Date of Graduation

Spring 2020


Master of Arts in Religious Studies


Religious Studies

Committee Chair

Leslie Baynes


Commentators on the work of modernist author Virginia Woolf have frequently remarked upon the “religious” and “mystical” aspects that appear throughout Woolf’s oeuvre, but have found it difficult to reconcile these aspects of Woolf’s work with her self-expressed atheistic beliefs. For those who have sought to resolve the tension between the “religious” and “mystical” features of Woolf’s work and Woolf’s (lack of) personal religious beliefs, the work of American psychologist and philosopher William James has proven to be a starting point for investigations into selections of Woolf’s oeuvre that seem to exhibit “religious” and “mystical” characteristics. There continues to exist, however, a dearth of scholarly literature pertaining to the practical application of James’s views on religion and mysticism to a careful reading of Woolf’s work. As such, this thesis illustrates not only that James’s work on religion and mysticism enables Woolf and her oeuvre to be examined with reference to notions of the “religious” and “mystical,” but that reading selections from Woolf’s novel To the Lighthouse and from her autobiographical essay “A Sketch of the Past” through the lens of James’s conceptions of religion and mysticism in The Varieties of Religious Experience and “A Suggestion About Mysticism” allows one to see the strong correspondence between the “religious” and “mystical” features that appear in Woolf’s work and the characteristics of religion and mysticism described by James. A sense of the sacred persists in the work of the atheistic Woolf, but the religious and mystical aspects present in To the Lighthouse and “A Sketch of the Past” are found not in the sacrality of institutional or organized religious beliefs and practices but in the ordinary world of social community and everyday experience.


atheism, William James, literature, literature and religion, modernism, mystical experience, mysticism, religion, religious experience, Virginia Woolf

Subject Categories

European History | History of Religion | Literature in English, British Isles | Religious Thought, Theology and Philosophy of Religion


© Zachary J. Beck

Open Access