Woolf's Reading of Joyce's Ulysses, 1922-1941

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by James Heffernan, Dartmouth College


This page is a continuation of Woolf's Reading of Joyce's Ulysses, 1918-1920

In February of 1922, just after James Joyce's Ulysses appeared, Virginia Woolf wrote to her sister Vanessa, who was then in Paris: “for Gods sake make friends with Joyce. I particularly want to know what he’s like.”[1] So it is not surprising to learn that by mid-April of 1922, ten weeks after the publication of Ulysses in Paris, she had bought her own blue-bound copy for the (then) hefty sum of £4 even while working on a long story--“Mrs. Dalloway on Bond Street”--that would eventually become part of her next novel.[2]


Woolf's writing plans thus intersect with her reading agenda. On April 14, in the same letter to T.S. Eliot in which she reports her purchase of Ulysses, she tells Eliot that she hopes to finish her story in three to six weeks, that she wants him to edit it mercilessly when it is done, that Leonard has started reading Ulysses, and that as soon as she herself does likewise, “your critical reputation will be at stake” (L 2: 521).  With all its archness, this statement has telling implications. While eager to trust Eliot’s judgement of her own work, she will now test his judgment of Ulysses.  Furthermore, though she had already read its first four chapters twice and its next four chapters once and briefly assessed all eight of them in print, she sounds like someone plunging into Ulysses for the first time.  At some level, one suspects, she seems to be asking Eliot to stop rhapsodizing about Joyce and start paying more attention to her. But in any case, her st
Woolf 4.jpg
atement about Eliot’s “critical reputation” plainly reveals the mindset that she now brings to the novel as a whole. She is predisposed to find it undeserving of Eliot’s praise. On the same day of her letter to Eliot about it, she writes more candidly to her brother-in-law Clive Bell: “Leonard is already 30 pages deep. I look, and sip, and shudder” (L 2: 522).


Later in this same April, Ulysses was reviewed by two literary figures whom Woolf knew well: John Middleton Murry and Arnold Bennett. Whether or not she saw these reviews, each judged the novel an amalgam of lead and gold.[3] Murry thought Joyce’s intention “completely anarchic” but also hailed “the intensity of life” to be found in the book and Joyce’s “very great achievement” in rendering “all the thoughts” of his characters with the comic force of “transcendental buffoonery."[4]  Bennett found the novel pervasively dull and “more indecent . . . than the majority of professedly pornographic books” but also “dazzlingly original,” and for all its indecency, Molly’s monologue struck him as “immortal” and “magical” in its “utterly convincing realism” (Deming 1: 220-21). Meanwhile, Woolf saw Joyce as nothing but an irksome distraction from her reading of Marcel Proust. On June 5, having started reading the second volume of A La Recherche du Temps Perdu, she chafes at the thought of Ulysses: “Oh what a bore about Joyce!” she writes, “just as I was devoting myself to Proust--Now I must put aside Proust--and what I suspect is that Joyce is one of those undelivered geniuses, whom one can’t neglect, or silence their groans, but must help them out, at considerable pains to oneself” (L 2: 533).


The task of reading Ulysses has now become an obstetrical ordeal, with Woolf herself as midwife for a book that--she seems to think--cannot be born without her help. Perhaps she is thinking of what she has already written about its early chapters in “Modern Novels.” But for now, the only further help she can offer is simply to read the book. “Thank God,” she tells her diary in late August, “I need not write about it."[5]  But shortly before, on August 16, when she was “laboriously dredging [her] mind” for her story about Mrs. Dalloway, she confided to her diary her own withering assessment of the two hundred pages she had read so fa:

I . . . have been amused, stimulated, charmed interested by the first 2 or 3 chapters--to the end of the Cemetery scene; & then puzzled, bored, irritated, & disillusioned as by a queasy undergraduate scratching his pimples. And Tom, great Tom, thinks this on a par with War & Peace! An illiterate, underbred book it seems to me: the book of a self-taught working man, & we all know how distressing they are, how egotistic, insistent, raw, striking, & ultimately nauseating. When one can have cooked flesh, why have the raw? But I think if you are anaemic, as Tom is, there is glory in blood. Being fairly normal myself I am soon ready for the classics again. I may revise this later. I do not compromise my critical sagacity. I plant a stick in the ground to mark page 200. (D 2: 188-89)

Thus the critic plants her stick. Since page 200 of the first edition of Ulysses ends a few pages short of the end of Chapter 9 (precisely at line 906 in Gabler’s edition), not even Stephen’s impassioned vivisection of Hamlet led her to read further, much less to Chapter 13 and the wooden stick with which a glum Leopold Bloom starts to write in the sand a message about himself for Gerty McDowell; when he stops after “I AM A” and throws the stick away, it falls in the sand, “stuck,"[6] a grim sign of the psychic paralysis that threatens him as he thinks: “Better not stick here all night like a limpet” (U 13. 1211). Woolf is no Bloom, but her late-August letters show that she herself remained stuck at page 200 until at least the 26th (ten days after writing the above), when she told Lytton Strachey what she thought of “the first 200 pages”:

Never did I read such tosh. As for the first 2 chapters we will let them pass, but the 3rd 4th 5th 6th--merely the scratching of pimples on the body of the bootboy at Claridges. Of course genius may blaze out on page 652 but I have my doubts. And this is what Eliot worships . . . (L 2: 551)
Ten days stuck on page 200 of Ulysses have sharpened not her critical sagacity but her animus against its author. Having snobbishly fabricated a picture of Joyce (who held a university degree in modern languages) as a raw, egotistical, self-taught, underbred workingman, she now sees him as a pimply-faced bootboy oozing tosh. Forgetting or discarding her public praise of Ulysses and particularly of Chapter 6, she treats it with nothing but scorn--or at best pity. A few days before writing the above, she had told Lady Ottoline Morrell that “the poor young man” (precisely eight days younger than she, as already noted) “has only got the dregs of a mind compared with George Meredith” and that beside Henry James he is an intellectual featherweight. “They say,” she went on, “it gets a little heavier. It is true that I prepared myself, owing to Tom [Eliot], for a gigantic effort; and behold, the bucket is almost empty” (L 2
Ulysses first edition.jpg
: 548).


She had already used this trope of her own work. A few days earlier, she had told her diary that in her “laborious dredging . . . for Mrs Dalloway” [her story, that is] she was “bringing up light buckets” (D 2: 189). Having begun to suspect--as noted above--that Joyce was probably beating her at her own game, how could she avoid measuring herself against him or, more precisely, wanting to find his buckets just as light as hers? And could she finish her story or turn it into another novel of her own so long as this strange new giant of literature cast his shadow before her? The answer, I think, is no. To go on writing, she had to stop reading Ulysses. I believe that she stopped at page 200 and then did all she could to drive it from her mind. On August 26 she tells her diary: “I dislike Ulysses more & more--that is think it more & more unimportant; & dont even trouble conscientiously to make out its meanings. Thank God, I need not write about it” (D 2: 195-96). By this she clearly meant that she would write no more about it for publication, since she did indeed have a few more things to say in private. On September 3, eight days after last reporting that she had read just 200 pages, she tells her diary, “I should be reading the last immortal chapter of Ulysses: but I’m hot with Badmington [sic] in the orchard . . . we dine in 35 minutes; & I must change” (D 2: 197).[7]  And three days later she tells her diary, “I finished Ulysses” (D 2: 199).


Just what does this mean? I believe it can only mean that she had finished with it--not that she had read it all, let alone tried “conscientiously to make out its meanings.” In the more than four months from mid-April to August 24, she had read just two hundred pages of Ulysses even though she had already read many of them once or twice before. Could she have read the remaining 532 pages in the eleven days from August 26 to September 6, when she claims to have finished the novel? The answer is both yes and no. On one hand, she could have read those pages in one long day, for the whole of Ulysses has been many times read aloud--typically by a team of readers-- in twenty-four hours. On the other hand, given the rate at which she had been reading Ulysses, she could not possibly have read it all by September 6--especially since she was already overloaded with other tasks.


Consider her diary for Monday, August 28. There she notes that she must finish writing “Mrs Dalloway” (still a story) by the following Saturday and (for The Common Reader) “start [the] chapter on Chaucer” by Friday September 8. Then she asks herself, “Shall I write the next chapter of Mrs. D.”-- thus nudging it toward a novel-- “& shall it be The Prime Minister?” (D 2: 196).[8]  Besides these writing projects, she sets herself a daunting syllabus of reading for the next few weeks, including Homer, Plato, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Marlowe, Racine, and Ibsen. But Joyce appears neither here nor in her next diary entry of September 3, where she reports that company is coming, that she is “fretful with people,” that “every day will now be occupied [with visitors] till Tuesday week,” that she “cant endure interruptions,” that she’s “always in a fizz & a stew, either to get my views on Chaucer clear, or on the Odyssey, or to sketch my next chapter” (D 2: 197-98). Where on earth could she find two minutes for Joyce? On Wednesday, September 6, the day she claims to have “finished Ulysses,” she reports that she has just seen off three sets of visitors, who “leave one in tatters,” and also that proofs of Jacob’s Room have been coming “every other day” (D 2: 198-99). Even if she had not dreaded reading Ulysses, she could hardly have found the time to skim--let alone read--532 pages of it by September 6.


So she thrusts it aside. Pressed with far too many other obligations and feeling depressed about the thinness of Jacob’s Room (D 2: 199), she can no longer bear to think about Ulysses, and in the face of all the claims that have been made for it, even by herself, she does what she can to justify her dismissal of it:

I finished Ulysses, & think it is a mis-fire. Genius it has I think; but of the inferior water. The book is diffuse. It is brackish. It is pretentious. It is underbred, not only in the obvious sense, but in the literary sense. A first rate writer, I mean, respects writing too much to be tricky; startling; doing stunts. I’m reminded all the time of some callow board [sic] schoolboy, say like Henry Lamb, full of wits & powers, but so self-conscious and egotistical that he loses his head, becomes extravagant, mannered, uproarious, ill at ease, makes kindly people feel sorry for him, & stern ones merely annoyed; & one hopes he’ll grow out of it; but as Joyce is 40 this scarcely seems likely. I have not read it carefully; & only once; & it is very obscure; so no doubt I have scamped the virtue of it more than is fair. I feel that myriads of tiny bullets pepper one & spatter one; but one does not get one deadly wound straight in the face--as from Tolstoy, for instance; but it is entirely absurd to compare him with Tolstoy. (D 2: 199-200)

This summing up of her impressions is more generous, more candid, more apt, and distinctly less ad hominem than some of her previous comments. Recognizing the “genius” of Ulysses, she admits that she has not read it carefully (an understatement, to be sure) and may have “scamped the virtue of it.” Also, in regretting its “extravagant” tricks, she unwittingly echoes a plausible if also highly debatable complaint made two months earlier by Edmund Wilson: that Joyce “cannot be a realistic novelist . . . and write burlesques at the same time,” that his “method” is incompatible with either “superabundance or extravagant fancy” (New Republic 5 July, 1922; Deming 1: 229). Overall, however, her tone is dismissive, impressionistic, and personal. She finds the book diffuse, brackish, pretentious, and underbred, and she finds author callow, dwarfed by Tolstoy--no giant at all.


Yet this was far from her last word on Ulysses. The very day after she thus “finished” with it, Leonard showed her the most specific, detailed, and perceptive of all the verdicts it received: Gilbert Seldes’ review in the August 30 issue of the Nation.[9]  Calling it “a monstrous and magnificent travesty,” Seldes wrote that “it burlesques the structure of [The Odyssey] as a satyr-play burlesqued the tragic cycle to which it was appended,” but in doing so it becomes “a masterpiece.” Noting also its pyschological penetration, its re-creation of “the stream of consciousness” in the minds of its three unmistakably distinct major characters, he went on to explain several of the episodes, to justify the parodies of Chapter 14, and to construe “Circe” as something “not equalled in literature,” a nightmarish revelation of “the implacable terrors in the subconscious minds of Stephen and Bloom” (Deming 2: 235-37). None of this would be news to any modern reader of Joyce, but on September 7, 1922, it was definitely news to Virginia Woolf. “For the first time,” she wrote, this review

analyses the meanings; & certainly makes it very much more impressive than I judged. Still I think there is virtue & some lasting truth in first impressions; so I don’t cancell mine. I must read some of the chapters again. Probably the final beauty of writing is never felt by contemporaries; but they ought, I think, to be bowled over; and this I was not. Then again, I had my back up on purpose; then again I was over stimulated by Tom’s praises. (D 2: 200).

Once more Woolf is generous. Re-opening her mind to this new case for Ulysses, she tells herself that she must re-read some of its chapters. But the review does not change her mind. Even while admitting that “the final beauty of writing is never felt by contemporaries,” she insists on the “lasting truth” of her own first impressions, which were mainly negative: she was not “bowled over.”[10]   But then again, as she says, she had her “back up on purpose.” By this I take it she means that was predisposed to resist the book, to find that Eliot had over-rated it or “over stimulated” her expectations.

T.S. Eliot.jpg

Whenever she saw Eliot, however, the subject of Ulysses came up again. On September 23, about two weeks after she read Seldes’ review, they spoke of it again at some length:
Tom said, “He is a purely literary writer. He is founded upon Walter Pater with a dash of Newman.” I said he was virile--a he-goat; but didn’t expect Tom to agree. Tom did tho’; & said he left out many things that were important. The book would be a landmark, because it destroyed the whole of the 19th Century. It left Joyce himself with nothing to write another book on. It showed up the futility of all the English styles. He thought some of the writing beautiful. But there was no ‘great conception’: that was not Joyce’s intention. He thought Joyce did completely what he meant to do. But he did not think that he gave a new insight into human nature--said nothing new like Tolstoi. Bloom told one nothing. Indeed, he said, this new method of giving the psychology proves to my mind that it doesn’t work. It doesn’t tell as much as some casual glance from outside often tells. I said I had found [Thackeray’s] Pendennis more illuminating in this way. (D 2: 202-203)

With two brief exceptions, this is Woolf’s account of what Eliot has told her about Ulysses, and it is far from unstintingly positive. But Woolf writes from memory three days after their conversation, and whatever Eliot may have said about Ulysses to her, his own published words the following year plainly express his considered opinion of it:

I hold this book to be the most important expression which the present age has found; it is a book to which we are all indebted, and from which none of us can escape.[11]

Eliot’s words surely apply to Virginia Woolf, who--no matter how hard she tried to escape Ulysses-- could never stop thinking about it. Barely a week after the conversation with Eliot, she told Roger Fry (see Woolf's Reaction to Joyce's Ulysses, 1918-1920) that she had bound herself to Ulysses “like a martyr to a stake, and have thank God, now finished-- My martyrdom is over. I hope to sell it for £4.10” (L 2.566). The stick of resistance has become the stake of martydom, but Woolf leaves both behind as she slowly gives birth to Mrs. Dalloway, which begins with a sentence that unwittingly evokes the final chapter of Ulysses: “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.”[12]   By sheer coincidence (since I don’t believe that Woolf ever read the final chapter of Ulysses), the sexually frigid heroine of Woolf’s novel echoes what the sexually overheated Molly says near the end of her monologue: “Ill go to Lambes there beside Findlaters and get them to send us some flowers to put about the place” (U 18. 1548-50).


Far more telling than this little echo, however, is the coincidence in focus and setting between the two novels. Just as Ulysses chiefly recounts the thoughts, feelings, and memories of two men wandering separately (for the most part) through Dublin on a single day in the middle of June 1904, Mrs. Dalloway chiefly recounts the thoughts, feelings, and memories of three people separately making their way around London on a single day “in the middle of June” (MD 6).[13] What Woolf wrote in her planning notes for the novel (on November 9, 1922) could have just as well forecast the composition of Ulysses: “All inner feelings to be lit up” (qtd. Richter 308). To say so much is hardly to say that Woolf apes Joyce, any more than Joyce apes Homer.[14]   The many minds plumbed in Ulysses nowhere include the mind of a schizophrenic (the harmless lunatics Breen and Farrell don’t count) or of a hostess, which if anything evokes the world of Proust; and not even Proust unveils the inner life and deep past of a hostess as Woolf does in Mrs. Dalloway. So this can hardly be called a derivative book. Nevertheless, the similarity between Ulysses and Mrs. Dalloway strongly implies that no matter what Woolf said or thought about Joyce, she could never escape his influence. As Suzette Henke observes, Joyce was her “artistic ‘double,’ a male ally in the modernist battle for psychological realism” (VWRJJ 41).


But did Woolf ever declare this alliance? Though Henke says that Woolf “always regarded” Joyce in this way, she came near to admitting it only once--when she told her diary (not the public) that what she was doing in her fiction was “probably being better done by Mr. Joyce.” Except for that one comment, almost everything she writes about Joyce reveals at least in part her irremediable distaste for his work. She cannot give him any sort of credit without faulting him as well, or even flailing him. “I rather agree that Joyce is underrated,” she writes to Gerald Brenan in December 1923, “but never did any book so bore me” (L 3: 80).


Given this resentment of Joyce--it seems to me just the word for her annoyance at all the trouble he has caused her--it is fascinating to see the part he plays in the final version of her landmark essay best known as “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown.” In the first version, published in the Literary Review of the New York Evening Post on November 17, 1923, she makes no mention of Joyce. In the expanded version, which was based on a lecture given at Cambridge on May 18, 1924 and which appeared the following July in Criterion under the title “Character in Fiction,” she places Joyce with those who are challenging the conventions of Edwardian fiction.[15]


She is thus returning to the theme of “Modern Novels” (1919), where she had already faulted Wells, Galsworthy, and especially Bennett for their materialism, for over-stressing the external world and ignoring the inner life of Mrs. Brown, who embodies “human nature” but who sits unnoticed in the corner of the railway carriage from which they view the world. Almost four years after “Modern Novels” appeared, Bennett produced an essay of his own (“Is the Novel Decaying?” Cassell’s Weekly, March 28, 1923) stating that “the foundation of good fiction is character-creating and nothing else” and also--in Woolf’s paraphrase--that “we have no young novelists of first-rate importance at the present moment, because they are unable to create characters that are real, true, and convincing” (quoted and paraphrased in Woolf E 3: 421). Taking this charge against “young novelists”--including of course herself--as the bit between her teeth, Woolf renews her attack on the “tools and established conventions” of Bennett and his fellow Edwardians, such as “the convention of using a
Arnold Bennett.jpg
house to define a character” (E 3: 432). “For us,” she writes, “those conventions are ruin, those tools are death” (E 3: 430).[16]


By “us” she means what she calls the “Georgian novelists,” who came of age not only as George V assumed the throne but also just as human character—she thought--changed. “About the year 1910,” she claims, “all human relations shifted--those between masters and servants, husbands and wives, parents and children” (E 3: 422).[17]  Given her loathing of Edwardian literary conventions and her conviction that human character had fundamentally changed, might we not well expect her to take up arms on behalf of her own generation of Georgians, including Forster, Lawrence, and Joyce? But she does nothing of the kind. On the contrary, after faulting Forster and Lawrence for “spoil[ing] their early work” by trying to use the old tools, she contends that literature now--in 1924--suffers from having “no code of manners which writers and readers accept. . . .” (E 3: 434). “Signs of this are everywhere apparent” in the breakdown of grammar and syntax, in the collapse of literary etiquette (these writers “do not know which to use, their fork or their fingers”), and the prime offender is Joyce--for his indecency. Yet again she returns to her bête noir, but this time she sees hardly anything else. In “Modern Novels” she mentions indecency only by way of qualifying her praise for Joyce’s originality in tracking consciousness. Now she makes it the essence of his work, which is window crashing. “Mr Joyce’s indecency in Ulysses,” she declares, 

seems to me the conscious and calculated indecency of a desperate man who feels that in order to breathe he must break the windows. At moments, when the window is broken, he is magnificent. But what a waste of energy! And, after all, how dull indecency is, when it is not the overflowing of a superabundant energy or savagery, but the determined and public-spirited act of a man who needs fresh air! (E 3: 434)

Woolf’s attack on window-crashing is not whole-hearted. Having already deplored the Edwardian convention of defining a character by the house that he or she occupies, she can hardly reject without mercy Joyce’s need for fresh air or ignore its sometimes “magnificent” vibrancy. As a result, her response to the literary revolution wrought by Joyce (and to a lesser extent by his fellow “Georgians”) is almost self-contradictory. On one hand, she contends that Joyce is indecent, desperate, violent, and (somehow) dull. In the face of his indecency and of Eliot’s obscurity, Woolf cries out--she “confess[es]"-- “for the old decorums” of literature (E 3: 335). But she confesses this yearning as if it were a sin against her own mission to revitalize English fiction, and in the raw text of the Cambridge lecture on which this essays is based, she admits that Joyce smashes literary conventions precisely in order to

keep absolutely close to my idea of Mrs Brown Mrs Bloom, I mean. Thus it is that we hear all around us <in poems & novels & biographies & even in newspapers in essays>, the sound of breaking and falling and destruction. It is the prevailing sound of the Georgian age.-- rather a melancholy one, if you think what melodious days there have been in the past -- if you think of Shakespeare and Milton or even of Dickens and Thackeray. (E 3: 515)[18]

“My idea of Mrs. Brown----Mrs Bloom, I mean.”[19] Though this line did not make the published essay, nowhere else does Woolf come closer to recognizing that she and Joyce were allies in the struggle to re-create the inner life and consciousness of a hitherto overlooked character, especially since Bloom--like Mrs. Brown-- is so often overlooked or underestimated by those around him. So what does the “melancholy” mean here? In view of what Joyce has done, can Woolf feel wholly depressed by the sound of breaking and falling and destruction when they smash the very conventions that meant ruin and death (as she said) to the novelists of her own generation? The answer is clearly no. Near the end of her essay, just after observing that the truth so destructively told by Joyce and the other Georgians “is bound to reach us in rather an exhausted and chaotic condition,” Woolf writes, “And it is the sound of their axes we hear--a vigorous and stimulating sound in my ears--unless you wish to sleep, when in the bounty of his concern, Providence has provided a host of writers anxious and able to satisfy your needs” (E 3: 435). For all her discomfort with Joyce’s indecency, Woolf can hardly embrace or endorse soporific decorum. If she must choose between that and the sound of axes, she’ll take the latter. In her final public statement about Joyce, then, she salutes him almost in spite of herself--as a revolutionary bent, like her, on breaking and re-making the house of fiction. Thereafter, except for a single brief laudatory reference in a letter to Quentin Bell,[20] she wrote nothing about Joyce until January 15, 1941, when she put this in her diary:

Then Joyce is dead--Joyce about a fortnight younger than I am. I remember Miss Weaver, in wool gloves, bringing Ulysses in type script to our tea table at Hogarth House. Roger [Fry] I think sent her. Would we devote our lives to printing it? The indecent pages looked so incongruous: she was spinsterly, buttoned up. And the pages reeled with indecency. I put it in the drawer of the inlaid cabinet. One day Katherine Mansfield came, & I had it out. She began to read, ridiculing: then suddenly said, But theres some thing in this: a scene that should figure I suppose in the history of literature. He was about the place, but I never saw him. Then I remember Tom in Ottoline’s room at Garsington saying--it was published then--how could anyone write again after achieving the immense prodigy of the last chapter? He was for the first time in my knowledge, rapt, enthusiastic. I bought the blue paper book, & read it here one summer I think with spasms of wonder, of discovery, & then again with long lapses of immense boredom. . . .. This goes back to a pre-historic world. (D 5: 352-53, emphasis mine).

As well as anything else she ever wrote about Joyce, this final comment encapsulates the complexity of her response to Ulysses. Learning only now (apparently) that Joyce was almost her exact contemporary,[21] she first recalls Harriet Weaver’s delivery of the manuscript and the “indecency” that made her put it away. Then she remembers the praise it won from a skeptical Katherine Mansfield and Eliot’s raptures over its final chapter. Finally she recalls her own profoundly split response to the book while reading it in a “pre-historic” time some twenty years previous: wonder and boredom. A little of the first can be found in her reading notes on Ulysses, as we have seen, but she has evidently forgotten how much she chafed at it in the summer of 1922, when she said nothing of wonder or discovery but much of boredom and distaste--especially when she “finished” reading this “mis-fire.”


Summing up Woolf’s response to Joyce and Ulysses, therefore, is no easy matter. To tread the long trail of her comments on them in her letters, diaries, reading notes, lectures, and essays is to find bits of evidence for two conflicting inferences: on one hand, she disdained both the book and its author; on the other hand, she saw Joyce--in Henke’s words--as her “male ally in the modernist battle for psychological realism.” But the whole truth of her response to Joyce lies, I think, not so much between these extremes as beneath them. While her “spasms of wonder and discovery” suggest that reading Joyce gave her something like an orgasmic thrill, she never mentions these spasms while reading him; they are masked by her stubborn aversion to his indecency, which she can never forget. Together, this aversion and her sense of boredom--or the boring effect of his indecency--furnish a bulwark against his intimidating success in the portrayal of consciousness: doing the very thing that she is trying to do, only better. She could not acknowledge him as her ally in the battle for psychological realism without giving up her place in its front ranks. To do her own work, and especially to write Mrs. Dalloway, she had to pretend to forget what Joyce had done--even as she absorbed all she could of his influence.

For more on Woolf's reaction to Joyce, see Woolf's Reading of Joyce's Ulysses, 1918-1920


  1. The Letters of Virginia Woolf, 6 vols., ed. Nigel Nicolson and Joanne Trautman (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975-1980), 2:507, hereafter cited as L. Vanessa’s husband Clive had met Joyce in the fall of 1921, and--according to Joyce’s letter to Harriet Weaver of November 6, 1921-- did not like him (L 1: 176).
  2. She had finished Jacob’s Room in the previous November (D 2: 141), and the Hogarth Press published it in October 1922.
  3. Interestingly, both of them question the claims for Ulysses made by Valery Larbaud, who—in the first public lecture on it (at a pre-publication book launch in Paris on December 7, 1921)--had called it a “masterpiece” (qtd. Bennett in Deming 1: 219). Given the history of French support for Ireland’s long struggle to gain its independence, I suspect that English critics (though not Woolf) were predisposed to reject or at best disparage French praise of any book written by an Irishman.
  4. Robert H. Deming, ed. James Joyce: The Critical Heritage, 2 vols. (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1970): 1:196-97
  5. The Diary of Virginia Woolf, 5 vols., ed. Anne Olivier Bell and Andrew McNeillie (London: Hogarth Press, 1977-1984), 2: 195-96, hereafter cited as D.
  6. James Joyce, Ulysses, ed. Hans Walter Gabler, Wolfhard Steppe, and Claus Melchior (New York: Random House, 1986.), 13.1270.-- hereafter cited as U.
  7. Since she speaks of the last chapter as “immortal,” she may be echoing what Bennett wrote of it in his review of the previous April (see above, p. 13).
  8. The story called “Mrs. Dalloway on Bond Street” appeared in Dial in July 1923, and can be found in The Complete Shorter Fiction of Virginia Woolf, ed. Susan Dick, 2nd ed. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1989): 146-63. But on October 6, 1922, long before the story was published, she outlined a book to be called “At Home: or The Party,” with the Dalloway story as its first chapter (CSF 295). On October 14, she noted that “Mrs Dalloway has branched into a book” for which she was soon planning to finish the second chapter, to be called “the Prime Minister” (D 2: 207-08). Though she never wrote more than a fragment of this episode, she used sections of the fragment in the opening scenes of the novel, and it can be found as an appendix in CSF 317-23.
  9. Reviewing Ulysses in The Dial in November of 1923, T.S. Eliot brilliantly answered those who had found it chaotic or “anarchic,” as did J. M. Murry in his review of April 22, 1922 (Deming 1: 196-97). Eliot argued that “in manipulating a continuous parallel between contemporaneity and antiquity,” Joyce’s use of Homeric myth was “simply a way of controlling, of ordering, or giving a shape and a significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history” (Deming 1: 270). But Seldes’ explanation of what Joyce actually does in the novel is far more specific than Eliot’s generalized brief for it.
  10. Yet note again what she writes of her first response to the “Hades” chapter in “Modern Fiction”: “on a first reading at any rate, it is difficult not to acclaim it a masterpiece. If we want life itself, here surely we have it” (E 4: 000). If first impressions have some “lasting truth” that cannot be cancelled by later ones, why does she not still think “Hades” a masterpiece?
  11. Dial, November 1923 (Deming 1: 268), emphasis mine. In the review that so much impressed Woolf when she read it over a year before, Gilbert Seldes had already made this point: “I have called Joyce formidable because it is already clear that the innovations in method and the developments in structure which he has used with a skill approaching perfection are going to have an incalculable effect upon the writers of the future. . . . I cannot see how any novelist be able (not why he should altogether want) entirely to escape his influence” (Deming 1: 238).
  12. Mrs. Dalloway, ed. Morris Beja (Oxford: Blackwell/ Shakespeare Head, 1996): 3. In the first line of the short story that led to the novel, “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the gloves herself” (CSF 146).
  13. For an extensive analysis of parallels, see Harvena Richter, “The Ulysses Connection: Clarissa Dalloway’s Bloomsday.” Studies in the Novel 21.3 (1989).
  14. Even after enumerating all of the borrowings and parallels between Ulysses and Mrs. Dalloway, Richter rightly declares, “they cannot be called imitation. Rather, it is a question of transformation, of Woolf taking ideas from Joyce and adapting them to the particular needs of her novel” (Richter 316).
  15. In October 1924, “Character in Fiction” was reprinted by the Hogarth Press with minor revisions as a pamphlet titled Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown. For convenience I quote from “Character” (E 3: 420-36).
  16. Yet she seems to have overlooked the irony that in Jacob’s Room, she uses a series of rooms to mark the growth of her title character.
  17. Since Woolf also says more specifically that human character changed “about December 1910” (E 3: 421), Deming notes that the First Post-Impressionist Exhibition opened at the Grafton Galleries on November of that year (E 3: 437n4). But Woolf herself offers little to support her generalization, which cannot easily be reconciled with her own claim that her paradigm of “human nature”--Mrs. Brown-- is “eternal” and “changes only on the surface” (E 3: 430).
  18. Whether intentionally or not, her metaphors of destruction evoke Stephen’s thoughts about war in the morning classroom scene of Ulysses: “I hear the ruin of all space, shattered glass and toppling masonry, and time one livid final flame” (U 2. 9-10).
  19. This is just one example of the way Woolf’s names overlap with those chosen by Joyce. It is sheer coincidence, of course, that Virginia and Leonard Woolf lived in the London district of Bloomsbury, and that Virginia’s maiden name was Stephen. But is it coincidence that in early manuscript versions of Woolf’s novel, Septimus Smith is Stephen Smith and Sally Seton is called Molly? See Richter 306, 317.
  20. On July 26, 1933 she wrote to Quentin, “I’m sending you a book of short stories; one--by Joyce--seems to me very good” (L 5: 207).
  21. Since she speaks of him as 40 in a letter of September 6, 1922, she already knew that they were born in the same year, but until reading his obituary she may not have known that they were born just days apart.
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