Marie Allègre: Virginia Woolf Beyond the Phallus

or, Reading Psychoanalysis with Woolf on Both Sides of the Channel
(a thesis in progress)

Provisionally entitled “Virginia Woolf Beyond the Phallus: Anglophone & Francophone Psychoanalytic Receptions,” my thesis explores the intersections of Woolf, psychoanalytic theory and feminist criticism from the 1980s to the 2010s approximately.

I came to Woolf through Lacanian psychoanalytic theory in French academia. The teacher with whom I studied Woolf for the first time was an English Professor and a psychoanalyst, themselves trained by a Lacanian critic. I wrote a quintessentially Lacanian master’s dissertation which left me wondering: What is the effect of reading Woolf using metaphors and concepts such as “the phallus,” Oedipus, and consorts? The images and metaphors we use to think about things directly impact what we can think: some things are easily accommodated by these metaphors while some others are overlooked or even made abject. It is out of a feminist interest in and worry over, psychoanalytic metaphoricity and its effects, that I set out to explore Woolf’s psychoanalytic receptions both in the English and in the French traditions.

“Nude with Poppies [Nu aux pavots], Vanessa Bell, 1916” by La case photo de Got is licensed under CC BY 2.0

What my research has revealed so far is that psychobiographical impulses remain, albeit covertly and in different forms, for different purposes. Most people assume they’re not talking about Woolf’s life, but they are, even or especially when using structural or post-structural metaphors. These metaphors often turn out to be only deceptively non-biologizing, non-deterministic models (Campbell 2000; Evans 2020; see also Valentine 2003). My thesis also argues that some anglophone feminist readings of Woolf that deploy psychoanalysis, especially Lacanianism, ended up bringing Woolf back into the straight jacket of binary heteronormative frameworks when Woolf is really more about what I called an “irreducible heterogeneity” (a term I share with, but developed independently of, Karen Barad). On the other side of the ocean and Channel, French psychoanalytic critics have tended to use Woolf as a way to validate their insights, something that ends up pathologising her and/ or reducing her works. I try and put forward a heterogeneous reading method bringing Woolf and her psychoanalytic reception into dialogue with queer and trans studies (Stokoe 2018; Cassigneul 2019; see also Magallanes 2019), phenomenology (Banfield 2000; Randall 2007; Mildenberg 2017), new materialism and post-humanism (Bennett 2010; Barad 2012; Högberg 2015), as well as life-writing approaches (Rigeade 2017; Reus 2020;); the aim being to find words and metaphors able to talk about Woolf’s texts without stifling them – just as she herself does in writing “life itself.”

As I am just a few months away from writing my thesis introduction, I am currently working on the framing of my research, contextualising and refining the above arguments. I am also working on a final chapter on the relationship between Woolf’s life and work implicit in the psychoanalytic reception: what purpose(s) does Woolf’s life serve for feminist and/ or psychoanalytic critics? What does it do to the way we read and teach her works?


Banfield, A. (2010) The Phantom Table: Woolf, Fry, Russell and the Epistemology of Modernism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Barad, K. (2011) ‘Nature’s Queer Performativity’, Qui Parle, 19(2), pp. 121–158. Doi: 10.5250/quiparle.19.2.0121.

Bennett, J. (2010) Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham: Duke University Press.

Campbell, J. (2000) Arguing With the Phallus: Feminist, Queer, and Postcolonial Theory: A Psychoanalytic Contribution. London; New York: Zed Books; Distributed in the USA exclusively by St. Martin’s Press.

Cassigneul, A. (2019) ‘Cross-Dressing as Ambisexual Style: Queer Twists in Virginia Woolf’s Orlando’, E-rea, (16.2). Doi: 10.4000/erea.7688.

Evans, E. (2020) The Body in French Queer Thought from Wittig to Preciado: Queer Permeability (1st ed.). Routledge.

Högberg, E. (2015) ‘Virginia Woolf’s Object-Oriented Ecology’, in Swanson, D. L. and Caughie, P. L. (eds) Virginia Woolf: Writing the World. Liverpool University Press, pp. 148–153.

Magallanes, F. (2019) Psychoanalysis, the Body, and the Oedipal Plot: A Critical Re-Imaging of the Body in Psychoanalysis. London: New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.

Mildenberg, A. (2017) Modernism and Phenomenology: Literature, Philosophy, Art. London: Palgrave Macmillan UK. doi: 10.1057/978-1-349-59251-7.

Randall, B. (2007) Modernism, Daily Time and Everyday Life. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Doi: 10.1017/CBO9780511485282.

Reus, A. (2020) ‘Writing Virginia Woolf: Autobiographical Fragments’. Leeds Centre for Victorian Studies Events, Online, 20 November.

Rigeade, A.-L. (2017) ‘From the Author to the Icon: A Heritage of Virginia Woolf in French Biographies and Biofictions’, in Reus, A., deGay, J., and Breckin, T. (eds) Virginia Woolf and Heritage. Liverpool University Press, pp. 217–222. 

Stokoe, K. (2018) ‘Fucking the Body, Rewriting the Text: Proto-Queer Embodiment through Textual Drag in Virginia Woolf’s Orlando (1928) and Monique Wittig’s Le Corps lesbien (1973)’, Paragraph, 41(3), pp. 301–316. Doi: 10.3366/para.2018.0273.

Valentine, K. (2003) Psychoanalysis, Psychiatry and Modernist Literature. London: Palgrave Macmillan UK. Doi: 10.1057/9781403919366.

Marie Allègre is a third year PhD candidate in English Literature at the University of Birmingham, working under the supervision of Prof. Lyndsey Stonebridge and Dr Elliot Evans. Her work on the psychoanalytic reception of Virginia Woolf has been featured in Études britanniques contemporaines (2020) and The Modernist Review (2021). Her research interests include: Virginia Woolf; modernism; literature, art and criticism by women; feminism; psychoanalysis; new materialism; phenomenology; queer theory; trans theory; autofiction and autotheory. In her spare time, she blogs at in the midst of chaos. She is one of two co-chairs of the Graduate Centre for Europe (GCfE) at her home university for 2020-2021 where she also co-founded the network PGR Feminisms. She is a member of the French feminist research network Les Jaseuses. She lives by the sea in the South of England.

Published by International Virginia Woolf Society

The International Virginia Woolf Society is devoted to encouraging and facilitating the scholarly study of, critical attention to, and general interest in, the work and career of Virginia Woolf, and to facilitate ways in which all people interested in her writings— scholars, critics, teachers, students, artists and general readers—may learn from one another, meet together, contact each other, and help one another. Find out more about our organization, activities, and Virginia Woolf herself by following the links on our home page.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: