Abstraction and Fiction
: Reading the ‘Double Vision’ of Joseph Conrad, E. M. Forster, and Virginia Woolf

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


This thesis explores abstraction in the writing of Joseph Conrad, E. M.
Forster, and Virginia Woolf. It argues that the “abstract”, a familiar concept in
the visual arts, is also invaluable for reading certain aesthetic innovations in
Modernist fiction.
The scientific and philosophical discoveries of the late nineteenth and early
twentieth century had a profound impact upon concepts of truth and reality. The
dualism that had dominated western philosophy for centuries was deeply
undermined by various intellectual advances: relativity and uncertainty reigned in
the stead of balanced, absolute opposites. The abstract experimentation of
Conrad, Forster, and Woolf is deeply entrenched in the contemporary crisis of
dualism. Each of these authors appropriates and reimagines a traditional,
philosophical dualism in order to add another, expansive dimension to familiar and descriptive language. The manifestations of abstraction in their fiction varies
greatly: ranging from the use of geometric, abstract images, to the invocation of
related abstract concepts, like negativity and ineffability. Despite the diversity of
form, each of these abstractions depends upon a conceptual dualism, between the concrete and metaphysical, visible and invisible.
Embattled dualisms pervade the novels examined here: Conrad’s Nigger of
the ‘Narcissus’, Lord Jim and The Secret Agent; Forster’s Maurice, Howards End
and A Passage to India; and Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and The Waves. The
dualistic play of each of these authors proves crucial for expressing their
fundamental vision. Conrad’s alliance of irreconcilable antagonisms structures a
perpetual tension and stalemate, effecting something of his pessimism and horror at the fundamental senselessness of existence. Whereas Forster’s abstractions promote his more optimistic outlook. The interminable oscillation between opposites in his writing is a source of truth, rather than an admission of a fundamental ignorance. Forster’s dualisms are a stimulus for connection, realising his central ethos – ‘only connect’ – in the very aesthetics of his literature. For Woolf, abstraction helped her overcome the fundamental problem facing the artist: the struggle to find an image to convey what s/he means. Woolf’s abstraction translates the metaphysical vision of the artist into a concrete image: it reconciles vision with design. By reading the metaphysical dimension of Conrad, Forster, and Woolf’s ‘double vision’ as abstract, we can appreciate their stylistic innovations as strategies for responding to and realising shifting concepts of reality.
Date of Award2014
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • King's College London
SupervisorMax Saunders (Supervisor), Gordon McMullan (Supervisor) & Anna Snaith (Supervisor)

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