Sunday, September 26, 2010

To the Treatment of Character (To the Lighthouse)

Initially, I found it a bit disconcerting that Mark Hussey’s introduction to Woolf’s To the Lighthouse is primarily concerned with the juxtapositions of the novel and Woolf’s biographical accounts.  However disconcerting this may have been for me at first, Hussey does justify his (and VW’s, in part) intentions:  “To the Lighthouse deals with the experience of time and the function of memory, drawing on Woolf’s own family history to model the recent history of her culture.  Through that narrative, Woolf criticizes the ideology of the late Victorian world in which she grew up and that seemed to many at the time to have been shattered by the First World War” (Hussey xxxv).  I suppose I would have rather had an introduction to the text that contained a more narrow focus, namely, that of the text itself stripped of an external accoutrement. 

And yet, Hussey’s introduction allows us to pull fragments from the auto(biographical) accounts of Woolf’s life we’ve read up to this point.  Have we not heard from Woolf herself of her father’s tyranny in some regards?  Do we not now know how beautiful Julia Stephens was, and how charitable her actions were?  Indeed, it is information such as this that we find in such writing as “A Sketch of the Past.”  If Woolf, as Hussey suggests, is drawing from her past in order to create, then the text itself of To the Lighthouse seems to answer (rather blaringly) her notions of fiction in “Modern Fiction” as well as the charges levied against her by Arnold Bennett, in which Bennett stated, “The foundation of good fiction is character-creating and nothing else,” charges she once also answered in her essay, “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown,” by relaying that real characters are not the same as lifelike (Woolf VWR 200). 
This line of thinking poses the question:  If Woolf dredged the waters of her past in order to create her characters, then do these characters presented to us in To the Lighthouse suffer from the absence of realism/the mimesis of life outside the fictional text?

I think they do not suffer; and yet, there are moments in the novel in which I believe we catch a glimpse of a character operating exceedingly above what we would tend to render lifelike, or even real.

The most prominent of these moments occurs within Part I of Woolf’s novel, in what could be called chapter or section VII.  We have just wrapped up section VI, in which Mrs. Ramsay contemplates her husband’s nature, a contemplation that lends itself more to quiet complacency rather than a true (but internal) upheaval against his ways.  As we move into section VII, we find that their youngest child, James, hates his father (Woolf TTL 40).  While this may or may not be what goes against the grain of lifelike, especially considering that we’ve no knowledge of any transactions really occurring between father and son, what is alarming is the list of reasons for James’s hatred toward his father: 

“[James] hated [his father] for the exaltation and sublimity of his gestures; for the magnificence of his head; for his exactingness and egotism…but most of all he hated the twang and twitter of his father’s emotion which, vibrating around them, disturbed the perfect simplicity and good sense of his relations with his mother…Nothing would make Mr. Ramsay move on.  There he stood, demanding sympathy” (Woolf TTL 40).

Although Woolf sets James up as a character through the eyes of his mother, by her repeating the sentiment that James is sensitive (“(none of her children was as sensitive as he was), her son James”), it is still extremely difficult to grasp that a child, especially one young enough to still have his mother reading to him, could carry on a line of thought with such maturity (Woolf TTL 45).  For me, this passage troubles the concepts/ideas of character Woolf presents in her essays on writing, mainly in “Modern Fiction” and “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown.”  As I continue reading the novel, it will be interesting for me to discover whether this particular passage still lends itself to the inconsistency it’s now presenting, or whether I will truly be able to understand that lifelike, concerning this passage, is not Woolf’s goal, but rather her goal is to showcase another character through a character, offering us the realism and honesty we can sometimes only receive through a child seemingly yet unmarred by social constraints. 

Hussey, Mark.  Introduction.  To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf.  Orlando, FL:  Harcourt, Inc., 2005.  xxxv-lxviii.  Print.

Woolf, Virginia.  “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown.”  The Virginia Woolf Reader.  Ed. Mitchell A. Leaska.  San Diego:  Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc.  1984.  192-212.  Print. 

Woolf, Virginia.  “Modern Fiction.”  The Virginia Woolf Reader.  Ed. Mitchell A. Leaska.  San Diego:  Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc.  1984.  283-291.  Print. 

Woolf, Virginia.  To the Lighthouse.  Ed. Mark Hussey.  Orlando, FL:  Harcourt, Inc., 2005.  Print. 

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Life is a Party (Mrs. Dalloway)

For whatever reason(s), I have always been under the impression that Mrs. Dalloway kills herself (and I thought she did this because her party was a failure).  I can’t recall now why I thought this was how the novel ends, though now that I’ve finished the novel, I must say that I was shocked that this does not happen. 

It seems a much more fitting “punishment” that Mrs. Dalloway ends up regretting her choices in life, though I do think much more of her at the end of the novel when I realized (through Peter Walsh’s observations) that she returns to the party, that she returns to the area where Peter is waiting. 

For up until that moment, I was expecting her to continue to push herself away from passion.  I suppose, seeing how she and Septimus Warren Smith are eerie doubles in a sense, that after hearing of his suicide, she would follow suit.  However, looking back across the day that the novel encompasses, I realize that Mrs. Dalloway has had her share of personal moments, moments in which we, as the readers, are able to catch a glimpse of her not as a high society wife aiming for success, but as a woman, a woman with desires (beyond the trivial), with a deep well of memories that spring forth, creating a well-rounded portrait of a life underneath the glitz of society.

I think the first moment I realized this about Mrs. Dalloway was when she ruminates upon her relationship with Sally Seton, confessing that her feelings toward Sally extended beyond Platonic (Woolf 31-35).  Mrs. Dalloway’s thoughts come rushing up to us, almost violently—her thoughts of Sally are filled with a fervor that is not included when she thinks of Richard (though it can be said there is a residue of this vehemence when she thinks of Peter).  Mrs. Dalloway’s musings offer that “she did undoubtedly then feel what men felt.  Only for a moment; but it was enough” (Woolf 31).  However, Mrs. Dalloway’s married life contradicts these moments, and as her thoughts continue to circle, she begins to think of Richard, not with a eagerness, but with the dull thud of monotony, much like his routine walk up the stairs in his socks (Woolf 31). 

Yet this leads her to further consider the concept of love:  “But this question of love…this falling in love with women.  Take Sally Seton…Had not that, after all, been love” (Woolf 32).  Mrs. Dalloway plunges headlong into the past, musing on Sally’s wild ramblings, her vivacity, grace, and her power over her (Woolf 32-34).  And this musing reaches its pinnacle:  “Then came the most exquisite moment of her whole life passing a stone urn with flowers in it.  Sally stopped; picked a flower; kissed her on the lips.  The whole world might have turned upside down” (Woolf 35).  However blissful, the moment is interrupted by Peter, and it is so terribly sad that she rejects his proposal, especially after we find out that Sally is irrevocably happily married (in the end) and Peter, as one would expect, is waiting diligently for Mrs. Dalloway to return just so he can speak with her.

I think it’s important that Mrs. Dalloway contains reflecting on the past.  For Mrs. Dalloway, I feel that her past recollections, her slipping easily between the past and the present, shows that she is a character who is life-like (real).  It also shows that she, deep down, knows that it is in her past that she is happy.  (She even admits that she is unhappy in her present.)  I also think that having various characters comment on how Peter has remained virtually unchanged is important.  To me, this demonstrates a redemptive quality in the novel, that after Mrs. Dalloway has her moment of epiphany after she hears of Septimus’s suicide, and she realizes that what truly matters is what we feel, what we are, our souls, that perhaps there is a salvation to be had, which is why she returns to the party, why she returns to Peter in the end.  Although the novel ends at this point, we are left to wonder, to muse ourselves over the characters’ pasts, to question whether or not Mrs. Dalloway has really come to terms with her life as she’s made it.  

I like thinking of the novel in this way:  that Woolf left the novel open-ended, so that we, as readers, adopt that same train of thought her characters have in the novel, and not only do we begin to think about our own lives, but we begin to ponder the past in terms of her characters, and we begin to draw up questions as to what happens now that the text has drawn to a close.  Now that I’ve read Mrs. Dalloway, it’s difficult for me to imagine that I’ll ever stop thinking about Mrs. Dalloway and her obedience to social codes, her personal wars, the ways in which she chose to set her life up as if it, too, were a party she could meticulously plan out.  Indeed, she has treated her life this way it seems to me, right down to her guest list, inviting only those who she wanted to attend (her refusal to go see Sally, her rejecting Peter, etc.).  

And now that Mrs. Dalloway has caused me to listen for the clock striking, to see the leaden circles dissolving in the air, I wonder why it is that even today, we adhere to these constructs (society) instead of following what matters most.  I suppose this kind of reaction only further denotes Woolf's timelessness (strange, for someone so concerned with time), and further renounces Bennett's claim that the Modernists had no ability to create true-to-life characters (see previous post for more information on Mr. Bennett/character).  

Woolf, Virginia.  Mrs. Dalloway.  Ed. Mark Hussey and 
Bonnie Kime Scott.  Orlando, FL: Harcourt, Inc.  2005.  Print.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

And What of Character? "Modern Fiction" v. "Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown"

While reading Woolf’s essay, “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown,” a wave of déjà vu washed over me, and much like a magnet, pulled me back to another of Woolf’s essays, “Modern Fiction.”  The similarities between her two essays are striking.  In both, she references the Edwardian writers, Wells, Bennett, and Galsworthy.  She also discusses the modern novel in both (referencing what she calls the Georgian writers, such as E.M. Forster and James Joyce, herself to be counted among the lot); however, while it may appear at first glance that Woolf is beating the proverbial dead horse, in “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown,” she goes into further detail about creative writing, revealing personal insights to her own creation processes that are as much titillating as they are critical to beginning to understand how Woolf’s characters operate within her works, showcasing any variety of human life, and uncovering the recesses of human nature.

In “Modern Fiction,” Woolf, as we’ve discussed in class, hails the Edwardian writers as materialists, as she sees their novels to be filled with the details of trivialities rather than consumed by what it means to be human.  Indeed, in this essay, Woolf writes, “It is because [the Edwardian writers] are concerned with not the spirit but the body that they have disappointed us…They write of unimportant things…They spend immense skill and immense industry making the trivial and the transitory appear the true and the enduring” (Woolf “Modern Fiction” 285-286).  Again, in “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown,” Woolf addresses these writers, these materialists (a literal address to Arnold Bennett as her essay is a response to his own article declaring the Georgian writers null and void when it comes to their character creations, and the issues arising for her generation as they read the Edwardians’ novels, namely, that Edwardian novels leave Woolf with “a feeling of incompleteness and dissatisfaction” (Woolf “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown” 201). 

Woolf goes on to compare the Edwardian novelists with another previous generation, one that included Jane Austen, saying that the books from that particular time were “self-contained,” meaning that these novels are complete in all regards, that writers such as Austen “were interested in things in themselves; in character, in itself; in the book in itself” (Woolf “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown” 201).  Moving back to the Edwardians, Woolf notes that their novels are troubling due to the Edwardians lack of interest “in character in itself; or in the book in itself.  They were interested in something outside.  Their books…were incomplete as books” (Woolf “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown” 202). 

As Woolf’s essay, as previously mentioned, is a response to Mr. Bennett’s claims about the Georgian writers, Woolf attempts to refute Bennett’s argument that the Georgian writers “‘are unable to create characters that are real, true, and convincing,’” as well as his claim, “‘The foundation of good fiction is character-creating and nothing else” (Woolf “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown” 192-193).  Woolf counters Bennett with philosophy, as well as human nature, specifically how each individual perceives the world around him/her:  “[Bennett] says that it is only if the characters are real that the novel has any chance of surviving.  Otherwise, die it must.  But, I ask myself, what is reality?  And who are the judges of reality?  A character may be real to Mr. Bennett and quiet unreal to me…There is nothing that people differ about more that the reality of characters” (Woolf “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown” 200).  For it seems that what Woolf deems as reality, as she points out in “Modern Fiction,” can also reside within the realm of the human mind and spirit:  “Look within…Examine for a moment an ordinary mind on an ordinary day.  The mind receives a myriad impressions…If a writer were a free man and not a slave, if he could write what he chose, not what he must, if he could base his work upon his own feeling and not upon convention, there would be no plot, no comedy, [etc.]…Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; but a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end” (Woolf “Modern Fiction” 287-288). 

What I believe Woolf is attempting to articulate in these specific passages is that within the novels of such writers as Bennett, who primarily focus their energies on detailing a house rather than a human soul, “reality” is bent to mirror a tedious construction rather than the opalescent existence of which we are much more familiar, that being the way our minds operate at multiple levels simultaneously, and our never knowing which way any event will unfold, our often futile attempts at controlling fate, and our shadowy recollections of our pasts.  To capture these very real and much more true to life episodes of the human mind/spirit seems to me a triumph of character-creating, rather than the reversal. 

Woolf, Virginia.  “Modern Fiction.”  The Virginia Woolf Reader.  Ed. Mitchell A. Leaska.  San Diego: 
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1984.  283-291.  Print. 

--.  “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown.”  The Virginia Woolf Reader.  Ed. Mitchell A. Leaska.  San Diego: 
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1984.  192-212.  Print. 

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Critical Reading Response #1

“Pursuing ‘It’ through ‘Kew Gardens’”—Critical Article by Edward L Bishop*

Edward Bishop’s article, “Pursuing ‘It’ through ‘Kew Gardens,’” forces us (who have read “Kew Gardens”) to remember what Bishop calls “the atmosphere of the garden” (Bishop 109).  In effect, Bishop articulates what is so difficult to pinpoint in Virginia Woolf’s short story.  While one of the couples in the story explicitly discusses “It,” Bishop offers two definitions for what “it” is:  “the essence of the natural and the human world of the garden,” and “the ‘yellow and green atmosphere’ that is both ethos and ambience of the garden” (Bishop 109, 115).  Our difficulty as readers navigating “Kew Gardens” as critics rests in the fact that Woolf’s narrative technique (as Bishop notes, one that she will continue to expand upon, tighten, and employ) “engages the reader with something as nebulous as an ‘atmosphere’” (Bishop 110).  Thus, the reader, through the act of reading Woolf’s carefully constructed language, slips down into the story itself, experiences the sensations developed under Woolf’s pen, and drifts into and among Woolf’s words in such a way that he/she, too, strolls through Kew Gardens, whether as a human eavesdropping on (sometimes intimate) conversations, or as a snail struggling to maneuver through a flower bed.  While Bishop’s article fuses the story with an understanding of Woolf’s “it,” his article also delineates what is so crucial to Woolf’s writings at large, the “It,” if you will, of Woolf’s works:  “The value of [Woolf’s] fiction derives less from the specific insights it imparts (one finds it difficult to remember the particulars of her works) than from the fact that the experience of reading initiates, in the sensitive reader, a growth of perception” (Bishop 115-116).  Thus, Bishop’s article ultimately works to guide the reader through “Kew Gardens” as well as to help the reader approach additional writings by Woolf. 

*Bishop, Edward.  "Pursuing 'It' through 'Kew Gardens.'"  Studies in Short Fiction 19.3 (1982): 269-275.**

**I used a reprinted copy of this article from another source, but since I only have the copied version, I have no way to properly document/cite it.  The text in both copies, however, remains the same. 

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Time in "Kew Gardens"

Virginia Woolf’s “Kew Gardens” (VWR 160-167) is a short work of fiction that raises harrowing questions about time, space, and how the vast expanses of both (in terms of life) are pock marked by trivialities, beginning with the  threads that link back to Woolf’s works we have read thus far in our course (“A Sketch of the Past” and “The Mark on the Wall”).  In “Kew Gardens” we see distinct parallels among the works:  time (real, linear, memory, non-linear); Woolf’s incorporation of the snail; interpersonal relationships; being somewhere physically that places one somewhere else mentally.  This is list by no means exhaustive, I’m sure; however, they are simply what I’ve initially noticed. 

In addition, the garden and its inhabitants also arises as a standing motif.  In this, I see Woolf playing with the names of flowers, particularly in “Kew Gardens.”  For example, in the first sentence, Woolf writes, “From the oval-shaped flower-bed there rose perhaps a hundred stalks…,” with a play on the word “rose” as a verb (also the name of a flower) (VW, VWR 161).  Similarly, as Simon ruminates upon his memory (dredged up from his physically being in the garden), he recalls his love, Lily, the play here, of course, being on Lily’s name, a proper noun for both woman and flower (VW, VWR 162). 

As Simon and his wife Eleanor exchange memories triggered by being at Kew Gardens, there occurs a passage in which Eleanor’s retort encapsulates (and perhaps foreshadows the remainder of our glimpses of other people in the story) time, the living, the lived, and the will be living:  “’Doesn’t one always think of the past, in a garden with men and women lying under the trees?  Aren’t they one’s past, all that remains of it, those men and women, those ghosts lying under the trees,…one’s happiness, one’s reality?’” (VW, VWR 162).  I believe that this particular passage is key to our understanding the way in which Woolf is attempting to explain/articulate how we see time through her use of a fictional narrative.  For Eleanor, looking upon younger men and women reminds her of her past (a past she seems to think Simon, or anyone, could relate to).  To look upon these “ghosts” is to look upon oneself as one once existed.  Here, Woolf presents time and memory as intertwined; when we see someone else doing something we once then, we are helplessly drawn back into our own pasts. 

The next set of people in the story present us with a similar sense of time and memory, although shown specifically through the dialogue of the old man who waxes on about his past in such a way that we’re left to believe he is quite senile.  Once the old man sees a woman’s dark dress, he seems to be mentally transported to the era of the Great War, and is perhaps reminded of widows—“Women in black”—the catalyst here, of course, being the dark color of the woman’s dress (VW, VWR 164).  As the dress seemingly signifies war for the old man, returning him to his past, we are possibly being given a clue by Woolf of such an occurrence:  “Here [the old man] seemed to have caught sight of a woman’s dress in the distance, which in the shade looked a purple black” (VW, VWR 164).  After Eleanor’s “ghosts,” and hearing the old man speak of “spirits,” it is difficult not to equate the word “shade” with the realm of the supernatural or, in this instance, the otherworldly (operating on a plane existing outside of our current stretch of time—here, memories/past). 

Aside from the other two couples featured in the story, Woolf also includes animal life.  In the passage on 165, Woolf writes of the snail, “The snail had now considered every possible method of reaching his goal without going round the dead leaf or climbing over it.  Let alone the effort needed for climbing a leaf, he was doubtful whether the thin texture which vibrated with such an alarming crackle when touched even by the tips of his horns would bear his weight; and this determined him finally to creep beneath it” (VW, VWR 165).  As I mentioned in our last class meeting, I feel particularly drawn to this passage, for I see it as another way to Woolf to describe/articulate time, and I want to use this blog entry to further develop this idea.

While the snail is not human, Woolf gives him the human quality of being able to have doubt and reasoning skills.  I think this is important because perhaps she is trying to convey a larger message here, one that would equate the snail’s dilemma with the dead leaf to our dilemma in understanding time.  Time, much like the dead leaf, seems extremely frail; yet, we seem to always be trying to test whether or not its frailty can withstand our weight.  To think about time is an enormous and laborious task—it is draining and full of such an effort that we cannot think about its full scope for very long without beginning to feel doubt and uncertainty.  Therefore, although we may ponder about its massive scope, we eventually decide (or rather succumb) to simply lying beneath its over-arching structure.  Simply put, there is nothing more we can do (much like the snail in this passage).  And yet, it seems that once we realize this, along comes something (“He had just inserted his head in the opening…when two people came past outside on the turf” (VW, VWR 165)) that causes us to momentarily forget our realization, so that later, we will once again ponder time, and perhaps we will, too, send out our feelers to test its durability.