Literature

A Short Analysis of Virginia Woolf’s ‘The String Quartet’

‘The String Quartet’ was published in Virginia Woolf’s short-story collection Monday or Tuesday in 1921. As we remarked in our summary of the story on Tuesday, it’s one of Woolf’s strongest evocations of music and its links to memory and imagination. You can read ‘The String Quartet’ here before proceeding to our analysis of the story below.

It was Walter Pater, the influential nineteenth-century art critic, who said that ‘all art constantly aspires towards the condition of music’. Oscar Wilde, one of Pater’s most enthusiastic followers when the young Wilde was studying at Oxford, offered this: ‘Music makes one feel so romantic – at least it always gets on one’s nerves – which is the same thing nowadays.’ Throwaway quip though it was, Wilde’s remark could almost have acted as the inspiration for Woolf’s ‘The String Quartet’, which explores and depicts music’s strange power to inspire us, move us, arouse us, frustrate us, and stimulate a very strong sensory response from us. To quote from one of the voices the narrator hears at the concert:

But the tune, like all his tunes, makes one despair – I mean hope. What do I mean? That’s the worst of music! I want to dance, laugh, eat pink cakes, yellow cakes, drink thin, sharp wine. Or an indecent story, now – I could relish that. The older one grows the more one likes indecency. Hall, hah! I’m laughing. What at? You said nothing, nor did the old gentleman opposite … But suppose – suppose – Hush!

Music, being outside of words (or being more than words even if it is accompanied by song), can inspire conflicting emotions in the listener almost simultaneously. And music inspires both abstract feelings – hope and despair – but also more physical, even visceral responses, including erotic and gustatory ones, as if synaesthesia (the condition whereby certain people can see music as blobs of different colours) has become a more all-encompassing experience for every music-lover. As the narrator herself puts it: ‘Sorrow, sorrow. Joy, joy. Woven together like reeds in moonlight.’

In Tuesday’s summary, we divided ‘The String Quartet’ up into three related sections or stages: the beginning of the concert while the narrator and other audience members are waiting for the musicians to take to the stage (during which time the narrator listens to what people are saying around her); the start of the concert, during which time the narrator overhears the reactions of her fellow listeners to the music being played; and the narrator’s more personal and introspective daydream while she listens to the music. Listening to music is thus both a communal and individual experience. We all listen to the same piece of music and have a shared response to it: a complex range of emotions are evoked. But at the same time, no two people have exactly the same response to the music being played, as the narrator’s romantic imaginings towards the end of ‘The String Quartet’ demonstrate.

The movement from the trivial chatter about old friends catching up with each other and discussing the latest news (at the beginning of ‘The String Quartet’) to the personal, subjective, and romantically charged ending of the story when the narrator shares the associations and memories that listening to the music has awoken in her, is deftly handled, with the ‘bridge’ (to borrow a musical term) being the snatches of conversation about the music which the narrator hears around her, once the concert has begun but before she is carried away on a tide of memories. And what memories:

The melancholy river bears us on. When the moon comes through the trailing willow boughs, I see your face, I hear your voice and the bird singing as we pass the osier bed. What are you whispering? Sorrow, sorrow. Joy, joy. Woven together, like reeds in moonlight. Woven together, inextricably commingled, bound in pain and strewn in sorrow – crash!

The sudden intervention of the second-person pronoun ‘you’ brings us up short: who ‘you’? Woolf is capturing something that happens when we are listening to music, especially in a public place such as at a concert, and we find ourselves recalling melancholy memories and revisiting the past, especially loved ones. Then everything becomes almost surreal: the lemons on the tree ‘nod assent’ and a swan pushes from the bank and floats mid-stream. Everything is dreamlike. It then becomes clear that the narrator has been transported, not to her own memories, but to some sort of chivalric daydream involving princes, seneschals, knights with swords, and women wearing pretty dresses. The mention of a ‘vellum book’ and an ‘oriel window’ suggest the Middle Ages: the music has taken the narrator outside of the present time of London, 1919 and into an imagined past of courtly romance.

Of course, this passage also reminds us of the aristocratic people among the audience listening to the string quartet in the present day: they are the modern-day equivalent of those princes and lords of chivalric romance. Woolf is highlighting music’s power to take us out of ourselves, but at the same time is questioning how much we ever escape our own social class and the world we inhabit. A welder listening to that Mozart recital would probably not think of seneschals and knights.

‘The String Quartet’ is an evocative exploration of the effect music has on us. Is Woolf gently poking fun at the narrator’s courtly daydream at the end of the story? A little, perhaps. But in the last analysis, Woolf is showing us how music allows us to transcend our immediate surroundings and ‘escape’ somewhere else, if only for a short while. Eventually, the concert must end, the string quartet must stop playing, and the audience must disperse into the street. We sense the ‘Alas’ in the story’s final line is loaded with more than phatic meaning, suggesting the gulf between the realities of our lives and the worlds we create inside our heads:

‘Good night, good night. You go this way?’
‘Alas. I go that.’

2 Comments

  1. Love Pater’s quote!

  2. I hadn’t read this one yet, thanks for the blog post! Woolf has such a beautiful way of writing. My partner is a music composer and this short story captured the vivid feelings one gets while listening to a beautiful piece live. I definitely liked the ‘poking fun’ part. It’s a little silly if you get self aware about it, how music affects us. It’s still wonderful though!