Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
ABSTRACT OF THE DISSERTATION
“The Solid & the Shifting”: Evolutionary Form, Darwinian Time, and the Greek Ideal in the Early Works of Virginia Woolf
Doctor of Philosophy in English and American Literature
Washington University in St. Louis, 2017
Professors Melanie Micir, Robert Milder, Steven Meyer, Vincent Sherry, Zoe Stamatopoulou
“Now is life very solid or very shifting?” Virginia Woolf asks in her diary of 1931, a question she claims haunts her in its contradictions. This dynamism between the solid and the shifting aspects of life and temporality is fundamental to an analysis of Woolf’s writing process. It resonates throughout the narratives of her experimental writings, culminating in her later works but clearly present in Woolf’s earliest pieces and forays as a writer. Behind it, I argue, are two of Woolf’s earliest academic pursuits and scholarly interests—natural history and Greek literature, especially as she came to read and understand them through the works of Darwin and Plato. That these two male university courses of study were denied her via any formal educational training compel her to think through the questions each field poses for the uses and advantages of a Modernist, feminist literature. This dissertation traces in Woolf the most significant cultural assumptions concerning Darwin’s evolutionary theory, and then later “the Greek ideal” as she came to inherit them through a male and female lineage of thinkers and associations. As my argument backtracks through Woolf’s childhood against the intellectual backdrop of some other major thinkers, of particular emphasis will be some of Woolf’s crucial early essays and short stories where she begins to work out at the level of plot and allusion much of the intellectual difficulties necessary to ground the radical departures in narrative form that would characterize her mature fiction. My analysis of how Woolf mediates this field of experience through her earliest short stories, essays, novels, and the first experimental short stories—wherein Woolf tests many of the ideas derived from Darwin and Plato—establishes what might be described as an ontogeny and phylogeny of thought that prefigures the young Virginia Woolf’s ventures into a more radical narrative form. That is, Woolf’s individual development as a writer shares the temporal anxieties of many other figures we have subsequently categorized as Modernists, but with crucial distinguishing characteristics, not the least being her emphasis upon gender. Woolf’s dual engagement with her Victorian childhood and the Modernist present operates by exposing the very process of transformation: the solid and the shifting, the Greek ideal against the Darwinian, the masculine and the feminine, exist in dynamic temporal oppositions.
In order to establish these early formations of the Darwinian and Platonic aspects of her writing, I begin by exploring her first two novels, The Voyage Out and Night & Day, that establish Woolf’s engagement with evolutionary principles at the level of plot and character. Woolf’s major breakthrough in the writing of her short stories “Kew Gardens” and “The Mark on the Wall” also have Darwin as a principle origin, and when these two works are paired with Woolf’s radically experimental essay “Reading,” Woolf’s childhood fascination with entomology and “bugging” can be read as an essential formative experience that merges the personal and the literary. This play with evolutionary form and a Darwinian understanding of time and temporality is then juxtaposed alongside her abiding, profound appreciation of Hellenism and Greek literature. Woolf never fully abandons theVictorian inheritance of the “Greek ideal” as interpreted by Matthew Arnold and other Victorian luminaries. Complicating this understanding in ambivalent, contradictory ways is her personal association with Greek through her brother Thoby and all his Cambridge counterparts who become prominent figures of early Bloomsbury. The value Woolf derives from the Greek ideal never altogether disappears from her work, and the struggle between the concepts of Darwinian process and temporality against Platonic stability and unity becomes the ruling dynamic of Woolf’s method. They form the “solid and the shifting” aspects of Woolf’s writing, a tension that her fiction engages in, embodies, and structurally represents.
Chair and Committee
Vincent Sherry, Robert Milder, Steven Meyer, Zoe Stamatopoulou,
Kreutziger, Joseph Monroe, "The Solid & the Shifting: Darwinian Time, Evolutionary Form and the Greek Ideal
in the Early Works of Virginia Woolf" (2017). Arts & Sciences Electronic Theses and Dissertations. 1250.