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Christine Reynier, Virginia Woolf’s Ethics of the Short Story

Christine Froula
p. 262-264
Référence(s) :

Christine Reynier, Virginia Woolf’s Ethics of the Short Story, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009. Ix+179 pages. ISBN: 978-0-2302-2718-7.

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1Almost seventy years after her death, it is difficult to decide how many short stories Virginia Woolf wrote. She published eighteen during her lifetime, and Leonard Woolf included five more in A Haunted House and Other Stories (1944). In May 1973 Stella McNichol assembled seven as Mrs Dalloway’s Party, including “Mrs Dalloway in Bond Street” (published in the Dial in 1923), “The Introduction” (first published in the Sunday Times Magazine in March 1973), and “Ancestors” (first publication). In 1985 Susan Dick published forty-six in The Complete Shorter Fiction, seventeen for the first time; her revised 1989 edition adds “A Dialogue upon Mount Pentelicus,” “The Prime Minister,” and an appendix of the eleven “Incomplete Stories and Sketches” only listed in her first edition. In 2003 David Bradshaw published seven more pieces as Carlyle’s House and Other Sketches. Because Woolf left most of these short pieces in the form of unpublished drafts and sketches, Christine Reynier notes, not only the texts but the canon of her “stories” depends to an unusual degree on editorial decisions. Woolf seems to have sketched many of them as a “diversion” or “treat” after more demanding labors (1); if an editor offered a fee, she might pull out and polish up a sketch scribbled down decades earlier, leaving others to languish in rough draft. Yet certain of the published stories played more than a casual role in her writing career. As her diary attests, Jacob’s Room sprang from the early groundbreaking experimental stories “The Mark on the Wall,” “Kew Gardens,” and “An Unwritten Novel”. Not just their composition but their publication and reception were crucial stepping stones to this novel—the first in which she felt she had finally begun to figure out how to say something in her own voice. In the same vein, Woolf planned Mrs Dalloway as a story sequence that suddenly “branched” into the novel; on completing it, she returned to writing the stories. Woolf approached the story form, no less than the novel or the essay, as an experimental arena; indeed, some of her stories challenge generic categories.

2Christine Reynier, editor of the Virginia Woolf special issue of the Journal of the Short Story in English (2008), enters this ambiguous territory with a thorough knowledge of the editorial and critical history of Woolf’s stories and a fine grasp of the fascinating questions that arise from their textual and generic instability as well as their experimental variety. On the strength of Woolf’s notebooks, where stories may be found drafted on versos of novel manuscripts, labeled as chapters later omitted, or interposed amid other writings, Reynier proposes that Woolf “physically weaves her short stories into her novels and essays, thus refusing all distinction between so-called major and minor genres, and situating them in a new space where circulation prevails, an open space” (15). For Woolf, she argues, incompleteness and inconclusion are relative states: texts are always in progress, and textual uncertainty can be understood to resonate with the aesthetics and ethics of Woolf’s work as a whole. Reynier offers not a tour of the stories but a “synthetic reading” that conceives them as a “space of tension” between fragment and whole; a space of encounter or conversation between self and other that resists monologism and totality, political as well as rhetorical; in short, “a deeply committed form where the aesthetic, the ethical, and the political” converge (17).

3Reynier develops this argument in five chapters. The first seeks Woolf’s implicit “definition” of the short story through a careful reading of her reflections on other short story writers—Chekhov, Hemingway, Maupassant, Flaubert—and on fiction itself. Reynier illuminates the profound influence of Russian writers in general and Chekhov in particular upon Woolf’s understanding of the story as “not form which you see but emotion which you feel” (21). Emotion locates the short story “much closer to poetry than to the novel” (26); its deep concern is the soul’s relation to goodness, not as moral precept or judgment but as an ethics inseparable from aesthetics; inseparable, that is, from the openness and inconclusion integral to encounters between self and other, and from the salutary and fruitful “bewilderment” that breaks down habits of thought (32) and gives the soul “an astonishing sense of freedom” (30). In chapter two Reynier reads several stories to flesh out her view of the Woolfian short story as “a paradoxical and dynamic space” in which “the promise of an ending. . . disappears” with the story’s actual ending, so that “fulfilment finally lies in the absence of fulfilment or more exactly, in its endless deferment” (55). Reynier illuminates this paradox by adducing the Romantic sense of the fragment, understood not as a “broken piece” of a whole but as at once “an autonomous form and part of a whole” (55-6); and offers fresh insight into the stories as examples of Benjaminian “mosaic-effect” by challenging attributions of “stream of consciousness technique” to the stories, instead calling attention to the counterforces of continuity and discontinuity in both reading and writing: a tension marked by interruption, “looking up,” “repeated shocks,” slowly “overcoming blindness” to glimpse an “unknown world” (57-8).

4In chapter three Reynier takes us to the story as conversation in a sense broadened by reference to Latin conversatio: the act of living with; having dealings with others (61). Through readings of several stories, notably the “Mrs Dalloway’s Party” stories and “A Dialogue upon Mount Pentelicus,” she presents conversation as “an agonistic space, . . . a democratic form, a political as well as ethical space” that is “the very stuff Woolf’s stories are made of” (89). Chapter four extends this notion of conversation to “the encounter between creator and reader” (90). Adducing Derrida and Lucette Finas on the openended reciprocity of gifts between author/text and reader and Derek Attridge on readerly inventiveness in response to the text’s challenges to habits of thought, Reynier illuminates the metafictional staging of storytelling as “a welcoming of the other” (109).

5And chapter five argues that the open, agonistic, dialogic or conversational spaces of Woolf’s short stories act as sites of resistance, both to silence and to monological authority. Reynier points to the kinds of silence broken in “A Women’s College from the Outside,” “Slater’s Pins Have No Points,” “The Legacy,” and other stories and distinguishes the open, democratic politics implicit in Woolf’s dialogic use of the story form in all its “generic hybridity” and “impurity” from the thematic voicing of political commitment (133). In a provocative passage, Reynier asks whether there are limits to the ethical openness staged in Woolf’s stories. Engaging David Bradshaw’s and Julia Briggs’s condemnations of “The Duchess and the Jeweller” as “anti-Semitic,” “Woolf’s single most controversial piece of work, largely inexcusable, perhaps, definitely untypical” (141), Reynier reads it as “a committed story” that can be misunderstood because it relies on “irony and indirection” (143). Whether one agrees with Bradshaw and Briggs or with Reynier, or indeed holds a different view altogether, one appreciates Reynier’s intellectual seriousness in opening her argument about Woolf and the ethics of the short story to this challenging, sensitive test case.

6Integrating the stories within the vast net of Woolf’s writings, Reynier presents them as far more than an experimental testing-ground for work in “major” genres. Rather, “neither marginal nor central,” the stories form part of a “rhizomatic” canon wherein no hierarchy of genre obtains (147). Deeply informed, complex, original, and thought-provoking, Reynier’s “synthetic reading” of the short story in Woolf’s hands not only presents a powerful new understanding of this boundary-crossing genre but also performs—models for us—the kind of creative, responsive, inventive reading that, in her argument, the ethical space of their openness solicits. This illuminating book offers readers and teachers a new conceptual frame and a precise, theoretically powerful analytic vocabulary with which to approach Woolf’s (and other writers’) stories for ourselves, in heightened awareness both of their invitation to reciprocal inventiveness and of the “endless deferral of meaning which constitutes both their difficulty and their inexhaustible gift to the reader” (148). In doing so, Virginia Woolf’s Ethics of the Short Story at once receives, reciprocates, and disseminates the storyteller’s ever more widely circulating gift.

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Christine Froula, « Christine Reynier, Virginia Woolf’s Ethics of the Short Story », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens, 72 Automne | 2010, 262-264.

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Christine Froula, « Christine Reynier, Virginia Woolf’s Ethics of the Short Story », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 72 Automne | 2010, mis en ligne le 29 août 2016, consulté le 19 novembre 2017. URL : http://cve.revues.org/2797

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Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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