In The Waves, the 1931 novel she called a “playpoem,” Virginia Woolf enacts a drama of modern elegy, using multiple elegists and elegiac subjects to challenge the terms by which speakers and subjects worthy of poetic mourning are defined. In doing so, Woolf frees the genre from the monumentalizing tendencies that dogged it after the First World War and suggests a broader purpose for what might strike many as an antiquated poetic genre. Woolf’s critique of elegy is political, ethical, and generic, as she rewrites the terms of the genre to make visible the mourners and subjects that traditional elegy erases. This essay begins by reconsidering familiar ground—the Bloomsbury Group and the Cambridge Apostles—in order to place Woolf’s work squarely in the middle of what might otherwise seem an old boys’ club of elegiac inheritance.
The Order of a Smashed Window-Pane: Novel Elegy in Woolf’s The Waves
Erin Kay Penner is assistant professor of American literature at Asbury University. She received her doctorate in English from Cornell University, where she began what is now a book manuscript titled “Woolf, Faulkner, and the Character of Mourning.” She has published on elegy, Faulkner, Woolf, and the pedagogy of difficult literature, and she collaborates on the Digital Yoknapatawpha project at the University of Virginia. Before joining the faculty at Asbury, she undertook a Postdoctoral Visiting Research Fellowship at the Rothermere American Institute at the University of Oxford, where she began a new book project on African American literature of mourning ranging from W. E. B. DuBois to Toni Morrison.
Erin Kay Penner; The Order of a Smashed Window-Pane: Novel Elegy in Woolf’s The Waves. Twentieth-Century Literature 1 March 2015; 61 (1): 63–91. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/0041462X-2885185
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