Virginia Woolf: The Patterns of Ordinary Experience

Virginia Woolf: The Patterns of Ordinary Experience

Virginia Woolf: The Patterns of Ordinary Experience

Virginia Woolf: The Patterns of Ordinary Experience


In her timely contribution to revisionist approaches in modernist studies, Lorraine Sim offers a reading of Virginia Woolf's conception of ordinary experience as revealed in her fiction and nonfiction. Contending that Woolf's representations of everyday life both acknowledge and provide a challenge to characterizations of daily life as mundane, Sim shows how Woolf explores the potential of everyday experience as a site of personal meaning, social understanding, and ethical value. Sim's argument develops through readings of Woolf's literary representations of a subject's engagement with ordinary things like a mark on the wall, a table, or colour; Woolf's accounts of experiences that are both common and extraordinary such as physical pain or epiphanic 'moments of being'; and Woolf's analysis of the effect of new technologies, for example, motor-cars and the cinema, on contemporary understandings of the external world. Throughout, Sim places Woolf's views in the context of the philosophical and lay accounts of ordinary experience that dominated the cultural thought of her time. These include British Empiricism, Romanticism, Platonic thought and Post-Impressionism. In addition to drawing on the major novels, particularly The Voyage Out, Mrs. Dalloway, and To the Lighthouse, Sim focuses close attention on short stories such as 'The Mark on the Wall', 'Solid Objects', and 'Blue & Green'; nonfiction works, including 'On Being Ill', 'Evening over Sussex: Reflections in a Motor-car', and 'A Sketch of the Past'; and Woolf's diaries. Sim concludes with an account of Woolf's ontology of the ordinary, which illuminates the role of the everyday in Woolf's ethics.


The familiar is not necessarily the known.

(G.W.F. Hegel)

Indeed most of life escapes, now I come to think of it: the texture of the ordinary day.

(Virginia Woolf, D2, 298)

The ordinary and everyday, as theoretical concepts and subjects of analysis, have received an increasing amount of attention since the 1960s, following the rise of cultural studies. In Critiques of Everyday Life, Michael E. Gardiner comments that despite the burgeoning interest in the sphere of everyday life in social science literature, feminism, cultural studies and postmodernism, ‘there have been few concerted attempts to survey, in a systematic and synoptical fashion, the theories that have underpinned such developments’. Furthermore, Laurie Langbauer argues that, while of central import to the field of cultural studies, the category of the ‘everyday’ remains vague and ill-defined. In recent years several studies of everyday life have sought to provide a clearer sense of this category and the ‘theories that have underpinned’ contemporary interest in the field, beyond the writings of the two key figures that have, to date, dominated it: Henri Lefebvre and Michel de Certeau. Gardiner’s Critiques of Everyday Life considers concepts of the everyday in the work of a number of twentieth-century artists, social critics and philosophers including the Surrealists, Mikhail Bakhtin, Henri Lefebvre, the Situationist International and Agnes Heller. In his 2002 study Everyday Life and Cultural Theory, Ben Highmore traces a range of theories of everyday life that respond to the changing conditions and experiences of late nineteenth- and twentieth-century modernity. He finds the everyday to be an important subject of cultural, social and philosophical analysis in the writings of Georg Simmel, the Surrealists, Walter Benjamin and Mass-Observation, as well as Lefebvre and de Certeau. More recently, Michael Sheringham has developed these histories

G.W.F. Hegel, quoted in Henri Lefebvre, Critique of Everyday Life, vol. 1, trans. John Moore (London: Verso, 1991), 132.

Michael E. Gardiner, Critiques of Everyday Life (London: Routledge, 2000), 2–3.

Laurie Langbauer, ‘Review: cultural studies and the politics of the everyday’, Diacritics 22, no. 1 (1992): 47–65.

Ben Highmore, Everyday Life and Cultural Theory: An Introduction (London: Routledge, 2002). See also Ben Highmore (ed.), The Everyday Life Reader (London: Routledge, 2002).

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