"The importance of time in Virginia Woolf’s
As human beings, we are unique in our awareness of death. “We know that we will die, and that knowledge invades our consciousness…it will not let us rest until we have found ways, through rituals and stories, theologies and philosophies, either to make sense of death, or, failing that, to make sense of ourselves in the face of death.” Attaching significance to life events is a human reaction to the sense of “meaninglessness” in the world. Fearing our ultimate annihilation, we form belief systems to reassure us in the face of death. Religion provides us with elaborate rituals at times of death and faith assists believers in mourning and coping with the loss of loved ones. So without a religious foundation, where does one find solace in the face of so much pain? This is the struggle for Virginia Woolf, a self-proclaimed atheist whose life was shadowed by death from an early age. In the years between 18953 (when she was thirteen) and 1904 she lost her mother, her sister, and her father. Less than a decade later, Europe was consumed by war, and public mourning became a part of her life. “Grieving started very early in Virginia’s life, which might be one reason why her writing offers us such a forceful riposte that it should, or could, be brought to an end.” Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic theories profoundly changed the way we think about the mind and its subconscious workings. His work greatly influenced the way people understood mental illness and other social deviations. This is especially true during the time that Virginia Woolf was writing these novels, when his books were widely read. In Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud presents the struggle between Eros (the drive for erotic love) and Thanatos (the appetite for death) as the forces that dominate human decision-making and action. He feared that without healthy outlets for our own sexual appetites, humanity would fall to war and violence, as Thanatos wins the battle. Virginia Woolf is a perfect example of how this struggle exists in the human psyche. Her early sexual invasions damaged her sexual drive later in life. She was often cold towards her husband, unable to feel any passion for him. Her desire for death, then, may have been stronger, which would explain her preoccupation with it.
Attempting suicide twice, and finally succeeding in 1941, Woolf was acutely aware of the shadow in her life. She, like Septimus the poet in Mrs. Dalloway, condemned herself to death. Responses to death are an important theme in Woolf’s literature. Mourning is a natural and necessary reaction to loss. In our minds, we must put the dead to rest, even if they still exist in our memories. Freud had much to say about this subject in Mourning and Melancholia. He wrote that it might be a response to losing a loved one, as experienced by the characters in these novels. It may also be a response to a threatened ideal (country, freedom, family) that may be experienced in time of war. We must, therefore, take into account that Woolf, at the time of writing these two novels, had lived through one World War. After World War I there was much sorrow in Europe. Public mourning, as mentioned, is done on a larger scale, and includes despair, overall uncertainty, and confusion. The Great War had shaken the world, leaving the survivors confused and uncertain as to how to heal the wounds and mourn for so many losses. Writing in the 1920s, Woolf was keenly aware of the mood in Europe, time for public mourning had now passed, and life continued, though radically and forever altered. The war had great impact on her writing, and on her vision of the world. “The war had taught him [Smith]. It was sublime. He had gone through the whole show, friendship, European War, death…” Death was an ever present shadow in Woolf’s life, but insight could illuminate aspects of life that would have otherwise been...