The String Quartet

tutorial, critical comment, plot, and study resources

The String Quartet was written in January 1921 and first appeared in Monday or Tuesday (1921) – a collection of experimental short prose pieces Virginia Woolf had written between 1917 and 1921. It was published by the Hogarth Press and also included A Society, A Haunted House, An Unwritten Novel, Monday or Tuesday, Blue and Green, and Solid Objects.


The String Quartet

Virginia Woolf – portrait


The String Quartet – critical commentary

Composition

The story contains an impressionistic account of a string quartet performance, but in its own structure echoes the four parts of the traditional musical form – Allegro, Moderato, Minuet, and Sonata-Rondo

The introduction is an account of the narrator’s consciousness and setting the scene in the concert hall. This is followed in the second part by the first piece of music. When this finishes, the third part of the narrative returns to the distracting events in the hall. And finally, in the fourth part of the story there is a second and more extended piece of music.

Words and music

Writing about music is notoriously difficult, because music itself is entirely abstract. It doesn’t mean anything, but can have a powerful emotional affect upon listeners.

Woolf chooses to render her account of these effects in the form of poetic language and impressionistic images:

‘Flourish, spring, burgeon, burst! … Fountains jet; drops descend … washing shadows over the silver fish, the spotted fish rushed down by the swift waters, now swept into an eddy

And in her account of the second piece of music she conjures up pictures of medieval romance:

the Prince, who was writing in the large vellum book in the oriel window, came out in his velvet skull-cap and furred slippers, snatched a rapier from the wall — the King of Spain’s gift, you know — on which I escaped …

Stream of consciousness

Virginia Woolf was developing the literary technique called ‘stream of consciousness’ at the same time as her famous contemporary James Joyce (of whose work she did not approve) and the very little known Dorothy Richardson. The strategy attempts to reproduce the activity of human consciousness as it deals with the dizzying combination of original thoughts and the bombardment of sense impressions from the outside world.

The result is often a combination of semi-coherent reflections, observations of the material world, and further reactions to those observations – expressed simultaneously in the same way they are experienced. Added to this mixture will usually be the fragments and trivia of everyday life as it impinges on us.

The narrator in this story is conscious of being in the centre of London, of world political events, the weather, the price of housing, and the results of the influenza pandemic (which killed more people that the recent war in 1918-1919) as well as a household repair that has been overlooked:

If indeed it’s true, as they’re saying, that Regent Street is up, and the Treaty signed, and the weather not cold for this time of year, and even at that rent not a flat to be had, and the worst of influenza its after effects; if I bethink me of having forgotten to write about the leak in the larder …


Study resources

The String Quartet The Complete Shorter Fiction – Vintage Classics – Amazon UK

The String Quartet The Complete Shorter Fiction – Vintage Classics – Amazon US

The String Quartet The Complete Shorter Fiction – Harcourt edition – Amazon UK

The String Quartet The Complete Shorter Fiction – Harcourt edition – Amazon US

The String Quartet Monday or Tuesday and Other Stories – Gutenberg.org

The String Quartet Kew Gardens and Other Stories – Hogarth reprint – Amazon UK

The String Quartet Kew Gardens and Other Stories – Hogarth reprint – Amazon US

The String Quartet The Mark on the Wall – Oxford World Classics edition – Amazon UK

The String Quartet The Mark on the Wall – Oxford World Classics edition – Amazon US

The String Quartet The Complete Works of Virginia Woolf – Kindle edition

Blogging Woolf A String Quartet – complete text at Bartelby.com

Blogging Woolf A String Quartet – an alternative reading

Red button The Cambridge Companion to Virginia Woolf – Amazon UK

Red button Virginia Woolf – Authors in Context – Amazon UK

Red button The Cambridge Introduction to Virginia Woolf – Amazon UK


The String Quartet – story synopsis

An un-named narrator has arrived at a musical recital in the centre of London, and reflects upon the invasion of a person’s thoughts by the trivial phenomena of everyday life.

Social chit-chat is exchanged amongst members of the audience, and underneath the trivia there is a search for some sort of meaning or significance.

A string quartet enters and plays what appears to be a Schubert composition but is said to be by Mozart. The narrator finds the emotions unlocked by the music unsettling and the audience distracting.

A second piece of music is rendered in romantic medieval imagery, which appears to engulf the narrator completely, until it is time to return to the street and go home.


Monday or Tuesday – first edition

Monday or Tuesday - first edition

Cover design by Vanessa Bell


Further reading

Red button Quentin Bell. Virginia Woolf: A Biography. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1972.

Red button Hermione Lee. Virginia Woolf. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997.

Red button Nicholas Marsh. Virginia Woolf, the Novels. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998.

Red button John Mepham, Virginia Woolf. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992.

Red button Natalya Reinhold, ed. Woolf Across Cultures. New York: Pace University Press, 2004.

Red button Michael Rosenthal, Virginia Woolf: A Critical Study. New York: Columbia University Press, 1979.

Red button Susan Sellers, The Cambridge Companion to Virginia Woolf, Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Red button Virginia Woolf, The Common Reader. New York: Harvest Books, 2002.

Red button Alex Zwerdling, Virginia Woolf and the Real World. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.


Other works by Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf To the LighthouseTo the Lighthouse (1927) is the second of the twin jewels in the crown of her late experimental phase. It is concerned with the passage of time, the nature of human consciousness, and the process of artistic creativity. Woolf substitutes symbolism and poetic prose for any notion of plot, and the novel is composed as a tryptich of three almost static scenes – during the second of which the principal character Mrs Ramsay dies – literally within a parenthesis. The writing is lyrical and philosophical at the same time. Many critics see this as her greatest achievement, and Woolf herself realised that with this book she was taking the novel form into hitherto unknown territory.
Virginia Woolf To the Lighthouse Buy the book at Amazon UK
Virginia Woolf To the Lighthouse Buy the book at Amazon US

 

Virginia Woolf OrlandoOrlando (1928) is one of her lesser-known novels, although it’s critical reputation has risen in recent years. It’s a delightful fantasy which features a character who changes sex part-way through the book – and lives from the sixteenth to the twentieth century. Using this device (which turns out to be strangely credible) Woolf explores issues of gender and identity as her hero-heroine moves through a variety of lives and personal adventures. Orlando starts out as an emissary to the Court of St James, lives through friendships with Swift and Alexander Pope, and ends up motoring through the west end of London on a shopping expedition in the 1920s. The character is loosely based on Vita Sackville-West, who at one time was Woolf’s lover. The novel itself was described by Nigel Nicolson (Sackville-West’s son) as ‘the longest and most charming love-letter in literature’.
Virginia Woolf - Orlando Buy the book at Amazon UK
Virginia Woolf - Orlando Buy the book at Amazon US
 

Kew GardensKew Gardens is a collection of experimental short stories in which Woolf tested out ideas and techniques which she then later incorporated into her novels. After Chekhov, they represent the most important development in the modern short story as a literary form. Incident and narrative are replaced by evocations of mood, poetic imagery, philosophic reflection, and subtleties of composition and structure. The shortest piece, ‘Monday or Tuesday’, is a one-page wonder of compression. This collection is a cornerstone of literary modernism. No other writer – with the possible exception of Nadine Gordimer, has taken the short story as a literary genre as far as this.
Virginia Woolf - Kew Gardens Buy the book at Amazon UK
Virginia Woolf - Kew Gardens Buy the book at Amazon US
 


Virginia Woolf: BiographyVirginia Woolf is a readable and well illustrated biography by John Lehmann, who at one point worked as her assistant and business partner at the Hogarth Press. It is described by the blurb as ‘A critical biography of Virginia Woolf containing illustrations that are a record of the Bloomsbury Group and the literary and artistic world that surrounded a writer who is immensely popular today’. This is an attractive and very accessible introduction to the subject which has been very popular with readers ever since it was first published..
Virginia Woolf - A Biography Buy the book at Amazon UK
Virginia Woolf - A Biography Buy the book at Amazon US


Virginia Woolf – web links

Red button Virginia Woolf at Mantex
Biographical notes, study guides to the major works, book reviews, studies of the short stories, bibliographies, web links, study resources.

Virginia Woolf web links Blogging Woolf
Book reviews, Bloomsbury related issues, links, study resources, news of conferences, exhibitions, and events, regularly updated.

Virginia Woolf web links Virginia Woolf at Wikipedia
Full biography, social background, interpretation of her work, fiction and non-fiction publications, photograph albumns, list of biographies, and external web links

Virginia Woolf web links Virginia Woolf at Gutenberg
Selected eTexts of her novels and stories in a variety of digital formats.

Virginia Woolf web links Woolf Online
An electronic edition and commentary on To the Lighthouse with notes on its composition, revisions, and printing – plus relevant extracts from the diaries, essays, and letters.

Virginia Woolf web links Hyper-Concordance to Virginia Woolf
Search texts of all the major novels and essays, word by word – locate quotations, references, and individual terms

Virginia Woolf web links Orlando – Sally Potter’s film archive
The text and film script, production notes, casting, locations, set designs, publicity photos, video clips, costume designs, and interviews.

Virginia Woolf web links Women’s History Walk in Bloomsbury
Tour of literary and political homes in Bloomsbury – including Gordon Square, Gower Street, Bedford Square, Tavistock Square, plus links to women’s history web sites.

Virginia Woolf web links Virginia Woolf Society of Great Britain
Bulletins of events, annual lectures, society publications, and extensive links to Woolf and Bloomsbury related web sites

Virginia Woolf web links BBC Audio Essay – A Eulogy to Words
Charming sound recording of radio talk given by Virginia Woolf in 1937 – a podcast accompanied by a slideshow of photographs.

Virginia Woolf web links A Family Photograph Albumn
Leslie Stephen compiled a photograph album and wrote an epistolary memoir, known as the “Mausoleum Book,” to mourn the death of his wife, Julia, in 1895 – an archive at Smith College – Massachusetts

Virginia Woolf web links Virginia Woolf first editions
Hogarth Press book jacket covers of the first editions of Woolf’s novels, essays, and stories – largely designed by her sister, Vanessa Bell.

Virginia Woolf web links Virginia Woolf – on video
Biographical studies and documentary videos with comments on Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group and the social background of their times.

Virginia Woolf web links Virginia Woolf Miscellany
An archive of academic journal essays 2003—2014, featuring news items, book reviews, and full length studies.

© Roy Johnson 2013


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