Reading Virginia Woolf's novel



OCTOBER 23, 2013



                                       Complexity: A Richly Organized Pattern in Mrs Dalloway

But it is fairly certain that “interpretation”… is only legitimate when it is not interpretation at all, but merely putting the reader in possession of facts which he would otherwise have missed.
         T.S. Eliot “The Function of Criticism”


Several novel features in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway have been missed, overlooked that is, during the eighty-odd years of its life. Perhaps its profound complexity, a quality which describes this novel as a “richly organized pattern,” has worked against its being taken more seriously (the phrase from James Gleick 43). According to A. D. Moody this is “an imperfect novel” which is “deeply flawed” (Moody 72). Other critics, from the outset, have underestimated its virtues, considered it dull as dishwater, yet praised its beauty grudgingly with left-handed compliments. Even David Daiches has pronounced Virginia Woolf a minor novelist; J. W. Beach comments on Clarissa Dalloway’s daydreaming as a characteristic which is not deeply moving. Joan Bennett claims the Woolf novels fail to provide memorable portraits. The most vicious criticisms remain those of Muriel Bradbrook who says, “To demand ‘thinking’ from Mrs. Woolf is clearly illegitimate, … [since she] has preserved her extraordinary fineness and delicacy of perception at the cost of some cerebral etiolation” (in Jacqueline Latham 12-25). Walter Allen, among others who have struggled to find a plot hidden within such beautiful writing, has considered her a novelist of narrow limits, a minor master (Allen 423). This is to be damned with faint praise.

      Over the years however, scholarly critics have discerned a great deal more than mere “beautiful writing” among the hidden devices, such as Virginia Woolf’s dialogue with preformed language as a recognition of literary history, which some believe has served only as “evidence for alleging certain important limitations in her art” (David Lodge in Latham 27).  A literary system, however, cannot “be understood by breaking it down and studying each piece” (James Crutchfield in Hayles Chaos 45). Much interpretative labor is required, it seems, when a society hostess, a social butterfly married to a politician, appears as the unlikely hero. Even then, small errors among critics have proved catastrophic if not highly embarrassing. On the subject of cerebral etiolation, there are several obscure passages in the text of Mrs Dalloway, an interacting system of competing and conflicting forces outside the usual linear model, which are missed when “the message [is] hidden in the beauty of words” (MD 134).

     The hidden message features ostensibly unstructured information which seems random, unwanted, unexpected,  insignificant, and which, in all likelihood, consists of seemingly meaningless phrases to be safely disregarded. The proper standards of intelligibility have not been located (Bruss 155). In communication theory, phrases which seem to distort and obscure, are thought of merely as “noise” including observable aspects which otherwise would not have been noticed for having been obscured by nonlinearity. These include subsidiary factors deliberately accumulated or perhaps mentioned by mere chance. “Literary texts inevitably contain elements that are not immediately decodable and that therefore function for their readers as what information theory would call noise” (William Paulson in Hayles Chaos 43). These as yet uncoded passages are experienced as disorder, i.e. not dealing with the established literary codes. In Mrs Dalloway they are prominent as verbal curiosities, “how wonderful, but at the same time … how strange”  (MD 126).

     One exemplary passage of aberrant thought, suggests that, according to Henri Poincaré, “an arbitrarily small uncertainty concerning the initial conditions of a system may lead to very large errors in the prediction of its subsequent states” (Paulson in Hayles Chaos 45). Accordingly, “it may happen that small differences in the initial conditions produce very great ones in the final phenomena” (Gleick 321). The slight ripple of the mysterious car introduces an example of aberrant thought, when “everything had come to a standstill”; it follows a suggestive traffic jam, long before the device of traffic as a metaphor for “the collapse of civilization” was coined (discussed by Porush in Hayles Chaos 54-70). (“Traffic and fiction are true analogues of each other”-- Porush 74).

     Recognizing the paraphrase of Poincaré’s famous position “depends on prior learning and specific contexts” and links Mrs Dalloway with the primary image from chaos theory; although “trifling,” Poincaré’s dictum is  paraphrased by the words of Mrs Dalloway’s narrator that “something had happened, something so trifling in single instances that no mathematical instrument, though capable of transmitting shocks in China, could register the vibration; yet in its fullness rather formidable” (MD 20-25). Poincaré's words approximate the unpredictably inexact influence of  “a butterfly stirring the air today in Peking  [transforming] storm systems next month in New York” (Hayles “Constrained” 77; Gleick 8). This passage of the type Barthes has called lexies is a “unit of reading, a stretch of text which is isolated as having a specific effect or function different from that of neighboring stretches of text” (Culler Structuralist 202). This important bit of scientific scholarship has remained unnoticed until now, peace to Muriel Bradbrook.

     Presumably the small ripple as a non-assimilated element leads indirectly to pseudo-patriotic thoughts followed by an insult to “the House of Windsor, words, broken beer glasses, and a general shindy” (MD 25-26). It seems that the scene of domestic tranquility is followed by a riot. The same word, “shindy,” is used pejoratively of the European War which was initiated by the enormity of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie; the resulting chain of historical events is hardly comparable to a bar-room brawl (MD 145).

     A slight ripple, a trifle, (the metaphoric “butterfly”) is succeeded by a brawl; an assassination leads to a war. There are indications that the initial conditions, the ripple, must give rise to the brawl; the War is usually considered the consequence of the killings which led to such untoward international disturbances. Although they differ in magnitude, the resulting “shindys” are themselves proportional, even with the warning that post hoc ergo propter hoc represents the logical fallacy of causality (Jo Parker 34). Here, consequences are appropriate according to the Newtonian expectation that small causes lead to small effects, large causes, large effects, whereas according to Poincaré, “minute fluctuations [may be] amplified into dramatic large-scale changes” (N. Katherine Hayles Chaos 8). Mrs Dalloway will incorporate events in which the consequences are out of proportion to their antecedents by comparison.

     The words “trifling” and “formidable” in Mrs Dalloway echo the phenomenon which originated with the thinker Henri Poincaré (1854-1912), eminent mathematician, scientist, and philosopher, who said that it may happen that small differences in the initial conditions are amplified dramatically in the final phenomenon. A small mathematical error in the former will produce an enormous error in the latter. The phrase “a sensitive dependence on initial conditions” is the hallmark of his belief in situations, contrary to Isaac Newton’s, in which “a very small cause which escapes our notice determines a considerable effect that we cannot fail to see” (Poincaré in Gleick 321). As the originator of dynamical systems theory, Poincaré was to “initiate the critical analysis of classical determinism, thereby opening the modern era” (Ivar Ekeland in Jo Parker 64). Currently his famous position is usually introduced with the words “the sensitive dependence on initial conditions.”

     Marcel Proust was clearly familiar with Poincaré judging from his frequent approximations in Remembrance of Things Past as in this passage: “In the narrative of a military historian, the smallest fact, the most trivial happenings, are only the outward signs of an idea which has to be elucidated and which conceals other ideas, like a palimpsest” when “a very small defending force has been sufficient to destroy considerable forces on the other side.” And again, “To go back to our philosophy book; it’s like the rules of logic or scientific laws, reality conforms to them more or less, but remember the great mathematician Poincaré: he’s by no means certain that mathematics is a rigorously exact science” (Proust 108-115). The invalid supposition that all causes have proportional effects relates to Newton’s scientific theories, if  “one must be scientific, above all scientific” (MD 32, 102; Plato Phaedrus 271 a-c). It has been claimed that, according to the view of Newtonian science, the world is largely predictable and rational (Jo Parker 5).

     The fallacy of this supposition shapes the life of Septimus Smith, whose employer, Mr. Brewer, prophesied that he would “succeed to the leather arm-chair in the inner room under the skylight” (MD 129). The words of this oracle, like the oracle at Delphi consulted in antiquity and known to offer ambiguous pronouncements, suggest that his expectations are likely to be very great. Recall that Croesus consulted the Delphic oracle before attacking Persia and was told he would destroy a great empire. Accordingly, he attacked, and his own empire was destroyed. According to contemporary history, “something happened which threw out many of Mr. Brewer’s calculations,” and, subsequent to the unpredictable intervention of the troublesome European War,  “smashed the plaster cast of Ceres [Demeter], ploughed a hole in the geranium beds, and utterly ruined the cook’s nerves”; consequently Septimus, fortune’s fool, is found seated instead under the skylight in Sir William Bradshaw’s consultation room (MD 129, 153). Fools are “conventionally quixotic while madness may well have some method in it” (Bruss 160).

     The little brawl, a “shindy,” resulting from an insult concerning the Germanic ancestry of the Windsors further parallels the World War with Germany, “that little shindy with schoolboys”; here it is troped by some as a trivial matter which has led to the horror which finds Septimus wearing his threadbare overcoat as a motley badge of madness. “The interaction of components on one scale [according to Poincaré] may lead to complex global behavior on a larger scale that in general cannot be deduced from knowledge of the individual components” (Crutchfield in  Hayles Chaos 45). The effect is non-linear; the error obtained at the end may be disproportionately large if small errors in the beginning are discounted.

     Sir William Bradshaw, the therapist, contrary to the theories of Poincaré, is an advocate of the rigid applications of the Newtonian paradigm. The clocks of Harley Street, dividing and subdividing, “counseled submission, upheld authority, and pointed out in chorus the supreme advantages of a sense of proportion”; they are evocative of Bradshaw’s metaphorical worship of Divine Proportion, which, among other things, means “the division of a line into extreme and mean ratio” (MD 154-155; Huntley 23-27). The term “Divine” originates with Luca Pacioli (1445); it is also known as the “Golden Section,” or the “Golden Ratio,” its unique value said to be “the supreme epithet of God himself” (Livio 132). For others it is “the objective measure of beauty” (Law 117). Considered a representative of beauty, it is also known as a numeral (1.618…), called phi after the Greek sculptor Phidias (See the diagram at Hoff Invisible 254). It seems to be correlated with Socrates’s discussion of the complex geometry of the divided line, as a factor in proportional arrangements, immediately preceding his Allegory of the Cave (Plato The Republic 6.509d-511d; Hoff Invisible 231; and see J. E. Raven).

     The Golden Ratio (Divine Proportion), further, is material to the rigid values of the proportional representation of the human body such as “Vitruvian Man” (Livio 134). This is the famous drawing of Leonardo da Vinci based on Vitruvius (1st century BC) whose book is called the Canon of Proportions, giving the desirable bodily attributes of man much as in the dimensions and proportions of classical architecture. Newtonian dynamics handles linear phenomena well; the unpredictable quality in the narrative of Septimus, however, manifests a decidedly non-linear aspect, i.e. the consequences are not strictly proportional. As a madman his power of insight emerges as nonsense, “noise.” Still, according to Enid Welsford, “The cap and bells sometimes cover a head not altogether devoid of common sense” (Welsford xi). With a pun on Bradshaw’s own identity, however, as the Newtonian priest of science, the case of Septimus is pronounced (“He was not fit to be about”) an instance of extreme gravity requiring his hospitalization. “It was a question of law”  (MD 142, 146, emphases added). Yet, “facts are more flexible than they appear to be” (Welsford 322).

     The study of complexity in Mrs Dalloway demands an awareness that, following small fluctuations, non-linear relations between causes and effects may have great consequences. Backgrounds have a way of becoming foregrounds. “Seemingly trivial deviations can lead to large-scale effects,” according to the literary critic Katherine Hayles, who voices this observation, frequently mentioned among scholars of complexity (Chaos 11). But many a straightforward plot summary, a linear narrative which leads predictably to a steady state when the action ceases, has failed to yield any relevance to Poincaré’s position once the “shindy” has subsided. “What one reader gets from a narrative may be very different from what another reader gets---and neither of these readings may have to do with what a writer thinks he or she has written” (Jo Parker 24). Structuration, a feature pf plot defined as the organization of letters, words, motifs and episodes, “as readers engage in the reading process” (the interrelation of parts in a whole), is “an oriented activity that is only completed in the mind of the reader” (Jo Parker 22). A summary which gives the skeleton of the text may differ from one incorporating greater detail, which thus interrogates validity, when a “plot” depends on varying amounts of interpretation or “inventions that the reader regards as the real basis for the plot” (Jo Parker 23).

     “No reader will respond to a text in the same way twice, since during his second reading he is in possession of considerable foreknowledge which will greatly influence his feelings and judgment” (Hutchinson 21). An interesting analogy can be made from the discussion of the length of the coastline of England, as seen on any map, in which it can be considered infinitely long. “As the scale of measurement becomes smaller, the measured length of a coast line rises without limit, bays and peninsulas revealing ever-smaller sub-bays and sub-peninsulas” (Gleick 94-96). Thus, the plot of Mrs Dalloway could be summarized as a woman’s preparations for giving a party which introduces bits of disorder, although the trajectory “may have deep structures of order encoded within it” (Hayles Chaos 3). A seeming simplicity of frame structure conceals extremely complex realities; something like the simple dripping tap in Clarissa’s bathroom (a famous image in chaos theory avant la lettre) “can generate a pattern that is eternally creative” (MD 45; Gleick 262-264; Jo Parker 69). As the scale of measuring the plot becomes more detailed, including ostensibly trivial matters, there is a potential for issues of importance to emerge inclusively and the “summary” ceases to be a mere summary but rather approaches interpretation.

     Beyond merely defying of the utility of the plot summary, chaotic texts such as Mrs Dalloway scramble chronology, exacerbate compression and expansion, and intermingle unrelated events. “When a narrative plays games with repetition, order, and duration, and when a narrative pointedly implicates the reader in the process of meaning making, these devices become integral to the meaning itself“; such techniques become as significant as the diction (Jo Parker 29, 96). “Chaos remains the necessary other, the opaque turbulence that challenges and complements the transparency of order” (Hayles Chaos 3). The notion of a game has been inserted by Dr. Holmes who suggests that Septimus play cricket, “a nice out-of-door game” (MD 37).

      Newtonian dynamics, according to Thomas Weissert, focuses on the clock which “is only equipped to handle linear phenomena” as an appropriate image (in Hayles Chaos 226). In Mrs Dalloway, the trajectory of time is regularly marked by the ringing of Big Ben, the chiming clock at the Palace of Westminster. John Graham comments on Big Ben as signifying “the unifying reality hidden in the phenomena of time,” the central symbol being the clock (Graham in Latham 29-33). Here, the “clockwork hegemony,” so phrased by Stephen Kellert, follows “the Newtonian paradigm, [by which] we live in a universe whose workings function as regularly and predictably as those of a clock” (Jo Parker 3). One day follows another, “Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday” (MD 185). Afternoon regularly follows morning in sequence, adding day to day; but temporal dualism consisting of the inexorable progress of the day from morning to night is disordered by temporal jumps in discourse and narrative fluctuations  contrasting with the static pages of the text.

     The linear timetable of Mrs Dalloway begins with the striking of Big Ben, the voice of a well-regulated clock. Thus, while Mr. Bowley observes the famous skywriting aeroplane, signifying “a meaningless or unreadable text,” the clock strikes eleven times (David Porush in Hayles Chaos 66). Clarissa has crossed Victoria Street without a specific temporal indication but which is merely suggested as she traverses the city; but when Peter Walsh arrives at and departs from his visit with her, his former lover, it is eleven o’clock upon his arrival and half-past when he leaves. Peter, again, hears the bell while walking in Whitehall at half-past eleven, which in the relativity of time is followed by the “late clock” of St. Margaret’s as well, the parish church of the House of Commons, like a hostess who finds that her guests have already arrived, “precisely at half-past eleven” (MD 74). It is still eleven-thirty when Peter arrives in Trafalgar Square.

     Coordination among the clocks serves to link characters otherwise unrelated. In Regent’s Park, Rezia Warren Smith asks, “What is the time” as the quarter-hour strikes, and her husband answers, “I will tell you the time,” with the wisdom of the fool for this absurd reign of Chronos, while Peter blows smoke rings in the shape of hour-glasses (MD 106). Shortly, for Septimus who is to meet Sir William Bradshaw, it is “precisely twelve o’clock” by Big Ben, emphatically noon as Clarissa has finished mending her dress, and the Smiths walk down Harley Street for their twelve o’clock appointment (MD 142). The Smiths leave Bradshaw, and Hugh Whitbread sees the time, half-past one, on the face of a commercial clock as he arrives for luncheon with Lady Bruton and Richard Dalloway; the hour strikes as he departs (MD 170). Richard returns to his home at three with the ringing of Big Ben. The bell strikes the half-hour and the “late clock” again follows “on the wake of Big Ben” as Elizabeth and Miss Kilman leave for the Army and Navy Stores, and Clarissa watches her neighbor from the window (MD 194). The clock strikes six when Septimus is pronounced dead, and Peter marvels incongruously that Clarissa’s letter has reached him by six o’clock.  Clarissa’s successful party is waning, “the rooms getting emptier and emptier, with things scattered on the floor” as the clock strikes three AM (MD 283, 295-6). The linear clockwork hegemony is functioning well. It does so usually, except with the feminine authority of the “late clock”; it games the flexibility, the elasticity of time.

     Like a Pindaric ode to time, the novel proceeds, as Milton wrote of the “leaden-stepping hours,” lead being the astrological metal associated with Saturn, who is also linked to Chronos (MD 5). Big Ben governs this procession with some interference from “the late clock,” St. Margaret’s, who says, “I am not late. No, it is precisely half-past eleven” by her own reckoning; buried in ring after ring of sound, the late clock emphasizes the ambiguity of temporal location developed further in the narrative (MD 74; Miller 186). “The temporal trajectory jumps back and forth between the present and past events,” the recent past, the near past, and the distant past as the temporalization of a spatial process; this is the most obvious manipulation of time (Jo Parker 91). Each character narrates at least one anecdote; each character is the subject of flashbacks as well (digressions which scramble time within the overall linear tendency).  Flashbacks reverse the normal flow of the present, distorting the sequential narrative by going back to the past, at odds with the arrow of time, the flow of time from past to future. The manipulation of time in this way serves to lengthen life as well as to lengthen the narrative. On one occasion the narrative leaps forward or even backward from the temporal context of the narrative, i.e. 3 PM, for a comment on her daughter’s relationship with Miss Kilman: “Well, thought Clarissa about three o’clock in the morning, reading Baron Marbot for she could not sleep, it proves she has a heart” (MD 205). This might seem abstruse, according to Iser, “but only so long as one insists on regarding the novel as a representative portrayal of reality” (Iser 263).

     Laurence Sterne and Marcel Proust have exhibited similar practices. Woolf comments on Sterne’s Tristram Shandy to say “our sense of elasticity is increased so much that we scarcely know where we are. We lose our sense of direction” (Woolf “Phases of Fiction” 133, 135). Regarding Marcel Proust’s circular novel she says, “the product of the civilization which he describes is so porous, so pliable, so perfectly receptive that we realize him only as an envelope, thin but elastic, which stretches wider and wider and serves not to enforce a view but to enclose a world” (Woolf “Phases of Fiction” 123).

     Although some have denied that Woolf has gone to school on Sterne, a  very Shandean episode in Mrs Dalloway occurs when Septimus Smith and his wife have crossed the street on their way to see Sir William Bradshaw. Immediately a digression of some sixteen pages seemingly arrests their progress, leaving them dangling in mid-narrative, at a standstill, until they are again seen walking in Harley Street (MD 126, 142; Hunting 284). Another Shandean episode occurs in the early scene in which the youthful Clarissa, holding the hot-water can, stunned with the charming presence of Sally Seton “beneath this roof,” is arrested by a book-length digression. At her party, years intervening, Clarissa is similarly stunned, but it is because Sally has radically changed in appearance, “for she hadn’t looked like that.” In the presence of such a shock, “one might put down the hot water can quite composedly” as if she had been holding it in suspended Shandean animation through the years (MD 51, 260). Here the novel, like Laurence Sterne, is self-consciously fiddling with its own narrative form, a phrase deriving from David Porush (in Hayles Chaos 63). Likewise, Tristram “dropped the curtain” over Uncle Toby for an extended digression; he leaves father and uncle for another digression. Most famously he abandons his eavesdropping mother looking through a keyhole (Sterne 118-127; 175-221; 291- 299).

     “Woolf discovered in Proust a vocabulary of visual forms readily adaptable to her own needs” (Leonard 342). The most Proustian component in Mrs Dalloway recalls Marcel’s extended search for lost time which emerges from the effects of tasting a cookie dipped into a cup of tea. The Dalloway discourse consisting of flashbacks in search of lost time is introduced as involuntary memories, total recall, the phenomenon frequently appearing in Remembrance of Things Past; in Mrs Dalloway it is brought about by the squeak of the hinges as she comes through the French windows. The squeak echoes simultaneously in the Bourton of Clarissa’s youth as a girl of eighteen and in her present in Westminster as well, the present cohabiting with the past. She steps out through the French windows into her Wednesday in June 1923, moving forward yet facing the rear. Readers must be alert to “this language of visual shapes in order to gain access to the full complexity” (Leonard 333).

Further games with time are various. Clarissa’s fear of time is stimulated by the evidence of Lady Bruton’s ageing face which Clarissa associates with a timekeeping sundial (MD 44). Peter Walsh, however, exaggerates the references to time. He finds the prolonged evening, due to Mr. Willett’s “summer time,” a novel manipulation of temporality passed by Parliament in 1916 (MD 245). The Morrises express a willingness to assist Peter Walsh, even to lend him a time-table (colloquially, a “Bradshaw”), coming to his aid somewhat tardily (MD 242). Roll-Hansen comments that Woolf “makes no attempt to conceal the staggered time-table of Peter Walsh’s mid-day walk,” in which he seems to possess the virtue of bi-location, being at several places at the same time (Roll-Hansen 304). His relationship with time is entirely subjective. The broadest exaggeration of temporal manipulation occurs as Peter leaves Clarissa at 11.30; marching up Whitehall he hears the bells of St. Margaret’s at 11.30, and is at Trafalgar Square at 11.30. It seems that at noon, time freely fluctuates marking the daily “solstice”: “Time flaps on the mast” (MD 73-74). This is only one of the “forbidden” mergers between time and space which violates normal conditions (Bruss 156). The deviations of realistic sequence confront the reader with the necessity for an adjustment of normal perception.

     Peter, presiding over much of the narrative, suggests by his grumpiness, his crankiness, and his inclination to be furious, a saturnine disposition (MD 4, 8, 237 and 241). These characteristics  associated with Saturn, or Chronos, (Father Time), his pen-knife serving as a diminutive scythe, apparently have something to do with his overstated command of sequence as a condition of his narrative stance. His smoke rings and his impression of “ring after ring of sound” are evocative of the rings of Saturn as he, playfully, entertains little Elise Mitchell with the hinged case of his pocket watch for her to “blow open” (MD 74, 84, 98). Such esoteric allusions, unfortunately, “will restrict full appreciation to a comparably well-read or highly imaginative elite” (Peter Hutchinson 22-23). Furthermore, the reference to Poincaré’s equally esoteric belief in the sensitive dependence on initial conditions invoking the study of complexity, also known as the science of chaos, has become a common trope in the study of fiction; such studies involve narrative changes occurring during a seemingly minor event resulting in a significantly different outcome than might have occurred without the divergence (Hayles Chaos 1).

     The extreme sensitivity to initial conditions, such as in the sequence of events, is a fundamental concept in the science of chaos, concerns issues which are initially close but which become exponentially divergent, the focus of a pattern of seemingly chaotic behavior. Chaos theory sheds light on and engages metaphorical possibilities as a powerful heuristic tool for Mrs Dalloway, transcending generic conventions, according to Hayles. The dynamics of chaos is characterized by components on a small scale which lead to behavior of a larger dimension in a pattern of shapes, metaphoric in character, which are said to be “self-similar”; the shapes resemble one another from level to level evolving in time,  often arborescent, with details revealing ever more details. Such details have been named “fractals,” images which display “self-similarity,” like snowflakes which are all alike, not identical, but repeating the same basic shape. Remember Lord Lexham: “My dear, you ladies are all alike” (MD 255). Fractals hover within a certain pattern in different scales. A trajectory consisting of a repeating pattern of fractal self-similarity has been seen as a dynamic system called an “attractor”; they never repeat themselves identically. The attractor’s loops “are not attracted to anything. They are themselves the attractor,” a seemingly chaotic matter pulling the narrative forward toward a destination of cyclic behavior revolving around the attraction (Merja Polvinen 92). Attractors never reach a state of equilibrium. Such is the strange vocabulary which will be useful in comprehending such a literary text which says, “consider me an autonomous, natural object. Try to discover my laws of organization, or operation, laws which you must assume to be specified only by what you find within me” (Paulson in Hayles 101). This complex concept in chaos theory facilitates the study of Mrs Dalloway. An obvious attractor in Mrs Dalloway concerns the marriage of the eponymous hero, Clarissa Dalloway.

     Components of the unstated history of Clarissa’s courtship and marriage form a timeless, universal pattern, a series composing a fractal trajectory of self-similar shapes in a recursive sequence; each shape is defined in terms of itself, for which the output of one becomes the parameter for the next iteration. “As it moves back and forth between past and present, the temporal trajectory falls into a certain pattern. It completely bypasses certain areas on the temporal grid---for example, many of the years between Clarissa’s marriage and the present-day events,” and so it is obligatory to attend to the areas which are discussed (Jo Parker 102). Resorting to the terminology of complexity provides, metaphorically, new avenues for literary analysis however. The characteristics of the pattern established define the  “attractor” of chaos theory, narrated events which tend to circulate from the initial conditions, evolving over time in ever more detail. The mysteriously unstated subject of the attractor, which like mysteries in ancient rituals were universally secret and not to be exposed to public knowledge, remains to be revealed: “No prying into mysteries” according to Horace Odes 3.2, Ovid Metamorphoses 2.566 and Tibullus 1.6.22. Studied omission participates in the “Streisand Effect,” after Barbra Streisand whose efforts to preserve privacy stimulated publicity instead as when an author conceals or suppresses information (Hutchinson 23). The attempt to censor matters actually publicizes, attracts, attention. It acquires meaning from its patterned self-organization. According to Wolfgang Iser, “it is only through inevitable omissions that a story gains its dynamism” (Iser 280). To describe this novel, largely, as a portrait of Clarissa Dalloway and her world is “to warn the reader at once not to expect much action, [but] to look for resolution in the completion of an artistic pattern” (Scholes and Kellog 237). The pattern commences at Mulberry’s, the florist; complex patterns and systems emerge from such simple beginnings.

     When Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself, the attractor,  “whose meaning continuously evolves,” begins to form (Jo Parker 132). “An entire work is activated, and so the reader is not solely tempted towards seeking parallels between characters or between plots, but also between themes” (Hutchinson 59). In terms of the initial conditions, fetching the flowers has priority. The nature of the florist, Clarissa’s goal, is indicated in a catalogue of flowers suggestive of those in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter and neatly divided in half as the hymn is divided; there are red carnations, sweet peas tinged violet, delphiniums and arum lilies. It is Demeter, the divinity of the Eleusinian mysteries (at times she is a youth, and then a mature woman like Clarissa). She whose initiates were sworn to secrecy assumes an important presence here. The narrative poem gives a detailed account of the abduction of Persephone, in imitation of the practice of “bride-stealing” in antiquity (Lord 185). Her daughter is stolen to the Underworld by Pluto 
in illo tempore while she gathers flowers, “roses, crocuses, and beautiful violets; irises, too, and hyacinths she picked, and narcissus” (lines 5-8; 425-428 trans. Athanassakis; Hoff Invisible 38-40). The similarity between the two catalogues, Clarissa’s and Persephone’s, forms a feedback loop, a recursive symmetry in which the Classical text influences the current one; the chain of cause and effect forms a loop that “feeds back” into itself. Bits and pieces of the ancient Hymn emerge chaotically throughout the text of Mrs Dalloway.

     When Persephone is restored to her grieving mother Demeter, she tells of the rape (polite society might say, allusively, they eloped, introducing a “fractal”) and she repeats the account with the floral formula, as the first bodice-ripper in literary history, just as the Dalloway narrative repeats its own floral catalogue. Persephone’s life in the Underworld is understood to mirror Demeter’s life in the world above. Theoretically, her sojourn in Hades away from her sorrowing mother endures for one third of the year, wintertime, the girl condemned for having eaten pomegranate seeds, until springtime when she was permitted to return. The hymn containing details concerning Persephone and her mother, which is suggestive of secret details in the nocturnal rituals of Demeter, relates to the all-night women’s festival of the Thesmophoria; it is reminiscent of Clarissa’s party, which itself resembles “the feast of Demeter,” according to Herodotus (Athanassakis 77; Jane Harrison 120 ff; Foley 137). As a fertility figure, Persephone’s annual return, the original pattern of cyclic structure, allegorizes the non-linear seasonal cycles of vegetation. Persephone always comes back.

     Clarissa, like the Demeter of the ancient Hymn who is sorrowing for the loss of her daughter, is prone to having a sharp pain, like an arrow sticking in her heart (line 40; MD 10). Now “barred from childbearing” according to the hymn, Clarissa, too, with “no more having of children,” seems like Demeter, disguised as an old woman herself, customary among the gods, as she wanders the earth in search of her daughter (lines 101-102; Mary Louise Lord 185; Robert Parker 7). Demeter wanders over the earth, searching for her daughter with kindled torches; Clarissa claims to “brandish one’s torch” when others “wander off” (MD 255; Lord 183; Robert Parker 7). During her own wandering, Demeter arrives at Eleusis and encounters the kindness of the wife of King Keleos. To reward her she places their son, Demophoön, in the fire in a thwarted attempt to make him immortal by burning away the mortal parts. (Hymn lines 260-261; Lord 187; Robert Parker 8). This coordinates with Septimus Smith’s insightful ravings: “He was falling down, down into the flames” (MD 213). Accordingly, Clarissa herself, upon hearing of his death thinks, “Her dress flamed, her body burnt” (MD 280).

     The Hymn to Demeter bears the substance of the mysteries of Demeter at Eleusis which were not to be revealed, hence the Streisand Effect. The circular form of the myth of the goddess, Mother and Maid rather than mother and daughter, characterizes Demeter as the older and younger versions of the same persona, two persons but one god; Clarissa feels “very young; at the same time unspeakably aged,” a state which supplies the structuration for the narrative concerning both the young Clarissa and the mature woman as well (MD 11; Harrison 272-274). Mrs. Hilbery calls attention to the duality in Clarissa saying she looked “so like her mother” (MD 267). It will be seen that Clarissa is paradoxically mother and daughter, the Demeter and Persephone of her own life, both older and younger aspects of herself, a girl of eighteen, “a little skimpy,” yet presently “being Mrs. Dalloway; not even Clarissa anymore” (MD 8, 14). Existentially she lives by synecdoche, a succession of selves. The elaborate creation of Clarissa’s identity to Demeter is but a subterfuge to introduce the pattern of this attractor, elopement, as its initial condition.

     Eloping becomes the subject of Clarissa’s amorous relationships. When she was “Clarissa”, not Mrs Dalloway anymore, Peter tells us that she had occasion, at an afternoon alfresco event, to introduce the man who would become her husband. “Somebody had brought him over; and Clarissa got his name wrong. She introduced him to everybody as Wickham.” By so naming him she endows him with a suppressed identity. At last he said “My name is Dalloway!” The point might have been settled except that “Sally got hold of it; always after that she called him ‘My name is Dalloway’” (MD 92). Both Clarissa and Sally lack a sensitive awareness of initial conditions when Sally, once too often, calls him “My name is Dalloway.” Clarissa, already infatuated with Dalloway, says, “We’ve had enough of that feeble joke” and the intimate friendship with Sally comes to an end (MD 96). The significant initial conditions, forming a virtual background, invoke the allusion to Wickham, the scoundrel from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice who elopes with the foolish virgin, the youngest Bennet daughter. The self-similar elements of Persephone’s elopement, the fractal linked to the elopement in Austen’s novel, proceeds symmetrically to the epithet in Richard Dalloway’s identity.

      There seems some remaining animosity directed toward Dalloway, later, when Sally (who tears off a rose) takes Peter’s part, imploring him, “half laughing of course, to carry off Clarissa, to save her from the Hughs and Dalloways” who would stifle her natural inclinations and make her a perfect hostess (MD 114 emphasis added). This suggests a projected elopement, conceived by Sally, “the wild, the daring, the romantic Sally!” (MD 114, 108). Elopement is the action which takes place in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, the circular story of the abduction and return of Persephone and in Austen’s Pride and Prejudice as well. In Clarissa’s morning chat with Peter she is reminded that if she had married Peter, “this gaiety would have been mine all day,” revealing symmetrical speculations of what her life might have been like if she had eloped as suggested, “run away, lived with Peter,” an apparently frivolous thought “passed over all-too-briefly” (MD 71 emphasis added; Hutchinson 22). The emphasis on interior duplication, the parallel implications about eloping which form a suggestive pattern, implies the existence of concealed information. Such matters as elopements may be small in comparison to novels about battles and wars. “This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with women in a drawing room” says Virginia Woolf (Room 74). The recurring narrative detail, however, gives the context its proper value. Each understated iteration masquerades as closure giving the illusion of readerly understanding yet inviting a writerly examination of what has been suppressed.

     Peter’s account of the turbulent events leading up to the end of their erotomachia consists of Peter’s requirement, “Tell me the truth,” resulting in something like a slap; the conflict retains a sense of continuing deferral of meaning, of “grinding against something physically hard.” Again under influence of the Streisand Effect, never to be satisfied, the discreet narrative concerning matters of an unknown nature trusts the reader’s instinct for “guessing and speculating on events, causes, details and missing links,” just as Hugh expects that Clarissa “would quite understand without requiring him to specify” (MD 7; Hutchinson 21). Although it is clearly a tease, a vehicle for forbidden content, an analogical scene of lovers in flagrante delicto, the reference remains obscure. The occasion instead comes to a curiously atypical conclusion: “She turned, she left him, went away. ‘Clarissa!’ he cried. ‘Clarissa!’ But she never came back” (MD 97 emphasis added). Here Clarissa’s withdrawal parallels the resulting withdrawal of Demeter subsequent to the abduction of Persephone from her mother. As Porush comments, “Such self-conscious manipulation of formalisms to reflect content … is coextensive with literature itself” (82 note 10).

     There is a further self-conscious manipulation of the formula when Clarissa laughs, seeing that Miss Kilman and Elizabeth are going shopping, “This woman had taken her daughter from her” (MD 190, 194-195). Offended almost to tears by Clarissa’s laugh, Miss Kilman is consoled by the knowledge that she is there for a purpose according to Mr. Whittaker. The poem, “The Appeasement of Demeter” by George Meredith, concerns Demeter’s embargo on the fertility of the earth due to her daughter’s absence; the goddess’s mitigating laughter restores the earth to its accustomed fruitfulness. Further, as Septimus has counseled, with prescience, “Men must not cut down trees” (MD 35, 224). This admonition relates to a young man who wantonly destroyed Demeter’s grove in order to build a banqueting hall and was cursed with a prodigious appetite (See Callimachus, ca. 305-240 BCE, “Hymn to Demeter”). To offend Demeter (Mother Earth) is to risk famine. “Elizabeth rather wondered whether Miss Kilman could be hungry [since] the pleasure of eating was almost the only pure pleasure left her” (MD 197). This clearly resumes the Demeter/Persephone myth. In sum, these passages are not congruent but consistently enforce a meaningful fictive discourse. Each example concerns elements relevant to the mythos of Demeter which, through their interplay, provide a dramatic conclusion.

     Peter Walsh, with no very great expectations, remains afflicted with disabilities on the proper sequence of events,  matters scrambled in time. His alleged impotence is manifested when he bungles the climax of the narrative in a Shandean conflation of past and future. Tangled temporality “entangles the reader in the interpretive process” (MD 247; Jo Parker 3). Becoming progressively more complex, new levels of meaning emerge from the simple interaction of a self-organizing cluster of concepts. As the narrative proceeds, Peter recalls Clarissa’s extraordinary gift, “a woman’s gift,” to make a world of her own, an event such as rejoining her guests awaiting her return as when “she came into a room; she stood, as he had often seen her, in a doorway with lots of people around her … there she was; however; there she was” (MD 114-115 emphasis added). The temporal indication (“had often seen her”) indicates repeated action, “regularly, ritually, or everyday” in the iterative mode of repeated performance (Jo Parker 71).

     This bears the flavor of an epiphanic moment for Clarissa, who with Demeter’s heavenly light, “filled the room she entered” (MD 44; Lord 187).  Whether déjà vu or prophecy, Peter indicates a paradoxical past event reflecting an impending re-occurrence. This prescient memory anticipates Clarissa’s present withdrawal and return to her party which obviously has happened before; it is a text “that at once completes and repeats itself,” its future anticipating its past (Helen Wussow xiv). As an echo of his past memory, Peter will wrap up the narrative with his famous words as Clarissa comes through the door again, “For there she was.”

     Formerly, Clarissa had excused herself, withdrawn from the party when confronted with her old friends, Sally and Peter, saying only, “But I can’t stay… I shall come later,” … “I shall come back” (MD 275), and finally. as promised, remembers she would have to go back, emphatically repeating, “She must go back to them” (MD 280, 283). The withdrawal of Demeter and the return of Persephone are prominent features in the Hymn to Demeter (Lord 189). At last, coming through the door, still thinking, “she must go back,” she utters phrases such as apply to Persephone; Clarissa resumes her status as a hostess, in a doorway with lots of people around her, among them Peter and Sally, as in Peter’s flashback (MD 284, 74).

     In her absence, however, Peter has been conversing with Sally, both of whom have come back out of the past, awaiting Clarissa’s return. Their enigmatic dialogue is often disregarded as inconsequential although it brings an understanding of a few ambiguous processes underlying the preceding discourse which are now more or less revealed. First, Sally observes the Homeric tradition of hospitality for a wandering stranger, Peter, inviting him to visit, he who has “no home, nowhere to go to” (MD 289; Lord 186; see Hoff “Pseudo-homeric”). Her memories return her to the Bourton of their youth. In retrospection she is still fretting over Clarissa’s faux pas, calling Richard “Wickham,” as if it were yesterday (MD 285). The event had marked the fracture of an otherwise intimate friendship; “Why not call Richard ‘Wickham’; Clarissa had flared up!” Sally also recalls the time when she had “picked a rose’ and “marched [Peter] up and down that awful night” when she, presumably, implored him to elope with Clarissa. She queries the status of Clarissa’s subsequent marriage with “Wickham,” coyly “supposing” that the marriage had been a success, then questioning it, “how could Clarissa have done it?” (MD 287). Preterition, like other details which have remained obscure, dominates the discourse.

Sally indicates that she and Peter share information, have always possessed knowledge of certain details, which has not been expressed, since “she saw Clarissa all in white going about the house with her hands [like Persephone] full of flowers” (MD 287).  Peter adds, “it had been a silly thing to do, … to marry like that (MD 289, emphasis added). Sally, here, returns the mysterious discourse to the Streisand Effect when she considers that Peter’s remark is mentioned “out of pride”, once more alluding to Pride and Prejudice and the misnomer, “Wickham” issue (MD 289, emphasis added). “The way one poses and resolves such questions helps to constitute the story” (Bruss 158). The omissions integral to Sally’s discourse culminate in curiosity about the hints derived from such literary allusions as the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, Meredith’s poem “The Appeasement of Demeter” and Callimachus’s own “Hymn To Demeter”; partial revelation always arouses curiosity. Sally’s final query adds to the mystery, “And were they happy together?” Her typically emergent, innovative use of the Socratic method, asserting nothing, draws the complex pattern to order, leading from a small beginning to a conclusion of uncovering some hidden consequence which we cannot fail to see. Sally has carefully recapitulated several of the relevant passages, mentioning the epithet “Wickham,” and Peter’s “pride,” drilling him on eloping, and the flowers in Clarissa’s hands as if they were freshly picked. The allusions to ancient myth, detailed above, have not been entirely gratuitous.  The myth has been the medium of information regarding significant events. Accordingly, we must speculate as to what marrying “like that” might mean, and attempt to formulate this unformulated bit of contraband information. Associations beginning at Bourton, between past and present, now acquire meaning. In view of the surprising context of the myth of Demeter and the “elopement” of Persephone, we can hardly be blamed for surmising that Clarissa and Richard eloped.

     Meanwhile, Clarissa has been gathering her thoughts. The structuration resulting in elopement is clearly an attractor, a circular behavior, eternally recurrent, each self-similar clue a component of the fractal structure. It all comes back as, that morning, when Clarissa had been dreaming of something. “What was she trying to recover? What image of white dawn?”; these are questions which inspire the tremendous thought she entertained in Piccadilly, “Oh if she could have had her life over again,” perhaps an idle aspiration or even expressed in jest (MD 12, 14). Having withdrawn into an adjacent room when the suicide of Septimus Smith, an inspired seer, is introduced, she eventually realizes she would have to go back. In the little room, recalling the image of dawn she had been trying to recover, she now “finds it with a shock of delight as the sun rose,” the midsummer dawn ashen pale, “raced over quickly by tapering vast clouds “ (MD 282). As in the beginning, Clarissa comes through a door. The novel ends as it began, with Clarissa, moving from one room into another and passing through doorways, as when she observed her elderly neighbor climbing upstairs, going about from room to room; Clarissa naively wonders if it “had something to do with her,” thinking, “here was one room, there another” as the drame de coucher mimes a passage between states of being for her, from one to the next existential state (MD 192-193).

     This illustrates Clarissa’s moment of paradoxical being, a cyclical moment, the ancient myth of renewal in the process of becoming a reality. Septimus Smith, as the presumably prophetic madman, speaking unambiguously with the sagacity of a clairvoyant, is an uncanny mouthpiece for hidden wisdom, having announced, “there is no death” (MD 36). He is partially correct. Even Aunt Helena, contrary to rumor, is not dead. Clarissa, too, would, after all, have her life over again. She must go back.  How extraordinary it all seemed, in the beginning, when once she had merely walked on the terrace at Bourton; “it was a very nice place” (MD 83). Jo Parker has asserted that “in addition to presenting one event multiple times, a chaotic narrative may also synthesize many events into one” (25). Even though it might be very, very dangerous to live even one day, it is clear that, “on the ebb and flow of things … she survived” (MD 12). Returning to her initial conditions, Clarissa steps through the French windows and, again and again, at each repetition she hears the little squeak of the hinges.

                                                                                                                                                                                     Molly Hoff

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