Navigation – Plan du site

AccueilNuméros46Labels of modernityVirginia Woolf’s Poetics of Revolt

Labels of modernity

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.

Haut de page

Texte intégral

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 (...)

6The deconstructive textual practice ascribed to Woolf by Kristevan critics has been questioned in more recent analyses of her work primarily because Kristevan readings tend to associate the woman writer’s position with the semiotic before and beyond of society and politics, and because such readings disallow the female subject’s agency within the symbolic order.4 Jane Goldman, Roxanne J. Fand and AnnKatrin Jonsson represent a line of Woolf critics claiming that her texts reconfigure rather than reject the category of the individual subject. Such a stance allows these scholars to argue for Woolf’s socio-political intervention in terms of a feminist politics (Goldman), a dialogic notion of subjectivity (Fand) and an ethics of alterity (Jonsson).

  • 5 Distinctions between introspective and socially and/or politically oriented modernist practices hav (...)

7However, even in recent readings affirming the possibility of distinct subject positions in Woolf’s work, there remains a tendency to distinguish between Woolf’s engagement with the world of society and politics and her concern with the life of the mind. In Virginia Woolf and the Real World, one of the first books to trace the social and political commitments of Woolf’s fiction, Alex Zwerdling claims that ‘Woolf had always been intensely interested in what her eye could see when she looked out rather than in’ (12). This observation indicates his indebtedness to a tradition of reading the modernist focus on the thinking and perceiving mind as a means for separating the realm of art from social, political and ethical questions. Zwerdling’s categories—looking out versus looking within—have remained remarkably persistent in later Woolf criticism.5 As has often been observed, Woolf’s angry responses to the injustices of her society, what Zwerdling calls ‘the real world’, found their way into her novels. The social critique of her inter-war fiction encompasses her conviction, in Jacob’s Room, that militarist thinking structures the male communities at Cambridge; her sharp critique of the medical establishment satirised in Mrs Dalloway; as well as her interrogation of compulsory heterosexuality and distinct gender identities in Orlando. While these political positions can all be traced in the explicitly polemic A Room of One’s Own and Three Guineas, Woolf’s outrage is conveyed, in her fiction, through aesthetic strategies like humour, irony, parody and satire.

8How, then, can we account for Woolf’s exploration of interiority in the context of her political commitment? If her well-known manifestos privilege the writing of subjective impressions over a realist focus on acts and events, what politics can be detected in the following metaphor: ‘Life is not a series of gig-lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo’ (Woolf 1966, 106)? Against the realists’ ‘constrain[t . . .] to provide a plot’, Woolf encourages her generation of experimental writers to explore ‘the dark places of psychology’ (Woolf 1966, 106, 108), and feminist critics in particular have studied the socio-political dimensions of Woolf’s focus on unconscious processes. For Patricia Ondek Laurence, Woolf’s representation of women’s silence and inwardness displaces Western logocentrism in an affirmative liberation of her female characters ‘from dependency on social facts and subjective imprisonment’ (Laurence 216). Tamar Katz’s more recent book offers a useful revision of this type of deconstructive reading. The writing of interiority or feminine subjectivity, Katz argues, is not only configured in modernist writing as that which dislocates a social and cultural order; rather, ‘modernist art is feminized’ (Katz 174). As Katz shows, the (feminine) anti-realism characterising modernist inwardness both establishes and complicates the cultural and aesthetic authority of literary modernism. Drawing on Katz’s insightful analysis of interiority as bound up with social and cultural processes, I read Woolf’s representation of ‘the dark places of psychology’ as a vehicle for her social critique as well as her resistance to a patriotic and militaristic politics. Woolf’s configurations of interiority deserve to be considered as a mode of socio-political intervention, and Kristeva’s recent notion of revolt offers the terms for such a re-evaluation of her work.

  • 6 In The Sense and Non-Sense of Revolt, Kristeva explores the Latin etymology of the word ‘revolt’, s (...)

9The avant-garde aesthetic practice which interests Kristeva reconciles introspection in art with the oppositional and politically radical connotations of revolt. In Kristeva’s theory, poetic representation is an act of revolt which operates as a ‘return’—a turning back on the self, exploring one’s inner life.6 What Kristeva terms revolt is the process, central to avant-garde art, in which the act of looking inwards enables a momentary return to a pre-symbolic way of relating to the world, a ‘reuniting with affect’ (Kristeva 2002, 26). The critical poetics she theorises is fundamentally concerned with ‘revalorizing the sensory experience’ (Kristeva 2000, 5). ‘[T]he ultimate goal of art’, Kristeva writes, ‘is perhaps what was once celebrated as incarnation. I mean by that the desire to make one feel—through abstraction, form, color, volume, sensation—a real experience’ (Kristeva 2000, 11). Because it suspends the autonomous ‘I’ and, with it, the norms sustaining the social order in which the subject is inscribed, the act of revolt is ‘a protest against already established norms, values, and powers’ (Kristeva 2002, 1). Kristeva’s definition of revolt, then, interrogates a distinction between political engagement and the communication of interiority in the written word, a distinction which Woolf’s writing continuously undermines. In her novels from Mrs Dalloway to The Waves, Woolf developed a metaphoric, intensely sensual style which is poetic as well as political in Kristeva’s sense.

10In A Room of One’s Own, Woolf imagines a mode of writing which counters a norm of absolute subjective autonomy because it affirms affective intensity. Disturbed in her reading of a novel by the fictional Mr. A, Woolf’s narrator perceives ‘a straight dark bar, a shadow shaped something like the letter “I’’’:

But why was I bored? Partly because of the dominance of the letter ‘I’ and the aridity, which, like the giant beech tree, it casts within its shade. Nothing will grow there. . . . There seemed to be some obstacle, some impediment in Mr. A’s mind which blocked the fountain of creative energy. (Woolf 2004, 115–116)

  • 7 On this point, I concur with Emily M. Hinnov’s Kristevan reading of Woolf’s androgynous state, a st (...)

11The ‘fountain of creative energy’ suggests the writer’s experience of jouissance, an intense pleasure which is ‘blocked’ in the novels of the self-assertive Mr. A. It also evokes Woolf’s notion of the androgynous mind. In A Room of One’s Own, Woolf takes Coleridge’s statement that ‘a great mind is androgynous’ to mean ‘that the androgynous mind is resonant and porous; that it transmits emotion without impediment; that it is naturally creative, incandescent, and undivided’ (114). Or, in Kristevan terms, the androgynous writer writes poetically. The act of communicating emotions and sensory perceptions, Woolf suggests, enables a return to a pre-gendered, ‘undivided’ state in which distinctions between masculine and feminine is momentarily suspended.7

12The aesthetic practice advocated in A Room of One’s Own is achieved through the form and style of Mrs Dalloway. While composing the novel, Woolf noted in her diary her aim to ‘criticise the social system, & to show it at work, at its most intense’ (Woolf 1981, 248). She also noted her attempt to ‘dig out beautiful caves’ behind the novel’s characters (Woolf 1981, 263). A metaphor for psychic complexity, Woolf’s ‘caves’ enable her exploration of what she calls ‘the dark places of psychology’. These aspects of Mrs Dalloway—its social critique, its representation of interiority and its poetic style—are closely related. As I will show, the metaphoric and intensely sensual style of Mrs Dalloway suggests that an aesthetic practice of revolt must be inspired by the creative ‘fountain’ ‘blocked’ in the social order Woolf opposes, a society represented by the shell-shocked soldier Septimus’s doctors.

  • 8 Thomas C. Caramagno and Hermione Lee (Lee 175-200) have both pointed out that Woolf based the chara (...)
  • 9 See Caramagno for an account of a nineteenth and early twentieth century medical tradition which vi (...)

13Woolf’s portrayal of Dr Holmes and Sir William Bradshaw directs a critique against a medical tradition of which she had first-hand knowledge.8 Septimus receives his doctors’ persistent advice to ‘take an interest in things outside himself’ and to ‘think as little about [him]self as possible’ (Woolf 2009, 18, 83). Health, he learns, ‘is largely a matter in our own control’ (Woolf 2009, 78). By insisting that Septimus should focus not on his inner life, but on details of external reality, Holmes and Bradshaw impose an ideal of composure and emotional restraint on their patient.9 In passages like these, Woolf problematises the view, prevalent in the early 20th century medical establishment, that introspection, the act of looking inwards, threatens to destabilise the rational self and should therefore be avoided. And, as elsewhere in her work, she reveals here the interconnectedness of the psychological and the socio-political. Woolf observed that her society’s norm of emotional composure, what Bradshaw calls a sense of ‘proportion’, establishes a systematic practice of marginalization: ‘Worshipping proportion, Sir William not only prospered himself but made England prosper, secluded her lunatics, forbade childbirth, penalized despair, made it impossible for the unfit to propagate their views until they, too, shared his sense of proportion’ (Woolf 2009, 84). In these lines, Woolf not only casts Bradshaw as a representative of the patriarchal and nationalistic establishment denounced in A Room of One’s Own and Three Guineas; she makes her anti-authoritarian politics a question of literary form and style. The passage stylistically mimics Bradshaw’s disregard for interiority in its realist description of external events—‘forbade childbirth, penalized despair’—and in the orderly syntactical arrangement of the sentence. Similarly, in imitating the tone of disinterested observation used by the psychiatrist as well as the narrator of realist fiction, Woolf highlights the discord between Bradshaw’s ideal of strict rationality and the violent impulses it conceals. From this perspective, a critique of nationalism and war may well be articulated through literary writing which promotes interiority and introspection.

14In contrast to realist writing, Woolf developed her own poetic, metaphoric style, as in the passage where Clarissa Dalloway attempts to communicate what she perceives to be ‘a match burning in a crocus; an inner meaning almost expressed’:

It was a sudden revelation, a tinge like a blush which one tried to check and then, as it spread, one yielded to its expansion, and rushed to the farthest verge and there quivered and felt the world come closer, swollen with some astonishing significance, some pressure of rapture, which split its thin skin and gushed and poured with an extraordinary alleviation over the cracks and sores. (Woolf 2009, 27)

  • 10 My reading here concurs partly with Patricia Matson’s deconstructive analysis of Mrs Dalloway, in w (...)

15In writing Clarissa’s orgasmic experience, Woolf shows that the act of communicating interiority in a poetic language may enable a process of what Kristeva calls a ‘reuniting with affect’ in jouissance. As she explores the ‘beautiful caves’ of her characters’ inner life, Woolf is also exploring the political potential of poetic writing concerned with ‘revalorizing the sensory experience’, as Kristeva puts it. It is, Woolf suggests, through the very writing of fiction that a suspension of the first-person perspective can be achieved. In Mrs Dalloway, then, Woolf’s ‘fountain of creative energy’ enacts a revolt against the disembodied, emphatically masculine subjectivity which sustains patriotism, violence and war.10

  • 11 While working on Three Guineas, Woolf collected cuttings from newspapers, letters, manifestos, biog (...)

16This link between poetic representation and revolt is affirmed in Three Guineas, although the style of this polemic is best described by Woolf’s own term ‘sober prose’ (33). Throughout Woolf’s work, prose is considered the medium for communicating social and political facts and events, and Three Guineas is more ostensibly based on facts from ‘the daily paper, history in the raw’ (9) than any of her other writings.11 In 1938, under the very real threat of a Nazi invasion, Woolf has her narrator imagine, as she observes Westminster and the Houses of Parliament, the reproach of the elderly man she is writing to: ‘It is a place to stand on by the hour, dreaming. But not now. Now we are pressed for time. Now we are here to consider facts’. However, in response to his question—how can another war be prevented?—she renounces the possibilities of writing letters to newspapers and joining a society. Aware that her addressee will object that ‘you have no time to think; you have your battles to fight’, she insists nonetheless: ‘Let us never cease from thinking—what is this “civilization” in which we find ourselves?’ (70–73).

17Woolf’s focus in Three Guineas on psychic processes from reflective thinking to dreaming is connected with literature which does not serve immediate political ends. A ‘weapon’ in the pacifist opposition to fascism and war, she holds, critical thought entails an absolute refusal to participate in ‘patriotic demonstrations’ and ‘national self-praise’ (Woolf 1982b, 125). Even in 1940, during Germany’s intense bombings of London, Woolf persists in her belief that we must ‘fight’ the aggressive will to conquer and dominate ‘with the mind’ (‘Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid’, Woolf 1967, 173). Two years earlier, when the question of how to prevent war was still a matter for discussion, Woolf has the narrator of Three Guineas call for ‘some more active method of expressing our belief … that war is inhuman’ than practical measures such as signing manifestos and joining societies (Woolf 1982b, 15, 98). For the literary writer, such a method is poetic expression. Before ending her letter, the narrator reflects:

Even here, even now your letter tempts us . . . to listen not to the bark of the guns and the bray of the gramophones but to the voices of the poets, answering each other, assuring us of a unity that rubs out divisions as if they were chalk marks only; to discuss with you the capacity of the human spirit to overflow boundaries. . . .  But that would be to dream . . .  the dream of peace, the dream of freedom. But, with the sound of the guns in your ears you have not asked us to dream. You have not asked us what peace is; you have asked us how to prevent war. Let us then leave it to the poets to tell us what the dream is. (Woolf 163)

18In 1938, peace is a ‘dream’, and so is poetry. Yet, even when writing the ‘sober prose’ of Three Guineas, Woolf saw poetic writing as a form of resistance, or revolt. Precisely because there is ‘no time’ for dreams or poetry, she holds, efforts to interrogate the psychological dimensions of nationalism remain more important than ever. When writing the passage above, Woolf still conceived of poetic representation as a vehicle for a pacifist politics because of its capacity to imagine the ‘overflow’ of the boundaries separating individuals as well as nations. Patriotism and fascism, she argues, amount to a meaningless defence of national borders by leaders ‘childishly intent upon scoring the floor of the earth with chalk marks’ (Woolf 1982b, 121). As the metaphor of the line-drawing child indicates, Woolf saw the formation of the autonomous subject as the origin of nationalist aggression. Like Kristeva, she imagines a textual politics which privileges overflow and excess, and unsettles the autonomous entities of self and nation.

19The connection of poetic expression and an anti-nationalist and anti-fascist politics is elaborated in The Waves, the high point of Woolf’s experimental writing. While frequently praised for its poetic virtuosity and complex exploration of interiority, the novel has long been read as abstracted from the political context of the interwar years, especially because of its focus on the inner life of the six main characters through what Woolf herself called soliloquies (Woolf 1982a, 312). This assumption has been contested by feminist critics. Marcus calls The Waves ‘a cultural icon of the 1930s’ (Marcus 1991, 77), and Jessica Berman traces a critique of fascism in the novel’s aesthetic features (139-156). Accordingly, while The Waves and Three Guineas show Woolf at her most poetic and prosaic, she developed in The Waves the uncompromising pacifism articulated in Three Guineas. Against the angry voice of the fascist dictator, Woolf posits the poetic soliloquies of The Waves. She initially conceived of The Waves as ‘A mind thinking’ (Woolf 1982a, 229), and the novel persistently contrasts conformist thought and violent action to the singular voice and the communication of interiority.

  • 12 See Chloë Taylor’s reading of the aggressive birds and defenceless snails as a Kristevan antagonism (...)

20Throughout The Waves, the formation of the masculine ‘I’ is depicted as a hardening process in which the self becomes an insensitive ‘shell’ (Woolf 2006, 196, 222). The novel also connects the consolidation of autonomous subjectivity with the social formations critiqued in Woolf’s polemics. In one of the interludes, which describes the synchronised violence of a flock of birds—‘they descended, dry-beaked, ruthless, abrupt. . . . They spied a snail and tapped the shell against a stone’ (Woolf 2006, 82)—the birds’ cruelty evokes the passages in Three Guineas where Woolf opposes letter writing as an intersubjective dialogue to ‘the conglomeration of people into societies’.12 Societies, she writes, ‘inflate [in men] a monstrous male, loud of voice, hard of fist’ (Woolf 1982b, 121).

21The Waves counters the fascist rhetoric of insensitivity and violence by imagining a mode of individuality which encompasses what Woolf calls ‘the overflow of boundaries’. At the outset of the novel, subjective boundaries are not yet fixed:

‘I hear a sound’, said Rhoda, ‘cheep, chirp; cheep, chirp; going up and
down. . . . ‘Suddenly a bee booms in my ear’, said Neville. ‘It is here; it is past’.
‘I burn, I shiver’, said Jinny, ‘out of this sun, into this shadow’. (Woolf 2006, 5, 7)

22These lines describe the shower of impressions received by the sensitive bodies of individuals in formation. While each short ‘speech’ expresses a separate viewpoint, the characters do not speak here as autonomous subjects with a clear perception of distinct objects. Rather than the realist bird’s eye perspective, the passage depicts a set of close-ups which convey the child’s exposure to intensely physical sensations. The persistence of this sensitivity is highlighted in Bernard’s final soliloquy, where, as he speaks, Bernard realises that he has never been entirely distinct from his five friends:

And now I ask, ‘Who am I?’ I have been talking of Bernard, Neville, Jinny, Susan, Rhoda and Louis. Am I all of them? Am I one and distinct? I do not know. . . . There is no division between me and them. As I talked I felt ‘I am you’. This difference we make so much of, this identity we so feverishly cherish, was overcome. (Woolf 2006, 222)

23As this passage suggests, Bernard’s narrative brings about his return to a condition prior to the subject’s differentiation of ‘I’ and ‘you’. Through the decomposition of his hard ‘shell’, or autonomous ‘I’, he gradually becomes aware of being composed as an individual by his early relations to others. In Kristeva’s terms, he is a subject-in-process whose ‘I’ is alternatively dissolved and re-formed through the telling of his story. In the process of putting his life story into words, Bernard relives the intense bodily sensations which precede his formation as a singular subject. Kristeva’s emphasis on the constructive dimension of the semiotic provides a way to understand Woolf’s conviction, in Three Guineas, that the ‘chalk marks’ separating individuals are secondary, something superimposed on that which ‘rubs out divisions’ and causes boundaries to ‘overflow’. In this way, Woolf’s soliloquy exemplifies the introspective, self-reflective aesthetic expression which, for Kristeva, is an act of revolt.

24Woolf’s poetic writing, then, counters the assertive masculinity of patriotism and fascism by affirming sensitivity and interiority. Her aesthetic practice raises a question: what forms of outrage can be considered productive if confrontational and angry writing ends up duplicating the aggressive discourses of the inter-war years? Warning that the writer’s claim to ‘speak consciously’ at all times risks complicity with the nationalisms causing two world wars, Woolf forces us to revise our expectations around the aesthetic expression of outrage and political commitment.

Haut de page


Bell, Quentin, Virginia Woolf: A Biography. Mrs Woolf, 1912–1941, Vol. 2, London: Hogarth, 1973.

Berman, Jessica, Modernist Fiction, Cosmopolitanism, and the Politics of Community, Cambridge: CUP, 2001.

Caramagno, Thomas C., The Flight of the Mind: Virginia Woolf’s Art and Manic-Depressive Illness, Berkeley: U of California P, 1992.

Caughie, Pamela L., Virginia Woolf and Postmodernism: Literature in Quest and Question of itself, Urbana: U. of Illinois P., 1991.

Comentale, Edward B., Modernism, Cultural Production, and the British Avant-Garde, Cambridge: CUP, 2004.

Fand, Roxanne J., The Dialogic Self: Reconstructing Subjectivity in Woolf, Lessing, and Atwood, Selinsgrove: Susquehanna UP, 1999.

Forster, E. M., Virginia Woolf, London: CUP, 1942.

Friedman, Susan Stanford, ‘Lyric Subversion of Narrative in Women’s Writing: Virginia Woolf and the Tyranny of Plot’, Reading Narrative: Form, Ethics, Ideology, ed. James Phelan, Columbus: Ohio State UP, 1989, 162–185.

Froula, Christine, Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Avant-Garde: War, Civilization, Modernity, New York: Columbia UP, 2004.

Goldman, Jane, The Feminist Aesthetics of Virginia Woolf: Modernism, Post-Impressionism and the Politics of the Visual, Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998.

Hinnov, Emily M., Encountering Choran Community: Literary Modernism, Visual Culture, and Political Aesthetics in the Interwar Years, Selinsgrove: Susquehanna UP, 2009.

Jonsson, Ann-Katrin, Relations: Ethics and the Modernist Subject in James Joyce’s Ulysses, Virginia Woolf’s The Waves and Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood, Oxford: Peter Lang, 2006.

Katz, Tamar, Impressionist Subjects: Gender, Interiority, and Modernist Fiction in England, Urbana: U of Illinois P, 2000.

Kristeva, Julia, About Chinese Women (1974), trans. Anita Barrows, New York: Marion Boyars, 1986.

———, Intimate Revolt (1997), trans. Jeanine Herman, New York: Columbia UP, 2002.

———, The Sense and Non-Sense of Revolt (1996), trans. Jeanine Herman, New York: Columbia UP, 2000.

Laurence, Patricia Ondek, The Reading of Silence: Virginia Woolf in the English Tradition, Stanford: Stanford UP, 1991.

Lee, Hermione. Virginia Woolf, London: Vintage, 1997.

Marcus, Jane, Art and Anger, Columbus: Ohio State UP, 1988.

———, ‘Britannia Rules The Waves’ (1991), Virginia Woolf: Critical Assessments. Critical Responses to the Novels The Waves, The Years and Between the Acts; Essays; Critical Evaluations; Comparative Studies, vol. 4, ed. Eleanor McNees, Mountfield: Helm Information, 1994, 75–96.

Matson, Patricia, ‘The Terror and the Ecstasy: The Textual Politics of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway’, Ambiguous Discourse: Feminist Narratology and British Women Writers, ed. Kathy Mezei, Chapel Hill: U of North California P, 1996, 162–186.

Minow-Pinkney, Makiko, Virginia Woolf and the Problem of the Subject: Feminine Writing in the Major Novels, New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1987.

Moi, Toril, Sexual/Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory (1985), London: Routledge, 2002.

Olson, Liesl, Modernism and the Ordinary, New York: Oxford UP, 2009.

Scott, Bonnie Kime, Refiguring Modernism: Postmodern Feminist Readings of Woolf, West, and Barnes, vol. 2, Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1995.

Sherry, Vincent, The Great War and the Language of Modernism, Oxford: Oxford UP, 2003.

Showalter, Elaine, A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Brontë to Lessing, Princeton: Princeton UP., 1977.

———, The Female Malady: Women, Madness, and English Culture, 1830–1980, London: Virago, 1985.

Taylor, Chloë, ‘Kristevan Themes in Virginia Woolf’s The Waves’, Journal of Modern Literature 29.3 (Spring 2006): 57–77.

Walkowitz, Rebecca L., Cosmopolitan Style: Modernism Beyond the Nation, New York: Columbia UP, 2006.

Woolf, Virginia, Collected Essays, vol. 2 and 4, London: Hogarth, 1966–1967.

———, The Diary of Virginia Woolf, ed. Anne Olivier Bell, vol. 2, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1981.

———, The Diary of Virginia Woolf, ed. Anne Olivier Bell, vol. 3, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1982a.

———, Three Guineas (1938), Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1982b.

———, The Diary of Virginia Woolf, ed. Anne Olivier Bell, vol. 4, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1983.

———, A Room of One’s Own (1928), London: Penguin, 2004.

———, The Waves (1931), ed. and introd. Kate Flint, London: Penguin, 2006.

———, Mrs Dalloway (1925), ed. and introd. David Bradshaw, Oxford: OUP, 2009.

Zwerdling, Alex, Virginia Woolf and the Real World, Berkeley: U of California P, 1986.

Haut de page


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).

Haut de page

Pour citer cet article

Référence électronique

Elsa Högberg, « Virginia Woolf’s Poetics of Revolt »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 46 | 2014, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2014, consulté le 21 février 2024. URL : ; DOI :

Haut de page


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.

Haut de page

Droits d’auteur


Le texte seul est utilisable sous licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés) sont « Tous droits réservés », sauf mention contraire.

Haut de page
Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search