- 1 Dean R. Baldwin, Virginia Woolf. A Study of the Short Fiction (Boston: Twayne’s studies in short f (...)
- 2 For a detailed account of the publication of the short stories, see Susan Dick's introduction and (...)
- 3 Leonard Woolf ed. A Haunted House and Other Stories(London:The Hogarth Press, 1944). A slightly dif (...)
- 4 Stella McNichol ed. Mrs Dalloway's Party. A Short Story Sequence by Virginia Woolf. (London: The H (...)
1Although she is better known as a novelist, Virginia Woolf wrote numerous short stories ranging from animal fables and philosophical tales to sketches and prose poems. The number and variety of texts seem to preclude any overall reading that would lead to the definition of the Woolfian short story as a specific literary genre. And indeed, except for Dean R. Baldwin who published Virginia Woolf. A Study of the Short Fiction,1 critics have analyzed Woolf's short stories separately in a comparatively limited number of papers. The conditions in which the short stories were published may account for this relative neglect. Only eighteen out of the forty-six short stories Woolf wrote from 1906 to 1941 were published during her lifetime in various reviews such as Forum, Criterion, The Athenaeum, or in collections published by the Hogarth Press (Two Stories, Kew Gardens, Monday or Tuesday).2 After Woolf's death, Leonard Woolf tried to make these texts available to a wider public by publishing A Haunted House and Other Stories in 1944,3 Stella McNichol published Mrs Dalloway's Party4 in 1973 and in 1985 Susan Dick edited Virginia Woolf. The Complete Shorter Fiction, a collection of texts which can be classified neither as novels nor as non-fiction, seventeen of which were published for the first time.
2My aim here is not to draw up the list of these different publications but to underline the fact that, except for Mrs Dalloway's Party, none of these collections has been arranged thematically. Their titles tend to select one short story in order to announce a series, as in Monday or Tuesday or A Haunted House and Other Stories. What they call attention to is the heterogeneity of the collected texts, something which may also be ascribed to the fact that the texts were, as the writer herself averred, written in between two novels and conceived of as a pause, a form of entertainment, or even as a way of making some money. In any case, they do not seem to be the outcome of an overall project.
3In that case, what sort of reading of the short stories should be favoured? Should we be satisfied with micro-readings which, even if rewarding, will only highlight the lack of homogeneity of the whole? Should the texts be read in a chronological order as Susan Dick's choice in her edition suggests? Should we adopt “a chronological and biographical approach” that would also take into account "Virginia Woolf’s restless experimentation in short story form and technique,” (A Study of the Short Fiction 6) as Baldwin does? Even if such approaches have their merits, they do not seem to render full justice to Woolf's texts. The underlying a priori of most criticism on Woolf's short stories is that the latter are experimental, i.e. laboratories leading to the writing of novels. As Baldwin characteristically writes: “Her place in literary history will ultimately depend almost entirely on the novels, with the stories providing interesting sidelights” (A Study of the Short Fiction XII). Such an approach implicitly reduces the short story to a minor literary genre without any value of its own. The issue I want to address here is whether Woolf herself considered the short story as a minor genre, and whether she had any sort of theory of the genre. Baldwin bluntly asserts that:
Unfortunately, she left few direct statements about her theory of the short story; there are no manifestos like “Modern Fiction” or “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown” regarding the short story. Comments about her experiments in short fiction, therefore, must be related to her pronouncements about the novel and to what can be inferred from the stories themselves. (A Study of the Short Fiction XII)
4And if we thumb through Woolf's diary, we must grant him that while she refers to the writing of her short stories, to their publication and reception, she does not say a word about the genre itself. Similarly, the index of her essays edited by Andrew McNeillie has entries about essays, letters, novels, poetry and prose, but none about the short stories.
- 5 Virginia Woolf, Collected Essays, vol.2. (London: The Hogarth Press, 1972) 122-130.From then on ab (...)
- 6 The Essays of Virginia Woolf. Vol.4: 1925 to 1928. Ed by Andrew McNeillie (London: The Hogarth Pres (...)
- 7 Essays 449-456.
- 8 C. E. 2, 109.
5Yet the reading of some of these essays proves more fruitful; even if the word "short story" does not appear in their titles, essays such as “On Re-Reading Novels,”5 “The Russian Point of View"6 and “An Essay in Criticism”7 offer interesting viewpoints on the genre and show that far from regarding it as a minor one, utterly dependent on the novel, Woolf regarded it as a genre per se. While referring to Maupassant, Flaubert, Tchehov or Mansfield, she tries to define this new genre which has not yet found a name of its own, the old term “short story” emphasizing, as she points out in “Modern fiction,”8 the story-telling _ something which may no longer be adequate when dealing with Modernist texts. She also attempts to define the reading contract upon which this new genre is based. As she writes about Tchehov's stories:
But it is impossible to say ‘this is comic’, or ‘this is tragic’, nor are we certain, since short stories, we have been taught, should be brief and conclusive, whether this, which is vague and inconclusive, should be called a short story at all. (“Modern Fiction," C. E. 2 109 )
6In these essays, the short story is presented as an art of brevity and honesty. In “On Re-Reading Novels,” Woolf chooses to illustrate her point by the analysis of a short story for the following reason: “and, not to strain our space, let us choose a short story, Un Cœur Simple (sic)” (C. E. 2: 125). Gustave Flaubert's short story is chosen as an example only because it saves space; in other words, Woolf does not seem to make any difference here between novels and short stories except in terms of length. However she elaborates on this in “An Essay in Criticism” where she voices a harsh criticism of Hemingway's short stories that devote too much space to dialogue:
And probably it is this superfluity of dialogue which leads to that other fault which is always lying in wait for the writer of short stories: the lack of proportion. A paragraph in excess will make these little crafts lopsided and will bring about that blurred effect which, when one is out for clarity and point, so baffles the reader. (Essays 455)
7Indirectly the short story is here defined as an art of proportion and perfection. Secondly, the other defining characteristic of the short story according to Woolf is honesty. In “A Russian Point of View,” she repeatedly comes back to Tchehov's honesty. This notion also appears in essays about the novel and we shall refer to them now and again in order to get a clearer picture of what is meant. Honesty is defined in relation with writing in very personal terms and is said to derive from three other notions, inconclusiveness, freedom and intensity.
8In order to be honest, a short story must first of all be “inconclusive” (Essays 184), open and ask more questions than it can provide answers for. Such are Anton Tchehov's short stories and that is why they are so puzzling for a reader who, because he is used to Victorian fiction where every question finds an answer and every plot a clear-cut ending, cannot understand why these narratives start with nondescript situations and end with a question mark. It is only after he has learnt to get rid of his reading habits that the reader will come to like such stories. Then and then only, will he be able to perceive the underlying pattern of the story and understand that the simplicity of the narrative's starting-point results from the writer's concern, not with human relationships any more, but with “the mind” or “the soul.” And the reader will eventually come to understand that if the story is inconclusive, it is because of the writer's fundamental honesty:
the method which at first seemed so casual, inconclusive, and occupied with trifles, now appears the result of an exquisitely original and fastidious taste, choosing boldly, arranging infallibly, and controlled by an honesty for which we can find no match save among the Russians themselves. (Essays 185)
9Selection, rather than manipulation, leads not to artifice but to a new form of “truth to life,” as she explains in “Modern Fiction”: “It is the sense that there is no answer, that if honestly examined life presents question after question which must be left to sound on and on after the story is over” (“Modern Fiction,” C. E. 2 109).
- 9 footnote* That is open in the sense Umberto Eco gives the word in L'Œuvre ouverte (1962; Paris: Se (...)
10The choice of inconclusiveness is therefore intimately linked with a newly found freedom, both formal and thematic, since the inconclusive short story can escape the generic constraints of a closed form as well as broach any topic, however banal: “‘The proper stuff of fiction’ does not exist; everything is the proper stuff of fiction, every feeling, every thought” (“Modern Fiction,” C. E. 2 110). The prerequisite conditions for such freedom is that the writer should give up Victorian literary conventions which may be proper but also and above all dishonest since they transmit a “perfunctory” truth: “nothing - no ‘method’, no experiment, even of the wildest - is forbidden, but only falsity and pretence” (“Modern Fiction” C. E. 2 110). Such freedom necessarily enlarges the reader's freedom: “as we read these little stories about nothing at all, the horizon widens” (“The Russian Point of View”, Essays 185). The reading contract is therefore redefined in a short story which is now not only open-ended but also open in the sense that it lets the reader enter the text and go on with the writing process.9
11Finally the third component of honesty is “emotional intensity,” a notion clearly defined in “On Re-Reading Novels.” The beginning of this essay is devoted to Percy Lubbock's The Craft of Fiction and his use of the term “form,” borrowed from the visual arts; according to Lubbock, form is paramount and constitutes the essence of a book:
Here we have Mr. Lubbock telling us that the book itself is equivalent to its form, and seeking with admirable subtlety and lucidity to trace out those methods by which novelists build up the final and enduring structure of their books. (C. E. 2 125)
- 10 Vision and Design (1920; Oxford: OUP 1981) 206.
12These methods, Woolf goes on to explain, have to do with the different points of view used by the novelists. It is clear that Woolf presents Lubbock as a formalist who reduces a text to its structure and she criticizes Lubbock's use of the term “form.” For her, “’the ‘book itself’ is not form which you see, but emotion which you feel” (C. E. 2 126); it is through emotion that one gets at the core of a work of art. Sometimes Woolf uses the term “form,” sometimes she prefers “method” or “art,” and to finish with she proffers a new definition: “when we speak of form we mean that certain emotions have been placed in the right relations to each other” (C. E. 2 129). In other words, with good writing, the emotion and the form cannot be dissociated. In this essay, Woolf criticises Lubbock the formalist and voices an opinion close to that of Roger Fry who writes: “I conceived the form and the emotion which it (the work of art) conveyed as being inextricably bound together in the aesthetic whole.”10 And to make her point clear, she comments upon Flaubert's short story, “Un Cœur simple.” This text is far from being explicit and the key to the narrative is only given through “a sudden intensity of phrase”: “the mistress & the maid are turning over the dead child’s clothes.” (C. E. 2 125) This narrative intensity “startles us into a flash of understanding.” (C. E. 2 125) From that “moment of understanding” which is also a moment of emotion and intensity for the reader, the puzzle of the text begins to make sense. And this is to be linked with the intensity the writer has transmitted in his writing: “the more intense the writer’s feeling the more exact without slip or chink its expression in words.” (C. E. 2 126) This three-fold intensity, which concerns the text, the writer and the reader, is only made possible when the emotion is “deep and genuine.” (Phases of Fiction”, C. E. 2 71) Therefore intensity, according to Woolf, derives from sincerity and exactitude.
- 11 Edgar Allan Poe, “Twice-told Tales,” Selected Writings (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1979) 446.
- 12 Alberto Moravia, “The Short Story and the Novel” in Short Story Theories (Athens: Ohio University (...)
- 13 Julio Cortazar, Entretiens avec Omar Prego. (Paris: Gallimard, 1984) 81, quoted by Louvel 14.
13Through these various pronouncements upon the short story, Woolf elaborates a theory of the genre which deserves to be analysed in detail. In her essay “On Re-reading Novels,” brevity is retained as the first defining trait of the short story, just as it was by Woolf's ancestor E. A. Poe who claimed that a short story should be read "at one sitting."11 However clear and simple, this trait is not specific enough and tends above all to reduce the short story to a genre that can only be appraised in comparison with the novel and its length. Yet in “An Essay in Criticism,” Woolf comes back to the notion of brevity and far from defining the short story as a novel in miniature she grants brevity a value of its own which makes it synonymous with formal purity and perfection, much as writers like Alberto Moravia or Julio Cortazar have more recently defined the short story as a “pure genre”12 and a "perfect form."13
- 14 “Life and the Novelist,” Essays 405. This is also what Virginia Woolf reproaches the ill-named “tr (...)
- 15 “she (life) is grossly impure” (“Life and the Novelist”, Essays 404).
14The second defining characteristic of the short story in Woolf's essays is, as we have seen, honesty. Woolf borrows from ethics this term which has long been associated with realist writing. She therefore retains the ethical position of the realist writer who prizes honesty. She also retains the binary system where what is “honest, genuine, deep, natural” is pitted against what is “alien, false, perfunctory,” where “the truth of imagination” is opposed to “the truth of the psychoanalyst” and “right” to “wrong;” yet, within this system, she turns things topsy-turvy, denouncing what was regarded as honest as being dishonest, thus modifying fundamentally the definition of honesty. Indeed, if honest writing must be true to reality, it cannot do so any longer through true-to-life details and the creation of “the illusion of reality.”14 Woolf deems all attempts at a mimetic representation of reality dishonest since they are faithful to the impurity of reality.15 To Victorian honesty and its referential impulse, Woolf substitutes a new form of honesty. Its first components, inconclusiveness and freedom, exemplify the rejection of literary conventions in favour of a process of selection and elimination as well as a shift of the narrative from human relations to “the mind,” “the soul,” as Woolf says, i. e. a shift from outer to inner life. Honesty is thus conceived first and foremost as synonymous with the transgression of conventions, and the elimination of the impurities of fiction. In other words, honesty comes to designate the joint process of liberation and purification.
- 16 footnote*On this subject, see Frédéric Regard: “Penser, sentir, écrire. Quelques réflexions sur la (...)
- 17 G.E. Moore,Principia Ethica (1903; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000) 238.
15The third component, emotional intensity, presents honesty in a more positive light. According to “On Re-Reading Novels,” emotional intensity directly derives from the brevity of the short story and makes it into a meaningful whole. By selecting this criterion, Woolf points to the short story as a moment of emotional intensity, a “moment of being;” the “moment of being” is then both the one evoked by the narrative and the narrative itself (a perfect form transmitting a perfect moment), which in turn creates an intense emotion in the reader. One could therefore say of the short story writer that, like the poet's, “his power (is) to make us at once actors and spectators” (“How Should One Read a Book?”, C.E. 2 8). The intensity of the text produces an intense emotion in the reader very much like the violent shock produced by a personal emotion (“Our being for the moment is centred and constricted, as in any violent shock of personal emotion.” C. E. 2 7), and this comes before any sort of understanding does (“Afterwards, it is true, the sensation begins to spread in wider rings through our minds; remoter senses are reached; these begin to sound and to comment and we are aware of echoes and reflections.” C. E. 2 7); and Woolf concludes: “we learn through feeling.” (C. E. 2 9) In this evocation of the different phases of the creative process, from conception to reception, Woolf gives a central place to feeling, in the wake of the Romantics16 and also of G. E. Moore who associated feeling or emotion with the cognitive element in aesthetic appreciation: “It is plain that in those instances of aesthetic appreciation... there is a bare cognition of what is beautiful in the object, but also some kind of feeling or emotion.”17 Emotional intensity is also linked through the words “a flash” and “sudden intensity,” with speed and rhythm and Woolf comes back to this even more explicitly in “How Should One Read a Book?”:
Thus the desire grows upon us to have done with half-statements and approximations; to cease from searching out the minute shades of human character, to enjoy the greater abstractness, the purer truth of fiction. Thus we create the mood, intense and generalised, unaware of detail, but stressed by some regular, recurrent beat, whose natural expression is poetry; ... The intensity of poetry covers an immense range of emotion. (C. E. 2 6-7)
- 18 We follow here Henri Meschonnic who, in Critique du rythme (Paris: Verdier, 1982) considers that a (...)
16Here intensity is linked both with abstraction (in the phrase “intense and generalised”) and with rhythm ("stressed by some regular, recurrent beat"). Through semantic or structural repetitions, variations and echoes,18 rhythm, born from the conjunction of brevity and intensity, structures the text and brings about the climactic emotional shock. Rhythm for Woolf, just as it is for E. M. Forster, is the basis of all true feeling in writing. As for abstraction, it is defined here in pictorial terms as the non-figurative, the non-representational and as synonymous with impersonality:
So drastic is the process of selection that in its final state we can often find no trace of the actual scene upon which the chapter was based... Life is subjected to a thousand disciplines and exercises. It is curbed; it is killed... There emerges from the mist something stark, something formidable and enduring, the bone and substance upon which our rush of indiscriminating emotion was founded. (“Life and the Novelist,” Essays 401).
17The process of selection and elimination allows the transcription of the intensity of affects while turning the text into “a sort of impersonal miracle.” (“Life and the Novelist,” Essays 404).
- 19 ”The idea has come to me that what I want now to do is to saturate every atom. I mean to eliminate (...)
18By highlighting the purity of the creator's intention as well as that of the effect produced on the reader, emotional intensity makes honesty quasi-synonymous with purity; above all, it turns the short story into a “purified” text. And it is thanks to this emotional intensity that the paradoxical nature of Woolf's aesthetics, with its combination of two apprently incompatible notions: abstraction and emotion, resulting from two contradictory impulses: elimination and saturation,19 can be perceived. Finally, this definition of emotional intensity shows that the short story is much closer to poetry than to the novel with which it was initially compared in the same essay, “On Re-Reading Novels.” And Woolf confirms this in “Notes on an Elizabethan Play”: “The extremes of passion are not for the novelist” (Essays 66); they are characteristic of drama and poetry and she adds, about Elizabethan drama: “the emotion (is) concentrated, generalised, heightened in the play. What moments of intensity, what phrases of astonishing beauty the play shot at us” (Essays 66). Owing to this intensity, “the play is poetry” (Essays 66). Intensity, in the end, is a characteristic of poetry, the supreme form of writing.
- 20 On this subject, see Christine Reynier: “The Impure art of Biography: Virginia Woolf'sFlush,” Mapp (...)
19The concept of honesty that Woolf borrows from ethics, thus comes to define Woolf's aesthetics. The signifier “honesty” is disconnected from its traditional signified, a process heralding a change of perspective, an epistemological break. The referent which was, in Victorian writing, both the starting-point and the aim, is only used here as a stepping-stone towards an abstract and purified vision from which it will be almost eradicated. At the same time, by choosing the term “honesty” to define the short story, Woolf places it somewhere between ethics and aesthetics, in a new space which is neither that of Victorian aesthetics nor of pure aestheticism, of art for art's sake, since it is linked nevertheless with ethics. Moreover, through her pluralist definition of the term, Woolf underlines the purity of the short story, presenting it as deriving from a purifying impulse. She also points to the generic hybridity of the short story which she conceives as being closer to poetry and drama than to the novel, very much like the “play-poem” her later work The Waves is meant to be. Aesthetic purity is thus closely linked by Woolf to generic hybridity. In other words, for her hybridity and cross-fertilization become the necessary conditions of beauty and purity. Woolf thus goes against the grain and deprives hybridity of all derogatory connotations (just as she does in “Walter Sickert” where “the hybrids, the raiders” (Essays 243) are praised or in Flush where Flush is shown to be much happier among the Italian mongrels than the English pure-breds) in a move which is not without ideological implications.20
- 21 John Wain: "Remarks on the Short Story," Les Cahiers de la Nouvelle 2 (1984) : 49-66, quoted by (...)
- 22 footnote* “The Grave as Lyrical Short Story”, Studies in Short Fiction I, 216-221.
- 23 John Gerlach: Towards the End, Closure and Structure in the American Short Story (Alabama: The Uni (...)
- 24 My translation. Pierre Tibi writes: “la nouvelle semble être le lieu et l’enjeu d’une rivalité ent (...)
20The definition Woolf gives of the short story through the joint concepts of brevity and honesty can be compared with the definition some critics or writers have given more recently. For some, like John Wain and much like the first theoretician of the short story, E.A. Poe, ”the literary form that the short story most resembles is poetry.”21 Others, like Jean-Marie Schaeffer, draw a list of generic characteristics that do not allow a distinction between the short story and the novel. Only the five characteristics selected by Eileen Baldeshwiler (chronological disruptions, the use of images, the emphasis laid on inner life, open endings and meaning, a greater emotional intensity)22 seem to match Woolf's definition, yet they do not take into account the dialectical relation Woolf establishes between the new type of short story and the realist one. In the end, John Gerlach and Pierre Tibi's definitions seem more adequate; Gerlach writes: “The short story blends the brevity and intensity of the lyric poem with the narrative traits (plot, character and theme) of the novel”23 and Tibi adds: “the short story seems to be the space of a confrontation between poetry and narrativity.”24 Yet for Woolf, it is not so much narrativity which is at stake as its erasure; and where Tibi chooses to talk about “a confrontation” between genres within the short story, Woolf prefers to think in terms of cross-fertilization. And eventually, none of these definitions mentions the other genre with which short stories converse, i. e. drama. In the end Woolf's theory of the short story differs from them all while combining them in a theory of her own.
21By defining the short story as brief and honest, Woolf defines the ideal she is aiming at: a spatial moment of cross-fertilization between form and emotion, prose, poetry and drama. Such a definition, in all its nuances and complexities, places the short story at the very centre of her own aesthetic quest, thus presenting it neither as simple entertainment nor as standing in any sort of hierarchical relation with another genre, but as participating fully in the creative process. In the end, Woolf's own ill-named short stories, that all existing theories fail to describe accurately, are best defined by her own essays and could be called “short honest fiction.”