Reading Virginia Woolf's novel

 
 

 
 

                                                       Portrait of the Artist

 

                                           Fiction is not so much itself an interpretation … as

                                       it is  an object for future interpretation. It is, God help us,

                                                                   a text. Annie Dillard

 

The circularity of Mrs Dalloway, its heroine moving through a door at the end as at the beginning, may be unsettling since we arrive at the finish only to find ourselves back at the beginning again. This circularity, a paradox of infinity, questions what is assumed to be the realistic world of Clarissa Dalloway when, like several of the characters in the novel, she is only a minor trans-textual character from Virginia Woolf’s early novel, The Voyage Out  (Schlack 51).  If the novel becomes a place in which models of intelligibility can be deconstructed, what of this anti-novel framed in a negative fashion which fragments and distorts the experience of the characters? While Mrs Dalloway, narrating its own creation, introduces the characters many of whom have existed originally as fictions, the only frame of which we may be certain “is the front and back covers of the book he [we] are holding“ (Waugh Metafiction 115). In this model of creativity, textuality is the transcendent reality that responds to the kiss of a wave and the birth of a novel. Mrs Dalloway bears all the self-conscious characteristics of the literary sub-genre known as the self-begetting novel.

The self-begetting novel, which has several singular characteristics, projects the illusion of art creating itself as a record of its own genesis. Such compositions are in the self-conscious, reflexive tradition of metafiction. Typically they make frequent and prolonged allusion to other literary works.  Sexuality is a central concern as the novel is conceived through the explicit trope of gestation, and the paradigm of love pervades the novel. It begins with an urge toward immortality and a circular form results while it lays bare all its working parts. For these specific criteria I am indebted to Steven Kellman’s defining work, The Self-Begetting Novel.

  Under the influence of the long shadow of Ulysses and Remembrance of Things Past, archetypal examples of the self-begetting novel “which radically changed Virginia Woolf’s writing,” Mrs Dalloway lays bare its self-conscious constructions through literary devices by which it  is “testing the boundaries of genre” (Roe 166; Goldman 50). As Toril Moi has stated, to remain detached from “distracting rhetorical devices” is “equivalent to not reading it at all” (Moi in Marcus 230). The protagonist/narrator, exposing all the contributing features and commenting “on [her] composition during the very act of writing,” exploits these typical devices (Christensen 11). Not only is writing in this narrative, which contains references to other writers, self evident; but its content is often concerned with giving concrete embodiment to the act of writing and writing about itself as writing. There is value in examining this bookishness further.

The self-avowed bookishness Peter Walsh mentions includes  “a man writing quite openly about water-closets” and offers a new reality in London; “there was art, design everywhere” (MD 108). Women with “curls of Indian ink” which Peter Walsh notices, having just returned from India, deconstruct the apparent realism in terms of writing: A change had taken place. There is something here other than the mere observation of London cityscapes in a text which is being written and which we are expected to learn to read. In addition to working through artistic and cultural conventions, meeting the demands of such factoids rendered as self-conscious diction becomes an important consideration. Clarissa Dalloway acknowledges, within her text, that she is indebted to Peter for “words,” emphasizing its linguistic components and calling attention to loan words from India such as bandanna, cashmere, chintz, and coolie (MD 53-54).

As elsewhere, there is emphasis on the composition of the text itself, such as “when the sentence was finished something had happened” with the suggestion elsewhere that reading between the lines is “as significant as the sounds” (Marcus 223; MD 25, 33 emphasis added). “The effect of this is to lull the reader … into acceptance of its reality as a sentence in a book,” a line on a page (Waugh 95). Clearly the act of writing is in the foreground. “Concerned with its own structure, its methods, its very fictionality,” this text self-consciously introduces literary components thematized, embodied and flaunted in the telling of the story (Hutchinson 33).

The opening chapter narrated by Clarissa establishes the existence of most of the characters who are then sent to their duties in the narrative. Among those mentioned are Peter, Richard, Hugh, Elizabeth, Sally, and even Miss Kilman who are clear forerunners to the action of the novel now commencing. Books themselves establish a central point of interest as well. Clarissa’s attention to Shakespeare’s Cymbeline in the bookstore, Hatchards’s window, comes as a consequence of seeking a book as a gift for Mrs. Hugh. Her subsequent discourse will bring all these characters to full life.

  The transtextuality of characters such as the Dalloways of The Voyage Out includes Mrs. Hilbery of Night and Day and Mr. Bowley and the Durants from Jacob’s Room, Virginia Woolf’s earlier novels, parading their condition as fictions rather than persons even as they occupy the same narrative level with the current Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, at Clarissa’s party. The irony associated with fictional creatures placed within a pseudo-realistic context implies “a sense of complicity between [fictive] author and reader” (Hutchinson 34). Similarly, Mr. Bowley tips his hat to the unknown personage in the car caught in traffic, possibly the Prime Minister or the Queen, indicating the interplay between his fictionality and contemporary “reality.” The presence of these characters implies the fictional state of an alternate reality coming into being (MD 28).

  The arbitrary effort to trope obstructed readerly perceptions as a traffic jam, the “fictional world of an authorial construct set up against a background of literary convention,” triggers the paranoia of Septimus Smith: “It is I who am blocking the way” (Alter xi; MD 21). The incongruity is disquieting, “yet such playfulness need not exclude seriousness” (Alter 222). The reader is forced to address what the narrator has implied, unless her reading, too, is arrested like the mysterious car and its unknown passengers in London traffic, all of which maintains a sense of mystery as a motif when “everything had come to a standstill” (MD 20). An aeroplane soon demonstrates the approach of further such ostentatious artifice.

The aeroplane writing letters of smoke over London is a playful instrument of writing, “actually writing something,” which is self-consciously creating letters composing an unreadable text; it implies the process of aleatory composition, discourse exploring the process of its own making (Christensen 11). “Unguided it seemed, sped of its own free will” (MD 29, 42). “As well as constituting a metafictional moment of textual self-consciousness where the reader joins the characters in spelling out the letters on the page … [it] speaks to a … poetic pastoral tradition too” (Goldman 58). The labored efforts leading to the “false pretences” of a ghost-written letter which Lady Bruton supervises contrasts with the apparent effortlessness demonstrated in the aerial display.

  Lady Bruton, for whom writing is a chore, is forced to suspend all attempts “in deference to the mysterious accord in which [men] … knew how to put things”; Hugh Whitbread, possessed of this knowledge, undertakes to compose the letter to the Times on her behalf, which is said to be a masterpiece (MD 165-167). The ghost-written letter is a smaller version of the equally  “false pretences” of Clarissa’s allusive pilferings from Shakespeare and many other authors.   This is only one installment in the epistolary motif, a literary exercise which resumes with Clarissa’s letter to Peter Walsh (“Oh it was a letter from her!”) as a further self-conscious component. Peter instantly recognizes Clarissa’s apparently illegible writing. “That was her hand” (MD 234). Reading her letter “needed the devil of an effort,” his own letters, by contrast, being merely “awfully dull” (MD 4).  It seems the facsimile of Clarissa’s writing is as indecipherable as the skywriter’s.

Oddly, he complains that Clarissa’s letter “was like a nudge in the ribs,” which points to Percy Lubbock’s 1921 observations: “Thackeray, so far from trying to conceal himself, comes forward and attracts attention and nudges the reader a great deal more than he need.” (The Craft of Fiction 114; see Woolf Letters 133).  Here is the “playful, self-conscious reformulation of an existing text,” the technique featured in all the other literary allusions (Hutchinson 92). It is the “nudge” which Clarissa, far from trying to conceal herself, introduces in the form of her letter that bothers Peter (See Woolf Diary 272). He adds, “Why couldn’t she let him be?” (MD 234). This nudge insinuates itself transparently by way of preformed language, a literary allusion, the discourse of an existing text used as a characterizing device (Hutchinson 57). It effectively illustrates Peter as a character who is annoyed with his narrator’s manipulation, as Lubbock has it, as once before when Clarissa implied, “I’m only amusing myself with you” (MD 96). Similarly, encounters with Kilman are introduced playfully on different diagetic levels.

But, “Miss Kilman was not going to make herself agreeable,”  railing against her author and the text in which she must exist (MD 190). Her hubris risks inciting Clarissa’s wrath. Miss Kilman, who has obtained the highly metafictional assurance that “she was there for purpose,” provides an opportunity for an exchange between tutor and mother, character and author, in separate ontological levels of discourse (MD 196). Their conversation delays the projected shopping trip to be made with Elizabeth Dalloway, interrupted by Kilman’s intervening inflated language flagrantly upbraiding Clarissa; “you who have known neither sorrow nor pleasure; who have trifled your life away! And there rose in her an overmastering desire to overcome her; to unmask her.” These are comments which insult Mrs. Dalloway, such that “Clarissa was really shocked” (MD 189).

Clarissa, effectively unmasked as her creator, is equally insulting, thinking the woman “heavy, ugly, commonplace.” Kilman’s hauteur and Clarissa’s reaction, represent an exchange that would have hardly taken place in reality between employee and employer; it seems an authorial creation which is not on the same diegetic level as the dialogue that follows. The narrative returns from this intradiegetic skirmish, which is disquieting even to Clarissa, to the plane of normal discourse between the characters who have not actually shared their insults with each other: “You are taking Elizabeth to the Stores? Miss Kilman said she was.” These words exist in different planes of reality.

The author’s appearance in the plane of self-conscious narrative as a creature who is becoming its own creator is continuous throughout. Yet Peter is not the novel’s first character to criticize his creator. Sally Seton, her childhood friend, claims that Mrs Dalloway was “at heart a snob,” suggesting the “semi-elitist” form of playful, self-conscious style (MD 289; Hutchinson 92). Scrope Purvis, a neighbor, thinks of her unflatteringly, having “a touch of the bird about her” (MD 4). Lady Bruton cannot see the sense of cutting people up as Clarissa Dalloway did (MD 157). The surprising opacity of self-reference such as this is one feature in Mrs Dalloway. This novel is prone to constructing an illusion and then revealing it to be merely an illusion.

Clarissa recalls Peter in the garden “musing among the vegetables” (MD 4). She then suddenly comments on “a few sayings like this about cabbages,” a subject which has only a colloquial antecedent. Although cabbages seem not entirely irrelevant to a person in a vegetable garden as a textual self-reference, the alert suggests the slang word for anything appropriated without authorization, derived from fragments of fabric “cabbaged” from a tailor, which alludes to the uses of preformed language to be paraded with impunity.

Recognizing literary allusions places a serious burden on the reader’s knowledge of literature; shared knowledge is a frequent requirement of this text. “To cabbage means to pilfer”; literary appropriations appear at every turn (Evans 178). The intratextual existence of embedded fragments of literature in Mrs Dalloway are reminders of the presence of such “cabbages” as a common metafictional device (Waugh 47). Such pilferings are never mere ornaments or learned ostentation, but they constitute a significant part of the literary structure; much later, Clarissa herself even confesses reflexively to having “pilfered” (MD 282). Mrs Dalloway flaunts itself as a fiction made of stolen merchandise, theorizing about itself while continuing the creation of fictions through over-systematized structural devices, manifestations of the story within the story, along with obtrusive proper names such as Holmes, Bradshaw and Whitbread to name a few (Waugh 22).

Clarissa’s attempts at being unobtrusive actually reveal her presence like a stage director peeking around the curtain and stepping out to comment covertly on the action; we are reminded through her typical appearance in discourse tags such as “all the rest of it” while her influence as narrator is manifest in the other characters she cites, such as Mrs Dempster adding “and so on” which keeps the story bounded as a narrative, breaking illusion (MD 15, 39). Peter Walsh and Hugh Whitbread are likewise partial to the expression “and so on” under Clarissa’s narratorial influence; Doris Kilman and Lady Bruton, too, give evidence of Clarissa’s creative presence with the written peculiarities of her personal idiom, “and so on” (MD 94, 110, 114, 163, 159, 175, 187). Similarly, the self-conscious narrator breaks off from the sights surrounding the broken fountain to certify its dribbling: “For example, the vivid green moss,” among the devices systematically flaunting the voice of the narrator as artifice (MD 96 emphasis added). Again, as Richard Dalloway walks home he comments on the social system, to which the narrator adds “and so forth” (MD 175 emphasis added). This is one of the ways Clarissa points to herself, her intrusions echoed in the form of such naïve narrative devices.

Experimental strategies such as narratorial intrusion expose the ontological distinctness of this form of stylistics. Free indirect discourse, elsewhere called erlebte rede or discours libre, the intermingling of the characters’ and narrator’s speech and thought, is frequently indicated by the idiom that often contains it. This device, according to Monika Fludernik, is used ironically for purposes of textual self-consciousness. Thus the opening statement, “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself” differs from “Mrs. Dalloway said,  ‘I will buy the flowers myself.’” Typified as “discourse that is ‘more or less deeply colored’ by ‘virtual quotation’ from character’s idioms,” it demonstrates a blending of the narrator’s and the character’s language (McHale 261; Fludernik 12). For instance, Clarissa speaks of “Papa,” while Peter refers to him more formally as “Mr. Parry.”

The ventriloquial narrator’s voice in free indirect discourse is that of the protagonist telling her tale by means of the linguistic style of the concerned character and speaking for them both; subtle manipulations of verb tense which is back-shifted (“will” becomes “would”; “say” becomes “had said”) and pronoun adjustments (“myself” becomes “herself”) are required. Other features are demonstrative of free indirect discourse in which Clarissa and others manifest themselves such as epistemic models (presumably, certainly), expressives (Heavens! Jove!), evaluative designations (“damnable humbugs”), and emphasis by italics (“like that”); these are a few indications of FID.

Clarissa’s exaggerations are typical of her duties as narrator; among these are “times without number,” “hundreds of years,” are such that mingle with the narrator’s style throughout the discourse. She objects to inviting “all the dull women” to her party. Peter’s self-accounts, inspired by Clarissa, exaggerate at times, as when he “had told her everything,” had books “sent out to a peak in the Himalayas”; “he was an adventurer, reckless … swift, daring” (MD 73, 76, 80).  Sally Seton, too, inclines to exaggerate, e.g. in reference to inviting Peter to visit, “time after time they had asked him”; concerning her bed of flowers, “positively beds!” and “living in the wilds,” she claims “her heart was like a girl’s of twenty,” (MD 289, 290, 293, 294).  Such a characteristic initiated by Clarissa prevails in the speech of various personalities as her narrative continues unless we are to believe they all hyperbolize. Such techniques typical of the narrator tend to cause the discourse to assume a uniform tone without regard to the character who is presumed to be the source of the discourse, a characteristic which has already received critical notice.

  The introduction of the signature stylistic device, free indirect discourse, is a technique which “one,” like the caretaker, must admit is all very strange, “how wonderful, but at the same time … how strange” (McManus 124; MD 126). In a parody of scholarship, the frequent use of the impersonal pronoun “one” indicates that like Tristram Shandy Clarissa is speaking as an author (MD 4-5; Sterne Tristram Shandy 7.19). Waugh similarly asserts, “one” is an author (Waugh 130). Clarissa immediately engages the complicity and sentiments of her reader through her technique that fictionalizes the role: She creates a flattering role for the reader as well, one who, presumably, has lived in Westminster and shares her feelings, one who loves it as she does (MD 4-5); Ong 13). The reader silently assents to the knowledge, things that “we” know, that inspires a willing participation.

Clarissa’s account of art creating art is expressed when she further admits to “making it up, building it round one … creating it every moment afresh” (MD 5, emphasis added). Furthermore, Clarissa in her god-like role names herself and the book simultaneously, suggesting the identity between herself as a fully dimensional yet multidimensional woman, Mrs Dalloway, and the book of the same name. “This being Mrs Dalloway; not even Clarissa anymore” reflexively alludes to an earlier “text” that exists at a different ontological level (MD 14). Her name implies “a complete nexus of shifting states of being,” invisible until through the metaphor of sewing she reveals herself or hears “the click of the typewriter” creating the novel in which she appears –“it was her life” (Marshall 270; MD 42; Waugh 121). As Lilienfeld has it, “the effect is rather like that of waving the pen in front of the reader’s face” (Lilienfeld 125).

Clarissa’s reference to “this body she wore” suggests the text as a garment, like the dress she mends, drawing attention to itself, and she must get things in order “for she must also write” (MD 14, 56, 58, emphasis added). Similarly, Septimus Smith and his wife Lucrezia are seen on the Embankment “wrapped in the same cloak” like characters between the covers of the same book (MD 22). The cargo of textiles and needlework metaphors for writing, if we “consider the woman sewing as the woman writing,” is present from the outset (Czarnecki 223). Lucy whose work is cut out for her, with the image of fabric already prepared for stitchery, offers to assist Clarissa in mending the dress (MD 3, 57). There is a hint of “intertextual” fabric in this cluster of meaning when Clarissa catches her scarf in some other woman’s dress (MD 264). Sally Parker the dressmaker, a minor personage, and the grey nurse knitting in Regent’s Park, share the “Woman Sewing” motif made as physically real as possible which appears in Clarissa’s sewing scenario, interrupted by Peter’s visit (MD  58, 85, 88).

Clarissa’s instinct is to hide her dress, “like a virgin protecting chastity,” like Jane Austen hiding her manuscripts when the creaking door reveals that there are people about (MD 59; Woolf CR 137). She is unwilling to display the virginity sacrificed by the frontal nudity of books spread open wide in Hatchard’s window, exposed to public view and vulnerable to penetration by even the casual observer (MD 12). Such exposure is only to be expected in the Hereafter when, according to John Donne (Meditations 17), “every book shall lie open to one another”; on that day also “the face in the motor car will then be known” but this is not to be that day (MD 13, 23).

  Her dress epitomizes a yet unrealized text, a veritable sleeping beauty “whose guards have fallen asleep … with the brambles curving over her” (MD 65). The dress is associated with composition, “for she must also write” (MD 56). At this early stage of composition her textual body seems “nothing, nothing at all,” even with “all its capacities” (MD 14). She is clearly “a little skimpy” (quantitatively) and “schoolgirlish” (qualitatively); she displays “a narrow pea-stick figure,” a physique which requires only a “narrow bed” (MD 8, 45-46). At the same time she is like an antiquarian’s volume with squeaking hinges and other signs of wear, “scraped in her spine” and “sunned” – her dress that lost its color in the sun (MD 17, 55).

The paradoxes do not end there. Clarissa claims to be very young yet unspeakably aged (MD 11). She aspires to be “rather large” and dark like Lady Bexborough “with a skin of crumpled leather,” a comment which seems odd for a woman’s skin but which as an allusion has value and begins to deconstruct (MD 14). Clarissa suggests, self-consciously, that the good woman is herself a book bound in half-Morocco, a book valorized by its exotic cover. Clarissa, too, fancies herself a personified book. With narrative reflexivity she envisions her life in the process of being created and held in her arms (like John Donne who says we “carrie (sic) our life in our hands” – Biothanatos 192) “until it became a whole life, a complete life, which she put down by [her parents]”: “This is what I have made of it! This!” (MD 63-64). Malcolm Bradbury claims that “like Joyce’s novel or Proust’s, [Mrs Dalloway] is the story of its own act of creation” (Bradbury 242).

Clarissa’s creativity includes assembling a novel in which she is both begetter and begotten, turning her life into literature and living it at the same time, slicing through everything while outside looking on (MD 11). Mrs Dalloway exploits quotations as well as structural devices prominent in Proust’s The Remembrance of Things Past such as the promenade motif, elegant circular components like ring composition, and reflexivity as well. As in the case of Proust, a monumental novel of self-begetting according to Kellman, she somehow succeeds in “giving birth to twins – self and novel”; it is not always clear which is which, just as The Tatler may refer to the 18th century publication or its contemporary avatar (MD 26). Giving birth to a novel and a self remains the objective.

Sex and the trope of gestation as aspects of the creative motif here are metaphors for everything -- reading, reproduction, regeneration, and personal rebirth (Kellman 8) -- including the fruits of sexuality. “The poets who invented Eros [made] him a divinity and a literary obsession” (Carson Eros 41). The erotics of the narrativity in Mrs Dalloway occupies center stage – as “a means of gratifying the desire it incites and renewing the desire it gratifies” (Halperin 106).

Human creation is foregrounded; among the feats of reproduction is Sally Rosseter née Seton who has five sons as the Mother Superior. Her metafictional complaint, however, is her being trapped in the narrator’s script, the prison-house of language (Waugh 119): “Are we not all prisoners?” Like an incarcerated character she adds, “One scratched on the wall” (MD 293). Pregnancy, too, is prominent, including the woman who had a baby before she was married, and Mrs. Filmer’s married daughter, Mrs. Peters who is big with child; she contains a smaller version of herself, a reflexive figure which Mrs Dalloway, in turn, contains (MD 89, 214). The image, too, represents a smaller version of the work from which it is drawn. Meanwhile the woman singing in Regent’s Park, whose burbling song is a stream of amniotic water issuing ambiguously from an orifice at once vagina and mouth, signals an impending birth of an author and a novel. These are among the signs of the fecund world Clarissa creates at every moment, “a world of her own wherever she happened to be,” writing and existing in her novel, the illusion of art creating itself (MD 114). “Writing is autogenesis” (Abbott 399).

A parallel example of autogenesis and forgery into the bargain, is Septimus Smith, a “smith” laboring at the “forge” corresponds to the motif of fraudulent appropriation of preformed literature. His wife, a milliner from Milan makes hats from buckram, using a coarse cloth which is also construed as anything imaginary, anything fictional (Shakespeare 1 Henry 1V 2.4).  A writer among the assorted writers who populate the novel, Shakespeare, Darwin, and Bernard Shaw, he is floundering in amniotic waters, serving as his own midwife, giving birth to himself. “He strained; he pushed” (MD 129, 104). The young Septimus furthers the image of self-begetting in Mrs Dalloway, here presenting a smaller version of Clarissa’s self-begotten novel in which she creates herself, and his miniature narrative, like an infant, is contained within her.

The young writer personifies the “drowned sailor,” Lucretius’s infant “tossed ashore by cruel waves, when nature first cast him forth by travail from his mother’s womb,” with “woeful wailings” that anticipate a life of ills (Lucretius On The Nature of Things 5.222-227, trans. Charles Bennett). His state as a newborn poet emphatically illustrates autogeny in a self-begetting novel. He exists on a narrative level, however, different from Peter’s who is perceived as “a man in a grey suit” whom he sees as the revenant of his deceased officer, Evans; currently, veterans may have flashbacks, but in World War I they “saw” ghosts. Similarly, Septimus’s hallucinations which are so disquieting to his wife compose a scene which Peter perceives merely as  “lovers squabbling under a tree” (MD 105, 107).

Peter, commenting on amorous texts, insists that women “don’t know what passion is,” and “no woman possibly understood it” (MD 121, 184). His words are reminiscent of Samuel Butler’s claim that a young woman was most probably the authoress of the Odyssey, a sleeping beauty hidden behind a hedge of scholarship since “the writer who can tell such a story with a grave face cannot have even the faintest conception of the way a man feels towards a woman he is in love with” (Butler The Authoress of the Odyssey 266). Clarissa’s parabasis, as a narrator stepping out to address the reader directly, crosses swords with Butler, demonstrating textually that “she did undoubtedly then feel what men felt” (MD 47). Expressed as a verbal ejaculation she demonstrates that “it was a sudden revelation, a tinge like a blush which one tried to check … which split its thin skin and gushed and poured with an extraordinary alleviation over the cracks and sores” (emphasis added). Peter’s charming parabasis, too, problematizes the possibility of someone reading over his shoulder: “(pray God that one might say these things without being overheard!”) (MD 120).

Drawing attention to her narrative problems, Clarissa ponders what Peter might think of her when he came back. “That she had grown older?” Of course he would; betrayed by Clarissa’s writerly anticipation, Peter, suddenly quickened appears on cue and immediately thinks, “She’s grown older” (MD 60). Her expectation is an inauthentic imitation of an outworn convention on the level of style which lays bare its constructedness on the level of illusion. What had been a matter of discourse becomes merely a matter of course imitating the automatization of fictional convention, a critique more playful than ironic  (after Stewart in Waugh 68). He cannot have expected her to have grown younger.

Peter recalls a feature of the intimacy he shares with Clarissa; “They went in and out of each other’s minds” which suggests a form of intellectual intercourse, illustrated when Clarissa silently realizes she has reminded Peter “that he had wanted to marry her” (MD 94). In response to Clarissa’s unvoiced chagrin Peter’s grief surfaces: “Of course I did, thought Peter; it almost broke my heart too, he thought” (MD 62), He is a character responding to his authoress. As in the tirade between Clarissa and Miss Kilman, no words have been actually spoken in this dialogue.

The conversation between Clarissa and Peter becomes what has been called “horse play” when ostensibly realistic characters behave in fantastic ways as “the horses paw the ground, toss their heads” (MD 66). The discourse acquires a “’semiotic’ rather than a ‘mimetic’ construction of meaning” (Waugh 35). The shift in context requires a modification of interpretive procedure as a “meta” level requiring a change of context, troping conversation as an epic battle, as one of play. The serious possibility of play occurs when the Smiths, dangling in literary space for several pages, eventually walk down Harley Street before arriving at their appointment (MD 126, 142). It is reminiscent of Walter Shandy’s hovering foot, for example, in Tristram Shandy, famous for its display of structural devices and which is said to be “the most typical novel in world literature” (Waugh 69, Christensen 15, Jameson 76).

Walking alone in Whitehall, Peter, like Clarissa’s puppet, is aware of the metaliterary artifice involved in his experiences, “as if inside his brain by another hand strings were pulled, shutters moved, and he, [like a marionette], having nothing to do with it” (MD 78). Later he comments on Clarissa’s ability “to take some raw youth … wake him up, set him going” like an automatic mechanical toy (MD 116). She exhibits control, too, over her neighbor opposite: “Let her climb upstairs if she wanted to; let her stop; then let her gain her bedroom,” a woman still moving about her bedroom during Clarissa’s party hours after Clarissa had set her going (MD 191, 283).

  Peter manages to leave Clarissa and arrive at Trafalgar Square, miraculously, at the same time (11:30). Mythic structure, an idée fixe, including the mythos of death and resurrection, permits transcending the temporal within a paradoxical Modernist climate including its focus on time with the approach of the Solstice, Big Ben notwithstanding. In his flamboyant Homeric odyssey he has visited the Trojan chambers of Helen in her drawing room, erotically pursued a Circe in Trafalgar Square, and bought off a Siren in Regent’s Park with a gratuity, a sequence concluding with Nausicaa and her family at dinner. He reflexively parallels Clarissa’s state as both a book and a person, when he frets about having to cadge for a job “teaching little boys Latin” (MD 112). Exploiting the ridiculous image of babbling old age he characterizes himself as a personified book feeding illiterate moths, such as Horace’s battered volume which sadly and prophetically ends its career “teaching little boys Latin” (Horace Epistles 1.20.17-18). His identity as a personified book resembles Clarissa’s similar image and is contained within it as a smaller version.

The hidden bawdiness of his sexual aptronym, Peter, draws attention to the absurdity of reference to a man who is unable to come up to the scratch, as if Clarissa had sapped something in him permanently, his name flaunting impotence at “the arbitrary control of the writer” (MD 240-241; Waugh 94). The reader is constantly reminded that she is in the presence of language being created in a new and often incongruous context.

Richard’s visit in the afternoon, a purposeful duplicate of  Clarissa’s narrative of Peter’s visit that morning through the summary she now provides, leaves Clarissa still writing, searching for a solution for her difficulties as a writer, “like a person who has dropped some grain of pearl or diamond into the grass” until (eureka), “That was it,” she finds a conflict to exploit: “Both of them [Peter and Richard] criticized her very unfairly, laughed at her unjustly, for her parties.” “Now that she knew what it was, she felt perfectly happy” (MD 183).

A similar technique emerges with a highly artificial construction when Clarissa “breaks frame”: “Well, thought Clarissa about three o’clock in the morning, reading Baron Marbot for she could not sleep” (MD 205). Her utterance is made at some temporal remove outside the context, the timeline established by the action which takes place near three in the afternoon. Clarissa, en chemise, is commenting on the narrative she has just written “like a painter who includes in his picture a mirror in which he shows himself standing outside the picture painting it” (Brigid Brophy Flesh). “The ‘author’ is situated in the text at the very point where [she] asserts [her] identity outside it” (Waugh 133).  The disrupted sense of continuous reality is now revealed to be in a transcendent reality distinct from the one we have supposed. Similarly we find Clarissa in the little room when suddenly the problematic presence of Richard on some metatemporal plane is indicated; if he “had not been there reading the Times … she must have perished.” implying that, since he is not there, the time of the narration is not simultaneous with the events being narrated (MD 283-284). These thoughts come at some other place with Richard present, which is outside the frame of the party. “Such junctures signal a temporality other than that of the discursive chain” (Kristeva 54).

Although temptingly permeated with realistic features, Mrs Dalloway is a reflexive container of preformed textuality, as “wooden” as the woodenness of the Trojan Horse containing the invading Greek heroes, an unobtrusive yet mystifying instance of the game of literary allusions, “so well concealed … that the vast majority of readers is likely to overlook them or to remain ignorant of their full ramifications” (MD 91, 264; Hutchinson 38). Self-reference plays with images of literary containers such as the Trojan Horse, Miss Kilman’s bag of books, her “satchel,” and the man with a leather bag stuffed with pamphlets; all are containers of texts just as Mrs Dalloway is a container of the preformed language of other works of literature like cabbages (MD 41, 197).

Peter’s presence at the party, a failed writer who was expected to write, “Have you written? … Not a word!” earns him the silent admonishment of his author: “He made her see herself; exaggerate … But why did he come, then, merely to criticize? Why always take, never give? Why not risk one’s one little point of view? (MD 283-284, 255). They are going in and out of each other’s minds, presumably.

The sudden shock at the death of Septimus Smith announced at the party jars Clarissa out of her complacency, and she withdraws to the little room as when she had settled down to mend her dress; “Writing normally calls for some kind of withdrawal” (Ong 10).  This leads to her confession but validates a renewed vigor:  “She had schemed; she had pilfered” (MD 282). Yet she is refreshed in her admission for having incorporated “cabbages” into her own text. The ostentatious pilfering of preformed language, one of the many games authors play, merely magnifies fictionality. She lays bare her inability to escape from the anxiety of influence, although recognizing that “not only can literature never be free either in terms of literary tradition; it also cannot be free either in its relation to the historical world or in its relation to readerly desire” (Waugh 67). The self-consciousness of Mrs Dalloway in relation to language, to convention, and to its status as a work of literature coming into being demands a following of discriminating readers. Clarissa, as narrator, bears in her hands the future of all the characters and her own future as well.

Clarissa had exclaimed, while walking through Westminster, “Oh if she could have had her life over again” seemingly as a wish to amend her failures, to perpetuate her successes; the image is similar to the stone of Sisyphus pushed up the hill, as Peter observes, repeatedly rolling down again (MD 75). Her words are actually those of the eponymous heroine, a world-class Madam from George Bernard Shaw’s Mrs Warren’s Profession (MD 14). Such a literary allusion as this, like others, is not to flaunt erudition primarily but to disguise obscene propositions with high-sounding and innocent connotations. Whereupon, this apparently idle wish inspires all the subsequent circular architectonics and illustrative of the exploitation of other works of literature with which Mrs Dalloway promiscuously fuses both form and content.

Uttering the aspiration of Mrs. Warren, having her life over again, rising from the dead like Persephone, or Alcestis, or even Imogen in Cymbeline, indicates the self-begetting expectations of its protagonist which begins with an urge toward immortality (Kellman 11). She projects the “illusion of art creating itself,” said to be autogonous, among similar works such as those of Proust, Durrell, and Lessing (Kellman 3). Thus, paradoxically haunted by death, Mrs Dalloway is the narrator/protagonist personifying a novel that begins where it ends. Its circular structure self-consciously insures its eternal life as a book that will be immortal.

                                                                        Molly Hoff

 

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