(réf. Etudes Britanniques Contemporaines hors série. Montpellier : Presses universitaires de Montpellier, 1999)



Apprehending the World: Surface, Substance, and
the True Experience of Things in Virginia Woolf’s Novels


Carole Rodier (Collingham College - St Edmund Hall, Oxford)


Many a passage from Woolf’s novels exemplify the conception of human history as a progressive estrangement from the world of things,[1] which has eventually led to a phenomenological cleavage. This domination over things has been made at the price of no longer understanding them, so that when subject to philosophical analysis, things are not permeable but take part in the design of a fixed enigma: they assert themselves in an irreducible alterity.

Whereas the encounter between the artist and her object will turn out to be a fruitful one, the confrontation between Mr Ramsay and the kitchen table reveals the limitations of a purely intellectual approach to things. Indeed, the object is described as "something visionary, austere. Something bare, hard, not ornamental. . . uncompromisingly plain" (TL 169). Living in the abstact realm of ideas, Mr Ramsay "never look[s] at things" (79). The majority of male characters in Woolf’s works (Colonel Pargiter, William Bankes, Peter Walsh) are cut off from everyday and prosaic reality and, consequently, suffer from an inability to see ordinary things,[2] which explains their being dazzled by them. Instead of seeing things, the landscape, and the beauty of the world, Mr Ramsay "notices something red, something brown" (74).

Being a process of abstracting or conceptualizing reality, philosophical analysis is defined as "this seeing of angular essences, this reducing of lovely evenings, with all their flamingo clouds and blue and silver to a white deal four-legged table" (TL 30). The philosopher is brutally faced with a


[1]. E.M. Cioran writes: “Coupés de toute racine, inaptes en outre à frayer avec la poussière ou la boue, nous avons réussi l’exploit de rompre non seulement avec les choses, mais avec leur surface même” (1091).

[2]. Mr Ramsay appears to his wife as being “born blind, deaf, and dumb, to the ordinary things, but to the extraordinary things, with an eye like an eagle’s” (78).




reality characterized by its unbearable alterity. When it is subject to the requirements of philosophical speculation, to the tyrannical exercise of a rigid knowledge imposing on it an artificial structure, reality suffers from a loss of substance. The philosopher regards the object as the medium through which he will construct a theory about "subject and object and the nature of reality" (TL 29), thus depriving it of its physical qualities. That’s why the artist cannot but see this "scrubbed kitchen table" (TL 30) as "a phantom kitchen table" (TL 30). Living matter loses its nature and is replaced by representation, of which symbolization is but an aspect.

The encounter between the philosopher and the artist corresponds to a phenomenological reduction of the world as it happens in To the Lighthouse: "the whole horizon seemed swept bare of objects to talk about" (TL 166). Two different ways of interpreting reality clash with each other. It also means that both philosophy and art reach a cognitive limit and have to surmount a difficulty for reality keeps defying the intellect.

 From Surface to Substance: the Sensuous Approach to Things

 The movement from surface to substance is the basis of phenomenology. As Merleau-Ponty writes: "La chair (celle du monde ou la mienne) n’est pas contingence, chaos, mais texture" (192). The sensory delights open to women and to children testify to the desire to apprehend the substance of things.

Colour is surface promising depth, thickened light, "concrétion de la visibilité" (174) as Merleau-Ponty would say. In Virginia Woolf’s works, it gives the reader a glimpse of the reverie of substantiality which pervades her imagination. The rich and bright palette used by the author reveals not so much aesthetic as ontological preoccupations. The use of colour is a way of giving substance to a world sometimes perceived as evanescent. The natural world, in which essential emotional experiences take place, is often a display of colours. The Woolfian predilection for brilliant lights, of which there are numerous examples, betrays a need to apprehend the materiality of the world, to endow it with a greater reality. Manifold are the forms assumed by light and by the objects bathed in light or faintly touched by it. The intensification of colours which extend beyond the modalities of their appearance vitalizes the landscape: in dusk, "the blue [is] bluer, the green greener" (BA 154).




Things interlace, weaving the dense texture of life. Warm colours and perfumes are associated with a sensuous and maternal femininity,[1] with a world almost beaming with life.[2] If gold crystallizes many reveries, it is because it is the most substantial colour, a colour having the quality of matter and beaming with an intense density.[3] Dense colours infuse the imagination which is eager to embellish reality, to transfigure and solidify it. The symbolical constellation which combines gold and warmth always adorns the world with the characteristics of happiness.[4] The world is the scene of the encounter of different substances playing with one another. After the vicissitudes have been overcome, the happiness then reached is described as "light l[ying] in soft golden grains" (ND 540) in deep obscurity. The fragmentation of light seems to increase the tangible quality of reality. The solidification of colour transformed into matter satisfies a need to overcome ontological vagueness and to leave the realm of pure abstraction: "Gold runs in our blood. One, two; one, two; the heart beats in serenity, in confidence, in some trance of well-being, in some rapture of benignity" (W 108). This is an alchemical process in which wine takes on the dimension of a mystical substance uniting people. Therefore, gold is the symbol of an emotional atmosphere, of a radiant moment that will never be erased,[5] of a spiritual fusion achieved through the satisfaction of desires, hopes, and dreams.

The image of the landscape appearing as a dense expanse of "masses and green and blue" (VO 173)[6] exemplifies the association of colour and substance. The many-coloured spring’s awakening endows the natural world with all the concrete qualities of substance (VO 173):


[1]. G. Durand writes that “la couleur, comme la nuit, nous renvoie. . . toujours à une sorte de féminité substantielle” (253).

[2]. Here is an example: “The whole house glowed - red, gold, cream-coloured, and smelt of clothes and flowers” (Y 181). The adjective “gold” contains a luminous richness and depth, and the cream colour is but a reminiscence of the archetypal substance of milk. The colour yellow, which diffuses the warmth of home, symbolizes intimacy. Lights ignite the world and all is astir in streaming yellow: “when evening comes and the lamps are lit they make a yellow fire in the ivy” (W 80).

[3]. The fact that clouds are transformed into “golden alabaster” (BA 23) and that the water of the Thames is described as “a muddy gold” (Y 161) reveals a need to endow the landscape with concrete qualities. The contemplation of a wintry landscape in streaming gold appeals to the imagination of Mrs Flanders: “She might have let her fancy play upon the gold tint of the sea at sunset, and thought how it lapped in coins of gold upon the shingle” (JR 18-19).

[4]. According to G. Durand, gold is “l’archétype du blottissement substantialiste” ( 301).

[5]. G. Romey writes that “l’or onirique est un lieu retrouvé” (110).

[6]. In Santa Marina, it is heavy with lush grasses, described as “the great green mass” (VO 282) or metaphorically as “the waving green mass” (VO 271).




On the bank grew those trees which Helen had said it was worth the voyage out merely to see. April had burst their buds, and they bore large blossoms among their glossy green leaves with petals of a thick wax-like substance coloured an exquisite cream or pink or deep crimson. (VO 173)

Such luxuriance reveals Woolf’s desire to feel the texture of things and to show nature in the process of coming to life again. Through the opening of buds, we imagine the working of the sap. Positive colours compose the palette used by Woolf: the deep green of foliage, combining both freshness and the depth of interiority; the shy pink of birth and carnation; the more nocturnal purple: all these colours express an innocent sensuousness. Nuances melt in an aesthetic harmony. The visual pleasure we experience gives way to a tactile one. The feeling is one of quiet jubilation. Therefore, it is easy to understand why Terence’s happiness is not only due to Rachel’s presence but also to the substantiality of the landscape:

The world. . . had, perhaps, more solidity, more coherence, more importance, greater depth. . . . Even the earth sometimes seemed to him very deep; . . . heaped in great masses (VO 298).

If these few examples convince us that V. Woolf is essentially a visual writer, they also serve as a demonstration of her ontological preoccupations. Colours give life to a world often perceived as insubstantial. Although colour is, among the qualities of the sensible universe, the most impalpable one, it tends to be loaded with voluptuous density. Behind colour, lies substance:

Our eyes, as they range round this room with all its tables, seem to push through curtains of colour, red, orange, umber and queer ambiguous tints, which yield like veils and close behind them, and one thing melts into another. (W 107)

According to Merleau-Ponty, what is peculiar to things is their resistance to perception by opposition through obstacles.[1] These make them tangible. Hence, in Woolf’s work, the obsession with grains, wrinkles, roughnesses and cracks as in the passage where Rhoda "see[s] the side of a cup like a mountain and only parts of antlers, and the brightness on the side of that jug like a crack in darkness with wonder and terror" (W 176). Women have a propensity for scrutinizing things, thus animate or


[1]. “les choses ont une chair: c’est-à-dire opposent à mon inspection des obstacles, une résistance qui est précisément leur réalité” (272-273).




revive them. In The Voyage Out, Helen enjoys "looking into the fire, making the logs into caves and mountains" (VO 95). This cosmisation reads as an illustration of the Bachelardian oxymoron "l’immensité intime des petites choses" (Terre 14) achieved by magnification. This process will be used in To the Lighthouse (105, 117) when Mrs Ramsay establishes a relationship with the dish of fruit, which is similar to what Merleau-Ponty would call "complicité" (107). To someone like Susan, whose gaze is guided by a possessive intention,[1] things appear "square, prominent, undissolved in [her] mind" (W 170) as blocks of reality defying nothingness and oblivion. To the artificiality of social life and sorrow felt in exile, she opposes the vivid memory of "real things" (W 49), a compound of sensory experiences and objects of the material world, the tangible remanence of an idealized place. When touched by light, the sensible qualities of things (shape, colour, and mass) are intensified; they take on sharp outlines, which endow them with a "fanatical existence": "A plate was like a white lake. A knife looked like a dagger of ice" (W 87).

Even intellectual faculties such as memory call for the concrete quality of things. Consider James trying to get rid of the painful coercion of the past: "he sat. . . powerless to flick off these grains of misery which settled on his mind one after another" (TL 202). However, these grains materialize the salutary power of memory in a world which, after the death of Mrs Ramsay, has become porous: "It was all dry: all withered: all spent" (TL 164). Everything is maintained in an empty equivalence which is suggestive of expectation. A thing is a concretion amidst oblivion; in The Waves, the characters want to preserve the moment, to retain its emotional quality, "to make one thing, not enduring—for what endures?— but seen by many eyes simultaneously" (W 100-101).

 The True Experience of Things: How to Capture “les choses mêmes, du fond de leur silence” (Merleau-Ponty 18)

 The true apprehension of things is exemplified by the child’s poetic exploration of the world. The aim of Bernard, in The Waves, is to experience “things in themselves.” Tuning his existence to silence—which is the only guarantee of the integrity of things—, he is able to capture existence at the magic moment of its advent: "How much better is silence. . . . How much better to sit by myself like the solitary sea-bird that opens its wings on the stake. Let me sit here for ever with bare things, this


[1]. I refer to what J.P. Richard calls “projet possessif” (Proust 52).




coffee-cup, this knife, this fork, things in themselves, myself being myself" (W 233). Bernard’s experience consists in freeing himself from things said or things wrapped in "the thick leaves of habit" (W 223) in order to capture things in their bare and everyday reality as they pre-exist intellectual or philosophical speculation. This is in keeping with Merleau-Ponty’s suggestion concerning things: "les laisser être et assister à leur être continué" (138). This implies a rejection of the logic of acquisitiveness which governs life. Emancipated from all determination, Bernard is able to retrieve a true contact with things, to be with them without possessing them. Therefore, in this passage which describes a stasis, silence corresponds to another level of being. It is "ce lieu de la conscience profonde" (de Smedt 11) in which one can recover the experience of being and feeling keenly and, ultimately, "retentir phénoménologiquement" (Poétique 9) as Bachelard would say. The physical counterpart of silence is the “hors-oekoumène,” a symbolical and metaphorical desert where Bernard wanders at the end of The Waves.

Perception consists in facing the world as it is. Without transfiguration, there is barren reality: "When one gave up seeing the beauty that clothed things, this was the skeleton earth" (VO 7). Aridity symbolizes the sterility of the mind having reached the limits of its possibilities and compelled to acknowledge it in order to recover a freshness of vision: "The scene beneath me withered. It was like the eclipse when the sun went out and left the earth, flourishing in full summer foliage, withered, brittle, false" (W 224). Woolf’s works betray an obsession with emaciation, with the exhaustion, even the consumption of matter and form as is shown in the numerous allusions to bones. Bernard is faced with "wintriness and pallor and the equal and uninteresting view of the same landscape" (W 225-226). This paves the way for the phenomenological reduction of the world that occurs at the very end of the novel: "The canopy of civilization is burnt out. The sky is dark as polished whalebone" (W 234).

The theme of barrenness and that of atomisation pervade Woolf’s works where the characters are faced with "the barren prose of reality" (ND 401). Disintegration and porosity are constant motifs. If the image of grey ashes is recurrent in The Waves, it is also to be found in To the Lighthouse as an evocation of the death of Mrs Ramsay. It is significant that it should appear at the very moment when the artist is striving to recreate a reality which has been shattered by tragic events, both collective and personal (162). Moreover, at the end of the same novel, Cam imagines a world which is reduced to its purest expression or to its outlines and which, therefore, evaporates: "things simplify themselves. . . and nothing was left




but a pale blue censer swinging rhythmically this way and that across her mind" (TL 219). And when it is gazed at by Mr Ramsay, the island becomes no more than "the frail blue shape which seemed like the vapour of something that had burnt itself away" (TL 223). Clouds, vapour, smoke and incense reveal the immateriality of the world. Remains of the past have to be effaced in order to pave the way for major experiences. A moment may vanish in the infinity of time, as is stylistically expressed in the elision conveyed by the scansion of the privative particle "no": "We have sunk to ashes, leaving no relics, no unburnt bones, no wick of hair to be kept in lockets such as your intimacies leave behind them" (W 175). One should get rid of scoria, peel off the surface of things: "One must. . . cut always ruthlessly with a slice of the blade soot, bark, hard accretions of all sorts" (W 157). This obviously refers to the creative work of the writer.

The ultimate experience consists in making one’s mind a blank in order to look at the world with a new eye, to recapture the fresh or unprejudiced vision of the child. After the death of Percival, Bernard describes his experience of seeing reality as follows:

To see things without attachment, from the outside and to realize their beauty in itself—how strange! And then the sense that a burden has been removed; pretence and make-believe and unreality are gone, and lightness has come with a kind of transparency, making oneself invisible and things seen through as one walks—how strange. (W 208)

Things appear with startling intensity as if their surface had been peeled off. What is left is the bare reality of things encapsulating the intensity of the moment, like a vision printed in darkness.

In The Waves, Louis digs up and unburies relics of himself in the sand, "cinders and refuse of something once splendid" (W 101). The sand is a substance having the quality of intimacy. Its metamorphic fluidity facilitates the rovings of the imagination. In To the Lighthouse, the world is engulfed in "the sands of oblivion" (152), therefore in expectation of regeneration. The microscopic and microcosmic avatar of sand is dust, which is recurrent (W 118, 224, 225). The jubilation of "the dust dance" (225) refers to a pulverized yet animated existence. For matter is not dead as the description of the death of Percival conveyed through an obsessive imagery of dispersion and consumption shows: "The past, summer days and rooms where we sat, stream away like burnt paper with red eyes in it" (W 120). These red eyes are the avatar of the eyes of fire which are said to destroy the veil of appearances and to reduce to ashes the illusory attachments and desires. Amidst nothingness, these sparks




maintain the power of vision, prefiguring the apparition of the "glass cage" (W 226).

Woolf’s aesthetics is based upon a dialectical process consisting in hollowing out and saturating the text. Desertion and desertification are the prelude to creation. In Woolf’s works, things are subject to metamorphosis or to what Richard would call "sommation" (L’Univers 378). This means that they coalesce and take part in a pattern. Besides, through them, one catches a glimpse of eternity: "I see the gleaming tea-urn, the glass cases full of pale-yellow sandwiches; the men in round coats perched on stools at the counter; and also behind them, eternity" (W 76). Having emerged from darkness, things eventually go back to it. In some rare occasions, one has an intuition of the invisible reserve[1] expanding beyond the way they appear. Reality is but a dissolving pattern of particles which is in constant process of being rearranged:

We want to find out what’s behind things, don’t we? Look at the lights down there [...] scattered about anyhow. Things I feel come to me like lights. . . I want to combine them. . . Have you ever seen fireworks that make figures?. . . I want to make figures. (VO 224)

 This may require several interpretations: the advent of a latent reality, the creation of a new reality or the etherealization of matter.

"L’extase matérielle" as defined by Le Clézio is the encounter between the abstract and the concrete; it is also death dreamed as a dissolution preceding regeneration: "I have sunk alone on the turf and fingered some old bone and thought: when the wind stoops to brush this height, may there be nothing found but a pinch of dust" (W 162).


[1]. I refer to what Merleau-Ponty calls la “réserve d’invisible” (199) or la “membrure d’invisible” (269) des choses.





Works cited:


BACHELARD, Gaston. La Poétique de l’Espace. 1957. Paris: PUF, 1989.

---. La Terre et les rêveries du repos: essai sur les images de l’intimité. 1948. Paris: José Corti, 1988.

CIORAN, E.M. La Chute dans le Temps, Œuvres. Trans. André Vornic & Christiane Frémont. Paris: Gallimard, 1995.

DE SMEDT, Marc. Eloge du Silence. Paris: Albin Michel, 1996.

DURAND, Gilbert. Les Structures Anthropologiques de l’Imaginaire. 10ème ed., Paris: Bordas, 1984.

LE CLEZIO, J.M.G. L’Extase Matérielle. Paris: Gallimard, 1967.

MERLEAU-PONTY, Maurice. Le Visible et l’invisible, Paris: Gallimard, 1964.

RICHARD, J.P. L’Univers Imaginaire de Mallarmé. Paris: Seuil, 1961.

---. Proust et le Monde Sensible. Paris: Seuil 1974.

ROMEY, Georges. Le Dictionnaire de la Symbolique: le vocabulaire fondamental des rêves. Vol. I. Paris: Albin Michel, 1995.

WOOLF, Virginia. The Voyage Out. 1915. London: Grafton Books, 1978.

---. Night and Day. 1919. London: Grafton Books, 1978.

---. Jacob’s Room.1922. London: Grafton Books, 1976.

---. To the Lighthouse. 1927. London: Grafton Books, 1977.

---. The Wave. 1931. London: Grafton Books, 1977.

---. The Years. 1937. London: Grafton Books, 1977.

---. Between the Acts.1941. London: Grafton Books, 1978.




(réf. Etudes Britanniques Contemporaines hors série. Montpellier : Presses universitaires de Montpellier, 1999)