Monday, April 7, 2008

To The Lighthouse

Allison Andrew
April 7, 2008

Since this class has had a strong focus from the very beginning on images and visual representations of literature as can be seen with our visual journal assignments, weekly power points, and the emphasis on photographs of members of the Bloomsbury group, a discussion of To The Lighthouse as a scrapbook—a visual compilation—seems long overdue. However, what is most intriguing, I believe, is the way in which that behavior or craft is gendered. Also, to continue with the theme of scrapbooking in Woolf’s novel, “[s]crapbooks were used as a way of teaching children to organize and classify information and to develop an artistic sense” (qtd. in Sparks 3). The connection, then, to the action which appears to underwrite the entire narrative is threefold: the coding of the pastime as feminine, the idea of and importance of the creation of art, and the education and interaction with children.
First, there is the connection to the action of creating a scrapbook with women, although, I am not sure if this is a result of the woman being relegated to the domestic sphere or part of the reason why such a categorization has occurred. The separation of the public world and the private or domestic seems to be reinforced via the family dynamic and Mrs. Ramsey’s role as mother and wife, yet it is also disrupted by her character as she must constantly build up her husband. Woolf paints Mr. Ramsey as a dysfunctional and extremely insecure husband who, despite being described by some as “the finest human being that I know” (39), begs for affirmation of his greatness from his wife, who rarely gives it to him in the specific fashion that he prefers. Furthermore, Mrs. Ramsey considers it an achievement when she is able to give her husband what he needs without saying or doing things that she does not wish to do. Here, what Woolf presents us with, how we are to view gender and gender roles in To The Lighthouse is conflicted. It is not easy to determine who is the head of this household and who has the majority of the power, Mr. Ramsey or his wife.
If we pay particular attention to James, the youngest of the Ramsey children, his father, whom he doesn’t like very much, is feared and his mother, who he cherishes, there seems to be a hint regarding who holds the majority of the power. James attempts to distance himself from his father, but has a strong desire to remain fused with the mother. In several instances, the young boy clings to his mother, literally tries to merge with the maternal body. For example, James is described as standing “stiff between her knees” (60). When James occupies spaces like these, places which position him as strongly aligned with the mother, it may be Woolf’s way of commenting on the need to move beyond such strictly gendered relationships as women occupying the domestic space and men occupying the public realm. Such separations, which remain rigid at many points in the novel, are vexed with regard to the young boy’s association with his mother and his refusal to embody, emulate, or embrace his father. His behaviors and tendencies seem to be coded as feminine although his biological sex would seem to suggest otherwise.
To further solidify the gendered distinctions in this book, we can observe the juxtaposition of James and his sister Cam. The two children, six and seven, respectively, are already employing the gendered behaviors—perhaps mirroring is a better word—that is seen in the adults. There is one particular incident in which a skull prevents Cam from being able to sleep and the possibility of its removal riles James, also leaving him awake. The skull, of course, is not real, but it stands in, I think, for the danger and adventure that boys are supposed to embody and which girls are to shy away from. Woolf illustrates these exact behaviors in the children’s differing reactions: “Cam couldn’t go to sleep with it in the room, and James screamed if she touched it” (171). The simplistic picture we get of boys and girls, more narrowly James and Cam, is reinforced by the behaviors of their parents and those with whom Mr. and Mrs. Ramsey associate. All the while Lily is hard at work creating art, or at least trying to, and Mrs. Ramsey is making a home and keeping the children. However, it is Mr. Ramsey who appears to have the final say regarding both these matters. It is the father who decides they will not go to the lighthouse, and James hates him for that, even though the mother would appear to know what is best for the children for which she cares daily, given the dynamics of a woman’s work at the time of the narrative.

Monday, March 31, 2008


I can’t decide which was more amusing, the zoo metaphor used by Leonard Woolf in which he compares, as far as I can tell, the literary censorship with the containment of many kinds of animals or Wayne Chapman and Janet Manson’s comparison of Woolf’s political work, the art of persuasion, as sport. I think that while both make me laugh, the former provides a greater degree of understanding regarding the politically tumultuous times under which Leonard, Virginia, and the rest of the Bloomsbury group produced their writing, both fiction and non-fiction. Coinciding with this week’s emphasis on the political seems to be a strong prominence on the personal, interesting insofar as political activism is readily associated with the operation of power in the social. If in this case the social is the Bloomsbury group, the writers, intellectuals, and academics, then any relevant discussion about the individuals who make up that group should yield a discussion which would include both biographical information and specific views on modernism and politics.
I find it comforting that the collective definition of modernism that we came to as a class in the first few weeks, and the one to which I most often return, is likewise stated in Sara Blair’s “Modernism and the politics of culture.” She declares, “Modernism has been notoriously inhospitable to definition” (157). I couldn’t agree more. I find, even after reading numerous texts and participating in many discussions on the topic, modernism resists easy categorization. It may be far more agreeable to develop a list of characteristics or to notice a specific tone, feel, or hallmark of literature of the time, but it is damn near impossible to come up with one concise and relevant definition. Perhaps this is because modernist literature was constantly changing, adapting and evolving to suit the times, and what active times they were.
However, Blair also acknowledges, regarding modernism, that “we are taught that its most notable – indeed, perhaps only - unifying feature was the attempt to transcend the political altogether?” (157). I tend to agree with Chapman and Manson rather than Blair on the matter. The political is inseparable from the social with regard to the great writers of modernist literature. If this were not so, there would be no “Fear and Politics.” The connection between literature and politics, I believe, is always present, but because the climate of the early twentieth century was full of events such as World War II and thus so over political, the literature and those who created it, Woolf and Eliot, for example, were that much more inclined to be active in their environment. Chapman and Manson point this out, saying, “Leornard had undertaken an international cooperation—projects that had just led to publication by the Fabian Society of his influential treatise on supranational councils for the prevention of war” (62). It is not surprising though that the Bloomsbury group had strong opinions about the war, specifically against it, for they were in the middle of it.
Distance can yield perspective, but in its absence, Leonard and Virginia Woolf, along with their peers, acted and wrote in protest of the war which threatened to come to their own backyards. They were in it at the ground level, had knowledge of the workings of the German machine well before the public as a result of inside connections. For instance, Leonard’s analysis forecasted “ the state of affairs that would precipitate the fascist takeover in Germany” (Chapman 62). The concern over the growing threat of Germany is clearly grounded in a political sphere, as war is nothing if not political, but I am interested in factoring in the close relationship between Leonard and his wife, “Leonard was Woolf’s most intimate and constant companion from their marriage until her death in 1941” (Hussy 372). Bloomsbury was a close-knit group, they even made a suicide pact regarding the Second World War, and Leonard was, according to Hussy, “always concerned about the reputation of Bloomsbury in general and his wife in particular” (374). This seems to echo the collision of personal and political, social and government, that appears to be the theme of this week.

Monday, March 24, 2008


What I find repeated and perhaps most disturbing throughout A Room of One’s Own and Marianne Dekoven’s chapter on Modernism and gender is the degree to which women in general were viewed as inferior to men or, even more troubling, were invisible altogether. Dekoven points out early in her essay that “Modernism had mothers as well as fathers” (175) and coincidentally, one of those named mothers, Virginia Woolf, explains the depressing attitudes of many at the time of her writing. Woolf’s inclusion of the line, “the best woman was intellectually the inferior of the worst man” is troubling at best. I feel that the most optimistic thing that can be said regarding her other sentiments is that despite the lyrical language and beauty which saturates her words, the very existence of Woolf’s book proves that women’s roles at the turn of the century were vexed.
While the general consensus regarding women was that they were less than men, still second to them with regard to intellect, ability, and social standing, “it was impossible for any woman, past, present, or to come, to have the genius of Shakespeare,” (46). For example, Woolf proves that these statements, one would presume made by ignorant men, men desperate to maintain some semblance of superiority, cannot be true. Included in A Room of One’s Own is the historical view of women in the past: “[s]he never writes her own life and scarcely keeps a diary; there are only a handful of her letters in existence” (45). This is not a blanket statement and it would be quite easy for one to make an intuitive leap which would marginalize women to the role of silent observer in a male dominated world, both in and out of any particular narrative. Curiously, and Woolf points to this as well, women occupy a precarious place within society, as they are in a social structure that at once situates them on a pedestal and in need of protection by men, yet also forbidden from obtaining the same rights as the men who protect them.
A second interesting commonality between these two texts is the level to which they discuss gender in modernism in several different ways. Each way allows for different problematic outcomes as well as varying ways of guarding against those said outcomes. First, Woolf refers to the ways in which one might approach the topic, “women and what they are like; or it might mean women and the fiction that they write; or it might mean women and the fiction that is written about them” (3). Despite the lack of Dekoven to address this issue overtly, the discussion of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness does lend itself to a discussion of male dominated narrative as the novella makes it nearly impossible for female readers to be initiated into the male story and further alienates them from the narrator, Marlow. Dekoven also addresses the misogyny which characterizes much of modernist literature, citing Eliot as a prime example. She explains that his “misogyny is often expressed as a sexual disgust conflated with both anti-Semitism and class hatred” (178). The class hatred or at least the presence of and discussion regarding class is nothing new. Many if not all texts thus far have approached the topic from “Prufrock” and The Wasteland to Howards End and, to a lesser extent, Mrs. Dalloway.
I find it interesting that the issue keeps coming up even when gender is the primary focus of discussion. I was unaware prior to this course how much class and modernist literature were intertwined, and similarly, was ignorant of the degree to which social standing and gender were linked, except of course that women would most often be considered lower than men. I find the greatest collision of this put most eloquently by Woolf when she says, “I thought how unpleasant it is to be locked out; and I thought how it is worse perhaps to be locked in; and, thinking of the safety and prosperity of the one sex and of the poverty and insecurity of the other” (24). In reading these pieces, I realize how precarious a space women have occupied, as writers and as subjects, a space which I feel they will continue to be in until society can truly be as blind to gender and other forms of difference as they should be in a utopian, and highly unlikely, society.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

The Modern Novel

I have found, to this point, several similarities between Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and Forster’s Howards End and what I have determined from reading the secondary materials assigned for this week is that this resemblance is a direct result of genre more than anything else. Yes, Forster and Woolf were similar in their personal demographic and both were writing in England, but what I find to be the most common thread is the focus on character which, as Virginia herself suggests in “Mr Bennet and Mrs Brown,” is the cornerstone of successful fiction. She quotes, “The foundation of good fiction is character-creating and nothing else” (234). The importance of character creating is strongly linked with character reading, a skill which also finds manifestation in Mrs. Dalloway.
Woolf proves she not only endorses the importance of character driven narrative, but also practices it as is evident in reading her novel. Mrs. Dalloway begins by introducing the main character and speaking, ever so briefly, of her personality: “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself” (3). This may seem insignificant, but as Woolf stresses the importance of character in her essay, we witness her elimination of any mention of setting. She says of the modern novel, “Style counts; plot counts; originality of outlook counts. But none of these counts anything like so much as the convincingness of the characters” (234). By making the first sentence of her novel revolve around the main character, Woolf sets the tone for a character driven piece. Also present in this work is the notion of the readability of characters and importance in reading and understanding people. Woolf states that such is the “art of the young,” but aligns the skill with a character whom she prefaces as “[feeling] very young” (8). Woolf goes on to explain that “[h]er only gift was knowing people almost by instinct” (9).
Such commonalities between what Woolf thought necessary of the modern novel and what she included in her own Mrs. Dalloway are significant insofar as they speak to her savvy and foresight. Eliot expressed his view that “The novel had effectively ‘ended’” (Trotter 70), whereas Woolf felt it need only change. Trotter also expresses a changing focus on character in the modern novel, explaining that, “[f]igures in narrative fiction do tend towards cliché because they have to be made continuously recognizable despite internal and external alterations” (72). In having characters who must transcend across all lines in order to be accessible by the largest margin of readers, it seems proponents of such an approach would endorse sacrificing other narrative elements so as to concentrate on character.
Eliot endorsed making “the novel possible again by instilling into it a stricter form” (Trotter 74). However, I can’t help but read the example which Trotter provides, The Sound and the Fury, for instance, and see that the work tends much more towards the character driven fiction of which Woolf speaks, as Faulkner’s novel seems to focus exclusively on characters, sometimes at the expense of form, the former emphasized by the point-of-view of each section and the latter by the fragmented, at times convoluted, structure. That is not to say that only one, Eliot or Woolf, must be correct in their thinking; it is possible, in fact likely, that the success and longevity of the novel are a result of a sliding scale of emphasis between form and character. We know from Steinberg’s article, “Mrs. Dalloway and T.S. Eliot’s Personal Waste Land” that the two intellectuals did not always see eye to eye and that “Virginia’s early reactions to Eliot were rather negative” (4). However, we also read in this piece that commonalities exist between Eliot’s famed poem and Woolf’s novel. Perhaps her incorporation of elements of The Waste Land in her own work is the ur example of what she felt was at the heart of the success of modern fiction: “Art is somehow an improvement upon the old” (1). Possibly she saw Mrs. Dalloway as an improvement on Eliot’s work and, in turn, the inclusion of such ideas an improvement on her own novel.

Monday, March 3, 2008

The Wastland

Each time I read The Wastland I can’t help but see it as a catalogue of events that transpire in an environment where all meaning and presumed patterns have collapsed. Broken cyclical references and unsuccessful relationships among people, including the multiple speakers and the reader, pervade the poem. Part one, “The Burial of the Dead,” at first seems to situate readers in the somber mood of the narrative with both its titular reference to the death and the immediate juxtaposition of birth and death. The initial lines read, “April is the cruelest month, breeding / Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing / Memory and desire.” It is important to note that April signifies spring, a time of rebirth and renewal, but the immediate invocation of the “cruelest month” quickly undermines any sense of optimism. The next stanzas follow in this vein as readers are provided a cyclical reference either to vegetation, familial life, or ensuing love and then almost instantly given a reason why these things are certain to fail or have failed already.
The death and resurrection is most clearly gestured to via vegetation in the beginning of The Wasteland, as we observe in the second stanza, “And the dry stone no sound of water.” The lack of water here is interesting in that it denotes an arid place not capable of sustaining life, a literal wasteland. However, shortly thereafter, Eliot uses floral imagery, specifically hyacinths, which are a perennial and thus occur over and over again. Perhaps this reinforces once more the cyclical nature of the poem. What remains curious though is the amount of references to reoccurring images, memories, like those we share with Marie, in stark contrast to the overall crux of the work, “A heap of broken images.”
The larger narrative finds the disruption of rebirth and renewal, the retarded cycle of death and resurrection of land and being situated among a fragmented framework.
This fragmentation expressed explicitly by the multivocality of the text and the “heap of broken images” is echoed in the breaks in the cyclical environments which saturate Eliot’s work. The poem invites a read that at once tries to make sense of a nonsensical world and to struggle to “only connect,” to channel E.M. Forster, the present to the past and future or, if you prefer, to fix the irregularities in the larger, in an all of time way context of time. The epigraphs invite readers to struggle to make sense of a fragmentation of language and time. The beginning of the poem, its initial epigraph, signals to readers the way in which to read the remaining narrative. The words are not accessible to most readers, a hallmark of Eliot’s. However, not only does this inclusion signify to readers that the poem will primarily focus on the destabilization of the cycle of life, death, and rebirth, but it also illuminates the temporal and linguistic instability of the text.
The second book refocuses our attention on a more interpersonal cycle; a description of a wealthy couple and of a lower class couple illustrates the emphasis on class found in so much of modern literature. Also, this section, “A Game of Chess,” includes dialogue which I feel could be a verbatim representation of a reader’s thoughts upon exposure to this poem for the first time. Although on a more serious note, the lament present is also indicative of the struggle to make meaning out of the small disparate bits of information the poem provides, to, in effect, re-order a disordered world wherein the natural cycles no longer function. The lines, “You know nothing? Do you see nothing? Do you remember / Nothing?” The woman presented in the second section has deliberately halted the renewal that The Wasteland so desperately seeks; by having an abortion, Lil exemplifies what Eliot hints. The remaining references to the past and the difficulty in producing a future become emblematic of the poem, the former illustrating a commonality between Eliot and HD, as her Trilogy renders visible similar historical reference upon reference and the latter speaks to modern concerns in general—uncertain fates and unknowable outcomes regarding death and desolation.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Katherine Mansfield

I was interested to learn that Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf had a somewhat vexed relationship. I can see similarities in their work, or at least in their short stories, and wonder to what extent such overlaps were coincidental or deliberate. Lee points out, “Their friendship was intimate but guarded, mutually inspiring but competitive” (381). In light of this, I read specifics in Mansfield differently than I did prior to reading Lee’s work. For example, “Prelude” seems to have much in common with some of Woolf’s short stories, particularly in its use of color, which I must admit, I have begun to focus on as a result of our class discussion on visual art.
Mansfield employs visual descriptions bright with imagery. She says of the interior design in Kezia’s house, “The dining-room window had a square of coloured glass at each corner. One was blue and one was yellow. Kezia bent down to have one more look at the blue lawn with the blue arum lilies growing at the gate, and then at a yellow lawn with yellow lilies and a yellow fence” (82). What this extended quotation illustrates is the prominence of vivid color in Mansfield’s writing. Perhaps this is an element of all writers of the period, or possibly, it was in reading Woolf’s work that Mansfield first saw this technique. Despite the specifics, the proverbial who came first argument, I feel that reading either one of these women can enrich one’s experience when reading the other.
There is one difference which stands out in Mansfield’s work; “Prelude,” “Bliss,” and “The Daughters of the Late Colonel” seem to involve more personal and familial type stories than those included in Woolf’s collected stories. I am well aware that this could be merely a result of the particular stories we have read by each author, but still it strikes me as curious that Mansfield’s stories seem to resonate with family and children while Woolf’s simply do not or at least they do not do so in such an obvious fashion. I wonder if this could be attributed to what Lee explains as a focus of Mansfield on having children. It appears, “Katherine maintained two entirely disparate sets of beliefs in her head: one that she was incurably ill and indeed dying, the other that she would recover, have children, live in the country with Murry and be perfectly happy” (382). I can’t help but see this split most clearly in “Bliss.”
Of course, it is only speculation but I find the mother’s place in the story to be an intriguing one with regard to the observation of Mansfield’s personal life made by Lee. Perhaps the tension that the author felt with regard to having her own family, which seems to culminate in a move to the country, the quintessential space for domesticity and the fear of her own mortality play out in the mother and the nanny in the story. “Bliss” seems to render this split visible in that the child in question is literally a part of the mother but seems as though she is not the child’s guardian in any way. This observation is perhaps clearest when Bertha mutters, “Why have a baby if it has to be kept—not in a case like a rare, rare fiddle—but in another woman’s arms?” (146). Bertha is the child’s mother, but the nanny is the one who is in control. The baby, then, may occupy the unease Mansfield experiences at the thought of having children of her own. It is made clear that the mother in the narrative loves this child. She says, “I’m fond of you. I like you,” but her place seems to be with her husband Harry and the nanny’s, as Bertha knows well, is with the child. Mansfield emphasizes this via dialogue between the two women who I feel may stand in for two distinct facets of her own personhood. The story goes on, “‘You’re wanted on the telephone,’ said Nanny, coming back in triumph and seizing her Little B” (147). I imagine this connection is a reach, but after learning of Woolf’s mental illness and the way in which it may have impacted her work and her life in general, I feel this could be a similar overlap in mental state and literary work. I find it fascinating to construct an explanation regarding one seemingly innocuous plot point in one story, the simultaneous embodiment of and longing for motherhood in “Bliss” and how Mansfield’s own conflicted feelings of having children influence this.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Virginia Woolf

To be honest, I was not expecting to find Virginia Woolf’s short stories as convoluted as I did, but after reading them and thinking about some of the narrative qualities, I find they appear to be more like journal entries than short fiction. Perhaps they are a hybrid of the two, as Sandra Kemp describes them as “an interior monologue” (62). In Kemp’s article, we also learn that Woolf allowed herself to indulge in short stories such as “The Mark on the Wall,” “Kew Gardens,” and “Monday or Tuesday” as a personal indulgence. She explains, “they were written by way of diversion; they were the treats I allowed myself” (63). I find that the way Woolf viewed the work strongly impacts the experience readers will have when they read it.
In several different places within these short stories, we can see the fragmentation commonly associated with modernism as well as what Kemp terms the blending of the “inner and outer voices” (77). I believe what Kemp is referring to here is the near seamless manner whereby the reader can barely distinguish whether they are reading the narrator’s words or a character’s words. I am also including in my reading of this statement the way that Woolf often transitions from one thought to another without clearly distinguishing whose thoughts they are, or perhaps more importantly, if these thoughts belong to a single person or multiple people. For example, the third paragraph of “Monday or Tuesday” contains a largely fragmented passage which exists, I feel, at the intersection of a conversation with another character and a frantic internal dialogue. It reads, “Radiating to a point men’s feet and women’s feet, black or gold encrusted -- (This foggy weather--? No, thank you—The commonwealth of the future)—the firelight darting and making the room red, save for the black figures and their bright eyes” (17). The section continues, but that becomes more streamlined as it goes on.
Another observation I made after reading several of these short stories, and perhaps I would not have been as quick to make this connection had last week’s class not focused on visual arts, was Woolf’s use of color and carefully artistic descriptions of items and images in these works. There is, of course, the titular reference to color in “Blue & Green” which I feel signifies the difference between land and sea, confinement and freedom. The strong emphasis on color and nature pervades nearly every line in “Kew Gardens.” Woolf describes a landscape where there are “leaves half way up and unfurling at the tip red or blue or yellow petals marked with spots of colour raised upon the surface” (39). The passage continues to catalogue a “brown earth,” “grey back of a pebble,” “brown circular veins,” and “vast green spaces” (39). To me, the way the first paragraph uses color and depiction coincides with the imagery common to the time period, but also to the paintings of Van Gough and others that we examined last week. I am curious to the extent that Woolf fashioned her descriptions to match the visual representations of place offered in paintings.
The visual arts were something she was immersed in partially because of her family. Kemp details a conversation between Virginia and Vanessa regarding visual arts. She says, “‘I should like you to paint a large, large, picture, where everything would be brought perfectly firmly together, yet all half flying off the canvas in rapture” (62). This statement makes clear the importance of visual art for Virginia Woolf and the values she places on it find their way into her short stories. I also think that the color is used as a means of rich description because its absence frightens Woolf. In a way, her inclusion of color works as a means to preserve what she fears could be lost. Woolf says “‘We shall very soon lose our sense of colour’” (67). Kemp informs us that “she calls this ‘the worst of living in a highly organized community” (67). Because the short stories she wrote were half journal and half fiction, Woolf can address her emotions. She does this in subtle ways like with her abundant use of color rather than by overtly stating her concerns via characters within the narratives of these short stories.