Virginia Woolf (1882 – 1941) was an English author of the early twentieth century, who is perhaps best known for her 1925 novel Mrs. Dalloway. Like Franz Kafka, her works explored themes that went against the norms at the time. Thus, this provides a segway into her style of writing; Modernism. What is modernism, you may ask? Modernism is essentially “a shift in aesthetic and cultural sensibilities” in which the aim was to break the norms of the nineteenth century. This essentially separated reality or fact from perception. This period of literature was heavily influenced by psychologists, such as Sigmund Freud, and their view on the idea of consciousness. This wasn’t only found in literature of the 1890s to 1960s, but also in art pieces, such as that of Claude Monet’s. Woolf once referred to Kafka’s work as “humane art.” Her works are also very much about emotion and humans in general, which categorically makes her work “humane art” as well.  Kafka and Woolf both managed to capture the essence of emotions or tap into them head on. That’s what makes their works so unbelievably complex at times.

Woolf, like Kafka, wrote the unwritable. She wrote about humans; about their emotions and aspects of life in exquisite depth. In her case, however, she integrated more of the taboos, such as being transgender and, to an extent, lesbianism in Orlando (1928) in which Woolf explores sexual identity. In Orlando, Woolf writes about a man who becomes a woman and lives for over three hundred years. It’s said that Orlando is a love letter to Vita Sackville-West, one of Woolf’s friends and suspected lover. The two would exchange rather heartfelt and sometimes steamy letters frequently. The following is an excerpt from a letter dated January 21, 1926 from Vita Sackville-West to Virginia West:

I am reduced to a thing that wants Virginia. I composed a beautiful letter to you in the sleepless nightmare hours of the night, and it has all gone: I just miss you, in a quite simple desperate human way…  I miss you even more than I could have believed; and I was prepared to miss you a good deal. So this letter is just really a squeal of pain. It is incredible how essential to me you have become. I suppose you are accustomed to people saying these things. Damn you, spoilt creature; I shan’t make you love me any the more by giving myself away like this –But oh my dear, I can’t be clever and stand-offish with you: I love you too much for that. Too truly. You have no idea how stand-offish I can be with people I don’t love. I have brought it to a fine art. But you have broken down my defences. And I don’t really resent it.

Woolf often explored themes that revolved around identity. As such, in The Lady in the Looking-Glass (1929), the idea of one’s interior or inner self is deliberately hidden or unable to be deciphered simply through personal belongings. No matter what some people do, they cannot get to the innermost core of a person because the intent of the owner is to keep them out. It starts off by saying, “People should not leave looking-glasses hanging in their rooms any more than they should leave open cheque books or letters confessing some hideous crime.” Essentially, the story explains how one may believe they know someone and they’ll see glimpses of that person’s inside, but it’ll end as soon as it starts. It paints a very emotive description of how the subject, Isabella, appears to be full on the outside and yet, she is like a weed on the inside. She was empty, as stated in the story, “She stood naked in that pitiless light. And there was nothing. Isabella was perfectly empty. She had no thoughts. She had no friends. She cared for nobody. As for her letters, they were all bills. Look, as she stood there, old and angular, veined and lined, with her high nose and her wrinkled neck, she did not even trouble to open them.”

The Lady in the Looking-Glass is part of her shorter stories, alongside Three Pictures, which paints a picture of one’s perception versus anothers. In Three Pictures, it starts off by saying that if the narrator’s father were a blacksmith and the other individual’s a peer of the realm, they would need to be pictures to one another and they cannot break out of the frames, nor can they speak naturally. This is because they live in two vastly different worlds and will not see eye-to-eye if they speak to one another.

Much like Kafka, she lived a life fraught with mental issues as a result of experiences in her childhood. Born Adeline Virginia Stephens, she was raised in a household that spared nothing from incest to sexual exploitation, not to mention maltreatment. The Stephen family’s instability had an extremely negative impact upon the emotional well-being of Woolf, who endured sexual torment as well as all the negativity throughout her entire childhood. She was also fraught with mental instability throughout her life that led to her inevitable suicide.

At the age of 22 in 1904, she attempted suicide, but the window from which she attempted to take her own life was not high enough to cause any sort of harm to her upon her descent. On March 28, 1941, Woolf – seemingly having gone into a state of depression once again – left her house and went to a river where she is said to have placed a rock into her coat pocket to weigh herself down as she drowned herself. She had left farewell letters to her sister, Vanessa Bell, and her husband, Leonard Woolf. The following is the letter she left her husband:


I feel certain I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times. And I shan’t recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can’t concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don’t think two people could have been happier till this terrible disease came. I can’t fight any longer. I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work. And you will I know. You see I can’t even write this properly. I can’t read. What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good. I want to say that — everybody knows it. If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can’t go on spoiling your life any longer.

I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been.

Why do I think more people should read Virginia Woolf’s works? Well, for one, she taps into emotions in such a powerful way that you can’t help but be affected by her words. Admittedly, not many can get into Virginia Woolf just like Franz Kafka due their complexity. However, they are definitely worth reading. Her words, like Kafka’s, are gut-wrenching at times. Writers are known to have their characters be extensions of themselves and correlate with their own lives at some point. Woolf highlights topics that some writers today don’t dare to come near, such as identity, as identity is a rather complex topic to cover. Like Kafka, her personal story is chock full of hardship and trials and tribulations. Her mind, fraught with unpleasant thoughts, is arguably what makes her intriguing. Her works allow readers to explore the modernist style of writing, which is all about exploring emotions and consciousness, as it was influenced by psychologists and philosophers of the time, such as Friedrich Nietzsche and Sigmund Freud. In life, understanding the way we work is one of the most important things and somehow, Virginia Woolf managed to figure it all out in a remarkably evocative manner.

By Maya Abou El Nasr