Alex Clarke: Woolf as Expressionist? (Approaches to Emotional Expression)

Triangulating Lukács, Bloch, and Woolf

As part of a Comparative Literature and Cultural Studies research project at Birkbeck University (London), I learned to situate Virginia Woolf’s works in relation to a thought-battle between German Expressionists and Realists. Specifically, the study looked at the fiery discussion between George Lukács and Ernst Bloch in Aesthetics and Politics. Lukács argues that Expressionism, specifically, could not depict the complexity of society as a whole. Indeed, he felt that this style set out to deny “that literature has any reference to objective reality” (Lukács 66). Bloch’s response argues that Lukács’s “conception of reality has failed to liberate itself completely from Classical systems” (Bloch 43). As I read this discussion, Lukács appears to fear modernism’s respect for the emotional responses of individual human beings while Bloch argues that Expressionism—one of modernism’s many -isms—developed as a defense of the freedom to express. More precisely, it developed to protect honest responses to the experience of living through the European transition into early twentieth-century society. 

Throughout the 1920s, as her readers know, Woolf experiments with literary forms: most famously, with narrative techniques like stream-of-consciousness. In this way, she was highly involved in challenging the traditional aesthetics—and social norms—that also preoccupied thinkers like Lukács and Bloch. The styles Woolf created suggest at the existence of a liminal space between modern scientific and artistic thoughts. Her poetic-prose established worlds in which her characters express modern experiences shared by her as well as her contemporaries in the Bloomsbury Group and beyond. Woolf’s techniques are of a piece with the aesthetic styles that worried Lukács and that inspired Bloch’s defense.

The Lukács-Bloch Debate and To the Lighthouse

I chose To the Lighthouse for my triangulation of Lukács, Bloch, and Woolf because the latter’s painterly character, Lily Briscoe, represents and dramatizes qualities associated with the artistic development and change from Impressionism to Expressionism. For Woolf, a knowledge of Impressionistic pursuits enabled her to create scenes that captured “human bustle” as a “liveliness in the natural surroundings” (Weekes 109). The artist’s ability to represent these “vibrations of light in the air” was something that C. P. Weekes, the biographer of Claude Monet’s early years as a painter, described as belonging to the first forays into Impressionism (Weekes 110). Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, alongside the enthusiasm of Roger Fry, then became part of the Expressionistic and abstract response to Impressionism’s softer, light-informed reaction to rapid Industrialization.

Echoing Vanessa Bell’s favored painting style, which conveys emotional response to rather than mimetic representation of a subject, Lily demonstrates how abstract shapes can serve as silent commentary on outdated, pre-First World War mores and norms. When William Bankes attempts to understand Lily’s painting of a “triangular purple shape,” the reader gains an insight into modernism’s critique of the ideals that surrounded motherhood (TTL 58). Lily uses abstract composition to highlight the dangers of complacently accepting traditional ways of thinking about societal patterns. In a similar way to Lily’s challenging adoption of the abstract form, Lukács and Bloch seek to distance themselves from the pressure of embedded social ideas, via their debate on Expressionism. Both insist on the problem of traditionalizing the arts. Bloch accuses Lukács of suggesting that the modern “bourgeoisie has nothing more to teach us” (Bloch 15). Lukács, in retaliation, claims that Bloch’s criticism had reduced his argument to “a conflict between modern and classical” (Lukács 24).

Lily’s abstract style also echoes Woolf’s literary depiction of her character’s visceral and psychological experience of modern life. Despite her suspicion of established roles, Lily joins the other characters in longing to establish an intimacy with Mrs Ramsay. Lily imagines leaning her own head on Mrs Ramsay’s knee and wonders whether “loving, as people called it” could “make her and Mrs Ramsay one” (TTL 57). Lily then silently cries out that “Nothing! Nothing” had happened, for Mrs Ramsay could not ultimately provide the intimacy that the younger woman desired (TTL 57). Here, the emotiveness of Lily’s reaction to Mrs Ramsay would have been recognizably Expressionist for Lukács and Bloch due to its highly “subjective nature” (Bloch 13). Lily’s conflicted desire to find “escapism” in Mrs Ramsay’s presence is an Expressionist tendency that Bloch notes Lukács detailing (Bloch 13). Lily’s “revolutionary” aspirations, which are kindled as she recognises that ‘Nothing’ could be gained by adhering completely to the Ramsays’ customary ways, highlight a trait of Expressionism that is put forward by Bloch and yet seemingly denied by Lukács (Bloch 13).

Despite direct and indirect disagreements, Lukács, Bloch, and Woolf question how aesthetics appeared to affect writers’ and artists’ relation with (or break from) social life. They responded to the way in which changing social conditions emphasized individual emotions (psychological and archetypal) within an increasingly connected and international society.


Bloch, Ernst. “Discussing Expressionism.” Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Ernst Bloch, Bertolt Brecht, Georg Lukács. Aesthetics and Politics. London: Verso, 2020.

Lukács, Georg. “Realism in the Balance.” Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Ernst Bloch, Bertolt Brecht, Georg Lukács. Aesthetics and Politics. London: Verso, 2020.

Weekes, C. P. Camille. London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1962.

Woolf, Virginia. Lighthouse. London: Penguin, 2000.

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.

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