Jacob's Room, published in 1922,
Virginia Woolf began her venture into experimental writing, not quite as avant-garde as, say Gertrude Stein's
Tender Buttons, but certainly far from conventional. This collection contains
eight different "experiments," ranging from short, to extremely short stories. (The Dover edition is only 54 pages.) Also, this is a republication of the
whole original collection, published in 1921. Often Dover creates their own collections of stories by compiling stories from a number of sources (without
letting readers know that it isn't an original publication—of which I have complained).
Anyways, these are interesting little pieces which must be read with an open mind, but that's the only way to read anything, as far as I'm concerned. Here are my own impressions, so they may be right or they may be wrong, but it has always seemed to me that abstract art of any type leaves much to individual interpretation; that's one of its fascinating aspects. I may read this again in two years and have a totally different opinion.
In A Haunted House, a ghostly couple searches for something, but the story takes on a surreal character because one loses sight of who is talking, the ghosts or the narrator, or what are thoughts and what is conversation. One wonders who is haunted and who is doing the haunting—they seem to overlap.
A Society is a very humorous story, really not abstract at all, but scathingly satirical concerning male and female roles in society.
A group of young ladies sit after tea and begin their usual praise of men—that is until one lady, Poll bursts into tears. Her father has died, leaving her a fortune—on the condition that she read all the books in the London Library. The others think her a bit strange anyways, and doubted any man would ever marry her. Of course these days most of her time is spent at the library. She's working her way down from English Literature on the top floor to the Times at the bottom, and is somewhere between a quarter and a half way through. She has drawn the conclusion that books are bad, which is why she burst into tears.. As always, she has a stack of books with her, and she begins to read to the others; when she comes to a particularly bad book of poetry, the other assume it must have been written by a woman. But no! It was written by a man. Jane rises and says she is not convinced:
"Why,"she asked, "if men write such rubbish as this, should our mothers have wasted their youth in bringing them into the world?"
Poll laments the fact that her father taught her to read.
So the ladies decide to form a society which would go out into the world and investigate men and things they do. They agree that the purpose of life was to produce good people and good books, and they all vow never to produce a child until they are satisfied.
Each go to different places, such as the British Museum, the King's Navy, Oxford, Cambridge, plays, concerts, and Courts of Law.
It was Fanny who went to the Law Courts, and it seemed "that the Judges were either made of wood or were impersonated by large animals resembling men who had been trained to move with extreme dignity, mumble and nod their heads. To test her theory, she had liberated a handkerchief of bluebottles at the critical moment of a trial, but was unable to judge whether the creatures gave signs of humanity. . ." The group ended up voting "that it is unfair to suppose that the Judges are men."
Castalia disguises herself as a charwoman at Oxbridge to spy on Professor Hobkin. His life work is a volume six or seven inches thick in defense of Sappho's chastity. As the conversation gets off the point, the group reminds her that she was to determine if Oxbridge professors help to produce good people and good books.
"There!" she exclaimed. "It never struck me to ask. It never occurred to me that they could possibly produce anything."
She ends up getting pregnant.
This is a clever and entertaining story!
Monday or Tuesday is a very short, dreamy, poetic story juxtaposing the peacefulness of a flying heron with the noise and distractions of city life.
An Unwritten Novel is a subtly humorous story about people traveling on perhaps a bus or train or some public transportation. The narrator begins to read a story into another woman's eyes. She also imagines the woman is in silent communication with her. All the other people eventually get off at their destinations, leaving only the narrator and the woman. The woman makes a bitter remark about her sister-in-law (but the story is a bit surreal, so we're not sure if the woman actually speaks or the narrator's fantasy is becoming more overpowering).
Which soon happens, as the narrator breaks off into her own little world. She gives the woman a name (Minnie Marsh) and the sister-in-law the name Hilda, and she creates a whole scenario where perhaps a crime was committed, a love affair, guilt. But at Eastbourne, the woman gets off, where her son is awaiting her arrival, and they walk off together, thus collapsing the unwritten novel!
The String Quartet is a stream of consciousness story about people attending a concert, but bits and pieces of conversation, daydreams, observations all make their way into the flow of the story, leaving one, again with a feeling of not knowing what is real and what is being fantasized.
Blue and Green is two short paragraphs, one for each color, almost impressionistic, using light and water with the colors to create an image.
Kew Gardens is an observation of people and creatures, especially a snail, set with the backdrop of the gardens. There is a couple with children, and the man thinks about the women he asked to marry him who turned him down. There are two men, one older, who mutters to himself and hears spirits. The younger man tries to divert his attention by pointing out a flower, and the old man hears it speak to him. There are two elderly women, one stout and one nimble who go off for tea, and the snail tries to figure out how to get around a large leaf.
In The Mark on the Wall, the narrator contemplates a mark above the mantelpiece, which could be from a nail, and perhaps held an antique picture at one time. She goes off into a reverie on many different subjects, including freedom of the mind and beliefs. Finally in the end, she gets up to see what the mark really is. It is a snail.
These eight stories, while experimental, are still accessible and don't require a great effort to read. Don't approach them expecting the same result as if they were conventional stories, or become frustrated if you don't "get it." Allow your perceptions to expand and enjoy the impressions you receive.
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