Although critics have tended to answer the question “Does Woolf write tragedies?” in the negative, Woolf rekindles a Greek perspective in which the universe is devoid of salvation and poetic justice. Woolf follows Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides—a literary, not a philosophical or anthropological, heritage—when she represents characters’ undeserved, uncompensated pains. Woolf’s thinking aligns her with Charles Darwin in the natural sciences. Like Darwin, Woolf makes tragic chance inseparable from the theater of life. This essay reads Woolf’s oft-cited rejection of teleological form and her aesthetics of the momentary as responses to Darwinism and expressions of her tragic philosophy: characters’ short-lived “moments of being” stand in insoluble conflict with the expansive time of natural history.
Virginia Woolf, Charles Darwin, and the Rebirth of Tragedy
Manya Lempert is assistant professor of English at the University of Arizona. She received her doctorate from the University of California, Berkeley in 2015 and is now completing her first book, a study of tragedy in the modernist novel. Her work on varying models of tragedy—Athenian, Aristotelian, Christian, novelistic—has appeared in Studies in the Novel.
Manya Lempert; Virginia Woolf, Charles Darwin, and the Rebirth of Tragedy. Twentieth-Century Literature 1 December 2018; 64 (4): 449–482. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/0041462X-7298974
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