Mrs Dalloway

There is nothing definite about the nature of a sign then the base of signs, called language, is simply a subjective pool of interactions between meaningless phrases given affirmation only by the fact that they are not another: “What characterizes each most exactly is being whatever the others are not.” If “nothing is a sign unless it is interpreted as a sign” then there is no intrinsic meaning to anything and signs are therefore merely arbitrary representations of the signified and the previous example from Mrs Dalloway of Septimus labelling himself as having “committed a crime” can be used to demonstrate the relative nature of language. Though one may associate criminality with ‘bad’ things, there are also cases where it can be seen as a positive.  Many men are criminals in that they broke the laws of their country, but they are considered ‘freedom fighters.’ The difference in context is that when one says criminal that are usually referring to one that breaks the law in a society that they deem just, whereas a freedom fighter is attacking a system that is ‘unfair’. Simply because the propaganda campaigns had labelled the Germans as ‘evil’, Septimus’s crimes are set in the context of righteousness and he himself elevated as a hero: “they were proud of him; he had won crosses.”

In this sense, the meaning of the word is not only dependent upon the reader themselves but also their context and their perception of the context that the character is in.  Whether one deems the governess of The Turn of the Screw  “mad”  or not is entirely dependent upon one’s own beliefs as well as the relationship of those beliefs to the context of the story. “We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native language. Language is not simply a reporting device for experience but a defining framework for it.” If one believes in ghosts then there is no reason to think the governess is insane or delusional at all. By contrast, if one lives if a fairly egalitarian society, then their own prejudices towards the patriarchy- shown by the master of the house who hires a maid simply so that the children will “give him no worry”- may affect their view to the extent where they will the governess to be mad in order to demonstrate the devastating effect of this unequal society.

These ideas sit in stark opposition to the idea of authorial control: if an author is able to manipulate connotation and meaning to lead a reader, then their understanding of the associative value of the words must be the same. If there is not a universal understanding of words then one cannot expect another to interpret their words as they would themselves, nor can they hope to establish the associative frames through which their declarative statements are empowered.


Expectation   plays an important, if less obvious, role in how a reader perceives a text. The author is able to deliberately disrupt or enhance the reader’s understanding through the use of narrative and technical technique.   Mrs Dalloway’s fragmented narrative is an unconventional narrative form, and the fact that it deviates from the prescribed norms defines it as much as it would have done had it followed one. Whilst language cannot be seen to reliably shape a reader’s perception because of the subjectivity of its meaning and connotation, the manipulation of expectation is able exert a more reliable pressure because it plays off a more definite set of concepts: genres and expectation. That is not to say that genre is fixed but there is an element of solidity to it that allows an author to create a framing context which can influence those that read it. When one reads a text that is obviously rejecting or reshaping a narrative form or genre, that in turn implies that it was a conscious decision and has meaning beyond aesthetics, for one cannot reject anything with simultaneously alluding to it.  The fact that Mrs Dallowaywas at its time nearly unprecedented in its style suggests that Woolf wanted to break away from convention, to encourage a careful examination of the stereotypical characters she’d created in order to find their little abnormalities and deviations. The exclusion of any grand narrative or any major change to Mrs Dalloway’s life encourages, perhaps even forces, the reader to focus on the mundane, the everyday for meaning.

This is even more apparent in Henry James’ Turn of the Screw. James doesn’t try and anticipate the reaction of his readers- which, for the reasons stated earlier, can be seen to be highly unreliable- but instead utilises and induces their expectation.  Rather than assuming a reader will react in a similar way to how he himself would, James instead builds a set of expectations within the confines of the text and thus largely eliminates the need for any presupposing conditions.

The Governess is often described as having a “flash of […] knowledge” but the nature of this newfound knowledge, as well as its source, is never established. The mystery of just what the governess is realising is an example of the techniques James uses to accentuate the building of tension. This sense of unease and uncertainty compels the reader towards what they think will be a conclusive crescendo, when all the mystery will be unravelled and the truth will be revealed. Instead of disclosing the answers however, the story simply ends and the readers’ expectations are denied, prompting them to feel a sense of disappointment or frustration which only deepens the ambiguity of the text. Though the conventions of literature have changed and many works now end unresolved, James’ use of mystery, coupled with the subtle promise of a resolution, drives the reader forward. They are involved and intrigued to such an extent that they have a great desire to acquire certain knowledge about the text, to know the truth:  they are in effect “held” by the power of tension playing upon their expectation, just as the narrator of the initial narrative is.


This framing narrative is also a vital example of how a reader can inflict certain perceptions upon a reader. In this case it is in a rather ironic sense, in the perception that is being brought firmly into the reader’s mind is one of uncertainty. James uses three key techniques to bring this to the fore. Firstly he sets it apart from his narrative self by having it told through the medium of others: written by the governess, dictated by another. This instantly dismisses any pre conceptions the reader may have about the inherent legitimacy of the narrator’s dialogue, because the narrator does not tell the majority of the story. In fact the decision to have a character within a framing narrative act as the narrator of the main text creates doubt because of that distance; it emphasises the subjectivity of the storyteller’s view. Secondly, it is told in amongst other ghost stories, which invokes the tropes of the genre. One of these is the fictionality of the tale in that ghost stories are typically fanciful pieces of fiction whose aim is for “sheer terror” rather than accurately narrate a true story.  These techniques create doubt in the reader’s mind about the veracity of the story before it has even begun, and thus the state of the governess’s mind is also called into question.  By manipulating the expectations of his readers, James is able to shape- or in this case, obfuscate- his reader’s interpretation of the text.


Ultimately a text is an interactive object of ambiguity given meaning by the reader themselves so to say definitively that one will be affected by expectation but not language is nonsensical. In general, language can be seen as incredibly hard to utilise as a reliable tool of suggestion because of both its subjective nature and a reader’s relative relation to it. Expectation however can enjoy a greater deal of success because it is in large part established by the structural techniques within the text and the semi definitive genres of the external world.

April 22, 2018


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