Realities of Life
By Abby Pittman
May 4, 2015
Virginia Woolf led a troubled life despite her great status as a profound writer. Her works were groundbreaking for female authors and opened the gate for acceptance of sexuality. Though sexuality has been the subject of many works before hers, she wrote about it in a much more abrasive way, as did her male counterpoint James Joyce. Their goal as modernists was to shift away from the past ideals for literature, to get away from the stereotypical plot, and instead write from the consciousness. Despite past female authors paving the way for Virginia Woolf, she rebels against the trail that they had laid for her, which she describes in her essay Modern Fiction and Professions for Women, while Ulysses breaks ground in its own unique way.
In her essay on modern fiction, Woolf discusses the constraints that were placed on the writers of the past, and her hope to break those constraints in the modernist movement. When discussing past authors work, Woolf says;
“The writer seems constrained, not by his own free will but by some powerful and unscrupulous tyrant who has him in thrall, to provide a plot, to provide comedy, tragedy, love interest, and an air of probability embalming the whole so impeccable that if all his figures were to come to life they would find themselves dressed down to the last button of their coats in the fashion of the hour,” (Woolf, 1104).
She questions whether all novels must be like this, form to this stereotypical role that has already been constructed by authors of the past; “Fielding did well and Jane Austen even better, but compare their opportunities with ours! Their masterpieces certainly have a strange air of simplicity,” (Woolf, 1102). Simplicity that Woolf and her cohorts attempted to deny. To write from the stream of consciousness, forced messiness; there was no perfect categories, nor well thought out plot, because to have those things would not be a true reflection of life as we live it. Her and other modernist writers felt that the romantic writers that came before them wrote what they had to, and not what they chose to; “If a writer were a free man and not a slave, if he could write what he chose, not what he must, if he could base his work upon his own feeling and not upon convention, there would be no plot, no comedy, no tragedy, no lover interest of catastrophe in the accepted style, and perhaps not a single button sewn on as the Bond Street tailors would have it,” (Woolf, 1104). Modernist writers in general felt that “Life is not a series of gig-lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end,” (Woolf, 1104), which is what their writing attempted to reflect. Another notable modernist writer, James Joyce followed along the same lines as Woolf, “Mr James Joyce is the most notable, from that of their predecessors. They attempt to come closer to life, and to preserve more sincerely and exactly what interests and moves them, even if to do so they must discard most of the conventions which are commonly observed by the novelist,” (Woolf, 1105).
James Joyce had the unfortunate habit, much like Woolf, of writing the blatant sexual truths of the realities of life. In his essay Ulysses, Joyce utilizes the style stream of consciousness to exemplify life. “The characters of Joyce and Woolf are caught, then, as they are immersed in the so-called stream of consciousness; and some version of an interior flow of thought becomes the main modernist access to “character,”” (Greenblatt, 974). Joyce breaks ground in a unique way; “Coarse language, masturbation, and other sexual content led to legal prosecution and to the banning of Ulysses as obscene in both the United States and the United Kingdom until 1930’s,” (1256). Though sexual desires and such had been written about before, never before had it been written about so blatantly and with so much accuracy to reflect the messiness of real life. “We follow closely his every activity: attending a funeral, transacting business, eating lunch, walking through the Dublin streets, worrying about his wife’s infidelity with Blazes Boylan, even defecating and masturbating—and at each point other contents of his mind including retrospect and anticipation, are revealed,” (1256). Unlike works of the past, Joyce takes his readers along a completely different kind of journey—one where they can experience real life that is still separate from their own. Though the lack of punctuation is disconcerting, it is a reflection of how we think; we do not think in punctuation, instead it is a never-ending stream of thoughts that occasionally relate to each other. The blatant and coarse sexuality of this piece is a battle of its own, but reflects the modernist ideals of sexuality.
Back to Woolf, in her essay Professions for Women, Woolf meditates on her self appointed title of writer and what that means as a woman. Female authors before her had set the stage, they had made her lives easier; “For the road was cut many years ago—by Fanny Burney, by Aphra Behn, by Harriet Martineau, by Jane Austen, by George Elliot—many famous women, and many more unknown and forgotten, have been before me, making the path smooth, and regulating my steps,” (Woolf, 1217). However, they also stifled her. Recognizing that though they had cut the path for her, they had also cut her a certain kind of path; one that stifled her creativity, and kept her in a certain kind of category that forced her to be subjected to men. She addresses her fight against the personification of a phantom, a phantom that was attempting to force her along the same path of female writers before her. When she wrote criticisms on male authors novels, she fights with that phantom, the desire to do what has already been done; “You are writing about a book that has been written by a man. Be sympathetic; be tender; flatter; deceive; use all the arts and wiles of our sex. Never let anybody guess that you have a mind of your own. Above all, be pure,” (Woolf, 1218). This was a struggle for writers before Woolf as well, but she is one of the first to address the situation. Though female authors had come along way and had managed to break into the world of publishing, they were also still forced to fit into a narrow box in a certain category, and produce what was expected of women. Even Wuthering Heights, as ground breaking as it was, and as shocking as it was to so many men of that time period that a woman could come up with such a dark and intense story, still had its base in the over-written topic of love. She recognizes that though women have broken into the field, there are still so many factors to contend with;
“The obstacles again her are still immensely powerful—and yet they are very difficult to define. Outwardly, what is simpler than to write books? Outwardly, what obstacles are there for a woman rather than for a man? Inwardly, I think, the case is very different; she has still many ghosts to fight, many prejudices to overcome,” (Woolf, 1220).
Woolf recognizes the need for change in the complex world of writing; the struggles that still so many women face to change the path that had been laid out for them. Joyce breaks ground with blatant and coarse sexuality, writing about things and saying things that before have never been considered proper. He wrote about the facts of life that people politely ignored. Both of these writers attempted to force acknowledgement of the realities of life, and to get away from the stereotypical shininess of life that romanticism had brought into the world of literature. The authors of the modern era forced a reconciliation of the realities that so many try to ignore.
Greenblatt, Stephen. The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Major Authors. 9th ed. Vol. 2. New York: W.W. Norton, 2013. Print.