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Bare Lives
Part 3 – Voices and (In)Visibilities

Baring Lives in ‘A Tale Told by Moonlight’ (1921): An Ambiguous Story of Vulnerability and Dispossession

Vies dénudées dans A Tale Told by Moonlight (1921), conte énigmatique de la dépossession et de la vulnérabilité
Leila Haghshenas


Cet article a pour objet de mettre en lumière la vie précaire des personnages marginalisés dans « A Tale Told by Moonlight » de Leonard Woolf. Dans cette nouvelle, Leonard Woolf met en place et explore une méthode narrative singulière qui lui permet d’exposer sa vie passée en tant qu’administrateur colonial ainsi que celle des personnes vulnérables et dépossédées. Cet article explore les nombreuses modalités de l’exposition et de la dépossession dans ‘A Tale Told by Moonlight’ ainsi que la façon dont les normes d’invisibilité s’y forment et s’y développent et dont les vies y sont exposées et recréées.

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  • 1 Ceylon will be used throughout this paper, as it was the term in circulation for Sri Lanka in Woolf (...)
  • 2 See Ian Parsons and George Spater, and Douglas Kerr. See also Victoria Glendinning 2006. Glendinnin (...)
  • 3 However, Elleke Boehmer calls for a reassessment of Woolf’s stories based on a re-thinking of moder (...)
  • 4 See Mervyn de Silva’s ‘introduction’ to Diaries in Ceylon.

1Leonard Woolf was an English political theorist, writer, publisher and civil servant. He was born into a well-off middle-class Jewish family. After his return from Ceylon,1 where he served for seven years as a colonial civil servant, Woolf published two novels, The Village in the Jungle (1913) and The Wise Virgins (1914). His short story, ‘A Tale Told by Moonlight’, was likewise written sometime after his return from Ceylon but was not published until 1921 when the Hogarth Press brought it out in a limited edition of 300 copies under the umbrella title of Stories of the East. Woolf’s collection of short stories sold poorly at the time and was more or less overlooked by literary critics. In recent years Woolf’s short stories have gained in visibility and been analysed and commented on by numerous critics,2 who for the most part, consider them as patronising and in harmony with the patriarchal and imperialist view point. In Empire, the National, and the Postcolonial, 1890-1920: Resistance in Interaction, Elleke Boehmer describes ‘A Tale Told by Moonlight’ as a ‘cynical colonial romance’ (Boehmer 1998, 185).3 ‘A Tale Told by Moonlight’ has also been noted for its ‘curious ambivalence’ (de Silva liv) as regards the writer’s position towards colonialism. If the collection is noted and appreciated for its attempt at sympathy4 and understanding, its ambivalence has been deemed problematic (Nelson-McDermott 213; de Silva liv), except in the foreword to the recent edition of the collection (Glendinning x). ‘A Tale Told by Moonlight’ best reflects this ambivalence.

2The short story appears in the form of several embedded stories. An unnamed narrator and his male metropolitan friends are gathered at the home of a novelist called Alderton. The group then decides to go for an after dinner stroll under the cool moonlit sky. Overwhelmed by the beauty of the surrounding nature, they walk in silence until two figures suddenly appear along the river bank. A murmur is heard and then the sound of a couple kissing. The shadowy and hardly perceptible presence of the couple sparks off a heated conversation about ‘love’ and ‘truth’ allowing the assembly to disclose and expose their views.

3The whole group seems to agree on the subject except for Jessop who keeps quiet for a long while before breaking the silence in order to propose his own definition of ‘love’ not as ‘the real thing’, as his friends believe it to be, but as ‘a flicker of the body’ that will quickly be ‘cold, dead’; ‘the real thing’, true love, is, according to him, ‘so queer to be anything but the rarest’ in the world (5). He then chooses to tell a ‘real’ tale about a love story that he considers ‘real’ but ‘rare’. The story that Jessop relates concerns a friend of his, a novelist named Reynolds who comes to visit him in Ceylon. In an attempt to ‘show him life in the East’, Jessop takes him to a brothel where he is introduced to a local prostitute, Celestinahami, with whom he falls hopelessly in love. Jessop suggests that he should buy the girl out of the brothel and settle down with her. Following Jessop’s bold advice, Reynolds marries Celestinahami and then realises how impossible proper communication is with the girl. Having grown tired of the girl, he decides to go back to England and cuts her out of his life with the help of ‘a dirty Burgher lawyer and a deed of gift’ (13). Shortly after his departure, Celestinahami’s body is found floating in the sea near her little bungalow. At this point in the story, Jessop stops speaking and the first narrator takes over the narration again. The story leaves the casual reader ambivalent about Woolf’s own position towards empire and whether it is Reynolds or Celestinahami who has experienced true love.

4I suggest that the ambivalence of ‘A Tale Told by Moonlight’, far from indicating the writer’s adherence to the imperial ideology, is representative of his ambiguous position towards the British Empire as well as the ambivalence inherent in colonial discourse. As I will demonstrate, the ambiguity inscribed in the story originates in Woolf’s desire to carry out an in-depth reflection on his colonial past and lay bare the truth behind the respectable presence of colonial rule in Ceylon. This ambiguity, as I argue, is characteristic of the whole narrative and determines my reading of the story, which will be made in light of Butler’s theory of precarity, Le Blanc’s theories of vulnerability and Said’s theories of orientalism. The ambiguous nature of the story, its complex narrative structure and its sophisticated choir of diverging voices will first be explored. In the short story, Woolf manages to devise a narrative technique that reflects his doubts about ‘ruling the ruled’ (Woolf 1963, 100) as well as the impact of empire on local people. As I will argue, the ambiguity of the narrative is to be understood as an attempt at truth and objectivity, which leads both to the invisibility and self-exposure of the writer. Through a psychological investigation into his own divided self, Woolf manages to reveal ‘the truth’ about his own past and his own conflicting views about empire. Woolf’s approach of vulnerable lives in ‘A Tale Told by Moonlight’ will then be explored as an approach that is both subversive and singular and that lays bare the lives of the voiceless subaltern colonial subject along with colonial discourse. The opposition and resistance latent in the narrative will further be examined with the help of Bhabha’s theory of ‘hybridity’.

  • 5 Woolf read and admired Conrad (Glendinning 54). Later, in 1927, Woolf wrote ‘Joseph Conrad’, an ess (...)

5To begin with, Woolf’s appropriation of the framed tale, a narrative technique used successfully by Joseph Conrad in Heart of Darkness and other texts is a non-negligible source of ambiguity in the short story. The fictional narrative is framed by double narrators. The first story is set in England under a moonlit sky and the second one in Colombo in Ceylon. The story is recounted by two independent narrators: an unnamed white narrator who sets the setting and introduces Jessop, the second narrator. Woolf resorts to a method that enables him to remain as objective as possible while exposing the brutal realities of colonial life and the ambiguous nature of colonial authority. One premise for my argument is that Woolf’s narrative technique, though inspired by Conrad’s frame-tale narrative,5 is essentially based on narrators who represent different facets of Woolf’s own personality, allowing the writer to expose and examine different aspects of his present and past life.

  • 6 Woolf wrote the following passage about his desire for Gwen: ‘I am beginning to think it is always (...)

6Jessop is said to be a former colonial agent just like Woolf himself. His four interlocutors are modeled on figures in the Bloomsbury circle—‘the narrator, an ex-colonial; Alderton, the novelist; Pemberton, the poet; Hanson Smith, the critic’ (Roy 201). Jessop is immediately distinguished and set apart from this group since he is presented as a brooding individual, an outsider and a relatively invisible man just like Woolf himself. The resemblance between Woolf and Jessop is such that the very opening lines of the story could have been taken from a biography of Woolf: ‘Many people did not like Jessop. He had rather a brutal manner sometimes of telling brutal things—the truth, he called it’ (7). Even Reynold bears some resemblance to Woolf himself: ‘he was a thin feeble-looking chap, very nervous, with pale face and long pale hands’ (6). Reynold’s nervousness brings to mind Woolf’s acute hand tremor. His love for a native woman may reflect specific encounters in Woolf’s life such as the ‘Gwen episode’6 and Woolf’s brief period of living with a ‘burgher concubine’ in Jaffna in 1905 (Woolf 1989, 107). Reynold’s dilemma is that of a Cambridge-educated Englishman such as Woolf himself, desperately in love with a cute Colombian prostitute with whom he can hardly communicate and onto whom he projects his oriental fantasy of ‘something beautiful mysterious everlasting’ (5). Woolf is thus represented through either Jessop or Reynolds or even the main narrator or some combination of the three. ‘A Tale Told by Moonlight’ can therefore be understood as an extreme case of self-exposure and self-dispossession where the writer’s identity is shared between two distinct narrators, thus rendering the story and the author’s intentions difficult to read. In Beginning Again, his autobiography, Woolf describes himself as an ‘introspective intellectual’ with a split-personality.

I was born an introspective intellectual, and the man or woman who is by nature addicted to introspection gets into the habit, after the age of 15 or 16, of feeling himself, often intensely, as ‘I’ and yet at the same time of seeing himself out of the corner of his eye as a ‘not I’, a stranger acting a part upon a stage. (Woolf 1964, 17)

7As Woolf further explains, ‘observing oneself objectively’ (Woolf 1964, 17) creates a sense of intense unreality: ‘[…] then and all through my years in Ceylon, I felt a certain unreality, theatrically, as if out of the corner of my eye I observed myself acting a part’ (Woolf 1964, 16). In ‘A Tale Told by Moonlight’, Leonard Woolf manages to put himself literally on stage in order to expose and confront the Woolf that he has become since his return from Ceylon and the Woolf that he used to be, ‘a very innocent, unconscious imperialist’ (Woolf 1961, 25).

  • 7 The Cambridge Apostles was a secret intellectual society at Cambridge University founded in 1820 by (...)

8Further than providing a key to understanding Woolf’s intention to endow his narrators with different traits of his personality, autobiographical elements point to Woolf’s love of truth. In fact, Woolf’s search for ‘the truth’ is linked with his philosophical desire as an active apostle7 to state the truth. In a paper titled ‘Embryos or Abortions?’ delivered in Cambridge to The Society in May 1904, Woolf claimed that, ‘merely to give faithful descriptions of things as they are in the world is of no value’ (Glendinning 61). He envisaged ‘a modern form of fiction’ capable of demonstrating the distinction between ‘realism and reality—the apostolic reality, a matter of perspective, universal truth, and the perception of links and connections between disparate happenings’ (Glendinning 61). Woolf’s truth-seeking enterprise could be read in the light of his psychological experiments. Woolf participated in an experience called ‘The Method’. ‘The Method’ was initially elaborated by Lytton and Woolf himself and was a kind of ‘third-degree psychological investigation applied to the soul of one’s friends’, a kind of ‘compulsory psychoanalysis’ that took the form of relentless, probing questioning, as Woolf explains in Sowing. Woolf at some point admitted that asking such questions was ‘sheer brutality’ (Glendinning 55). The theory was ‘that by imparting to all concerned the deeper psychological truths, personal relationships would be much improved’ (Woolf 1960, 127). Glendenning offers some explanation about ‘The Method’: Woolf was fascinated by the psyche of the human animal and given the fact that he himself had fought hard to hide his own flaws behind his hard and sophisticated carapace, ‘The Method’ allowed him to break the carapace of his friends and lay bare what lingered behind the conscious mind, a kind of psychological truth (Glendinning 55–56). In ‘A Tale Told by Moonlight’, Jessop expresses his doubts about his past actions as if he could not decide whether he did the right thing or not: ‘Even now I’m not sure whether I am sorry that I didn’t’ (8) or ‘I was wrong I suppose. I ought to have put him in irons and shipped him off next day’ (11). Jessop’s constant interrogation about his attitude and actions towards Celestinahmi can be interpreted as a form of private probing and questioning reflecting Woolf’s own probing. Woolf applies the ‘compulsory psychoanalytic’ method to Jessop in order to lay bare ‘the truth’ about his own past and his own conflicting views about empire.

9If Woolf’s singular use of the frame tale renders the story complicated and ambivalent, his subversive approach towards oriental women further complicates the reading of the story. In this part of the study, I will analyse Woolf’s approach of such vulnerable and dispossessed characters as Celestinahami and show that Woolf’s approach of the subaltern colonial subject is a subversive one and aims at reversing the established clichés about the East. Woolf exposes the violence and injustice of colonial discourse by staging Celestinahami’s passage from modest social visibility to social invisibility and death, and ultimately to social recognition and visibility. Woolf here has recourse to colonialist troping strategies that consist in representing the oriental woman as exotic, soft, child-like and animalistic in order to reveal the ambivalent nature of such discourse.

10To begin with, the brothel scene described by Jessop seems to fit perfectly the orientalist discourse: ‘Suddenly there came the sound of bare feet running and giggles of laughter, and ten or twelve girls, some naked and some half clothed in bright red or bright orange clothes, rushed down the steps upon us’ (14). The description of the establishment also conjures up a series of orientalist clichés: ‘it always reminded me of the Arabian nights’, says Jessop; ‘that room when you came into it so bare and empty, and then the sudden rush of laughter, the pale yellow naked women, the brilliant colours of the cloths, the white teeth, all appearing so suddenly in the doorway up there at the end of the room’ (14). Woolf here alludes to the ‘uniform association established between the Orient and sex’ (Yegenoglu 25) which constitutes a persistent motif in Western attitudes towards the East. Jessop’s portrayal of Ceylonese prostitutes thus evokes an atmosphere of non-European hedonism and tantalising intrigue characteristic of orientalist discourse, as analysed by Said in Orientalism (180-190). Celestinahami here is presented in conventional imperialist terms as a figure of wild and uncontrolled passions, exotic and mysterious. The chain of stereotypical terms employed by Woolf is indeed replete with contradictions characteristic of colonial discourse: Celestinahami is described both as the incarnation of rampant sexuality and childlike innocence. In ‘The Representation of the Indigene’, Terry Goldie enumerates the five ‘standard commodities’, as elaborated by Edward Said, which complete the representation and perception of the Aborigine as ‘Other’. Goldie thus distinguishes a ‘semiotic field of the indigene’ wherein the accent falls on five main fields of difference. The first two commodities that appear to be standard in the ‘semiotic field of the indigene’ are sex and violence, which we find in Woolf’s short story. As Goldie maintains, colonial discourse manages to fix difference in its representation of the Native ‘Other’. In ‘A Tale Told by Moonlight’, colonial discourse reduces Celestinahami to an object of fantasy, a mere spectral shadow, a body without soul, an instance of reification which we can consider, as Guillaume Le Blanc does in L’invisibilité sociale, as an act of dehumanisation and instrumentalisation and therefore a real act of violence (Le Blanc 2009, 12).

  • 8 According to Derrida ‘Animal is a word that men have given themselves the right to give. These huma (...)

11When Reynolds first meets Celestinahami, she benefits from a limited but nonetheless real visibility generated by the physical and baring quality of her profession and her quality as the exotic ‘Other’. When they get married though, this limited visibility gives way to a severe and far more important form of social invisibility as Celestinahami fails to establish a proper dialogue with Reynolds. This lack of communication caused by her lack of knowledge of the colonial language brings about her social invisibility and ultimately her social death. Reynold’s obsession with Celestinahami’s beautiful and mysterious eyes marks the beginning of her reification: ‘her eyes immense, deep, dark and melancholy which looked as if they knew and understood and felt everything in the world’ (9). Unwilling to understand the language of the native ‘Other’, Reynolds reduces her to an object of fantasy. As Le Blanc maintains, the effacement of voice is equal to the invisibility of the human face, hence the reduction of Celestinahami to a pair of mysterious eyes (Le Blanc 2009, 55). Her lack of subjectivity is further underlined through her phony and mysterious name which is used only four times in the whole tale: Celestinahami. Faceless as she is, she is also nameless. Celestinahami’s reification and social invisibility is further underlined by her assimilation to animals: ‘a nice simple soft little animal like a bitch at my feet that starved herself if I left her for a day’ (11). As Derrida points out, animals have been given names by men and thus deprived of a language of their own (Derrida 400).8 Therefore, women and animals share the same vulnerabilities. Celestinahami’s spectral and invisible existence is also highlighted by the colour of her clothes which is white, a colour associated with funeral rites in Ceylon. Le Blanc relates this kind of invisibility to the ‘défaut de vision’ on the part of the coloniser who refuses to see the subaltern subject as he is. As Le Blanc explains, the body of the socially invisible person is a ‘supernumerary’ one that will end up as an incomplete and fragmented body (Le Blanc 2009, 190). Thus clad in white, the only parts of Celestinahami’s body that are visible to Jessop’s eyes are the bare parts and the sexual connotations are therefore quite obvious.

  • 9 Reynolds is a Germanic name composed of ‘raginą’ and ‘waldą’, meaning ‘Powerful Ruler’.

12Celestinahami’s reaction to her lack of social recognition is that of a tacit resistance that Bhabha terms ‘colonial mimicry’. Bhabha considers the relationship between the coloniser and the colonised as an ambivalent one and represents it in terms of mimicry. As he argues, colonial discourse turns the native into a contradictory and hybrid being capable of metamorphosing according to the demands of the stereotypes used by his oppressors. Bhabha labels the ambivalence of the stereotype ‘a complex, ambivalent, contradictory mode of representation, as anxious as it is assertive’ (Bhabha 1994, 70). Confronted with her social invisibility, Celestinahami tries in vain to reduce her invisibility by turning to Western accoutrement. Having failed to recover her lost voice, Celestinihami has to face ‘social death’ (Le Blanc 64), symbolised here by the fatal departure of her lover. The unjust behaviour of Reynolds whose given name brings to mind colonial power—since it etymologically means ‘powerful ruler’9—exemplifies how the colonial subject and specially women of low rank such as Celestinahami are marginalised in the political, legal and economic discourses of the empire. Having thus been reified, reduced to a spectral presence and then completely eliminated from the field of vision of all by her lover’s departure, she decides to dispose of her invisibility by putting an end to her small and insignificant life. At the end of the story, her passive body is depicted floating on the river, clad in ‘her stays and pink skirt and white stockings and shoes’ (14) and therefore exposed to everybody’s eyes. Celestinahahami’s choice of Western clothes is also significant and highlights the subversive nature of her act.

13In Notes towards a Performative Theory of Assembly, Judith Butler suggests that bodily exposure can be considered as a successful strategy for an emancipatory movement. Read in light of Butler’s theory of vulnerability, Celestinahami’s suicide and the emblematic exposure of her body through an act of ‘colonial mimicry’ can be considered as resistance against a system that denied her not only the right to speak but also the right to exist. As Butler further explains, sometimes ‘overcoming unwilled conditions of bodily exposure is precisely the aim of a political struggle’ (Butler 2015, 126). Bodily exposure of Celestinahami at the end of the story can be read as a successful political struggle since it renders her invisible body visible and modifies the mode of exposition imposed by the colonial system.

  • 10 After Celestinahami’s death, Jessop realises that he never knew her other name (14).
  • 11 Virginia Woolf scholar, Natania Rosenfeld goes so far as to describe the story as Woolf’s ‘most pow (...)

14Once her enigmatic silence is thus symbolically broken, Celestinahami is finally exposed and perceived as a human being with a name and therefore a voice of her own.10 Celestinahami’s transformation from a meek and subjugated subaltern to a rebellious subject can indeed be interpreted as a subversive act in a story that happens against the backdrop of Woolf’s colonial past. By thus dispossessing herself of her own life, Celestinahami exposes the illogicality and cruelty of the imperial system. As Athena Athanasiou argues, dispossession and self-dispossession of the subaltern should be thought through each other. As she claims: ‘Being dispossessed by the other is simultaneously a source of anxiety and a chance ‘to be moved’—to be affected and to be prompted to act—isn’t it?’ (Athanasiou 93). Celestinahami’s suicide can therefore be read as an empowering act of defiance against the British empire, ‘a symbolic act of defiance against the entire colonial civil and legal apparatus fashioned in order to secure the privilege of the white man’11 (Roy 205).

15Her suicide is of such enduring impact that Jessop unconsciously mimics her silence before recounting her story, keeping silent during the whole conversation, as if conjuring up her silence. It is only when the group is silent that he finally begins to speak just like Celestinahami who awaits the departure of the colonial man to put a symbolic end to her silence. Woolf here questions, as it were, Spivak’s conclusion in her canonical text. In ‘Can the Subaltern Speak’, Spivak raises considerable doubts about the possibility of constructing a ‘speaking position’ for the subaltern, especially the subaltern as female. In her article, Spivak tells the story of a young girl who attempted to write resistance against India’s much celebrated sati reform in her very body. The girl waited for her periods to begin in order to commit suicide, so she could disprove what she knew would be the conclusion drawn from her hanged body—illicit pregnancy. Considering that the girl’s voice could not be heard, Spivak concludes that the subaltern cannot speak because she is both created and dominated by colonial discourse. In ‘A Tale Told by Moonlight’, the subaltern can speak because she manages to get herself heard.

16Whereas Spivak seems to foreground the impossibility of linguistic subversion, Bhabha acknowledges the subaltern’s linguistic agency. In The Location of Culture, Homi Bhabha insists on the mimetic structure of colonial power. As he argues, ‘mimetism’ is by far one of the most elusive and efficacious strategies employed by the colonial system. He further highlights the deep ambivalences inherent in the apparent universal fixities of colonialist epistemology. In ‘Signs Taken for Wonders’, Bhabha maintains that the discovery of the ‘English Book’ is as much ‘a moment of authority’ as it is ‘a process of displacement’ that makes the presence of the book wondrous (29). As the Book’s authority prevails over the experience of the colonised people, it helps the coloniser control the imagination and the aspirations of the colonised and thus displace the images of identity already held by the colonised society. Yet the ‘English book’, the emblem of ‘colonial ambivalence’, suggests the weakness of colonial discourse and betrays the very foundations of authority on which it is based, thus rendering ‘mimetic subversion’ and the empowerment of the colonised subject possible.

17In ‘A Tale Told by Moonlight’, two English texts are present: Reynolds’ novel and the colonial book of law which authorises Reynolds to expel Celestinahami from his life. Bhabha’s concept of colonial mimicry here helps us decipher the opposition and resistance latent in the narrative. Reynold’s attempt to mimic his own Western conceptions of love elaborated at length in his novels and his recourse to the colonial law point to the presence of the ‘English Book’. According to Bhabha, despite the ‘imitation’ and ‘mimicry’ colonised people try to master, the relation with the colonised is one of permanent, if tacit, opposition and resistance. Celestinahami’s wearing western clothes as an attempt at visibility can therefore be read as an act of mimicry which constitutes an act of subversive opposition.

  • 12 Leonard Woolf’s ambiguous position towards empire and his relentless efforts, after his return from (...)

18‘A Tale Told by Moonlight’ can thus be read as Woolf’s own reflection on imperialism and on his own burden of guilt and vulnerability as a former ‘innocent imperialist’. Having been an outsider all his life, Leonard Woolf could only have been attentive to the problems of otherness and exclusion. In a sense ‘A Tale Told by Moonlight’ can be described as a confession of sorts, since it exposes a moral issue central to Woolf’s reflection on imperialism: should one accept to be the ‘ruler of the ruled’ (Woolf 1963, 100)? The question haunted Leonard Woolf after his return from Ceylon and finally forced him to resign from the Civil Service.12 In his fiction, Woolf contemplates exclusion not only as a human possibility but as a possibility of human life (Le Blanc 2010, 22). Indeed, Woolf’s divided self along with his situation as an outsider provided the ground for the creation of ‘the other’, a novel and unprecedented fiction. As Attridge claims, ‘It is this instability and inconsistency, these internal and external pressures and blind spots, this self-dividedness that constitute the conditions for the emergence of the other’ (Attridge 2004, 25). As Attridge further explains, creation opens to the writer unexplored opportunities through the skilful handling of known materials. Inspired by Conrad’s narrative technique and animated by an insatiable desire for truth, Woolf manages not only to revisit his own past but also to present an ever evolving image of the East and its women. As previously demonstrated, significant autobiographical elements together with Woolf’s active battle against empire can now dissipate the misunderstanding created about Woolf’s intentions in ‘A Tale Told by Moonlight’. The informed reader cannot content himself with the deceptive description of oriental women and can now read between the lines of the story and recognise Woolf’s subversive approach of empire.

19Dispossession and exposure, as demonstrated, constitute the overriding modality of ‘A Tale Told by Moonlight’ and determine the narrative structure of the story. Woolf’s desire to create an honest and truthful work of fiction, drives him to disclose and expose his own experience of life in Ceylon as a naïve and unconscious imperialist. Through a psychological investigation into his own soul, Woolf conjures up long forgotten voices of oppressed colonial subjects in an attempt to confront and denounce colonial presumptions about the East. He thus manages to stage a confrontation between his own divided self and the colonial other in order to provide a sharply focusing lens through which to observe the impact of empire on local inhabitants. ‘A Tale Told by Moonlight’ can therefore be understood as an act of dispossession and exposure: the writer’s dispossession and exposure of his own identity and life story along with those of the ignored subalterns. While Woolf’s story reflects the specific problematic imperialist discourse of his time, it simultaneously undermines and questions the established values of imperialism and reveals an ever mutable and changing face of the Orient and the oriental woman. ‘A Tale Told by Moonlight’ can therefore be read and understood as a politically engaged and modernist self-questioning piece of fiction.

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Bhabha, Homi, The Location of Culture, London: Routledge, 1994.

Bhabha, Homi, ‘Signs Taken for Wonders’, The Post-Colonial Studies Reader, eds. Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin, London: Routledge, 1995, 29–35.

Butler, Judith, and Athena Athanasiou, Dispossession: The Performative in the Political, Cambridge: Polity Press, 2013, 90–93.

Butler, Judith, ‘Bodily Vulnerability, Coalitional Politics’, Notes Towards a Performative Theory of Assembly, Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2015, 123–153.

Boehmer, Elleke, ‘“Immeasurable Strangeness” in Imperial Times: Leonard Woolf and W. B. Yeats’, Modernism and Empire, eds. Howard J. Booth and Nigel Rigby, Manchester: Manchester UP, 2000, 93–111.

De Silva, Mervyn, ‘Introduction: Part II – General’, Diaries in Ceylon, 1908-1911, Dehiwala: Tisara Press, 1983, xlviii–lx.

Derrida, Jacques, ‘The Animal That Therefore I Am’, trans. David Wills, Critical Inquiry 28.2 (2002): 369–418.

Glendinning, Victoria, ‘Preface’, Leonard Woolf, ‘A Tale Told by Moonlight’, London: Hesperus, 2006, vii-x.

Glendinning, Victoria, Leonard Woolf: A Biography, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006.

Kerr, Douglas. ‘Stories of the East: Leonard Woolf and the Genres of Colonial Discourse’, English Literature in Transition 41 (1998): 261–279.

Le Blanc, Guillaume, L’invisibilité sociale, Paris: PUF, 2009.

Le Blanc, Guillaume, Dedans, dehors : la condition d’étranger, Paris, Seuil, 2010.

Neslon-McDermott, Catherine, ‘Visions of an Incurable Rationalist: Leonard Woolf’s Stories of the East’, Ariel 42.3-4 (2012): 197–215.

Parsons, Ian, and George Spater, A Marriage of True Minds: An Intimate Portrait of Leonard and Virginia Woolf, London: Cape and Hogarth, 1977.

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Rosenfeld, Natania, Outsiders Together: Virginia and Leonard Woolf, Princeton: Princeton UP, 2000.

Roy, Anindyo, ‘“Telling Brutal things”: Colonialism, Bloomsbury and the Crisis of Narration in Leonard Woolf ’s ‘A Tale Told by Midnight”’, Criticism 43.2 (2001): 189–210.

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Spivak, Gayatri, ‘Can the Subaltern Speak? (1988), The Post-Colonial Studies Reader, eds. Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin, London: Routledge, 1995, 24–28.

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Woolf, Leonard, ‘Joseph Conrad’ (1927), Essays on Literature, History, Politics, etc. New York: HBJ, 1927, 57–71.

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1 Ceylon will be used throughout this paper, as it was the term in circulation for Sri Lanka in Woolf’s time.

2 See Ian Parsons and George Spater, and Douglas Kerr. See also Victoria Glendinning 2006. Glendinning analyses the story in the light of Woolf’s personal experience with prostitutes in Ceylon.

3 However, Elleke Boehmer calls for a reassessment of Woolf’s stories based on a re-thinking of modernism's troubled relationship with its own metropolitan identity, especially during the last phase of the ‘age of empire’.

4 See Mervyn de Silva’s ‘introduction’ to Diaries in Ceylon.

5 Woolf read and admired Conrad (Glendinning 54). Later, in 1927, Woolf wrote ‘Joseph Conrad’, an essay.

6 Woolf wrote the following passage about his desire for Gwen: ‘I am beginning to think it is always degraded being in love: after all 99/100ths of it is always the desire to copulate, otherwise it is only the shadow of itself, & a particular desire to copulate seems to me no less degraded than a general’ (Woolf 1989, 128).

7 The Cambridge Apostles was a secret intellectual society at Cambridge University founded in 1820 by George Tomlinson. The Apostles met to discuss and debate such topics as truth, God and ethics. Some of the most eminent members of the Bloomsbury group including John Maynard Keynes, Leonard Woolf, Lytton Strachey and his brother James, G. E. Moore, E. M. Forster and Rupert Brooke were all Apostles.

8 According to Derrida ‘Animal is a word that men have given themselves the right to give. These humans are found giving it to themselves, this word, but as if they had received it as an inheritance. […] All the philosophers we will investigate (from Aristotle to Lacan, and including Descartes, Kant, Heidegger, and Levinas), all of them say the same thing: the animal is without language’ (Derrida 400).

9 Reynolds is a Germanic name composed of ‘raginą’ and ‘waldą’, meaning ‘Powerful Ruler’.

10 After Celestinahami’s death, Jessop realises that he never knew her other name (14).

11 Virginia Woolf scholar, Natania Rosenfeld goes so far as to describe the story as Woolf’s ‘most powerful allegory of imperialism’ (Rosenfeld 50).

12 Leonard Woolf’s ambiguous position towards empire and his relentless efforts, after his return from Ceylon, to appease his guilty conscience is well known. In The International Theory of Leonard Woolf: A Study in Twentieth-Century Idealism, Peter Wilson provides a complete list of Woolf’s political activities and his tireless efforts to denounce empire. ‘This ambivalence with regard to law and order and justice in an imperialist society was one of the principal reasons for resigning from the Civil Service’, explains Leonard Woolf in The Journey not the Arrival Matters, the last volume of his autobiography (Woolf 1969, 207).

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Leila Haghshenas, « Baring Lives in ‘A Tale Told by Moonlight’ (1921): An Ambiguous Story of Vulnerability and Dispossession »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 53 | 2017, mis en ligne le 01 octobre 2017, consulté le 21 février 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Leila Haghshenas

Leila Haghshenas is a doctoral student in English Literature at Paul-Valéry University, Montpellier. She is writing a PhD on the ethics of alterity in Leonard Woolf’s literary work. She has participated in national and international conferences. She has published ‘The Aesthetics of Mutability in The Village in the Jungle (1913)’ in Angles: French Perspectives on the Anglophone World (2016, and ‘The Aesthetics of Humility in The Village in the Jungle’, in The Humble in 19th- to 21st-Century British Literature and Arts (PULM, 2017). Contact:

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