VIRGINIA WOOLF AND THE NEW NOVEL
The main development of the early 20th century novel represents a break with the naturalist school and a movement towards a more subtle and complex vision of man and his world. The break occurred during the second decade of the century (“on or about December 1910” Virginia Woolf said, “ human nature changed”), when a new generation of writers began to question the conventions and the pretended objectivity of the traditional novel. Also with the help of new developments in psychology, especially of Freud’s psychoanalysis, they proposed to go beyond the apparently rational surface of the conscious mind, digging deep into the obscure, irrational world of the unconscious. And with them reality becomes a matter of personal impressions; the focus of attention shifts from external facts to our reactions to them.
In a classical essay on Modern Fiction, Virginia Woolf has stated most forcibly the aims of the new writers as against the naturalist school. She agrees that the task of the novelist is to represent life, but she denies that life is anything like what can be found in a naturalistic novel, with its orderly plot, its comedy, tragedy, love interest and so forth: “Look within and life, it seems, is very far from being ‘like this’. Examine for a moment an ordinary mind on an oridnary day. The mind receives a myriad impressions – trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpness of steel. From all sides they come, an incessant shower of innumerable atoms: and as they fall, as they shape themselves into the life of Monday or Tuesday, the accent falls differently from of old; the moment of importance came not here but there; so that, 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 a nd not upon convention, there would be no plot, no comedy, no tragedy, no love interest or catastrophe in the accepted style… Life is not a series of gig-lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semitransparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end. Is it not the task of the novelist to convey this varying, this unknown and uncircumscribed spirit, whatever aberration or complexity it may display, with as little mixturee of the alien and external as possible?”
What Virginia Woolf seems to have had in mind when writing this famous passage is the new conception of consciousness put forward by William James, the brother of the great novelist, in his Principles of Psychology (1890): “Consciousness does not appear to itself chopped up in bits …It is nothing jointed; it flows. A river or stream are the metaphors by which it is most naturally described. In talking of it hereafter, let us call it the stream of thought, of consciousness or of subjective life”. Here are the very words STREAM OF CONSCIOUSNESS , that were later to be used to define the new narrative technique (apparently the first to use them was May Sinclair in a review of Dorothy Richardson’s novels written in 1918). The stream of consciousness nevel is an attempt to render the continuous flow of the mind with its free play of images and associations. Its proper medium is the “interior monologue”, that is a kind of soliloquy of the mind with itself. The trditional mediation of the narrator between character and reader is abolished. The reader is taken, as it were, inside the minds of the characters and can follow their fleeting thoughts or half – formed thoughts, at times twisted and chaotic, as they flush up and disappear in the uninterrupted flux of consciousness. The first novelist who deliberately employed this technique was Dorothy M. Richardson (1872-1938) but the undisputed master of the new novel was unquestionably James Joyce.