I’ve now read and reread Virginia Woolf’s short story, “The Unwritten Novel,” several times. Something I love about Woolf is her ability to create a story out of what seems like nothing. No real frame, no elaborate “set-up”. She simply takes an ordinary moment and expands it, pressing it further outward as far as it can go. This particular moment begins on a train, when the narrator allows her eyes to slip upward from her newspaper and something about the face of the woman seated in front of her works like a spark—suddenly, an entire life begins to take shape around the woman’s expression:
Such an expression of unhappiness was enough by itself to make one’s eyes slide above the paper’s edge to the poor woman’s face—insignificant without that look, almost a symbol of human destiny with it. Life’s what you see in people’s eyes; life’s what they learn, and, having learnt it, never, though they seek to hide it, cease to be aware of—what? That life’s like that.
This is a chatty narrator, who is pondering several big thoughts while she watches and judges and invents the life of the woman seated before her. This is, I believe, Woolf’s best kind of narrator. One which she gives free reign to skip and jump from detail to detail while centering all this rapid reflection on a precise idea—here the idea is how to define or describe life—like a touchstone the narrator cannot keep from grasping at every few minutes.
The woman and the narrator finally exchange a few words, which suffices to give the narrator a fuller picture of the woman’s life and then the narrator leans back into her corner of the train seat and lets a vast story play itself out in her mind. Here is the unwritten novel, the story of this unfortunate woman’s life. I love the idea here that contained within every chance encounter is a full and fascinating work of fiction.
Alongside the narrator’s inventions is a running commentary on how the novelist/narrator is going to put the story together. This is an excellent and subtly-done metafictional thread. Here she is contemplating the other travelers:
But what I cannot thus eliminate, what I must, head down, eyes shut, with the courage of a battalion and the blindness of a bull, charge and disperse are, indubitably, the figures behind the ferns, commercial travellers. There I’ve hidden them all this time in the hope that somehow they’d disappear, or better still emerge, as indeed they must, if the story’s to go on gathering richness and rotundity, destiny and tragedy, as stories should, rolling along with it two, if not three, commercial travelers and a whole grove of aspidistra.
By this time her story has taken on such a life that she’s already got the travelers somewhere in her scene, half hidden between some shrubbery – which of course isn’t on the train – but she’s working out the details and arguing about what’s appropriate for her setting and season. And she gets so deep into her story, is so certain she’s created the real life of this woman seated before her, as well as started in on the details of another man, that she is startled when the train stops and the woman gets down. The narrator has made her an unhappy old maid, off to visit her brother and his hated wife but then suddenly on the platform the woman is fetched by her son. A son! Suddenly the woman transforms into a mother and the narrator is left reeling:
Well, but I’m confounded…Look how he bends as they reach the gateway. She finds her ticket. What’s the joke? Off they go, down the road, side by side…Well, my world’s done for! What do I stand on? What do I know? That’s not Minnie. There never was Moggridge. Who am I? Life’s bare as bone.
But even the transformation of her original characters cannot stop her. The narrator rushes after them, wondering at this new configuration and what story she might be able to create around it. Suddenly everyone walking about her on the street embodies the possibility of a novelistic “life.”
If I fall on my knees, if I go through the ritual, the ancient antics, it’s you, unknown figures, you I adore; if I open my arms, it’s you I embrace, you I draw to me—adorable world!