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Virginia Woolf’s Poetics of Revolt

Pour une poétique de la révolte selon Virginia Woolf
Elsa Högberg


Cet article se penche sur l’interaction complexe que Virginia Woolf invente entre poétique et politique. Il vise ainsi à explorer la façon dont elle dépasse le binarisme qui les oppose encore trop souvent par l’invention d’une poétique de la sensation et de l’émotion qui peut être investie à nouveau d’une capacité de dissensus. Cet article vise ainsi à interroger la lecture postmoderne de Woolf qui, dans le sillage de Toril Moi (Sexual/Textual Politics), s’adosse aux analyses proposées par Kristeva dans les années 1970 et 1980 pour défendre une approche déconstructionniste du féminisme de Woolf. Il vise ainsi à saisir la manière dont elle explore l’espace intérieur en lien avec un engagement politique. De Mrs Dalloway à Three Guineas, Woolf fait la preuve que l’acte de donner à voir cet espace intérieur dans une langue poétique ouvre sur un processus par lequel, entre autres, les valeurs patriarcales et les fascismes sont profondément ébranlés par l’affirmation d’une sensibilité en lien avec l’intériorité.

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1For about three decades, critics have recognised that Virginia Woolf’s modernist aesthetic practice furthers the social critique of A Room of One’s Own and Three Guineas, in which inter-war Britain emerges as a patriarchal, aggressively militaristic and patriotic society. This critical tradition departs from Elaine Showalter’s sceptical assessment, in 1977, of Woolf’s claim that ‘It is fatal for a woman [writer] to lay the least stress on any grievance; to plead even with justice any cause; in any way to speak consciously as a woman’ (Woolf 2004, 120). For Showalter, this conviction ‘enabled [Woolf] to choke and repress her anger and ambition’ (Showalter 1977, 264). Showalter also addresses the style of A Room of One’s Own, which she describes as elusive and therefore lacking ‘subversive intention’ (Showalter 282-283). The assumption here is that for fiction to be subversive, it must articulate explicit political statements from a recognisable subject position. From this perspective, Woolf’s playful and apparently non-confrontational aesthetic fails to convey her anger and outrage.

  • 1 Scholars from Marcus, Alex Zwerdling, Makiko Minow-Pinkney and Bonnie Kime Scott to more recent cri (...)
  • 2 ‘Improving the world’, Forster writes, ‘she would not consider, on the ground that the world is man (...)

2While Showalter’s claims have been contested,1 her argument still presents a challenge to political readings of Woolf’s modernist style. After all, E. M. Forster, who famously called her writing apolitical, nonetheless finds the feminist argument of A Room of One’s Own ‘charming and persuasive’ (Forster 9, 22).2 The word ‘charming’ reappears as Forster assesses Woolf’s work, until he reaches ‘the cantankerous Three Guineas’ (Forster 23). A text of the 1930s, Three Guineas claims in unambiguous and matter-of-fact language that the violence sustaining patriarchal family structures in Britain cannot be distinguished from the violence of the Italian and German fascist states. There can be no mistake about the feeling of outrage which inspired this polemic, and Woolf’s composed, argumentative style is saturated with anger. While she was working on Three Guineas, Woolf noted her response at being refused membership on the London Library board because of her sex: ‘See how my hand trembles. I was so angry. . . . yes, these flares up are very good for my book: for . . . I see how I can transmute them into beautiful clear reasonable ironical prose’ (Woolf 1983, 297–298).

3Fuelled by Woolf’s anger, the political message of Three Guineas incited strong responses, enthusiastic as well as angry ones. Woolf’s nephew and biographer Quentin Bell claims to speak for her family and friends in the Bloomsbury circle when denouncing what Maynard Keynes called ‘a silly argument’. ‘What really seemed wrong with the book’, Bell writes, ‘was the attempt to involve a discussion of women’s rights with the far more agonising and immediate question of what we were to do in order to meet the ever-growing menace of Fascism and war’ (Bell 205). This notion, that the feminism of Three Guineas was untimely, is disputed by feminist scholar Jane Marcus, whose Art and Anger conveys her own indignation at Bell’s skewed portrait of Woolf as a frail Victorian lady uninterested in social and political reality. A pioneer in a now established scholarly tradition focusing on Woolf’s radical feminist and pacifist politics, Marcus calls Three Guineas ‘a withering revolutionary feminist analysis of fascism’ which historians have found to be ‘eerily correct’ (Marcus 1988, 196, 198).

4What is striking about the variety of responses to A Room of One’s Own and Three Guineas is that while both works set out to expose the structural violence connecting patriarchy, nationalism and fascism, the reception of Woolf’s political agenda has always been determined by its aesthetic expression. This becomes particularly apparent if we accept the now commonly held notion that her fiction furthers the political commitment of her polemical texts. In employing styles ranging from the fiery prose of Three Guineas to the intensely poetic The Waves, Woolf’s work shows us that the literary expression of outrage is a question of aesthetics, of formal and stylistic strategies. Here, I examine Woolf’s aesthetic practice in two of her inter-war novels: Mrs Dalloway and The Waves. Representative of her experimental literary production, these novels display the playfulness and stylistic virtuosity Showalter describes as means for suppressing anger and outrage. I propose that Woolf’s textual and political expressions of outrage take as their starting point her statement, in A Room of One’s Own, that ‘It is fatal’ for a writer ‘to plead even with justice any cause; in any way to speak consciously’. I argue that the poetic style of her experimental fiction enacts an aesthetic practice of revolt in Julia Kristeva’s sense of the term. In her recent works The Sense and Non-Sense of Revolt and Intimate Revolt, Kristeva defines revolt not as political action aimed at overthrowing authorities, but as the jouissance or dislocation of subjectivity attained through the act of writing poetically. Partaking in an avant-garde tradition of revolt as defined by Kristeva, Woolf develops a politically committed aesthetic through her poetic interrogation of the writer’s attempt to ‘speak consciously’.

  • 3 See, for instance, Susan Stanford Friedman and Pamela L. Caughie.

5This essay responds to a postmodern line of Woolf criticism indebted to Toril Moi’s Sexual/Textual Politics, which draws on Kristeva’s work from the 1970s and ’80s to argue for a deconstructive feminist approach to Woolf’s writing. Against Showalter’s notion that the textual play of Woolf’s polemic undermines its feminist agenda, Moi proposes that the politics of A Room of One’s Own proceeds precisely through Woolf’s narrative strategies, which destabilise the realist notion of ‘integrated self-identity’ on which Showalter relies (Moi 7). In the wake of Sexual/Textual Politics, it was frequently claimed that Woolf anticipated postmodern theory in her awareness that the act of writing fiction sustains, counters or reinvents cultural narratives.3 Central to this argument is the political meanings of a metaphor in A Room of One’s Own, in which the ‘I’ of a fictional male author shadows the pages of his novels like a ‘straight dark bar’, ‘hard as a nut’ (Woolf 2004, 115). Kristevan readings of Woolf have shown that her poetic writing unsettles the masculine ‘I’ and, with it, the social order it sustains. As Bonnie Kime Scott and Makiko Minow-Pinkney both observe, Woolf exposes the complicity of the work of the Edwardian realists with the self-assertive masculinity denounced in her polemics. For these critics, Woolf’s modernist style breaks radically with realist conventions, thereby achieving a decentring of the masculine subject whose aggression, Woolf argues, makes violence and war inevitable. Kristeva’s early works, then, have enabled scholars from the mid-1980s onwards to dismantle the persistent notion of her writing as detached from socio-political matters.

  • 4 In one of her few remarks about Woolf, Kristeva famously relates Woolf’s ‘madness’ and suicide to t (...)

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    1 Scholars from Marcus, Alex Zwerdling, Makiko Minow-Pinkney and Bonnie Kime Scott to more recent critics such as Jessica Berman, Vincent Sherry, Christine Froula and Rebecca Walkowitz have illuminated the ways in which Woolf’s modernist style furthers an anti-authoritarian and feminist politics.

    2 ‘Improving the world’, Forster writes, ‘she would not consider, on the ground that the world is man-made, and that she, a woman, had no responsibility for the mess’ (Forster 8). The view has been challenged by Woolf scholars at least since Jane Marcus’s ground-breaking 1970s and ‘80s accounts of a politically radical Virginia Woolf.

    3 See, for instance, Susan Stanford Friedman and Pamela L. Caughie.

    4 In one of her few remarks about Woolf, Kristeva famously relates Woolf’s ‘madness’ and suicide to the woman writer’s ‘desperate attempt’ and ultimate failure ‘to identify with the symbolic paternal order’ (Kristeva 1986, 39).

    5 Distinctions between introspective and socially and/or politically oriented modernist practices have been made by, amongst others, Edward B. Comentale and Liesl Olson.

    6 In The Sense and Non-Sense of Revolt, Kristeva explores the Latin etymology of the word ‘revolt’, showing that meanings such as ‘return’ and ‘turning back’ preceded the contemporary political meaning of ‘a rejection of authority’ (Kristeva 2000, 1-4).

    7 On this point, I concur with Emily M. Hinnov’s Kristevan reading of Woolf’s androgynous state, a state in which, Hinnov argues, ‘the “masculine” and “feminine” sides of our being’ merge in ‘a sense of wholeness’ prior to the construction of gender identities (Hinnov 22).

    8 Thomas C. Caramagno and Hermione Lee (Lee 175-200) have both pointed out that Woolf based the characters of Sir William Bradshaw and Dr Holmes on her own authoritarian—and incompetent—physicians.

    9 See Caramagno for an account of a nineteenth and early twentieth century medical tradition which viewed manic-depressive illness as a neurotic disease whose ‘excessive emotionalism’ could be cured through ‘self-discipline’ (Caramagno 14). See also Showalter’s study of post-war attitudes to shell shock in Britain, in which the Victorian norm of self-control influenced the various treatments of ‘hysterical soldiers’ (Showalter 1985, 167-170).

    10 My reading here concurs partly with Patricia Matson’s deconstructive analysis of Mrs Dalloway, in which Woolf’s textual strategies are described as furthering an anti-authoritarian politics. However, while Matson focuses on ‘the impossibility of establishing absolute clarity of meaning’ (Matson 165), I am interested in the intensely corporeal meaning emerging through Woolf’s poetic style.

    11 While working on Three Guineas, Woolf collected cuttings from newspapers, letters, manifestos, biographies and other documents of social relevance in three scrapbooks.

    12 See Chloë Taylor’s reading of the aggressive birds and defenceless snails as a Kristevan antagonism between the paternal symbolic order, represented by the birds, and the abject, earth-bound maternal body, represented by the snails (Taylor 67-69).

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    Elsa Högberg, « Virginia Woolf’s Poetics of Revolt », Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 46 | 2014, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2014, consulté le 16 décembre 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/ebc.1170

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    Elsa Högberg

    Elsa Högberg received her PhD in English literature from Uppsala University in 2012. She is engaged in a three-year postdoctoral fellowship at the School of Critical Studies, University of Glasgow, and the Department of English, Uppsala University. Her doctoral thesis, Intimacies: Ethics and Aesthetics in Virginia Woolf’s Writing, investigates configurations of intimacy in Woolf’s experimental inter-war novels. Her study examines the ethical and political positioning enabled by Woolf’s aesthetic delineation of intimacy, that is, moments of interiority in which distinctions between self and other are suspended. Her current research interests include the many ways modernist aesthetic practices and contemporary theory continue to speak to one another. She is currently working on a project on literary modernism and the politics of interiority.

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