``But we have other lives, I think, I hope'': The quest for transcendence in selected novels of Virginia Woolf

Michael J Woods, University of Rhode Island


Many critical studies have emphasized the importance Virginia Woolf places on the discovery of self. The discovery of self is, however, only part of Woolf's fascination with the individual self. What has largely been ignored is Woolf's continued focus on the possibility that the discovered self can transcend time and death. Woolf's novels evidence a central concern with transcendence, with the possibility that the essential self, the soul or spiritual element which comprises the individual's inner life, can continue to exist beyond death, can partake of eternity.^ Woolf contends that the discovery of self is both impeded by a patriarchial society and forwarded by a selfless compassion for others which, paradoxically, leads to the realization of self. Woolf's novels indicate her fear that this realized self might have all too transitory an existence, might be annihilated by death, but this fear is confronted by her hope that the physical manifestations of self are not so important as the spiritual. There is tension in Woolf's novels between death as an undeniable physical reality and death as a transition, a rebirth, from one form of existence into another. This concern with rebirth is advanced by her use of the quest motif to structure her novels and to focus on death and resurrection.^ The four representative novels which have been chosen for this study progress from a failed quest and annihilation of the self in The Voyage Out; to symbolic death and resurrection in Mrs. Dalloway; to the actual death, resurrection, and return of Mrs. Ramsay in To the Lighthouse; to the incompleted quest and uncertainty of Between the Acts. In each novel, Woolf's communication of her vision is subtle and complex, for she feared the ridicule and stigma of madness which she felt was often associated with any advocacy of the supernatural. The truth of her transcendent vision, however, demanded to be acknowledged. Contrary to popular opinion, Woolf is not darkly obsessed with death. Hers is a positive vision which, while acknowledging suffering and physical death, still celebrates the beauty and joy in life and the eternal importance of the individual. (Abstract shortened with permission of author.) ^

Subject Area

Literature, English

Recommended Citation

Michael J Woods, "``But we have other lives, I think, I hope'': The quest for transcendence in selected novels of Virginia Woolf" (1988). Dissertations and Master's Theses (Campus Access). Paper AAI8903073.