Rhetorical Analysis: “Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid”

     In her 1940 essay, “Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid,” Virginia Woolf contends that women must wage a mental war of ideas against the WWII-era dominant thought for the purposes of securing peace. She reasons that peace comes not from disarmament, but from liberating man “from the machine,” which meant both the physical machines of war (e.g. planes, tanks) and from their psychological counterparts (e.g. the training for and glorification of war). In this pathos-based essay, she uses the formatting of paragraphs, juxtaposition, and evocative imagery to create a unified and fluid case for her position.

     Rather than surmising the preceding points in the conclusive sentence of each paragraph, she answers an implicit question originally posed in the paragraph’s introductory sentence. This keeps each paragraph transitioning smoothly onto the next while still advancing her position. This can be recognized in nearly all of her paragraphs, such as in the second one: she opens the paragraph by describing that both Englishmen and German men are fighting one another – something that is undoubtedly problematic. What is to be done about this? She answers this in the paragraph’s conclusion, suggesting that women can create ideas that solve this problem. Continuing her train of thought, she opens her third paragraph by suggesting that ideas, in order to be effective, need to be actionable. By the close of this paragraph, she implies that actionable ideas are ones that run contrary to dominant thought. Sometimes this occurs in unexpected ways, such as in paragraph four where she begins by describing dominant thought as “fast and furious.” If one is to follow the paragraph in a linear fashion, the dominant thought suggests that freedom can only be acquired when Hitler, and his manifestation as aggression and power-lust, is destroyed. The exact line reads, “destroy that, and you will be free.” More subtly, this line can be understood independent of the preceding sentences – the ones that contextualize it as describing the dominant thought. Read independently, it answers the implicit question posed in the introduction of the paragraph: what should be done about the dominant thought? It should be destroyed, answers the concluding sentence, for freedom can be secured as a result. By employing a question-answer model to the formatting of her paragraphs, she is able to smoothly transition the reader while still advancing her position.

     To quickly elicit a clear understanding from her readers, Woolf juxtapositions archetypes and then illustrates relationships between them. This can immediately be noted by the title of her essay, “Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid.” The archetype of peace, representing an unburdened calmness, is used with an air raid, representing hysteria and crippling fear. By beginning with archetypes, she draws on a common understanding to which no further elaboration is needed. This results in less time that the reader needs to understand her argument and more time that Woolf can spend advancing her position. Capitalizing on the initial intrigue created by the juxtaposition, she argues for why the creation of peace, particularly through ideas, is necessary for combating air raids. Later on in her essay, she contrasted the idea of man and of machine. Immediately in this context, the idea of man is associated with an emotional, empathetic lighting, while the idea of machine is associated with a senseless, cold lighting. The relationship she then illustrates is that man is too connected to machine and that this relationship needs to be broken for peace to ensue. One of her more powerful juxtapositions is that of the slave and of Hitler, or the slaver, in which she once more capitalizes upon the initial disagreement of these archetypes. She uses intrigue to illustrate her point: contrary to expectation, the slave is actually enslaved, and it is this enslavement that compels them to enslave others. She then uses this to contend that only be liberating the slaver can peace, or freedom from the slaver, be brought about. The usage of archetypes and juxtaposition produces a fluidity to her arguments – less time is spent clarifying intended meanings and more time is spent on presentation.

     The most prominent feature of Woolf’s writing is the usage of imagery to support the pathos of her essay. By using strong sensory language, she evokes a strong emotional connection in the reader. Rather than mundanely narrating the events of an air raid, she describes the “zoom of the hornet” or the “drone of the planes.” She goes so far as to relate them to other sensory experiences, such as the “sawing of a branch overhead.” It is in this fashion that the reader is made partial to the sensory and experiential facts, but this is not the only way that Woolf achieves this end. She also uses verbs to deliberately create motion within her writings: rather than stating that war-ideology motivates the airman, she described the young airman as being “whirled up into the sky” by it. This makes the piece more intimate for the reader. In a similar sense, she uses onomatopoeia to show rather than to tell. She describes the gun, for example, as going “pop pop pop.” These two techniques are used to complement the dominant use of imagery, which is the creation of an experience within the reader. Much in the same way that films bombard are senses, so too does Woolf attempt to create similarly consistent and arresting visuals. In her eighth paragraph, she describes the sounds of war-planes, the sight of search-lights, and the anticipation of a bombing. Far from merely re-stating the anticipation itself, she purposely delays the resolution of her description by counting out the seconds that pass, “One, two, three, four,” and then finally relieving the tension: “the seconds pass. The bomb did not fall.” In this sense, even the feelings of fear and anticipation are deliberately re-created through her language and the delay of her description’s resolution. The entire essay is devised as a moving, visual scene, and it is this intimate nature that affords her essay such a compelling and natural rhythm.

     An analysis of Woolf’s essay demonstrates how the thoughtful usage of paragraph formatting, juxtaposition, and imagery can be used to create a moving, unified piece of writing. The arguments of the essayist are able to be advanced far more easily when one begins from a position of common understanding, or when one is not needlessly repeating past details. Rather, it tactfully assumes the focus of the reader and uses imagery to usher them along to the positions that are at the heart of the essay. This results in a more enjoyable reading experience and better serves the purpose of the essayist.


Woolf, Virginia. The Death of the Moth, and other essays. University of Adelaide. Web. 30 Dec. 2015.


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