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Molly Hite. Woolf's Ambiguities: Tonal Modernism, Narrative Strategy, Feminist Precursors.

Molly Hite. Woolf's Ambiguities: Tonal Modernism, Narrative Strategy, Feminist Precursors. Cornell UP, 2017. xvi + 226 pp. ISBN: 978-15-0171445-0 (HB); ISBN: 978-15-01-71446-7 (epub). $50.

Kathryn Simpson. Woolf: A Guide for the Perplexed. Bloomsbury Publishing Pic, 2016. x+ 203 pp. ISBN: 978-14-41-16902-0 (HB); ISBN: 978-14-72-59068-8 (epub). $24.95.

Virginia Woolf is now an iconic figure both in the public and academic spheres. The abundant and continuous publication of Woolf's works and of their translated versions in diverse languages in many countries, as well as the unremitting appearance of Woolf research books and articles, indicate that her innovations in literary creation and her soul-touching life writing have aroused increasing interest for years. This constant interest has, to some extent, been propelled and guided by Woolf studies, which are now enhanced by two current perspectives. Kathryn Simpson's Woolf: A Guide for the Perplexed demystifies the perplexity of Woolf's writing through reviewing centennial Woolf studies. Molly Hite's Woolf's Ambiguities: Tonal Modernism, Narrative Strategy, Feminist Precursors opens up new viewpoints on Woolf's works by means of fresh approaches.

Simpson's Woolf: A Guide for the Perplexed differs from other academic guide books on Woolf--for instance, Anna Snaith's Palgrave Advances in Virginia Woolf Studies (2007), Jane Goldman's The Cambridge Introduction to Virginia Woolf (2006), and Sue Roe and Susan Sellers's The Cambridge Companion to Virginia Woolf (2000). Snaith, Goldman, and Roe and Sellers give access to reviews of research approaches to Woolf; overall views of Woolf's life, works, contexts, and critical reception; and the broad range of Woolf's concerns as a writer and thinker. Meanwhile, Simpson focuses on untangling the difficulties in Woolf's writing, which is valuable and necessary in consideration of the perplexity Woolf has brought to common readers and students for years.

To disentangle Woolfian puzzlement effectively, Simpson offers a well-designed structure for her study that is summarized through three key words: contextual, textual, and comprehensive. First, it is contextual, for Woolf's perplexity partially results from some readers' lack of knowledge of various contexts in which Woolf develops her modernist esthetics and experimental writings. A complex web of contexts is analyzed briefly in Simpson's "Introduction," including issues of Woolf and modernist canon, Woolf and cultural contexts, Woolf and her literary contemporaries, Woolf and historical contexts, Woolf and theoretical contexts, Woolf and scientific contexts, Woolf and politics, and so on. Such a contextual web helps build the foundation for a series of progressive analyses formally and thematically in the chapters that follow. Second, Simpson's study is textual, for Woolf's perplexity is represented mostly in the texts of her fiction and nonfiction work. Consequently, close analyses of Woolf's "Formal Innovation" (Chapter 2), "Narrative Technique" (Chapter 3), and "Characterization" (Chapter 4) are not only necessary but essential. Third, the study is comprehensive, concerning contexts, author, texts, and critical reception concurrently. Simpson not only examines Woolf's modernist aesthetics (Chapter 1) and the form, narration, and characterization of her works but also reviews the critical reception of "Gender, Sexuality and Class" (Chapter 5) and of "Empire and Jewishness" (Chapter 6) as well as the web of Woolf's contexts (Introduction). Such a panoramic approach makes possible a clear explanation of the complexity of Woolf's works.

Chapter 1 is an elaboration of the formation and connotation of Woolf's modernist esthetics, with a careful consideration of historical, cultural, and political contexts. Two well-known Woolf modernist manifesto-essays are discussed, "Modern Fiction" (1925) and "Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown" (1924). Based on a clarification of the functions of manifestos--namely, to "advocate a break with literary conventions," to "urge the development of new literary aesthetics and forms" (37), and to create a comparison between realism and Woolf's "new realism"--Simpson discloses that "Modern Fiction" promotes the idea that "literature is organic in its development, undergoing constant renewal" (44). In other words, Woolf's essay advocates not only a shifting of the focus from the body to the spirit, from the materialist to the spiritualist, but also an "interaction between the material world and our interior life," and it holds that human experience is created from "a simultaneity of perceptions, sensations, stimulations, responses and thoughts" (43). Moreover, as a manifesto for character, "Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown" serves as a "metafictional" (46) representation of the process of fictional writing itself, and it also serves as a "metaphor" for the transition from the material realism to the modern fictional forms and, from realistic characters to modern characters, with an awareness of the indeterminate nature of identity and the infinite variety of experience. Woolf's short story "The Lady in the Looking Glass: A Reflection" (1929) is discussed as an illustration of such transition processes.

Chapter 2 decodes Woolf's formal innovation, considered to be at "the heart of Woolf's literary experiment" (55). Simpson believes that Woolf's formal development is far from mere technical creativity but contains various elements that include "political concerns," "new ideas about human consciousness," and "new scientific ideas" (55). For instance, Jacob's Room (1922) has "a political significance" that acknowledges the national loss of a whole generation and points to the cultural codes that led to the "pointless loss of life" (65); Orlando: A Biography (1928) can be seen "as a feminist parody of a male-dominated tradition" (68); and Three Guineas (1938) serves as "feminist polemic, pacifist propaganda and a political manifesto" (72). Woolf's dominant way to challenge and cast off conventional literary forms is to test and transgress "the boundaries": more specifically, Woolf "reconceptualizes the Bildungsroman in Jacob's Room, parodies biography in Orlando and writes The Waves (1931) as 'a playpoem'" (56). The key to Woolfs innovation in terms of textual patterns is to strip down the linearity of "plot" and to place emphasis on "language, imagery, linguistic patterns, associations, allusions and repetitions" (56). For instance, in "The Mark on the Wall," Woolf's first published story (1917), Wolf's first published story, "the non-linear form of the story" creates a narrative space for "the exploration of subjective experience" (60).

Chapter 3, "Narrative Technique," clarifies the fact that Woolf's narrative techniques are not intrinsically innovative, but Woolf employs them "in new ways" to achieve her esthetic aim--namely, "to represent the experience of modern life in all its complexity, multiplicity and discontinuity as it is felt and perceived by her characters from within" (77). Woolf is likely to employ an external third-person narrator and simultaneously replace the conventional omniscient and authoritative narration with the "slipperiness" of the narrative voice, moving between different points of view, to "create a fluid and shifting form" (78). Such a narrative technique, is called "free indirect discourse," which intertwines "an external narrative voice with the subjective experience of the characters" (80). Woolf's use of free indirect discourse differs from prior applications of it, which had merely incorporated different levels of one character's awareness, while Woolf incorporated what is going on in characters' consciousnesses through the presence of a third-person narrator, providing not only the subjective consciousnesses of her characters and a mobile point of view but also a consistent external narrative "scaffolding" (82). The especial value of Woolf's narrative technique is that it opens up "different understandings of reality" and "multi-layered conceptions of the self" (82). Woolf's fluctuating points of view are complicated by "shifting between the past and present" (85), which coincides with Bergson's duality theory. Furthermore, there are verbal networks, parallel scenes, and a sense of simultaneity in Woolf's novels, which support and enrich her narration. Simpson explores Jacob's Room; Mrs. Dalloway; and, her final novel, Between the Acts (1941) particularly to disclose and illustrate Woolf's unique narrative techniques.

Chapter 4 explores Woolf's characterization. Simpson reveals Woolf's attempts to bring character to "life" through examining Woolf's complex philosophy of the self and her methods of characterization. To Woolf, characterization is not only the most central fictional element but also a representation of the "modern mind," which is impacted by the increased pace of life, new technologies, and new modes of communication. It brings to us a paradigm shift, which holds that our consciousness is shaped by our "cognitive, sensory, emotional and imaginative responses" to the flow of impressions; that our modern sense of self is "multi-dimensional, fragmented and provisional"; and that character is both a part of a social fabric and a rich interchange of experience with others as it is "perceived and received by other characters." As a result, Woolf's methods of characterization "record the tensions, ambiguities and complicated negotiation of the difference facets of experiences" acting upon the characters (102-03). Woolf's methods resonate strongly with the theories of Bergson and Freud, particularly in terms of conveying a sense of "the multi-layered and simultaneous nature of experience" and the shifting and working of "conscious thought and unconscious processes," and share with Marcel Proust "sensory perception and response and intensity of experience" (106). Woolf's characters are life-like, for she persistentiy conveys her sense that human beings are not single entities but multi-dimensional selves composed of complexly layered interfused experiences, entwining the past with the present in a state of flux. Simpson analyzes in detail Woolf's experiments of characters in the short story "In the Orchard" (1923) and the novels Jacob's Room, Mrs. Dalloway, and The Waves.

Chapter 5 shifts the focus from formalistic analysis to thematic exploration. Simpson examines gender and sexuality and class in Woolf's A Room of One's Own (1929), To the Lighthouse (1927), and Orlando: A Biography. For Simpson, Woolf's "challenges to gender norms and conventions are articulated in various ways" (126): in characterization, narrative techniques, imagery, symbolism, structure, and critical perspective. For instance, in A Room of One's Own, Woolf attempts to untangle the complexities of the relationship between women and fiction in two ways--namely, "challenging the dominant gender ideology" and "making central women's experience" (130). She also challenges binary modes of thought and meaning by putting forward the idea of man-womanly and woman-manly androgyny. Orlando is a fantastical mock biography of "a man/woman-manly character" (133) revealing the construction of gender binaries, attacking gender inequalities, and undermining the status of heterosexuality as the only natural sexuality. To the Lighthouse can not only a scathing attack on outmoded Victorian ideals of femininity and masculinity and gender relations but also a radical criticism of the middle-class as "an institutional centre of power which perpetuates class and gender inequalities" (147).

Chapter 6 discusses Woolf's contradictory perspectives on anti-imperialism, anti-Semitism, and other forms of racism. Woolf's work plays an important role in exposing the violence and incoherence of imperialism. She refers to "colonial" countries and non-European art, culture, and philosophy in her works, demonstrating an awareness of how imperialist ideologies insidiously presented themselves in all areas of life and undermining the authority of empire. Her political stance on imperialism is complicated, for Woolf's "ancestry places her in an 'insider' position, yet she repeatedly assumes the role of 'outsider,' critical of imperialist practices, beliefs and values" (157). Woolf's anti-imperialist attacks on empire are contradictory and ambiguous, serving as "an indication of the impossibility of putting forward an unproblematic, straightforward critique of imperialism and empire" (170). She wrote some offensive anti-Semitic comments in her diaries and letters, and she was highly aware of her own prejudices and snobbery. For Simpson, Woolf's unstable attitudes toward Jews can be seen as "symptomatic of a wider cultural confusion about the figure of the Jew" in the early twentieth century (172).

Woolf: A Guide for the Perplexed is an integral and valuable book. It is integral, for its esthetic-formalistic-thematic untangling structure, providing an effective access to Woolf's complicated texts and mind. Simpson's concurrent context-author-text-reception perspectives make possible an overall and panoramic view of Woolf's oeuvre. The book is valuable for its research-based study that not only provides readers with a centurial review of Woolf studies but also guides them to the latest research trends. As a guide book, it is generally systematic, acute, and effective.

Unlike Simpson, Hite focuses on the cutting edge of Woolf studies. Her book Woolf's Ambiguities: Tonal Modernism, Narrative Strategy, Feminist Precursors is a trans-approach monograph, combining formalist analysis with historical research, and a modernist examination with feminist critique. Her monograph not only presents a new way to demystify Woolf's narrative perplexity but also enhances the exploration of Woolf's relationship with hitherto overlooked feminist precursors. It reframes its arguments in the contexts of both the latest modernist and feminist scholarship and paves the way for future Woolf studies.

The remarkable feature of Hite's approach is that it opens up new research perspectives. Hite interweaves two ostensibly unconnected insights-- Woolf's tonal ambiguity and Woolf's relationship with her feminist precursor Elizabeth Robins (1862-1952)--into a progressive and continuous investigation. Such an approach helps disclose the implicit relationship between Woolf's formalistic innovation and her feminist critique. Hite writes in her preface: "In this book I explore the connections between a narrative technique of complicating, minimizing, or omitting tonal cues, and an aversion to women's 'pleading a cause' in fiction--connections of influence and reaction, aesthetic and ethical judgments, and suffrage-era and post-suffrage feminism" (x). The dominant method used is comparison, with the first two chapters exploring tonal ambiguities, the third and fourth examining feminist tradition, and the fifth and sixth focusing upon thematic study. The structure of the book is somewhat like an iceberg, with one third of apparent tonal-cue analysis above water, and two thirds of latent feminist writing investigation beneath water: both disclose the relationship between Woolf's formalistic innovation and its formative process.

In Chapter 1, "Woolf's Tone: Listening to Mrs. Dalloway" Hite claims that Woolf's novels are characterized by "tonal indeterminacy" (2). This leaves readers unclear how to feel about descriptions, utterances, events, and characters on the basis of a brief definition of "tone" as "a quality of narrative voice indicating the attitude the narrator has toward his or her subject" (1) and its function as evoking complicated feelings. Hite attempts to enhance the studies of Woolf's tone found in Rebecca Walkowitz's Cosmopolitan Style: Modernism beyond the Nation (2006), Susan Lanser's Fictions of Authority (1992), and Anna Snaith's Virginia Woolf: Public and Private Negotiations (2000). Such studies attribute Woolf's unclear narrative voice to her conscious strategy and explain that it is used to blur distinctions between authorial and character-initiated, authoritative and dubitable, and public and private voices. Hite shifts Lanser's and Snaith's epistemological concern to that of the ethical and argues that Woolf's remarkable use of conflicting--or unclear, or even absent--tonal cues makes possible the realization of the "wholeness" (7) of modernist novels, as opposed to the "incompleteness and dissatisfaction" (7) of conventional works. Such an argument is demonstrated through a comparison between works with overt tonal cues (markers in the narrator's voice signaling reactions to characters and situations), such as found those in Robins's polemical novel A Dark Lantern (1905) and T. S. Eliot's poem The Waste Land (with its polemical elements), versus works with unclear tonal cues such as Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway. To Hite, the former works aim to win their readers over through overt tonal cues so as to "nudge us into acknowledging the value of the fictional world" (9), while the latter communicate their values ambiguously through confused tonal cues, which lead readers to read a passage or character in several different directions and to possess little critical agreement about its values. Mrs. Dalloway and Mr. Septimus Smith in Mrs. Dalloway are typical examples of how the lack of authoritative tonal cues in narration may help create conflicting and complex characters.

Chapter 2, "Tone and Modernism: Jacob's Room, To the Lighthouse, and The Waves" examines how Woolf obscures authorial opinion so as to create a more diffuse platform for readers' ethical judgments. In Jacob's Room, such an obscuring authorial voice is realized through sliding the meaning of a character from "a person in a work of fiction" to "mental and moral qualities distinguishing an individual in the larger world" (30) and through the use of unstable tonal cues to figure the character Jacob in negative space, formed by the bending outlines of the other characters. In To the Lighthouse, conflicting tonal cues offer insights that contradict each other, making possible the complexity and undecidability of narration. As a result, a dialog on several levels is established, "in which the authority of a particular gendered perspective in a particular passage is a matter more of emphasis than of assertion" (36-37). In The Waves, Woolf deprives the reader of clear tonal guidance, helping open up an ethical complexity. To Hite, the positive ethical value of the unclear tonal cues is that they provoke norms, stimulate alternative evaluation, and arouse evaluative uncertainty.

Chapter 3, "Not Thinking Back through Our Mothers: Elizabeth Robins and the Feminist Polemical Novel," deals with another aspect of Woolf's commitment to tonal experiment--namely, her ambivalent attitude to the polemical writings of her feminist precursor, Elizabeth Robins. Hite believes that Woolf's modernist innovation is not only established in her critique of Edwardian male novelists like Arnold Bennett, H. G. Wells, and John Galsworthy, but also stimulated by a number of Edwardian female novelists. Her interactions with Robins demonstrate that her personal as well as professional competition with her foremothers was intellectually "stimulating and productive" (xii). Based on a brief examination of Robins's writing experience and her relationship with Woolf, Hite analyzes Woolf's reviews on Robins's works and clarifies that Robins as "Woolf's paradigmatic other" embodies a great deal of what Woolf "defined herself against"; Woolf attacks Robins's writing to counter "the threat posed by Robins' presence," and ignores Robins's status as "actress, producer, suffragist, pamphleteer and public speaker," concentrating instead on issues of techniques and emphasis. It is worth exploring Woolf's relation with and critique of her feminist foremother Robins, as it helps to illuminate how Woolf breaks through the limitation of contemporary feminist polemical style, and it demonstrates how Woolf elevates feminist egoistic writing to an incandescent level by means of unclear tonal cues. Yet Hite's conclusions are not always convincing when she says that Woolf attempts to counter "the threat posed by Robins' presence" (75) through analyzing a few words quoted from Woolf's reviews on Robins. Hite ignores Woolf's love for writing and life. In her life time, Woolf reviewed frankly and sincerely hundreds of male and female writers, recording her affirmations and arguments with both eminent and ordinary writers. If Woolf's arguments are regarded as "threats"--as Hite appears to do--it would be impossible for us to view Woolf as an all-inclusive and comprehensive writer who is ready to accept innovative minds and forms found in Greek, Russian, French, American, and even Asian traditions. Nor would we find Woolf open to and tolerant of the multiplicity of cultures and lives and values through the use of tonal cues.

The chapter "Making Room for A Room of One's Own" focuses on a comparison between Woolf's A Room of One's Own (1929) and Robins's Ancilla's Share: An Indictment of Sex Antagonist (1924), arguing that these two books share in common important arguments even though their answers and writing strategies are different. Hite claims that Woolf's A Room of One's Own "recapitulates arguments made in prior fiction and essays by Elizabeth Robins, Mona Caird, May Sinclair and Alice Maynell among other women ranging in age from the generation of Woolf's mother to the generation of Woolf herself" (89), yet Woolf rarely acknowledges those foremothers in her writings. This indicates that Woolf participates in the "denial of female predecessors" out of her "unease" and her being "extremely anxious about her own status" (108). It is helpful to discover that Woolf shares similar arguments with her feminist contemporaries, yet it is not convincing, as Hite does argues, that Woolf's eagerness for formalistic innovation is attributed to her anxiety about her own "status" merely because she seldom mentions her feminist precursors.

Chapters 5 and 6, "What Girls Should Know: The Voyage Out and My Little Sister" and "lhe Professional and the Poet: ADark Lantern and Mrs. Dalloway" offer interesting comparisons between Woolf's The Voyage Out (1915) and Robins's My Little Sister (1912) and between Robins's A Dark Lantern (1905) and Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway (1925) respectively, to reveal the implicit relations between Woolf's writings and Robins's writings in terms of subject and value. On the basis of thorough comparisons, Hite presents both new interpretations of Woolf's novels and affirmative reviews of Robins's novels. And at last, to achieve a dialectical effect for her research, Hite further analyzes in "Epilogue: The Possibilities of The Pargiters" Woolf's use of polemic style and clear tonal cues in The Pargiters, the five experimental essays incorporated into The Years (1937), and argues that Woolf's polemical essays and the draft of The Pargiters "constitute a brilliant beginning to a strikingly original literary work" (xiv).

Woolf's Ambiguities: Tonal Modernism, Narrative Strategy, Feminist Precursors is an experimental and valuable book. It is experimental for its modernist-feminist and formalist-historical trans-approach model that will certainly open up new methods and new interpretations for literary criticism. Yet Hite's trans-approach may be effective only when we avoid the limitations of approaches and elevate more comprehensively our perspectives. Only when we refuse to circumscribe Woolf-as-artist to Woolf-as-actual-person can we truly comprehend Woolf's incandescence. Hite's valuable study not only promotes the exploration of Woolf's tonal ambiguities but also utilizes a trans-approach methodology in order to advance Woolf studies.

The similarity and difference between Simpson's and Hite's books are that they both intend to disclose the perplexity of Woolf's works from different perspectives: Simpson from aesthetic-formalist-thematic perspectives, Hite from modernist-feminist and formalist-historical trans-approach perspectives. Yet we are expecting more in Woolf studies; as Samuel Taylor Coleridge declares in his famous "Lectures on Shakespeare," a true critic will require something true in human nature itself as "the spirit and substance of a work," while considering the age, the place, and the existing manners to which the imperishable soul adapts itself only in the mode of applying it, and the error is "holding up the mere circumstances as perpetual, to the utter neglect of the power which can alone animate them" (Coleridge 227). This might be something we are expecting more of from both Simpson and Hite and from other contemporary Woolf studies. It is important that we deepen our exploration of human nature itself in Woolf 's works, nature that animates them while we examine literary form and contexts.


Zhejiang University, P.R. China


Zhejiang University, P.R. China

FEN GAO is professor of English and director of the Institute of Foreign Literatures Studies, Zhejiang University (Hangzhou, P.R. China). Her scholarship has focused on English literature, comparative literature, and formalist esthetics. She has published more than fifty articles on British and American modernist works, especially those of Virginia Woolf, Wallace Stevens, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Her latest monograph is Towards Life Poetics: Virginia Woolf's Theory of Fiction (2016).

YE MA is a postgraduate at Zhejiang University, P. R. China, where she is working under the direction of Professor Fen Gao. Ye Ma's interests are largely in twentieth-century British literature.


Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Lectures and Notes on Shakespeare and Other English Poets. George Bell and Sons, 1884.
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Title Annotation:Woolf: A Guide for the Perplexed
Author:Gao, Fen; Ma, Ye
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2019
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