“You know the horror of buying clothes” (L2 232), wrote Virginia Woolf to her sister in 1918. This statement takes us to the heart of early critical assumptions about Woolf and consumerism. Following good modernist principles, the argument ran, Woolf’s art was naturally above shopping, distinct from and even a reaction against consumer culture. More recently, critics such as Jennifer Wicke, Rachel Bowlby, and Reginald Abbott have unsettled this separation and have started to consider the complex relations among consumption, the market, and Woolf’s writing. Most of this attention, however, has focused either on selected essays or on Mrs. Dalloway, with is diverse scenes of stores and shopping. This paper addresses an earlier work, Woolf’s Night and Day, published in 1919. Night and Day is surprisingly connected to consumer culture, connected in ways that can deepen our understanding of consumerism in Woolf’s later works. Woolf suggests in this early novel a critical two-part illusion: first, as a smart shopper; second, one might reach this elusive vision without actually engaging in a material transaction. Buying clothes may be a horror, but what those clothes might deliver—the promise they promise—is another matter. This desire to purchase the illusions while hiding the material transaction actually paralleled emerging selling techniques and new modes of window display in London’s department stores, most notably at Selfridges, which opened in 1909. I will put a central scene of window shopping in Night and Day into dialogue with these emerging techniques, and suggest that such a dialogue reveals the surprising, often paradoxical nature of shopping within Woolf’s novels.
Copyright © 2001 Pace UP. This chapter first appeared in Virginia Woolf Out of Bounds.
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Outka, Elizabeth. "The Shop Windows Were Full of Sparkling Chains: Consumer Desire and Woolf's Night and Day." In Virginia Woolf Out of Bounds, edited by Jessica Schiff Berman and Jane Goldman, 229-35. New York: Pace University Press, 2001.