Tag Archives: Virginia Woolf

Secondary Woolf

Abel on Woolf (1989)

“Narrative…getting on from lunch to dinner,” but in Woolf, characters do live in time, it’s just complicated.

The “tunneling process” as a way of achieving temporal depth–that is, offsetting narrative by means of incorporating the past vertically


On Dalloway

Bourton is a pastoral enclave that, within the countries of Clarissa’s psyche, excludes the courtship that would lead to marriage. And even Peter’s courting of her is filtered mostly though Peter’s consciousness and memory.

When Clarissa hears of Septimus’ death, she mourns her loss…this is emblematic of how various characters are used as structural devices for refracting the divided consciousness/history of Clarissa: Sally, Rezia, Septimus, etc.

Dalloway takes the form of a developmental narrative as a way out of mourning/melancholia. Clarissa learns to accept adulthood as a rough compromise with a pre-Oedipal fantasy that can never be inhabited again.


To the Lighthouse

To the Lighthouse widens out the scope, and replaces the developmental narrative with a family romance. So Lily, a surrogate daughter, can recover the image of Mrs. Ramsay, which James represses in his developmental accession to his father’s forms of rationality and which Cam can only access by telling a narrative that runs through the father, disclosing her enclosure within masculinist narratives. Also, the ambiguity of the central character…is it mister or Mrs. Ramsay?…opens up questions of definition and orientation.

Mr. Ramsay’s “speculative philosophy” depends upon the erasure of matter/mater, the purging of the signified that conditions the emergence of the pure, anorexic sign. James follows Mr. Ramsay into this linguistic terrain.

Liliy Briscoe marks out an alternative narrative of painting as process. Importantly, this not a static painting that emerges in a  moment of inspiration, eternal and changeless, but a canvas that bears the mark of its history. She forms a relationship  of intimacy with Ramsay that is silent: “Who knows what we are, what we feel?” We see her a curling into the self that refrains from a linguistic register. The painting also refuses the determinacy of an abstract realms of signification, as toggles between separation and synthesis…the activity of the vertical line is itself a knife edge marking out what is gained and lost in the process of memory formation.  Further, this intersects with the strange timing of her vision: “She had her vision” positions somehow in the past tense, presence removed, etc. This another way of describing a phenomenology of rupture, interruption, etc.


Between the Acts

Abel concludes with a very curious reading of Between the Acts and moses and Monotheism. The latter picks up the story of civilization’s emergence by complicating the strict paternal narrative of that early work. The worship of the mother enters between the death of the primal father and the worship of the mosaic God. Civilization emerges when intellectuality wins out over sensuality. [Talk about this in terms of the ban on touching as the conditioned for worshipping…denigration of the body of matter/mater, etc.]

Between the Acts represents a frayed social fabric [Isa saying that we are all dispersed, etc.] and morns the lack of a mothering culture that could act as an alternative: this gives way to a full on fear of paternalism in the shape of Nazism and Fascism [Giles seems eerily like the Nazis he condemns, etc.]

La Trobe tries to convey ten minus of “present time reality” whose absolute dryness is then “douched” by a supernatural rain that returns a (false) sense of collectivity to the crowd that just witnessed that radical fragmentation, etc. Abel argues that this fragmentation finds in answer in the heterosexual eroticism of the closing scene between Giles and Isa…it points forward to pro-creation as the dawn of a new era.


summary of Zwerdling on Dalloway

Peter Walsh is historically grounded, but negatively. He is absent from England during the years 1918 to 1923, the years directly following the war, so that he can then comment on the starkness of the change otherwise invisible (or merely impressionistic) to those who have lived through the post-war years.


The world in which the Dalloways live and move–the “governing class” ganged in various Imperial projects–is under threat. It is a decadent rather than crescent class. This decadence undercuts the sense that World War I marked some sort of triumph of British civilization: that the death of thousands of men is compensated for by a strong Britain. In the short story from which Dalloway was draw, Clarissa says: “Thousands of a young men died so that things might go on.” But this shows Clarissa to be out of step with her time: thinking that things are still going on dramatizes her ignorance. She is living in the past.


Part of this “past” depends not he illusion that the ruling class is not conditioned on what Forster calls “islands of money.” Dinner parties are a “grand deception,” in which food is mysteriously unpaid: “life appears musical” to this class, because they are not bitten by the realm of necessity. There’s is the realm of the Wilcoxes.


Septimus is a threat, excluded from Clarissa’s “party” because he refuses to forget a war that everyone is struggling to put behind them. This is part of a larger cultural forgetting that includes turning away from the economic base, one could argue. But it is also because he is uncontrollably, intensely passionate–a challenge to the governing class’s stoicism. The same with Peter Walsh. Though his early socialism is hollowed out and he has become part of the system that he has convinced himself that he is no longer a part of, his passion for Clarissa remains.


The novel dramatizes the absorption of these energies. In this way, Woolf attempts to “criticize the social system, and to show it at work, at its most intense.” Perhaps there is also a contribution to changing it, however slight.

Ann Banfield – Remembrance and Tense Past (from C. Comp. 2007)

Distinguishes between two tense involved in novelistic discourse: the narrative sentence that recounts events independent of a subject, and free indirect discourse, or represented thought, representing third person subjectivity (51). Subjectivity, in a novel like Dalloway, is represented as a “now in the past.” This division is possible only in the novel, because it is the only genre that distances itself from the structure of spoken communication.

Joyce’s phrase “aorist preterite proposition” characterizes this “objective” time outside of the subject. It is apparent in Ithaca, but also in the bracketed sections in Time Passes section of To the Lighthouse. According to Banfield, “Modernit experimentation strips away everything superfluous to the measuring of time’s passing” (52). The urban becomes a refuge for the “now in the past” of the subject: they stand in for point-of-view: the multiplication of points of “time-space.” Thus in the opening scene of Dalloway, we see the time of Clarissa contrasting with the time of Big Ben, the pause before the sounding of the clock registering subjective time as pure freedom. Clarissa’s “now in the past” can also include memory itself (she is simultaneously Clarissa of that moment and Clarissa as a little girl). Jacob Room limits to subject impression of the moment: Dalloway and Lighthouse limit to impressions that include the past itself. This connects to the famous “cave” metaphor that Woolf uses to describe modes of characterization: digging out the inner lives of characters to the extent that those caves create a network of connections.

Banfield believes that represented thought in the past is able to convey the moment in which history could have been otherwise just as it is congealing into history.





Virginia Woolf – The Waves (1931)

Ongoing Post:

A curiously de-politicized Woolf, according to many. A novel that pushes the experiment of diffusive personality to such an extreme that “time and place” are obliterated almost completely. The title of the first draft was “The Life of Anybody,” pointing to the potentially formal qualities of art to wrench themselves from subjective content to the degree that any human can enter its structures. Yet the political reading has been offered by some: perhaps Woolf is toying with the idea of political collectivity, the potential for an individual to find meaning in larger wholes that are not immediately subsumed by identifiable institutions, or ossified into social groups with determinate programs. No matter how we read, it is clear that what binds the six characters together (it is a question whether this is critical or not) is their shared national, economic and racial coordinates. Perhaps Woolf is showing the sun set on the British Empire itself, as it self-destructs in and through its colonial enterprises. Rhoda does, after all, jump from the rock Gibraltar, the extreme edge of the british empire….

The opening lines disrupt traditional forms of representation: “The sea was indistinguishable from the sky, except that the sea was slightly creased as if a cloth had wrinkles in it.” In the chorus-like interludes that punctuate the main narrative, these wrinkles, which grow into waves and  return to the vast ocean, take on a life that is meant to signify the “mirrors” tendency to move–i.e. the sea is not merely a reflection of the sky, but it has its own capacity to move: Despite the dispersal of identity, individual characters do take up different affective attitudes towards the interpenetration of subjectivity: Rhoda is inclined to resist any attempt to  shape her or overtake her…to her, the dinner party is a battle field of the social. She loves, envies, hates, etc. but she never “joins” her friends willingly. She “fears embraces.” Bernard, on the other hand, feels the violence of becoming separate, differentiated. He likes the formless.

The plurality of perspectives in The Waves gets subsumed under the single voice of Bernard in the final chapter. As the only straight British male in the group, he is the most conventional heir to literary authority. Further, he tells his story to an unnamed listener while on a boat to Africa, recalling the narrators of Conrad and Ford. This form of literary Imperialism counterpoints and imitates the political imperial project of Percival (who utters only the Everlasting “No” tied to destructive impulses, etc.). The argument could be made that the seemingly deracinated style of The Waves is only a stylistic effect of the suppression of plot and characters: the small-scale violence between consciousness, in language, etc. are connected to the political violence that make this sort of interpersonal dream possible at all. That is, we can read this text symptomatically because it seems to ask for it…. [Cf. Lacan, etc.]

That is to say, The Waves is not a poetic retreat, but something very much like Adorno’s Lyric, which in and through its attempt to express a utopian dream, dramatizes its impossibility.

TIME: Instead of the husk of time swallowing up Septimus, bernard experiences a “drop of time” on his head while shaving. Rather than shock precipitating time’s uninhibited victory, which obliterates psychological boundaries, the scene of Bernard’s shaving (shave, shave, shave) dramatizes habit’s uncanny ability to draw attention to those forms of time’s passing which escape habit’s ordering structures. “I have lost my youth,” he says to himself.

Virginia Woolf – Mrs. Dalloway (1925)

The opening declarative sentence: “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.” The question remains, “to whom did she say this?” From the beginning, performance of the self is highlighted, how we comport ourselves within restricted fields to determinate others. Also, after the lark and the plunge (exaltation of larks is the term of venery…connect with Yeats discourse on birds), the field of phenomena is presented by way of clauses separated by semi-colons, a formal feature characteristic of Woolf. Think of the semi-colon as somewhere between the (Joycean) colon and the more traditional comma—granting relative autonomy to clauses, but binding them into some sort of narrative that makes the part more than the whole. Bring together with Hulmean-Bergsonian reflections on stasis and movement—how to render movement in an instant..-to render becoming more fundamental than being, etc. Further, a good example of what she calls the cotton-wool of daily life, how the myriad impressions (along with certain social roles such as wife, host, etc.) become constitutive of the self. Clarissa actually feels herself becoming “invisible, unseen; unknown” (11).

THE URBAN IN WOOLF: as opposed to Joyce, in which Bloom sifts and sorts through a barrage of commodities and advertisements, the Woolfean character sees the reflected back in the objects that we confront in our daily rounds: So while Clarissa might “slice like a knife through everything,” opening up an absence consonant with her subjective shrinkage, she also recognizes in “the ebb and flow of things,” the survival of a history she has already brought into being. CRUCIAL: the temporal present of everyday experience is punctuated by a history that is never suppressed by habit; rather, it is disclosed through habit. At times, the self seems to dissolve: individuals are united into loose collectivities when they see the figure aristocratic god passing in the carriage, or the new god of advertising appearing in the sky–much like in Wandering Rocks. This points forward to the experiments with the multiple self in The Waves.

Contextualize this reading of the ordinary within her distinction of being and non-being in “Sketch of the Past.” It is somehow as if non-being is exactly those trivial facts of life that we always overlook, but which fiction must labor to unveil. How this intersects with her notion of the trivial in “Modern Fiction” is up for debate. One can at least say that the play between being and non-being is not immediately conscripted into Hegelian becoming, but non-being seems able to exist as an autonomous field. Relate this to the Time Passes section in To the Lighthouse. Also, worth contrasting the various modes of habit that characterize Proust, Beckett, Beckett on Proust, and Woolf. For Beckett, habit makes like possible…but it also circumscribes life within its tight loop of repetition. For Woolf (and for Proust, too), habit is precisely that which evades representation because it is so close to the very mechanism of memory itself. Elucidating habit, outside of the scope of habit, is precisely the task they set for themselves.

And then contrast Dalloway’s phenomenology with that of Septimus Harding, who is, in some sense, a too perfect reader of modernist literature (“susceptibility to impressions had been his undoing”)…that is, his psyche has undergone the same forms of fragmentation that lead to the arbitrary collection “anarchy and futility” of daily life. He is not capable of making new wholes, in the Eliotic sense. Rather, he finds beauty in the advertisement in the sky, “

bestowing upon him in their inexhaustible clarity and laughing goodness one shape after another of unimaginable beauty and signaling their intention to provide him, for nothing, for ever, for looking merely, with beauty, more beauty! Tears ran down his cheeks. (22)

Can relate this to Benjamin’s theory of aura and the commodity. In some sense, he has understood too exactly the mechanism of the modern artwork. But Clarissa is attuned to the social coordinates that are in fact ordering this fragmentation. Like the viceregal calvalcade in Wandering Rocks, the carriage draws together and orders the perceptual fields of the myriad characters in the opening passage. But even them, Clarissa must stand in front of mirror to constitute to herself a coherence of the self. Talk about this mirror in terms of the many other mirrors: the cracked looking glass in Wilde and Stephen’s Telemachus chapter; the pool in Nausicaa; deKoven in Rich and Strange; Mill on the Floss; Lady of Shallot; etc. Peter also has his own idea of beauty, on that inheres within the furniture of drawing rooms, piano, gramophone and corridor, the glimpse of the social as it is revealed in the sudden moment of seeing a dinner party through a window (163)

The not entirely arbitrary imposition of unity in the form of the bell tolling from Big Ben: Contrast this with the Eliot-Joyce mythical method. Also contrast with the bell ringing in Murphy, how Murphy’s “internal” clock is impossibly aligned with such tolling. Such devices are common, present even in Gabriel Oak’ watch that has a minute hand but no hour hand. Talk about Bergson. Spetimus has a different relationship to Time: it engulfs him, its splits it husk, poured its riches over him (cf. Baudelaire: “Le Temps m’engloutit minute par minute”). SO TIME: on the one hand,  can become overwhelming if not ordered, if it becomes overly subjective (as in the case of Septimus), but it’s overly objective ordering (in the form of Big Ben) can be equally harmful. 

Sally Seton and the kiss. Established as an alternative pre-history. In general, talk about how the past punctuates the present. Contrast the shock of the past in Septimus, to the healthy sublimation of the past in someone like Clarissa. Also crucial spatial aspect: her memory is located in the pastoral countryside, while Spetimus’ memory is dislocated from that landscape…on the battlefield (Evans appears with frightening immediacy).

Peter, at the end, feels ecstasy and terror (much like “terrible beauty” of “Easter 1916”) at the “presenting” of Clarissa Dalloway. Read Peter as a Prufrock of sorts, an educated professional class on longer valued in terms of land, blood and money, but in terms of functional work within the system of Imperialism. Compare to Cecil in Passage to India…the product of an England that has dissolved (in contrast to Whitbread, Bradshaw, Richard Dalloway, etc.)

Virginia Woolf – Jacobs’s Room (1922)

[Plot summary impending]

Epistemological constraints overlaid on gendered exclusion: the narrator can only imagine what goes on in the rooms at Cambridge. All particularity (Jacob’s back, for instance) is accessed through a window…the rest reamins thoroughly interrogative. Throughout, then, the narrative toggles between the classificatory systems set by consciousness (necessary for the ordering of the phenomenal world) and the classificatory systems imposed by society.

In short, the observer is choked with observations. Only to prevent us from being submerged by chaos, nature and society between them have arranged a system of classification which is simplicity itself. (75, Signet)

The irony should not be missed here. Other forms of exclusion are eluded to in the multiple descriptions of the names etched in the rotunda of the British Museum, sequestered palace of self-improvement dedicated to the “public,” [Cf. new Grub Street, where Marian yule slaves away for her father Alfred], yet symbolizing the “unbroken knowledge” that extends from Plato to the present [Jacob is attempting to write himself into a tradition that the narrator is anxiously attempting to validate], constituting an “enormous mind,” “haroded beyond the power of any single mind to posses it.” [Cf. Mr. Ramsay’s anxiety in To the Lighthouse]. And further, there is the intimation that Jacob’s friend “Bonamy” is gay (“Now he’s a dark horse”) and therefore excluded as well. Jacob himself worries about being excluded from the intellectual aristocracy he tries so ostentatiously to penetrate. “Am I a bumpkin?” he asks.

Space: Could be considered an extended critique of interiors, of the pretensions of the gentry to preserve a sense of classicism despite the ravages of the 20th-century. [Connect this with bertha’s room with Beethoven’s bust.] Further, Jacob’s trip to Greece illustrates his lack of any real connection to the history he so desires to join. He goes to Greece not to be a part of civilization, but instead to protect himself from civilization. He has no connection, ty as he might, to a landscape that is undergoing processes of history. Ironically, Jacob will be violently pulled into history by his death in Flanders. That his last name is Flanders rewrites the rambling impressionistic nature of the small book as a tragedy in the Greek tradition–he was meant to be a part of a history that he refused to see.

Side note: he is working on piece that asks whether history is composed of great men, which connects to Carlyle’s One Heros and Hero-Worship.


Virginia Woolf – “Modern Fiction” (1919)

Woolf rejects the idea of scientific or industrial progress being applied to literary history. “We do not come to write better; all that we can be said to do is to keep moving.” Nevertheless, she wants to mark out the difference between an older generation of writers (Bennett, Galsworthy, Wells) from the new (Hardy, Conrad, and most recently and importantly, James Joyce). The former are what she calls “materialists”: “they write of unimportant things…[spending] immense skill and immense industry making the trivial and the transitory appear the true and the enduring.” This is peculiarly close to Woolf’s own methods of composition–one immediately think of the many trivial objects in the Ramsay’s empty house which bear the imprint of human form, the history of life itself. Nevertheless, the problem with materialists is that “life escapes.” Woolf believes that this is because of an unfortunate dependence on convention (social and formal), which restricts the means by which “impressions” are converted into representational forms: of a writer were a free man and not a slave….there would be no plot, no comedy, no tragedy, no love interest,” etc. A strange claim: where are these conventions located and who is imposing these forms of repression on the writer-slave? But Woolf insists that these conventional forms do an injustice to Life: “a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end.” Writers that are able to convey this halo are what Woolf calls “spiritual”

Paradoxically, the writer achieves this by way of the ordinary:

Examine for a moment an ordinary mind on an ordinary day. The mind receives myriad impression–trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpness of steel. From all sides they come, an incessant shower of innumerable atoms. (106)

Modern fiction, especially the work of Joyce, is atomic-spiritual. There’s a problematic conflation of the material and the spiritual, but the idea is that by disregarding convention, writes are able to get “closer to life.” Can we think about his in terms of ontological proximity (Levinas) and, at the same time, the discourse of life that runs through Victorian literature (the Brownings, Eliot, Bram Stoker, etc.)?

She concludes with an underhanded jab at both formal and legel censorship, which has been latent throughout.

‘The proper stuff of fiction’ does not exist; everything is the proper stuff of fiction, every feeling, every thought; every quality of brain and spirit is drawn upon; no perception comes amiss. (110)