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Marlene Dirschauer

Freie Universität Berlin

Friedrich Schlegel Graduiertenschule

Alumna der FSGS

Water in the Poetics of Virginia Woolf

Marlene Dirschauer studierte von 2007-2015 Allgemeine und Vergleichende Literaturwissenschaft und Anglistik an der Freien Universität Berlin. Sie schloss ihr Studium mit einer Arbeit zum Schlaf im dramatischen Werk Shakespeares ab. Von 2011-2015 war sie als studentische Hilfskraft am Lehrstuhl von Frau Prof. Olk angestellt.


Modernist literature has in different respects been linked with water. It is widely associated with the “stream of consciousness” technique, and the idea of fluidity has served as a prominent vehicle to articulate the simultaneous sense of crisis and liberation that came with the collapse of traditional values and ideas at the beginning of the 20th century. Water in the Works of Virginia Woolf explores the poetic potential of water in the works of Virginia Woolf as an aesthetic category, as a poetic principle, and as a medium of intertextuality. These closely entwined arguments, which establish important points of contact between Woolf’s fictional and nonfictional texts, allow for a revaluation of some of the major topics of Woolf’s works, such as the relation between words and reality, the representation of time, the position of the (female) body in fiction, and the dynamics between language and silence. An examination of these topics reveals the structural, metapoetic, rhetorical, and rhythmical relevance of water as a key constituent of Woolf’s innovative narrative strategies. The materiality of water – the oscillation between surface and depth, its varying movements, properties, and states, its mutable and protean character – fuelled her experiments with narrative form. Therefore, the study claims that Woolf’s poetics of water is contingent on what it calls her “consciousness of form” – her awareness of the variety of aqueous forms, and the possibilities inherent in this variety to a writer who was notoriously sceptical of plot-driven narratives. Woolf’s poetics of water opposes the idea of the solidly constructed fiction of the ‘materialist’ writers and the notion of a graspable, easily narratable reality. It is most effective where mimetic narrative fails. Her experimental fiction is marked by a rise in ambiguity and embraces the idea of impersonality, which reverberates in the waterscapes of her texts as parts of an indifferent, nonhuman nature. By showing that water emerges as a congenial medium for Woolf to express both her confidence in and scepticism about language, the study seeks to approach the core of Woolf’s modernist writing, which it identifies as a crucible of tradition and innovation: While the literary echoes of former writers and poets (above all, the works of Shakespeare and the English Romantic poets) are interwoven with what Woolf calls the text’s “sunken meaning”, and bear testimony to her “sense of tradition” (T.S. Eliot), her works at the same time attest to her distinctly modernist propensity for (meta)poetic abstraction and self-referentiality. My readings not only offer an in-depth investigation into the appeal of water to modernist aesthetics, but they also shed new light on the complex entanglement of the structural variety and imaginative richness of Woolf’s poetics. 


  • “Virginia Woolfs A Room of One’s Own oder die Komfortzone des literarischen Kanons.” Konferenz an der Freien Universität Berlin: “Spot the Stereotype!“, 6.6–7.6. 2019.

  • „Zeitenwandel und Wetterwechsel: Geschichte Erzählen in Virginia Woolfs Orlando“. Konferenz an der Freien Universität Berlin: “Literarische Meteorologie und Meteopoetologie“, 29.11.–30.11.2018. 

  • “Eroticising the Ineffable: Mechthild von Magdeburg’s Das Fließende Licht der Gottheit and the Song of Songs”Graduate Research Seminar of the Department of Modern and Medieval Languages at the Cambridge University, 19.01.2018. 

  •  “‘Only in Process of Fabrication’ – Time in Virginia Woolf’s Orlando.” Konferenz an der Freien Universität Berlin: “The Fabrics of Time”, 29.–30.09.2017.

  • “A Life of their Own: Detached Objects in Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room.” Konferenz an der Freien Universtät Berlin: “Epiphane Wirklichkeiten. Sprache der Dinge in Literatur und Künsten“, 16.–18.02.2017.

  • “Wasser als Ur-Stoff des Erzählens in Virginia Woolfs The Waves (1931)” Konferenz an der Humboldt Universität zu Berlin: “Re:Sources of Literature and Knowledge. Quellen und Rohstoffe des Erzählens”, 18.–20.07.2016.

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