Filtering the self through fiction

In ‘Growing’, Woolf often compares the people he comes across with literary characters in order to illustrate better for his readers that which he is talking about. The first instance of this (in ‘Jaffna’) was when he compared the G.A’s wife, Mrs Lewis to Mrs Jennings of Jane Austen’s ‘Sense and Sensibility’, and it struck me as being amusing.

But I soon realized that his tendency to look at people with ‘literary lens’ reveals the political nature of reading – it is very much about power. An example is when he compares the white residents of Jaffna to characters in Kipling’s works:

The white people were also in many ways astonishingly like characters in a Kipling story. I could never make up my mind whether Kipling had moulded his characters accurately in the image of Anglo-Indian society or whether we were moulding our characters accurately in the image of a Kipling story. (p.46)

Not only does this bring to attention the power of representation – it is not only the colonised, but also the coloniser who is perhaps mis-represented, and consequently, influenced and changed by those mis-representations:

We all pretended to be tougher, more British, more homesick than we really were, yet there was a pinch of truth and reality in all our posturings. (p.47)

Along the same lines of reading the self, as well as colonial relations through texts, Woolf includes letters from this past. These he suggests show clearer his state of mind at those points in time. It seems to me that in reading his ex-self, he works to exculpate his present-self – he distances himself from his past, a past which he underscores already give ‘exaggerated, one-sided picture[s] of the writer’s state of mind’ (p.61).

Thus his candidness in talking about his ex-self as ‘imperialist’ needs to be reconsidered – to what extent does he assume responsibility for his part as agent of empire? Or does he use texts to evade the blame, casting his ex-self as simply some character whose motivations could be deferred and excused by writing and by fiction?

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