mid-read thoughts on Woolf's Night and Day

Officially, I am just about halfway finished with Woolf’s second novel, Night and Day. Despite a slowish start, this is turning into an excellent read. The style is subtly different than her other work, a bit more calm, a bit more serious.

Night and Day (published in 1919) is the story of three, almost four people. I say almost four because three of the characters appear to have taken hold a little deeper in Woolf’s imagination and she gives them more of her time than the fourth. At least in the first half of the novel, I suppose this could change. Essentially, this is the story of four young people, two men and two women, and how they negotiate and cope with their feelings about marriage. The central question seems to be whether love and marriage can and should be associated.

I suppose if I wanted to be overly critical, I might say the novel plods a bit. But this isn’t quite the right expression. It has a leisurely pace in terms of story momentum, and it involves quite a lot of interior deliberation. Yet, one of the things I enjoy most about Woolf is her ability to give a character room to think. She has her characters weigh their actions, justify their thoughts and decisions, explore their possibilities. It takes a great amount of narrative skill to do this without alienating a reader, and I think Woolf succeeds.

Here is one easy example:

Katherine looked at her mother, but did not stir or answer. She had suddenly become very angry, with a rage which their relationship made silent, and therefore doubly powerful and critical. She felt all the unfairness of the claim which her mother tacitly made to her time and sympathy, and what Mrs. Hilbery took, Katharine thought bitterly, she wasted. Then, in a flash, she remembered that she had still to tell her about Cyril’s misbehavior. Her anger immediately dissipated itself: it broke like some wave that has gathered itself high above the rest: the waters were resumed into the sea again, and Katharine felt once more full of peace and solicitude, and anxious only that her mother should be protected from pain.

This is quite a hefty dose of explanation, and another writer might have portrayed these same emotions through action or dialogue. Much of the novel, perhaps a good three quarters, is given this way. It works, however, to my mind, because Woolf’s narrator is terribly eloquent and not afraid to sneak in a bit of imagery (the wave idea) to spice up all that exposition. Also, the middle bit of that second sentence is extremely straightforward, but extremely powerful…with a rage which their relationship made silent.

I am starting to believe that Woolf’s greatest skill may in fact be her narrator…which is a fascinating thing to trace, as she experiments so much with it.

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Michelle

Reader, writer, translator, nature-lover, happy expat and concerned world citizen.

5 thoughts on “mid-read thoughts on Woolf's Night and Day”

  1. Perhaps that’s the sign of a real star in the writing firmament – someone who does the things that are supposedly ‘against the rules’ and does them really well.

  2. Lilian – I agree, it is difficult for the reader, I think, to get lost in a story when we’re really getting lost in one character’s deliberations. At the same time, Woolf does it so well, that although my reading is slowed down, I am still enjoying it.

    Litlove – I’m sure you’re right. I believe Woolf was experimenting a lot in her writing, and obviously later she found her voice…I think Night and Day shows her working toward her ultimate style, but it isn’t there yet.

    Dorothy – She does do it extremely well. Lucky for us!

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