The real strength of essays is the writers’ idiosyncrasy about life, especially with the tone featured by light-hearted irony and informality. Here are the exemplar essays by Virginia Woolf, a formidable feminist whose novels used to entangle me in the time labyrinth and whose fictional characters bewildered me with their stream of consciousness. Yet, I came to appreciate her insight on life through the two essays illustrated below. She is powerful in criticizing a famous courtesan in the Regency period, and also, reflecting on life and death.
In this essay, Virginia Woolf commented on the life of a notorious courtesan, Harriette Wilson. She attributed her wanton way of life to her big family, the one with fifteen children and a bad-tempered father always on the point of solving math problems and getting furious if interrupted. The result was her eager escape from it. At the age of 15, she became a mistress of a certain Earl. Thus began her life “free as air from any restraint.” That means a life full of variety, full of men with money and rank! “Large and voluptuous herself, she loved for the most part little men with small hands and feet, and like Mr. Meyler, skins of remarkable transparency--- foreboding perhaps an early death.” And her shallow mind denied the possibility of the early death of her man in full bloom! The result of consulting with the verdict of her conscience was always odd, for “nothing was further from her liking than serious thought.” Therefore, she would insist that no law bind marriage, which should be based on love and honor. Ironically, the two very things were what she was always lacking and seeking!
In that strange land of her dissolute life, however, spendthrift men rambled through, pouring on her lavishly whatever they had. With a vivacious personality and charming countenance, she enthralled rich and powerful men:
It cannot be doubted that gifts she had, gifts of dash and go and enthusiasm, which stir among the dead leaves of her memoirs and impart even to their rambling verbosity and archness and vulgarity some thrill of that old impetuosity, some flash of those fine dark eyes, some fling of those wild school boy manners, which, when furbished up in plumes and red plush and diamonds, held our ancestors enthralled.
But over all the luster of her life “broods the fever of a nightmare and the transiency of a dream.” All the magic of luxury can vanish in an instant. Before she was fifty, the great courtesan, Harriette Wilson, found herself “reduced to solitude, to poverty, to life in foreign parts, to marriage with a Colonel, to scribbling for cash whatever she could remember or invent of her past.” Thus ended her colorful and notorious life.
In the very beginning of the essay, Woolf illustrated her life as the one “wound[ing] in and out among the bogs and precipices of the shadowy underworld.” And this underworld is located on the far side of a sword:
Across the broad continent of a woman’s life falls the shadow of a sword. On one side all is correct, definite, orderly; the paths are straight, the trees regular, the sun shaded; escorted by gentlemen, protected by policemen, wedded and buried by clergyman, she has only to walk demurely from cradle to grave and no one will touch a hair of her head. But on the other side all is confusion. Nothing follows a regular course. The paths wind between bogs and precipices. The trees roar and rock and fall in ruins.
Indeed, this essay is not just the portrayal of Harriette Wilson. It is a universal picture of shallow and shameless women seeking wealth and fame through men.
The Death of the Moth
By describing the transitory life of a moth, this essay illuminates the sublimity of life and ruthlessness of death.
It is on a refreshing autumn morning that Woolf notices a fluttering moth. Watching it move from side to side of a window pane, she feels it pathetic that the “frail and diminutive” creature should have such zest to “enjoy its meagre opportunities to the full.” Life itself is sublime and mysterious, as the moth displays the tenacious power to survive:
It was as if someone had taken a tiny bead of pure life and decking it as lightly as possible with down and feathers, had set it dancing and zigzagging to show us the true nature of life.
While life seems so insignificant, it is lofty in fulfilling its potential to the extreme. Life is not life if it is free from care. A noble life consists in weathering through trials and tribulations with dignity:
One is apt to forget all about life, seeing it humped and bossed and garnished and cumbered so that it has to move with the greatest circumspections and dignity.
And death is the greatest enemy of life. Nothing has any chance against it, let alone the tiny moth. Yet, when facing the unavoidable doom, the moth shows an unrelenting will in righting itself at the last moment. The struggling for life is impressive, especially on the part of an insignificant moth whose life nobody cares or values:
One’s sympathies were all on the side of life. When there was nobody to care or to know, this gigantic effort on the part of an insignificant little moth, against a power of such magnitude, to retain what no one else valued or desired, moved one strangely.
The moth, after enjoying its brief life, now lies “decently and uncomplainingly composed.” Human life is just like this. We flutter and dance for a while, and then when Death comes, all struggling is in vain. Although we cannot fight off this crushing power, we can at least die gracefully without all the anguish and agony of protesting and denying!