Woolf, Joyce and Proust

“Woolf, Joyce and Proust ‘hesitate to impose on life, which is their subject, an order which it does not possess in itself’, partly because they are seeking to represent ‘a more real reality’”. That assertion raises and relies on three central points: that life does not possess the order it is often attributed in fiction, that Woolf does not- or is, at the very least, hesitant to- impose order upon the “life” she portrays and that these two points indicate that Woolf is attempting to represent “a more real reality”. This essay will use Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway to explore the validity of these issues and of the statement as a whole by first seeking to establish the first two points, then by examining their relation to the latter assertion.

If, as our statement suggests, Woolf sought to create a more realistic depiction of life through the rejection of additional order then that order must normally be imposed in the act of representation, rather than in the subject matter itself. This view is well supported by the context that Mrs Dalloway was written in which was one of great upheaval. The contrast between the neat, ordered world of fictional convention and the environment in which Woolf wrote is truly startling. To say that the great challenges to tradition that occurred in Woolf’s period did have a profound effect upon her is absurd; in the words of Coughlin McGarry “Virginia Woolf was a product of her time, and her various writings reflect the complexity of the age.” Although there are a huge number of contextual factors that may have affected Woolf, there are three main events that can be seen to have had a powerful impact on her choice to rejected the imposition of order and her ability to recognise literary trappings as impositions in the first place.

The First World War was a disaster that not only changed how people saw warfare but how they viewed life itself. As Sigmund Freud remarked: . Before the war there were definite ideologies and images which defined belief:  . The war annihilated them all: it destroyed the idea that battle was a heroic struggle fought by the brave and the upstanding and brought forth the reality that  lurked beneath the surface. Wilfred Owen’s Dulce et Decorum est is a prime, almost trite, example of this yet it is used so often because its bitter rejection of established ideals is so monumental. Owen brings the high ideology of battle crashing to the ground with his brutal and physical descriptions of life in the trenches. Phrases like “clumsy helmets ” “froth-corrupted lungs” and “cursed through sludge”, combined with the monotonous beat of the poem,  shift the focus away from high ideals and onto the brutal realm of the physical. For Owen there is no greater value that justifies the suffering and by corrupting any form of justification he reveals the horror of the system when it is particularised: when an ideological screen cannot act as an intermediary force between the subject and the watcher. This closely resembles Mrs Dalloway: when Woolf rejects the overarching narrative as a frame for the events she portrays, she is able to show the reader the reality of her characters’ thoughts and actions. For example, Sir William is such a detestable character because his actions do not appear to be bound to a narrative train: he is not merely fulfilling a purpose but his actions are entirely his own.

There are other strong links between Owen and Woolf’s rebellions against the established system. His use of the Latin phrase Dulce et Decorum est Pro patria mori, both as the title and the conclusion of his poem, forms a stark rejection of the classical ideals. By presenting the sentiment he so utterly rejects in Latin, Owen challenges the hero of war myth at it’s cultural heart: the classical world. By heaping scorn on the phrase, Owen not only mocks the idea that it is good and honourable to die for your country in his own time but also extends his criticism to the established, central system by implying that there has never been honour in war and such a notion is an eternal sham.  The destruction of these grand classical ideals bears a striking resemblance to Woolf’s challenge to literary convention: both movements rejected the overarching  systems of the past, which they see as false, in order to explore less definite worlds. In her own words: “For us those conventions are ruin, those tools are death.”

The second contextual factor that seems likely to have affected Woolf is the rise of science at the start of the twentieth century. Malcolm Bradbury and James McFarlan assert that Modernism is “the art consequent of the dis-establishing of our communal reality and the conventional notions of causality.” In other words, Modernism is the art is the art of the uncertain, one which challenges the idea that there is a fixed system and instead embraces a world of variance. Once again, this seems consistent with Woolf’s rejection of literary convention and her refusal to impose order onto the life she portrayed. Woolf’s time is one marked by “the transition from the oversimplified world-view of nineteenth century materialism […] to the early twentieth century theory that all matter is relative.” Woolf’s heavy use of ambiguity and subjectivity in Mrs Dalloway– such as uncertainty of emotion for both Clarissa and at the conclusion of the novel- seems to bear a definite relationship to this emerging prevalence of uncertainty and interpretation over the dogmatic decree of the past.

The third factor is the challenge that was brought to bear against the systems that form the core of humanity’s understanding of itself: psychology, sociology and evolution. As Bradbury and James observe, Woolf’s was “a world changed and reinterpreted by Marx, Freud and Darwin.”  Marx was keen to place the spotlight on the individual and show how he was exploited by the disembodied evil of the capitalist system. Freud redefined how humans see their thoughts, their feelings and their very perceptions. Darwin changed the origin of man and, crucially, provided an non theistic explanation for human existence. All of these theories encouraged individualism and rejected static narratives. Woolf’s views on the self very much reflected this new way to see the world: “she believed the individual identity to be always in flux, every moment changing its shape in response to the forces that surround it.” As can be seen, Woolf did not believe in a fixed, unchanging self but rather a flexible, subjective one. Her rejection of the artifice of “character” can be seen a key example of this. None of Mrs Dalloway‘s characters can be easily defined: there are trends of characteristic that can be observed but these are never definite, never exact. Even Sir William, a rather detestable man whose insincere approach seems to directly lead to Septimus’ suicide, has redeeming qualities that seem at odds with any characterisation of him. He is, by most accounts a rather dispassionate man, one who is “remorseless” in his interrogation. Yet, he shows considerable empathy for Rezia when he looks over to his own wife’s picture and remarks “Nobody lives for himself alone.” In that moment, the cold analyst is profoundly human as he empathises with Septimus’ situation and effectively places himself in his patient’s shoes. For Woolf, there is no absolute character, rather a shifting set of impressions and images that represent a person.

Now that is apparent that Woolf’s time was certainly one where subjectivity was becoming more and more prevalent over generic models, we shall explore the lack of artificial order in Mrs Dalloway. The novel starts in media res, that is to say, in the midst of things. Rather than beginning her account of  a single day at the moment of awakening, Woolf chooses to open in the middle of the morning. This in itself is not too strange, after all it’s a technique with a long history of tradition and would seem to conform to, rather than challenge, literary tradition. However, when a work opens in media res, it generally does so to start with a dramatic scene that will set the tone for the rest of the story, such as the argument between Achilles and Agamemnon that starts the Iliad. By contrast, Mrs Dalloway opens with a scene of seeming triviality: Clarissa decides  to go “buy the flowers herself” rather than sending the maid to do so.  This is the very model of middle class mundanity, a seemingly insignificant little detail that has very little impact on the plot and gives the audience only the tiniest impression of the woman it describes. In this way, Woolf immediately juxtaposes her work with tradition; rather than opening on a scene that will define the reader’s view of a character, the plot or the setting, Woolf simply presents a snippet of Clarissa’s action. For Woolf, the idea of a scene’s significance is imposed, meaning and mundanity mingle indiscriminately.

Mrs Dalloway not only starts in the middle of things but ends in a similar manner. There is no conclusion to the narrative, if anything more questions are raised than are answered. The last sentiments of the books are Peter’s unresolved feelings for Clarissa. He is torn between “terror”, “ecstasy” and “excitement”, and, if anything, is even less sure about his feelings than at the novels beginning. Clarissa’s problems are similarly unresolved: although Septicaemia suicide brought her in a state of empathetic epiphany, this revelation is immediately challenged by her feelings of guilt: “Somehow it was her disaster, her disgrace”. There has been no resolution to her problems, nor have these different paths fully formed themselves in her mind. Woolf is careful to finish at the beginning of the end, to create embryonic impressions that will never be fully realised by the novel’s narrative for to include a conclusion would imply that the story is over, that it is somehow resolved. For Woolf, every moment is connected, every story begets a thousand more


June 22, 2018

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