Anyone who’s even glanced at *To the Lighthouse* knows that Woolf was trying to get away from plot. In the first few pages alone, we find ourselves looping over and over again over the same dialogue. Sometimes it’s the same words, but heard by different people each time; sometimes it’s literally a repetition. Why would Woolf write like this?
More than many of her contemporary novelists (James Joyce comes immediately to mind, though there’s also Joseph Conrad, Ford Madox Ford, James Joyce and many others), Woolf was a theorist of the novel as well as a practitioner of the art of fiction. In her essays, the theory is front and centre. But even her novels are theoretical, though not explicitly: they are theoretical in the sense that her style embodies a particular theory of fiction. And not surprisingly, her theory of fiction saw plot as an unnecessary element of fiction–even a dangerous element. In her 1926 essay “How Should One Read a Book?” Woolf says this more or less explicitly:
The thirty-two chapters of a novel … are an attempt to make something as formed and controlled as a building: but words are more impalpable than bricks; reading is a longer and more complicated process than seeing. Perhaps the quickest way to understand the elements of what a novelist is doing is not to read, but to write: to make your own experiment with the dangers and difficulties of words. (Essays of Virginia Woolf, vol. 5: 1929-1932. Ed. by Stuart N. Clark. London: Hogarth Press, 2009. 574.)
In her most famous essay, “Modern Fiction” (1925), Woolf makes the same point even more memorably:
Examine for a moment an ordinary mind on an ordinary day. The mind receives a myriad impressions–trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpness of steel. From all sides they come, an incessant shower of innumerable atoms; and as they fall, as they shape themselves into the life of Monday or Tuesday, the accent falls differently from of old; the moment of importance came not here but there; so that, if a writer were a free man and not a slave, if he could write what he chose, not what he must, if he could base his work upon his own feeling and not upon convention, there would be no plot, no comedy, no tragedy, no love interest or catastrophe in the accepted style, and perhaps not a single button sewn on as the Bond Street tailors would have it. Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end. (Essays of Virginia Woolf, vol. 4: 1925–1928. Ed. Andrew McNeillie. London: Hogarth Press, 1994. 161)
Woolf believed that fiction had a responsibility to get at “life,” a vague term she was, it seems, intentionally vague about defining. She objected to realist novelists who sought to show a person by meticulously listing the physical attributes of their clothes, body and surroundings. This she called “materialism,” as opposed to the “spiritual” writing she strove for. Life, she says, “is not a series of gig-lamps, symmetrically arranged”: is isn’t plotted, or linear, or built on increasing then resolving tension. In A Room of One’s Own Woolf writes about the need for women writers to “br[eak] the sequence” of plot. And the narrative loops, the changes in point of view and the in-depth revelations of characters’ minds are all ways in which Woolf herself breaks the sequence. She seeks to follow the curves of the mind, and of emotions.
In her essay “Is Fiction an Art?” (a review of the book of criticism by her friend E. M. Forster, author of A Passage to India and Howards End), Woolf gives us yet another view of the same desire to use the novel form in order to do something new:
The novelist might be encouraged to be bolder. He might cut adrift from the eternal tea table and the plausible but preposterous formulas which are still supposed to represent life, love and other human adventures. But then the story might wobble; the plot might crumble; ruin might seize upon the characters. It might be necessary to enlarge our idea of the novel. (Essays of Virginia Woolf, vol. 5: 1929-1932. Ed. by Stuart N. Clark. London: Hogarth Press, 2009. 463.)
Enlarge our idea of the novel she does…. But I wouldn’t want to give the impression that Woolf is a theoretical novelist in the sense that she starts with a theory, which she then puts into practice. She didn’t approve of such a procedure, as she writes in her essay “Freudian Fiction.” The new disciples of Freud, she thought, were writing novels to put Freudianism into fictional form, and she saw this as a misguided use of psychology to solve the problems of character motivation. In her preface to her novel Mrs Dalloway (1925), Woolf explains what kind of theoretical novelist she is. She did not write the novel following a plan, blueprint or idea; instead, she gorgeously writes,
the idea started as the oyster starts or the snail to secrete a house for itself. And this it did without any conscious direction. (Essays of Virginia Woolf, vol. 4: 1925–1928. Ed. Andrew McNeillie. London: Hogarth Press, 1994: 549)
In other words, the novel generated its own theory as it was composed, reflecting but not necessary following Woolf’s conscious theoretical ideas.