Literature

A Short Analysis of Virginia Woolf’s ‘Monday or Tuesday’

Earlier this week, we offered a brief summary of Virginia Woolf’s story ‘Monday or Tuesday’. But summarising this strange little story doesn’t exactly help us in understanding what it means. So below we offer a few words of analysis of this modernist piece of impressionism. You can read ‘Monday or Tuesday’ here.

If you found reading ‘Monday or Tuesday’ a disorienting experience, don’t worry: you’re meant to. One of the things Woolf is exploring through this short story is disorientation, distraction, the difficult and perhaps foolish quest for truthful and honest representation of the world through one’s writing. Even the title hints at this confusion and uncertainty: to the narrator, and perhaps to Woolf herself, today could be either Monday or Tuesday. Perhaps it doesn’t matter. The everyday occurrences her short story describes (‘everyday’ being a key word for Woolf; again, the title ‘Monday or Tuesday’ comes into play here) are at once distractions from her greater goal of trying to write ‘the truth’ and the very embodiment of that truth. Woolf, after all, was the one who said, in her 1919 essay ‘Modern Fiction’ (published just one year before she wrote ‘Monday or Tuesday’), that she wanted to capture the fleeting impressions that everyone experiences in the course of an average day:

Examine for a moment an ordinary mind on an ordinary day. The mind receives a myriad impressions – trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpness of steel. From all sides they come, an incessant shower of innumerable atoms; and as they fall, as they shape themselves into the life of Monday or Tuesday, the accent falls differently from of old; the moment of importance came not here but there; so that, if a writer were a free man and not a slave, if he could write what he chose, not what he must, if he could base his work upon his own feeling and not upon convention, there would be no plot, no comedy, no tragedy, no love interest or catastrophe in the accepted style, and perhaps not a single button sewn on as the Bond Street tailors would have it.

Note the use of that very phrase, ‘Monday or Tuesday’.

For the late David Bradshaw, one of Woolf’s best critics and editors, ‘Monday or Tuesday’ is ‘manifestly “unfinished”, “unfulfilled”, and “unwritten” … its lack of scene-setting and its swooping, darting impressionism create a work which is both extempore and melodic’. (See Bradshaw’s introduction to The Mark on the Wall and Other Short Fiction (Oxford World’s Classics) – the edition of Woolf’s short fiction we’d recommend.) It’s meant to be unfinished: it’s all part of Woolf’s plan, something we also see in another of her stories, ‘An Unwritten Novel’ (whose title even signals that it is unfinished). In ‘Monday or Tuesday’, we are deliberately made to feel disoriented, forced as we are to shift our focus from the heron (the initial subject of the story) to the sky, and then to the world indoors, with its firelight and tea, although the outside world is constantly breaking in. Indeed, some people have interpreted the perspective of the story as being the heron throughout: it is the heron which sees the red dome, the black and gold shoes on the feet of the people in the street, and the people – black figures with bright eyes – moving about indoors. But rather than settling this question, it’s perhaps wise to see this ambiguity as part of Woolf’s plan, too: she’s giving us the mind of the writer, which is simultaneously indoors, inside the skull of the author sitting at her desk trying to write, and outdoors, soaring high, flying down low, travelling everywhere, in search of truth.

Although ‘Monday or Tuesday’ is written as prose, the syntax has a rhythm of its own which recalls poetry. When Woolf was writing ‘Monday or Tuesday’, other modernists – notably the imagist poets and T. S. Eliot – had begun publishing poems written in vers libre or free verse. T. S. Eliot’s first volume of poems, Prufrock and Other Observations (1917), even contained a prose-poem, ‘Hysteria’, written as a single block of prose, a paragraph if you will, on one page. It’s tempting to see Woolf’s early short fiction as an attempt to effect a similar merger between prose and verse, but from the opposite end: writing prose fiction that was poetic in its cadences and rhythms.

Note how the first two sentences of ‘Monday or Tuesday’ begin with a pair of adjectives: ‘Lazy and indifferent’ (to describe the heron) and then ‘White and distant’ (to describe the sky). In doing so, Woolf joins the heron and the sky together through this syntactical echo. Then, the next two paragraphs both begin with a present participle verb (‘Desiring truth’, ‘Radiating’), while the second and fourth paragraphs end with the question: ‘ – and truth?’ This is then echoed by the penultimate paragraph which ends, ‘truth? or now, content with closeness?’ We are then taken full-circle, in one sense, with the final brief paragraph beginning with the same three words which opened the story: ‘Lazy and indifferent …’ The heron returns, as does the sky. The sky continues to veil and then reveal things: this time, the stars. Night has come. Has the writer actually got any closer to truth? It’s probably safe to answer ‘No’, but to bear in mind that in Woolf’s stories this is often the case: the narrator at the end of ‘An Unwritten Novel’ is liberated and exhilarated to discover that her deductions about her fellow train-passenger have been completely wrong, and thrilled by the prospect of having to start all over again. The quest continues, with no clear end in sight.

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