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Woolf: Challenging Literary Tradition


Marcus, describing Woolf as a ‘guerrilla fighter in a Victorian skirt’ argues that writing was for her a ‘revolutionary act’. While Modernist literature in general terms can be seen as defined by its need to ‘get out from under something’, Woolf’s challenge to literary traditions and attempt to go beyond the ‘formal railway line of the sentence’ is at the core of her aim to ‘criticise society and show it at work’. Rereadings of the traditional depiction of Woolf as the Modernist ‘Token Woman’ have focused on the way her textual practises relate to her politics. In this context, Woolf’s Mr Bennet and Mrs Brown which criticises the traditional realists who, like hostesses, do not get beyond polite introductions to their characters, can also be seen as part of Woolf’s commitment to ‘literature which has a use’ to paraphrase Wells. In To the Lighthouse and Mrs Dalloway, the important themes as J Hillis Miller noted, “lie not in anything affirmed but in the way the story is told”. This is reminiscent of Beckett’s comment on Joyce’s writing, the sense that it is not “about something it is that something itself”. The plotless character of both To The Lighthouse and Mrs Dalloway can be seen in the way traditionally central events are pushed to the margins of the text, as in TOL the deaths of central characters are noted parenthetically, while in Mrs Dalloway the whole plot is contained within one day where the only element of plot, as Lodge has noted, is Bradshaw’s appearance at the party. The “dropping of event” allows in Daiches’s view a closer focus on inner life which is not simply the recording of reverie or ‘polished aestheticism’ as in the scrutiny viewpoint but can be seen as Moody argued as a way for Woolf to ‘recreate her society and its image in the complete human person’. Seeing the inner life of the individual as the ‘vital centre’ of civilisation allows Woolf to show society at work while at the same time to ‘escape from the cramp and confinement of personality’ by using a narrator who exists only through the characters, beginning from a mood of reverie but not in Daiches’s view limited to that mood. 

The stream of consciousness techniques Woolf utilises in both novels are as Miller has argued a mode of ventriloquism, however the narrator figure in both TTL and Mrs Dalloway is problematic. As Miller argues, the invasion of the characters by an all-knowing mind seems to suggest the omnipresence which characterised Victorian novels, a continuation of a literary tradition. 

Armstrong’s argument that modernism, in seeing itself as a break from tradition, is also a continuation because it must break with something is part of the paradox of the modernist period. However, this view of the omnipresent narrator in Mrs Dalloway has been contested. Minow Pinkey argues that in fact the shifting focus implies fragmentary narration which includes all the disparate voices of the novel from Mrs Dempster to the homeless woman. The stream of consciousness technique is typical of the modernist period however Woolf’s use of it can be seen as part of her alignment against the realists and the more experimental novelists. 

As Mepham has argued Woolf often problematises the technique by allowing an element of indeterminacy into the narration. For example the first part of TOL includes thoughts which seem to be attributed to James, although the words used indicate a more mature consciousness. In Mrs Dalloway, the transition from one block of thought to another is often affected by the use of transition objects which act as a bridge, e.g. the aeroplane, but as in TTL there is at times an ambiguity in the attribution as in the sermon on conversion which is focalised through Rezia but can also be seen to include the narrating voice. 

In Mrs Dalloway the narrator can be seen as Tambling has argued as the ‘something’ which breaks up and permeates, an indication of the need for a style which would dissolve the hardness of a London full of statues into something more fluid. The paratactic style which delays closure, similar to Richardson’s in the Pilgrimage, can be seen as part of this attempt to open up and break up the body of the text. Both TTL and MD are held together by this need for fluidity, by the sound of waves. In feminist criticism the sea which is the main theme in TTL as well as the sea which appears in Peter’s dream has been read as part of the presymbolic language in both novels. 

In TTL the scene with the skull and James and Cam’s diverging responses is central to this view. Homan’s argues that Mrs Ramsay authorises the presymbolic language but only after she has allowed the fetishisation of the skull, and this is part of identification with cam, recognising her attraction to words for their sounds. Later on in the novel, Cam repeats the words but the object is absent. The words become a way of repeating the mother, which Homans sees as positive, although qualified. Cam’s inability to remember the points of the compass reproduces the mother in a non-representational way, however the libratory effect is not fulfilled if her repetition of the words ends in her repetition of her mothers mediating angel in the house figure. 

In Mrs Dalloway there is a similar problematising of the presymbolic language which permeates and breaks up the text. The homeless woman’s babble of phonemes seems to present an alternate view of evolution however in Septimus we also see the loss of self this entails, in his recognition: “I am not Septimus now”. Peter Walsh's dream, and his wish to ‘blow to nothingness’ are presented satirically, the sirens ‘lolloping’ on the waves. Mrs Dalloway’s position must be that of careful balance between the token man Kilman who denies difference, and Septimus who is all difference. This can be seen as Woolf’s working out of her own literary position between an acceptance of masculine values and traditions and voicing her own consciousness. The central question in Mrs Dalloway becomes whether it is possible to speak the self without being mad. 

In TTL Cam as a double for the woman artist can be seen as part of Woolf’s criticism of 19th century mothers who like Tinsley tell her that ‘women can’t paint, women can’t write’. Abel differs from Homans in reading Lily as repeating the mother while Cam rewrites Clarissa’s relationship with the father’s text and enacts her symbolic movement from Bourton to London in moving from study to garden. Knowledge does not entail a fall here, however Cam’s story is enclosed by its own circularity, by attenuation in language. She admires the neatness of handwriting but does not attempt to read what it says. Her story ends with a gesture which as Abel argues reveals that to be wed to a tradition is not to be its heir. 

However, as Homan’s has noted, the repudiation of reading back through the father is problematised by the fact that an account of Lily’s painting must be included and in representational terms. It is this incorporation of the linguistic practises Woolf depicts as imprisoning which sharpens her challenges to tradition and in part this incorporation includes a rereading of her fathers texts. A central question in both TTL and Mrs Dalloway is the perceived gap between object and subject, and the attempt to bridge that gap through symbol. 

As Beer has argued, many of Woolf’s innovative techniques in TTL stem from this theme. Reading the time passes section as a reflection on Hume, Beer argues that TTL is primary a post-symbolist novel, disputing the human centrality eroded in Woolf’s fathers generation in textual terms as Woolf deals with the problem of representation in the absence of human consciousness. As in Mrs Dalloway, there is a playful parodic element to the animal imagery here, but the indications of human absence can also be abrupt or laconic as in ‘a shell exploded’ pointing to the transitory nature of human life. 

In Mrs Dalloway a similar tension is created between the three different time scales in the novel, as the novel moves backwards by moving forwards. This ‘repetition as raising the dead’ in Miller’s words seems to work in the opposite direction to Time Passes, slowing the narrative to a crawl, in a way similar to the slow movement of the Window. Variations in the tempo in both novels do more than reflect the speed of action or the lack of it, the manipulation of time can also be seen as part of the modernist preoccupation with the difference between scientific time and ‘real duration’ in Bergson’s phrase. Both novels focus on ‘lightness’ and the transitory. This includes a sense of the effort going on which Mrs Ramsay feels as she organises her dinner party, and which Clarissa feels as her sublime moment is disrupted by the message. 

Seeing these two characters as ‘glorified housewife’ or as ‘artists in the social medium’ like Cam’s failure to be liberated through repeating her mother can be seen as relevant to Woolf’s challenge of literary traditions. In TTL Mrs Ramsay’s myopia is symptomatic, as the scene where she thinks she sees Lily and Bankes walking together and immediately thinks they must marry is a parody of the plot which ends all stories with the evasive glow of happy marriage. Woold signals her rejection of this mindframe through Minta leaving the last part of Middlemarch on the train and that fact that Minta’s marriage—which Mrs Ramsay encouraged—is far from perfect. 

In Mrs Dalloway Clarissa's coldness, her ‘tinselly’ character has similarly been seen as a criticism of a society which does not see beyond appearance and the real. In this world, the price of recognising otherness is as Tambling says, suicide, coldness or madness. The repression of the maternal all through Mrs Dalloway ends with Elizabeth going to her father’s side, as in TTL. The difficulty of breaking away from ‘trivial’ femininity while not abandoning identity is fore-grounded in both novels, compounded with a sense that self-creation which suggests itself is similarly problematic a peremptory call on Clarissa ‘to be her self’. 

In Three Guineas Woolf looked forward to an end to the need for feminism in terms of acquiring a job and a room of one’s own. Both TTL and Mrs Dalloway seem sceptical however of the possibility of the creation of a new literary tradition which will endure. 

Lily’s anxiety that her painting will be destroyed parallels Mr Ramsay’s fear of obliteration. Both reach their resolution: finally symbol is pared away in the realisation of the lighthouse as stark tower as Lily’s vision is completed. Beer argues that the demystification at the end, which lets go of the echoes of ‘dust to dust’ can be seen as part of the elegiac triumph of the novel, the serenity which accepts attenuation. 

Woolf’s vision in both novels is not the lasting sense of art as a record of epiphany, but instead she stresses the periodicity and relativity of art and ideas. As Lodge has noted, the visions are not redemptive and are never shared, they are ‘matches struck in the darkness’ ‘catching here and there a spark of light.’ 

In her challenges to literary tradition Woolf’s textual practises are as Moi argues a reflection of her politics, and the reigning principle of both was the difference which rejects the unity implied in a definition of Man in the abstract. In part this was accomplished through her manipulation of modernist techniques, for, although she did not share TS Eliot’s admiration for Joyce, both writers to varying degrees follow Fry’s injunction to ‘fling representation to the winds’. 

written: 2007;
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