Gillian Beer on Woolf and the "Body of the People"

Beer, Gillian. “The Body of the People: Mrs Dalloway to The Waves.” Virginia Woolf: The Common Ground: Essays by Gillian Beer, The University of Michigan Press, 1997.

In “The Body of the People: Mrs Dalloway to The Waves,” Gillian Beer argues that Woolf writes her characters’ individual experiences in a way that navigates around simply using the pronoun “we” to create a sense of community as she zooms out to look at “patterns” in a larger scale (48-49). According to Beer, Woolf found the pronoun “we” problematic because of how it can purport to be inclusive while failing to represent individuals (50).  Beer suggests that Woolf instead represents communities through “assemblage rather than coherence,” citing Woof’s use of consonance in The Waves (50).

Next, Beer writes that the pronoun “I” is also problematic for Woolf because of its strong ties to male writers, and that because of this, Woolf creates a community amid individual experiences by using a common setting, as in Mrs. Dalloway (51). Beer writes that in this novel, characters are connected by being in “the same city on the same day” and by having a reader connect the characters during the reading experience (53). Beer next writes that in The Waves, Woolf suggests “self” while removing traditional narrative features such as war, family, love, and careers (56). Similarly, in Orlando, Woolf excludes war and death, which brings gender into focus, illuminating the constructedness of biography and history books, and the “absurdity” of the reader’s practice of assuming another identity during the reading experience (57-58). Beer points out Woolf’s use of sensory language in Orlando as an example of “the bodily self” which is tied to land, and thus to class, creating community based on common experiences of the “sensory world,” although the ultimate common experience, death, is absent for Orlando (58-60).

Beer, having examined the self, writes that it “is always insufficient” and that “the communal self” is “more enduring” (61). Beer shifts from discussing Orlando to discussing The Waves, noting that while Orlando was on the surface, The Waves looked at characters in greater depth, noting that Woolf called The Waves a “‘mystical eyeless book’” (62). Because it does not have a single character focus, the self is made less important than the community of characters (Beer 66). The characters, according to Beer, have depth and distinctness, but the wave-like rhythm of the text lends a sense of the impersonal to the reading experience (64-65). Beer states that Woolf represents thought and experience particularly well in The Waves describing this as “the new writing world of the body” (68, 71). Focus on the body leads to a focus on death, which Beer calls “the undertow,” a force which calls upon individuals to be a community for the sake of “the common future” (72).

LiteratureKatie Ancheta