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Virginia Woolf’s Ethics of the Short Story


Christine Reynier


Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009

Hardcover. ix+179 pages. ISBN 9780230227187. £52.00


Reviewed by Camille Fort

Université de Picardie-Jules Verne (Amiens)


While the concept of a Woolfian short story is familiar to Woolf’s readers, if only because “Kew Gardens” or “The Mark on the Wall” can be found in a number of anthologies, their corpus, detail and history proves an elusive matter fraught with generic and stylistic uncertainty. As Christine Reynier reminds us in her introduction, Woolf’s attitude towards her production was at least ambiguous, downplaying the importance of these shorter texts, often presenting them as “recreational” potboilers, while she nonetheless displayed audible anxiety as to their reception. The strength of this essays is that while recognising this as a true corpus, rather than a series of experiments prior to novel-writing, it does not attempt to dismiss its hybrid dimension or what the author calls its “generic nonconformity” [10].

Instead, it proceeds from a genetic premise, examining Woolf’s approach to the short story as a genre, to a reapparaisal of Woolf’s story-writing as a way to construct a “fundamentally ethical space” battling the urge for totality, whether aesthetic or political. The short story thus appears as a site of political resistance as much as a laboratory for stylistic innovation. Christine Reynier’s extensive research on the Woolfian corpus and its critical reception is impressive, as is her skill for precision—she is always careful to provide clear-cut definitions of the concepts she summons, differentiating between the “art of proportion” and “the art of brevity” [23] or showing how the same notion, impersonality, is not endowed with the same aesthetic and humanist value for Woolf and T.S. Eliot, though both celebrate it in their critical essays.

The first chapter investigates Woolf’s appraisal of the short story, focusing on her reading of French and Russian authors such as Maupassant, Mérimée or Chekhov. While this reviewer would have been curious to know more about Woolf’s reception of contemporary anglophone storytellers (D.H. Lawrence, Henry James...), the central discussion of affect and impersonality—a doublet well known to the author, who supervised a conference and publication devoted to it—is fascinating: Woolf no longer emerges as the “highbrow” writer she was so long labelled as, but as a writer dedicated to expressing the plays and shades of emotion by “cross-fertilising” genres and traditions within the limited space of the story.

The emphasis laid on the text as a source of “exciting reading... giddy rapture” [33] brings on resonant echoes with Barthes’ plaisir du texte though one may wonder if rapture, in Woolf’s case, does not imply a constant, destabilising experience between pleasure and jouissance on the reader’s part. That the theatre of emotions, and its “translatability” into phrasing, imagery and rhythm, founds Woolf’s ethic project connects this study to the current of “ethical criticism”. Even though Christine Reynier does not mention Martha Nussbaum, her approach too relies on an examination of literary structure and texture as a vector for staging the intensely subtle relationships between self and other.

These “moments of being” inform a dialectics of the fragment and the whole, of plenitude and deprivation, as Woolf stages these cardinal emotions, love, hate and peace. Focusing upon plots (the party leitmotiv in particular) and style (silence, either revealing a character’s inner world, or denouncing a stifled feminine voice), Christine Reynier demonstrates how Woolf builds up her stories as an aesthetic and ethic space in which being-with-the-other or parted-from-the-other can be conveyed to the reader.

The last part, perhaps the bravest, extols the short story as a site of resistance to totality and shows in particular how Woolf’s characterisation avoids the fixed prejudices she has often been accused of—Christine Reynier’s rereading of “The Duchess and the Jeweller”, a piece that earned Woolf a reputation for anti-Semitism, in the context of Woolf’s Diary and sketches is quite convincing in its plea that characterisation serves a reflection on the tyranny of the social gaze, and that the main character, Oliver, is shown lucidly negotiating with his “Jewishness” as a construction or mask imposed upon him by British society.

Christine Reynier’s treatment of Woolf’s shorter fiction is strong enough to engage us in a new questioning of Modernist writing as both an ethical as well as a radical practice of form and manner. It is subtle in that it does not to attempt to totalise Woolf’s meaning, detecting instead in her stories an “obstinate resistance” to reading that is also a salutary invitation to rereading.






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