Humdrum Cacophonies: Silence and Noise in Virginia Woolf’s The Years
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In Virginia Woolf’s debut novel, The Voyage Out, one of the protagonists expresses his wish to write a novel about “Silence” or, as he explains, “the things people don’t say.” If this is what silence meant to Woolf — the unvoiced thoughts and words — then silence is one of the basic components of her prose, if not her topic proper. I suggest that all of Woolf’s novels are, to an extent, novels about silence in this specific sense of the word. In a more literal sense, that is, on the level of imagery, silence and sound also carry a deeper significance. The Years, predominantly hushed and mild, becomes, at times, very loud. As the novel proceeds, the noise becomes more pronounced: it rises and subsides only to intensify again, sometimes reaching the level where it dominates episodes. Due to its subtlety and complexity, the aural dimension of the novel deserves readers’ attention in its own right. My examination of the cadence of noise and silence in The Years is congruent with David Bradshaw’s suggestion that there might be a complementary narrative encoded within the novel; in Bradshaw’s analysis, the pattern of insignificant items in white-and-blue recurs throughout The Years, implying Woolf’s silent engagement in the plight of the Jews, attacked in the late 1930s from increasingly more directions. The aural dimension of The Years conveys a similar message. The noise — which rises as the novel proceeds — accompanies the character who, as the story draws to a close, voices out loud the anti-Semitic sentiments. My point is that, far from it being a coincidence, the din that dominates certain episodes foreshadows this anti-Semitic outburst. Thus The Years, albeit in an oblique way, addresses the issue of British anti-Semitism: Woolf must have been more disturbed by the proliferation of anti-Semitic rhetoric than she is sometimes thought to have been.
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