Character in Fiction: Writers, Techniques, and the Role of the Reader


In 1924, in “Character in Fiction,” Virginia Woolf wrote that the writers of her time must put aside the tools used by writers in the past. Arguing with Arnold Bennett, she said that it was important to try to describe the particular character of individual subject, for example, Mrs. Brown, and that one could not do so by resorting to the usual conventions of narrative. As in “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown,” she says that the Victorians and the Edwardians have failed to truly capture character, and in “Character,” she uses the example of Hilda Lessways, a character in an Arnold Bennett novel of the same title. After quoting from the novel, Woolf points out that in all Bennett’s description of Hilda’s house and its cost and the surroundings, “we cannot hear her mother’s voice, or Hilda’s voice; we can only hear Mr. Bennett’s voice telling us facts about rents and freeholds and copyholds and fines. . . .he is trying to make us imagine for him; he is trying to hypnotise us into a belief that, because he has made a house, there must be a person living there. With all his powers of observation, which are marvellous, with all his sympathy and humanity, which are great, Mr. Bennett has never once looked at Mrs. Brown in her corner.” Mrs. Brown is Woolf’s representative of “human nature,” and she says that the Edwardian writers (such as Bennett and Wells and Galsworthy) “have looked. . .out of the window; at factories, at Utopias, even at the decoration and upholstery of the carriage; but never at her, never at life, never at human nature. . .they have developed a technique of novel-writing which suits their purpose; they have made tools and established conventions which do their business. But those tools are not our tools, and that business is not our business. For us those conventions are ruin, those tools are death.”

Later in the essay VW argues that these Edwardian tools of writing “are the wrong ones for us to use. They have laid an enormous stress upon the fabric of things. They have given us a house in the hope that we may be able to deduce the human beings who live there. To give them their due, they have made that house much better worth living in. But if you hold that novels are in the first place about people, and only in the second about the houses they live in, that is the wrong way to set about it. Therefore, you see, the Georgian writer had to begin by throwing away the method that was in use at the moment.” She goes on to say how the Georgian writers of her time (from 1910 on) were having difficulty, because they did not yet have new tools with which to replace the old. E.M. Forster [her friend] and D. H. Lawrence [who had a powerful contempt for Woolf] spoiled their early work by trying to use the old tools instead of throwing them away. But at least they were trying to rescue poor Mrs. Brown. And in trying to find ways to capture the reality of Mrs. Brown, writers will cause “smashing and crashing” in their destruction of literary conventions. “Grammar is violated; syntax disintegrated . . .” She refers to Joyce’s “indecency” in Ulysses and Eliot’s obscurity in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and The Wasteland. Of Joyce’s indecency she writes that “it seems to me the conscious and calculated indecency of a desperate man who feels that in order to breathe he must break the windows.” She says that these “failures and fragments”—the works of writers trying to free themselves, and literature, and human character—Mrs. Brown—from oppressive conventions are “the sound of their axes” as they try to rescue Mrs. Brown.

And then she speaks directly to readers. Readers have duties as partners of writers. Mrs. Brown, Woolf says, “is just as visible to you who remain silent as to us who tell stories about her. In the course of your daily life this past week you have had far stranger and more interesting experiences than the one I have tried to describe. You have overheard scraps of talk that filled you with amazement. You have gone to bed at night bewildered by the complexity of your feelings. In one day thousands of ideas have coursed through your brains; thousands of emotions have met, collided, and disappeared in astonishing disorder. Nevertheless, you allow the writers to palm off upon you a version of all this, an image of Mrs Brown, which has no likeness to that surprising apparition whatsoever.” She asks readers to stop being so modest and humble and “to insist that writers shall come down off their plinths and pedestals, and describe beautifully is possible, truthfully at any rate, our Mrs. Brown. You should insist that she is an old lady of unlimited capacity and infinite variety; capable of appearing in any place; wearing any dress; saying anything and doing heaven knows what. But the things she says and the things she does and her eyes and her nose and her speech and her silence have an overwhelming fascination, for she is, of course, the spirit we live by, life itself. ”

Then she cautions the reader to be aware of the difficulty writers face in trying to capture this spirit. “But do not expect just at present a complete and satisfactory presentment of her. Tolerate the spasmodic, the obscure, the fragmentary, the failure. Your help is invoked in a good cause. For I will make one final and surpassingly rash prediction—we are trembling on the verge of one of the great ages of English literature. But it can only be reached if we are determined never, never, to desert Mrs Brown.”

Notice here how Woolf invites us to consider the creation of character as something that readers and writers do together. The text is an event produced in the reading of it.

In other essays Woolf refers to writers like Bennett, Wells, and Galsworthy as “materialists” and to her contemporaries Dorothy Richardson and James Joyce as “spiritualists.” Pamela Caughie argues, in Virginia Woolf and Postmodernism, that it is wrong to assume, as so many have, that Woolf “chooses between two kinds of fiction: materialist and spiritualist, modernist and conventional, representational and experimental. A better way to approach these essays is in terms of Woolf’s interest in the different effects on readers produced by different narrative relations. Woolf distrusted fiction that makes readers comfortable with their view of the world, that conforms to their expectations of what fiction should be, and that confirms their biases and assumptions. For all her talk of the reader’s cooperation with the writer, she was aware of the value of conflict as well, especially conflict within oneself. And it is such conflict and self-divison that ‘good’ literature, whether canonical or popular, produces.”


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