Virginia Woolf and the ethics of the afterlife

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaper


Virginia Woolf famously saw her novels as elegies. As she wrote in her diary in 1925, ‘I have an idea that I will invent a new name for my books to supplant “novel”. A new ___ by Virginia Woolf. But what? Elegy?’ (D3 34). The comment reflects a concern that is seen throughout her oeuvre, for the death of at least one individual and the consequent mourning of those left behind is a persistent theme in her work. Woolf was not, however, consistent in the way in which she thought of the afterlife: from her statement in her first novel that ‘to die was to cease to breathe’, and her perception of individual life as insignificant in the great scheme of things: ‘I am . . . like the shadow passing over the downs’ (Diary, vol. 3 p. 188), through to Clarissa Dalloway’s sense that ‘somehow in the streets of London, on the ebb and flow of things, here, there, she survived, Peter survived, lived in each other’ (Mrs Dalloway p. 8).
As this paper showed, Woolf’s varying response to this question may be related to the complex set of attitudes and beliefs around life after death in the early twentieth century, including her personal experience of both Evangelical Christianity and agnosticism within her own family; classical learning among her Bloomsbury cohorts; and spiritualism in popular culture. Examining a range of Woolf’s statements and writings on the topic, the paper will show that, while she expressed scepticism towards specific beliefs, she consistently expressed a belief that literature was a way of memorializing the dead and endowing them with an afterlife. As she wrote in her essay ‘On Being Ill’: Heaven-making must be left to the imagination of the poets’.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusUnpublished - 9 Jun 2022
Event31st Annual Virginia Woolf Conference: Virginia Woolf and Ethics - Online (organized by Lamar University, USA), Beaumont, United States
Duration: 9 Jun 202212 Jun 2022

Academic conference

Academic conference31st Annual Virginia Woolf Conference
Country/TerritoryUnited States
Internet address


  • Virginia Woolf
  • Religion


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