Sunday, October 28, 2007

Woolf, "Modern Fiction" and "Mr.Bennett and Mrs. Brown"

(Arnold Bennett [left], Virginia Woolf [right])

[Posted by Megan Putney]

1. "Modern Fiction:"

Woolf offers a stinging critique when she claims that “Mr. Wells, Mr. Bennett, and Mr. Galsworthy have excited so many hopes and disappointed them so persistently that our gratitude largely takes the form of thanking them for having shown us what they might have done but have not done” (Woolf 897). Do you agree with this critique of Arnold Bennett’s work? Would you go so far as to say that its only merit lies in our ability to see what it failed to accomplish?

Woolf claims that these three authors can be thought of as “materialists” because they “are concerned not with the spirit but with the body” (Woolf 897). Do you think that this is true of Anna of the Five Towns? Was Bennett more concerned with the body than the soul?

Woolf is looking for a break from the old traditions of novel writing and sees hope for this in the work of James Joyce. She contrasts Joyce to authors such as Bennett by saying that “In contrast with those whom we have called materialists, Mr. Joyce is spiritual” (Woolf 899). What do you think of Woolf applying the term “spiritual” to Joyce and his works? If you were to say how you think the writing styles of Bennett and Joyce differed, would you sum up this difference as the difference between the material and the spiritual?

Woolf claims that the themes of a story can be directly related to the country that the author is from. She claims that “The conclusions of the Russian mind, thus comprehensive and compassionate, are inevitably of the utmost sadness” (Woolf 900) and that English fiction “bears witness to our natural delight in humour and comedy, in the beauty of earth, in the activities of the intellect, and in the splendour of the body” (Woolf 900). Do you agree with her that an author’s native country must so strongly influence their work? Is this inevitable?

2. "Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown:"

Woolf characterizes Bennett’s writings, and Edwardian fiction in general, by saying that “in all this vast conglomeration of printed pages, in all this congeries of streets and houses, there is not a single man or woman whom we know” (Woolf 901). How do you think that this statement can be applied to Anna of the Five Towns?

Woolf references Russian novels once more as she looks at the contrasting styles of creating characters that are found in Edwardian, Victorian, and Russian novels. In talking about Russian characters, Woolf states that: “for the undeniable vividness of so many of them is the result of their crudity” (Woolf 902) and that “we go down into them as we descend into some enormous cavern” (Woolf 902). Do you think that this idea can be applied to the characters in Joyce’s novel?

Woolf claims that Edwardian novelists “give us a vast sense of things in general; but a very vague one of things in particular” (Woolf 902). If this is true for Bennett’s novels, do you think that Joyce differs in this respect?


Bailey said...

In response to one of your first questions, I think Bennett is very much concerned with the body rather than the soul and that, furthermore, he does focus on the materialistic. I think the end of "Anna of the Five Towns" proves this. Though she loves Willy and her "soul" is pulling her to him, she cannot release the inhibitions that society have placed on her. Her actions are deemed more important than her thoughts so to speak. Conversely, I think it's obvious that Joyce's writing shows how important Stephen's thoughts are. The entire novel follows the thoughts and beliefs of Stephen showing the emphasis Joyce places on inner feelings. I think these comparisons parallel the thoughts of materialistic in much the same way. Bennett is clearly concerned with the materialistic because his novel centers itself around class structure, money, and power. However, concerned does not necessarily mean supportive. Though Bennett concerns himself with the materialistic does not mean he supports the materialistic world he's depicting. I actually think the opposite. I think his writing, though centered around materials, suggests that material values may not lead to happiness. Although his novel portrays a world where materialism is inescapable, that does not prove he himself is pleased by this.
Unlike Bennett, Joyce concerns himself less with the materialistic and more with the "spiritual" as Woolf has said. Stephen as a main character seems less inclined to worry about materials than beliefs and morals. So I would, on the surface, agree with Woolf's idea that the difference between Bennett and Joyce is the difference between the materialistic and the spiritual. Unlike Woolf however, I don't think I'd attribute this difference to good or bad writing. Going back to your first question, I don't believe Bennett's only merit is showing it's failure. I think it's just a difference. Without one style, we wouldn't have the other because there would be no comparison.

CJH said...

In reference to the first part of question number two when Woolf is quoted as saying “in all this vast conglomeration of printed pages, in all this congeries of streets and houses, there is not a single man or woman whom we know” (Woolf 901), I think this is both appropriate and inappropriate to apply to Anna of the 5 towns. On its surface level the statement cannot be true of Bennett’s writing because we know he based the story of Anna partially on his own experience growing up the potteries. However, the characters in the novel seem to be, in a way, hollow. We don’t really get to know them in the same way we experience the characters in Joyce’s novel. I think the idea of his characters as “caverns” we descend into is fitting, at least in the case of Stephen Dedalus. Throughout Portrait of the Artist as a young man we are carried on a journey into Stephen’s life, his feelings, his yearnings. By the end when the narrative becomes journal entries it almost seems as if we’ve crossed into his life and are audience to his most personal thoughts. Looking back on Bennett’s Anna it almost seems we barely even knew her; Joyce takes the insight into the character’s psyche taken to a whole new level.

cjh said...

Woops minor typo!

**Looking back on Bennett’s Anna it almost seems we barely even knew her; Joyce takes the insight into the character’s psyche to a whole new level.

Kristina said...

In response to the first question on the second article I think that the statement Megan quotes can easily be applied to Anna of the Five Towns. In Anna of the Five Towns, I often felt like Bennet was describing too many unnecessary details. He was very thorough in his descriptions of the town and of the rooms in which Anna was, etc. However, I felt that in his descriptions of the town and the inanimate objects in her life, we didn’t really get too much into the personalities of the other people surrounding her. It was also difficult to place a true identity on Anna herself, because she was constantly moving back and forth on what she wanted in her life. It was a somewhat long story that I felt accomplished very little in terms of real character development and I thought it was pretty boring and monotonous at times. Therefore, I agree with this statement that Woolf makes in response to Bennet’s writings and I enjoyed the writing of James Joyce and Rebecca West much more.

Jennifer Zupicich said...

I agree that this statement "in all this vast conglomeration of printed pages, in all this congeries of streets and houses, there is not a single man or woman whom we know” (Woolf 901)seems to be both appropriate and inappropriate, as CJ said. There is so much discussed in Anna of the Five Towns, and so many people described, that one I first read that quote, I felt that Woolf was totally off. But then I stopped to think for a moment. Yes, there are many characters, but do we really KNOW any of them? Not really. You do not see any of Anna's childhood, do not get any real background. It seems that Arnold puts in front of us many different people, none of which have any really depth to them- according to the information Arnold provides for us.

Ryan Tilley said...

Woolf's thoughts on the "nationalistic" notion of authorhship is an interesting one. While I believe there can be found certain trends among literary movements of certain nations and ages, I do not think that national identity is as strong of a determinant as Woolf does. While many Russians of Woolf's time have writtent "comprehensive and compassionate" texts, and many English authors works that reflect english "humour and comedy" and engage in "activites of intellect and splendours of the body" (materialism?), to say that national identity predetermines these texts is a stretch. It is almost as if Woolf is preclaiming a Russian Identity or an English Identity that must itself manifest in a text by an author of either nation. While national identity is an ENORMOUS factor in shaping personal identity, personal experienence and even more importantly artistic identity and expereience I do not think it corners and limits authors in this fashion. If this were true you probably would never have had a figure such as Joyce.

andrew w. said...

Concerning the themes of a story being related to the country of origin, I agree and disagree. I don't feel that any theme must belong to a certain country and that Russian authors would be incapable of composing stories that have a "natural delight in humour and comedy, in the beauty of the earth," etc. I have to agree with Ryan in the sense that there is no inevitable theme or set of themes arising out of an author's homeland.

However, I can also see how a person's culture would greatly affect their writing. I think it would be more accurate to say that texts tend to reflect the immediate history or current events of the country they are from, though this is not set in stone. A text has many, many different influences, and the culture and society that surround an author cannot be excluded. But they also cannot be seen as the necessary determinants of a work's theme.

As for the idea of character concerning the Russians in "Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown," I'm not entirely sure. First, though, when she makes the comment about "crudity," I think she's actually talking about Victorian characters. She is claiming that a reader makes them vivid because their attributes are so crude, have just a few (Woolf only gives one each) flags to identify them, and that is all that is needed for our minds to "swiftly supply the rest." About the Russian characters, though, I have a hard time determining if Woolf is praising or criticizing them. It seems like criticism; at least, I wouldn't want to have a character seem like a giant, uninhabited hole in the ground.

So, I'd have to say that this applies to some of the characters in "Portrait" but not all. It seems to be a description of flat characters, or maybe characters with depths but no substance. Many of Joyce's characters lack easy characterization, like simple flags, but also aren't explored at all. Stephen, however, is most certainly a well-rounded character, perhaps the most rounded I've ever read, and would therefore not fall into Woolf's description of Russian characters.