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UBC Theses and Dissertations

The bitter glass : demonic imagery in the novels of Virginia Woolf Long, Maida


The purpose of this thesis is to examine in Virginia Woolfs fiction the demonic imagery of violence as it constitutes her ultimate conception of reality. Her novels record the self's ritualistic and symbolic journey into the interior landscape of the unconscious, each work probing behind the carefully wrought illusions of social reality in an effort to define that dark and violent inner truth. This quest in search of the self is essentially and necessarily narcissistic, frequently ending in disaster for the individual searcher who mistakes surface reflection for reality. Ultimately, Woolf depicts man as isolated and fragmented in his attempts to find pattern and meaning in life, and the inherent stubbornness which causes him to fight for life is seen throughout her novels in the recurring theme of identity lost, regained, and lost again. In this doomed world of Virginia Woolfs fiction, the tortuous and narrow path of man's destiny can, and does, lead only to the grave. In The Voyage Out, her first novel, Woolf uses consistently the violent imagery of disintegration that pervades all her fiction. Rachel Vinrace, the young, inexperienced heroine of the book, flees the sterility and isolation of her room for the glittering world of experience, only to drown in the "cool translucent wave" of that very experience. And as the long night of this book ends, the morning light brings no relief and no sense of rebirth—only a terrible reminder of life's pointless cycle of light leading to inevitable darkness. Indeed, Rachel Vinrace's return to the sterile darkness from which she emerged establishes the central metaphor in all Virginia Woolf's fiction. Although Night and Day appears to be a comedy of manners, it is a black comedy of life in a suffocating world where the individual must deny himself and his feelings in an effort to survive. The artificiality of the plot and structure only serves to underscore the artificiality of social life where truth is sacrificed in order to maintain the illusion of harmony and beauty, where the appearance of order and tranquility disguises the violence inherent in a society that worships conformity. In Jacob's Room the individual is never able to form a lasting relationship and remains isolated in a world where it is impossible to ever really know another. Jacob, in his restless, futile quest for identity, becomes a symbol of modern man, doomed to wander through the desert of life in a hopeless search for meaning amid the ruins of the past. The images of violence in Mrs. Dalloway once again create an impression of existence as a living death where the individual, enslaved by convention, is no longer able to communicate with others. Clarissa Dalloway's parties are her "offering" to life, an attempt to maintain order and balance in the face of the chaos which threatens to engulf her; yet, terrified of dying, her existence becomes a living death, an emotional suicide, mirroring the actual suicide of Septimus Smith. In To The Lighthouse the party is over long before the story has finished. With the unexpected death of Mrs. Ramsay, who has seemed to offer a beacon of warmth and security for those engaged on the voyage out, Mrs. Ramsay's family and friends are plunged into the darkness and confusion of the night, where they are no longer able to ignore the fact that life's harsh fruit is death. Virginia Woolfs penultimate novel, The Years, is a chronicle of three generations in the Pargiter family, reflecting the increasing sterility and isolation of modern society, where man must continue the endless dance macabre, doomed like Antigone to a living death. In Between The Acts, Woolfs final and most profound novel, the images of violence well up as if from the layer of mud at the bottom of the cesspool, spreading in ever-widening circles, pulling each one of the characters relentlessly into the vortex of loneliness and despair. As each falters and plunges to the bottom, he is faced with the reality that only bones lie in the mud beneath. And the "voyage out" in search of the self, failing to bring man to the shores of understanding and acceptance, becomes instead, an endless spiral of senseless repetition in which one must either drown or go mad.

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