Don’t Be Afraid of Virginia Woolf: Tarot Imagery in “The Searchlight”


Getting ready for BATS next weekend, I’m working on a close reading of Woolf’s “The Searchlight.” Here are my lecture notes for the introduction.   Can’t wait to explore the story during our session. I’ll post the close reading itself after I get the benefit of our discussion next Saturday.  I always learn so much from our seminars!

Virginia Woolf was born in 1882 and developed an acute awareness of the rigidity and smugness of prevailing 19th century attitudes that assumed she would take her place in society accordingly. Unwilling to be bound by societal norms of class and gender that relegated her to a codified domestic life, she wrote both fiction and essays that challenged the status quo.  She named the new century of her adulthood the Modern Age, and used a fresh and dynamic approach to write about everyday life in the midst of the 20th century explosion of urbanization, technology, global war, and cultural change.  Like her fellow Modernist writers, she mined themes, symbols, and works of the past for nuggets of meaning to enrich her own works.  But she applied a modern psychological consciousness to her writing, and delved deeply into the human mind’s capacity to observe and make meaning from sensory details and associations  from ordinary life as well as from large events to explore the macro and micro elements of the changing world she lived in.

In the 21st century, the issues she explored are pervasive and constant, and we wrestle with them every day.  So there is a natural connection between us and Woolf’s writing.   But she is often looked at a “difficult” writer, suited to reading only in the ivory tower of academia.  In fact, her work is free of academic and psychological jargon, and is written in the language of “ordinary” people.  She describes her scenes with an intense and detailed observational style that can give us a rich reading experience with her work.  If we let the images and language stream without judgment through our own consciousness, we can experience those scenes with  our doors of perception open and receptive.

Having an understanding of the tarot archetypes we are already familiar with can also give us a link to her meaning as well.  It’s not a stretch to imagine that she was aware of the tarot element in her writing.  She reviewed and greatly admired W.B. Yeats’ collection of poems, The Tower, published in 1927, which connected to the tarot at a deep symbolic level.  And T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, which makes explicit use of the RWS tarot deck to find meaning in fragmented modern life, was first published by Hogarth Press in 1922, Woolf’s publishing company.  Woolf was also fascinated by the close friend of her mother, actress Ellen Terry, who appears as the regal figure in the RWS 9 of Pentacles, and often posed for Pixie Smith’s paintings.  Woolf also used her as a the main character for another version of “The Searchlight,” Freshwater.  So looking at “The Searchlight,” with a tarot agenda can help us tease out a rich and meaningful interpretation of a story already full of magic and import.

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