Stephen Howard


This essay addresses Virginia Woolf’s exploration of the concept of the self through reference to a range of her prose writings. In these writings, Woolf questions whether the self is unitary, constant and finally knowable, or fragmented, unstable and inscrutable; whether the self is merged with other people, and constructed from interactions with the world; and whether or not a durable and fixed self-image is a necessary prerequisite for successful social interaction. Woolf’s engagement with the conventions of biography is examined primarily through the lens of two short stories: ‘The Lady in the Looking-Glass’ and ‘An Unwritten Novel.’ I argue in the first instance that Woolf’s concerns about ‘life-writing’ are influenced both by the spirit of modernist experimentation and by gender politics, before moving on to an exploration of the ways in which her views on biography inform her own memoir, ‘A Sketch of the Past.’

The second half of this essay focuses on Wool’s 1931 novel, The Waves, which is, perhaps, her most sustained meditation on the nature of subjective identity. Using Jacques Lacan’s concept of the ‘mirror stage,’ I analyse Woolf’s rendering of the multiple ‘selves’ that feature in The Waves. Finally, I investigate correspondences between this novel and ‘A Sketch of the Past,’ with a view to situating The Waves as a modernist autobiography of the type that Woolf envisions when she re-imagines biographical conventions elsewhere in her work.

Author Biography

Stephen Howard wrote this essay during the second year of his English Literature BA at Newcastle University; the essay was inspired by a module taught by Professor Linda Anderson entitled ‘Virginia Woolf: Gender and Writing.’ He is currently studying for a Masters degree in ‘Writing and Cultural Politics’ at Edinburgh University, where he hopes to pursue further research.