From the start of her literary career, Virginia Woolf exhibited a psychological bent, and though most critics assume a Freudian influence, a host of other “second wave” figures from the early era of psychoanalysis color her work (“second wave” is distinguished from “first wave” in its shift from the mind as a mechanistic, passive entity to psychic energy in flux). As George M. Johnson argues, Woolf's father, Leslie Stephen, was particularly influenced by the Society for Psychical Research, founded in Britain in 1893, passing on the ideas of Frederic Myers (the subliminal self), James Sully (author of Sensation and Intuition), as well as others, such as Henri Bergson, more philosophically than clinically inclined. Sully in fact admired Woolf's writing, and Woolf for her part mentions him in letters as late as 1912.
Johnson goes on to provide an apt if occasionally vague tracery of second-wave influence in Woolf's first two novels, The Voyage Out (1915) and Night and Day (1919). Protagonist Rachel's primaryconflict in The Voyage Out, for example, is based on a repression of feelings that not only separates her from others but also divides her into two selves: her rational being versus her uncontrolled instinctual desires. Her latent sexuality therefore emerges most vividly in dreams, but also in prelinguistic states of consciousness. Rachel's schism most resembles Henri Bergson's model of two-layered consciousness, one layer clear and fixed, the other mutable and inexpressible.
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Johann Herbart's theory of momentary repression, circulated by G. F. Stout in Britain in the late 1880's, also has relevance in Rachel's occasional shutting out of both external stimuli and internal visions. And, as Johnson adds, the psychosomatic nature of illnesses like Rachel's terminal fever near the end of the novel was a subject often covered by the Society for Psychical Research.
Johnson performs a similar analysis on the protagonist of Night and Day, Katherine Hilbery, who can engage only part of her mind with surface reality. Here, however, dreams begin as escape and end in the fulfillment of wishes, emphasizing Woolf's more mature view, “her interpretation of the importance of the dream life in overcoming repression”—a portrait of the novelist as a young analyst. Woolf's working relationship with James Strachey and a more direct conversance with Freudian concepts came later.
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Galef, D. (1996). Twentieth Century Literature, XL, ii, 1994. Pp. 139-164.. Psychoanal. Q., 65:846-847