Virginia Woolf had long been occupying a minor spot in the modernist literary canon when her work found its way to a new audience and received much overdue recognition in the second half of the 20th century. She was one of the first authors to incorporate the stream of consciousness technique in her books—a deep insight into the thoughts and emotions of characters, which contrasted the bird’s eye view that was typical of Victorian literature. Her writing touched upon many themes, including women’s role in society and their rights, mental issues, and the gaps between social classes. Despite having written only nine novels, her work left a significant mark in the literary world, and the following books show why she is worth the attention of a 21st century reader.
A firm fan favorite, To The Lighthouse centers on the Ramsay family and their vacation on the Isle of Skye in the first decade of the 20th century. Woolf drew inspiration from her own childhood family trips, and the novel’s protagonists Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay bear many similarities to Woolf’s parents. Thanks to the use of the stream of consciousness, the reader gets a thorough understanding of the characters and lives through a very emotional and poignant story right beside them. The novel deals with familial relationships, love, motherhood, and different perceptions of the same events.
It’s hard to categorize this 1933 piece because it doesn’t exactly follow the form of a novel, and it’s not a real biography either. The story, however, focuses on a real character—a pet dog named Flush, who belonged to the Victorian poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Flush is a cocker spaniel who moves from the countryside to London with his new owner where he lives among prominent literary figures of that time, including Elizabeth’s husband Robert Browning, a famous fellow poet. Woolf depicts city life in all of its glory and pain, as seen through the eyes of a dog, and it addresses the life struggles of Barrett Browning, including her dealing with an abusive father.
3. Jacob’s Room
After the success of her quite unconventional short stories, Jacob’s Room is the first novel in which Woolf’s modernist style of writing shines through. Although the premise of the novel doesn’t sound too off-beat, as it depicts the journey of a young man from his childhood days to adulthood, the protagonist isn’t actively involved in the story. Woolf lets the reader discover Jacob’s character only through other people’s impressions of him, which are often fleeting and occur in trains or restaurants. Even though he is the main character of the story, Jacob’s absence turns him into a concept created by other people rather than an actual person.
Undoubtedly one of Woolf’s most famous works, Mrs. Dalloway represents Woolf’s writing style at its best. The story takes place over one day in June 1923 and it follows Clarissa Dalloway’s preparations for the party she’s throwing in the evening, including the event itself. It sounds simple, but as the preparations progress, the reader gets an insight into several characters’ thoughts and emotions, including Clarissa, her former love interest Peter Walsh, and the WWI veteran Septimus Smith, who suffers from hallucinations. Through them, we can draw conclusions about Clarissa Dalloway’s life and whether she’s truly satisfied with it as it first seems. In addition to serving as a thorough portrayal of a character, Mrs. Dalloway also depicts the social values of post-war England.
Woolf’s seminal non-fiction work titled A Room of One’s Own was based on two lectures she gave at Cambridge in 1928 and it deals with the female role in a male-dominated society. She gives compelling observations about how women are under-represented in literature due to their limited education and work opportunities, as they are not expected to work and provide for themselves. She demonstrates this by imagining William Shakespeare’s fictional sister Judith, who’s equally talented, but is prevented from reaching her full artistic potential because of the restraints that society imposes on her.
6. The Years
Despite being a big commercial success upon publication, Woolf considered The Years to be a “failure” and had a difficult time writing it because she wasn’t entirely sure what she wanted to achieve with it. The novel is much less experimental in nature compared to her other works, and it resembles a typical Victorian saga about the life of a family. The story spans over 50 years and it shows the transition of a family from the Victorian times to a modern world. Woolf uses the same story device as in Mrs. Dalloway—every section of the novel focuses on a particular year, and each of those years is represented through a single day in the lives of the characters. She continues a deeper exploration of the themes she touched upon in Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse, namely women’s rights, child abuse, and class differences, but she also comments on political issues.
7. The Waves
Somewhere between prose and poetry, The Waves has many lyrical elements and is made of monologues given by six characters bound together by the narrator. Once again, the story is set in the framework of a single day and it follows the lives of the characters from youth to old age. There is no distinct plot line, but the poetic language she uses makes the reader relate to different stages in characters’ lives and live through the changes with them. Woolf depicts their lives in fragments, small scenes, and fleeting moments that are seemingly irrelevant, but in fact are of great value and importance.
One of Woolf’s most imaginative works, Orlando depicts the adventures of a genderfluid person who lives for several centuries, from Elizabethan times to the 20th century. Throughout the journey, Orlando makes gender switches and enjoys life that comes as a result of those shifts. The book was inspired by Vita Sackville-West, Woolf’s genderfluid friend and lover, and it is one of the staples of feminist, transgender, and queer literature. Woolf examines gender identity, roles, and sexuality and encourages the reader to do the same—do Orlando’s gender shifts cause his/her behaviour to automatically change to adapt to different norms?
Woolf’s last novel was written in difficult circumstances as she was battling severe depression, and it was published shortly after her suicide. Between the Acts centers on an amateur theatre group as they put on a play in a small English village, but it also serves as a bigger picture of the state of England between two world wars and the harrowing consequences they left on people’s lives. The story unfolds over the course of a single day, which is a well-known writing technique implemented by Woolf. She deals with the imminent passage of time, which only intensifies the somber tone associated with this book due to the tragic events that followed.