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Updated Up To 18/01/2017
Volume 11, Issue 1 (January 2013) : 29-52
Did Human Character Change?
Representing Women and Fiction from Shakespeare to Virginia Woolf
Susan Manning
Rubric A: Topoi
Rubric B: Women Writers



This essay reconsiders Virginia Woolf’s much-debated claim that “on or about December 1910, human character changed,”  reassessing its import not as the provocation to her contemporaries that seems to have been intended, or as a statement of originality, but in a historical envelope that encompasses Woolf’s own fictional oeuvre within a tradition of representing women in fiction. This tradition is essentially rhetorical and literary rather than essentialist; it engages with representations and associations rather than directly with psychological or philosophical questions about personality or identity. As such, “character” should be understood as involving a series of recognizable codes or tropes played through new contexts, with Shakespeare’s representations of women as a constant touchstone or reference point. A pioneer of “stream of consciousness” prose and Modernist fiction, Woolf is normally read for her innovations in representing selfhood; this experimentalism, I suggest, is built on a bedrock of familiar imagery that reveals her involvement in a continuing literary tradition of character representation. Her interest in late nineteenth-century and contemporary developments in depth psychology notwithstanding, Woolf’s revolutionary prose style shows evidence of her careful reading of previous literary evocations of character, particularly the characters of women. What is at issue, then, is not primarily existential questions about whether character “is” innate, self-fashioned, or merely linguistic, but rather critical or representational issues of how literary character has been evoked so as to create certain responses in readers. In the process, however, the larger existential questions are implicitly invoked, and shown to be not novel concerns of modernist psychology but continuing issues in literary understandings of the concept of “character” itself, at least as far back as the seventeenth century. In addition to a range of Woolf’s own critical and creative writing, the essay considers works by Daniel Defoe, Alexander Pope, Robert Burns, Jane Austen, Elizabeth Oakes Smith, Walter Pater, Henry James and Oscar Wilde.

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