‘The Shooting Party’ by Virginia Woolf: Short Story Analysis
‘The Shooting Party’ is a modernist short story penned by one of the greatest modernist British writers, Virginia Woolf. Virginia Woolf’s The Shooting Party’ was first published in Harper’s Bazaar in 1938 and was reprinted in ‘A Haunted House’, published by the Hogarth Press in 1944. Virginia Woolf uses her ‘stream of consciousness’ style in narrating Milly Masters’s story. One foggy day Milly Masters enters the third-class train carriage carrying a suitcase with her initials upon it and a brace of pheasants. Most probably, she was a ghost of a time past, that is, the time of England’s landowning class who hunted on a large scale, had notorious family histories, and were given to acts of tremendous passion. The story is at first difficult to follow. Still, once you reread it from start to finish, you comprehend that the author’s main idea was to use an entirely different way to get into the minds of her characters and narrate the story of a ruined and crumbling old mansion and an aristocrat royal family.
Virginia Woolf applies indirect interior monologue in her writings, which allows her to use the third person narrative to explore her characters’ stream of consciousness. She explores her characters’ thoughts, feelings, and emotions, which were very experimental for the time. It is also exceedingly difficult to read and absorb at times. There are very few characters in this short story, two of which are very elderly ladies named Miss Antonia and her elder sister Miss Rashleigh. They are ancient symbols of the crumbling and almost decadent landowning class of English aristocrats. They love to feed on hunted pheasants, and even as they feast on a batch of stuffed pheasants, their brother, the Squire, is outdoors hunting more pheasants. Antonia and Rashleigh speak very little, and yet, in Virginia Woolf’s unique style of writing, one realizes they have talked more than normal characters do. They reveal themselves and their family to be very shameless with regards to their sexual exploits. The older women are sexists because they praise the fact that the men in their family were obsessed with women, even having many illegitimate children. However, Antonia and Rashleigh rebuke and taunt the country’s young girls and women for giving in to the men of their aristocrat family. There is even an indication that Milly Masters, their housekeeper, was the illegitimate child of their brother, the Squire, and a possibility that her son was a child of incest.
Antonia and Rashleigh speak in monosyllables like ‘coming’, ‘hunting’, and ‘shooting’, painting an ominous background that something terrible was about to happen. Indeed, the horrible thing that does happen is that their brother, the Squire, lashes at his elder sisters and probably killed Rashleigh indirectly when she fell in the ashes of the chimney. When she fell in the ashes of the chimney, the family’s shield fell on her head. The family crest or shield had already been falling to pieces, especially after the noise of the hunt had made a slate fall down the chimney, cut a piece of chimney log into half, and removing most of the plaster from the shield. This indicates that the shield or the crest of the family would fall off the wall sooner or later. It further indicates that the family was crumbling to pieces and was on its last legs as the shield.
Milly Masters, who enters the third-class railway carriage, could either have been the ghost of the original Milly Masters or someone with vague similarity to Milly Masters. The fog is used here as the veil that morphs people and situations in the minds of people assimilating the situations they see and perceive before them. Virginia Woolf leaves us with a riddle at the end of the story where we wonder whether we really had seen the ghost of Milly Masters or it was just a trick of the mind. Note that this is Virginia Woolf’s specialty to introduce a vague character at the beginning of her story and make the reader guess who could be this mysterious character throughout the story. However, an astute reader realizes that the woman could only be Milly Masters because of the initials M.M. on the suitcase.
The Squire is a passionate and hot-tempered man, used to acts of barbarity. It seems that the frustration of his times, the tremendous blood he has spilled of the pheasants because of his hunting, as well as a sense of his deranged and unsound mind, made him come back home to let his dogs, three hounds maul his sisters’ little yellow cocker spaniel. The attack on the gentle and feeble cocker spaniel was a hidden message that the Squire would attack his sisters and probably kill them, like his whole way of life was being destroyed. This same Squire was a man who boasted about his illicit relationships with all and sundry. It is also indicative that he too was a sexist and looked down upon women he considered fit enough to attack and kill.
Two women are found knitting here in this story, Milly Masters and Antonia. Antonia is knitting because women in her state of life are relegated to doing such activities. Masters is stitching out of necessity. She is sewing a rough woolen jersey for her son, but she does not like the job. This indicates that she, too, possessed the Squire’s passionate temperament. Masters helps or rather supervises Wing, the gamekeeper, as he deposits the dead pheasants in the game larder. The pheasants here depict several things:
- The peasants whom the landowners have abused for generations.
- The blood spilled to feed literally and metaphorically the landed class’s passion and baser instincts.
- The rich blood of generations gone by.
- Blood that was to be spilled in a few moments, that of Rashleigh.
Antonia and Rashleigh eat stuffed pheasants while their brother, the Squire, hunts. They throw the carcass of their meal to the cocker spaniel, which is nothing but bones. They are cruel women who like to have their way, especially Miss Antonia, who otherwise appears to be a calmer person than her elder sister. The women are fussy and mean with their butler and footman. They are old but eat lavishly and after that drink wine and sherry liberally and in excess. They love to gossip about things of the past. Antonia also likes to ruminate on matters even much before her time, the time when:
- Her forefathers were conquering lands.
- Were freebooters: pirates, or lawless adventurers.
- Were voyagers or grand sailors.
- Had sacks of emeralds in their possession.
- Taking captives, especially young virgins, and probably even violating them.
The very fact that Miss Antonia finds all this worthy of being contemplated upon points to her barbarity, which is quite evident, and the absolute viciousness of her family’s past. Incidentally, the Rashleighs of Fowey and Menabilly were powerful merchants during the reigns of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. Rashleigh is a surname of a prominent family from Devon and Cornwall in England. They settled at the estate of Rashleigh in the parish of Wembworthy, Devon, sometime in the early 14th century.
Like Milly Masters, Miss Antonia keeps uttering the sound ‘chk’, which seems to be a family phrase. This could also mean that they used to call the pheasants in this manner. Or the exclamations of Masters and Antonia uttering the sound ‘chk’ could have been a sort of deviation from the main plot, showing yet again the deeper realms of a person’s consciousness that even indicates the bare human psyche, even the exclamatory phrases that a human being makes. Antonia and Rashleigh drink in excess on the day the Squire attacks the eldest sister. It was probably the excess alcohol in her system that compounded the whole attack and resulted in her death. As noted earlier, ‘The Shooting Party’ was first published in Harper’s Bazaar in New York and London in 1938 and was later reprinted in ‘A Haunted House’ published by the Hogarth Press in 1944. The fact that the story was later published in a ghost story book indicates a certain element of the supernatural in this story but not in the usual manner of other ghost or horror stories.
The short story titled ‘The Shooting Party’ ends with a question in the reader’s mind: Was the woman on the train Milly Masters or not? We are left puzzled and floating in the realm of Virginia Woolf’s several realms or ethers of consciousness, wondering about the truth; the truth of an old family crumbling or already crumbled to nothing and now residing only in our memories. Not precisely in definite memories of specific people, but like in the memories of the dead, which are compared to the will-o’-the-wisp that form over the graves of the deceased. Will-o’-the-wisp are the phosphorescent light seen hovering or floating at night on marshy ground, thought to result from the combustion of natural gases. This is the kind of memory that lasts after the reality is buried and gone, with no one left to remember in the realm of reality. The ghost of Milly Masters’s eyes like pebbles seems to be like these will-o’-the-wisp, telling everyone about past memories in a world that is no longer her reality.
I enjoyed reading and analyzing this short story by British writer Virginia Woolf. I have reviewed another story of hers titled ‘The Legacy’, a much simpler short story; you can check it out here. I have a whole selection of her short stories and other writings in my office-cum-writing hut, which I hope to review for you. If you want to know a little more about my life in books and with books, you can check out my memoir Scenes of a Reclusive Writer & Reader of Mumbai here. I am a bookish phoenix living with 32,000 books! I hope to read and analyze more of Virginia Woolf’s works soon.
If you are interested in book reviews, book analysis, short story analysis, poems, essays, essay analysis, and other bookish content, you can check out my blog insaneowl.com. If you are interested in purchasing my books, you can check out my blog’s products page. There is a lot of good stuff to buy. Happy reading to you always!
Copyright © 2021 Fiza Pathan