tutorial, critical comment, plot, and study resources

Happiness was probably written in early 1925. It is one of a number of short stories by Virginia Woolf set at a party in the Westminster home of Richard and Clarissa Dalloway, the hosts of the central social event in her novel Mrs Dalloway (1925)


Virginia Woolf – portrait

Happiness – story synopsis

Stuart Elton, a middle-aged bachelor, is in conversation with Mrs Sutton, a would-be actress. They actually exchange very few words, because his interior monologue is all about himself, and he perceives her as a menace to his precious sense of selfhood. He also has some unspecified ailment which prevents him from eating lobster.

She perceives him as happy and fortunate, and complains about not getting on in the theatre. But he isn’t listening to what she’s saying. She is exasperated by what seems to be his impregnable self-containment.

He feeds her scraps of inconsequential information, and meanwhile thinks of himself as if pursued by wolves. He thinks back to an earlier period of his life involving a woman from whom he eventually ‘recovered’. He is very glad not to be dependent upon anyone, and he feels that the slightest disturbance in the balance of his relationship with the outside world will shatter his sense of satisfaction.

Study resources

Happiness The Complete Shorter Fiction – Vintage Classics [£6.74] Amazon UK

Happiness The Complete Shorter Fiction – Vintage Classics – Amazon US

Happiness The Complete Shorter Fiction – Harcourt edition – Amazon UK

Happiness The Complete Shorter Fiction – Harcourt edition – Amazon US

Happiness Monday or Tuesday and Other Stories – Gutenberg.org

Happiness Kew Gardens and Other Stories – Hogarth reprint – Amazon UK

Happiness Kew Gardens and Other Stories – Hogarth reprint – Amazon US

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

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

Happiness The Complete Works of Virginia Woolf – Kindle edition

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

Happiness – commentary

This is a study in egoism and self-absorption of a particularly acute variety. Stuart Elton thinks of himself in the most self-congratulatory manner – likening himself to the petals of a rose.

He is socially rude, and is smug about his self-sufficiency – a state of being which is so fragile he is terrified of any unforeseen event in his life. He prides himself on having successfully avoided commitment to a woman earlier in his life, and he is typical of the male narcissist figures who appear in Virginia Woolf’s work. It is interesting to note that he finds solace in the very symbolically male physical object of a paper knife.

It has to be said that in all these short sketches and stories based on figures circulating in Clarissa Dalloway’s drawing room, there is a common theme of a failure of communication. Occasions which are designed to offer social interaction to her guests are revealed as a series of communication breakdowns, gulfs of empathy, and studies in solipsism.

It is also worth noting that Stuart Elton will still be playing with the paper knife when he appears again in A Simple Melody written later the same year – though he will be viewed from someone else’s perspective, in a far less critical light:

Mr Carslake saw him [Stuart Elton] standing alone lifting a paper knife up in his hands … Stuart was the gentlest, simplest of creatures, content to ramble all day with undistinguished people, like himself, and this oddity — it looked like affectation to stand in the middle of a drawing room holding a tortoise-shell paper knife in his hand — was only manner.

This may of course reveal a lack of perception and good judgement on Mr Carslake’s part, but it certainly illustrates Woolf’s penchant for expressing the relative nature of social perceptions.

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 2014

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