Copyright J V Ward. 14th August 2003

Virginia Woolf. A post-symbolist writer who relies on symbols?! 

It is evident that Woolf believes in the potency of images and symbols; they occur throughout her works with the regularity of ‘waves hammering on the shore’. However Woolf challenges the direct relationship between the symbol and the signified object and also subverts the authority of a symbol to act as a signifier.

Water is traditionally an image of life and procreation and in The Waves, Woolf presents the ocean as a symbol of procreation and life-giving energy. Although the explicit references to maternity present in the first draft of the novel have been deleted, the ambience of fecundity and vitality remains. The ripples rising, growing into waves and culminating in dispersal on the shore suggests the progress of the characters through life from childhood to maturity. The dominant image of motherhood is instrumental in undermining the credibility of the Patriarchal society. The eponymous waves are full of energy, ‘they ripple with muscles as they move’ but once they crash upon the shore they are dispersed and released back to the ocean suggestive of the Buddhist notion of the inward being returning to a collective soul after death. Water as an image of a repository of the human spirit is repeated in Mrs Dalloway where Clarissa remembers tossing a shilling into the Serpentine. The image becomes more poignant when we remember that Woolf herself met death by her own hand and by water.

Flowing water as an image of vitality is undermined by Woolf in The Voyage Out where the ‘fountain without any water’ symbolises for Evelyn ‘the type of her own being’ when ‘the little gush of vitality ... had left her, and she felt herself impotent’. But the image is truly subverted in Orlando where the river freezes and life and death are intermixed. When, the flow of the river ceases, life is suspended for natural beings. 'birds froze in mid air’ and ‘shoals of eels lay motionless in a trance’. For the bumboat woman life is suspended in the course of her business leaving only ‘a certain blueness of the lips’ to betray her true condition. All other means of life are present but their spiritual existence is suspended due to the absence of a life giving flow. However for the king and court a new life springs into existence. King James draws inspiration from the sight of the bumboat woman frozen in the ice and a carnival is arranged to ‘curry favour’ with his subjects. The artificiality of the court surmounts nature only when the latter is frozen, not surprisingly 'It was at night that the carnival was at its merriest’. When the melt comes and real life resumes it is the gold goblets, furred gowns and ‘possessions of all sorts’ which are swept away. Those who perish are the ones who drown ‘hurling themselves into the flood rather than let a gold goblet escape them’. The release of the water frees the Muscovite ship and releases Sasha but stultifies Orlando at that time still in his male incarnation. 

The might of England and the Empire are represented by crown and flag. The occupant of the royal car in Mrs Dalloway be it ‘Queen, Prince or Prime Minister’ is ‘the ‘enduring symbol of state’ who will be remembered by future historians when ‘London is a grass-grown path’. Woolf curiously breaks down this symbol with imagery of her own. The ‘face of the very greatest importance’ may well be identifiable by latter day antiquarians but its present visage is unidentifiable to the populace. The car itself is fitted out in dove-grey symbolic of frigidity and anonymity exemplified by Sir William Bradshaw whose car, hair, rugs, furs and room are all of that colour. The respectable members of society namely Hugh Whitbread and all his colleagues, the gentlemen of England identify themselves with the establishment figure. Clarissa herself thinks of a party ‘that night in Buckingham Palace. And Clarissa too gave a party’. Ironically when the car eventually enters the palace yard, the nameless phantom of state remains unidentified as the passers-by are preoccupied by the equally mysterious sign-writing airplane.

The Pageant in Between The Acts is a representation of the history of England but its meaning has several different interpretations and its symbolic potency is therefore limited. Colonel Mahew imagines history to be represented in military fashion: ‘what's history without the army, eh?’ while his wife anticipates a ‘Grand Ensemble around the Union Jack’ which to her is the figure of Empire. In fact England is portrayed by a small girl who forgets her lines and her words are carried off on the wind. Even the authoress of the Pageant cannot grasp its symbolism as for her ‘another play always lay behind the play she had just written’. The confusion reaches a climax when the mirror is produced and the audience is discomforted to see itself reflected as a symbol of Imperial England. At this point Woolf examines the validity of symbols: we need symbols because ‘reality is too strong’. The legality of the symbol is questioned in Mrs Mahew's plan for an alternative play: "the church, in cardboard ... brilliantly illuminated to symbolise she could work that out when the time came". The cardboard is a symbol of a church which is a symbol of religious belief and this sequence of symbols is a signifier without a signified.

Theology depends upon symbols to explain what is inexplicable. One would think that Woolf, as an agnostic, would have little time for religious imagery yet ironically she is found to utilise the iconography of religion to highlight its paradoxes. When Mrs Swithin suggests that prayer would be efficacious in delivering fine weather, she fingers a crucifix, the supreme icon of Christianity. Moments later she enquires as to the origin of the phrase ‘touch wood’ oblivious of the fact that its etymology is the superstitious handling of a wooden object representing the cross. Ironically Mrs Swithin, who prays for sunshine, bears the name of an allegedly rain-producing saint. Faith is traditionally symbolised by light, an image which is subverted by Woolf in having the proceeds of the Pageant being used to defray the cost of church lighting. The Second World War is approaching and blackout regulations will soon be in force rendering the lighting system useless.

The various forces of nature constantly occur in Woolf’s work and in these we see the images in the background or ‘working underground’. The storm at sea in The Voyage Out is described as ‘though a lash were descending’, the ship which had been a ‘broad-backed dray-horse ... became a colt in a field’. The tempest at sea is reflected in the moods and interaction of the characters --- ‘they met but as flying leaves met in the air’. The scene particularly depicts the mood of Helen who feels subdued guilt on leaving her children and Rachel who is about to embark unknowingly on a mission of self-discovery.

At Rachel's death Terrence states ‘in an ordinary tone of voice … “There's a halo round the moon”‘ evoking an image of sainthood and chastity as associated with Diana, the virgin goddess. His muted outburst gives a clue to his feelings and the mood of the hotel guests but the aftermath of death and its perceived futility is expressed in the subsequent storm. But in this thunderstorm, there is no Lear to express his rage, the English of the Post-Victorian age can only say ‘Hard Lines’ or blame the injudicious river expedition. The inward anger obtains its catharsis by finding expression in the raging of the elements.

In Between The Acts we encounter the imagery of natural creatures, particularly birds and fish. The swallow is especially active in this novel, bringing to mind, through the process of intertextuality, feminine concepts as in T S Eliot's The Waste Land – ‘Oh sister swallow’. Swallows are particularly associated with female revenge as in Ovid's Metamorphoseswhere Philomena and Procne take vengeance on a rapist by murdering his son and having the flesh baked in a pie for his delectation. Upon the fulfilment of their revenge they are transformed into a nightingale and a swallow respectively. The legend is a familiar one, being borrowed by other writers including Shakespeare in Titus Andronicus. In the old texts the victim tells her story by means of a tapestry after her tongue is cut out (women were then illiterate). Similarly Miss LaTrobe, although she is capable of writing, cannot find the means of expression; when she does speak her words are rejected, she is called Bossy. She finds a mode of expression through the tapestry of a Pageant, a history which in this case has a preponderance of queens over kings. Strangely, Woolf deconstructs the image by specifically excluding the nightingale from the narrative – ‘nightingales didn't come so far north effectively warning the reader of the inefficacy of Miss LaTrobe's struggle and the inadequacy of the metaphor. 

Time is the forth dimension and can be measured and analysed but how time is viewed depends on the perspective. External or linear time is seen chronologically, internal or experienced time is judged rhythmically and each time scale has its set of symbols. The First World War ended on 11th November 1918 at 11--00 A.M. (Greenwich Mean Time), and the end of the war is evidenced by the cenotaph. Sir William Bradshaw knowing that the war is over can find nothing clinically wrong with Septimus whose malaise is presumed to have come to an end with the armistice. For Clarissa, official time is represented by Big Ben whose note is ‘irrevocable’ like ‘leaden circles dissolved in the air’. Her internal time is measured by ‘an indescribable pause: a suspense’ governed by ‘her heart’. The internal time is hers alone for ‘they say, her heart is affected by influenza’. Clarissa knows that the war is not over for Mrs Foxcroft or Lady Bexborough who have lost sons. 

To the young Orlando, the life span of his family is judged by the collection of bones in the family necropolis, mortality being equated with temporality. But for Septimus, Evans is still alive and appears to him in the bushes. The irrevocability of death is further questioned by the appearance at Clarissa's party of her old nurse and her aunt Helen, previously described as deceased. For Clarissa, life exists in cycles: Peter Walsh cannot grasp why she refers to her daughter as ‘my Elizabeth’ but the possessive pronoun indicates Clarissa’s putative regeneration in her daughter who she views as a metaphor for the continuity of life.

In Between The Acts, the idea of England is presented in the Pageant as a series of events with some centuries omitted for the sake of brevity. The palimpsestic model is reinforced by the effect of a series of civilisations making their imprint on the surrounding countryside. Yet in the circular view, there was a time before England existed, when it formed part of the continent. Disconcertingly when history ceases at the end of the novel, the curtain rises.

The supreme symbol for the author is the word; the erudite Hirst in The Voyage Out has the forename St John recalling the evangelist whose opening line was ‘In the beginning was the Word’. But words as symbols are not infallible as is shown by the sign writing airplane. The letters T 0 F are interpreted as toffee by people who miss the point that they are being scorned as toffs. The sign tells them that words are a K E Y .. only a key, they have no value in themselves themselves as they are composed of smoke and evaporate instantaneously.

Woolf takes a fresh, almost revolutionary approach to symbolism. She deliberately obscures the pathway between signifier and signified and disconcerts the reader by taking old images and using them in a new context. But probably her major achievement is to take traditional symbols and to deconstruct their previously unquestioned validity.

Links to other essays
 American Beauty   the movie.
Sylvia Plath The Bell Jar
John Milton Lycidas
Brian Friel Translations
Shakespeare Richard II, Henry IV and Henry V
Shakespeare Henry VI and Richard III
DrydenAbsolem and Achitophel and other works
Sir Walter Scott Heart of Midlothian and Waverly
Keats and Shelly Adonais and other works
Jane Austen Pride and Prejudice and Emma
Shakespeare Notes on Twelfth Night