Blesok no. 86, September-October, 2012
Confessional writing as portrayed in the works of Augustine, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and Virginia Woolf
In literature, confessional writing is a first-person writing style that is often times presented in the forms of an ongoing diary entry or a set of personal letters. Confessional writing tends to reveal the personal reflections of the author, the thought processes taking place in their mind, or darker motivations and desires (Online dictionary of literary terms). It is important to note that when it comes to confessional writing, the work is not a mere autobiographical record but often also includes an admission of sins and mistakes committed by the author.
This paper will aim at exploring the concept of confessional writing as applied to works discussed during the course of Big Books. It will specifically pay attention to three works in particular, namely “Confessions” by St. Augustine of Hippo, “The Underground Man” by Fyodor M. Dostoevsky, and “A Room of One’s Own” by Virginia Woolf. In doing so, it will attempt to locate traces of confessional writing in these three, make a retrospective analysis of how the form and use of confessional writing have evolved through time, and finally the effect and benefit confessional writing has for the author. Additional to the three original works, this paper will use two more works of literary critique and analysis as reference points.
Augustine’s “Confessions” are often characterized to be the first autobiography of Western Europe. To shortly summarize, in his work, Augustine concentrates on specific instances of his childhood, adolescent, and adult life in order to present to the reader the possible reasons and motivations for his becoming religious. On an autobiographical note, he recalls events of the aforementioned periods with great detail, describing vivid images and thorough explanations. On a confessional note, which will be the one more carefully considered in this paper, Augustine dwells on the mistakes and wrongdoings of his life, narrating extensive repentances and regrets.”The malice of the act was base and I loved it – that is to say I loved my own undoing, I loved the evil in me […] yet in the enjoyment of all such things we commit sin if through immoderate inclination to them (Augustine, 1119). A specific occurrence that seems to pain him in particular is a pear-theft incident of his childhood. Namely, at an early stage of his adolescence he falls in a bad group of friends and is lured into stealing pears, although he has a perfectly fertile pear tree in his home yard. Upon stealing the fruits, he allegedly feels so guilty, that he does not wish to eat them and throws them away. This incident is just one of many which Augustine lists as the sins of his life, and tries to atone for by confessing and repenting them. What is interesting in the flow of this narration is that the author presents us with somewhat of a model of a confessional machine. As the sins are narrated, varying from small scale felonies to deviant intentions and actions, it seems as if by the mere fact of confessing them one is already (partially) pardoned. As the narration develops, Augustine becomes more inpatient in receiving his pardon and converting once and for all to Christianity. “For I kept saying within myself: “Let it be now, let it be now”, and by the mere words I had begun to move towards the resolution (Augustine, 1127). Following this stream of thought, it may be argued that the style of confessional writing is highly beneficial for the mental well being of its author. Such a benefit is present in the mere form of confessional writing, or more accurately the concept of stream of consciousness which most confessional authors use. Although the specific type of stream of consciousness varies upon individual use, an overarching characteristic of it is that it allows its user to freely express their inner emotions, often neglecting form or punctuation. Such freedom in turn, enables the author to record his thoughts uninterruptedly, providing a general sense of relief. Being that Augustine’s “Confessions” are considered as one of the earliest forms of both an autobiography and a written confession, it is safe to conclude that it is according to Augustine’s “Confessions” that the genre of confessional writing is modeled. As this paper progresses through the remaining two works, one will be able to notice that through time the form of confessional writing drifts away from Augustine’s; however, it always remains near the notion of portraying personal issues and somehow attempting to amend them.
Dostoevsky’s “Notes from Underground” is a literary work of the twentieth century dwelling on the personal issues and recollections of its protagonist the Underground Man. It is important to note that the possible similarity with a confessional scripture is not the first analysis that pops in mind when discussing Dostoevsky’s work. Bearing this in mind, this paper will attempt to refrain from any personal reading biases and give an objective overview of the potential confession-like elements of the novel. The first element of confessional writing is the narration of the story, or more accurately its being in the first person form. From the very first line we encounter the Underground Man directly recording all his thoughts and feelings, and this style of narration does not change till the very end of the novel. The “I” form is frequently used, and the narrator does not refrain from informal language or personal opinions. “I am a sick man, I am a spiteful man. I am a most unpleasant man. I think my liver is diseased” (Dostoevsky, 1255). Apart from the structural elements that highly resemble the style of confessional writing, the content of “Notes from Underground” is also located near it. Namely, the Underground Man often times remembers past occurrences with a sense of grief and remorse towards his words and behavior. An example of this is his recollection of several instances where he proclaims he ‘tortured’ officials visiting his office, with sarcastic and malicious remarks. “When petitioners used to approach my desk for information, I’d gnash my teeth and feel unending pleasure if I succeeded in causing someone distress” (Dostoevsky, 1255). Soon after elaborating on his ill behavior, the Underground Man admits the bitter feelings of self-regret that almost always followed it.”My heart might even have been touched, although I’d probably have gnashed my teeth out of shame and then suffered from insomnia for several months afterwards […] but I could never really become spiteful, at all time I was aware of a great many elements in me that were just the opposite of that (Dostoevsky, 1256). Contrasted to these similarities, an element of “Notes from Underground” that differs from Augustine’s “Confessions” is the lack of the previously mentioned ‘confessional machine – syndrome’. Namely, Dostoevsky’s Underground Man seems to ask for no forgiveness at any point of his narration. Unlike Augustine, who straightforwardly asks when his salvation will arrive, the Underground Man confesses his wrongdoings but asks for no forgiveness. The usage of stream of consciousness is still quite prevailing, and one might argue that this alone alleviates the burdens of guilt or repentance, but what is striking in the case of the Underground Man is that he asks for no direct forgiveness, nor does he show the necessity of one. At this point it may be concluded that as much as Augustine’s confession helps his internal well-being, in the case of Dostoevsky’s Underground men we see no explicit proof for the benefits of confession.
Chronologically speaking, Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own” is the most modern form of confessional writing we encountered in this course. Attempting to once again remain unbiased, this paper will outline the potential similarities of Woolf’s novel with a confessional narrative before considering their application and benefits for the author. The first person narration is still widely present, as the story is in fact a lecture Woolf held in real life. “I will try to explain. When you asked me to speak about women and fiction I sat down on the banks of a river and began to wonder what the words meant” (Woolf, 1925). This quotation is an excerpt from the very beginning of the novel, and it already abounds with personal reflections and instances from the past. Additional to this, the usage of stream of consciousness is highly frequent, as one may notice Woolf drifting away in past recollections and often neglecting the present topic or replacing it with a new one arisen in her memories. A point of discrepancy however, between Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own” and the original model posed by Augustine, arises when one inspects the content of Woolf’s novel. Namely, unlike Augustine’s “Confessions” and Dostoevsky’s “Notes from Underground”, Woolf’s narrative does not dwell on past mistakes or her repentance of them. It begins as an academic lecture, and occasionally falls into Woolf’s memories and past events, but in no point does the concept of sin or mistaking appears. Upon giving her lecture, Woolf recollects several events during which she has been banned from doing one thing or another because of her gender, such as the event of her being forbidden to enter a university library, and the only grief she feels upon this memory, one might note, is the fact that there has nothing yet been performed to do away with gender inequality. “That a famous library has been cursed by a woman is a matter of complete indifference to a famous library” (Woolf, 1927). In light of this, it is needles to add that the confession-machine is not present in her narration. Upon reviewing the events told in “A Room of One’s Own”, it may be argued that this narrative stands closer to the concept of an autobiography than a confession. However, the fact that confessional-like characteristics do exist in the novel cannot be neglected.
After performing an analysis of all three works one may notice that the form and usage of confessional writing has varied substantially over time. Through providing a chronological synopsis of three prominent works in the world of literature this paper outlines the variation confessional writing has endured from its first form – Augustine’s “Confessions”, to its last one discussed in this course – Woolf’s “A Room of One’s own”. It may be noted that the two prevailing elements are the first person narration and the usage of stream of consciousness, present in all the works. Contrasted to this, the notions of sin, repentance, and the benefit an author enjoys upon confessing, slowly disappear as we gradually move through the three works. Additionally, each author has a specific usage of the stream of consciousness, and employs the recollection of past events to a different purpose. On a general note, the three novels display an interesting outline of three distinct narrative techniques united by an overarching characterization of ‘confessional’. They show that the concept of confession does not necessarily imply a religious act, and that it requires much more effort and structure than a mere retelling of one’s past sins and repentances.
1. Augustine. Confession. Vol. 1. New York: Norton &, 2006. Print.
2. Dostoevsky, Fyodor M. Notes from Underground. Vol. 2. New York: Norton &, 2006. Print.
3. Woolf, Virgina. A Room of One's Own. Vol. 2. New York: Norton &, 2006. Print.
4. Sherwin, Miranda. Confessional Writing and the Twentieth-Century Literary Imagination. Palgrave Macmillan, 2011. Print.
5. Gill, Jo. Modern Confessional Writing. 1st ed. Routledge, 2005. Print.