English 29

Major Writers: Virginia Woolf

Section Semester Instructor Time Location Course Areas
1 Fall 2021 Zhang, Dora
TTh 8-9:30 Online

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"On or around December 1910, human character changed." So goes one of Virginia Woolf's best known lines. Writing in the early decades of the twentieth century, Woolf was responding to seismic historical changes in the West wrought by industrialization, urbanization, secularization, imperialism, and two world wars, among others. Her experiments with novelistic form (including fragmentation, non-linearity, shifts in perspective, jettisoning of conventions of plot) were pathbreaking, and her influence has been far-reaching. 

Over a century – and several more seismic shifts – later, what can we get from reading Woolf today? Although she was deeply embedded in (and shared the limitations of) her historical circumstances, Woolf's work speaks to many contemporary concerns. Known primarily as one of the foremost English-language novelists of consciousness, she was also an astute political observer, a staunch pacifist and advocate of women's rights, writing early feminist manifestos like "A Room of One's Own" as well as antifascist tracts like "Three Guineas." Belonging to a coterie of bohemian artists and intellectuals known as the Bloomsbury Group, Woolf has also, on account of both her works and her life, been claimed as an early queer writer. Her eloquent writings on illness (including the flu pandemic of 1918) and her own lifelong challenges with mental health resonate powerfully with contemporary issues of disability, health, and the vulnerability of the body (brought home all the more by Covid-19). And finally, moving away from the human, Woolf's deep preoccupation with the natural world and her haunting depictions of unpeopled landscapes resonates with recent ecocritical thinking about the relationship between the human and nonhuman worlds.

Guided by these thematic concerns (consciousness, gender, war & fascism, sexuality, disability, and ecology) we will read across Woolf's groundbreaking fiction and her trenchant essays, examining her lyrical explorations of interior life as well as her responses to the historical conditions in which she found herself – and what she might have to say to the conditions of the present. Our primary readings will be supplemented by works of criticism that situate Woolf in context, critique her limitations, and extend her thinking. This course will also serve as an introduction to literary study, and throughout the semester we will be working on skills of close reading and analytical writing.

This class will be taught remotely.

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