Skip to main content
Open Access Publications from the University of California

UC Berkeley

UC Berkeley Electronic Theses and Dissertations bannerUC Berkeley

Virginia Woolf and the Mediated Modern Subject: Class System, Spacetime, and the Aesthetics of Creative Labor



Virginia Woolf and the Mediated Modern Subject: Class System, Spacetime, and the Aesthetics of Creative Labor


David Del Rey Menilla

Doctor of Philosophy in English

University of California, Berkeley

Professor Ann M Banfield, Chair

Growing up in a privileged home but also existing "outside" it gave Woolf the space and time to look critically at the social forces of repression and oppression which structured her reality. As a self-described "outsider," Woolf formed her social critique through an engagement with political as well as new scientific ideas. I discuss the synergy she sees between Marx's work and Einstein's theories of Special and General Relativity. I argue that Woolf combines Marx's interest in the cultivation of our natural desires, the return to the body, as the way out of estranged labour--the ideology of private property--with Einstein's idea of spacetime, in which time is relative, which for Woolf means that characters are not confined to the "present" but can re-experience the past or even the future. Woolf presents characters whose minds and bodies can encompass a vast expanse of spacetime. For Einstein, the notions of the past, present, and future are a figment of our imaginations. Where we are in time is a function of were we are in space. Woolf plays with Einstein's theories to portray characters like Mrs. Ramsay and Lily Briscoe in To The Lighthouse who are able to revisit the past through their labor--making "patterns." The rhythmical quality of what I define as their "creative labor," a Marxist notion of being in the body, allows them to overcome the physical and mental boundaries of abstract space and time which structures religious and capitalist social relations.

In many ways, we can think of Einstein as representing a further development of Marx's ideas since the abstract notions of space and time which structure religion and capitalism also structure the Enlightenment's pursuit of knowledge. The various systematic forms of repression which are rooted in religion and develop further in capitalism have neglected the body and instilled the belief in abstract, mediated, truths. Not bound by the narrowness of the "present," and the momentary illusion of power promised by the class system, Woolf's characters are able to revisit and deconstruct the causes of trauma. Free from the boundaries which keep them apart from themselves and others, they are now able to connect intimately with others across spacetime. They are able to uses other senses to relate to others. Woolf shows characters who can feel and think what other characters experience. Capitalist social relations based on establishing distinct economic boundaries between the self and others are transformed into fluid boundaries of embodied exchange. The self becomes part of a larger whole where social relations shift away from what Marx calls egotistical, "vulgar need" (90), to the recognition that we need others to develop our latent powers. For Marx as for Woolf, "human essence" (89) is creative; the selfishness which Freud ascribes to the libido only exists as a basic human need to survive. The selfish ego is not innate but a product of socio-historical forces. I discuss how Woolf, synthesizing Marx and Einstein, shows characters who can deconstruct the past in order to reconnect with their creative essence.

Main Content
For improved accessibility of PDF content, download the file to your device.
Current View