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Woolf and Semi-Colons

dallowayIf you think Toni Morrison is difficult to read, try Virginia Woolf. They are challenging in different ways. Toni Morrison speaks in metaphors that diversifies the main plot into layers of allusions and meanings, creating a prose so poetic and lush that you will read on for pages until you realize the story has been lost. Virginia Woolf delights in the stream of consciousness. The narration follows at least twenty characters in a way that Woolf blurs the direct and indirect speech. An example from my current reading, Mrs. Dalloway:

Anyhow they were inseparable, and Elizabeth, her own daughter, went to Communion; and how she dressed, how she treated people who came to lunch she did not care a bit, it being her experience that the religious ecstasy made people callous (so did causes); dulled their feelings, for Miss Kilman would do anything for the Russians, starved herself for the Austrians, but in private inflicted positive torture, so insensitive was she, dressed in a green macintosh coat. Year in year out she wore that coat; she perspired; she was never in the room five minutes without making you feel her superiority, your inferiority; how poor she was; how rich you were; how she lived in a slum without a cushion or a bed or a rug or whatever it might be, all her soul rusted with that grievance sticking in it, her dismissal from school during the War—poor embittered unfortunate creature! For it was not her one hated but the idea of her, which undoubtedly had gathered in to itself a great deal that was not Miss Kilman had become one of those spectres with which one battles in the night; one of those spectres who stand astride us and suck half our life-blood, dominators and tyrants; for no doubt with another throw of the dice, had the black been uppermost and not the white, she would have loved Miss Kilman! But not in this world. No.” [12]

Every scene tracks the momentary thoughts of the character, as if the camera is panning slowly across the scene in a film. The semi-colons galore slow down the reading, forcing you to re-read, to examine closer, and to discern the many independent clauses buried in her long sentences. At times reading can become suffocating. The above paragraph encompasses just one thought, and in times, I cannot help asking, when is this paragraph going to end, so I can have another sip of my coffee? I have thoughts that some of the most minute, mundane details aren’t even important, if not irrelevant to the main storyline. It’s no more than a demonstration of her unique style. More to come later.

35 Responses

  1. I have tried Virginia Woolf before (specifically Mrs. Dalloway), and I just couldn’t get into her writing style. In general, I tend not to get much out of Stream of Consciousness writing, and given that she’s the queen of it, we probably weren’t the best match. Good luck on your journey with her!

  2. Doesn’t seem like an easy read to me… I find the semi-colons too glaring! 😉

  3. I think I actually got lost here… Hm. I actually think I could probably get into a writing style like this if I concentrated. I’ve been meaning to eventually read some Virginia Woolf, but every time I consider it, somebody jumps up and says she’s unreadable… I’m still not sure what to think.

  4. That is hilarious, but I can see how you wouldn’t dare take a sip of coffee in the middle of that, or you’d have to start over again! I have heard from many people that they just couldn’t stomach Woolf. If anyone can get through it and see the beaufy, it would be you. I shall await your final opinion!

  5. I loved the title of the post — and the content as well.

    Virginia Woolf is another one of the many authors (Toni Morrison included) that I very much want to read, but have just not had the time. I even have Mrs. Dalloway sitting on my bookshelf waiting patiently for me to pick it up. I could see where this would not be a fast read – but one to savor in small doses.

  6. It’s nice to hear that someone else is finding Woolf challenging. I was beginning to feel that I was mentally deficient after re reading the same paragraph thrice. It reminded me a little of reading Middlemarch. The only difference I guess is that with Elliot the sentence although long is focused, with Woolf, however the sentence has many strands and side notes so it makes it all the more challenging.

  7. Yeah, I loved this post because I feel like I’m in your class and you’re helping me understand the various authors and their writing styles. When it comes to authors such as these I feel very intimidated and stumped by what I’m reading. Please continue to dissect Mrs. Galloway!!

  8. I’ve been putting off Virginia Woolf for as long as I can remember. You’re making me want to read her…stop it!! (Semicolons don’t scare me)

    But seriously, loving your website, I’d love to hear feedback on my own from a pro like yourself, maybe we can do that blogroll thing….once I figure it out

  9. I was thinking about re-reading Mrs. Dalloway, but now maybe not–not if it’s going to mean I can’t get through a cup of coffee while I read! Thanks for your very funny thoughts 🙂

  10. I enjoyed Mrs. Dalloway several years ago, and eventually want to tackle it again. I found To the Lighthouse more daunting. This household inherited a complete set of both her diaries and her letters, which make for pretty interesting reading; I pull one out at random from time to time. The style is obviously reminiscent of her literary works, though not as polished, a bit easier to follow — though there are some magnificent descriptions which appear to be off the cuff; plus there are tidbits on all the Bloomsbury crowd, and some others of interest. Also, some amusing stories about her husband. There are some very tragic passages, especially near her last entries. In the main she is very challenging.

  11. I studied Mrs Dalloway perhaps two years ago and found it a masterpiece. I thought the detail exquisite.

    I have just read Brideshead Revisited and noticed lots of sentences lengthened by semi-colons. It is hard to keep track of such writing.

  12. I’m all the more intrigued by Woolf. I keep avoiding her, but maybe I shouldn’t. I kind of liked the passage you posted. The semi-colons didn’t bother me at all, haha. And what of our beloved Saramago?? He may not have semi-colons, but he has endless commas, lol.

  13. You’ve really challenged yourself with difficult authors this year: Jose Saramago, whose disregard of paragraph break; Toni Morrison, whose lush and layered narrative; Zora Neale Hurston, whose dialect locutions, and now Virginia Woolf, whose stream of consciousness could be suffocating—following your blog is like taking a reading and literature course that challenges myself.

  14. I love Mrs Dalloway! But I disagree with what you say about the mundane details being irrelevant to the main storyline. IMO, every stray thought in the novel works towards developing the characters and revealing their innermost desires/fears. This is one of those books where every single time I re-read it, I pick up something new…

  15. Woolf is very exhausting to read. I’m always aware of what I’m reading on the page, but because of the stream of consciousness, it quickly slithers out of my brain so it’s very hard to actually *grasp* what I’ve just read.

  16. Steph:
    I find it helpful to slow down reading, re-read passages, and watch for the shift between direct and indirect speech. I also read out loud some passages to make sens of the long-winded sentences.

  17. Melody:
    She’s definitely difficult to read, but the details to which she delineates daily life and people’s inner desires are worthy to taking the time.

  18. Biblibio:
    She’s readable but the text requires concentration, patience, and re-reading. Reading her actually makes me a more careful reader. 🙂

  19. Sandy:
    lol I have to make sure I don’t lose the place in the middle of the paragraph. Virginia Woolf requires you to give her undivided attention. If you’re not careful, you’ll be completely lost because she likes to shift narrative over to another character *without* starting a new paragraph.

  20. Molly:
    What you commented about small doses is key actually to reading her. You cannot rush, nor can you skim. I back-track the entire day’s worth of reading in order to understand the text, just the text alone, better.

  21. Dhea Quasim:
    Yes, not only that Woolf’s prose is unfocused, she seems to be going off the tangent at times. Somewhat “schizophrenic” I say.

  22. Staci:
    You’re so kind. I’m trying to explore and make sense out of the reading myself. I was a bit disheartening at the difficult narrative that spins to different direction. Now with a basic understanding of her style, reading has become smoother. I actually like the extent to which she describes details of an event and a scene. Then the narration takes an intimate turn and zooms into the character’s mind. It’s an incredible literary journey.

  23. Elena:
    Thank you Elena. Please read Virginia Woolf, you will be rewarded with a literary treat. 🙂

  24. gentle reader:
    Haha…I don’t want to lose the spot on the page when I am taking that sip. It’s all about concentration reading Woolf. 🙂

  25. So Matt, do you mind me asking….is this what you use your moleskin notebook for? Do you write down memorable quotes from books that you read — and/or perhaps use it to take notes on reading in order to help sort out the complexities?

    I feel I need a system that will not only help me organize my thoughts about a book after I have finished reading it, but also to help me track ideas and notes and wonderful quotes as I am reading. I have yet to try the moleskin, however.

  26. Greg S:
    To the Lighthouse and Orlando, which is biographical, are sitting on my shelf. As much as I enjoy Mrs. Dalloway, I would take a break from her upon completing it. I just found out there’s a sequel to Mrs. Dalloway, Mrs. Dalloway’s Party. 🙂

  27. Nico:
    Evelyn Waugh is another author I have to read. 🙂

  28. claire:
    Although Saramago ignores punctuation (especially the quotation marks), his prose tends to follow a more coherent line of thought; whereas Virginia Woolf’s can be completely out of the loop within the same paragraph. She might be talking about A and then, without much notice, spins off to talk about B having lunch with C. Get the idea? 🙂

  29. John:
    Thank you John. The blog is to organize my thoughts on the readings. Glad you have enjoyed reading my notes. I’m still trying to schedule in Ulysses by James Joyce. I don’t know if I’ll be able to read it before my vacation.

  30. tuesday:
    The beauty of her writing, all the vivid details, slowly emerges as I read on, forcing me to back-track and re-read passages. You’re right about the small bits of details. Now I’m really reading and enjoying. 🙂

  31. A really interesting post, she could really write for England! I think she gets easier to read once you have got into her world of writing.

    I have just started a blog about reading Virginia Woolf, I have decided to read her work in choronological order to see the progression of her ideas towards the novel. By the time she got to Mrs Dalloway she was quite experimental so it is a lot harder going. Her early work is much more accessible.

  32. Molly:
    I have my post-its handy when I read. I mark my favorite passages and lines that might speak the most important thoughts of the books. I usually write down the page number, and do a bit of short-hand on the post-it. When I fill one whole post-it, full of page references and notes, I insert the post-it into the pages.

    After I finish reading the book, I go back and read my notes on the post-its. These scribblings form the outline of my book review, which i write into my moleskin journal. 🙂

  33. Flo:
    Thanks for the insight into Virginia Woolf’s works. I’m glad you have shouted out because I heard the opposite from casual readers, who regarded Mrs. Dalloway her least accessible work. I have plan to read more of her, most likely To The Lighthouse and Orlando. 🙂

  34. Seems like I was always reading Virginia Woolf in college — and hated it! I just didn’t “get” her. Now, nearing 50, I have re-read Mrs. Dalloway and just loved it. Thanks so much for your insights — funny that you pulled out that particular paragraph because I think I read it three times to try to figure out what was happening! I did find that when I was able to focus and concentrate on Mrs. D, it was a very dreamlike experience.

  35. I hope you don’t mind but I have linked to this post from my latest post as I think it sums up nicely Virginia Woolf’s use of the semi-colon!


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