Book Review, British Literature, Essay, Favorites, Gender Studies, Literature, Modern March, Modernism, Non-Fiction, Virginia Woolf, writing

Thoughts: A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf

340793A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Wolf
Final Verdict: Perfection
YTD: 22

I finished reading Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own two days ago, and I have been thinking about it ever since. I imagine that I will be thinking about it for quite some time. It, like the last two Woolf books I read, was not what I expected it to be. Yes, I knew the book developed from lectures she gave on “Women and Fiction” to students at Newnham and Girton in 1928. Yes, I knew that Shakespeare’s infamous sister originated from these lectures, and I knew that Woolf’s renowned declaration that a woman must have “money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction” (4) was the primary theme for the lectures and papers which eventually became this book. So, why was I caught off-guard by this book? What did she give me that I wasn’t expecting? Was there something missing – something I expected to see but didn’t?

I was caught off-guard, first, by the lecture style. I have been reading quite a bit of nonfiction, lately. Essays and lectures about writing, theory, and criticism, as well as histories of sexuality and gender, in literature and other mediums. Most of these, aside, perhaps, from E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, are relatively straightforward nonfiction. But Woolf tells a story with her lectures – in fact, she creates a fictive world and fictive experiences to relay the message she intends to deliver to these young women. Typically, I look for a writer’s genius in their fiction, because, first of all, I’m a reader of fiction and because, secondly, I believe it is more difficult to get one’s point across in a creative way than it is to deliver it face-forward in an essay or lecture, where one can simply state what they mean, give examples, and move on. Fiction is harder – it is more subtle, delicate, and complex. You have to develop it in order to deliver it effectively. Nonfiction, while still taking great effort to make it “worthwhile,” and readable does not necessarily require story, too. But Woolf gives us the story anyway, and she gives us history, and she gives us visions of the future. It is, to put it plainly, simply stunning.

A Room of One’s Own is about the inequalities of sex, certainly. When she talks of needing £500 and a private room, with a lock, she is being quite literal. But she’s also going beyond that – she’s not just talking about women and she’s not just talking about the creative process. She’s talking about brilliance and genius and what it really takes to get there. This is a book as much about class and economics as it is about sexual politics. The great writers throughout most of history have been men because men have been privileged with wealth of their own, property of their own, space of their own. They had access to education and travel, to training and experience. Jane Austen, her ultimate exception to this rule, was brilliant despite this lack and, even so, her works, brilliant as they are, have their limitations, because Austen’s own experiences were limited. Woolf is a feminist, whether or not she would admit it, and that comes across at times in these lectures, but what is really interesting is that she is not speaking to women in general –she’s not really concerned with that population; she is speaking to women of genius.

Where does all this leave me? It is nearly 100 years later and the one theme at the heart of Woolf’s theory still seems to hold true: one needs time, space, and money in order to reach greatness. One must be granted the ability to spend time with one’s self, to give him or herself completely to their craft, to not be distracted by anything else, if he or she is to succeed. Of course, this makes sense and it is something I have thought about for more than a decade. If only I had time, I would say to myself, I could get this book written, that project completed. Or, if only I had the money, I would think, I could travel to Europe, investigate what I need to, experience what I must, and learn what I should, in order to write what I feel. So, knowing this, and reading it in blunt delivery from one of the greatest literary minds to grace history, what do I do with myself? Time? Money? I work 45-50 hours per week. I’m pursuing my Ph.D. full-time, which adds 6 hours of class time each week plus who knows how many hours of research, homework, and assigned reading, not to mention the additional 6 hours spent commuting to and from campus. Sleep factors in there, sometimes.

Woolf, you see, has made me seriously doubt the way I’m going about my life. She says one needs free time and privacy from distraction – but aside from winning the lottery, how does one support a (brilliant) writing life? She says one needs an education – but how far is it necessary to go, and how do you focus on your own work when completing the “required” education? These are the questions she raises and leaves unanswered for me. I don’t consider myself to be a genius, so it’s probably true that Woolf doesn’t intend her lectures for me; still, I do consider myself to be a writer and one who is very concerned with the requirements of time, space, and security. So, it’s a hard book for me. It’s a hard book, I think, for any writer who finds himself in a hard place. But it’s a life-changing book and it has left me with more thoughts than I know what to do with, more doubts than I can afford to deal with, and more desire than I can bear to let go of.

Notable Quotes:

“It is a curious fact that novelists have a way of making us believe that luncheon parties are invariably memorable for something very witty that was said, or for something very wise that was done. But they seldom spare a word for what was eaten” (10).

“And thus by degrees was lit, halfway down the spine, which is the seat of the soul, not that hard little electric light which we call brilliance, as it pops in and out upon our lips, but the more profound, subtle and subterranean glow, which is the rich yellow flame of rational intercourse” (11).

“One does not like to be told that one is naturally the inferior of a little man” (32).

“Some of the most inspired words, some of the most profound thoughts in literature fall from her lips; in real life she could hardly read, could scarcely spell, and was the property of her husband” (44).

“Indeed, I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman” (49).

“When people compare Shakespeare and Jane Austen, they may mean that the minds of both had consumed all impediments” (68).

“Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind” (76).

“It is fatal for any one who writes to think of their sex. It is fatal to be a man or woman pure and simple; one must be woman-manly or man-womanly” (104).

“So long as you write what you wish to write, that is all that matters” (106).

A Room of One’s Own is Book 2 completed for the Modern March event.

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1001 Books, 2013 Challenges, American Lit, Book Review, Classics, Classics Club, Fiction, Modern March, Modernism, Nathanael West

Thoughts: Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West

294459Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West
Final Verdict: 3.5 out of 4.0
YTD: 21

Plot/Story:
4 – Plot/Story is interesting/believable and impactful (socially, academically, etc.)

Miss Lonelyhearts is the journalistic pseudonym for a male newspaper man who aspires to have his own gossip column.  The reader is never told his true name, but it is his journey we follow.  Miss Lonelyhearts has a deep and profound faith in Christ and Christianity.  He becomes depressed by the letters he receives on a daily basis, from sad, sick, abused, and lonely men and women who are seeking his advice.  He believes that Christ is the answer but is continuously mocked by his editor, Shrike, who derides his religion and who believes that art is the true answer. Miss Lonelyhearts has a stone where his soul should be – coldness where he should have passion.  He relieves the ache of this by attempting to make love to women, his own girlfriend as well as others (even having affairs with his boss’s wife & some of his faithful readers).  These affairs, coupled with his inability to connect with other people, will lead to his disillusionment and demise.

Characterization:
3 – Characters well-developed.

In addition to Miss Lonelyhearts, who is the novella’s main character and Christ-figure, there are a few others who complete the cast.  First is Shrike, Miss Lonelyhearts’s editor – Shrike is a womanizer, a hedonist who lives for pleasure, though he cannot get any from his wife, and, essentially, the novella’s anti-Christ (though he survives and thrives, interestingly enough).  Shrike is married to a virginal woman named Marry, which is kind of hilarious, if a bit heavy-handed.  Betty is Miss Lonelyhearts’s fiancée and she represents the good, the naïve – the sheep, if you will.  She praises the country and hates the city, believing it to be the cause of Miss Lonelyhearts’s anxiety and unhappiness (or illness, as she calls it).  In addition to these are Mrs. Doyle, the story’s Mary Magdalene, and her husband Mr. Doyle, a cripple who Miss Lonelyhearts attempts, and fails, to heal.  The rest of the cast are made up of minor characters, such an elderly homosexual man (whose presence exposes a bit of the early psychoanalytical obsession with homosexual “perversion”), the letter-writers who turn to Miss Lonelyhearts for help, and some co-workers at the newspaper.  West knows what he is doing with his characters and, aside from the letter-writers who all tend to write the same way, despite having different backgrounds and problems, most of the characters serve a distinct purpose and come across with believable, individual personalities.

Prose/Style:
3 – Satisfactory Prose/Style, conducive to the Story.

West’s prose is raw, graphic, and emotionally American.  His narration is swift and to the point, with moments of high and romantic description employed at appropriate intervals.  The dialogue is believable even when certain of the situations are not, but the scenes where Miss Lonelyhearts is alone in his room and coming to terms with his fanaticism (he admits to needing to hold himself in check or risk losing himself completely to an obsessive, extreme  zealotry) are the most poignant of all.  The incorporation of letters from the newspaper audience allows for a broader view of the American disillusionment, without necessitating the inclusion of too many characters which, in a novella of approximately 65 pages, is both necessary and effective.

Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.

Nathanael West’s works are deeply concerned with Depression-era America.  He, like John Steinbeck, wrote stories about the American Dream and how truly unachievable that dream was.  Unlike Steinbeck, however, West’s characters are not compassionate – there is no one to root for and, in fact, many are masterful grotesques.  He follows in the footsteps of Sherwood Anderson, creating characters who are less individuals than they are the embodiment of a seedy, disappointing element of humanity.  West was a Hollywood screenwriter and novelist and, coincidentally, died the same weekend as his good friend F. Scott Fitzgerald, another Hollywood novelist who explored the darker, disappointing side of the American dream.  Miss Lonelyhearts, though short, packs a punch.  West ironically employs the literary Christ figure, as he does in Day of the Locust and, in both books, it is a failed Christ and a failure of Christian faith in general being presented.  SPOILERS FOLLOW: Miss Lonelyhearts himself goes through Christ’s journey (three days of “death”, a “Last Supper”, and a “Resurrection”) only to be killed (crucified) by one who lacks faith in him.  Unlike Christ, who sacrificed himself for others, Miss Lonelyhearts is killed for betraying another man. Other themes include castration (one which would become increasingly important with the Beat generation), the Great Depression, and the frustrated American Dream.

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: High School+
Interest: Great Depression, Loss of American Dream, Castration, Christian Allegory, Social Anxiety, Hollywood novel.

Notable Quotes:

“At college, and perhaps for a year afterwards, they had believed in literature, had believed in Beauty and in personal expression as an absolute end. When they lost this belief, they lost everything.”

“He read it for the same reason an animal tears at a wounded foot: to hurt the pain.”

“He felt as though his heart were a bomb, a complicated bomb that would result in a simple explosion, wrecking the world without rocking it.”

“Art Is a Way Out. Do not let life overwhelm you. When the old paths are choked with the debris of failure, look for newer and fresher paths. Art is just such a path. Art is distilled from suffering.”

Miss Lonelyhearts is Book 1 completed for the Modern March event.

Miss Lonelyhearts is Book 11 completed for the Classics Club Challenge.

Miss Lonelyhearts is Book 134 completed for the 1,001 Books TBR Before You Die Challenge.

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Events, Modern March, Modernism

“A Modern March” Reading Event

Modernist_Lit_ButtonI’ve been waiting for this!  Allie (A Literary Odyssey) is hosting a Modernist Literature event this March, and I’ve been saving two books specifically for it.  Now, the announcement post is up and I can officially “plan” my reading.  I will absolutely get through these two texts, but hopefully I’ll manage to get through one or two extra.  Spring Break is in March, but I have papers and presentations due for class that month, too, so who knows?

Important Note: This is for Modernist Literature / Literature of the Modernist Period.  It is not for contemporary fiction, what some might call “modern” or “current.” 

ANYHOO! The books I plan to read are:

A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf

Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West

If I have time, I might also tried to read some poetry, perhaps The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot.

Allie says of Modernism:

If you have no idea what constitutes a piece of “Modern” literature (and whenever I say Modern, I don’t mean contemporary lit), it generally refers to literature written between the very late 19th century and the halfway point of the 20th century. In general, Modernist writers experimented with style, form, and theme. They broke away from the traditional viewpoints found in literature until that point and strove to focus on the darker and more unpleasant sides of life. This is also the time period where stream-of-consciousness made its roaring appearance.

I would also add, some things to look for are the lack of religion in these works (conspicuous, given the fact that much of the literature in periods before Modernism were rife with religion & religious morality) and also the fascination with “the new.” 

Thanks to Allie for hosting – I’m ready to go!

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