Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Virginia Woolf-"The New Dress" and "A Common Reader"

"The New Dress" by Virginia Woolf (1924, short story)
"The Common Reader" by Virginia Woolf (1925, essay)

I have decided to begin another short story reading project.   I am hoping to read all of the shorter fiction of Virginia Woolf.    The volume is not huge, maybe 400 pages or so over about 50 stories.   All the stories can be read online.    I have already blogged on one of them, "The Mark on the Wall"  as well as her great novel, The Waves.    I also want to read some of her essays and will do some joint posts on an essay and a short story.    Suko suggested I read as my next Woolf story "The New Dress".     I think reading Woolf's shorter  fiction will help me to get more out of reading her longer works.    I also have on order Hermione Lee's long biography of  Woolf.    I sort of acquired my interest in Woolf through her relationship to my latest literary crush, Katherine Mansfield.   I will, I guess, read her stories from the earliest to the latest.    Some I will do an individual post on, some I will post on in groups and some I will merely list for my own references as read.  

"My New Dress" was written at the same time Woolf was working on one of her most admired novels, Mrs Dalloway and this story may have been a stylistic experimentation for the novel.     It is told in a stream of consciousness fashion by Mabel  Waring as she gets ready to go to a party given by one Mrs Dalloway.    As I read it I was somehow brought to mind T. S. Eliot's "The Love Song of Alfred Prufrock" (1917).

Mabel is in a state of high anxiety over a new dress she plans to wear to the party:

What a fright she looks! What a hideous new dress!”—their eyelids flickering as they came up and then their lids shutting rather tight. It was her own appalling inadequacy; her cowardice; her mean, water–sprinkled blood that depressed her.
I have already come to observe Woolf likes to make use of insects in her work:

But she could not see them like that, not other people. She saw herself like that—she was a fly, but the others were dragonflies, butterflies, beautiful insects, dancing, fluttering, skimming, while she alone dragged herself up out of the saucer. (Envy and spite, the most detestable of the vices, were her chief faults.
The story gives us a close up look at the anxieties of Mabel as she attends the party.   "The New Dress" is so beautifully written I have to resist the urge to quote more of it.   It is not a hard to follow story at all but we can see Woolf's ability to get deep into the consciousness of her subjects well displayed in this miniature masterpiece.

The short essay, "A Common Reader" is one of Woolf best known essays about the reading life.    I hope no one minds but here is the whole essay:

The Common Reader
here is a sentence in Dr. Johnson’s Life of Gray which might well be written up in all those rooms, too humble to be called libraries, yet full of books, where the pursuit of reading is carried on by private people. “. . . I rejoice to concur with the common reader; for by the common sense of readers, uncorrupted by literary prejudices, after all the refinements of subtilty and the dogmatism of learning, must be finally decided all claim to poetical honours.” It defines their qualities; it dignifies their aims; it bestows upon a pursuit which devours a great deal of time, and is yet apt to leave behind it nothing very substantial, the sanction of the great man’s approval.
The common reader, as Dr. Johnson implies, differs from the critic and the scholar. He is worse educated, and nature has not gifted him so generously. He reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others. Above all, he is guided by an instinct to create for himself, out of whatever odds and ends he can come by, some kind of whole — a portrait of a man, a sketch of an age, a theory of the art of writing. He never ceases, as he reads, to run up some rickety and ramshackle fabric which shall give him the temporary satisfaction of looking sufficiently like the real object to allow of affection, laughter, and argument. Hasty, inaccurate, and superficial, snatching now this poem, now that scrap of old furniture, without caring where he finds it or of what nature it may be so long as it serves his purpose and rounds his structure, his deficiencies as a critic are too obvious to be pointed out; but if he has, as Dr. Johnson maintained, some say in the final distribution of poetical honours, then, perhaps, it may be worth while to write down a few of the ideas and opinions which, insignificant in themselves, yet contribute to so mighty a result.

If anyone has any suggestions as to short stories I might like please leave a comment.

Mel u

1 comment:

Suko said...

Mel, thanks for the mention!

The Common Reader is baffling to me, even after reading it a few times, but I love the sensitivity of The New Dress.