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“In or about December 1985, Virginia Woolf criticism changed” (Caughie 1991, 1). Thus begins my book, Virginia Woolf and Postmodernism (1991), which demonstrates how postmodern and poststructuralist theories can change, and have changed, the way we read Woolf—that is, the kinds of questions that motivate our readings, the objectives that guide our analyses, and the contexts in which we place her works. 1985 was the year Toril Moi published Sexual/Textual Politics and first articulated the opposition between French feminist theory and Anglo-American feminist criticism, establishing “feminist postmodernism” as a new methodology that disrupted the cultural consensus among feminist critics of the 1970s. In her introduction, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”, Moi interrogates the “theoretical assumptions about the relationship between aesthetics and politics” that made so many American feminist critics resistant to Woolf’s modernist style. Relying on a “realist aesthetic,” these critics, Moi argues, assess Woolf’s writing and politics in terms of whether “the right content [is] represented in the correct realist form” (Moi 1985, 3-4, 7). (The relationship between form and content, as we will see, is one of the first casualties of a poststructuralist critical reading.) In contrast, Moi locates Woolf’s politics “precisely in her textual practice” (16), focusing on the politics of language rather than on the politics expressed by Woolf’s language. Although Moi’s rigid division between the French and the Anglo-Americans may lead to reductive readings, in which all American feminists are represented by Elaine Showalter, Moi was the first to articulate the difference French theory makes for feminist literary criticism. What this change in thinking means for reading Woolf is the subject of this chapter.


This is a pre-print version of this book chapter. The final version appears in Palgrave Advances in Virginia Woolf Studies, ed. Anna Snaith (Palgrave/MacMillan, 2007).

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License.