Unity in Virginia Woolf and Hannah Arendt: Creating Reality in the Insensitive and Inaccessible

By Esteban A. Sanchez
2022, Vol. 14 No. 09 | pg. 1/1


Woolfian Scholars regularly denote the moments where Woolf’s characters feel inexplicably connected and inseparable from one another as representing the spiritual and mystic beliefs of their author. I want to reframe this notion, considering Woolf's moments of unity, not as a metafictional tool, but as a rebellion against the insensitive and inaccessible natural world. Wittgenstein's refutation of the linguistic contentions in Plato’s Cratylus will outline language’s relationship to reality and how Woolf rejects Platonic Forms. Woolf along with Hannah Arendt will consider thought's relationship to language and the will. In concert, these notions will demonstrate an epistemological disconnect between our self and reality. The radical form of The Waves will reveal how matter stabilizes human life and how groups of humans can create, share and suspend common illusion. Arendt, relating the self to the stories our actions create, will explore reflection’s formative characteristics. All together, Woolf’s moments of unity take the form of a decision to act against a reality that is insensitive and inaccessible to us.

Whatever their methods, whether they deploy traditional literary technique, summarize their favorite philosophers, or scientifically analyze how they would a data set or mathematical proof, Woolfian scholars seem unable to avoid the common conclusion that the work of Virginia Woolf attempts to capture, through language, the relationship between our self and the external world. In their terms, Woolf attempts a sort of linguistic reification of experience. To me, however, it seems that this conclusion is a stubborn and all-pervading side effect of a much larger process, a preoccupation with which her novels are primarily concerned. The process in question, simultaneously acknowledged and disregarded by critics as mystic and irrational, has seemingly fascinated Woolf since her first novel, The Voyage Out, where Rachel presents a brief allegory, to Mr. Dalloway, about an old widow in Leeds. While the widow’s material possessions are affected by acts of parliament, there remains ‘the mind of the widow–– the affections; those you leave untouched’ (57). Here, Woolf establishes the inner private life of individuals as disjoint from the body politic. The inner self is inaccessible to human action; no other person can claim to be us, to understand us in our entirety––in a word, human relationships are discrete. Traversing the distance between discrete beings continues to torment Woolf in Mrs. Dalloway when Clarissa broods: “The supreme mystery… was simply this: here was one room; there another. Did religion solve that, or love?” (127). The “supreme mystery,” in a more defined and exacerbated form, is presented by Lily in To The Lighthouse:

What art was there, known to love or cunning, by which one pressed through into those secrete chambers? What device for becoming, like waters poured into one jar, inextricably the same, one with the object one adored? Could the body achieve, or the mind, subtly mingling in the intricate passages of the brain? or the heart? Could loving, as people called it, make her and Mrs. Ramsay one? (Woolf, 51)

References to a discrete system of human relationships and the agony of isolation are abundant in Woolf’s works, establishing the loneliness of human life as a primary preoccupation for her. In my reading of these texts, I hope to push beyond the linguistic reification of experience to elucidate the process by which Woolf attempts to transcend this discrete system. Wittgenstein and To the Lighthouse will question language’s role in articulating ultimate reality by rejecting Platonic Forms. Hannah Arendt’s notion of action will present language’s relationship to thought, provide a framework for understanding how matter and time function in a Woolfian novel, and demonstrate the formative quality of reflection and the human struggle to communicate stories.

It is first important to dismiss the far too common claim that these moments of union or omniscience are metafictional tools by which Woolf attempts to communicate certain ideas. David Neal Miller, in “Authorial Point of View in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway,” falls into this common trap:

It is certainly true that the style and tone of reported thought (thought not of direct discourse) is remarkably constant for all characters; I would suggest, however, that is rather a signal than a lapse: the reader is alerted that the linguistic surface does not belong fully to the character whose thoughts are being recorded but at least in part to the recording consciousness. Thus the reappearance of groups of words and images in the thoughts of more than one character does not seem improbable. (125)

Miller references the repetition of sea imagery and Shakespeare’s “Fear no more the heat o’ the sun” as not only an identification between Septimus and Clarissa but an “authorial signal[ing] of the importance of the passage which it accompanies” (126). Obsessing over the location of an authorial point of view, Miller conflates shared characteristics between persons as a third-person narrator directly communicating with the reader. Does he forget that Mrs. Dalloway, in a sort of reverie, reads these lines from a book in a shop window (Woolf, Dalloway, 9)? Or that Septimus ‘[fell] in love with Miss Isabel Pole, lecturing in the Waterloo Road upon Shakespeare’ (Woolf, Dalloway, 85)? This is not to reduce the importance of Shakespeare’s line in this text or to say that the shared consciousness between Septimus and Clarissa is an illusory one created by coincidence. Their shared consciousness being grounded in common experience points to the novel–– its contents and constituent action–– as contained within itself. Metafictional analysis of the characters’ experiences seems perverse and altogether inaccurate like giving symbolic and aesthetic ordering to casual actions in the realm of human affairs. Whatever the type of analysis employed, there is no doubt that both Clarissa and Septimus feel connected to all people and all things:

She being part, she was positive, of all the trees at home; of the house there, ugly, rambling all to bits and pieces as it was; part of people she had never met; being laid out like a mist between the people she knew best, who lifted her on their branches as she had seen the trees lift the mist, but it spread ever so far, her life, herself. (9)

But they beckoned; leaves were alive; trees were alive. And the leaves being connected by millions of fibres with his own body, there on the seat, fanned it up and down; when the branches stretched he, too, made that statement. (22)

Sigmund Freud, in Civilization and its Discontents, proposes two psychoanalytic reasons for this “feeling of being indissolubly bound up with and belonging to the whole of the world outside one (Freud, 3)”: love, when “the borderline between ego and object is in danger of being blurred” (4), and an infant who “does not at first separate his ego from an outside world” (4). Freud concludes that these feelings of omniscience likely come from remnant feelings from the pre-ego-separated world. Sabine Sautter-Léger, in “Railed in by a Maddening Reason: A reconsideration of Septimus Smith and His Role in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway,” diagnoses Septimus as a schizophrenic and acknowledges “schizophrenics sporadically tend towards extreme introversion and fixate on the multiple or fragmented nature of the self” (11). Using the work of Louis A. Sass, she shows that schizophrenic symptoms arise “not from a lack of rational thinking, but rather from a hyper rationality and hyper reflexive awareness” (11). She identifies “the need to lose or disperse oneself in order to find and more fully realize a particular identity” (19) as a fundamental tension in Mrs. Dalloway. Considered by neurology and psychoanalysis, feelings of omniscience are well documented and a normal and productive phenomenon for the realization of individuality. In light of this, Miller’s metafictional contention that moments of omniscience establish Septimus and Clarissa’s shared “insight as the authorial point of view “behind the backs'' of the selected consciousness” (Miller, 130) seems unnecessarily verbose. Rather, Woolf is simply attempting to communicate sensations of omniscience.

Knowing that the experience of feeling one with other people and other things is at least empirically valid we must then consider the difficulties in its realization and substantiation. The predominant concern is the expression, through language, of who we are, of the nature of our discrete private lives. It must be through language, and not through acts alone, for the acts of others are ambiguous and open to an interpretation that seems to reflect our own internal dispositions rather than others’ motivations. The perseverance of the discrete system of human relationships comes from an ineffective mode of communication. I am not conceding to the rather sophomoric claim that language is meaningless, ineffective, and redundant–– only that it perpetuates this discrete system, and in this vein, it is important to understand its limitations. Bernard, in The Waves, is painfully aware of the inadequacy of our language: “‘Like’ and ‘like’ and ‘like’–– but what is the thing that lies beneath the semblance of the thing?” (Woolf, 163). He aptly recognizes our language to be a series of relations; objects are understood only in metaphors, in comparisons. These comparisons circle the thing itself (to use Kantian terms) but can never properly elucidate it. Bernard makes another peculiar linguistic observation: “I must make phrases and phrases and so interpose something hard between myself and the stare of the housemaids, the stare of clocks, staring faces, indifferent faces, or I shall cry'' (30). As explained by Loran Gami, in “Dualistic Vision in Virginia Woolf’s The Waves,” Bernard sees language as acting in a defensive role against reality. He writes: “language too has been just a means of giving shape and coherence to a life which is essentially meaningless and chaotic” (62). This explanation of the interposition of language to reality leaves more to be desired. Why should not knowing the thing itself make life meaningless and chaotic? Is it exclusively language’s role to give shape and coherence to our life? Rosenbaum’s description (whom Gami cites) is perhaps more advanced in this sense as he sees Bernard’s interposition as a “fight against insensitive matter” (Gami, 65). This is a more appropriate way to consider Bernard’s relationship with reality, if by insensitive, Rosenbaum means matter cares not for human identification, or as Woolf puts it: “it seems impossible… that we should ever compose from their fragments a perfect whole or read in the littered pieces the clear words of truth. For our penitence deserves a glimpse only; our toil respite only” (To The Lighthouse, 128).

Our task becomes understanding language’s relationship to ultimate reality, for what has been evident throughout all human inquiry, certainly to Plato, is that our perceivable reality, these housemaids, clocks, and faces are a curtain, a shadow, an intimation. What exists beyond our glimpse, “beneath the semblance of the thing,” is an ultimate reality, the thing itself, and by the Platonic definition, Forms. It is this Platonic notion that I want to turn to now, to prove and better understand Bernard’s observations. Bernard Harrison’s “Imagined Worlds and the Real One: Plato, Wittgenstein, and Minemsis” attempts to answer the question: can language reflect reality, or is language reflexive only of itself? His argument outlines Wittgenstein’s refutation of the three linguistic contentions in Plato’s Cratylus. Plato’s third contention is: things fall into categories determined solely “by the nature of Reality, with no contribution whatsoever from human convention or practice” (Harrison 28-29). Wittgenstein uses the example of length and measuring to demonstrate that categories must come from human practice and are not a disjoint characteristic of nature. To categorize objects with a length of 3 inches, one must first understand “that ‘three’ is a name of a number, that ‘inch’ is a name for a modulus of measurement, and that the whole expression designates a length” (Harrison, 36). Put simply, categorizing by length presupposes knowledge of the practice of measuring. Harrison explains:

Objects indeed have lengths; but it is not possible to locate lengths as constituents of reality without reference to the practice of measuring. So it isn’t possible to treat length as one category out of the many categories of objects into which, according to the perspective of the Cratylus, Reality, antecedently to the institution of any human practice or linguistic convention divides up. ( 37)

As a corollary to Wittgenstein’s argument, Platonic forms cannot be ultimate reality, or the thing itself. Robert Baker, in “What do we mean when we talk about Transcendence? Plato and Virginia Woolf,” muses about the identity of Forms:

At times they appear to be universals, applicable to anything at all, and at times they appear to be standards, or norms, or what in ordinary language we call ideas… many modern philosophers… have agreed with Eric Havelock’s observation that such universals would be reifications of synthetic judgments. (318-319)

Like Wittgenstein, Havelock identifies Plato’s universals (the natural categorizations of objects) as reifications of synthetic judgments–– judgments requiring perception of the external world. These universals are created by our perception’s relationship to reality, and not by reality itself.

If we are to suppose that the thing itself is a Form, as Plato suspected it to be, we would merely be operating in a sphere of human influence disjoint from ultimate reality; so even the notion that there exist Forms outside our perception is a product of human practice. Put another way, language acts centrifugal to the thing itself.

The equating of Platonic Forms to ultimate reality seems especially appropriate given their central position in Mr. Ramsay’s research. His work deals with “subject and object and nature of reality” (Woolf, Lighthouse, 23), and Andrew tells Lily to “think of a kitchen table... when you’re not there” (23). Andrew’s suggestion seems to be a classic exercise in Forms. Imagining a kitchen table without a physical table present means one imagines the Form of a table through the speculation of a table’s characteristics. Woolf demonstrates her sympathies with Wittgenstein’s refutation of Cratylus, in “Time Passes,” where the structural shift and the identification of the narrator with the winds of the sea allow us to see human action from a primitive perspective. Human interaction with nature is reduced to maintenance–– Mrs. McNab’s care for the house–– and the contemplation of the nature of reality, the asking of “to what, and why, and wherefore” (Woolf, Lighthouse, 128). The contemplator in “Time Passes,” like Plato, attempts to elucidate the nobler powers through reflection on objects and nature. Woolf rejects the concept of the thing itself in similar terms to Wittgenstein and Havelock:

With equal complacence [nature] saw his misery, his meanness, and his torture. That dream, of sharing, completing, of finding in solitude on the beach an answer, was then but a reflection in a mirror and the mirror itself was but the surface glassiness which forms in quiescence when the nobler powers sleep beneath? (134).

Plato’s linguistic and epistemological categorization of objects and Forms seem to be synonymous with our contemplator, insomuch that both assume universals exist outside of human convention and practice. However, this contemplation, according to Woolf, is “a reflection in a mirror.” Nature being a glass surface means the universals we believe to find there are only what we could have found within ourselves. Woolf’s claim that this mirror forms in quiescence reflects Plato’s language in the Allegory of the Cave–– but the origin of this quiescence is a point of contention between them. The surface glassiness arises not from a component of reality, as Plato posits–– but rather a result of the failure of our rationality, perception, and language to adequately explain reality.

The Waves introduces a new literary form and structure that not only supposes the non-existence of Forms, but also removes from the main narrative the external, perceivable world. To clarify, The Waves is not the soliloquies of six consciousnesses in a void, separate from all notions of an external world. Rather, the form of the novel makes us uncertain about reality’s constituent objects. The narrative form is a tinted window where the reader can only make out the faint dark outlines of shapes on the other side. If “Time Passes” showed the properties of nature disjoint from human action, The Waves shows the properties of human action disjoint from nature. Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition also considers human action, specifically the vita activa (active life) distinct from the vita contemplativa (contemplative life). We will consider Arendt’s vita activa and vita contemplativa in the context of consciousness, thought, and language–– the only things we can be sure of when the external world is so hidden. The vita activa consists of three activities: labor, work, and action. Labor is the “biological process of the human body” (Arendt, 7) and the activities required for them. Work “corresponds to the unnaturalness of human existence” (7) or the production of physical objects. Action is the plurality of man. As an individual, we exist with other humans and are distinct and unique from everyone else. Action creates a web of human relationships, a structure that represents all human interaction and is “the only activity that goes on directly between men without the intermediary of things or matter” (7).

Before taking on action and vita activa, I want to consider thought and vita contemplativa: the activities of man that cause no external consequence. Victoria Baena, in “Labor, Thought, and the Work of Authorship: Virginia Woolf and Hannah Arendt,” writes:

[Thought] is non-cognitive and non-intentional, in the sense of willing an end, but it remains tied to the world through language and metaphor, which make evident the workings of thought—even if, as Arendt argues, metaphors never adequately describe thought’s purposeless, worldless nature. “Thinking is out of order,” in her words, “because the quest for meaning produces no end result that will survive the activity, that will make sense after the activity has come to its end” (88).

The non-cognitive and non-intentional qualities of thought are a fundamental and urgent realization. Iris Murdoch, summarizing Stuart Hampshire’s work in “The Idea of Perfection,” explains in another way this same notion:

‘Thought and belief are separate from will and action. ‘We do try, in ordinary speech and thought, to keep the distinction between thought and action as definite as possible.’ Thought as such is not action but an introduction to action. ‘That which I do is that for which I am responsible and which is peculiarly an expression of myself. It is essential to thought that it takes its own forms and follows its own paths without my intervention, that is, without the intervention of my will. I identify myself with my will. Thought, when it is most pure, is self-directing. . . . Thought begins on its own path, governed by its universal rules, when the preliminary work of the will is done. No process of thought could be punctuated by acts of will, voluntary switchings of attention, and retain its status as a continuous process of thought.’ (5-6)

Arendt, in claiming that language ties thought to the world, presents language as something external to thought, a force that must be imposed onto it. Put together, thought can be separated into two moments: the non-intentional, wordless thought, and the thought transfigured into language. The latter, which comes about through a direct intervention of the will, ceases the process of thought and this cessation means language can only attempt to ascertain its meaning after the thought has ended. Thought is antecedent to language and acts separately from our will. Bernard describing Susan’s alleged experience describes the existence of these two moments:

Even your desire while you watch the beetle, to possess one single thing (it is Louis now) must waver, like the light in and out of the beech leaves; and then words, moving darkly, in the depths of your mind will break up this knot of hardness, screwed in your pocket-handkerchief. (Woolf, Waves, 15)

Here is an instance of the intervention of the will in a non-cognitive, non-intentional process. To Susan, words intervene in her desire, “moving darkly in the depths of the mind” to break up her thought, “this knot of hardness.” Neville gives a certain poignancy to this notion when he exclaims:

Yet those roaring waters… upon which we build our crazy platforms are more stable than the wild, the weak and inconsequent cries that we utter when, trying to speak, we rise; when we reason and jerk out those sayings, ‘I am this; I am that!’ Speech is false. (Woolf, Waves, 138)

Even if one claims thought takes the form of words through habit, language still acts as an inadequate medium for it. As Arendt claims, language is purposeful and can never accurately describe “thought’s purposeless, worldless nature.” Further, Neville contends that language perverts thought, objects, and reality while simultaneously creating it: “Nothing should be named lest by so doing we change it” (81). Thought is non-personal, primitive, and all-pervading. Hampshire, as Murdoch observes, in declaring “I identify myself with my will,” also declares our separation from thought and its insensitivity to us. Language acts as a superstructure imposed on a reality whose “insensitive” matter includes ourselves and which contains “roaring waters” of thought which our language must make sense of.

Language, relying on metaphor and comparisons, fails to describe reality’s constituent objects and ultimate reality. Language also fails to describe our perceptions insomuch that they are thoughts cognitively and willfully expressed into words. Being connected to reality by these means, we see that our self is two times divorced from reality. Considering that union must be found in reality itself, we can therefore conclude that we are epistemically unable to communicate unity. Woolf makes this clear, in To the Lighthouse, when Lily exclaims: “It was not knowledge but unity that she desired, not inscriptions on tablets, nothing that could be written in any language known to men.” (51). This is perhaps why Naremore concedes to mysticism and claims the six consciousnesses, unified as one person in The Waves, must inhabit a “kind of spirit realm” (Gami, 54), or why Sautter-Léger acknowledges Septimus’s omniscient feelings as normal but also somehow irrational, unsubstantiated, and anomalous. We can never know the private lives of others; we cannot communicate our feelings of being one with all people and all things; there is no epistemological sense of union; there is no “device for becoming, like waters poured into one jar, inextricably the same, one with the object one adored.” If vita contemplativa and the epistemological have failed us, then perhaps we need to turn to vita activa and the ontological.

Describing the novel and its reification of experience in epistemological terms has perhaps been a disservice, allowing us to delve too deeply into metaphysics while ignoring the novel’s incredible ability to describe states of being. The Waves, separating itself from the objects of this world, serves as a perfect tool for this type of ontological analysis. Not having to concern ourselves with language’s relationship to reality, we can focus on language’s ability to describe states of being and see if we can find unity there.

It is not altogether clear what Arendt means when she defines action as going on “directly between men without the intermediary of things or matter,” especially when she previously claims “the things of the world have the functions of stabilizing human life…. Men their ever-changing nature notwithstanding, can retrieve their sameness, that is, their identity, by being related to the same chair and the same table” (137). Perhaps she means that while matter stabilizes human life, action could exist without it. This being the case, or otherwise, without matter, the web of human relationships would be of an altogether different type–– namely, it loses its discreteness. Bernard gives meaning and nuance to this claim when he says:

No, but I wish to go under; to visit the profound depths; once in awhile to exercise my prerogative not always to act, but to explore; to hear vague, ancestral sounds of boughs creaking, of mammoths, to indulge impossible desires to embrace the whole world with the arms of understanding, impossible to those who act. (Woolf, Waves, 114)

Bernard seems to consider not so much a spatial transcendence, but a spatial resonance deeper than the realm of human action. The impossibility of being able to enter a fluid spatial realm, where one can explore and hear ancestor sounds of boughs and mammoths, arises from action. It is our physical relationship to other beings that supposes that this type of realm is illusory and imaginary. This relationship between the web of human relationships and matter is best seen in Septimus’s oscillation between the former and his omniscient moments. Sue Roe, in “The Impact of Post-Impressionism,” explains: “Clarissa, though her thoughts transcend the spatial relations which define her, may always return to those spaces, while Septimus can never return” (180). Septimus’s inability to register his limitations, to fail to retain a notion of “here was one room; there another” is especially insightful considering his momentary return to space before his suicide. He wakes up from a nap “alone with the sideboard and the bananas. He was alone, exposed on this bleak eminence, stretched out–– but not on a hill-top; not on a crag; on Mrs. Filmer’s sitting room sofa” (Woolf, 45). Septimus’s perceptions are notably different here. Dr. Holmes and Dr. Bradshaw, earlier referred to as human nature––“Human nature, in short, was on him—the repulsive brute, with the blood-red nostrils” (92) –– are, now, referred to only by name: “Holmes and Bradshaw were on him! The brute with the red nostrils was snuffing into every secret place!” (47). In returning from omniscience to spatiality, Septimus also returns to the realm of discrete human affairs; there again exists individuals, not abstractions. In this sense, Bernard is the converse of Septimus. He leaves the web of human relationships to “indulge impossible desires” of space, whereas Septimus leaves the spatial to “indulge impossible desires” of the human.

While others are antagonistic to an individual's “impossible desires,” we have yet to consider group consciousness, and how groups collectively define the same experience. This is seen quite clearly in child’s play when groups of children can create a common imaginary space. Without being grounded in matter, the differences between this common imaginary space and the real become blurred. Playing as children, Bernard says: “We are in a swamp now; in a malarial jungle. There is an elephant white with maggots, killed by an arrow shot dead in its eye” (22). The form of this novel gives us no way of distinguishing this setting from the beech woods where Susan “flings herself down on the roots under the trees, where the light seems to pant in and out, in and out” (14). We can only hastily conclude that the novel certainly takes place in England much longer than it does in the malarial jungle–– but we have no way of confirming our actual location. Why should Bernard not be an explorer in a malarial jungle dreaming of being a young boy in England? What is peculiar to the case of child’s play is that in suspending a group illusion, the individuals involved become atomic. In that, if one child acknowledges that it’s getting dark and time for bed the illusion is broken. Or if another child wanders off into their own imaginary world, the common illusion can adapt to this departure. Perhaps this even holds for group consciousness generally. When Rhoda, in all her abstraction, sees the number eight transform on the chalkboard, we perhaps can begin to understand that our discrete world is just as illusory as the malarial jungle:

Look the loop of the figure is beginning to fill with time; it holds the world in it. I begin to draw a figure and the world is looped in it, and I myself am outside the loop; which I now join–– so–– and seal up, and make entire. The world is entire, and I am outside of it, crying, “oh save me, from being blown for ever outside the loop of time!” (Woolf, Waves, 21-22)

The sums on the chalkboard transforming to their rational, mathematical, and linguistic representations create and encapsulate a whole world. This is best seen in Bernard’s claim that reality can be described only in metaphorical terms. It is through these comparisons that we define and enclose our world; language interposes itself between our reality and the inaccessible and insensitive. In not knowing the product of six times seven times eight, Rhoda is thrown outside the rational world and one gets the intimation that it is precisely the human-made world that is so insensitive to human experience. If both the imaginary and the real are created by human design, Neville’s advice becomes especially urgent: “why discriminate?… Let it exist, this bank, this beauty, and I, for one instant, steeped in pleasure” (Woolf, The Waves, 81). The perseverance of the discrete system of human relationships as the real comes from matter’s stabilization, but also as Rhoda claims, from time.

The human relationship to time is perhaps best elucidated by Arendt when she considers ourselves and the stories that compose us:

The perplexity is that in any series of events that together form a story with a unique meaning we can at best isolate the agent who set the whole process into motion; and although this agent frequently remains the subject, the “hero” of the story, we never can point unequivocally to him as the author of its eventual outcome. (185)

In considering this lack of authorship, Arendt adroitly acknowledges that we often misconstrue an author pulling the strings of their fictional characters with our very non-fictional lives. Rather than our stories being, as Plato contends, “a kind of plaything of a god” (Arendt, 185), “the reason why each human life tells its story and why history ultimately becomes the storybook of mankind, with many actors and speakers and yet without any tangible authors, is that both are the outcome of action” (184). What Arendt means is that through every act, an individual uniquely affects “the life stories of all those with whom he comes into contact” (184). The indistinguishable behemoth of actions that affect us, both directly and indirectly, is the quasi-author of our life story–– not our self, other persons, or any omniscient God. When Bernard feels to be one with his friends, he is primarily thinking in terms of action, the web of human relationships, and the indistinguishability of his actions from the actions of those around him:

I cannot find any obstacle separating us. 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. … Here on my brow is the blow I got when Percival fell. Here on the nape of my neck is the kiss Jinny gave Louis. My eyes fill with Susan’s tears. I see far away, quivering like a gold thread, the pillar Rhoda saw, and feel the rush of the wind of her flight when she leapt. (289)

This type of union is somewhat illusory as it is not realized in the present. To distinguish and understand the present moment, one must understand past actions and how the web of human relationships has transformed into the present. The significance of seeing two strangers happen upon one another in the street arises from knowing that they were once lovers torn apart by selfishness, time, and deceit. This is why Bernard, in trying to realize meaning, constantly gives backstories to the people he sees in the present. In this sense, Bernard’s union can only be retrospective, realized through direct intervention of the will to give meaning to a life story that is chaotic, paradoxical, and unintelligible, insomuch that we are not its authors. As long as time passes and action occurs, we are constantly chasing the present through reflection on the past. To live in the present and reap its benefits–– as advocated throughout history by many cultures, religions, and philosophies –– is to transcend the antagonistic temporality of the human condition.

So to find any sense of union, we need to transcend both space and time. This sounds an awful lot like death. Since the beginning, it seems that Woolf has, in fact, treated death as the primary way of realizing unity. In The Voyage Out, Hewet upon Rachel’s death thinks: “they had now what they had always wanted to have, the union which had been impossible while they lived'' (334). This is perhaps why the most significant connection Septimus and Clarissa share comes after Septimus’s death. Or why Mrs. Ramsay seems to haunt the final part of To the Lighthouse, existing as one with Lily and extra-linguistically in the very sentiment and consciousness of the narrative itself. However, like in Propositional Calculus, where a false proposition can imply anything either true or false–– death is a tool that allows us to easily conclude whatever we like. It is very convenient for me to declare that we transcend the discrete system of human relationships in death because there is no one alive to prove the contrary. In this regard, Mrs. Dalloway’s “transcendental theory1” by which “the unseen part of us, which spreads wide, the unseen might survive, be recovered somehow attached to this person or that, or even haunting certain places after death” (153) gains a sort of naivety. Her theory seems to concern itself not with a way of living, but with a way of dying.

Woolf seems to realize this, changing her view of death from a placative force to the enemy human life must fight against: “Death is the enemy… Against you I will fling myself, unvanquished and unyielding, O Death!” (Woolf, Waves, 297). Both Arendt in categorizing the vita activa and Woolf in producing a radically new narrative structure in The Waves attempt to elucidate the human condition by reducing distraction and considering our selves in our most primitive actions and abilities. The Waves concludes with an elated sense of joy and triumph when Woolf discovers her union in these most primitive actions of man. Bernard, approaching death, questions:

What is the phrase for the moon? And the phrase for love? By what name are we to call death? I do not know. I need a little language such as lovers use, words of one syllable such as children speak when they come into the room and find their mother sewing… I need a howl; a cry… Nothing neat. Nothing that comes down with all its feet on the floor. None of those resonances and lovely echoes that break and chime from nerve to nerve in our breasts making wild music, false phrases. I have done with phrases. (295)

It seems that the union Woolf desires is in the hands of those connected through it. Without the proper tools to distinguish and define reality, it is then perhaps natural to define it ourselves. Confronted with language’s great perpetuation of loneliness, lovers create a little language, such as Hewet and Rachel do, to cease “to be little separate bodies” (Woolf, Voyage Out, 298). There is Mrs. Ramsay’s “triumph” when she communicates love for her husband by turning around and looking; “she had not said it: yet he knew” (Woolf, Lighthouse, 124). There is the inexplicable union of mother and child through words of one syllable and cries shouted in the night. It is Lily’s insatiable desire to sublimate distance that allows her to share consciousness with Mr. Carmichael, “to rest in the extreme obscurity of human relationships” (Woolf, Lighthouse, 171), watching a white sailboat on a blue sea. It is Mrs. Dalloway’s desire to overcome loneliness and Septimus’s fear of the rational and human that creates their feelings of omniscience. The separation of language and perception from reality means we must fight back against insensitive matter; to create the experience we desire; to feel like one and hold experience up and display it to all those antagonistic individuals of the web of human relationships; to dare them to separate us; to enshroud and reify the unified self in the novel. This is both the most primitive and supreme act of human rebellion.


Arendt, Hannah. The Human Condition. The University of Chicago Press, 1958.

Baena, Victoria. “Labor, Thought, and the Work of Authorship: Virginia Woolf and Hannah Arendt.” Diacritics, Volume 48, Number 1, 2020, pp 82-105.

Baker, Robert. “What Do We Mean When We Talk about Transcendence? Plato and Virginia Woolf.” Philosophy and Literature, Volume 43, Number 2, October 2019, p. 312-335

Freud, Sigmund. Civilization and Its Discontents. Translated by David Mclinktock, Penguin Modern Classics, 2002.

Gami, Loran. “Dualistic Vision in Virginia Woolf’s The Waves.” American, British, and Canadian Studies, 2021, Vol.36 (1), pp.49-66

Harrison, Bernard. “Imagined Worlds and the Real One: Plato, Wittgenstein, and Mimesis.” Philosophy and Literature, 1993, Vol.17, pp.26-46.

Miller, David Neal. “Authorial Point of View in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway.” Journal of Narrative Theory, Vol. 2., No. 2, 1972, pp 125-132.

Murdoch, Iris. “The Idea of Perfection.” The Sovereignty of Good. Routledge Classics, 2001.

Roe, Sue. “The Impact of Post-Impressionism.” The Cambridge Companion to Virginia Woolf. Cambridge University Press, 2000, pp. 164-190.

Sautter-Léger, Sabine. “Railed in by a maddening reason: a reconsideration of Septimus Smith and his role in Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway.” Papers on Language and Literature. Vol. 53, Iss. 1, 2017, pp. 3-31,98.

Woolf, Virginia. The Voyage Out. Penguin Classics, 1992.

—. Mrs. Dalloway. Harcourt, 2002.

—. To the Lighthouse. Harcourt, 1989.

—. The Waves. Harvest Books, 1978.


1.) The importance of Mrs. Dalloway’s transcendental theory is pointed out and further explored by Sabine Sautter-Léger, in “Railed in by a Maddening Reason: A reconsideration of Septimus Smith and His Role in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway” (21).

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