States of emergency, states of freedom: Woolf, history, and the novel

Document Type


Date of Original Version



This essay argues that Woolf's late work is both the condition and the effect of her turn in the early 1930s to an aesthetics of existence. Far from signifying a withdrawal from the world, Woolf's "philosophy of the free soul" intensified her relationship with politics. The two central statements of this philosophy are The Years (1937) and Three Guineas (1938), the latter of which I suggest is not merely an antiwar pamphlet (according to critical convention) but also an anti-programmatic ethical treatise for living what Michel Foucault calls "the non-fascist life." Criticism almost invariably claims that The Years is a failure (aesthetically and personally for Woolf, whose initial vision of the novel was that it would amount to her summa). This essay argues to the contrary: Woolf abandoned her plan to set down her summa ("all I think, feel, despise, like, admire, hate, & so on ...") when she determined to use the writing for her novel to conceive the new forms of power that crystallized during the 1930s as fascism intensified across Europe. Whereas critics tend to regard Three Guineas as the lucid statement of that which The Years allegedly could not articulate, I argue that during the five years Woolf took to write the novel, she searched for and found an aesthetic form to enact her new critical ontology and that that aesthetic centrally informs the ethics of Three Guineas. Both works theorize possible states of freedom to be occupied and enacted in states of emergency. © 2009 by Novel, Inc.

Publication Title, e.g., Journal