Small Language and Big Men in Virginia Woolf

Article excerpt

When Virginia Woolf declares near the beginning of "Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown" that her essay will forego "analysing and abstracting" in favor of telling a "simple"--even "pointless" (6)--story, she highlights a tension that resonates through her work and that has been crucial to contemporary constructions of Woolf's aesthetics and politics. For this renunciation of polemical analysis and abstraction--of general statements and bold, instructive conclusions--is preceded by a series of exactly that. Among them: "Most novelists have the same experience [as I]" (3), "men and women write novels because they are lured on to create some character" (3), "every one in this room is a judge of character" (4), and, most famously, "on or about December 1910 human character changed" (4). No less, Woolf has proposed to shepherd modern writers into "two camps" (4), the Edwardians and the Georgians, based on their respective relationships, as she sees them, to the literary conventions of the preceding age. In short, Woolf discredits analytical, abstract statements even as she herself dispatches them.

Woolf's big statements in this, among the most famous of her essays, do not especially trouble contemporary critics, despite our tendency to celebrate Woolf's approach as "philosophically resistant to generalization" (Snaith 2)--as foregoing sweeping pronouncements in favor of "persuasive observations" and "small truths" (Fernald 172), the "details of the everyday" (Cuddy-Keane, Virginia Woolf 150), and "fragmentary experience" (Goldman 9) which her writing not only describes but creates. Perhaps our comfort with Woolf's big statements stems from our sense that she is only half-serious in making them, or from a simple belief that her pronouncements contain truth. But we also might notice that each of Woolf's generalizations is, paradoxically, limited.

One applies only to novelists, another, to everyone in a particular room, and so on. Thus, they never strike us as blunt, naive, presumptuous, or bossy. Even Woolf's most ambitious claim, about human character in December 1910, is tempered by her qualification "on or about" and her tentative concession that the claim is "disputable perhaps" (4). Indeed, looking carefully at Woolf's language throughout the piece reveals a kind of rhetorical ebb and flow, disclaimer following large claim, following previous disclaimer. Sometimes these cycles concern the topic at hand--"I will suggest that we range the Edwardians and the Georgians into two camps" (4) followed by, "I do not want to attribute to the world at large the opinions of one solitary, ill-informed, and misguided individual" (4)--and sometimes, as we see above, they are metacommentary on her essay's rhetorical and intellectual approach to the topic.

One could define Woolf's moments of diffidence as outbreaks of the "tea-table manner" that she frequently discussed as having marred her earliest reviews. Alternatively calling it the "surface manner," Woolf in "Sketch of the Past" describes the tea-table manner as feminine and hostess-like, "sidelong" (150), polite, and expressly unthreatening to men. Insofar as the manner is a capitulation, a signal of its female user's weakness, it cannot, in her view, but compromise her writing. But this is not the whole story of the tea-table manner. For, in the same passage, Woolf also describes the manner as a "game" and as "useful" for giving a speaker or writer the power to "slip in things that would be inaudible if one marched straight up and spoke out loud" (150). Notice that Woolf does not call the things she slips in offensive but inaudible. That is, her adoption of the manner is not primarily morally but strategically motivated, used ultimately not to soothe her readers' sensibilities but to persuade them of a surprising and radical theoretical point, or--perhaps better--used to soothe her readers' sensibilities in order to persuade them of a surprising and radical theoretical point. …