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Solid Objects

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The desire for nonconformity is an admirable trait but when taken too far, it can be detrimental to one’s aspirations and dreams. While it is natural for one to pursue fleeting passions, it is also important to temper this quest for desire, with practicality. The dangers of immoderation are especially evident in the case of John, the main character of “Solid Objects”, whose passion for trinkets grows into an insidious fixation. In “Solid Objects” by Virginia Woolf, the author conveys her strong disapproval of John by magnifying his wasted potential and his obsession with ephemeral fantasies while she praises Charles for his loyalty and practicality.
The title “Solid Objects” is an ironic reference to how John casts off the permanence and stability of his political career, for inconsequential whims. The author shows how John’s aspirations for his future are replaced by a need for: “Anything, so long as it was an object of some kind…-china, glass, amber, rock, marble…would do” (Woolf pg.1). Unlike his career, these objects are not permanent; they represent his desire to escape from the stifling confines of conformity that shape his future. His search for the exotic and unnatural provides an alternative to the predictability and drabness of politics. At first, it appears to be a harmless desire, and Woolf seems to agree.
Initially, Woolf begins the story with an approving stance on John’s infatuation by focusing on his innocence, but this merely serves as a transition for her overall criticism of his behavior. His childlike nature is emphasized during the scenes at the beach where he derives pleasure from just staring at his newfound rock. Woolf describes: “It pleased him, it puzzled him; it was so hard, so concentrated…” (Woolf pg.1). The use of these short phrases gives readers a glimpse into the intensity of John’s gaze and the innocence of his wonder. Though this potent interest can be described as naïve and innocent in nature, it leads to an obsession that destroys his life.
Woolf’s disapproval of John’s quest is epitomized by her hostile description of “a very remarkable piece of iron” that he has added to his collection (Woolf pg. 3). Woolf describes: it was almost identical with the glass in shape…but so cold and heavy, so black and metallic, that it was evidently alien to the earth”(Woolf pg.3). This sinister description contrasts sharply with the wondrous and joyful tone used for the glass. This change in tone is representative of the metamorphosis of John. John transforms from a talented man of high repute to an eccentric recluse. The author further narrates of the object: “it weighed the mantelpiece down; it radiated cold” (Woolf pg.3). John becomes cold and life-less like the object he possesses as he strives to quench his ever-present obsession.
As the story progresses, Woolf’s criticism grows stronger to match John’s rising desire. John lacks the judgment and the foresight to realize that his infatuation has stripped him of his future and his friends. John replaces his estranged companions and his fading reputation with growing numbers of trifling curios. Woolf describes: “ His career… was a thing of the past. People gave up visiting him. He was too silent…never talked to anyone about his serious ambitions” (Woolf) By caging his obsession within himself, John makes himself an outcast from society and refuses any help from friends and peers.
John’s insular attitude and his stubborn desire to continue on his fruitless quest blind him to the harm that he has caused himself. Woolf however, is quick to describe the adverse effects of John’s obsession. She describes: “ if he had not been consumed by ambition… the disappointments he had suffered, let alone the fatigue and derision, would have made him give up the pursuit” (Woolf pg. 3). Woolf implies that John’s hobby has taken center stage in his life. It has destroyed his social life and caused him enormous emotional and psychological distress. However, the most damning consequence of John’s obsession is the demise of his promising future.
Woolf consistently mentions John’s enormous potential in order to give readers a glimpse of the future that he is throwing away. The brevity of these references adds to the impact of her message. John is described as a “man who is standing for Parliament upon the brink of a brilliant career” (Woolf pg.2). John has the potential to succeed, but he lacks the drive and the inclination to do so. He loses himself to his whims, preferring to revel in aesthetic pleasures while shunning his responsibilities. Most of his peers view him as a case of wasted potential. Only one man keeps his faith till the very end.
By primarily involving Charles at the beginning and end of the narrative, Wolf seeks to emphasize his steadfast loyalty to John. At the inception of the story, the pair is described from afar as “a small black spot…composed of the persons of two young men…with unmistakable vitality in them and an indescribable vigor” (Woolf pg.1). By describing the two men as inextricably linked, Woolf conveys the strength of their friendship. This idea is reinforced further by John’s exclamation: “Politics be damned” (Woolf pg.1). The casual and carefree nature in which this quote is uttered proves that Charles is a truly loyal friend.
Charles may be perplexed by the eccentric behavior of John, but he remains a steadfast and resolute friend until the very end of the story. Charles is a realist and he cannot comprehend why John threw away his career. However, Charles continues to support John, despite knowing that John’s “mere appearance upon a platform [is] out of the question” (Woolf pg. 4). Charles sees the stones for what they truly are, mere trinkets with no intrinsic value. He knows that John’s zealous passion is unnatural and unhealthy, but still harbors hope for John’s recovery. Charles’s convictions shatter during their final conversation when he realizes that the “pretty stones” have consumed John’s sanity (Woolf pg.4).
In “Solid Objects” by Virginia Woolf, John seeks to escape from the realities of life by seeking purpose in the collection of esoteric objects. Woolf’s condemnation of John’s deeds is reflected in the destruction of his political career and his social life. Despite Charles’s best efforts to serve as John’s voice of reason, John continues to pursue unrealistic goals in a bid to achieve freedom and happiness.

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SassyKat said...
Oct. 19, 2014 at 2:46 pm
I think you missed the point of this short story. The protagonist may have become obsessed with solid objects but the others are obsessed with their status quo. John, for the first time in his life is obsessed with Beauty that the others cannot appreciate. It is not a loss for him. He has extricated himself from a life of drudgery.
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