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'The Measure of Life: Virginia Wolf's Last Year' Review

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The Measure of Life

The Measure of Life

Cornell University Press
Study Guide Herbert Marder conceptualizes the last ten years of Virginia Woolf's life, focusing on her revolutionary works, which she created before committing suicide in 1941. It was the most difficult time in Woolf's life, but Marder explains, "My decision to write this biography grew out of a fascination with the way people change under stress."
Woolf's work had always been troubled by a fear of madness, as the images of water and suicide sifted through. She had already attempted suicide once, and she said that without her husband, Leonard, she would not be able to survive. He would "save" her, restrain her outbursts of emotion, and help her to "control feeling with reason."

As Marder writes, "Her fame as a novelist and a woman of letters had partly eclipsed the memory of her suicide attempt--it was an old story, sixteen years had gone by since then. But she still lived close to the edge; she could blunder into an emotional whirlpool and be sucked under for good." So, madness and genius stood side by side. She couldn't have one without the other, and she continued to walk a fine line. World events, along with personal tragedies, conspired to mount an increasingly uncomfortable, and ever-evolving web of horrors, which heightened her artistic conscious as she was compelled "to break every mould" and "to find a new form of expression more nearly in tune with the social consciousness of the day."
Visions of the Future

Woolf was troubled by the future, as she wandered dangerously close to the precipice, the edge of meaning and sense. She had an oddly voyeuristic outlook on life, sometimes seeing her loved ones as actors in a play, somehow removed and unknowable--though still so close and irrepressible.

Woolf once said that she valued silence in those closest to her, and she demanded truth. But, she also had a strong sense that some things in life should not be scrutinized too closely. Some of those unspoken moments could be fitted into the pages of her novels, so she could relive and rework those moments as she rewrote the history of her life.

Woolf's voice was ever-growing and changing as she instinctively pushed the boundaries of literature. She was a master of experimentation; and each of her later novels took her a bit further as she tested the waters. Each time, she expected failure, but each time her work was applauded for its ingenuity and foresight.
On the Edge of Time & the World

"As a woman," Woolf said, "I have no country. As a woman, I want no country. As a woman my country is the whole world." She saw herself as an outsider. On the one hand, she wished for nothing more than to be anonymous, but she shrank back from the horrific thought that she would be forgotten by time, and that her work would be counted as nothing.

Marder writes, "In a detached and dreamlike state she imagined that the summit is the end; she is riding a mule and she is on her deathbed, feeling her spirit reach out toward distant realms, looking down from the height, but weightless and disembodied, as if the waves are rising to enfold her, as if she has launched out over the edge of the precipice into space." Now, her image almost takes on a mythical quality: "a creature of laughter and movement," as Elizabeth Bowen described her.

In the end, though, we're not left with a mythical creature. It's a tragic scene, as she found herself feeling alone and depressed. She believe that German soldiers would soon invade. The world as she knew it would soon come to an end. And, worst of all, she couldn't read or write, as she felt herself slipping toward that forbidding abyss of madness.
Virginia died in 1941, but she's not forgotten. In A Sketch of the Past, Woolf wrote, "One's life is not confined to one's body and what one says or does." A life is related "to a larger design, a pattern hidden behind the 'cotton wool' of daily life." It seems so terribly simple: our lives as words.

As Marder narrates the last days of Virginia Woolf, her life comes into focus. As he says in the beginning: "She was a difficult writer, an ironist who made up stories and led her readers along obscure byways. She was often playful, sometimes malicious, and she enjoyed embellishing the facts about people." She was "a serious artist who was only trying to say, as exactly as possible, something that had never been said before."

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