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Virginia Woolf Modern Fiction Essay Prompt

Suggested Topics for Seminar Papers (due July 28)


Hussey’s Virginia Woolf: A-Z is the place to start on any of these topics.  Note that all of them require analysis.


Type AA Topics:  Argumentative Analysis

This is the typical seminar paper that develops an original idea.  It usually involves a close analysis of textual evidence, backed up by thorough grounding in the scholarship about the book in question.  This might be a close analysis of a theme or a pattern of imagery or a narrative technique.  Naturally, you would thoroughly research what others have said about the theme, image, technique, etc., indicating how your idea agrees with or contradicts other interpretations, but the focus is on developing your idea.  Sample proposal for this type paper.  Sample paper of this type.


Type IA Topics: Informative Analysis (applied to one book)

In a 5-week semester (really 4 weeks before the deadline), it may be difficult to develop an original idea and argue it persuasively.  You could easily spend 4 weeks getting grounded in the criticism about your book, and not get a good idea worth developing until days before the deadline.  If that’s the way you work best anyway, go with the Type AA paper.  If not, consider researching one of the following topics, synthesizing your findings, and applying them to one of the assigned books.  All of these are topics we will be considering in the class.


Woolf and Modernism – review Woolf’s contributions to (and attitude towards) the literary movement called Modernism and explore how this plays out in one of the books.  Mrs. Dalloway might be the easiest to apply this to.  “Modern Fiction” and “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown” are especially relevant essays.  Don’t try to cover every aspect of Woolf’s relation to Modernism, but rather focus in on what interests you, e.g., the way she develops characters or the way she warps time.


Woolf and Androgyny – way too much has been written on this topic, including whole books on Woolf’s “androgynous vision.”  It is a tricky topic in that it is all too easy to celebrate androgyny without examining the implications of erasing gender markers.  Orlando is the obvious book to work with here. See also the chapter toward the end of A Room of One’s Own in which Woolf explores whether the artist’s vision is necessarily androgynous.  Sample Proposal on this topic.


Woolf and War – Woolf and most of her friends were pacifists.  A defining event of their lives was World War I. The obvious book to focus on for this topic is Mrs. Dalloway, since a main character, Septimus Warren Smith, is a shell-shocked WWI veteran.  See also “Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid,” and if you want to understand Woolf’s most mature and radical analysis of war, read Three Guineas (1938).


Woolf and Feminism – this one is harder than it sounds, because the word “feminism” is variously defined.  The obvious book to focus on would be A Room of One’s Own, perhaps examining how it does or doesn’t define feminism (does it even use the word?).  It would be interesting to do a search on the term using the Woolf CD-ROM available at the library.  It will search all of her books, journals, essays, and letters.


Woolf and “Stream of Consciousness”  - Woolf’s narrative technique is one of her major contributions to Modernism, and is worth exploring on its own terms. The Mezei article about “free indirect discourse” is useful here, and the book where Woolf first hits her stride with it is Mrs. Dalloway.  It would be useful to synthesize what critics say generally about “stream of consciousness” and how Woolf does or does not use it.  You will find much comparison to James Joyce and Dorothy Richardson, both of whom used a similar narrative technique.  Keep the focus on Woolf.


Type CA Topics: Comparative Analysis

One good way to get a paper going is to find two things to compare.  The hard part is making a point, making the comparison matter.  With so little time, comparing two Woolf books may not be realistic, since that would double your research.  Instead, you might consider comparing one of the Woolf books to a movie based on the book, or even a contemporary book based on the Woolf book.  Your research would focus on the Woolf book and all the movie or book reviews you can find.  You would be answering the question “Does this movie (or book) develop the same theme as Woolf? If not how does the new version change, expand, warp, denigrate, etc., Woolf? If so, how does the new medium enrich our understanding of Woolf?”


I have a copy of all of the movies and books listed below, and some movies are available as rentals.


Orlando(1992)the movie version by Sally Potter has been much discussed, and we will discuss it in class.  Some critics feel it entirely misses Woolf’s point, while others feel it explores androgyny in ways that Woolf would have liked.


To the Lighthouse (1983) this made-for-TV movie starring Rosemary Harris as Mrs. Ramsay cuts out or combines some characters and has some very fine acting by British actors. 


Mrs. Dalloway (1997)  – the movie version stars Vanessa Redgrave as Clarissa and has been strongly condemned by some Woolf scholars.  See what you think.


Mr. Dalloway (1999)this short novel by Robin Lippincott uses the characters from Woolf’s novel and follows a day in the life of Richard Dalloway two years later.  He is planning a party to celebrate their wedding anniversary.  Lippincott imitates Woolf’s style.


The Hours (the movie or the book, I own the DVD) – the 2002 movie is based on a 1998 book by Michael Cunningham, which is a reworking of Mrs. Dalloway.  It would be interesting to analyze the movie informed by a reading of Mrs. Dalloway and by study of Woolf’s composition of that novel, which is a thread in the movie. Alternatively, you could read The Hours (the book) and explore how it does or doesn’t expand our understanding of Mrs. Dalloway.  Cunningham imitates Woolf’s style and narrative technique.


"Modern Fiction" is an essay by Virginia Woolf. The essay was written in 1919 but published in 1921 with a series of short stories called Monday or Tuesday. The essay is a criticism of writers and literature from the previous generation. It also acts as a guide for writers of modern fiction to write what they feel, not what society or publishers want them to write.


In "Modern Fiction", Woolf elucidates upon what she understands modern fiction to be. Woolf states that a writer should write what inspires them and not follow any special method. She believed writers are constrained by the publishing business, by what society believes literature should look like and what society has dictated how literature should be written. Woolf believes it is a writer's job to write the complexities in life, the unknowns, not the unimportant things.[1][2]

She criticizes H.G. Wells, Arnold Bennett, John Galsworthy of writing about unimportant things and called them materialists. She suggests that it would be better for literature to turn their backs on them so it can move forward, for better or worse. While Woolf criticizes the aforementioned three authors, she praises several other authors for their innovation. This group of writers she names spiritualists, and includes James Joyce who Woolf says writes what interests and moves him.[1]

Woolf wanted writers to focus on the awkwardness of life and craved originality in their work. Woolf's overall hope was to inspire modern fiction writers to write what interested them, wherever it may lead.[1]


Virginia Woolf as critic[edit]

Virginia Woolf was known as a critic by her contemporaries and many scholars have attempted to analyse Woolf as a critic. In her essay, "Modern Fiction", she criticizes H.G. Wells, Arnold Bennett and John Galsworthy and mentions and praises Thomas Hardy, Joseph Conrad, William Henry Hudson, James Joyce and Anton Chekhov.[1]

As a critic, she does not take an analytical point of view and it is believed to be due to the influences of impressionism at the time that she was able to do so.[3][4] Her writing and criticism was often done by intuition and feelings rather than by a scientific, analytical or systematic method.[3][5] Virginia Woolf says of criticism:

Life escapes; and perhaps without life nothing else is worth while. It is a confession of vagueness to have to make use of such a figure as this, but we scarcely better the matter by speaking, as critics are prone to do, of reality. Admitting the vagueness which afflicts all criticism of novels, let us hazard the opinion that for us at this moment the form of fiction most in vogue more often misses than secures the thing we seek. Whether we call it life or spirit, truth or reality, this, the essential thing, has moved off, or on, and refuses to be contained any longer in such ill-fitting vestments as we provide. – Modern Fiction

Woolf speaks of criticism as being vague rather than concrete. In her criticism within "Modern Fiction" of H.G. Wells for instance, she is vague in what is wrong with writings but focuses more on the abstract ideals for his fiction rather his work. Woolf's body of essays offer criticism on a variety and diverse collection of literature in her unsystematic method.[5]

Woolf's analysis of Russian versus British literature[edit]

In "Modern Fiction", Woolf takes the time to analyse Anton Chekhov's "Gusev" and in general, how Russians write. Woolf spent time polishing translated Russian texts for a British audience with S.S.Kotelianskii[6] which gave her perspectives she used to analyse the differences between British literature and Russian literature. Woolf says of Russian writers:

"In every great Russian writer we seem to discern the features of a saint, if sympathy for the sufferings for others, love towards them, endeavor to reach some goal worthy of the more exacting demands of the spirit constitute saintliness…The conclusions of the Russian mind, thus comprehensive and compassionate, are inevitably, perhaps, of the utmost sadness. More accurately indeed we might speak of the inconclusive-ness of the Russian mind. 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 in hopeless interrogation that fills us with a deep, and finally it may be with a resentful, despair."[1]

To Woolf, Russian writers see something entirely different in life than the British. In comparison to Russian writers and authors, Woolf says of British literature:

It is the saint in them [Russian writers] which confounds us with a feeling of our own irreligious triviality, and turns so many of our famous novels to tinsel and trickery...They are right perhaps; unquestionably they see further than we do and without our gross impediments of vision…The voice of protest is the voice of another and an ancient civilization which seems to have bred in us the instinct to enjoy and fight rather to suffer and understand. English fiction from Sterne to Meredith bears witness to our natural delight in humor and comedy, in the beauty of earth, in the activities of the intellect, and in the splendor of the body.

— Modern Fiction, Modern Fiction (essay)

Due to Woolf's work in polishing translations, she was able to see the differences between Russian and British authors. Yet she also knew that "from the comparison of two fictions so immeasurably far apart are futile save indeed as they flood us with a view of infinite possibilities of the art".[1] Woolf's main purpose in comparing the two culturally different writers was to show the possibilities that modern fiction would be able to take in the future.

Woolf, writers and fiction[edit]

Woolf's "Modern Fiction" essay focuses on how writers should write or what she hopes for them to write. Woolf does not suggest a specific way to write instead she wants writers to simply write what interests them in any way that they choose to write. Woolf suggests, “Any method is right, every method is right, that expresses what we wish to express, if we are writers; that brings us closer to the novelist's intention if we are readers".[1] Woolf wanted writers to express themselves in such a way that it showed life as it should be seen not as "a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged".[1] She set out to inspire writers of modern fiction by calling for originality, criticizing those who focused on the unimportant things, and comparing the differences of cultural authors, all for the sake of fiction and literature.


  1. ^ abcdefghGutenburg Project Essays
  2. ^Woolf, Virginia. "Modern Fiction". The Broadview Anthology of British Literature: The Twentieth Century and Beyond. Ed. Joseph Black. 2006. 227. Print.
  3. ^ abFishman, Solomon. "Virginia Woolf on the Novel". The Sewanee Review 51.2 (1943): 321–340. Jstor. Web. 21 February 2012.
  4. ^Goldman, Mark. "Virginia Woolf and the Critic as Reader". PMLA 80.3 (1965): 275–284. Jstor. Web. 21 February 2012.
  5. ^ abMadison, Elizabeth C. "The Common Reader and Critical Method in Virginia Woolf". Journal of Aesthetic Education 15.4 (1981): 61–73. Jstor. Web. 21 February 2012.
  6. ^Beasley, Rebecca. "On Not Knowing Russian: The Translation of Virginia Woolf and S.S. Kotelianskii". Modern Humanities Research Association 108.1 (2013): 1 -29. Jstor. Web. 21 February 2012.

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