Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

The Order of a Smashed Window-Pane: Novel Elegy in Woolf's the Waves

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

The Order of a Smashed Window-Pane: Novel Elegy in Woolf's the Waves

Article excerpt

As early as 1925, Virginia Woolf's diary entries show her casting about for an adequate description of her work: "I have an idea that I will invent a new name for my books to supplant 'novel.' A new--by Virginia Woolf. But what? Elegy?" (1977-84, 3:34). Woolf scholarship frequently opens with this quotation before launching into investigations of her formal experimentation or accounts of the family deaths that haunted her youth. I would like to linger on Woolf's question a bit longer, however, because elegy not only sets the tone of novels such as Jacob's Room (1922), Mrs. Dalloway (1925), and To the Lighthouse (1927), but it becomes her object of study by the time she writes The Waves (1931). (1) In this last work, Woolf joins her contemporaries in making the elegiac mode one of the dominant strains of modernist literature, but her participation has a critical edge to it. The elegy in The Waves reveals the genre's flaws: the voices of other mourners are lost, representation of the dead lies vulnerable to manipulation for the poet's benefit, and other, perhaps worthier, subjects and speakers of elegy are ignored--all in order to fit the demands of a genre that is circumscribed by the traditions of British schoolboy life.

As Woolf indicates in The Waves, the emphasis on order in English public school and university education seeps into the form of the elegy, so that there, too, order reigns supreme. Her parade of schoolboys, who "march, two by two ... orderly, processional, into chapel," ties the schoolyard to the battlefield, a connection that calls into question the place of order and control in the elegiac tradition (Woolf 2006,23). Woolf scholars have uncovered in her fiction a nuanced critique of traditional elegiac consolation--in which the dead are replaced with poetry--and have used her work as a catalyst for reconsidering the means by which consolation comes about and the form that it takes. The reading of The Waves in this essay, however, shifts the discussion of modern elegy from aesthetic and psychological concerns to cultural and political ones, as Woolf uses the novel to trace a link between the organization of elite institutions and the modern elegist's control over representations of the dead. In exposing that link, Woolf reclaims the elegiac enterprise for literature of her own devising: that which relies on the echoes of other voices in the elegy's long history but remains at odds with the cultural emphasis on order and control that has so limited elegy's scope. Woolf's exploration of order is political, ethical, and generic, as she rewrites the terms of the genre to make visible the mourners and subjects that traditional elegy erases.

Elegiac inheritance, reduced to order

By putting elegy into the mouth of a male character, Bernard, Woolf minimizes the risk of being taken for a writer of sentimental literature, the literary domain into which female writers were frequently shunted. Bernard's elegy is shaped by a public school and university education Woolf could only know secondhand, but her place at the margin of formal English education affords her a clear view of the ways in which the form and content of elegy developed out of its close association with England's prestigious educational institutions. It is a context that both nurtures and limits elegy's role in literary discourse.

What became known as the Bloomsbury Group began as a gathering of Thoby Stephen's Cambridge friends, at which his sisters, Vanessa and Virginia, were often quiet observers. As Leonard Woolf remembers of the group: "Our roots and the roots of our friendship were in the University of Cambridge. Of the 13 persons ... three are women and ten men; of the ten men nine had been at Cambridge, and all of us, except Roger [Fry], had been more or less contemporaries at Trinity and King's" (1964, 23). The Cambridge ties separated the men from the women until Thoby Stephen's death provided another kind of bond across gender lines. …

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