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‘Virginia Woolf’s ‘entanglements’ vs. Lacanian Psychoanalytic Criticism’

8 February 2020

Marie Allègre, University of Birmingham

In her 1929 essay ‘Phases of Fiction’, Woolf writes: ‘[t]he enormous growth of the psychological novel in our time has been prompted largely by the mistaken belief […] that truth is always good; even when it is the truth of the psychoanalyst and not the truth of imagination’.[1] Is ‘the truth of the psychoanalyst’ hospitable enough for ‘the truth of imagination’ to emerge?

More often than not, Woolf’s explorations of consciousness and lived experience have suffered rather than benefitted from the application of psychoanalytic theories to literary analysis. Oedipal, structural, and especially Lacanian readings refer to interactions with the non-human in strictly anthropocentric and binary-gendered terms. This has a twofold consequence. First, Lacanian literary theory renders binary what, in Woolf, is more of a dialectics persistently exceeded in the manner of what Merleau-Ponty has called a ‘hyperdialectic’: ‘a dialectic “without synthesis” which is not a sign of futility but of “a good dialectic”’.[2] The corollary to this is that the phenomenological, non-anthropocentric insights of Woolf’s texts are at best unrecorded and, at worst, pathologised. This is the case of  To the Lighthouse (1927), The Waves (1931), Woolf’s short fiction as well as some of her essays. Examples of these kinds of readings can be found on both sides of the Channel where Lacanianism dominates the terrain of psychoanalytic cultural criticism.[3]

French psychoanalyst and modernist scholar Josiane Paccaud-Huguet, for instance, reads To the Lighthouse ‘as a jarring rebus’, harbouring ‘a semiotic code’ and a ‘ciphered truth of buried affects’ at its core.[4] She approaches these with a structural framework based on an aesthetics of lack.[5] Mrs Ramsay’s ecstatic contemplation of the lighthouse at night reads, Paccaud-Huguet says, as ‘a point of contact with the real which abolishes the distinction between subject and object’.[6] The ambivalent scene does seem to lend itself to such a reading: the last long stroke of light feels like ‘her own eyes meeting her own eyes’[7]  to Mrs Ramsay and she has a sense of becoming one with the lighthouse as with a lover (54).

Furthermore, the ominous notion of being at the ‘beck and call’ of the light (54), the polysemy of the ‘stroke’ (both a caress and a blow), the close to orgasmic end of the passage – ‘the ecstasy burst in her eyes and waves of pure delight raced over the floor of her mind and she felt, It is enough! It is enough!’ (55) – would tend to be coherent with Paccaud-Huguet’s idea of a dangerous excess of enjoyment: ‘The gaze is turned inwards toward a vanishing point, the spot of time often related to a maternal object endowed with too much enjoyment and gone too soon’.[8] (In other words, the subject becomes an object in the attempt to join the un-mourned-for mother, in non-being.)

However, nowhere is Mrs Ramsay dissolved in melancholy while her reflections alternate with beams of the lighthouse. If anything, this is a moment of complex, ambivalent, emotion and pleasure, not a hypnotic flirt with psychic death as in Paccaud-Huguet’s account. What matters here is more the application of the Lacanian structure than Woolf’s craft and reader’s experience themselves (as manifested in the recurrence of the phrase ‘this structure is enacted in […]’).[9] Within this well-oiled psychoanalytic mechanism, there does not seem to be a non-binary alternative to either the symbolic or an engulfing real.

This is similar to Patrick McGee’s Lacanian reading of The Waves which, to him, ‘destroys the separation between subject and object’.[10] McGee also seems to miss the life-affirmative aspects of Woolf’s verbal images and novel, despite their uncanniness and ambivalence. McGee reads Woolf’s ‘fin in a waste of waters’ in The Waves[11] as ‘cadaverize[d]’, reduced to a dead ‘shell of meaning’.[12] On the contrary, I think that it is Lacanianism that reduces Woolf’s explorations to conceptual skeletons. As Ariane Mildenberg argues, Woolf’s fin may be closer to a visualisation of the first creative impulse.[13] In 1926, while still working on To The Lighthouse, Woolf describes what she is striving to convey, ‘the mystical side of this solitude’ with precisely this image: ‘One sees a fin passing far out’.[14]

Woolf’s work does not destroy the boundaries between subject and object, throwing characters and readers alike into psychotic chaos. Rather, her works reveal that this neat, very binary, division between subject and object is nothing but a reassuring phantasy. In a way, her novels give us her personal and literary version of ‘a “quantum ontology”, based on the existence of phenomena rather than of independently existing things’.[15] If Ann Banfield’s celebrated but dualist reading of Woolf does not help us go beyond binary frameworks, she does make the following key point: ‘Woolf’s characteristic conception of death is the separation of subject and object […]. Death is one name for their independence’.[16] While Lacanianism sees the two as separate, Woolf reminds us that this is far from being either desirable or true.

Dora Carrington’s illustration to Woolf’s short story ‘The Mark on the Wall’ (1917)

When life is recorded from the perspective of a flower bed in ‘Kew Gardens’ (1919), or when a voice describes the Ramsays’ empty house in To the Lighthouse’s central chapter ‘Times Passes’ (when no one is here to look or listen), Woolf is not anticipating the Lacanian real. Rather, her use of anthropomorphism in her description of the non-human is precisely what goes against anthropocentric ontology. ‘We need’, Jane Bennett recommends, ‘to cultivate a bit of anthropomorphism – the idea that human agency has some echoes in nonhuman nature – to counter the narcissism of humans in charge of the world.’[17] By placing subjectivity in the non-human, Woolf gives it back its agency, therefore making room for the unobserved,[18] what Banfield calls ‘unoccupied perspectives’.[19] This is Woolf’s radical means to represent the world not as governed by binary principles but as what new materialism speaks of as entangled phenomena.


[1] Virginia Woolf, ‘Phases of Fiction’ in The Essays of Virginia Woolf ed. Andrew McNeillie and Stuart N. Clarke, vol. 5, (London: The Hogarth Press, 2010), pp. 40-88 (p. 82)..

[2] Merleau-Ponty, M. and Lefort, C. The Visible and the Invisible, (Evanston: Northwestern UP, Northwestern University Studies in Phenomenology & Existential Philosophy, 1968), pp. 94-95. See also Mildenberg, Ariane, Modernism and Phenomenology: Literature, Philosophy, Art, (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), p. 141.

[3] ‘Lacanianism and theories of sexual difference have dominated the psychoanalytic terrain of feminist criticism in British cultural studies and literary theory.’ Campbell, Jan, Arguing with the Phallus: Feminist, Queer, and Postcolonial Theory: A Psychoanalytic Contribution (London; New York: Zed Books, 2000), p. 27.

[4] Paccaud-Huguet, J.  ‘To the Lighthouse: The Jarring Rebus of Subjectivity’, Études Britanniques Contemporaines, (Montpellier UP: 1999), pp. 45-60, p. 59, 47, 46.

[5] ‘Lacan’s novelty with respect to traditional philosophical discourse, is that it defines object relations in terms of lack.’ Ibid, p. 51. See also p. 47 for ‘the void is the very cause of human desire’. 

[6] Paccaud-Huguet, J. ‘The Moment of Being & the Voice of Melancholy in Virginia Woolf’s The Waves’, E-Rea. Revue Électronique d’études Sur Le Monde Anglophone, 4.1, 2006 <>, p. 29.

[7] Woolf, Virginia, and David Bradshaw, To The Lighthouse, Oxford World’s Classics, (Oxford; New York: Oxford UP, 2006), p. 53. Further references to this text are bracketed in the body of the essay.

[8] Ibid, p. 30.

[9] Paccaud-Huguet 1999, p. 50.

[10] McGee, Patrick, ‘Woolf’s Other: The University in Her Eye’, NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction, 23.3 (1990), pp. 229–46 <> p. 230.

[11] Woolf, Virginia, and David Bradshaw, The Waves, Oxford World’s Classics, New Edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015) p. 112; and 147, 163, 170.

[12] McGee, p. 243.

[13] Mildenberg, p. 112. In the same way, psychoanalyst and critic Jan Campbell reads Mrs Ramsay’s moment of being above as one of renewing of the self (Campbell, Jan, Freudian Passions: Psychoanalysis, Form and Literature (London: Karnac, 2013), p. 197.

[14] Woolf, Virginia, A. O. Bell, and A. McNeillie, The Diary of Virginia Woolf. Vol. 3, 1925–30, 1980, p. 113.

[15] Barad, K. ‘Nature’s Queer Performativity’, KVINDER, KØN & FORSKNING NR. 1-2, 2012, pp. 25-53, p. 45.

[16] Banfield, A. The Phantom Table: Woolf, Fry, Russell and the Epistemology of Modernism, (Cambridge UP: 2017), p. 214.

[17] Bennett, J. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, (Durham: Duke UP, 2010), p. xvi. See also Barad 2012, p. 27-28.

[18] Banfield, p. 48.

[19] Ibid, p. 122.


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