NEH Grant EX-20049-01


Night and Day



Night and Day was Virginia Woolf’s second, and longest, novel, published in 1919. It is a more “traditional” novel than her later work, and has not received as much critical attention. It was dedicated to her sister, Vanessa Bell, and the main character, Katharine Hilbery, is modeled on her. Vanessa’s passion was art; Katharine’s passion is mathematics. One of the recurring issues in Woolf’s novels is the conflict between women’s traditional roles and the modern female identity that allows achievement equal to men.  In this novel, Katharine lives an upper middle class life in London as the granddaughter of a famous poet.  Ralph Denham enters her life and initially has a slightly contentious relationship with her. He is a young lawyer, responsible for a large, financially dependent family. She is drifting toward an engagement with William Rodney, a government worker who has writing aspirations and is a superficially appropriate mate. Another major character is Mary Datchett, a volunteer working for women’s suffrage. Mary lives alone and is independent, yet lonely, representing one possible destiny for modern women. Mary is in love with Ralph. Ralph realizes he is in love with Katharine. Katharine and William become engaged, but the relationship fails to gel; Katharine is not committed emotionally, but supposes this is the way life is. During a country interlude at Christmas, Ralph realizes Mary is in love with him. She realizes he does not love her. Katharine begins to realize she does not love William, but Ralph. When country cousin Cassandra enters the scene, a solution becomes possible, because she and William fall in love. Katharine engineers circumstances that allow the love to flower, and ultimately, she commits to Ralph.

Essay Questions & Paper Topics

1.      How do the settings and characters in the novel mirror Virginia Woolf’s own life?

2.      Woolf said of the novel that she was interested in the effects of  “the things one doesn’t say.”  How does this affect the interactions of the characters?

3.      What shapes the decisions Katharine makes?

4.      Do any of the characters change their attitudes and values? Explain.

5.      Compare and contrast Katharine with Cassandra, with Mary.


Banks, Joanne Trautmann. “Mrs. Woolf in Harley Street.” Lancet 4-11-98 v.351:9109

Smythe, Karen. “Virginia Woolf’s elegiac enterprise.” Novel Fall 1992 v.26:1

Snaith, Anna. “Virginia Woolf’s narrative strategies: negotiating between public and private voices.” Journal of Modern Literature Winter 1996 v.20:2

Wussow, Helen. “Conflict of language in Virginia Woolf’s ‘Night and Day’” Journal of Modern Literature Summer 1989 v.16:1

Zemgulys, Andrea P. “’Night and Day’ is Dead: Virginia Woolf in London literary and historic.” Twentieth Century Literature, Spring 2000 v.46:1

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