literary criticism

Use and Abuse of Power in the Writings of Virginia Woolf

Three GuineasWhilst answering a letter received from a (unidentified) gentleman asking for her opinion on how war might be prevented, in her essay, Three Guineas, Woolf launches into a historically rich vindictive questioning not only the sense of asking her such a question, for unlike the gentleman she had been denied access the education that would have allowed her to answer him, but also how such inequality had come about.

Whilst in full flow in answering the latter point, she quotes from Gray’s Ode : ‘what is grandeur, what is power? – what the bright reward we gain?’

Gain indeed; power is what people want and in her writings Woolf not only demonstrates this but she also deals with some of the ways and reasons it occurs.

For example, in her memoirs, Moments of Being, Woolf recalls how when just eighteen years of age and after a long evening of being dragged about London to a series of gala parties and strategically important social events, her step-brother had crept into her bedroom and ‘flung’ himself on her bed, taking her ‘in his arms’ as a ‘lover’. If by power we mean that one person possesses a sense of dominion over another, then certainly with such behaviour her step-brother (older and presumably wiser) had abused his power although what he had wished to gain through it, Woolf does not conjecture. That she thought it an abuse of power is clear enough however for the next few sentences note that his behaviour would not have been acceptable to the ‘old ladies’ of ‘Kensington and Belgravia’.

In her novel, To The Lighthouse, Woolf investigates the power struggle between a married couple, Mr and Mrs Ramsay – which through those memoirs Moments of Being, we learn are created in the likeness of her own parents. Whilst Mr Ramsay wanders about pondering great things like the philosopher David Hume ‘enormously fat’ and ‘stuck in a bog’, his wife sat charitably knitting stockings for needy children. In conjunction with reading Woolf’s memoirs, we can conclude that she believed that in essence Mrs Ramsay had died young feeding her husband’s constantly flagging vanity. Is this an abuse of power in the sense of exercising dominion over another? Perhaps not – but we do know that at least Mrs Ramsay took pleasure in her ‘bright reward’ when exercising her power by refusing to tell Mr Ramsay that he had been right that it would rain tomorrow, she knew she had ‘triumphed again’.

In that same novel, Woolf also touches on wider social issues of use/abuse of power when Mr Ramsay ponders on whether the progress of civilisation depends on ‘great men’. He concludes it does not because the ‘greater good’ does depend on the existence of a ‘slave class’ (like the liftman in the Tube). Even whilst he himself finds this idea distasteful, he decides the best way to avoid dealing with it an upcoming lecture he is to present, is to ‘snub’ the ‘predominance’ of the arts – which only decorates human life and does not represent it. The reader cannot help but think such contemplation rather rich given the privilege Mr Ramsay himself enjoys with his summer house in the isles of Scotland complete with a bevy of servants and maids.

Unlike with her essays, in her fiction Woolf oddly refrains from abuse/abuse of narratorial/authorial power by pushing one view at the expense of another (as do many writers). Instead she maintains a gentle neutrality – presenting a story and letting it speak for itself – and at least in To The Lighthouse, Mrs Dalloway the narratorial/authorial voice never intrudes has it does in, for example, EM Forster’s Howards End. And even where we do hear the narratorial/authorial voice as for example in her novel, Orlando, both sides of the power struggles are evenly presented – not only does Orlando’s lover ‘Sasha the lost, Sasha the memory’ jilt him when he is a man (instead of the other way around), but as a woman Orlando sees both plusses and minuses of her new gender-based situation – although her new skirts are ‘plaguey’ around her heels, the stuff of which they are made is the ‘loveliest in the world’ as it shows off her skin to such ‘advantage’.

 In summary, in both her essays and fiction Woolf demonstrates that she is more than aware that power is what people want – Three Guineas deals extensively with this point in regards to how for so many generations men and the church have used the power of their money to deny women equal access to education. She deals with the sexual abuse perpetrated by step-brother in her memoirs and also the inevitable power battles inherent in a marriage. Interestingly unlike in her essays, in her fiction Woolf does not use her authorial voice to push an agenda, instead simply letting the story speak for itself.

literary criticism

The Impact of World War I on Modernist Writers

‘We have all had a tremendous jolt; . . . we are far more conscious of our condition than we were, and far less disposed to submit to it’ (Bernard Shaw).

According to Mr Lewis in his Cambridge Introduction to Modernism, it was said that when one certain intellectual was asked why he was not fighting to save civilization, he answered that he was the civilization for which men were fighting. Pompous as that might sound to 21st century ears, there is an element of truth in the comment and in Mrs Dalloway, Virginia Woolf explores this in some detail; civilization – or as Mr Shaw puts it, our ‘condition’ – as was known pre and post war was decidedly different – but whether there was anything worth saving – anything worth ‘submitting to’ in the words of Mr Shaw – from the earlier period was for the modernist writers, a point of conjecture.

Mrs DallowayThe novel is framed around its heroine, Clarissa Dalloway’s, day in London as she prepares for the party she is giving that evening. The novels develops around two seemingly unrelated plots – the shell shock and eventual suicide of Septimus, a veteran of the First World War and the fifty-two year old Clarissa’s social calendar, complete with significant reminiscences of jolly pre-war house parties when she was but eighteen years old – ‘hollyhocks, dahlias – all sorts of flowers swimming together with their heads cut off’ – the effect was extraordinary ‘coming in to dinner at sunset’ – then those glorious kisses of Sally Seton whilst ‘star-gazing’ and Clarissa had been ‘wearing pink gauze’ – ‘was that possible’?

Clarissa’s party was to be no less splendid than those pre-war parties – populated as it would be with all those characters from the past – the once young men and women who were now the ‘old guard’ – the very people that postwar society was holding responsible for the war. The two different plots in Mrs Dalloway do not come together until the very end of the novel when Clarissa hears of the suicide of Septimus, a man she had never known. It seems that this knowledge has prevented Clarissa from also committing suicide although why she would want to do that – so privileged she was such – is not completely clear. If, as she believed, her life was a failure then more had to be wrong than that she had not been invited along with her husband, Peter, to lunch with Lady Bruton that day.

According to Mr Lewis, Woolf called this novel a elegy – a ‘lament for the ‘dead’ – but was it a lament only those that had physically died like Septimus, as the result of the war or was it also a lament for the death of the pre-war civilisation of which, according to her own memoirs in Moments of Being, Woolf too had been a privileged member?Mrs Dalloway

In his landmark poem, The Waste Land, T.S. Eliot also addresses the trajectory of civilizsation but seems to take a different tact than Woolf. The civilisation he appears to favour is that of the classical world of ancient Greece along with lofty personages like Tiresias – who as punishment from the goddess Hera, had witnessed life as both a man and a woman. In his notes to the poem, Eliot admits that although not a character per se, Tiresias is the ‘most important personage’ in the poem. But is this solely because Tiresias is able to provide a unisex description of the sad love tryst in The Fire Sermon between the ‘bored and tired typist’ and her ‘young man carbuncular’?

I think not. I would suggest that is only part of the picture Eliot paints. Another part of that picture is rather like that presented by Woolf in Mrs Dalloway – questioning whether perseveration of pre-war civilisation – however defined – was really worth all that civilisation has paid for it. Eliot suggests that as was the case with the ancient Battle Mylae in 260 BC when Carthage was lost, the ‘corpses’ that had ‘begun to sprout’ as the result of the First World War is an equally extortionate price and worse, in What the Thunder Said we learn from the poem’s speaker that regardless of that extortionate price already paid, the break with the past is firm and complete anyway – the ‘lands’ will be ‘unable to be set in order’ because ‘London bridge is falling down’. All that is left to do now is to gather up those ‘fragments’ from the past and ‘shore’ them up ‘against my ruins.’

In summary, as Mr Shaw points out the First War World gave everyone a tremendous jolt and made them more than aware of their ‘condition’ – the reality of their civilisation – and the question of whether the price paid for trying to preserve had been too high. Woolf seems to suggest that her civilisation was worth preserving  at any price;  certainly Clarissa and her friends in Mrs Dalloway were not about to throw away the prestige and power they had accumulated over the years. The suicide of Septimus might have dampened the mood of Clarissa’s party but at the end of the novel we have been given no reason to expect that next year Clarissa would not be giving the same party all over again. In The Waste Land, Eliot seems to be suggesting that the pre-war civilisation had deeper roots than those recognised in Mrs Dalloway and that whilst it might be a good deal harder to dig out those roots, it was well worth doing.

literary criticism

The Cultural Construction of ‘Woman’ throughout history in Western Art & Literature

chasityIn her groundbreaking work, The Second Sex (1949), Simone de Beauvoir argues that contrary to popular belief, femininity, or what it means to be a woman, is not organically or metaphysically predetermined, but culturally determined. Is ‘woman’ a construct? Beauvoir most certainly argued yes and I have to agree, at least in the sense that the literature and art of Western civilization provides much to support her allegation.

For example, in her essay Poses and Passions, Zirka Filipczak reminds us that the poses adopted by men and women in the artwork of the English Renaissance are strategically quite different – whilst men are represented as active (holding a sword, perhaps) and intelligent (hands on a stack of books, for example), women either sit modestly silent, their empty hands crossed demurely across their girdles or, in exceptional circumstances, they hold a bible. Ms Filipczak suggests such poses were sociality established in order to demonstrate those qualities which were most highly prized in each of the respective sexes; there is much to support this too.

For example, during the English Renaissance chastity was the most important virtue in women. Certainly one legitimate reason for this was that men needed to be certain that the sons borne by their wives were actually their rightful heirs. But another important reason was as demonstrated in Ben Jonson’s comedy, Volpone, with the character Corvino – society rains shame upon a man who is cuckolded and hence a man must take every precaution to ensure such a disaster does not happen.

In her novel, Orlando, Virginia Woolf underlines the social determinations of virtues such as chastity when Orlando, her hero turned heroine remembers how ‘as a young man’ she had ‘insisted’ that women should not only be ‘obedient’, ‘scented’, and ‘exquisitely appareled’ but also ‘chaste’. Orlando reflects that this means that now he is a she – I shall now have to ‘pay’ in my ‘own person’ for such desires for certainly now she realises that women by nature are none of these things. But as T.S. Eliot makes clear in his poem The Waste Land, at least in the early 20th century things had not changed much when in the section, ‘The Fire Sermon’, the ‘bored and tired’ typist who casually has sex with ‘her young man carbuncular’ is, through allusion to a poem by Oliver Goldsmith, compared to an 18th century woman, who has likewise ‘stooped to folly’. But the 18th century hides her ‘shame’ fro ‘ev’ry eye’ instead of having audacity, as does the 20th century woman, to ‘pace about her room’ and ‘put a record on the gramophone’.

Another important myth propagated by men (they were, after all, almost inevitably the ones doing the painting and writing) was that women are dependent upon and inferior to them. They did not have to reach any further than the Bible for support of this position. As Woolf made clear in her essay A Room of One’s Own, that when resurrecting ‘the dead poet who was Shakespeare’s sister’, one had to look past ‘Milton’s bogey’ and his colourful depiction of man’s fall from the Garden of Eden all because of one woman named Eve. As with the portrait poses, these myths (if one should choose, as I might, to see the Bible as such) force stereotyped roles upon women and if the women fail to conform to these culturally ‘accepted’ standards then all will be lost.

This is amply demonstrated in Kyd’s Renaissance drama, The Spanish Tragedy, when Bel-Imperia dared to love Antonio and not Belthazar as mandated by her brother and father, all hell broke loose; everyone (except her father – no doubt because he was the king) died as the result. The Duchess of Malfi in Webster’s play of the same name provides another example – not only did the duchess (now a widow) marry of her own choosing but she also neglected to preserve her chastity in the eyes of society (she was commonly known as a ‘strumpet’). This gave her brother, Ferdinand, added ammunition when he determined to proceed with her murder.

In the 18th century, Mary Wollstonecraft very capably argued that the problem with women was not that they were by nature irrational and emotional but that they were educated to be thus. Educate women properly, she argued, and they will stop acting like children and instead like adults. Unfortunately for Wollstonecraft, like the Duchess of Malfi she neglected to look after her own chastity and thus provided her detractors enough ammunition to successfully ‘shoot down’ her otherwise legitimate claims. Even by the mid-Victorian times, education for women remained a significant issue as demonstrated by Charlotte Bronte’s heroine, Jane Eyre – one can only imagine how dismal her future would have been had she not escaped from her nasty aunt, Mrs Reed, and (although at some personal expense) received a decent education at Lowood.

Even that however did not ensure her longer-term success as the only paid positions available to her afterwards was as a teacher or governess. As the story of Jane Eyre made clear, even being (or at least demonstrating) oneself to be the intellectual or moral equal/moral superior of a man did not ensure she was thus treated. Lucky for Jane that her Mr Rochester was more a Gothic than Victorian hero. Until the early 20th century such inequality was more than apparent as Virginia Woolf made clear in her novel, To The Lighthouse – whilst Mr Ramsay strutted about thinking great thoughts, his wife Mrs Ramsay sat and knitted stockings for needy children.

Not only did men naturally consider themselves superior to women but they showed significant fear and agitation when a woman like Jane Eyre, did demonstrate herself to be their superior. As Thomas Hardy’s poem, The Ivy Wife, written in the late 19th century about a woman who successfully competes with a man, makes clear such folly will be the ruination of them both.

In summary, Simone de Beauvoir argued that ‘woman’ is a construct at least in the sense that what it means to be a woman is culturally determined. I would have to agree that she has a valid point as there is much evidence throughout the history of Western art and literature to support it. For example, there have been centuries of such works reminding women that ‘chastity’ is their most important virtue and that along with being subservient and inferior to men, if they fail to ensure their behaviour remains within the culturally accepted boundaries all hell will break loose both for them and their households. Such ‘womanly’ concerns were reinforced by their education and attempts by reformers like Mary Wollstonecraft to improve education for women were ‘shot down’ with allegations of her own indifference to chastity. Such concerns have persisted well into the 20th century as has been well documented by male and female writers such as Woolf, Hardy and T.S. Eliot.

literary criticism

The Role & Representation of the City in Modernist Literature

DublinersIn her essay Characters in Fiction, Virginia Woolf wrote that ‘on or about December 1910, human character changed’ – people began to behave differently, she says – giving the example of behaviour of one’s cook – Victorian cooks stayed below in their kitchens and did their jobs whilst Georgian cooks were always wandering upstairs to borrow newspapers or get advice about a hat.

The implication is that if human character has changed (and according to Woolf at the end of the day all literature is about character) then literature must change as well. What better backdrop than the city to illustrate these changes! The problem is however that not all modernist writers were interested in representing the same changes and even where they were, they did not all do so to the same effect.

Cities provide a convenient container, their infrastructure juxtaposing the old and new. In the section entitled ‘The Fire Sermon’ in his poem The Waste Land, T.S. Eliot uses London’s Thames River to represent the differences between the nostalgic majesty of Elizabethan times (‘Elizabeth and Leicester’ – ‘beating oars’ – ‘a gilded shell’ – ‘red and bold’) and 1920’s London (‘trams and dusty trees’ that ‘undid me’ with little promise of a ‘new start’). Both these representations involve connections (boats/trams) whilst at the same time implying a fundamental disconnect. By choice of images invoked the speaker in this section of The Waste Land seems to suggest that the changes he or she experiences has turned yesterday’s London into a worse place.

Cities also provide a privileged space wherein everything that can happen birth, marriage, death, etc.) does happen with routine regularity. Although the speaker in the Waste Land seems to find little pleasure in his or her London, Virginia Woolf’s heroine, Clarissa, in Mrs Dalloway takes immense pleasure in hers – what with its ‘omnibuses, sandwich men, automobiles, and armies of people’. Little did she know however that just in a few hours wandering about London’s West End, Clarissa would confront so many complex issues –ghosts from her own past (prior lovers Peter Walsh and Sally Seton) and the devastations wrought by war (in the form of the suicide of poor Septimus). It is dislocating just to think of all the things a city throws up to its residents in a single day but the reader of Mrs Dalloway gets the sense that Clarissa finds more plusses than minuses in her London than did the speaker in Eliot’s The Waste Land.

Cities have a way of taking on a life of their own – contracting and expanding according to the needs of society as it changes. In Howards End, EM Forster represents the dislocation felt by the Schlegel family as their long-time London home is pulled down to make room for building a block of new flats. Like Clarissa Dalloway’s London, the Schlegel’s house is a temporal container (albeit in miniature) – for their ghosts. But rather like Woolf’s Clarissa, Margaret Schlegel found her London exhilarating and in the changes that the speaker in Eliot’s ‘The Fire Sermon’ found so threatening, Margaret found the promise for a ‘new start’ which would take her where she had needed go all along, Howards End.

Finally cities become symbols in their own right – representing a particular society as a whole – how characters react to this tells as much about them as the society itself. For example, in James Joyce’s story ‘Clay’ in Dubliners, Maria finds enough to admire in her city. Not only does she have a job that allows her enough money to pick and choose amongst the delightful goods at Downe’s cake-shop (and finally purchase a ‘thick slice of plumcake’) but she also has family with which to share them. Although Maria’s Dublin is more claustrophobic (despite singing nostalgic songs and playing games with her brother’s children, one cannot help thinking that Maria – ‘blushing very much’ – feels a bit put upon by her family) than Clarissa Dalloway’s London, it would appear better then what she might have experienced in days gone by (that a prayer book and subsequent jokes about entering a convent serves to remind everyone how much times have changed for the better, at least for women).

In summary, if as Woolf suggests human character has changed then modernist literature needed change to reflect that. The city provides an excellent opportunity to accomplish this because as a back-drop for the modernist writer’s characters, it is a privileged space – a container or microcosm – of humanity. Naturally with changing times comes feelings of dislocation but the way in which various modernist writers approach representations of their chosen cities suggests that for some such dislocation was welcome (as in the case of Maria, Margaret, and perhaps also Clarissa) while for others like the speaker in The Waste Land it was not.

literary criticism

TS Eliot and the Struggle for Maintenance of a Living Language

TS EliotLiving, the poet is carrying on that struggle for the maintenance of a living language, […] which must be kept up in every generation; dead, he provides standards for those who take up the struggle after him’ (T. S. ELIOT).

23 March 1921 – Virginia Woolf made an entry in her diary describing a taxi ride she shared that evening with T.S. Eliot in which she told him that neither of them were as good as Keats. He agreed noting that neither of them wrote ‘classics straight off’ because ‘we’re trying something harder’.

I am not even tempted to suggest that by a ‘living language’ Eliot was referring to that used by everyday people in their everyday lives. It takes only one look at his landmark poem, The Waste Land, and its collage of disjointed imagery, references to classical myth (by his own admission in his notes to the poem, he says that Tiresias, punished for affronting the Greek goddess Hera, is the ‘most important personage’ in the poem), and German, Greek, French, and Italian passages to realise that Eliot was not the least interested in making his mark on the common folk. What interest could he possibly have in maintaining a ‘living language’ for use by the likes of the ‘bored and tired typist’ and her ‘young man carbuncular’ that he so sardonically depicts in that poem’s section entitled The Fire Sermon?

By ‘living language’ he must be referring to something else – something perhaps related to that comment he made in the taxi to Woolf – something that would impress not only (1) his contemporaries like Woolf (he read The Waste Land out loud in her parlour and the Woolf’s publishing company, The Hogarth Press, printed the UK version of his poem) but also (2) those poets who (as he notes) will take up the struggle after him.

Unfortunately for purposes of that ‘living language’, these later poets are inextricably linked with those who have come before. In his essay, Tradition and the Individual Talent, Eliot suggests that (at least in the eyes of a critic) a poet always walks a thin line between being innovative and following in the footsteps of those before him – get the mix wrong and the poet will either be regurgitating the past or completely out in the (present) left field. Eliot also suggests that an aspiring poet should aways be aware of the ‘main current’ (which does not always flow from those with the most distinguished reputations) whilst at the same time being aware that art never improves (albeit the subject matter changes).

Quite what all this means for the struggle of maintaining a ‘living language’, we can only conjecture – not only can maintaining this ‘living language’ not have to much do with innovation which usually strives to improve art, but it also can not have much to do with the poet’s personal experience because in that same essay, Eliot advises that the ‘emotion of art is impersonal’. If the ‘living language’ is neither about living, nor about how the folks in the street communicate, nor about taking a innovative approach to poetry, then about what can it be?

The only sensible answer remaining is in regards to subject matter (which admittedly according to Eliot does change); here the horrors of the Great War of 1915-18 come to the fore – for it is without argument that for many people (including poets) this war quite literally changed their world. Now we return to The Waste Land on more solid ground – for it more than adequately incorporates the destructive element of this war. Now the disjointed imagery makes more sense – how could anyone who had lived through such unprecedented devastation feel anything but disconnected? Now the sad reminiscences of the speaker in The Burial of the Dead about drinking coffee in the ‘sunlight’ in the ‘Hofgarten’ before going ‘down’ – ‘hold on tight’ – can be seen as both contemporary and timeless – that and ‘weren’t you with me at ‘Mylae’? serves to remind us that sadly war and its devastating are enduring through the generations – now the connections drawn between that ancient Battle of Mylae in 260 BC and the ‘corpses’ that have ‘begun to sprout’ in 1918 make perfect sense.

In summary, if in Eliot’s estimation any living poet is to carry on that struggle for the maintenance of a ‘living language’, he must look not to his personal experience nor to his innovative techniques, but instead to his subject matter else when dead and judged by those who will struggle after him, he will be judged to have simply regurgitated that which has come before or relegated to the ranks of poets deemed to have been out in left field. Quite how such judgement squares with Eliot’s comment to Virginia Woolf that he and she were not writing ‘classics’ as did Keats but ‘trying something harder’, I am afraid that I still cannot quite say except perhaps in the extent that Eliot hopes it shall place him in the ranks of those of his contemporaries who will someday have the most distinguished reputations.

literary criticism

Use of Fragmentation in the modernist work of Forster, Eliot, and Woolf

montageIn large part, modernist writers responded to the social conditions of modernity which, for a variety of reasons, spelt a serious disconnect with the past; naturally the old has always given way to the new but such transition had never before been perceived as so obtrusive – so fragmented – as it was in the early 20th century.

Not only had scientific advances thrown prior conceptions of physical reality out of the window (for example, the installation of city street lamps had all but eliminated the distinction between night and day) but also philosophers like Nietzsche had undercut traditional notions of an ordered, meaningful metaphysical reality by, for example, eliminating God. If that were not bad enough, psychologists such as Freud and Jung undercut traditional notions of perceived reality with suggestions that it was not human rationality running the show (as had been believed for almost 400 years) but instead an uncontrollable unconscious manifesting either as unruly, repressed personal desires or collective archetypal patterns reflected in myth and dreams.

Hence for purposes of this essay, I define fragmentation as any technique used by modernist writers to address these many fragmented, often seemingly disconnected, strands underlying modern constructions of reality. I suggest that whether or not such techniques are useful depends on the purpose for which the writer chose to use them and whilst we can never know what that purpose was, it is virtually impossible to determine if they were useful except in the limited sense that we as readers get a sense of the turmoil that society must have in some degree felt during this period.

Some modernist writers like EM Forster sought to connect fragmented bits of reality. For example in Howards End, Forster juxtaposed physical manifestations of the old and new; the idyllic countryside (‘untroubled meadows’) is viewed by Mrs Munt from the train on her journey to Howard’s End. She sees it as ‘awakening after a nap of a hundred years’ to such ‘life’ as is conferred by the ‘stench of motor-cars’. But if Mrs Munt was ‘equally indifferent’ to ‘history’ – ‘tragedy’ – the ‘past’ and the ‘future’, Forster was not. He uses that stinky motor-car as a symbol for death and destruction – Charles (with his fit-for purpose ‘gloves and spectacles’) who virtually becomes his car (his father admonishes – your ‘one idea is to get into a motor’) kills Mr Bast, and the paddock is sacrificed for a garage to house the motor, and the motor-car ‘flattens’ a cat. But no matter how often characters urge each other to ‘bridge’ the gap (between what is never made precisely clear) for the most part they seem to fail except perhaps through the marriage of Margaret (old order) and Henry Wilcox (new order) – neither of whom (interestingly) drives a ‘motor’!

But whilst Forster seeks connections, TS Eliot seems to glorify in disconnectedness especially in regards to metaphysical reality; in his poem The Wasteland, there are numerous references to a troubled Christianity – for example in the section entitled A Game of Chess, a reference to the ‘sylvan scene’ (an allusion to the 4th book of Paradise Lost by John Milton where Satan came in the view of Eden) serves as an appropriate forecast for the immediately following allusion to Philomela who was violently raped by her sister’s husband, Tiresias (who may be equated with Satan). The message would appear to be that all hell is breaking loose in creation.

Most certainly as each different section of The Wasteland shifts to the next without transition (or sometimes without even obvious links), we get a sense of how frustrated and lost that society must have felt when all around them they got the same message. But unlike Howards End, The Wasteland seems to suggest connections cannot be made. In What the Thunder Said, we learn from the poem’s speaker that he will be unable to ‘set my lands in order” because ‘London bridge is falling down’ – and that the ‘fragments’ have been ‘shored against my ruins’.

Whilst both Forster and Eliot draw attention to the problems inherent in making connections a fragmented reality, Virginia Woolf seems to suggest everything will sort itself out in the natural course of time. For example, in her autobiographical writings, Moments of Being, she states that she personally takes ‘great delight’ in pulling together her own ‘severed parts’ by dredging through memories (perceptions of time) – much in the same way that many of her fictional characters appear to do.

For example, in Mrs Dalloway, the ebb and tide of Clarissa’s day are a jumble of events, places, and people bound together solely by (often disparate and fragmented) memories spanning more than thirty years. Quite how reflections on the ‘most exquisite moment of her whole life’ when she had been kissed by Sally Seton are connected with her own ‘faults, jealousies, vanities, and suspicions’ (conjured up by Lady Bruton having not asked her to lunch) is left to the reader’s (vivid) imagination. But the way they are presented as a given – we sense that Woolf was never in doubt that they were connected. In Orlando, the only continuity between the hero turned heroine after a four-hundred year romp through history is his/her memories and face. Indeed, memory or personal perceptions of reality, are again here the binding thread – ‘running her needle in and out – up and down – hither and thither’ in a way that clock ‘time’ (which makes ‘animals and vegetables bloom with amazing punctuality’) can never do.

In summary, if we evaluate the usefulness of techniques of fragmentation for modernist writers in terms of whether their readers get some sense of the frustration that 20th century western society must have felt in the wake of changes on so many levels of ‘reality’, I suggest that at least in regards to Forster, Eliot, and Woolf it has been useful albiet in different ways; Forster suggesting that connections can be made between the fragments and provides clues how this might be achieved. Eliot suggests that such connections are inconcievalbe and we had better just make do with what we have with the fragmented ‘ruins’. Finally Woolf suggests that connections are not only are possible (through our perceptions of reality) as we grow older (and presumably wiser) these connections will be naturally be made.

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Representations of Gender in Modernist Literature – Virginia Woolf & TS Eliot

A Room of Ones OneModernism has been seen as a response to widespread concern that the traditional ways of representing the world distort actual experience. In The Cambridge Introduction to Modernism, Pericles Lewis suggests that modernist literature attempts to respond to this ‘crisis of representation’ by creating literature that is radically different. Attitudes toward gender relations were shifting during this period and thus I suggest that modernist writers like Virginia Woolf and TS Eliot seized upon using radically different representations of gender in order to explore their own take on the gender-related concerns of modernity.

Woolf wrote extensively regarding women’s access to a level playing field – be it in marriage or the learned professions. In her essay A Room of One’s Own, she muses suggestively on the fate of William Shakespeare’s imagined sister, Judith, who, although as talented as her brother met with a very different results purely because of her sex. After running away from home to pursue her writerly goals, poor Judith would have been denied the same opportunities to display her talents as her brother would have enjoyed – and hence finally broken by the societal ‘ideas and prejudices’ that blighted her life, after committing suicide and instead of being enshrined as would be her brother, lay buried at ‘some crossroads’ where the ‘omnibuses now stop outside Elephant and Castle’.

In her novel, To The Lighthouse, Woolf evoked images of her own parents to demonstrate the inequalities of the sexes in marriage. Whilst Mr Ramsey (so gruff that he excited in his children such ‘extremes of emotion’ that they fanaticised ‘gashing a hole in his breast’ with any handy sharp object) strutted about pondering great things such as the philosopher David Hume, ‘enormously fat’ and ‘stuck in a bog’, his long-suffering wife, Mrs Ramsey (adored by her numerous children), charitably knitted stockings for the Lighthouse keeper’s son (with a ‘tuberculosis hip’). But whilst Mr Ramsey lived a long, literary life littered with accolades, Mrs Ramsey died young having burned herself out in the service to others (Mr Ramsey was especially needy).

In another novel, Orlando, Woolf evoked representations of the androgynous Tiresias who as punishment for affronting the goddess Hera, was forced to experience life as both a man and a woman. Whilst as a man, the character Orlando lived and loved in unfettered freedom, eventually being appointed ambassador to Constantinople where between long, luxurious lunches, he was ‘kept busy’ with the ‘wax and seals’ and ‘various coloured ribbons’ of officialdom. However upon becoming a woman, Orlando was ‘forced to consider her position’ and with the ‘coil of skirts about her legs’ concluded her life now revolved solely around preservation of her chastity – that ‘jewel’ and ‘centre-piece’ – laying at the foundation of womanhood.

Tracy Hargreaves (Androgyny in Modern Literature) has suggested that for a broad range of writers, the androgyne has signalled both cultural regeneration and degeneration – a disruption in ‘normative’ gendered identities which can be seen as being ‘divine or reviled’. But whilst Woolf takes the position that such disruption would be divine, Eliot seems to suggest that as women become more like men, society suffers.

Certainly this is the picture he presents in his poem, The Waste Land when in the section entitled The Fire Sermon, the ‘bored and tired’ typist returns home from work ‘at teatime’ and ‘lays out food in tins’ before coupling indifferently with her equally uninspiring ‘small house agent’s clerk’. As is well known, androgynous beings cannot reproduce and impotency is an important theme of The Waste Land – much of its symbolism suggestive of the myth of the Fisher King whose damaged sexuality was the cause of his kingdom being infertile and drought-stricken (the poem invokes this from the beginning commenceing with ‘April is the cruellest month, breeding’).

In his notes accompanying The Fire Sermon, Eliot states that Tiresias was the most ‘important personage’ in the poem, ‘uniting all the rest’. After witnessing the grim love-making of the typist and clerk, the speaker (presumably still Tiresias), making an allusion to Oliver Goldsmith’s poem When Lovely Woman Stoops to Folly), looks wistfully back in time to the 16th century when a woman ‘knew’ her place as a woman (after illicit promiscuity, she could only hide her shame and die) rather than lackadaisically turning on her ‘gramophone’ as did the ‘bored and tired’ typist, saying ‘Well now that’s done’ and ‘I’m glad its over’ as perhaps might a man. Such reversals of gender can only spell trouble – for with the departure of normative gendered identities all hope of cultural regeneration is now lost (keeping in mind that Tiresias could prophesize the future) and our own civilisation is now destined to fall away as did Carthage – ‘burning burning burning burning’.

literary criticism

Moments of Being: the Importance of Time and Memory in the Writings of Virginia Woolf

Moments of BeingAccording to Joseph Frank, ‘(t)ime is no longer felt as an objective, causal progression with clearly marked out differences between periods: now it has become a continuum in which distinctions between past and present are wiped out.’ Most certainly that is more often than not the case in the writings of Virginia Woolf where I suggest that the more prosaic concepts of time and memory so lamented by Mr Frank have been manipulated in order to reflect Woolf’s own experience.

For Woolf, time was not always experienced as objective (in the OED (A 3 b) sense of ‘distinct from the subject or ‘independent of the mind’); she noted in her memoirs that it is only when one is thinking of the past, ‘seeing through the surface to the depths’, that one is ‘living most fully in the present’. For her this is because the ‘present when backed by the past is a thousand times deeper’(Moments, 108).

In one sense, by this Woolf seems to suggest that time functions only as the result of memory. In Orlando, it is only through memory (running ‘her needle in an out, up and down, hither and thither’, Orlando, 48) that the jumble of (1) years (the life of its hero/heroine spans multiple centuries) and (2) seasons (‘at one moment’ it is ‘a summer’s day’ and the next, ‘all was winter and blackness again’, Orlando, 35), are bound together. Likewise for Clarissa in Mrs Dalloway, the narrative’s jumble of events, people, and places are bound with the present through memories spanning more than thirty years. For Septimus however, memory is so strong as to blot out the present to such an extent that suicide becomes his only option (Dalloway, 127).

In another sense, Woolf seems to suggest that memory can be manipulated in order to alter one’s experience of time. For her, memory is a continuum into which she can ‘dip’ at will (Memories,99). In To the Lighthouse (133), Lily Briscoe ‘dipped’ into her memories to ‘re-fashion’ the image of her former acquaintance, Charles Tansley. She was so successful in her task that it ‘stayed in the mind almost like a work of art’. This dipping into memory also proves useful for purging bits of the past that impinge, unpleasantly, on the present; in her memoirs, Woolf comments that she wrote To the Lighthouse very quickly and ‘when it was written’, she ‘ceased to be obsessed by my mother’, no longer ‘hear(ing) her voice ‘or ‘see (ing) her’ (Memories, 93). In To the Lighthouse (72), gliding ‘like a ghost’ Mrs Ramsey likewise revisits her experience of a house in which she had ‘been so very, very cold twenty years ago’. As the result not only does that ‘particular day’ become ‘very still and beautiful’, but she also manages to disconnect from Carrie, the house’s owner (‘she did not know this Carrie’) who is currently building a new billiard room (much to Mrs Ramsey’s apparent dislike). Sometimes however ‘memory’ and ‘reality’ are not so easily severed as when Orlando, watching the samphire gatherers ‘hanging half-way down the cliff’, realises that ‘like some derisive ghost’ scampering within her, ‘Shasha the lost, Sasha the memory’ has shown herself to remain ‘surprisingly’ real (Orlando, 97).

For Woolf, time was not always experienced as a continuum (with distinctions between past and present wiped out). Indeed for her some remembered moments (‘in the nursery, the road to the beach’) could be ‘more real than the present’ (Moments, 80). As the narrator in Orlando (59) points out, although it is ‘Time’ that makes ‘animals and vegetables bloom and fade with amazing punctuality’, time has ‘no such simple effect upon the mind of man’.

Woolf suggests that as the result of this inconsistency, some moments of time will be remembered whilst others are forgotten. She gives an example; although she remembers yesterday’s walk through countryside with startling detail (‘the willows’ were ‘all plumy and soft green and purple against the blue’), she has ‘already forgotten what Leonard and I talked about at lunch, and at tea’ (Memories, 83).

She concludes that this is because of a distinction between that which she calls (1) ‘non-being’(moments during which we fail to live consciously) and (2)‘being’ (moments which make a ‘dint’ because of some powerful emotion attached to them, Memories, 83-84). Again from her own experience she provides an example: she was fighting with her brother, Thoby, on the lawn outside their summer home at St Ives when just as she raised her fist to hit him she felt ‘why hurt another person?’ This immediately gave her such a ‘feeling of hopeless sadness’ and ‘powerlessness’ that she ‘slunk off alone’, feeling ‘horribly depressed’.

While most of the examples of moments of ‘being’ from Woolf’s own experience are the result of negative emotions, this need not always be the case. Most certainly it was not for Clarissa in Mrs Dalloway (29-31. It is through the ‘echo of her old emotion’, that the moment of being kissed by Sally Seton(‘the most exquisite moment of her whole life’)will last a lifetime.

Woolf suggests that the difference between experiencing a moment of ‘being’ as either negative or positive is down to the one’s ability to find ‘reason’ in the experience (Memories, 85). She gives the example of looking at a flower bed and suddenly thinking that this ‘is the whole’ and that this would ‘likely be very useful to me later’. Such realisations support a theory of ‘self’, the making of personal identity, put forth by the philosopher David Hume (thoughts of whom of whom as ‘enormously fat’ and ‘stuck in a bog’, Mr Ramsey conjured up to entertain himself, Lighthouse, 54).

According to Hume, the only thing of which we can ever be certain is that we perceive an unbroken stream of subjective images and ideas and hence our notion of ‘self’ can be nothing more than a fiction; the mind’s way to join disparate events together as a continuum. As the result, the ‘self’ is always subject to change. In her memoirs, Woolf seems to suggest that she subscribes to Hume’s view noting that ‘it would be interesting’ to compare and contrast ‘the two people’ (‘I now’ and ‘I then’) in order to understand how much the past is ‘affected by the present moment’ (Memories, 87). As she grows older she finds she has ‘greater power through reason to provide an explanation’ for her moments of being, hence it is now a ‘great delight to put the severed parts together’ (Memories, 85). Most certainly Clarissa Dalloway accomplishes some ‘self-making’ in this way. As she sits at her dressing-table pursing her lips, she finds ‘her self’ when with ‘some effort, some call on her to be her self’, she ‘drew the parts together, the ‘different’, ‘incompatible’ parts – all the ‘faults, jealousies, vanities, suspicions (like Lady Bruton failing to ask her to lunch that day)into the ‘one woman’, that ‘meeting point’, which she knows herself to be (Dalloway, 31-32). Likewise we are told that although ‘he’ has become a ‘she’, Orlando has maintained her/his ‘identity’ not only because his/her face remained ‘practically the same’ but also, and perhaps more importantly, because her/his ‘memory’ – ‘all the events of her past life’ – remains the same. (Orlando, 83).

It would seem that it is not just one’s own experiences that create ‘self’ but also the impressions (real or imagined) of others. This is most certainly the case with Clarissa Dalloway who is prone to also define herself by what others think of her; ‘her servants like her’ and she ‘helped young people, who were grateful to her’ – but ‘what would he (her old lover, Peter Walsh) think’? (Dalloway, 31-32). It is also the case with Lily Briscoe in To the Lighthouse who, after collecting ‘her impressions of the Rayles’, concludes that instead of really ‘knowing’ them, she has only ‘made up’ a ‘series of scenes’ about them and worse, that ‘not a word of it was true’ (Lighthouse, 142).

Indeed, under Hume’s ‘radical scepticism’, we can not be certain there exists the thing which we call the mind (much less time) because these perceptions have no size or figure and hence cannot be located in space (McIntyre, 182-185). This certainly seems to be the case with Mrs Ramsey in To the Lighthouse for if she is not conscious of something, then it simply does not exist – it seems ‘extraordinary’ to think that someone had ‘been capable of going on living all these years’ when she ‘had not thought of them more than once all that time’,(Lighthouse, (72).

For Woolf, time may or may not always have been experienced as a causal progression (with clearly marked out differences between periods), but it was always thus portrayed in her writings in keeping with contemporary narrative theory. I suggest that in his sweeping statement, Mr Frank misses the important distinction between (1) ‘narrative’, or the representation of events, (2) ‘story’, which is an event or sequence of events, (i.e. the action), and (3) ‘narrative discourse’, the events as actually represented. Whilst ‘narrative discourse’ is free to go in any temporal direction, ‘narrative’ by definition ‘entails movement through time’ both externally (words on the page) or internally (duration of an event), in the sense of beginning, middle, and end. It is only (3) story (like action) that can progress(causally) forward in time (Abbott, 16-19).

Woolf clearly demonstrates her understanding of narrative theory when, for example, in the segment of To the Lighthouse entitled Time Passes, time tells its own story; except for that beam from the Lighthouse entering the rooms ‘for a moment’ (Lighthouse, 113), everything changes in causal, temporal sequence: not only does the house literally fall apart (‘swallows nested in the drawing-room’ and ‘the plaster fell in shovelfuls’) but Prue Ramsey marries and dies whilst Andrew Ramsey is killed in the war that begins and ends with this segment. In another example, Mrs Ramsey predicted at the beginning of To the Lighthouse that her son James would remember that day of thwarted, teased promises of a trip to the lighthouse. Eleven years later, when at the end of the novel the trip to the lighthouse with is finally made, not only has James’ memory caused him to not want to go but also to hate his father for forcing him (Lighthouse, 138).

In conclusion, although Joseph Frank mourns that time is no longer felt an objective, causal progression but instead as a continuum without distinction between past and present, I would suggest that at least regarding the writings of Virginia Woolf this is because Mr Frank’s concept of time is not in keeping with how it is actually experienced. As the narrator in Orlando points out, although nature proceeds with prosaic punctuality, the effect of time on our minds does not. Woolf suggests that this incongruity results in some moments being infused with emotional reponse and hence not only carefully scrutinized but also long-remembered whilst other moments are quickly disgarded and forgotten.

This certainly sums up my own personal experience of time and memory and as we can deduce from her memoirs, it would seem to sum up those of Virginia Woolf as well. Further, it is our careful scrutinization of these moments of ‘being’ that, at least according to philosopher David Hume, contributes to the formation of our all important sense of ‘self’.

That Woolf, an innovator desirous of ‘pinning down the fleeting and evanescent’ (Spalding, 7), would write in the same way as as she experiences the world, makes perfect sense. In regards to Mr Frank’s lamentations that time is no longer felt as a causal progression with clearly marked out differences between periods, I would direct him to a closer reading of contemporary narrative theory.

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Bibliography

Woolf, Virgina. Mrs Dalloway. Oxford: Oxford Univeristy Press, 2009.

Woolf, Virgina. Orlando.Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.

Woolf, Virginia. To the Lighthouse. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Abbot, H. Porter. The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

McIntyre, Jane L. ‘Hume and the Problem of Personal Identity, (177-208). The Cambridge Companion to Hume, ed. Dave Fate Norton and Jacqueline Taylor. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009 (online).

Spalding, Frances (ed.). Virginia Woolf, Paper Darts. London: Collins & Brown, 1991.

Woolf, Virginia. Moments of Being, Autobiographical Writings. ed. Jeanne Schulkind, London: Pimlico, 2002.

Myth

In the Image of The Father

Yes, with all my heart I am my Father’s child.[1]

Athena was formed in the image of the Father; she was not borne by a woman but sprang fully grown from Zeus’ head.

This is why Athena is the only goddess to have personified ‘reason’ – traditionally the privileged enclave of men.

It is through reason that Athena conquered the traditionally female emotions (such as rage, jealousy, and fear) that hold the rest of us back in civilised society.   She wore the head of Medusa on her on her breastplate to symbolise her civilising achievement.   By looking to Father for direction, we women in civilised societies are encouraged to do the same.

The Father image we women internalise comes as much from society as from our personal Dads.  While Dad may be supportive of his daughter, western society’s Father is not.  I suggest that we women are successful – not because of Father – but in spite of (or in reaction to) him.  Recall that Athena’s glorious birth resulted from Father’s fear of competition.

Flip through any history book and it will become clear  that Western men have purposefully perpetuated the myth of female irrationality and inferiority.  For our own good, our feminine intellect has been protected form the ‘burdens’ of education and rational thinking.

The daughters of educated men have always done their thinking from hand to mouth; not under green lamps at study tables in the cloisters of secluded colleges. (Virginia Woolf, Three Guineas)

Western men are seriously threatened by rational, intelligent, and well-educated women.   As Medusa, we are conquerable; as Athena, we are not.   Some women wish to be conquered by men; others do not.

The history of men’s opposition to women’s emancipation is more interesting perhaps than the story of that emancipation itself. (Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own).

Preservation of male supremacy spawns little interest for daughters to be formed in Fathers own image.  In fact the reverse is true.

Women have served all these centuries as looking –glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size.  (Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own).

So when deciding whether like Athena, we as women wish to be formed in the image of the Father, I suggest we first take a good hard look at what that image really represents.


[1] Athena’s comment taken from a translation of The Eumenides by Robert Fagles, The Oresteia, Penguin Books, 1977 (736-40).

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