Modernism and Mass Politics: Joyce, Woolf, Eliot, Yeats

By Michael Tratner | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 9
Ideology and Literary Form in 'The Waves'

In the 1930's, the Depression, challenges to British imperialism, Fascism, and impending war caused many writers to feel a need to confront political issues more directly than they had before. Writers such as W. H. Auden, Stephen Spender, and C. Day Lewis adopted a "coolly clinical tone" of social analysis in preference to modernism. 1 But the modernists, too, became more politically active: T. S. Eliot became a prolific essayist and turned to the more public and rhetorical art of drama, Ezra Pound became a propagandist for Mussolini, and Virginia Woolf published Three Guineas, an antiwar manifesto in which she excoriated imperialism and capitalism, accusing the leaders of England of having "For God and Empire . . . written, like the address on a dog collar, round [their] necks" and of circling "like caterpillars head to tail, round and round the mulberry tree, the sacred tree, of property." 2

Woolf also wrote her most aesthetic work, The Waves, a work critics have almost unanimously declared unpolitical. There has thus seemed to be a split between her literary and her political sides, a split that has been mirrored in the way critics have dealt with The Waves. The novel is often entirely left out of political analyses of Woolf works, and it is always high- lighted in aesthetic analyses. 3 In an essay published in 1992, Jane Marcus summarizes the history of criticism of this novel (including her own work) by saying "The Waves simply does not exist as a cultural icon of the 1930s, as part of the discourse about the rise of . . . fascism, war, and imperialism"--the political discourse so important to the writers who came of age in the 1930's. Marcus has begun the process of "re-placing" this novel

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