Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Waves and Fragments: Linguistic Construction as Subject Formation in Virginia Woolf

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Waves and Fragments: Linguistic Construction as Subject Formation in Virginia Woolf

Article excerpt

Throughout her work, Virginia Woolf - as a modernist, a feminist, and a woman writer - is preoccupied with questions about how aesthetic form impinges upon social structures and how women, especially as artists, are to conceive of themselves within patriarchal cultures. Woolf addresses these issues directly, of course, in A Room of One's Own and Three Guineas, but they are no less crucial - in perhaps even more interesting ways - to her novels. There, the inquiry into women's places in society often appears as an interrogation of subject formation. While scholars have for some time pointed out Woolf's concern with subject construction and the construction of the world, they have not analyzed how this interest appears on grammatical, rhetorical, syntactic, and figural levels. Accordingly, I want to explore two of Woolf's late novels, The Waves and Between the Acts, where, I suggest, Woolf's investigation of subject construction manifests itself primarily in linguistic terms, leading her to use constructs of language to critique traditional assumptions about unified selves and patriarchal systems.

The titles of the two novels furnish initial clues about the linguistic nature of Woolf's query into subjects and society, for they may be read as signaling, among other things, how Woolf understands language to function both specifically within the texts and generally in formation and perception. The Waves takes its name from descriptions of the ocean in the vignettes that open each chapter. Interpolation of lyric meditations on nature within sections of narrative is one of Woolf's standard techniques, central to both The Years and To the Lighthouse. But in The Waves, Woolf instead prefaces each chapter with such an interlude, each containing four key images: the sun, birds, waves, and a garden.

Three of these images then find direct corollaries within the chapters themselves: The sun moves from sunup to sunset and follows the trajectory of the narrative as it moves from childhood to old age; the garden resembles the scenic backdrop of the novel; and the birds' actions mimic those of the characters. The only image in the vignettes that scholars do not discuss as having an immediate correspondence elsewhere in the novel is the waves themselves. I would suggest, however, that the waves are also duplicated in the text - that they recur within the structure of Woolf's prose. There, linguistic flux and instability often coincide with moments when characters work to define themselves in language. In other words, "wavering" configurations of language betoken "wavering" ontological constructions, especially constructions of the self.(1)

As in the case of The Waves, the title of Between the Acts suggests a myriad of references. Readers have taken the "Between" to refer to the characters' interaction "between the acts" of Miss La Trobe's play, to the space "between" the two world wars, to silence, and to Woolf's oblique emphasis on sentiments hidden "between" the lines of the characters' actual dialogue: Giles's melancholy agonies, Isa's countless frustrations, Lucy's prolonged soul searchings.(2) And the title, like "The Waves," also refers to the language in the novel. In this configuration, each moment of enunciation may be seen as an act of a play, so that accompanying those enunciations, those "Acts," is something that lies "Between" them, outside them, giving them shape and putting pressure on them. That something is not only silence - the absence of speech - but is also the form, the structure, by which consciousness, and thus subjectivity, is conceptualized. Such a process of shuttling "Between the Acts," then, may describe the construction of language. Simply, one of the primary "betweens" in the novel is the linguistic structure that shapes the acts of speech.

Woolf's novels then elaborate on the implications of their titles as they explore how individuals must continually work to form themselves in a world devoid of linguistic and, by extension, philosophical correspondences. …

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