‘Solid Objects’ is not as well-known or widely studied as some of Virginia Woolf’s other short stories, such as ‘The Mark on the Wall’ or ‘Kew Gardens’, but it is one of the most consummate statements of her modernist aesthetic.
In just half a dozen pages, Woolf charts one man’s growing obsession with the ‘solid objects’ of glass, china, and iron which he finds either on a beach or around the city of London. John finds another beautiful piece, and then another, collecting them and displaying them on his mantelpiece. Having denounced politics at the beginning of the story, John eventually enters Parliament, but even now he becomes distracted by his magpie-like attraction to shiny objects he spies while out and about. These ‘pretty stones’ seem to matter to him more than his life or career – but what precisely is the attraction?
This is one of the most baffling of Virginia Woolf’s stories, but it is loaded with potential meanings about the relation between life and art, the big and the small, the real and the intangible, so it’s worth stopping to subject ‘Solid Objects’ to closer analysis. You can read the story here and read our summary here.
John’s rejection of his political career in favour of searching for pretty pieces of glass, china, and iron in ‘Solid Objects’ can be analysed as the rejection of politics in favour of art (‘Politics be damned!’). He renounces his political responsibilities because nothing matters to him but the pursuit of ‘art’, represented by the solid objects of the story’s title. Whether Woolf is holding John up as an ‘art-for-art’s-saker’ in order to ridicule him or invite sympathy for him remains a difficult question to answer. But given her own role in the Bloomsbury Group, which included a number of artists and art critics such as Vanessa Bell, Roger Fry, and Duncan Grant, and her own fiction’s preference for timeless artistic truth over political rhetoric, the latter seems more likely.
Alternatively, we might analyse John’s behaviour as symbolic of an adult’s retreat from the grown-up world of work and public life in favour of a more innocent, childlike existence. He is likened to a child several times: when he finds the piece of glass on the beach, ‘his eyes lost their intensity, or rather the background of thought and experience which gives an inscrutable depth to the eyes of grown people disappeared, leaving only the clear transparent surface, expressing nothing but wonder, which the eyes of young children display’ (emphases added). And when he makes the decision to pocket the glass, this impulse is again interpreted by the narrator as childlike:
That impulse, too, may have been the impulse which leads a child to pick up one pebble on a path strewn with them, promising it a life of warmth and security upon the nursery mantelpiece, delighting in the sense of power and benignity which such an action confers, and believing that the heart of the stone leaps with joy when it sees itself chosen from a million like it, to enjoy this bliss instead of a life of cold and wet upon the high road. ‘It might so easily have been any other of the millions of stones, but it was I, I, I!’
Of these two interpretations, both are valid but perhaps the first is slightly more persuasive when we recall how many of Woolf’s short stories concern the life of the artist and the commitment to art which the writer makes, relinquishing virtually all other worldly pleasures and responsibilities in the quest for artistic truth: see ‘Monday or Tuesday’, for instance, or the narrator’s attempts to divine the life of ‘Minnie Marsh’ in ‘An Unwritten Novel’, or the suggestive symbolism of the ‘Green’ sketch in ‘Blue and Green’.
Towards the end of ‘Solid Objects’, when Charles visits his friend, it strikes Charles that he and John ‘were talking about different things’. The old cliché about the artist being in ‘a world of their own’ is here given symbolic life: John may still have to live in the real world, but his quest for otherworldly artefacts begins to overtake his political life. But this analysis of ‘Solid Objects’ is perfectly compatible with the idea of John retreating back into childhood: as Sigmund Freud had shown in ‘Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming’ (1908), fiction is to the adult what play was to the child.
One of the clever things about many of Woolf’s short stories is how she draws upon and subsumes established literary genres and forms and then remoulds them, giving them a ‘modernist’ spin, so that only the barest reminder of the original framework of the story remains clearly in view. This is true of ‘A Haunted House’, which is a haunted house story with a difference, although it similarly ends with a surprising revelation.
It’s also true of ‘Solid Objects’, which mirrors the fairy tale and draws upon motifs from fantastical tales involving magical gemstones. Although the ‘solid objects’ which John collects have no magical power in themselves, for him they come to have a peculiar fascination until he is possessed by them – to the extent that they might as well have cast some magical spell over him.
The suggestion of a fairy-tale structure is also there in the patterning of three which marks John’s search for pretty objects: a piece of glass, a star-shaped piece of china, and a piece of iron that looks to have formed part of a meteorite. Note how each of these objects becomes more and more otherworldly, moving from the everyday (the glass, we are told, was ‘nothing but glass’ and John’s first thought was that it might have originally been part of a ‘bottle, tumbler or window-pane’) to the exotic (the china suggesting the country of origin of china itself, with the star shape gesturing towards the extra-terrestrial) to the literally extra-terrestrial (the iron was ‘evidently alien to the earth and had its origin in one of the dead stars or was itself the cinder of a moon’).
As such, they mirror the trajectory of the protagonist, as John’s behaviour becomes more and more erratic and his commitment to his political career falls into decline. Woolf is careful to bridge the gap between each of these three finds: the first object John finds, the piece of glass, may have come from a bottle or a window-pane but alternatively might have been more exotic in origin, such as ‘a gem; something worn by a dark Princess’. The star-shape of the middle-object, the piece of china, paves the way for the iron which has literally, according to John, come from a star.
In the last analysis, ‘Solid Objects’ sees Virginia Woolf making a statement about the relationship between art and life, but through suggestive and ambiguous metaphors and symbols.