“I want to criticize the social system, and to show it at work, at its most intense.” Virginia Woolf’s provocative statement about her intentions in writing Mrs. Dalloway has regularly been ignored by the critics, since it highlights an aspect of her literary interests very different from the traditional picture of the “poetic” novelist concerned with examining states of reverie and vision and with following the intricate pathways of individual consciousness.① But Virginia Woolf was a realistic as well as a poetic novelist, a satirist and social critic as well as a visionary: literary critics’ cavalier dismissal of Woolf’s social vision will not withstand scrutiny.
In her novels, Woolf is deeply engaged by the questions of how individuals are shaped (or deformed) by their social environments, how historical forces impinge on people’s lives, how class, wealth, and gender help to determine people’s fates. Most of her novels are rooted in a realistically rendered social setting and in a precise historical time.
Woolf’s focus on society’s has not been generally recognized because of her intense antipathy to propaganda in art. The pictures of reformers in her novels are usually satiric or sharply critical. Even when Woolf is fundamentally sympathetic to their causes, she portrays people anxious to reform their society and possessed of a message or program as arrogant or dishonest, unaware of how their political ideas serve their own psychological needs. ② (Her Writer’Diary notes: “the only honest people are the artists, whereas those social reformers and philanthropists ...harbor...discreditable desires under the disguise of loving their kind ...”)③ Woolf detested what she called “preaching” in fiction, too, and criticized novelist D. H. Lawrence (among others) for working by this method.
Woolf’s own social criticism is expressed in the language of observation rather than in direct commentary, since for her, fiction is a contemplative, not an active art. She describes phenomena and provides materials for a judgment about society and social issues; it is the reader‘s work to put the observations together and understand the coherent point of view behind them. As a moralist, Woolf words by indirection, subtly undermining officially accepted mores, mocking, suggesting, calling into question, rather than asserting, advocating, bearing witness: hers is the satirist’s art.④ Woolf’s literary models were acute social observers like Chekhov and Chaucer. As she put it in The Common Reader, “It is safe to say that not a single law has been framed or one stone set upon another because of anything Chaucer said or wrote; and yet, as we read him, we are absorbing morality at every pore.” Like Chaucer, Woolf chose to understand as well as to judge, to know her society’， root and branch — a decision crucial in order to produce art rather than polemic.