Margarita Esther Sánchez Cuervo, PhiN 64/2013: 1–16.
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Margarita Esther Sánchez Cuervo (Gran Canaria)

'But, I ask myself, What is reality? And who are the judges of reality?':
The Appearance/ Reality Opposition in Virginia Woolf
's Essays

'But, I ask myself, What is reality? And who are the judges of reality?':
The Appearance/ Reality Opposition in Virginia Woolf
's Essays
Virginia Woolf's essays are particularly appreciated for her interest in women's condition throughout history, and her revision of literary trends, works and well- and lesser-known characters. In her practice of this argumentative genre, she uses several rhetorical devices, such as the act-person interaction, similes, repetition, the rhetorical question and opposition. In this respect, the opposition of ideas or dissociation of notions is an argumentative technique that involves the confrontation and balance of elements in opposition. This paper is concerned with the occurrence of the appearance/reality opposition in Woolf's essays. Appearance, which corresponds to the most actual and immediate, is devalued, whereas reality, which is only indirectly recognized, is valued. However, the author practices a reversal of these concepts, and gives more prominence to those illusory imagined aspects of appearance, whereby women can possess a room of their own, develop a career and even enjoy the same rights as men.

1 Introduction

The literary essay has traditionally been considered as a slippery genre which has fitted the author's values and has served his/her social, political, and aesthetic purposes. Due to its argumentative nature, the essay has become one of the most important means of communication and expression of opinion in humanistic disciplines (ethics, politics, sociology, religion, literary criticism, etc.).

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As a basic theoretical framework, rhetoric is a suitable method for studying the essay that can be defined as a general model of text production and as an instrument of textual analysis. Furthermore, rhetoric is the only code of textual production that governs didactic-argumentative texts. In this sense, certain rhetorical principles related to the invention of arguments, their order and expressive manifestation remain valid in the modern essay (Arenas Cruz 1997: 133-134). The rhetorical model emphasizes argument as a process and those means used in argumentative communication between writers and readers (Tindale 2004: 5). Arguments consist of linguistic patterns that transmit acceptability from premises to conclusions, and develop a specific point of view. In texts, they represent those statements worked out in order to support or refute a controversial opinion, and take on special significance in essay discourse, full of judgemental values that can be challenged. Similarly, rhetorical figures are also considered arguments insofar as they are devised to influence the audience by means of their effectiveness and their capacity to attract attention (Tindale 2004: 63). They are thus analyzed as discourse strategies, that is, as an authentic constituent of a theory of argumentative discourse (Plantin 2009: 336).

In this article I focus on the study of argument by opposition in Virginia Woolf's essays, in particular on the appearance/reality opposition. Virginia Woolf has been traditionally acknowledged as a major novelist. However, as an essayist, she has been "little-known, and often viewed merely as an adjunct to the first, enhancing readers' understanding of the novels" (Woolf 1992b: ix). The main topics of Woolf's essays deal with the treatment of feminist issues related to the works and conditions of both well-known and lesser-known female writers. Together with the treatment of their literature, Woolf also considers specific aspects pertaining to their position in history. These are predominant themes of Woolf's essay criticism, including her command of the personal essay (Lojo-Rodríguez 2001) and her practice of a literary form that is rather influenced by Montaigne than by her English compatriots (Dusinberre 1997; Gualtieri 2000; Luckhurst 1999). The existing literature has extensively researched her feminist and literary criticism concerns, and has especially stressed her longest and best-known texts: A Room of One's Own (1929) and Three Guineas (1938) (Bowlby 1997; Brosnan 1997; Rosenberg and Dubino 1997, Woolf 1992b). As literary pieces belonging to argumentative discourse, Woolf's essays can be read from a rhetorical perspective as well (Sánchez-Cuervo 2004).

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Considering Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca's (1969) classification of argumentative techniques, I will first offer an account of some rhetorical arguments that are based on association schemes, prevalent in her essay writing. In the arguments belonging to association, Woolf establishes a link between independent entities in order to transfer judgements of readers concerning one aspect to the other one. These arguments draw upon values, beliefs and presumptions existing in the cultural contexts of the West that are European in origin (Warnick 2011: 25). I will then focus on the argument by opposition, which, in contrast to associative argumentative schemes, belongs to the dissociation category, aimed at reshaping readers' perceptions about some given notions. Dissociations depend on the recognition of the appearance/reality hierarchy, also manifest in Western society (Warnick 2011: 27). Woolf uses this argument in order to reflect on her preoccupation with women's condition in a male-controlled world. The essayist stresses the world of appearance, whereby women can live a better life, in contrast to the harshness of reality. As a result, readers can perceive a new way of representing life, one in which women are not subject to men's dictations.

The selected corpus comprises texts belonging to some of Woolf's best-known essays concerned with literary theory, women's writing, as well as women's position in history and their future perspectives. Apart from her longer essays A Room of One's Own and Three Guineas, the other titles can be found in well-known compilations such as The Death of the Moth and Other Essays (1942), Granite and Rainbow (1958), and A Woman's Essays. Selected Essays (1992b).

2 Rhetorical Arguments: Overview

Within associative arguments, the act-person interaction is essential in those essays dedicated to women and literature (Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca 1969: 296-305). This technique is especially useful in the essay genre, for the essayist draws on those manifestations of the character under discussion in order to modify his/her personality. Historians usually practice the act-person interaction, but they must always adhere to truth and facts. However, the essayist may incorporate a more subjective trait. Woolf may thus highlight those particular aspects of the writer or work that she is reviewing and render her own portrayal, as in the following example, belonging to letter writer Madame de Sévigné:

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Thus we live in her presence, and often fall, as with living people, into unconsciousness. She goes on talking, we half listen. And then something she says rouses us. We add it to her character, so that the character grows and changes, and she seems like a living person, inexhaustible. (Woolf 1942: 51)

In this excerpt, Woolf refers to Sévigné as breathing through the letters that she wrote, which become the excuse that enables us to get to know Sévigné better, sometimes neglecting her artistic endeavors in favour of exploring her personal life. By narrating sketches and anecdotes, Woolf offers a different view on the writer, one that is consonant with her notion of history. Woolf is keen on focussing on those unspoken voices that history does not usually care about, rather than on presenting canonical works and distinguished personalities (Cuddy-Keane 1997: 61). At the same time, this particular construction of a person through the manifestation of his/her acts provides an instance of a more general technique of thought, concerned with the opposition between reality and appearance.

Woolf practices other argumentative techniques that also underscore her interest in women's literary production. These include the reasoning from simile, defined as a comparative structure that shows a concept related to its metaphorical counterpart. Seen as an "overt comparison" (Leech 1969: 153-157), a simile is more explicit than a metaphor because it specifies the domain and degree of the comparison. In this example, extracted from "Royalty", Woolf refers to the painful efforts made by Queen Victoria to write in this imaginative way: "She has to express herself in words; but words will not come to her call. When she feels strongly and tries to say so, it is like hearing an old savage beating with a wooden spoon on a drum" (Woolf 1992b: 155). In this other simile, taken from "Women and Fiction", she likens the lack of rigor in the assessment of women's writing to the suddenness of birds' humming: "In the past, the virtue of women's writing often lay in its divine spontaneity, like that of the blackbird's song or the thrush's" (Woolf 1958: 84).

Another rhetorical principle prevailing in Woolf's essays is repetition. This argumentative device possesses a communicative value associated with the emphasis and insistence of the thought being uttered (Martínez-Dueñas 2002: 69). Writers who repeat the same words seem to stay on the same subject and, moreover, offer visual chains across the text. In the classical and Renaissance tradition of rhetorical figures, repetitions were classified according to where they occurred in successive phrases or clauses (Fahnestock 1999: 157).

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In this passage, about letter-writer Dorothy Osborne, the use of anaphora, a rhetorical figure that repeats the same word at the beginning of a period, is worthy of note. The reiteration of the personal pronoun "she" reinforces Osborne's protagonist role and reflects her dynamic personality:

Of the womanly virtues that befitted her age she shows little trace. She says nothing of sewing or baking. She was a little indolent by temperament. She browsed casually on vast French romances. She roams the commons, loitering to hear the milkmaids sing; she walks in the garden by the side of a small river, 'where I sitt downe and wish you were with mee…'. (Woolf 1992b: 129)

Another important device in the essays is the rhetorical question. This is a scheme that urges the author to constantly ask herself why something occurs. Rhetorical questions are used to elicit different opinions and, given the absence of an open answer, they are posed in a way that readers can develop possible solutions in the course of their reading. They have been traditionally regarded as figures of communion, and are important in all genres of rhetoric, be it as a product or a requirement for argumentation (Graff and Winn 2006: 50). Rhetorical questions create an effective pattern to involve readers in dialogue with writers, as is often the case in Woolf's essays. In the following instance, the essayist manifests the unfairness existing between men and women in her celebrated A Room of One's Own, the essay in which she defends women's right to free time, money and a room for themselves.

For that visit to Oxbridge and the luncheon and the dinner had started a swarm of questions. Why did men drink wine and women water? Why was one sex so prosperous and the other so poor? What effect has poverty on fiction? What conditions are necessary for the creation of works of art? (Woolf 1992a: 32)

The argument by opposition is also evident in this contrast between masculine vs. feminine. This rhetorical principle establishes a significant element in Woolf's essay collections. The opposition of ideas or dissociation of notions entails an inventive process that occurs through the confrontation and balance of contrary elements. It is "an ingenious rhetorical move through which multiple elements of a single concept are differentiated and arranged hierarchically" (Olson 1995: 45-46).

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The appearance vs. reality opposition is present in everyday thought not only through the conflict between masculine vs. feminine, but also through the conflict between the world of wakefulness and the world of dreams, and between lived reality and theatrical representation, or fiction (Perelman 1982: 129). But, as the analysis of some examples will reveal, Woolf's practice of this dissociation dismisses the tacit knowledge usually applied to this pair of opposites.

3 The appearance/reality opposition

Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca (1969: 411-13) explain that the dissociation of notions assumes the original unity of elements contained within a single conception. Rather than breaking the ties that link these elements, this practice aims at altering their structure. The dissociation usually arises from a desire to erase an incompatibility that starts from the confrontation of one proposition with others, be it rules, facts or truths. With this rhetorical operation, the valued concept is given its due place in thought, and the devalued one is given a degree of coherence after reasoning has taken place. As a result, the new concepts that emerge from the dissociation may attain a new consistency or, on occasions, amount to a compromise.

Appearance represents the aspect under which reality is presented; it is the manifestation of the real. Appearance corresponds to term I of the couple and reality to term II:

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In this line, term I is concerned with the apparent, "what is actual, immediate, and known directly"; by contrast, term II is only understood by comparison with term I. Term II results from a dissociation occurring within term I, after losing any illusory and erroneous aspects that it may contain. Furthermore, term II offers a criterion that allows us to discern which values of term I are valued, and which ones are not (Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca 1969: 416).

Following this notion, the significance of this rhetorical strategy arises when Woolf presents the starting point of dissociation as unclear. The dissociation into terms I and II will supposedly add value to the aspects linked to term II, reality, and will lower the value of those aspects opposed to it (Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca 1969: 417). However, this process does not take place in her application of this argumentative procedure. Woolf does not try to reject the established pair, but to reverse it. The idea of appearance that has become term I rises as compared with the devaluation of the idea of reality that was term II (Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca 1969: 427). In this respect, Perelman (1982: 127) affirms that appearance can have an equivocal status because it is sometimes the expression of reality, whereas otherwise it is the source of error and illusion. In Woolf's essays, appearance does turn into the expression of a more idealistic reality, whereby women can develop their career without men's interference. This reversal suits Woolf's own views on women's diminished circumstances instead of what her contemporaries think about this controversial issue. It also entails a different perception of the world, which seeks to persuade her readers by modifying elements of thought previously taken for granted. Woolf thus opposes her contemporaries' opinion about the role a woman should occupy in society, as well as a different philosophy of art which should not follow the precepts of everyday life, as can be seen in this quotation from her famous essay "Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown":

But now I must recall what Mr Arnold Bennett says. He says that it is only if the characters are real that the novel has any chance of surviving. Otherwise, die it must. But, I ask myself, what is reality? And who are the judges of reality? A character may be real to Mr Bennett and quite unreal to me. (Woolf 1992b: 75)

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In this excerpt, Woolf alludes to the conception that Arnold Bennett and other Edwardians writers such as John Galsworthy and H. G. Wells have of characters and literary creation in general. She complains that they like to look at materialist factors external to characters like Mrs Brown, but "never at her, never at life, never at human nature" (Woolf 1992b: 80). She also criticizes these queries in other well-known essays like "Modern Novels", "Character in Fiction", and "Modern Fiction". In those texts, she uses "spiritual" terms that oppose the "materialist" vein of Edwardian fiction. When Woolf opposes her writing to that of the materialists, she aligns herself with the position that spiritualists in the nineteenth century held against scientific naturalism and materialism (Gaipa 2003: 2). Woolf thus pictured the supernatural as part of natural experience (Johnson 1997: 238-39). The supernatural plays a positive role in her work, since Woolf sometimes attributes a more significant role to this unseen world of thoughts, unconsciousness, and dreams than to the material world of reality (Johnson 1997: 247). For example, in this passage from "Street Haunting", the surface world is preferable to the real world:

… At any moment, the sleeping army may stir itself and wake in us a thousand violins and trumpets in response; the army of human beings may rouse itself and assert all its oddities and sufferings and sordidities. Let us dally a little longer, be content still with surfaces only. (Woolf 1942: 23)

The evocative atmosphere of this passage insinuates Woolf's penchant for offering alternative mental states when facing monotonous prospects. The pleasurable slumbering state is clearly more satisfying than that moment of awakening when reality sets in with its daily dosage of worries. Here the conventional metaphor "life is a dream" seems to come alive, for humans prefer to linger in a dreamy state. In addition, it is worth mentioning isocolon, a rhetorical figure of repetition that creates a rhythmical parallelism of sequences of clauses or phrases of the same length (Fahnestock 1999: 50): "the sleeping army may stir itself and wake" and "the army of human beings may rouse itself and assert."

In this next quotation, however, the body and soul, the physical and the spiritual, are not easily separated, as when she comments on Montaigne:

Observe how the soul is always casting her own lights and shadows; makes the substantial hollow and the frail substantial; fills broad daylight with dreams; is as much excited by phantoms as by reality; and in the moment of death sports with a trifle. (Woolf 1992b: 63)

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Woolf refers to Montaigne's style as one in which the soul has the ability to invade the real and the unreal. Her diary entries about the French author indicate her praise of his Essais as an aesthetic model for her own work, as well as a starting point for her public writing (Luckhurst 1997: 49). An antithesis, defined as a rhetorical figure that uses syntactic structure to emphasize conceptual contrast, dominates the passage (Gross and Dearin 2003: 117). In this personification of the soul, I find the juxtaposition of "lights and shadows", "the substantial hollow and the frail substantial", "daylights with dreams" and "excited by phantoms as by reality".

3.1 The masculine/feminine opposition

The discussion regarding the appearance/reality pair is also founded in this study, as mentioned above, on other pairs whose terms I and II are not usually disputed. These are the masculine/feminine and dominant/subordinate pairs, extremely common in those essays of Woolf in which she reviews women's condition (Godin 1999: 363).

In her reflections about the masculine vs. feminine opposition, however, Woolf does not always display a clear antagonism (Sánchez-Cuervo 2006). For instance, in A Room of One's Own she wonders whether the mind has two sexes that correspond to those of the body. She then develops a soul plan that allows us to have two powers, masculine and feminine, which can coexist harmoniously.

Perhaps a mind that is purely masculine cannot create, any more than a mind that is purely feminine, I thought. But it would be well to test what one meant by man-womanly, and conversely by woman-manly, by pausing and looking at a book or two. (Woolf 1992a: 128)

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Here she seems to reject antagonism in favor of an androgynous ideal, a notion that she includes in other texts like "Indiscretions", where she comments upon some authors that do not write like men or women, but rather "they appeal to that large tract of the soul which is sexless" (Woolf 1992b: 90). In any case, the creation of a neutral sentence, free of any sex laden conceptions, does not stop her from uttering this prediction in A Room of One's Own:

Moreover, in a hundred years, I thought, reaching my own doorstep, women will have ceased to be the protected sex. Logically they will take part in all the activities and exertions that were once denied them. The nursemaid will heave coal. The shop woman will drive an engine. (Woolf 1992a: 52)

With this declaration Woolf presupposes the equality of women and their right to perform the same occupations as men even if they require physical exertion. This view is more in consonance with her ultimate proposal of an Outsiders' Society formulated in Three Guineas, in which women do not belong to any particular nation and become world citizens. In trying to transform society, she seeks a rupture of traditionally-established elements and, instead of dissociating the concepts of masculinity and femininity, she is now breaking a connecting link. The breaking of connecting links is a technique that consists of sustaining that elements "which should remain separate and independent have been improperly associated" (Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca 1969: 411). Therefore, with this new arrangement women will establish their own rules and will enjoy better living conditions:

If name it must have, it could be called the Outsiders' Society. That is not a resonant name, but it has the advantage that it squares with facts – the facts of history, of law, of biography; even, it may be, with the still hidden facts of our still unknown psychology. It would consist of educated men's daughters working in their own class – how indeed can they work in any other? – and by their own methods for liberty, equality and peace. (Woolf 1992a: 309-310)

In this quotation, the essayist points out the necessity of creating this new women's society that will work from their more privileged class to favor the working class. But in this new society that Woolf yearns to see implemented, the fantasy world continues to be more appealing than the real world, as this educated men's daughter indicates:

'And do not,' she may reasonably add, 'dream dreams about ideal worlds behind the stars; consider actual facts in the actual world.' Indeed, the actual world is much more difficult to deal with than the dream world.' (Woolf 1992a: 297)

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Here two rhetorical figures of repetition reinforcing this impression are noticeable: the first is polyptoton (Fahnestock 1999: 168), which repeats a word in a different form. The lexeme "dream" appears first as a verb, and then twice as a plural and singular noun. The concept of "dream" thus occurs both with a different form and syntactic functions to emphasize its prominence. The second figure is ploche (Fahnestock 1999: 158), which repeats the same word but alters its meaning when it reappears. I am referring to the repetition of "actual", which occurs twice in the same phrase "actual world", and which is then opposed to the final "dream world". The reiteration of "actual" as synonym for "real" and "concrete" stresses its negative sense, especially when contrasted with "the dream world".

3.2 The fiction/reality opposition

The portrayal of the masculine/feminine opposition is, in any case, less severe than Woolf's approach to the last pair assessed in this study, the fiction/reality pair, as revealed in this depiction of a woman, taken from A Room of One's Own:

Imaginatively she is of the highest importance; practically she is completely insignificant. She pervades poetry from cover to cover; she is all but absent from history. She dominates the lives of kings and conquerors in fiction; in fact she was the slave of any boy whose parents forced a ring upon her finger. Some of the most inspired words, some of the most profound thoughts in literature fall from their lips; in real life she could hardly read, could scarcely spell, and was the property of her husband. (Woolf 1992a: 56)

The essayist wonders about the fact that females can carry out such magnificent deeds in the realm of fiction, but merely try to carry on as inferior creatures in real life. Woolf speaks about "an odd monster" (Woolf 1992a: 56) that emerges if one reads historians first and poets afterwards. Once more, antithesis embodies the main figure that dramatizes the syntactic and semantic contrast, in juxtapositions like "imaginatively-practically", "highest importance-completely insignificant", "pervades poetry-absent from history", and "dominates-slave". The reversal of the apparent/reality pair is manifest once more, for it is preferable a fictitious life to enduring a tough reality.

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Finally, the complexity of this dissociation is also obvious in Woolf's well-known essay "Professions for Women", where she is asked to speak about women and employment. In the text, she introduces "The Angel in the House" as the phantom that tries to prevent her from exercising to write freely, and whom she ends up killing. This female apparition, which she describes as "pure", "intensely sympathetic", "immensely charming", "utterly selfish", excelling "in the difficult arts of family life", and sacrificing "herself daily", is adamant about destroying Woolf's free will. The Angel symbolizes the image of domesticity; the real woman that society dictates has to be docile and not to express her own words, least of all in writing. Yet this stereotype, the supposed term II of the pair, can only turn into the devalued element if the female writer is ever to accomplish her task freely. This idea can be difficult to comprehend, for Woolf has now envisioned reality as a ghost. Whereas for the rest of society "The Angel in the House" is a tangible presence, for the author, who tries so hard to have a profession of her own, this presence represents the valueless member of the pair. If materialism has been, as seen in the previous examples, the cover that has obstructed Woolf's path to spiritual vision, a female spirit is the veil through which she can distinguish her own reality:

Outwardly, what is simpler than to write books? Outwardly, what obstacles are there for a woman rather than for a man? Inwardly, I think, the case is very different: she has still many ghosts to fight, many prejudices to overcome. Indeed it will be a long time still, I think, before a woman can sit down to write a book without finding a phantom to be slain, a rock to be dashed against. (Woolf 1942: 241)

In this piece two rhetorical questions point at a deceptive situation wherein women should not encounter any difficulties in the exercise of their writing. However, the antithesis posed between the adverbs "outwardly" vs. "inwardly" indicates their real predicament that ultimately leads to Woolf's wishful prediction.

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4 Conclusion

In her essays, Virginia Woolf dissociates the appearance/reality pair and achieves a reversal of its elements. The apparent world, usually associated with the world of dreams and illusions, becomes the valuable element of this couple; in contrast, real life, full of hard household tasks and dull occupations, becomes the worthless member of the pair. With this reversal, the fantasy dimension, the fictional realm in which women can fulfill their personal and professional yearnings, is converted into the desired status, term II of the pair. On the contrary, the everyday life that women have to bear in a patriarchal society is the real consequence of not dissociating this pair.

Although people rely on what they claim to know, things that seem to be acceptable or relevant can be discredited by means of dissociation, and this change fits in with a different vision of the world. Woolf uses this argumentative device to invalidate a valued assertion which has traditionally placed women at men's disposal. When in the face of uncertainty people anticipate, imagine and produce interpretations, modes of reasoning once considered unimportant only appear to be so. These interpretations are produced in many cases in the form of oppositions, which suggest that people are unrealistic, try to preserve the past, or escape from the present circumstances by envisioning a better future. This has been Woolf's intent in the texts that I have presented (Godin 1999: 358-360). It can also be a mode by which the essayist shares the truth as she sees it with her readers.


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