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Virginia Woolf Essay Examples

“Virginia Woolf – A Life of Struggle and Affliction” The literary
critic Queenie Leavis, who had been born into the British lower middle class and
reared three children while writing and editing and teaching, thought Virginia
Woolf a preposterous representative of real women’s lives: “There is no
reason to suppose Mrs. Woolf would know which end of the cradle to stir.”
Yet no one was more aware of the price of unworldliness than Virginia Woolf. Her
imaginative voyages into the waveringly lighted depths of “Mrs.
Dalloway” and “To the Lighthouse” were partly owed to a freedom
from the literal daily need of voyaging out – to the shop or the office or even
the nursery. Her husband, Leonard Woolf, believed that without the aid of her
inheritance his wife would probably not have written a novel at all. For money
guaranteed not just time but intellectual liberty. “I’m the only woman in
England free to write what I like,” she exulted in her diary in 1925, after
the publication of “Mrs. Dalloway” by the Hogarth Press, which she and

Leonard had set up to free her from the demands of publishers and editors. What
she liked to write turned out to be, of course, books that gave voice to much
that had gone unheard in the previous history of writing things down: the
dartings and weavings of the human mind in the fleet elaborations of thought
itself (Malcomi, 4). “Mrs. Dalloway” is a finespun tribute to the
complexities of social interaction on a single day in London in 1923, ending
with a shallow society hostess’s glittering party; it is also one of the Patton
2 written about the effects of World War I. Virginia Woolf was not without
politics or fierce worldly concerns (4-5). The diaries and letters spanning both
world wars are filled with bulletins arguments, terrors of distant armies and
next-door bombs and the precariousness of the entire civilization of which she
knew herself to be a late, probably too exquisite bloom. Her art is less direct.
In her novels the resonance of great events sounds from deep within individual
lives. More than any other writer, Woolf has shown us how the most far-off
tragedies become a part of the way we think about our daily expectations, our
friends, the colors of a park, the weather, the possibility of going on or the
decision not to. The old image of Virginia Woolf the snob has largely given way
to various loftier characterizations: Virginia Woolf the literary priestess, or
the Queen of ever-titillating Bloomsbury, or – most influentially – the vital
feminist whose requisite “room of her own” came to seem the very
workshop in which such books as “The Second Sex” and “The
Feminine Mystique” were later produced (Reinhart, 27). Recently, however,
Woolf has been granted a too modern female pantheon: the victim. The discovered
molestations of her childhood, the bouts of madness that led to her suicide,
seem now to commend rather than to qualify her right to speak for women. But

Woolf’s personal example is in the strength and the steady professionalism that
kept her constantly at work – the overambitious failures as sweated over as the
lyric triumphs. For all her fragility as a woman, she was a writer of gargantuan
appetite, and she knew full well how much she intended to enclose in her fine
but prodigious, spreading, unbreakable webs. “Happier today than I was
yesterday,” she wrote in her diary in January 1920, “having this
afternoon arrived at some idea of new form for a new novel (Reinhart, 36).
Suppose one thing of another … only not for 10 pages but for 200 or so –
doesn’t that give the looseness and Patton 3 lightness I want; doesn’t that get
closer and yet keep form and speed, and enclose everything, everything?”
She not only said that she was depressed, but that she was going ‘mad’ again,
and beginning to hear voices. She could not concentrate, and believed she could
not read or write.

She was hopeless and self-critical, and to the end maintained
that her suicide was justified and that she would not recover. Her suicide was
planned and determined, and despite a possible failed attempt a week earlier
cannot be seen as an impulsive gesture that went wrong. When she wrote at the
end of her life that she was going mad ‘again’, she spoke the truth and from
lengthy experience. She had her first breakdown at the age of thirteen, and
others when she was twenty-two, twenty-eight, and thirty. From 1913 to 1915,
from the age of thirty-one to thirty-three, she was ill so often and for so long
that permanent insanity was feared (Malcomi, 12). These attacks were severe,
requiring medical treatment and bed rest. During the rest of her life she had
wilder mood swings. All this, especially the lengthy illnesses of 1913/14 and
1915, is well documented; in particular, typical phases of mania and depression
are described in textbook-like detail. When elated, her husband describes her
incessant talking, the content becoming increasingly incoherent as she worsens
in the next day or two, until, acutely manic, there is only a ‘mere jumble of
dissociated words.’ Equally convincingly he describes her thought processes when
depressed: she believes that she is not ill, that her condition is her own
fault, and is unable to accept reassurance or to be argued out of her beliefs.

The symptoms of elation and depression are convincingly described, and their
severity made clear. Over the years we can trace the phasic nature of her
illness, with irregular attacks ranging from the mild and doubtful to the severe
and prolonged. This is a convincing life history of manic depressive psychosis,
culminating in suicide at Patton 4 the age of 59, and including a suicidal
attempt in her thirties which was almost successful. Because no specific
treatments were available during her life the illness can be observed running
its natural course; such severe and lengthy attacks would be rare today. Her
medical history otherwise can be followed in detail in her diaries. She had much
minor ill-health between 1915 and her death in 1941. Some of this is
attributable to mild mood swings, either up or down, perhaps overzealously
managed by her husband and doctors with bedrest and curtailment of her social
life. She suffered from frequent lengthy and disabling headaches, migrainous in
character, accompanied by depressive symptoms and by palpitations (Malcomi, 10).

Flu- like illnesses and dysmenorrhoea are frequent. The doctors who attended her
and her family were the most distinguished of the time, especially the
psychiatrists, but despite their eminence had no effective treatment to offer at
the time, and seem prejudiced and unhelpful to modern eyes, although their
textbooks show they were able to make an accurate diagnosis. There is an
impressive family history of affective illness. Her brother Thoby died young but
was an emotionally disturbed child. Her sister Vanessa had an episode of
depression in her thirties after a miscarriage. The attack lasted some two
years, and was regarded by the family as similar to Virginia’s depressions. Her
brother Adrian also suffered from episodes of nervousness and depression. Her
father was a gloomy pessimistic man who had two mild attacks of depression. His
father – her grandfather – had three serious depressions which affected his
career. Her first cousin on her father’s side developed severe mania in his
twenties and died within a few years in an asylum (13-14). For generations her
family history is filled with gloomy men and eccentric Patton 5 family was also
very creative, not only in literature. Her father founded and wrote much of the

Dictionary of National Biography. Many of her relatives were friends of Thomas
Carlyle:see Virginia Woolf and Thomas Carlyle. Virginia resembled her father in
many ways, and had a lose but ambivalent relationship with him. Her siblings
were creative in other ways. Her sister was a painter, and her brother one of
the first English psychoanalysts. Her personality was a mixture of shyness and
ebullience. She was remembered by friends not as a gloomy depressed person but
as a brilliant conversationalist, laughing, joking, gossiping, and often
indulging in malicious flights of fantasy at the expense of her friends. She was
loved by children, given to interrogating others in her search for material, and
often rude and snobbish. She was awkward out of her social class, and had an odd
eccentric appearance which made people stare at her in the street (Reinhart,
26-27). As a child she was sexually abused , but the is difficult to establish.
At worst she may have been sexually harassed and abused from the age of 12 to 21
by her stepbrother George Duckworth, 16 years her senior, and sexually explored
as early as six by her other stepbrother. It is likely that her sisters and
stepsister were also sexually abused. In later life, probably as a result, she
was sexually frigid in her marriage. She had several homosexual flirtations in
adult life, some intense, but probably not involving physical relations. It is
unlikely that the sexual abuse and her manic-depressive illness are related.
However tempting it may be to relate the two, it must be more likely that,
whatever her upbringing, her family history and genetic make-up were the
determining factors in her mood swings rather than her unhappy childhood. More
relevant in her childhood experience is the long history of bereavements that
punctuated her adolescence and precipitated her first depressions. Early losses
are known to be related to adult depression. Her life and illness accords with
recent work on Patton ?


Rienhart, Ruth. “Virginia Woolf – Rediscovered.” The New York
Times. 12 May 1991, late ed. : C1. 12 May 1991. http://www.times.com Malcomi,
Richard. “Virginia Woolf’s Psychiatric History: Summary and Site
Guide.” Compuserve Modern Feminist Literature Guide. (1999) 24 Aug. 1999.
http://ourworld.compuserve.com/homepage/malcolmi/woolf-psych/sum.htm Rienhart,
Ruth. “Virginia Woolf – Rediscovered.” The New York Times. 12 May
1991, late ed. : C1. 12 May 1991. http://www.times.com Malcomi, Richard.
“Virginia Woolf’s Psychiatric History: Summary and Site Guide.”
Compuserve Modern Feminist Literature Guide. (1999) 24 Aug. 1999. http://ourworld.compuserve.com/homepage/malcolmi/woolf-psych/sum.htm

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