There are many interesting stylistic
elements Virginia Woolf
uses in this book that struck me as strange. The first of these was the abundant use of semicolon
s and extended sentences
. Sentences used to relate a character’s thoughts or feelings in reaction to a specific event in the book are page-long rant
s filled with interjections
that, more often than not, do not follow standard rules of grammar
and/or construction. Often the meaning of a sentence is not immediately clear, due to oddly placed interjections, such as when James
, and their father
reach the site of the shipwreck
305: “And Mr. Ramsay taking a look at the spot was about, James and Cam were afraid, to burst out: But I beneath a rougher sea
, and if he did, they could not bear it...” The unusual placement of the phrase “James and Cam were afraid,” within the other phrase in the sentence convolute
s the sentence and makes a second reading
necessary. The meaning is clear once the whole sentence has been read over, but the inclination
of the reader is to read the words between the commas as items in a list or a continuation
of a single idea, rather than an insertion
of a parenthetical
Use of the semicolon abounds, as in the episode between Mrs. Ramsay and Charles Tansley on page 20: “...she told the story; an affair at Oxford with some girl; an early marriage; poverty; going to India; translating a little poetry...” This usage, while not technically incorrect, errs on the side of unorthodox.
The use of the semicolons, the interjections, and the long, continuous sentences all serve as pacing mechanisms. The run-ons, which are full of dashes, parentheses, commas, semicolons, and short, concentrated thoughts, effectively speed up the reader’s progression on the page, while simultaneously illustrating the randomness of the human thought process, by using the same kind of clipped, interrupted and yet connected ideas that flow within the brain.
The semicolon lists and stories, as in the above example also speed the reader up, but tend to keep more of a rhythm than the seemingly disorganized run-ons. The sentences, which would otherwise be separated by periods and capital letters, are strung together into one continuous thought, but are still punctuated, and thus kept separate, by the semicolons.
The interjections, on the other hand, slow the reader down to the point of having to re-read the same section over to fully understand it. At first, many instances of this device seem to be examples of bad grammar, but when read correctly, one finds they make perfect sense. The application of this is if the author wants a specific point to be prevalent and wants to force the reader to consider it more than he would otherwise. It also serves to set the tone of the scene by making the text seem thick and complicated.
The use of these methods in different parts of the book plays into the plot and the characterization by giving an idea of the feeling of the situation aside from exactly what happening. On page 85, when Mrs. Ramsay is considering the situation between Paul Rayley and Minta Doyle, it is clear that she is unsure how she feels and is still trying to sort out her thoughts: “...what could it mean? except that she had decided, rightly, Mrs. Ramsay thought (and she was very, very fond of Minta), to accept that good fellow, who might not be brilliant, but then, thought Mrs. Ramsay, realising that James was tugging at her, to make her go on reading aloud the Fisherman and his Wife, she did in her own heart infinitely prefer boobies to clever men..."
This use of commentary, as well as having events in the physical world interrupt the train of thought, gives a much better idea of the way thoughts are formed than if the author had simply stated, “Mrs. Ramsay was distracted and couldn’t quite make up her mind on the subject of Paul and Minta, even though she liked them both.”
Another technique used throughout the book is repetition. In some cases, the repetition is barely noticeable, but other sections, such as the following passage from page 174, repeat a single word several times in close succession: "Yet he looked so desolate; yet she would feel relieved when he went; yet she
would see that he was better treated tomorrow; yet he was admirable with her
husband; yet his manners certainly wanted improving; yet she noticed that she
could now see the moon..."
This repetition of the word “yet” strongly underlines the back-and-forth playing of the character’s thoughts. The use of the same word again and again shows that the person is still in the same general thought pattern, but is wavering back and forth as far as her opinion of the man who just went upstairs.
An interesting method the author uses to show the personality of a character is by the word choice when that character is in the focus of the scene. The introduction of Carmichael as a character on page 19 uses uncharacteristically (for the book as a whole) large and “sophisticated” words, like capacious, blandishments, somnolence, and benevolent lethargy. These words, though not said by Carmichael, but rather as descriptions of him by the narrator, still paint a picture of Augustus Carmichael as a pretentious, pseudo-intellectual bore. This is an interesting method of characterization, as it does not actually tell how the character acts or speaks, but suggests these things through the language used.
Much of the book is written this way: suggesting rather than telling flat-out the author’s intention and vision for the book. This makes for both an intensely rich and ultimately difficult read.