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Becoming One's Own: The Powerful Words of Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf, born in England in 1882, is considered one of the greatest modernist and early feminist writers of the 20th century.

Her most famous works include Mrs. Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927), Orlando (1928) and A Room of One’s Own (1929).

Woolf also struggled with bipolar disorder and died from suicide in 1941.

She experienced her first depressive episode at age 15, after the death of her mother and then her half-sister two years later. In 1904, after her father died, she experienced her second episode of depression and was briefly hospitalized. Sexual abuse from half-brothers also contributed to her mental illness. 

Throughout Woolf’s life, mood swings often resulted in periods of convalescence that compromised her creativity. Episodes would begin with migraine headaches and sleeplessness and eventually lead to her hearing voices and experiencing visual hallucinations. In 1932 she wrote in a letter: “My own brain is to me the most unaccountable of machinery—always buzzing, humming, soaring, diving and then buried in mud. And why? What’s this passion for?”

Woolf’s passion was for modernism in the arts—reaction to industrialization, urbanization and the horrors of World War I. It rejected traditional (realist) art forms in favor of radical reassessments and innovations, not only in style but also in considering the human condition and value of technological progress. Woolf experimented with stream-of consciousness narratives in her novels which revealed psychological and emotional motives of characters and other untraditional forms. In Flush: A Biography, for example, a semi-fictional biography of the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning, the narrator is Browning’s cocker spaniel, Flush.

Ironically, the play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf (1962) by Edward Albee, has nothing to do with Woolf the writer—except for the title. It reflects Woolf’s modernist perspective and is intended to ask “Who is afraid to live without illusion?” (i.e., peeling back social pretensions until raw motives and emotions are exposed).

Woolf’s greatest novel, Mrs. Dalloway, includes criticism of the medical establishment of the 1920s in its treatment of mental illness. One level, it is about a woman in London on a single day, preparing to host a party that night. But parallel chapters told from the perspective of a “shell-shocked” World War I veteran, who today would be referred to as living with posttraumatic stress disorder. Like Woolf, in her own experience with bipolar disorder, the character isolates himself, hears birds singing in Greek and ultimately dies from suicide.

In 1941 after finishing her last novel, Between the Acts, Woolf fell again into depression, which also coincided with the onset of World War II and destruction of her London home by a German bomb. In a note she left for her husband before she died, she wrote: “I feel certain that I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times. And I shan’t recover this time. I don’t think two people could have been happier ‘til this terrible disease came.”


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