Literature

A Short Analysis of Virginia Woolf’s ‘Blue and Green’

‘Blue and Green’ is the collective title of two very short sketches Virginia Woolf included in her 1921 collection of short fiction, Monday or Tuesday. On Tuesday (oddly enough), we offered a short summary of these two sketches; now it’s time to attempt some words of analysis. You can read ‘Blue and Green’ in full by clicking on the link to our summary above.

Before we take ‘Green’ and ‘Blue’ in turn and offer some comments about them, it’s worth bearing in mind the fact that Virginia Woolf, as a member of the Bloomsbury Group of artists and writers, knew all about impressionist painting, and even about the post-impressionists, thanks to her fellow Bloomsburyite Roger Fry, who had organised the first exhibition of post-impressionist painting in London in 1910. (Put somewhat crudely, whereas impressionists tended to take a fairly naturalist attitude towards light and colour, seeking to remain fairly faithful to how these colours appear in the real world, post-impressionists were far more likely to indulge slightly more surreal or unusual choices in their paintings when it came to colour and light.) The word ‘impressionistic’ was often used about Woolf’s fiction by early reviewers (the word ‘modernist’ not yet having caught on), and it’s worth seeing ‘Blue and Green’ as a sort of diptych, a verbal ‘painting’ in two halves, but a decidedly impressionist verbal painting. Perhaps even post-impressionist.

‘Green’ first, then: a sketch about the way the light from a chandelier throws ‘pools’ of green onto the floor in a room, suggesting a whole world of nature in those green pools, from parakeets’ feathers to oases in a desert. But look at how Woolf effects the shift from ‘green’ as an objective property to a subjective experience for the narrator: we go from ‘pools of green’ (a whimsical and slightly poetic turn of phrase, for sure, but not exactly an unusual way to describe a splash of green light on the floor) to green as a site of activity, parakeets’ exotic feathers, oases in exotic deserts, the surface of an ocean. The narrator’s imagination starts to interact with the green light, and free association leads to her mind suggesting a whole range of other ‘green’ things which are not actually present. There’s also something vaguely akin to synaesthesia in the way that the visual phenomenon of the green pool on the floor summons the ‘cries of parakeets’ (emphasis added) to the narrator’s mind, a cross-sensory response which is not unlike the accounts of composers (Rimsky-Korsakov, for instance) ‘seeing’ particular musical notes as distinct colours. ‘Green’ might be analysed as an artistic statement about Woolf’s own struggle to find a new literary mode, one founded on the same principles as post-impressionism: how can a painter, or a writer, turn random splotches of colour into meaningful symbols? How can one write about the real world in a meaningful way, using the impressionistic (or post-impressionist) mode?

‘Blue’, a short impressionistic sketch based around the colour blue, also takes water as its (partial) setting, but it’s about nothing more remarkable than a man catching a fish. But what would be banal if told in the conventional manner (focalising the story from the fisherman’s perspective, for instance) is here rendered strange – ‘defamiliarised’, if you will, and made new, inviting us to think about this act from a different perspective: that of the fish. However, Woolf isn’t quite crude (or twee) enough to give over the perspective of the ‘story’ wholly to the fish: it opens with a very different perspective, somebody looking at the fish, but presumably something smaller, which views the fish as a ‘snub-nosed monster’ (emphasis added). However, as the paragraph progresses and the fish lies gasping on land, breathing its last breaths, Woolf gives us a briefly sketched account of what we might describe as a ‘near-death experience’ from the fish’s point of view: the fisherman’s boat into which it’s bundled is like a cathedral to it, vast, and cold. But the fish is only having this ‘religious’ experience because it is disoriented and about to die: it’s as if it’s seen the light coming towards it to take it away, and so the boat in which it will expire becomes the equivalent of an overwhelming cathedral. (There’s perhaps a buried pun here: in a church or cathedral, the main area is called the ‘nave’, from the Latin navus, ‘ship’, because early churches were built along the same principles as boats.)

But of course, this is to interpret what Woolf is saying very literally. Yes, it is about a fish being caught; but it’s also a surreal and delicious evocation of the process of ‘submersion’ or ‘immersion’ which the writer, especially the modernist writer like Woolf, must undergo to gain access to ‘truth’ (compare ‘Monday or Tuesday’ here). Woolf’s contemporary, the brilliant (but far less widely studied, or read) modernist novelist Dorothy Richardson, even preferred the word ‘immersion’ for her style of writing, over the more popular term ‘stream of consciousness’ (although both are ultimately watery in their imagery). Woolf herself – as her 1924 essay ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown’ shows – wanted to move away from the harder, more solid, ‘materialist’ ways of writing which earlier, male writers like H. G. Wells, John Galsworthy, and Arnold Bennett embodied in their fiction. Water is better than metal, which explains the shedding of the ‘metallic’ scales on the ‘iron’ beach: it’s as if Woolf the fish is shedding her old ways of writing and seeking a new style which will lead her to that ‘cathedral’, the hallowed ground of her later novels, Mrs Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, and The Waves (two of which, incidentally, have very oceanic titles). Indeed, Woolf very much saw these short sketches she wrote between 1917 and 1921, including ‘Blue and Green’, as her ‘dry run’ for a new kind of novel, which would leave behind the more conventional style of her first two novels, The Voyage Out and Night and Day, in favour of a more free-flowing impressionistic style.

So, ‘Blue and Green’ may be minor achievements, but the sumptuous colour of their imagery, their surreal touches, and the knowledge that they led to greater achievements such as The Waves all make them worthy of closer attention and analysis. What do you think of these two sketches?