Why literature matters in times of crisis: A Woolfsian take

Photo of Virgina Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway
Kathryn Kemp/Staff

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World War I gave peril a new meaning. Although humanity did make it out on the other side, it was far from unscathed. And the resulting disillusion is well-reflected in what has come to be known as modernism. The turbulence of 1914-1918 was deeply influential in shaping this literary movement’s fixation on the abstract and its departure from writing conventions. 

Virginia Woolf, a prominent modernist author of the early 20th century, reconfigured what was possible with the written word. A pioneer of the stream of consciousness narrative technique, her work is nothing short of a persistent endeavor to capture the inner self in all its emotional complexity. 

It may be uncomfortable to recognize, but the past is really quite a mystery. From artifacts and close study and the memory of our elders, we can learn the who, what, when, where and why of a time before us. But does this really paint a moment? This is the very unknown that Woolf inspects.

The fabric of fiction is an ever-changing outlet for us to reflect on past experiences. Words and their composition have the ability to convey a contour of humanity that would not see the light otherwise, and Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway” is a classic instance of just that. Published in 1925, this novel, set in London, touches on the mental aftershocks individuals faced in the wake of WWI.

“The world has raised its whip,” Woolf writes. “Where will it descend?”

The story is a day-long portraiture of Clarissa Dalloway’s last-minute preparations for a party she is hosting in the evening. An anticipation lies beneath every page as the event draws near. 

When the party begins, there is a slight awkwardness among groups, as there naturally can be at the start of a function, while guests trickle in and conversations are initiated. Clarissa, however, always attuned to the catastrophic in the ordinary, thinks to herself how “any explosion, any horror” would be better than watching those before her.

Woolf illustrates what it means to march onward: the repression of emotion, the ever-lasting hum of pain as a result, the consistently impressed notion that nothing is wrong. 

Throughout the pages, Big Ben never fails to chime the hour, constructing a sonic framework within which all Londoners are suspended. Post-war trauma may be varied and individual, but to Woolf, it is also undeniably collective.

It is interesting to consider how, and to what degree, can a moment in time somehow morph into an expression that will last for years to come. Such perfect transmission of understanding is by no means a necessity, but a medium through which we can try to create it certainly is. Literature serves as a canvas for us to comprehend how we are at our truest level and portray both what we are conscious and unconscious of.

And so, it is curious to consider what fiction will look like after COVID-19. It will take time for this to become clear, but awareness that some quality will emerge — that we do, in fact, reside in a historical moment — prompts valuable questions. How has the world changed since the pandemic struck? How have daily lives and world outlooks shifted? 

Maybe post-pandemic literature will reflect what it feels like to stay put. Maybe it will address matters such as poverty, climate change and political unrest, which the disease has amplified across the world, and unevenly so. Maybe it won’t be so much about the disease itself, but rather about the uncertainty it has injected into life. Maybe it will embody the reality check that questions our political economy entirely, as the fissures of capitalism are laid out like never before. 

For the first time, it feels like no one really has any idea where we are headed. This pandemic has dismantled the structures that have made sense for so long. What is social life supposed to look like? Public transportation? Higher education? Equitable health care? As we gradually search for an answer, we must also confront that there may not be one. 

It is one thing to understand that an event was traumatic; it is another to understand, more precisely, the specific feelings brought on by this pain. The mental is just as real a facet of history as is the social, political or economic. Albeit intimate and at times inexplicable, the psyche is very much a part of any second that is lived. 

This is not to say in the slightest that all personal thought should be made utterly transparent and available to others through literature. Literature is an art that complements our existence, not an operation to be maximized. 

Still, each story that is told enters part of a momentous narrative we are building of the human experience. There is value in the expression of those feelings and experiences we believe are no one’s but our own we just may find that there are others on our same plane. And in bridging solitude with the collective, there is great beauty and relief.

Kathryn Kemp covers literature. Contact her at [email protected]. Tweet her at @kathryynkemp.