Book Reviews

Night and Day by Virginia Woolf – Book Review

There are books that are driven by characters. Then there are books that are driven by situations. But ‘Night and Day’ (first published on 20 October 1919) by Virginia Woolf is one book where ‘thoughts’ reign supreme. The whole story seems to be woven out of the fabric of thoughts.

Night and Day is all about thoughts

That’s not to be wondered at, I think, considering who wrote the book. Thoughts are a powerful influencer even in normal people’s life. My first novel ‘Dream’s Sake’ shows how thoughts make everything harder. Thoughts influence normal people into action. Thoughts influence disturbed people into a reaction. How much more powerful could their sway be on the mind suffering from manic-depressive disorder?

Author Virginia Woolf, born January 25, 1882, in London, was a tortured soul. She had inherited the gift of literature from her parents, but she had also inherited their propensity of mental breakdowns. The bipolar disorder started haunting her at the age of 13 when her mother died. And it tormented her till her death at the age of 59. She ended her life by walking into the River Ouse.

To a person with a mental disorder, thoughts sometimes become stronger and more real than reality itself. And that’s what to me felt the most striking feature of the novel Night and Day. It is not counted among one of the best works by Virginia Woolf, but it still makes an ample exhibition of how potent thoughts were to her.

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Review of Night and Day

As I read the book, I felt as if nothing at all was happening in it. Actually, for the first ten or twelve chapters, nothing really happens. The author just goes delving deeper and deeper into the complexities of her characters and their situations in life. And even after that, the only sort of event that the book has is that people pay visits to each other’s houses. There’s barely any other event in the book. People just visit other people, they talk, they hide what they really feel, they think, they feel their thoughts and feelings getting influenced and that’s it. Nothing else happens. It is by the change of these thoughts and feelings that the story shapes up.

The marvel of subtlety

The book made me think about the course a river takes. Some hard and major obstruction might make it take a major turn in its course. But for most of its way, the course meanders little by little, sometimes just a few centimetres at a time. And yet, it is this few centimetres that end up creating the distances of miles.

Same is what happens in this book.

A slight change in the pattern of thoughts and the course of life is changed forever. And yet, till almost the end, the alterations go unnoticed by the world. The characters go on living as if nothing has changed, nothing is wrong. And all the while, storms keep on howling in their mind, making them often oblivious of reality and their surroundings.

Characterization in Night and Day

The novel has four main characters. All have their own complexities and layers. But out of all the characters, it is the heroine that is the most complex of all.

The heroine of Night and Day

The heroine is Katharine Hilbery, the only child of the only child of a celebrated poet. Her world is steeped in literature and literary greats are familiar acquaintances of her parents. Her mother, daughter of a celebrated poet, lives in the glory that is now past and wants to bring out a book detailing the life of her father. But she is incapable of focussing her mind on anything so big. So Katharine has to help her mother write the book, besides managing their house as well.

Katharine does all her duties and appears to the world a most sensible and well-groomed lady. Yet, secretly, she hates poetry and does not enjoy reading. What she likes instead is to practice mathematics. But as that is considered un-ladylike, she does this in the secrecy of her room at night.

She gets engaged to a poet because he is a decent man and in love with her and because everyone wants them to get engaged. And then, later on, she helps him get out of that binding engagement and get engaged to her cousin who appreciates him better and whom he really loves. She keeps dreaming of distant lands and rivers and stars. But she does not look at the stars with a poet’s eyes. She wants to calculate their distances and study them.

Such is the contradiction in the nature of the main heroine.

Other characters of Night and Day

The other characters are Ralph Denham (a poor lawyer who is hopelessly in love with Katharine, but cannot be sure whether he loves her or just the image of her that he has made in his mind,) Mary Datchet (a simple and sensible girl who loves Ralph and has devoted her life to fight for women’s suffrage) and William Rodney (Kathrine’s fiancé’ and a poet).

All through the book, the characters are governed by their thoughts and visions. So much so that Katharine and Ralph, though conscious of their love for each other, feel unsure of their feelings because they often remain lost in their visions and dreams even when with each other. This makes them wonder if they really love each other or just love the vision they have created in their head.

The plot

As I said earlier, the book has no other event except visits. And most of the action moves forward on long streams of thoughts. No major catastrophe rocks the life of the characters. No passionate outbursts take place. So much so, that even the rivals in love remain good friends, and genuinely so because they understand each other’s situation perfectly well.

Yet, life changes its course and a beautiful story gets created with brilliant characterization, and superb diction and narration.

The genius

In the book, Katharine’s cousin Cassandra thinks of her as a being superior to the usual mortals. That’s exactly how I felt while reading the book. It is a slow-paced book that almost seems eventless. Yet, I felt I was reading the words of a superior being whose thoughts I could only admire and marvel at, though probably never fully fathom.

In conclusion, I’ll only say this – if you want quick-paced entertainment, this book is not for you. But if you care to study the brilliance of literary genius, do give this book a try.

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