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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Department of English


"The Spasmodic, the Obscure, the Fragmentary, the Failure": The Negative Formation of Character in A Room of One's Own and Orlando


This thesis reads Orlando and A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf as presenting a theory of literary character, which I call the negative formation of character. Underlying this theory is literary character’s struggle to properly portray the multiplicity and possibility that Woolf saw as being essential to understanding human beings. Therefore, Woolf found the process of writing people to be problematic. For Woolf, this was not only a formal challenge, but an ethical one as well. The negative formation of character is a possible solution. I argue that the process of forming a character negatively includes a doubling, in which another, inaccurate version of the character is created. Then, that doubled version is rejected. What results is a statement of the character’s identity that does not limit them. I explore the negative formation of character through three case-studies: Mary Beton in A Room of One’s Own, the biographer in Orlando, and finally, Orlando. These three characters each demonstrate that the process of rejection, in the context of the negative formation of character, can be a conduit for self-determination. This thesis concludes by exploring the relevance of this theory of character to real life.

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