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The Feminist Aesthetics of Virginia Woolf: Modernism, Post-Impressionism, and the Politics of the Visual Essay



            Modernism can entail three similar meanings. Firstly, modernism can mean novelty or innovation, implying something that contrast the old and hence put across a certain conviction in progress. Secondly, various explicit meaning refers to the modern episode understood, from philosophical perspective, as linked to rationality, critical thinking and the era since the 18th century, which started to highlight reason as an approach of “objective” examination of realism that is strongly linked with empiricism in philosophy. Thirdly, modernism is linked with definite tendency in arts starting in the late 19th century that highlight psychology, subjective experience and non-mimetic, irrational replica of reality as revealed in the works of works of most European and American authors, and the works of avant-garde among other poetic tendencies.

            In contrast of postmodernism view of the world, modernism especially of the early 20th century and after the First World War, struggled to present a literary work in regard to chaotic post World War I reality, but also as a whole, though fragmented, resulting to a transcendental sense. Modernism was also a rejoinder to conventional realistic representation techniques that attempted to mimic reality; modernist literary works put weight on skewed experience instead of a conviction in likelihood of a literary work to put across the objective connotation and reality (Caughie, 2007.pp 23). Modernism was stimulated by a new era of large scale production, new era of industrialism, especially in the USA and Great Britain, technological changes as well as socio-historical proceedings and atmosphere of the era. Changes in the socio-economic and industrial structure called for new perception of the world.

            Scientific interventions and industrial production have stirred technological progress and the increased alienation in the rapidly developing urban surroundings. However, scientific changes and industrial production have also led to skepticism linked with the abuse of technologies for genocide during the World War I. Although, modernism is usually fragmented and experimental, arts and literary works provided an aesthetic and artistic knowledge as a substitute to the depressive and chaotic reality (Caughie, 1991.pp 18). In contrast to realistic literary works which emphasize on mimetic rule of imitation of reality; that is the literature that revealed the world as knowable, imitable and knowable via language, reason and experience, the modernist literature presented a incredulous representation on such a vision of reality and the capability of literature to provide a truthful, objective and objective portrait of reality.

            Modernist literature emphasized on mind, psychology, subjective experience and inner life of characters instead of describing the class conflict, external, outer and social reality. Modernist literature was connected not only to universal skepticism of the post World War I era, but also with growing mistrust of philosophers, scientists, scholars and artists in the capacity of reason to grasp, comprehend and elucidate reality. According to aesthetic and philosophical perspective, modern literature highlights postmodernist ontological and epistemological aspects. Friedrich Nietzsche contributed a lot in literature where he theorized man’s will to unreliability and power of language to represent the world. Ludwig Wittgenstein dealt with philosophy of language and the unexpected meaning it produces via “the language games”, and Sigmund Freud understood human being as irrational rather rational being driven by sexual desires, unconscious forces and suppressed dreams.

            Martin Heidegger is another significant philosopher who has influenced not only modernist, but also postmodernist thinking, especially in relation to the language and the representation of reality through it. Heidegger acknowledged language as a defective medium of referring to realism and highlighted its authority to generate unforeseen and unrestrained meanings. Anton Pokrivcak gives a summary of the discrepancy between postmodernism and modernism as follows: “The shift from modernism to postmodernism is understood as the shift within ontology from determinacy to indeterminacy of being, from transcendence to immanence, from symbol to allegory, from the world of ideology to the world of play” (Pokrivcak 1998:39), and this shift, in his view, can be also characterized as “the substitution of a semantic way of making sense for a semiotic one”. In their literature, modernist fiction writers of 20th century such as James Joyce and Virginia Woolf maintained the ideas and subjectivized human experience and highlighted on inner subjective experience as mostly expressed by first person narrator and stream-of-consciousness narrative method, a term overtaken from psychological theories of William James.

            Modernist writers thus subjectivized knowledge and, in their literary works, brought forward the suggestion that the globe cannot be impartially known only instinctively perceived by human brain. Subjectivity manifested typically itself, as it was highlighted above, in the first person narrative and the use of the stream-of-consciousness narrative technique bringing forth the subjective view of reality by human brain. In modernist fictional works, muddled reality revealed itself in authors’ utilization of fragmentary composition, non-chronological and in a portrayal of the relations between the characters. The use of non-linear, non-chronological time and fragmentary composition portrayed a latest responsiveness of the chaotic world and the estrangement as a result of new era and life in the cities.

            Alienation reveals itself in the characters’ association to work, society, the city and other characters that can at last lead to the emotions of nihilism. Moreover, alienation is intimately associated to uncertainty which reveals itself in the characters’ attitudes to the people. Modernist literature is regularly parodic and ironic. Parody and Irony are used as a type critique both of rational or idealistic literary convention and of the world. Modernist writers habitually utilize ancient mythology that are altered and recontextualized in a recent context and therefore they become recent myths associated to modernist cultural knowledge.

            Virginia Woolf, an English modernist writer, provides that “In or about December, 1910, human character changed”. The two statements meant a conviction that the community and its responsiveness had altered in 20th century and, simultaneously, a conviction in the likelihood of fresh types of arts, which would mirror a new scientific progress, awareness but also cynicism and turmoil of the recent age. Modernist literature incorporated the procedures of innovative technologies, social media among other types of art to put across this responsiveness of an innovative period. Viginia Woolf contribured immensely to postmodernism through her literal work “Literature in quest and quest of itself”. Woolf raised various questions since her literal works emphasized on social contexts and narrative strategies. Viginia Woolf was regarded as an exemplar of a high modernist aesthetics in early 1970s. However, Woolf’s literal works continue to receive major criticism who considers her as an exemplar of a feminist writing practice. Virginia Woolf literal works not only emphasized on feminist politics and modernist aesthetics, but it also took keen interest in the status and nature of the fiction itself.

            Virginia Woolf is famous for great achievement in regard to the modern novel and her exceptional style of writing in highlighting major issues especially in feminist writing. In the novels, ‘To The Lighthouse’ and ‘Mrs Dolloway’, Woolf evaluate the relations, both profound and superficial and how they are applied to the greater epistemological questions of being and life. Woolf put a balance to the significance of individual self and the communication of individual self with fellow human beings through representation of a set of often ambiguously interrelated characters. Woolf has skillfully succeeded to provide the leader with subversive keys to her view of life and its meaning. Woolf vision of life and its meaning balances the crucial character of individual and relational exploration and dependence (Goldman, 1998.pp 92). Woolf was interested in revealing the connection between future, past and life. Woolf literal works was aimed at explaining how humanity’s eventual purpose prevails in an ambiguous balance between ourselves and others in the sphere of social and intellectual achievement.

            Postmodern literal work is a fraction of historical and socio-cultural development and can be seen as a detailed manner of a portrayal of the postmodern life and culture. It shows a crisis of identity of human being and its struggle for legitimization in a hypocritical society (Rosenberg, 2000.pp 59). Virginia Woolf literal works help the leader to understand the connection between modernism and epistemological quest for meaning. According to aesthetic and philosophical perspective modernist literature emphasize on postmodernist ontological and epistemological aspects.

            In conclusion, modernism can imply three similar meanings. First, modernism can mean novelty or innovation. Modernism can also imply modern period based on the association between reality and empiricism of philosophy. Last, modernism can be associated with arts. Modernism is different from postmodernism because it attempted to bring out literary work based on reality though in a fragmented approach, thus creating transcendental meaning. Modernism was stimulated by new large scale production and industrialism in USA and Great Britain. Though fragmented, literary arts and works provided an aesthetic and artistic experience as an option to the depressive and chaotic reality. Modernist works such as that of Virginia Woolf revealed a skeptical view on such a vision of reality and the ability of a literary work to offer a truthful, objective representation of reality. Modernist literature emphasized on subjective, inner life, mind and psychology of characters instead of focusing on class conflict and social reality. Virginia Woolf was famous for her great contribution in modernist literature, though she faces a lot of criticism from various authors who believe her work was only from feminism politics and theory of postmodernism.


Caughie, Pamela L. “Postmodern and Poststructuralist Approaches to Virginia Woolf.” (2007): Print.

Caughie, Pamela L. “Virginia Woolf & Postmodernism: Literature in Quest & Question of Itself.” (1991): Print.

Colonial Anxiety and Primitivism in Modernist Fiction: Woolf, Freud, Forster, Stein. N.p., n.d.. Print.

Da, Silva N. T. Modernism and Virginia Woolf. Windsor: Windsor Publications, 1990. Print.

Goldman, Jane. The Feminist Aesthetics of Virginia Woolf: Modernism, Post-Impressionism, and the Politics of the Visual. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998. Print.

Goldman, Jane. The Feminist Aesthetics of Virginia Woolf: Modernism, Post-Impressionism, and the Politics of the Visual. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998. Print.

“modernism-postmodernism.” modernism. N.p., n.d. Web. 3 Dec. 2014. <http://www.pulib.sk/elpub2/FF/Kusnir1/pdf_doc/kusnir1.pdf>.

Rosenberg, Beth C. “Virginia Woolf’s Postmodern Literary History.” Mln 3 (2000): 25. Print.

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