Lytton Strachey, the art critics Clive Bell and Roger Fry, the economist J.M. Keynes,
the writer E.M. Forster and the publisher Leonard Woolf, whom Virginia married in 1912.
This group was an expression of the new tendencies of the first half of the twentieth century, in
which manners and morals were drastically changed. Strict Victorian moralism, which had
permeated the early life and education of Virginia Woolf, was being replaced by a new vision
of the world. The old taboos were falling away; the Bloomsbury “apostles”, as they called
themselves, were anti-monarchist in politics, sceptical in religion, intellectually free and
open-minded, and refined in art and literature.
In this period Virginia also worked as a volunteer in the movement for women's suffrage, and
she always felt the subordinate position of women in society to be an injustice.
In 1917 the Woolfs founded the Hogarth Press, which was to publish most of Virginia's works,
as well as the works of talented young writers, such as Katherine Mansfield and T.S. Eliot.
Notwithstanding her recurrent mental instability, Virginia Woolf liked to live in a cultivated
environment, to be listened to, to feel the effect of her words on the people around her. When she was
alone, she was overcome by anxiety and insecurity, by terror at the brevity of life.
The Second World War increased her terrors; in the London streets, devastated by the bombs, she saw
the disintegration of her world, and isolation from her friends. Aware of her mental fragility, and
obsessed by the fear of madness, she decided to put an end to her life. She drowned herself in the river
Ouse on March 28th, 1941 (Rodmell/Lewes Sussex).
The only remedy for her anxiety was work: she wrote nine novels, many short stories, some
biographies and twentysix notebooks in diary form:
Novels Essays and other works
The Voyage Out (1915) Kew Gardens (1919), a sketch.
Night and Day (1919) Monday or Tuesday (1921), a collection of short stories.
Jacob's Room (1922) Mr Bennet and Mrs Brown (1924), literary criticism.
Mrs Dalloway (1925) The Common Reader, First Series (1925), Second Series (1932): two
To the Lighthouse (1927) volumes of literary criticism.
Orlando: A Biography A Room of One's Own (1929), a delightful, ironic account of the
(1928) position of women and their right to live their own lives.
The Waves (1931) Flush: a Biography (1933), on the love story between Robert
The Years (1937) Browning and Elizabeth Barrett, seen through the eyes of the latter's
Between the Acts (1941) dog.
Three Guineas (1938), an essay ridiculing male pomposity.
FEATURES and THEMES
FAITHFUL ANALYSIS OF HUMAN NATURE: in May 1924 Virginia Woolf delivered a
lecture entitled Mr Bennet and Mrs Brown, where she claimed that the basis of good fiction lay
in "character in itself", and launched an attack on the Edwardians. She said that, although
both groups shared the same concern with the problem of characterization and tried to be as
accurate and realistic as possible, the Edwardians contented themselves with presenting their
characters from the outside. But, since the "human beings" are not only what they do
(actions, dialogues), but above all what they are (feelings, thoughts, memories),
the novel, in order to be a faithful analysis of human na ture, had to turn inwards and
explore man's mental experience and his complex consciousness, to enter into the minds of
the MOMENTS OF BEING": what became all important for the writer, therefore, was what
she called "the moments of being", that is to say the moments of utmost intensity, of per-
ception, of vision in the "incessant shower of innumerable atoms" that strike our minds
every day, as she wrote in her much-quoted statement:
"Examine for a moment an ordinary mind on an ordinary day. The mind receives a myriad impressions
— trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpness of steel. From all sides they come, an
incessant shower of innumerable atoms; and as they fall, as they shape themselves into the life of Monday or
Tuesday, the accent falls differently from of old; the moment of importance comes not here but there... Life is
not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope
surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end. Is it not the task of the novelist to convey this
varying, this unknown and uncircumscribed spirit, whatever aberration and complexity it may display, with
as little mixture of the alien and external as possible? We are not pleading merely for courage and sincerity;
we are suggesting that the proper stuff of fiction is a little other than custom would have us believe it."
Later she continues:
"Let us record the atoms as they fall upon the mind in the order in which they fall,
let us trace the pattern, however disconnected and incoherent in appearance, which each
sight or incident scores upon the consciousness."
NEW TECHNIQUE: following what Joyce had already done in England and Proust in
France, and what, in a way, Sterne had attempted as early as two centuries before, Virginia
Woolf therefore abandoned the traditional technique of novel writing for a new, more
Accordingly, she eliminated
- traditional plots and
- direct dialogues,
- turning to an interior monologue. External reality lost its long-praised importance, except
for the influence it had on the inner life, the life of the mind.
The mind, however, has processes of its own, which obviously need different methods of
narration. Aware of this fact and in compliance with Bergson's theory of "la durée"(inner time
has a duration that eludes conventional clock time),
Use of TIME: Woolf tried to compress these mental processes into minimum time units,
using a variety of techniques. These techniques, which earned her novels the definition of
"experimental", show. This is why she contained the plot respectively within one ordinary
day (Mrs Dalloway), or two different days, years apart (To the Lighthouse), or only a few hours
(Between the Acts). In Orlando, on the other hand, she expanded time to about three centuries.
Moreover, in her need to shift back and forth in time and intermingle past, present and
future, she followed Joyce in using two methods which are analogous to film montage:
- the subject can remain fixed in space and its consciousness can move in time (time-
- time remains fixed, and it is the spatial element that changes (space-montage) risk of
incoherence and obscurity.
SYMBOLS AND IMAGERY: in compliance with the "stream of consciousness" technique, the
work is rich in symbols and imagery. Besides the lighthouse and the journey, which may stand
in turn for the themes of the quest, the alternation of light and darkness in the flow of life, the
transition from innocence to experience, and even death, the third main symbol is that of the
sea, so much loved by Virginia Woolf who, while producing the novel, wrote in her Diary. "the
sea is to be heard all through it". With its ebbing and flowing tides and its waves lapping on
the beach, the sea, now consoling and protective, now menacing and destructive, stands
therefore for life itself and for the inexorable flow of time.
LOVE/LONELINESS: they were an obsession for her (“To the Lighthouse” – “Mrs. Dalloway”)
Mrs. Dalloway is a unique novel in that it takes place in a single day—a Wednesday in mid-
June 1923. The novel interweaves two seemingly unconnected storylines during this day.
1) At the beginning, Clarissa Dalloway, fiftyish and recently recovering from an illness, is
preparing for a party she will host that evening. She begins her day running an errand to
purchase the flowers for the party. Throughout the morning, Clarissa reflects on her past,
including her decision to marry Richard Dalloway thirty years earlier, rather than her more
fiery suitor Peter Walsh.
2) Meanwhile, the second storyline begins with Septimus Smith, a shellshocked war veteran,
out on the street with his wife, Lucrezia. Septimus struggles with the aftereffects of the war,
hearing voices and feeling that life has little meaning. A car backfiring paralyzes him, and he
reflects on his life. Septimus lost his good friend and commanding officer Evans in the war
and continues to carry on conversations with this lost friend.
- Clarissa has returned home and begins to remember a special friendship she shared in her
youth with Sally Seton, a vivacious, slightly scandalous young woman. The two shared a
special bond, bordering on a crush, and Clarissa remembers a kiss they shared.
- Clarissa begins mending her green silk dress for the evening when she receives an unexpected
visit from Peter Walsh, her former suitor. Peter had once told Clarissa disparagingly that one
day she would become “the perfect hostess,” and it becomes more and more clear that his
prediction was accurate. Clarissa and Peter talk to each other easily about the present, but
both are thinking of their past and the decisions they made to get them to the place they are
now. Clarissa’s 17-year-old daughter Elizabeth enters and Peter ends his visit.
- Peter goes to a park where Septimus and Lecrezia are also walking. The couple get into a
heated discussion about suicide, and Peter sees them as a young and in love couple
quarreling. He doesn’t realize the depth of their emotions or how unsteady Septimus is.
Lecrezia has made an appointment for Septimus to see a specialist, Sir William Bradshaw,
who dismisses the complexity of Septimus’s madness and suggests a rest in an asylum to get
- Meanwhile, Richard Dalloway has been to lunch with Lady Bruton . Clarissa was somewhat
miffed that Lady Bruton invited only Richard and not her, and sees it as a remark on
Clarissa’s validity. Richard has realized during this lunch that he wants to come home and tell
Clarissa that he loves her. Unfortunately, he never finds the words, as he has gone so many
years without saying them.
- Septimus and Lecrezia go to their apartment to wait for the attendants who will take him to
the asylum. When they arrive, Septimus decides to escape from them, and not wanting to
leave life but not wanting to meet the attendants, he jumps out the window to his death.
- Clarissa’s party is underway, with several ghosts from her past – including Peter Walsh and
Sally Seton – in attendance. Richard has still been unable to tell her that he loves her. Very late
into the party, Sir William and Lady Bradshaw arrive, very apologetic for their tardiness.
Lady Bradshaw explains that they were delayed as one of Sir William’s patients (Septimus)
had committed suicide that day. The party ends with Clarissa surprisingly disappointed at the
success of her party.
Features and themes
- Mrs Dalloway is often considered Woolf's first fully realised novel, a book in which the writer has
fully mastered her literary technique. Clarissa Dalloway's interior monologue, interwoven with
the sights and sounds of the city, is constructed with a bravura that marks a new phase in the
development of the English novel.
- The beginning of the novel is a brilliant example of the way Virginia Woolf portrays interior
time in contrast with chronological time. As Clarissa walks around London, her physical
trajectory towards the flower shop is constantly interrupted by the interior tunnels that open
up in her mind. She is thrown into the depths of the past and the uncertain terrain of the
future. One of Virginia Woolf's literary aims in writing Mrs Dalloway, as she herself put it, was
to `dig caves behind her characters'. Walking around London, Clarissa's physical impressions of
the city are interwoven with her mental associations and reveries, while the dilated quality of
her interior time is interrupted by the chimes of Big Ben.
- Another interesting aspect of the novel is the way the characters of Clarissa and Septimus
become mutually dependent, although they are never directly connected apart from at the
party scene . In her diary, Woolf noted:
`Mrs Dalloway seeing the truth. Septimus Smith seeing the insane truth'.
- Like Clarissa, Septimus too moves about London, the brilliant chaos of his mind merging
with the physical act of walking. But unlike Clarissa, Septimus is unable to hold all the threads
of experience and sensation that invade his mind together, and weave them into a
meaningful pattern. His choosing to die is inseparable from her acceptance of life, and his
death becomes the halo that illuminates her life.
TRADUZIONE – OH! A Pistol Shot in The Street Outside!
Sciocchezze, sciocchezze, esclamò tra sé e sé mentre spingeva la porta a molla di Mulberry, il fioraio. Entrò
leggera, alta, eretta, per essere subito salutata dalla faccia rotonda di Miss Pym, che aveva sempre le mani
rosse, come se le tenesse nell’acqua fredda insieme ai fiori.
Era pieno di fiori: delfini, fior di pisello, mazzi di lillà; e garofani, mazzi interi di garofani. C’erano le rose;
c’erano gli iris. Ah sì – e così inspirava il dolce odore di quel giardino terrestre mentre stava in piedi a
parlare a Miss Pym, che era in debito con lei, e pensava fosse molto buona, perché era stata buona con lei
anni fa; molto buona, ma pareva invecchiata, quest’anno, mentre girava la testa da una parte all’altra tra
iris e rose e ciuffi di lillà chini come per salutarla, con gli occhi socchiusi, e ne annusava, dopo il chiasso della
strada, il profumo delizioso, la squisita freschezza. E poi, aprendo gli occhi, come apparivano fresche le
rose, quasi lenzuola ricamate, pulite e piegate in ceste di paglia al ritorno dalla lavanderia; e scuri e compìti i
garofani rossi, a testa alta; e i fior di pisello sparpagliati nelle coppe, di un viola sfumato, bianconeve, pallidi
– come se fosse sera, e le ragazze uscissero nei loro vestitini di mussola a raccogliere fior di pisello e rose al
termine di quella splendida giornata estiva, con il cielo d’un azzurro quasi nero, i delfini, i garofani, i gigli; ed
era il momento tra le sei e le sette quando ogni fiore – le rose, i garofani, gli iris, i lillà – risplende: bianco,
viola, rosso, arancione, ogni fiore sembra ardere di luce propria, morbida e pura, nelle aiuole coperte di
nebbia; e come amava le grigie e bianche falene che giravano sopra i girasoli, sopra le primule! E mentre si
spostava con Miss Pym da un vaso all’altro scegliendo i fiori, sciocchezze, sciocchezze, diceva a se stessa,
sempre più gentilmente, come se quella bellezza, quell’odore, quei colori, e il fatto di piacere a Miss Pym, di
riscuotere la sua fiducia, fossero un’onda a cui si lasciava andare che vinceva quell’odio, quel mostro, lo
vinceva completamente; e la sollevava sempre più in alto quando – oh! un colpo di pistola, per strada! «Ah,
queste automobili», disse Miss Pym, andando alla vetrina a guardare e poi tornando con un sorriso come
per scusarsi e le mani piene di fior di pisello, quasi le automobili, e le gomme delle automobili, fossero tutta
colpa sua. La violenta esplosione che aveva fatto trasalire Mrs. Dalloway e accorrere Miss Pym alla vetrina e
scusarsi, proveniva da un’automobile che si era accostata al marciapiede proprio di fronte al negozio di
Mulberry. I passanti che, naturalmente, si erano fermati e guardavano stupiti, ebbero appena il tempo di
vedere un volto con un’aria di grandissima importanza contro un interno grigio perla, prima che una mano
maschile tirasse le tendine e non vi fosse altro da vedere tranne che un rettangolo grigio-perla.
Ciononostante per Bond Street iniziarono subito a circolare delle voci, fino a Oxford Street da un lato, e fino
alla profumeria Atkinson dall’altro, invisibili, impercettibili, come una nuvola passeggera che sfiori le colline,
avvolgendo per l’appunto con l’istantanea sobrietà e immobilità di una nuvola facce che un attimo prima
apparivano del tutto scomposte. Ma ora il mistero le aveva toccate con la sua ala, avevano udito la voce
dell’autorità; lo spirito della religione aleggiava nell’aria con occhi bendati e labbra aperte. Ma nessuno
sapeva di chi era il volto che aveva visto. Del Principe di Galles? Della Regina? Del Primo Ministro? Di chi era
quel volto? Nessuno lo sapeva. Edgar J. Watkiss, con il tubo di piombo che gli sbucava sotto il braccio, disse
ad alta voce, ovviamente scherzando: «L’automobile del Primo Ministro». Lo sentì Septimus Warren Smith,
che non era riuscito a passare. Septimus Warren Smith, all’incirca sui trent’anni, pallido in viso, il naso
aquilino, le scarpe marroni e un cappotto sdrucito, gli occhi color nocciola, aveva quello sguardo
d’apprensione che rende apprensivi anche degli estranei. Il mondo ha alzato la frusta; dove scenderà? Tutto
si era fermato. Le vibrazioni dei motori risuonavano come una pulsazione irregolare che attraversava un
corpo. Il sole si era fatto straordinariamente caldo per via dell’automobile in sosta davanti alla vetrina di
Mulberry; vecchie signore sull’imperiale degli omnibus aprivano i loro parasole neri; e con uno scatto
leggero se ne apriva qui uno verde, là uno rosso. Avvicinandosi alla vetrina con le braccia piene di fior di
pisello, Mrs. Dalloway guardò fuori, il faccino roseo aggrottato per la curiosità. Tutti guardavano
l’automobile. Septimus guardava. Dei ragazzi scesero dalla bicicletta. Il traffico aumentava. E l’automobile
sempre là, con le tendine tirate, e su di esse un curioso disegno come di un albero, pensò Septimus, e
questo graduale raccogliersi di tutte le cose in un unico centro davanti ai suoi occhi, come se un qualche
orrore stesse per affiorare alla superficie ed esplodere in fiamme, lo terrorizzò. Il mondo ondeggiava e
tremava e minacciava di esplodere in fiamme. Sono io che blocco la strada, pensò. Non era lui a essere
guardato e indicato; non era schiacciato da un peso, inchiodato al marciapiede, per qualche scopo? Ma
quale? «Muoviamoci, Septimus», disse sua moglie, una donna minuta con gli occhi grandi e una faccia
sciupata e puntuta; una ragazza italiana. Ma la stessa Lucrezia non poteva evitare di guardare l’automobile
e quel disegno dell’albero sulle tendine. C’era la Regina là dentro – la Regina che andava a fare spese?
L’autista, che era stato occupato ad aprire, girare e richiudere qualcosa, risalì al volante. «Vieni», disse
Lucrezia. Ma suo marito, poiché erano sposati da quattro, cinque anni ormai, trasalì, si voltò di scatto, e
disse: «E va bene!», con rabbia, quasi lo avesse interrotto. La gente se ne accorge senz’altro, la gente lo
nota. La gente, pensò lei, osservando la folla che fissava l’automobile; gli inglesi, con i loro bambini e i loro
cavalli e i loro abiti, che in qualche modo lei ammirava; ma adesso essi non erano altro che «gente», perché
Septimus aveva detto, «Mi ucciderò», una cosa tremenda da dire. E se lo avessero sentito? Guardò la folla.
Aiuto, aiuto! Voleva gridare ai garzoni dei macellai, alle donne. Aiuto! Appena l’autunno scorso lei e
Septimus stavano all’Embankment avviluppati nello stesso cappotto e, siccome Septimus leggeva un
giornale invece di parlarle, glielo aveva strappato dalle mani ridendo in faccia al vecchio signore che li stava
guardando! Ma la disgrazia la si nasconde. Doveva portarlo via, in un parco. «Ora attraversiamo», gli disse.
Aveva diritto al suo braccio, anche se inerte. A lei che era così ingenua, impulsiva, che aveva soltanto
ventiquattr’anni, non conosceva nessuno in Inghilterra, e aveva lasciato l’Italia per amor suo, lui non offriva
che un osso.