Harrison Middleton University

Using Virginia Woolf to Discuss Emotion

Using Virginia Woolf to Discuss Emotion

We’re excited that you’ve joined the conversation! At HMU, we want to continue the great authors’ conversations in a contemporary context, and this blog will help us do that. We look back to Aristotle and the early philosophers who used reason and discourse to gain wisdom and now we endeavor to do the same every day.


March 13, 2020

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

According to Virginia Woolf, reading is virtuous. The endeavor – performed well – enhances one’s being. It pleases her to see books on shelves in coffee houses, children’s rooms, and kitchens. In The Common Reader, Woolf celebrates the fact that reading, having evolved over many hundreds of years, has become a staple of the human lifestyle. But now that we have this wonderful resource accessible and at our fingertips, so to speak, how to use it? In the final chapter, titled “How to Read a Book,” Woolf explains that we may want to read the average book, the underwhelming, the second-rate, the flippant. This is fine, she says. There is nothing wrong in reading biographies and histories and romances. But, she says, that at some point we will tire of “rubbish reading.” She says, “Facts are all that they can offer us, and facts are a very inferior form of fiction. Thus the desire grows upon us to have done with half-statements and approximations; to cease from searching out the minute shades of human character, to enjoy the greater abstractness, the purer truth of fiction.” And by this, I do not think that she means you or I specifically, but us. I think that she means each individual seeks powerful truths and perspective that literature provides, and in doing so, we create a community of readers. Fiction, poetry, literature, grants a greater truth by its ability to handle broad perspectives and place disparate things on the page. It also is outside of us, not part of our personal story which is exceedingly hard to analyze, even though fiction may link to a part of our story.

An important part of Woolf’s contribution to literature is the way that her works exhibit emotions. To The Lighthouse, for example, is embodied with emotions. Though the story takes place almost solely in one day, Woolf describes the intimacy of small details which greatly alter the characters. Her characters express the pain, suffering, joy and exhaustion of being a mother, a father, a widow, etc. The young son, James, demonstrates both anger and joy, as well as a struggle to bond with his father. Side characters describe their emotions while painting, and these minute details also become sketched onto the canvas of Woolf’s literature. Woolf’s literary skill offers these details in an almost hidden way, letting the characters’ reactions demonstrate emotion without specifically naming each emotion. Moreover, it is most likely that when a character reacts, they do so not with one emotion, but with mixed emotions. The characters reveal emotion without specifically naming them, but move through them, giving space to each one.

Imagine my surprise, then, in thumbing through the Syntopicon’s entry for Emotion to find barely a mention of Virginia Woolf. Most of the discussion centers on scientists’ logical perspective and analysis of emotion. From Aristotle to Locke to William James and Freud, science tops the entry. There are a few novelists who make the list, such as James Joyce and Melville, Balzac, Dickens and Tolstoy, but very few women (which is often true of the Syntopicon). Jane Austen is mentioned twice, Willa Cather once, George Eliot twice, and Virginia Woolf three times. The three categories that mention Virginia Woolf are: “Dread and Despair: the courage of faith”; “Particular emotional disorders: psychoneuroses due to repression”; and “Inherited or acquired emotional dispositions: the moral significance of temperamental types; emotional torpor or lethargy.” In fact, glancing through the categories listed under Emotion, I believe that there is a lot of room for improvement.

For example, under the category: “The conflict between reason and emotion” no female writer (or female scientist) is listed. This seems to me to be in great error. Most of the categories present logic or reason as the foundation or the norm, and emotion as the aberration. This, too, seems to be in great error. What seems clear to me, after glancing through this section, is that we still do not have a real and healthy understanding of emotion. There is no rhetoric to express what it is, how it functions, and why humans experience them. Furthermore, in focusing on science, we have lost a very important part of the dialogue: the arts. Woolf, on the other hand, eloquently demonstrates passing emotions. She narrates scenes which foreground emotional response as if an overlay of the paintings, landscapes, and country cottage. In doing so, she creates a rich dialogue about emotion, and it would be wise to pay attention.

The lack of female authors is a common criticism of the Syntopicon. In this case, it seems detrimental to the great idea, but also indicative of a much greater issue. At the very least, the chapter on Emotion needs to be revised to include categories which express emotional intelligence. I realize that the dialogue surrounding emotion has changed greatly in the past one hundred years, and yet, I still feel that there are strong cultural biases and repressions against discussion of emotion. This fact only increases my desire to renovate the chapter. It is outdated, certainly, but more than that, it reflects only half of the ways (at best) in which we can speak intelligently about emotion. The chapter could include more contemporary voices, of course, but my main frustration is the way that emotion is broken down. Its topics should also include language which extends to writers like Virginia Woolf. This chapter loudly declares that emotion is, literally, not something that we want to talk about, personally or culturally. It seems clear to me at least that, if an individual becomes self-aware by learning about their own personal emotions, then a nation would be healthier for doing the same.

In To The Lighthouse, Woolf allows her characters to feel emotion. The character may or may not verbally express emotion to other characters, but the internal dialogue grants a necessary introduction to the complexity of emotion. This is clear through the young son James’s angry response to his father’s interruption at the beginning of the story. This is also clear through the internal dialogue of Lily Briscoe whose painting helps her to abstractly navigate her own emotions. She elects not to speak any of her emotions out loud, but she does paint them, giving a sort of voice to the ideas in her head. Furthermore, the father’s actions do more to establish his character than his language does. Woolf treats of emotion with delicacy and individuality. I believe that she offers a roadmap towards emotional intelligence in To The Lighthouse (as well as other works) and that our own cultural awareness would be enhanced by its example. Rather than thinking of emotion in clinical terms, as the Syntopicon would lead us to believe, I wish to see an expansion that would normalize emotional events, rather than cast them aside.

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