Reality and Perception of Reality in Virginia Woolf's Short Stories

Term Paper 2015 10 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Literature



1. Introduction

2. Main Part
2.1 Constructing Reality through the Narrative
2.2 Who Creates the Narratives?
2.3 The End: Revelation

3. Conclusion

4. Bibliography

1. Introduction

“No, no, nothing is proved, nothing is known (58).”

This quote from “The Mark on the Wall” already reveals one of the major themes of Virginia Woolf’s writing, the uncertainty of knowledge. By using a unique style of writing she shows how we try to make sense of our lives and give meaning to everything in the world. At the same time there is a profound feeling of not being able to fully understand what this existence is about.

By analyzing two of her short stories, “The Mark on the Wall” and “An Unwritten Novel”, I will examine Woolf’s method of showing the contrast between what we think reality to be and what reality actually is. Therefore, I argue that in her short stories Virginia Woolf demonstrates how we construct realities and meanings for ourselves through creating narratives and how easily these narratives are exposed as fragile and unstable.

In the first part of my analysis, I will examine how she uses these narratives to show how we make up realities for ourselves in order to make sense of the outside world. Then, I will continue with analyzing who these constructed realities come from and how she criticizes society through this. Lastly, it will be looked at the fragility of these constructed realities and how Woolf shows that what we think we know and what something really is, are not necessarily the same. She illustrates how incomplete and vague our assumptions and perceptions can be whenever we think we have fully understood something and offers different views on knowledge and reality at the ends of her stories.

2. Main Part

2.1 Constructing Reality through the Narrative

Woolf’s way of demonstrating how we construct realities for ourselves is to use narratives within the narrative itself, she creates fiction within fiction. A perfect example of this is her short story “An Unwritten Novel”. In this, the narrator makes up her own tale about the female passenger who sits in the train compartment with her. The method of giving the reader an insight into the narrator’s mind (stream of consciousness), creates different layers to the story and illustrates our tendency as human beings to always make assumptions about other people’s lives and the world around us. The narrator believes to have understood the woman’s “message” and “deciphered her secret, reading it beneath her gaze” (27). Through this separate narrative Virginia Woolf shows how we make up our own truths about the meaning of things in our minds in order to at least try and make sense of ourselves and the things and people around us.

In reference to the opposition of subjective and objective thought, the novels on one hand express and on the other formulate the perpetual tension between the world in consciousness and the world in reality. (Love 77)

This quote demonstrates how Woolf exposes the contrast between the world in our mind and the real world in her writings. Nóra Séllei also mentions how in “An Unwritten Novel” the narrative “I” imagines a truth and tries to decode and “contextualise [the other woman] socially, economically, psychologically, and emotionally” (192).

The construction of reality is obvious in the narrator’s behavior towards the other passenger, as she draws conclusions from and interprets the woman’s actions, although she does not even know this person’s background, she just simply starts making it up. This means that we always need to see something more in others, we project our own experiences onto them and reflect their actions as with “the speck on the glass” (27). The narrator is basically reading things into the other woman when thinking: “Oh, she committed some crime!” and continues to wrap an entire fictive story around this person who she actually does not know anything about (29). “Have I read you right?” the narrator asks the other woman in her thoughts, secretly knowing that she is only talking to herself, that she will not get an answer, because her “reality” is really only in her mind and the true reality might never be fully accessible to her. Once she thinks to have found it, it shifts again, “I wish I could piece them [fragments]



ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz
Short Story Virginia Woolf Reality and Perception The Mark On The Wall An Unwritten Novel



Title: Reality and Perception of Reality in Virginia Woolf's Short Stories