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, July 14, 2012

Virginia Woolf's Last Short Story "The Watering Place"

"The Watering Place" by Virginia Woolf (1941, 5 pages)

One of my long term  projects is reading  the complete fiction of Virginia Woolf (1882 to 1941-UK-there is some background information on her in my prior posts).    I have read and posted on seven of her novels and a few of her essays and short stories. My post on her "Solid Objects", one of my all time favorite short stories, is among the most viewed of the 1129 posts on The Reading Life.    Sometimes the short stories of Woolf seem to be neglected.   Maybe that is because of the towering status of her four most important novels.  

Two days ago I read and posted on Virginia Woolf's first short story "Phyllis and Rosamond" (1906).   Her first story (and also her first published fiction) was a conventional late Victorian comedy of manners work about husband hunting.  It was very interesting to see the start of one of the greatest writing careers of all time.  I thought instead of reading the stories in chronological order like a normal person might I would flash forward to the end of her career and life and read her last story, "The Watering Place".  (My post read research indicates some academic readers of Woolf feel this is an unfinished work based on extra textual evidence but as a reader I did not feel that at all.)

The difference in the two stories is simply huge.   "The Watering Place" is open to many readings and is not a plotted story at all.   It makes heavy symbolic use of deep rooted cultural images like the tides, waves, the ocean fish, sea shells, and toilets.   It is set in a sea side town, no doubt some where in England.  Here is the opening line "Like all seaside towns it was pervaded by the smell of fish".   The toys shops of the town are full of sea shells, and even the people who live there some how resemble sea shells.  The people in the town don't just look like shells they morph into another meaning of shell, that of a hollow vessel.   Everyday at one o'clock a lot of the people in the small town meet up at a restaurant, one with a fishy smell.   "The consumption of fish in that room must have been enormous".   We go into  the ladies restroom (comfort room) and the flushing toilets and water running in the sink mirror in a degraded way the ocean, the waves, and the tides.   We sit in as the women in the room exchange gossip and talk about men.   We cannot help but wonder what this snippet of a line (this story was written toward the start of WWII) reveals:  "But he ought to be more careful.  If he's caught doing it, he'll be court-martialed".   I wondered what this secret could be.

The women are seen as like little fish, with the tide covering and uncovering them.   It is the tide of history or the tide of a flushing toilet or is it both?   Is all life just the flushing of a toilet?

I could not help but feel sad and mesmerized as I read Woolf's last short story.   In thirty five years she went from a pretty typical "woman's story" that 100s of people could have written to a work that sums up the human condition in a few pages from Mount Parnassus,  a work that will keep me thinking for a long time.

I also want to let my readers known about a great new edition of the complete works of Virginia Woolf published as an E-Book by Delphi Classics.   It contains all the novels, all of the essays, her play, all of the short stories (including numerous ones I personally could not find online)  and all of the essays, including ones not in any of the collections of essays.   It has a smart table of contents with is very helpful.   One great thing about the set is that you can search the whole collection for words or expressions.  Just for fun I did a search on "London" and it came up 200 times, "Marriage" came 335 times, and "Ireland" 48 times.   I think to serious students of  Woolf just this feature alone would be worth the very reasonable purchase price.  It would certainly make a post on "Ireland and Virginia Woolf" a lot easier.  "Death" comes up 425 times.  

Further information on this title and the many other works offered by Delphi Classics can be found on their webpage.

Mel u


shaunag said...

Really interesting post, Mel. I'm not altogether familiar with Woolf's short stories so thank you for nudging me in that direction!

Suko said...

Wonderful review!

valerie sirr said...

I like how you compare the earlier and later works. I read her short story 'The Mark on the Wall' again recently and loved it. While it's stream of consciousness it has recurring motifs - the mark on the wall and Whittaker's Table of Precedency. A fascinating story.