‘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. We’ll put together some thoughts on this story on Thursday, but in the meantime, here’s a brief summary of the ‘plot’ (if that word can even be used about such a story) of ‘Solid Objects’; the story itself can be read here.
We begin on a beach, with a black spot which, as we come closer to it, we realise is a creature with four legs, and then, as it becomes even clearer, is revealed to be two men. Woolf’s unusual perspective – something she’s fond of exploiting in her fiction, including her other short stories such as ‘Monday or Tuesday’ – implies that these figures are being viewed from above, hence the initial confusion over who or what they are. (This isn’t a million miles away from the ‘delayed decoding’ technique which Joseph Conrad, a writer Woolf admired, made his own in his writing: we as readers are forced to take all the wrong turns and suffer all the same false starts in interpreting the scene as the narrator.)
These two figures, John and Charles, are young men, smoking pipes and gesticulating as they enthusiastically engage in debate and discussion on the beach. Among the snatches of their conversation which are relayed to us is the phrase ‘Politics be damned!’, spoken by one of the two men, revealed to be John. After their furious debating is finished, they plop themselves down by an old boat and John begins to burrow his hand into the sand, until he finds ‘a large irregular lump’, which he realises is a piece of green glass that has been worn smooth by the waves. He takes a liking to it. Charles, his companion, does not share his fascination with the glass, and when they eat their sandwiches he tries to return his friend to their earlier conversation. John pockets the piece of glass, taking it home with him so he can display it on his mantelpiece.
John subsequently becomes interested in trying to find other objects like the piece of glass, and haunts the local curiosity shops in the hope of finding more like it. He also wanders around London looking for similar objects, until one day, as he is leaving his office in Temple to go and catch a train (so he can go and address his constituents), he spots an object in one of the borders of grass surrounding the legal buildings in London – a piece of china, blue in colour with green markings and lines of crimson. He has difficulty freeing it from the grass through the railings, so goes back to his office and fashions a wire ring on the end of a stick so he can hook his prize. He spends so long trying to catch the piece of china that he misses a meeting. He takes the china home and displays it on his mantelpiece alongside the glass.
The rest of ‘Solid Objects’ charts John’s gradual decline from public life and his ever-increasing quest for more ‘solid objects’ like the glass and the china. He eventually finds another, a piece of black iron which appears to have formed part of a meteorite, under a furze bush on Barnes Common, in south-west London. He takes this home and adds it to his growing collection of pretty trinkets. Towards the end of the story, his friend Charles – his companion from the beach at the beginning of ‘Solid Objects’ – visits him, and realises that his friend has lost his grip on reality. When Charles leaves John, he knows it’s for the last time: he decides to end their friendship.
Attempting to summarise a Virginia Woolf is far from easy, since they’re less about plot than they are about character. But hopefully that summary of ‘Solid Objects’ goes some way towards capturing what the story is about. But what does it mean? We’ll put together an analysis, as ever, for Thursday.