Reading Virginia Woolf's novel

 
 

 
 

                                                                   The Mirrors in Mrs Dalloway

 

                                            “The novel is like a mirror carried along the road”  Stendhal

 

“The novel is thus no longer a mirror taken out for a walk; it is the result of internal mirrors ubiquitously at work within the fiction itself. It is no longer representation but self-representation.”

                                                                             Jean Ricardou


The mirrors in Mrs Dalloway, in the first place, reflect a novel which expresses its passion to celebrate writing by writing about itself. This initial impression of reflexivity, or self-reference, is implied through depictions of various mirrors and looking-glasses in different forms as its natural device; reflective self-reference as a topos even appears in the ambiguous title which may refer equally well either to the book or to its eponymous hero (Waugh 118). Reflection, or “reflexion,” the British form of the term, typically implies reflecting an image as if in a mirror. “The mirror is a favorite literary metaphor of the Latin Middle Ages, often used as a book title. It is of antique origin” (Curtius 336). Such a literary speculum usually signifies characteristics presented as worthy of emulation. As such, the mirror and the image it reflects are metaphors which will be shown as similar concepts composing the protagonist, Mrs. Dalloway, “not that she thought herself clever, or much out of the ordinary” (MD 11).

Clearly a celebration of writing about itself, however, this novel daringly exposes all its techniques and bares all its devices, manipulating its discourse in order to mirror its theme.  Mrs Dalloway proudly reveals itself as a self-conscious commentary on its own literary system, yet covertly making visual equivalents for itself and then revealing the process of their construction which often creates a conceptual gap it attempts to span in conventional ways. “Metaphor … is a bridge over an abyss” (Russell 350).  This novel examines such conventions by focusing the art of narrative on its own methods of self-representation, even as a hostess to works of other writers themselves as devices considered outdated by some, thereby interrogating its medium of transmission (Ames 365; Stoicheff 86). Before the end Clarissa is obligated to confess to her mode: “She had pilfered” (MD 282).

The self-referential themes of this novel frequently ignore, as a policy, much conventional life situated in contemporary London; hence, it will be observed that the text is not fully determined by the coded linguistic features of which we know it to be made, according to Paulson (47). Unlike those critical studies which do not undertake construing their coded meanings which are conveyed in terms of figurative language and imagery, this analysis of Mrs Dalloway will examine its experimental techniques, self-referential features, rather than its presumed phenomenal status as a mode of linguistic realism (Waugh 87). Much of the action takes place in the manipulations of language and imagery, directing attention toward the word, not mere reportage, as its object. “The ontological status of fictional objects is determined by the fact that they exist by virtue of, whilst also forming, the fictional context which is finally the words on the page” (Waugh 88).

On the myth of verbal univocality, Virginia Woolf has counseled that even words may be crafty to the extent  “that it is their nature not to express one simple statement but a thousand possibilities” (Woolf “Craftmanship” 200). Minute openings, she implies, may lead to great consequences. Therefore, in this novel which is so artfully composed of words, some being transparent, others opaque, “language ceases to be what we see through, and becomes what we see” (Bradbury and Fletcher “The Introverted Novel” 401). Yet Mrs Dalloway has not previously been seen as self-consciously holding up the verbal mirror to its own art by creating a fiction and concurrently making a statement about its own creation, until now.

Although there is much expert interpretation of Mrs Dalloway which has largely been devoted to assorted realist assumptions of life, in “the swing, tramp, and trudge; in the bellow and the uproar,” one is not obliged to spurn a reading which reconfigures the novel when new concepts emerge in company with even the usual suspects (MD 5). Various approaches coexist; some are more significant in other circumstances. Here, romantic irony parallels the modern world, its figurative innovations drawing sustenance by adapting some of the conventions of realism. Figurative language, playing with pretence, belongs to a metafictional universe; at the same time the discourse of Mrs Dalloway maintains a coherent narrative since the metafictional materials, often meaningless in mimetic fiction, participate in association with its more familiar conventions. As with self-reference in all metafiction, Mrs Dalloway begins with a distaste for referential or realistic literature (Stoicheff 94).

The narrative directs self-conscious attention toward a conventional awareness of its textual models, even through insignificant persons in the street, while making use of these models in unconventional ways.  Analyzing a few of these unconventional usages requires a scrutiny of the Modernist literary forms which envelope Clarissa Dalloway rather than study her presumed personal limitations. On the contrary, conventional figurative devices serve useful purposes. Such forms include metaphors, ironic detachment, emphasis on structure and design, as well as concerns with the creation of the narrative itself (Beebe 1073). Such literary equipment is cautionary; the critic is not authorized to put either Clarissa Dalloway or Septimus Smith on Sir William Bradshaw’s infamous couch but rather, Modernism asks for a study of forms composing the fictive techniques exposed in the narrative. “Modernism sets form over life, pattern and myth over the contingencies of history; the power of the fictive presides” (Bradbury and Fletcher “The Introverted Novel” 406).

This novel’s frequently realistic usages defy “the reader’s urge to trace back from a text’s local detail to its comprehensive meaning” (Stoicheff 93). They fail to yield a satisfactory conclusion. Thus, Virginia Woolf herself has advocated, instead, that “critics attend to the aesthetic in fiction” and “to treat literature as literature” (Woolf’s critique of Forster in Harris 89). In addition to the many studies of its presumed polemics, Mrs Dalloway demands a study of its “craft”, a topic in which Virginia Woolf has pointedly selected this word meaning “cajolery, cunning, deceit” in its composition; it entertains a study of the ways that which is said is as meaningful as what it says (Woolf “Craftmanship” 198). According to Henry James, “the art of fiction was to be found more in treatment than in content” (Beebe 1075).

Craftsmanship in Mrs Dalloway includes the intratextual examples of self-consciousness on the topic of writing, some of which are clearly of questionable provenance, even obscure relevance. On the subject of texts, the “sandwich men” in Victoria Street, for example, are exemplary figures with their commercial discourse displayed on placards hanging from their shoulders, fore and aft (MD 5). Further, when Clarissa arrives at home, she is greeted by the sound of a writing machine,  “the click of the typewriter” (a device later used by Muriel Spark in The Comforters) as if it were creating the novel in which it appears  (MD 42; Waugh 120); “the noise of the typewriter” says T. S. Eliot in 1921, having little to do with creativity, “is always forming new wholes” from a chaotic, irregular, fragmentary life (Eliot “Metaphysical Poets”; Hoff 70). Peter Walsh, who was to have been a writer himself, critiques the man “writing quite openly about water-closets,” as a subtle textual dialogue with James Joyces’s Ulysses (MD 285, 108). Self-avowed “false pretences,” a subject worth considering in reference to the novel as a whole, hints at some duplicity through concerns on the art of writing letters to the Times; Lady Bruton’s ghost-written letter, “the grand deception” comes into existence within a scene of verbal composition (MD 156-7; 165-167; Hoff  “Feast” 93)).

A prominent example on the subject of composition features the skywriting aeroplane as an instrument producing illegible writing which Jane Goldman astutely describes “as constituting a metafictional moment of textual self-consciousness” (Goldman 58). “It soared up and wrote one letter after another—but what word was it writing?” (MD 31). “There’s a fine young feller aboard of it, Mrs. Dempster wagered” (MD 40). Yet one observer, Septimus Smith, is unable to construe the language (MD 31). Self-consciousness in the novel, commenting upon itself, first emerges when an intratextual demand for reading between the lines is indicated: “The spaces between them were as significant as the sounds” (MD 33). Within the topic of writing about writing and a question of its sometimes questionable authorship, a self-conscious component, the effect of Lady Bruton’s clichéd letter, “what we owe to the dead,” pronounced a masterpiece, includes sentiments expressed largely by Hugh Whitbread (MD 167). Peter Walsh cleverly tropes such clichés, in a different context, as imagery like “any number of people had hung up their hats on those pegs” (MD 235). The little learning Hugh exhibits, undercut with extremely ironic detachment, “the mysterious accord in which [men] … knew how to put things,” issues from his silver fountain pen as from a Pierian spring valorizing the symbolic authority of writing as a male preserve. His “masterpiece” merely “consists of releasing liquid from a pen onto blank paper” (MD 165-166; Jameson 179). There is also the struggling poet Septimus Smith, had some visitor “found him tearing up his writing, found him finishing a masterpiece,” repetitiously mirrored by Lady Bruton’s torn-up letter and, similarly, by Sally’s torn-up letter to Peter Walsh (MD 129, 165, 288).

Such instances of writing and writers as literary topics clearly mirror the illusion of phenomenal realities yet there is also a suggestion of matters encoded by association with appropriated fiction, the “craft”, all the while exploring the theory of fiction through its own making. The mirror itself (a notoriously falsifying device) has been explored in the critical analysis of writing (compare Richter on Woolf’s “The Lady in the Looking-glass, A Reflection” in “Mirror Modes” 100). Yet some fictions do serve as mirrors, devices “which result in the falsifying effect of the reflexion in the work,” indicating self-consciousness, and serving as a trope for the novel itself (Dällenbach 11). The mirror as a figure for its self-consciousness, when this novel reflects upon itself, is prominent.

Internal mirrors supplied by the characters themselves, evidence of the “obsessive concern with craft and form” in Mrs Dalloway, are easily discerned; these serve more than one purpose, among them, introducing reflexivity as the principal thematic device (Bradbury “The Introverted Novel” 100). Mirrors as devices “reflecting” several persons serve as alerts for viewing self-consciousness as an integral motif (see Beebe 1074). Casual comments mention the jarring effect upon the baleful Miss Kilman who momentarily sees herself in a looking-glass, “very red in the face” (MD 202). The essence of Lady Bruton’s soul is at least “half looking-glass” which is “proudly displayed” (MD 165). Peter Walsh sees himself as a “fortunate man” reflected in the plate-glass window of the store (MD 72); later he is conscious of the mundane looking-glass in his hotel room “for shaving one’s chin” (MD 235). A looking-glass facilitates Lucy’s little fantasy as “Lady Angela”; “she could imitate,” or impersonate, the talk of ladies and gentlemen, all of which is of subtle significance (MD 56-57). The handsome Dr. Holmes notices himself in the glass (MD 138). And finally, Rezia Warren Smith goes to the glass to admire her husband’s creation, “that hat” (MD 219). Most notably, however, Clarissa Dalloway is found at her dressing table,  “en toilette,” in extended contemplation of her “delicate pink face” in the glass (MD 54-55). The above characters also serve as mirrors reflecting various aspects of herself, “she alone knew how different” (MD 55; Richter 111). Her reflection appears in a mirror which typically reveals “the shape of whatever object [is] in the room”; as in the title, Mrs Dalloway, her reflection in the glass possesses “no identity outside of that which it must reflect” (Kellman 25). Any novel with this many mirrors would suggest a significant level of self-consciousness.

  Mrs Dalloway reflects self-consciously when it contemplates itself  through personifications within the narrative. Reinforcing personification as a motif, the intra-textual looking-glass suggests the mirror in the text which is personified by way of a structure found in novels of André Gide; this concerns an experiment with structural form which is called a mise en abyme or the figure which at each stage contains a smaller version of itself within itself; according to Dällenbach, “the common root of every mise en abyme is clearly the idea of reflexivity” as “any internal mirror that reflects the whole of the narrative in simple, repeated or ‘specious’ … duplication” (Dällenbach 42-3). “The term comes from heraldry: a figure in an escutcheon is said to be en abyme when it constitutes a miniature of that escutcheon” (Prince 53). The figure refers to “a textual part reduplicating, reflecting, or mirroring (one or more than one aspect of) the textual whole” (Prince 53). In order for this novel to be seen composed as a mise en abyme, the image found in the Dalloway “mirror” must be contained as a simpler version of the figure in question, i.e. a smaller piece of the original must be approximately similar to the whole which it reflects. This device serves as another form of the mirror in the text.

The mirror itself is a notorious device in other disciplines as well, a topos which appears in the paintings of Rubens, Ingres, Degas, Manet, Vermeer and most famously in the complex painting of Velasquez, Las Meniñas. Often in the context of a toilette scene, actual mirrors sometimes show the hidden side of the woman’s naked body omitted from the painted foreground, or perhaps “that the other side of her cheek is pitted and deformed” (Woolf “The Narrow Bridge” 16).  It may be as in the Dutch picture which Clarissa notices in a Bond Street window that the invisible perspective embedded in the mirror “makes the external intrude upon the internal” (MD 14; Dällenbach 12). That is, the reflection in the glass completes the reflected woman’s figure, taking the painting to a new level of representation. In Mrs Dalloway, the verbal reflection reveals the importance of this device for her fictive image which has been only partially revealed.

Such mirrors often manifest within their reflection a small picture of a simpler portion of the subject in question. For example, like a picture within a picture, Hamlet’s performance of “The Murder of Gonzago,” self-consciously a performance within a performance, is reminiscent of this structure which some have called a mise en abyme because, in its likeness as a drama, it is embedded in and reflects the enclosing drama of Hamlet (Dällenbach 12-13). By way of analogy, in Mrs Dalloway, the narrative occasionally includes such discourse within it which consists of actions or implies imagery mirroring a similar figure, scene, or action surrounding it, or perhaps dwelling elsewhere in the narrative; among these, Mrs Dalloway is notorious for textual repetitions. Other repetitions may also include actions or imagery repeated within a subsequent passage of discourse, a feature of meaning and form in the work which is known as recursiveness, i.e. those structures repeating simpler versions of the former figure, scene or action (Hofstadter 127, 152).

André Gide wrote of the heraldic device involving  “a second representation of the original shield ‘en abyme’ within it.” This device of a heraldic shield within a shield, like a story within a story, as suggested by Gide, brings out “the meaning and form of the work” (Dällenbach 8). The paradigm is one of containment.  The structure resembles Russian dolls nested within one another. The device appears in the works of Hugo, Fielding, Mann, Cervantes and even Homer. It is carried to an extreme, in Point Counterpoint, a novel of interlinked story lines and recurring themes. Aldous Huxley illustrates the recursiveness of a picture within a picture as a novelist within an imaginary novel holding a package of Quaker Oats pictured on it with a Quaker “holding in his hand a packet of Quaker Oats, on which there is another Quaker holding another packet, etc” (Dällenbach 22). The chain of packaging suggests infinite regress, which “endlessly defers the revelation of truth or knowledge,” yet never reaches the level of reality (Stoicheff 90). Some form of global order eventually arises among the components.

The mirror-like personifications of textual self-consciousness in the novel sometimes create the disorienting impression of duplicated passages, or the sensation of having already read this portion at some time before, implying that its nature serves more as a covert device than a reality. Such examples, however, must conform to Gide’s requirement for the element of containment, the form and overall meaning of the work, since literary forms, such as narratives participating in the mise en abyme, must necessarily incorporate a reciprocal embedding narrative. There are such examples in Mrs Dalloway to be analysed.

  Gide’s concept requires that the mise en abyme include discourse which “attributes to the character in the narrative the very activity of the narrator in charge of the narration” making an analogy between “the thematic content of the main story and that of the story contained within it” (Dällenbach 18). For Gide the miniature of the story must be the same as the subject (its activity, not the mere likeness) of the story which contains it. Gide requires that the composition create the subject of the work as an accurate reflection upon the text containing it by referring back to it and serving as its model. In this case, the mise en abyme in a novel such as Mrs Dalloway containing fragments of writing would portray figures who also contain fragments of writing. These figures would be illustrative as simpler versions of the text within which they appear. Those merely portraying a second image, therefore, will not always fulfill Gide’s requirement. Further, the literal looking-glasses in Mrs Dalloway, it seems, do not meet the requirement although they allude to the possibility of the mirrored image functioning as a double of the original. Still, there are other “mirrors,” some concerning the craft of writing specifically, which will satisfy as falsifying reflections. The term “mirror” will be seen, rather, as a term of art.

Mrs Dalloway, a novel self-consciously identified with the craft of writing, must first be acknowledged as a work which includes borrowed fragments of writing inserted within its discourse; this mutual activity is requisite for the mise en abyme. Virginia Woolf’s dialogue with literature, the communication with other works of literature in Mrs Dalloway, signifies its complexity. It is as if “the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of literature of [her] own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order” (Eliot Sacred Wood 49). The novel invites inspection for evidence of literary allusions, the writings which are contained within the work, as Gide requires; such preformed language serves as the necessary item for the artful analogy of containership through which the structure of Gide’s mise en abyme will be demonstrated. Many such allusions may remain obscure, having been misprisioned, as one thing taken for another; they merely await discovery as “invisible presences” (MD 190). There are among these, as benchmarks, examples of falsified citations, preformed language, literary allusions and wholesale reformulations of existing texts; the practice of cannibalizing other works of art which are craftily incorporated into the narrative as part of its own is a feature of Mrs Dalloway (Richter in Pringle 89). The novel is truly a modern cento, a work composed of existing compositions. Recognition of such fraudulent passages, existing beyond mere parallels in literary history, is essential to perceiving those modeled in the text as examples of writing which are contained, packaged, and enveloped within the surrounding passage.

Although Mrs Dalloway sometimes seems to lack the originality of the creative tradition, this is not the issue. Although it is fair to say that reproductions within it as a textual “mirror” entail the fraudulence of imitation, it is rather the distinctive characteristic of Mrs Dalloway to contain many falsified passages from literary works by many authors; it is self-consciously engaged in repeatedly demonstrating this fact. Mrs Dalloway is personified as a container of literature and Clarissa has clearly abolished all rights to “private property” (MD 49). Using other people’s materials, a practice exploited by Shakespeare in reformulating his plays for example, is prominent. As she was reading Proust during the composition of the novel, Woolf herself admits she is “slipping along on borrowed skates” (Woolf Diary 2. 322). This has been criticized as “plagiarism” in the past, although even Dante “knew how to pillage right and left” -– “The good poet welds his theft into a whole feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn” (Eliot Sacred Wood 63, 125). In Mrs Dalloway, however, the practice merely serves to represent textual reflexivity by marking its own crafty design as a vessel containing borrowed passages. According to Harold Bloom, here more than ever, “reading a text is necessarily the reading of a whole system of texts” (Bloom in Pringle 85). When an example of writing in the novel which contains one fragment of preformed language after another comments and reflects by its similarity on the fictiveness of the novel in which it appears, it may yield unexpected conclusions by way of its covert status.

  The ubiquitous focus on the novel’s exploitation of preformed language calls attention initially to many forms of artifice through imitating the material taken from other writers rather than exploiting “original” discourse; even transtextual characters (subtly recursive) mirror the novel’s borrowed contents by their former existence as textual fragments, previously conceived and here audaciously derived from another literary work, i. e., a unique group of characters from novels by Virginia Woolf in this case. Mrs. Hilbery first saw life in Night and Day, Mr. Bowley appears in Jacob’s Room like Moll Pratt, and the Durants; and the Dalloways themselves are bodily translated from The Voyage Out as if in their fictiveness they were a population existing simultaneously in a parallel universe, “functioning quite practically as its own world” (Klinkowitz 91). Such borrowings should bring into question the substantiality of other personalities as well.

Similar self-awareness, other devices which also flaunt inauthenticity, draw attention to a daring motif of counterfeits, as for example, the paste jewelry in the shop windows (MD 174); “buckram shapes,” i.e. anything imaginary, anything fictional (MD 131; I Henry IV 2.4); “cabbages,” i.e. bits and pieces of stolen fabric which suggests the rewards of pilfering (MD 4); and “pirates” which recursively alludes to appropriating the work of others, as if “boldly snatching a passenger, or ignoring a passenger” (MD 205; Hoff “Gaming” 14-16; McNees 33-35). Mrs Dalloway is purposely sui generis in its quantities of borrowed fragments which, like celestial “dark matter,” an invisible presence in space, exerts an elusive form of energy within the discourse. Like dark matter, these invisible fragments necessarily give shape and structure to the totality of the narrative. In the context of writing, many serve to shape the subject as one of great importance. Such components tend to deconstruct any expected rhetorical realism.

This seems a devious way to undertake an examination of writing, a rather bold approach to the falsifying effect of selection itself (Waugh 99); but assorted kinds of reflections, assorted kinds of fraud typify Mrs Dalloway. These selections are requisitions for a structure “en abyme” as will be demonstrated. A few examples of falsified text follow so that their function as preformed language may be noted clearly; intertextual overkill has been claimed as a technique which proliferates in metafiction (Waugh 145 ff). An early passage flaunts a preexisting literary text, as one covertly incorporated into small-talk with Hugh Whitbread, reminding him of her party like the perfect hostess she is; this specifically introduces an ordinarily invisible reference to the topic of writing; in dialogic communication with a famous treatise on writing, Clarissa Dalloway says, “I love walking in London … Really it’s better than walking in the country,” remarks which masquerade as light conversation (MD 7). This is an imitation of a Greek original, the art perfected by the ancient Romans; (Mark Twain reportedly claims that “we sometimes prefer the copies to the originals” in Schiff 5). Her salient words impersonate Plato’s Greek critique, Phaedrus, and the eponymous young friend of Socrates quoting a physician who “says that a country walk is more refreshing than a stroll in the city squares,” in agreement with Socrates as they stroll into in the country (Plato Phaedrus 227 a - b). This is the very text being read by Jacob, a citizen of that same fictive universe, when at the British Museum he views the Elgin Marbles (Woolf Jacob’s Room 149).

Socrates, expecting a “feast of words,” “continues imperturbably” with a critique on rhetorical style, commentary which becomes a lecture on writing; his discourse “ends with a condemnation of writing as a means of communication” which he views as “at its highest no more than an aid to recollection” (Hamilton 10). Socrates’s pronouncements on rhetoric and writing serve as one of the requisite initial conditions with which much of Mrs Dalloway is furnished when this seemingly trivial matter acquires large-scale importance at the center rather than the margin of the discourse. Fraudulence in a narrative composed of appropriated texts which Mrs Dalloway offers as its own appears as an enabling motif of which Clarissa herself is persistently guilty.

  Continuing the complexity on the subject of writing, Clarissa’s walk to the florist for flowers includes several examples of writing in Hatchard’s bookstore display window and clearly quotes the famous passage from Shakespeare’s Cymbeline along with mention of the other books such as the novels of Robert Surtees, Mrs Asquith’s Memoirs and Big Game Shooting in Nigeria, books unsuitable as gifts for the ailing Mrs. Hugh (MD 13). Soon Clarissa expresses her heartfelt aspiration, “Oh if she could have had her life over again,” verbatim words pilfered from the world-class Madam in George Bernard Shaw’s risqué comedy, Mrs. Warren’s Profession; “the good offices of the procuress [the entremetteuse, are] part of the duties of the perfect hostess,” says Proust (388). Shaw’s quotation, like other fragments of borrowed texts, masquerades covertly as pure narrative which yet remains another seemingly minor issue similar to the covert quotation from Plato which Clarissa perhaps recalls from having read Plato in bed at Bourton, the house “rambling all to bits and pieces” (Woolf Diary 2, 67-68; MD 12, 49). Her arrival at the florist’s shop is finally marked by its allusion to the Homeric Hymn to Demeter and the floral display they share between them (MD 17-18). Commentary on such components of literary dialogue appearing as aspects of reality ought seriously to acknowledge them to be examples of preformed language instead. These examples illustrate a text, Mrs Dalloway, personified as one containing other texts, a structure of containership which is essential to the composition of André Gide’s mise en abyme.

Mere words contain entire literary universes; such nonlinearity in which output is greater than input, however, may remain unnoticed if conditions such as the requirement for recognizing the obscure presences of preformed language have not been treated with due care. “Something so trifling … that no mathematical instrument … could register the vibration”  suggests self-consciously that even the trivial might shelter important matters (MD 25). Normally, small causes yield small results; in this case, however, minute causes result in large consequences. A subtle allusion to Henri Poincaré’s Science and Method  (1914), in which he famously claimed that “a small cause which escapes our notice determines a considerable effect,” implies what is now called the “butterfly effect” and the necessity of a sensitive dependence on the above-mentioned initial conditions; “a small uncertainty … may lead to very large errors” (Hoff Invisible 56; Gleick 321; Paulson 45). Paulson continues Poincaré’s theory saying,  “complex global behavior on a larger scale … cannot be deduced from the knowledge of individual components” if “small local inputs of information … at the front produce global consequences for the system at the end” (Porush 71).  These comments are reformulated as the novel’s own intratextual counsel, the principle remaining that “something so trifling” as “the surface agitation of the passing car” in London which might easily render the vibration as “shocks in China” might lead, self-consciously, to a formidable rhetorical consequence “when the sentence [is] finished” (MD 25-26). Woolf has characterized the effect as an array of falling atoms in which life may exist no more fully in “what is commonly thought big than in what is commonly thought small” (Woolf Common Reader 150). This deliberate self-consciousness cautions against a too ready acceptance of reality in which it holds up the mirror to nature. Rather, “if there is any mirroring to be done, the novel should mirror itself” (Stonehill 11).

The novel offers, randomly, characters figuring surreptitious analogies which will be shown as essential to the motif of self-reference. A series, Scrope Purvis, Moll Pratt, Sara Bletchley, the charming Mrs. Dempster and others who populate the narrative includes, as a sub-plot, the nameless man with a leather bag stuffed with pamphlets. They may remain as realities, but he, for instance, the nameless man with a leather bag on the steps of St. Paul’s, personifies the novel as its visual equivalent, as a miniature receptacle of literature and at the same time is similar to a small mirror reflecting the hidden side of Mrs Dalloway in its dialogue with literature (MD 41). In the beginning he is made as physically realistic as possible and allowed to be himself, an authentic fabrication – unemployed, solitary, unkempt – among the processes of realism. This characterization deceptively lets him fit in as merely another component of the series of characters (Klinkowicz 69). Illustrating Poincaré’s requisite initial conditions, this “seedy-looking nondescript man carrying a leather bag” stuffed with pamphlets will provide a bravado display of artifice in many ways; he serves as personification of a receptacle and a mirror as well. Although he is depicted as a component of phenomenal reality, he tropes the ironic differences between perfectly opaque words (those demanding attention as metaphors for the novel itself) and the self-effacing, transparent words of traditional fiction in which “each word stands for an object in the real world” of the foreground (Klinkowitz x, 19).

His leather bag is explicitly designated as “the symbol of something,” an offering before the altar in the cathedral, anticipating Clarissa’s obscure offering: “But to whom?” (MD 42, 185). That “something” is encoded as a metaphorical receptacle which says, “This is literature,” such as Mrs Dalloway’s metaphorical dimension as a container of literature. “The truth of the page is on top of it, not underneath or over at the library” (Sukenick 45). The leather bag stuffed with pamphlets, in the first place, will confirm the pattern of containership by personifying a smaller version of this novel which has been shown as a unique receptacle of the work of other writers. The structure of containership “lays bare the construction of meaning through metaphorical substitution” (Waugh 43). The function of his bag holding pamphlets is to trope the novel as a repository of preformed language. He clearly provides an image which serves as one of Poincaré’s requisite initial conditions as the metafictional personification of textual  “containership” in  Mrs Dalloway, itself containing Plato, Shaw and others.

Further, the image he projects is that of a simpler version of the novel, a miniature of a creative project like Mrs Dalloway, that of a “bag,” a receptacle which holds within itself examples of expropriated preformed language; he is displayed as a purveyor of texts within the image of a text enclosing, self-consciously, repurposed textual fragments embedded within itself. The analogy, again, is to a novel full of literary texts personified as a bag full of pamphlets, which is itself a part of the novel  “en abyme”. He appears as a passage inserted into Mrs Dalloway as its model which justifies his presence; the matter of his leather bag filled with pamphlets contained within a narrative itself containing textual allusions contributes to the “construction en abyme” (Hofstadter 152; Hutchinson 28).  The mise en abyme, a form of recursiveness, exists as a structure containing simpler versions of itself; this character mirrors Mrs Dalloway as a self-replicating store of texts, a gallery of preformed language, troped as such by this man with the leather bag. Thus, Mrs Dalloway through the man and his leather bag resembles the redundant Quaker, as above, holding the box of oats which bears the picture of another Quaker holding a box of oats.

  The special metaphoric status of this man and his bag demonstrates his prominence, situated in an early section of the Dalloway narrative, as an essential part of an inaugural mise en abyme, Such a personification serves as a miniature receptacle which is similar to and contained within the narrative at the same time. Serving as an imitation of the Dalloway narrative but as a smaller creature “allows the book to include itself in its place in its narrative” (Dällenbach 93). The fictive role of this seemingly ordinary Londoner is to illuminate, by being a condensed form of the structural model of the narrative in which he appears, a character in effect drawing attention to the novel as a vessel enclosing other texts (MD 41-42). His hold-all, the leather bag, is “stuffed with pamphlets” which are small texts themselves he has apparently composed; like the author who creates him, his brief soliloquy, “knocking of words together,” models diction chosen by Cicero, exemplary rhetorician, quietly nested within it. Therefore he contains a specific literary fragment, a subtext within the text, like the novel which he mirrors  (Cicero Orator 68; “faciendorum jugendorumque verborum”). The example of the man with the leather bag appears partly as ordinary narrative yet as a component of a mise en abyme appearing within the textual whole of the novel, i. e. the leather bag functions as an enclosing narrative which is, in turn, encompassed by the novel as a similarly enclosing narrative. He presents a metaphorical figure of the structure by embedding a miniature of the narrative itself. He performs a semiotic duty and a structural one as well, artfully thriving on the tension existing between denotation and connotation.

He, finally, implies a paradox since he “presupposes a pre-comprehension that will be confirmed, rectified or refined by the comprehension it permits” (Dällenbach 95). The mise en abyme results in the phenomenon in which the man with the leather bag containing pamphlets is like a book containing fragments of literature; he reflects, like a mirror, the novel Mrs Dalloway (a book containing fragments of literature) within which he is enclosed. He provides a personification of the meaning and form of the work in the linguistic form of expression as well as in the structuring of its content.

As a metaphor which continues the image of containment through subsequent applications of the device, the novel continually varies its methods by thematizing it through a series of comparable characters sharing the morphology of the metaphor organized as a form of global order (Dällenbach 49). Accordingly, “the same general form is repeated across many different length scales” (Hayles 10). Isolated elements further elaborate the figure of interior duplication bearing contents in the form of aggregations, or writings, or items obtained by chance. The reader is thus presented with a cascade of characters, in the interests of symmetry, insinuating that Mrs Dalloway is a receptacle for literature such as that literally framed by the callous Miss Kilman whose “bag of books, her ‘satchel’” is itself enclosed within a novel which is, once again, like a bag of books (MD 197).  The imperious Aunt Helena’s collecting box for flowers, resting inside a book which is a  “collecting box”, resembles a container of texts like the hamper of flowers from Bourton (MD 91, 198); the inference includes “a lap full of odds and ends” or even “bags full of treasures” which have been collected by Clarissa and Peter, bagged at the Caledonian market, also known as the “thieve’s market” as it happens. These are included as metaphors which model the form (MD 193, 194, 231). (“Even to say that a text ‘contains’ something is to give it a spatial dimensionality it only metaphorically has” according to Stoicheff 85). With the third appearance of one of these metaphoric vessels, the ontological status of such literal containers begins to deconstruct, opening the system to reinterpretation “so as to frustrate and reorient the logical reader they posit” (Stoicheff 91). With it should come an awareness of the transcoding which articulates distinct types of objects but reinterpreting them in the role as components within the mise en abyme.

Readers gradually learn to “recognize the structural principle” (Hutchinson 30). The collage effect of members within the group mixes “various signs which by themselves refer back to the whole, but when combined in a realistically impossible way draw more attention to themselves” (Klinkowitz 30). This device points repeatedly toward the novel itself as a caddy for literature, and as such, toward the devices impersonating it as a container which need not be viewed primarily as references to the world outside. These symbolic vessels compose the lexical device as a cluster of meaning, which, by its multiple occurrences should serve as reminders for something more than a merely realistic picture of city life; its self-conscious frequency suggests exploring amusing possibilities.

Self-reflection, typical in a novel like Mrs Dalloway composed of complex impersonations which amount to talking about itself, is oriented toward verbal play (Klinkowitz 61). “To play with language is thus not merely to test its resources or [to] amuse, but also to illustrate its restrictive, conditioning nature” (Hutchinson 20). It is a game “which at a certain stage is invested with an unexpected meaning, a meaning having no reference at the linguistic level on which the activity takes place” (Calvino 79). This unexpected manner of self-expression draws attention to itself as the object of discourse considering the fact that Peter, like the novel itself, had been rudely talking about himself (MD 192). His hurtful comments about Clarissa’s party world, “the perfect hostess he called her” and her metaphors, “trying to make out … that things are what they are not,” express a degree of verbal playfulness however that softens his fractious tone (MD 9, 84). He serves to introduce another instance of this redundant concept of the container of literature.

At the same time Clarissa felt self-consciously loyal, indebted to Peter who had lent her books. He was clever about literature, the meaning of authors like Pope and Addison: “She owed him words,” written words like “curls of Indian ink” (MD 192, 53-54, 107-8). The matter of their friendship has been punctuated with literary issues. However, the previously amicable imagery of Mrs Dalloway as a container of many is modified with Peter’s derogatory comment which characterizes Clarissa as “wooden,” presumably something, awkward, stiff, unnatural, but coded instead as another paradigm of containership. It is contingent upon perceiving its derivation from Homer’s Odyssey, “misprisioned in Mrs Dalloway,” deliberately concealed but serving as instruction rather than simple allusion (Pringle 86). Rather than pursuit of signs of another reality, Peter Walsh’s comments on Clarissa’s “coldness, this woodenness,” bear a concealed association, cleverly alluded to when he speaks like a would-be Odysseus (MD 91, 264; Hoff “Pseudo-Homeric” 198). With imagery presenting another figure of the container, he tropes her as the famous hollow beast, disguised as a container familiar from ancient literature, the wooden Trojan horse hiding within its body the invading Greek soldiers, a perennial metaphor for deceptive gifts: “Anyhow, it was her gift” (MD 185; Homer Odyssey 8.493-520; Zeitlin 129). Currently the expression merely indicates covertly dangerous “malware” concealing virulent computer viruses. Peter’s unflattering comment alludes instead to Clarissa as a container like the wooden horse which is pregnant with “soldiers in its belly, deep in that vast cavern” (Virgil Aeneid  2. 100) just as the novel is packed with literature.

  Mrs Dalloway, too, is comparable to Helen of Troy, the cause of the whole war, by way of her own literary impersonations; Helen claims that, encountering the horse hiding the warriors, she was able to disquiet them by making her speech “sound like the voice of the wife of each of the Argives” (Homer Odyssey 4.272-279; Doherty 86). The oddness of Peter’s accusation, without any preparation for it, offers a fortuitous clue indicating the necessity of further analysis, it being consonant with his pseudo-Homeric leanings in simultaneous existence with Plato and Shaw. The association with the Trojan horse reinforces the metaphor of containment as well as reformulated texts as voices  imitated and thereby accents the ambiguous linguistic play between the identity of the “woodenness” of Mrs. Dalloway or in Mrs Dalloway or both.

An element of self-reference presented as a narrative feature alludes to the intertextuality involved in borrowed phrases and suggested as Clarissa gratuitously “caught her scarf in some other woman’s dress” exploiting the metaphor of the texts caught up in the novel like interwoven fabrics (MD 264; Dällenbach 96). In its fragmentation of preformed language, writing resembles the activities of Ellie Henderson, “cutting up underclothes” (making “cabbages”) or like the fragmentary appearances of clouds when one fancies “hacking chips off with a hatchet” (MD 91, 210). Thus, Mrs Dalloway may be viewed as a fraudulent narrative made up of textual fragments containing anecdotes of an author cutting up appropriated textualities.

  Elizabeth Dalloway illustrates the practice of recursiveness as a simpler version of the novel which appropriates preformed language, mounted on an “omnibus” text; she captures passengers like a “pirate,” a thief of literary works, (that is, literature pilfered by an implied buccaneer), “boldly snatching a passenger, or ignoring a passenger,” sharing the name given to London’s fleet of outlaw omnibus conveyances which interfered with regular city services (MD 204; McNees 33-35). These indicate the similarity between themselves and Mrs Dalloway, like a hamper brimming with appropriated verbal forgeries, each constituting the figure of containment in its own individual way.

Maurice Beebe has observed that “Modernist art turns back on itself and is largely concerned with its own creation and composition” and its preoccupation with form (Beebe 1072-3). In Mrs Dalloway the encoded form of containment appears again in a display of recursive symmetry in its new paradigm as a container, Motherhood, as the thematically related motif; mothers are uniquely metaphorical of containers of verbal creations, including the mothers of Pimlico giving suck to their young, representing a further version of maternal redundancy. The creative recursiveness in which a fecund novel contains likenesses of itself begins with the case of the squire whose housemaid/wife had had a baby; “Clarissa imitated her” (MD 9, 28, 89, 88). On the other hand, the hired butler with greenish cheeks can hardly have “blundered into the nuisance of children.” Peter Walsh belongs to this group (MD 254, 289). However, Sally Seton, the mother superior, has given birth to five sons and  Dr. Holmes has four little children (MD 139; 261).  The matter of pregnancy receives attention from Rezia Smith who, conscious of womb-like leather bags in the shop windows, reminiscent of the man with the leather bag on the steps of Saint Paul’s Cathedral; she aspires to have a baby, a son like Septimus although he declares “one cannot bring children into a world like this” (MD 134, 135).

Childbirth is suggested in the love song crooned by the old woman opposite Regent’s Park Tube station, bubbling up with its poetic iterations recalling a dead lover in May, alluding to von Gilm’s poem “Allerseelen”; her song is troped as an ancient spring streaming away like amniotic fluid indicating an imminent birth, lacking only a writerly midwife (MD 122-125; J. Hillis Miller 190). The proliferation of the figure of maternity blooming in the text, contemplating its own imagery as a recursion (pattern hidden within pattern), further includes Septimus Smith, poet of the subplot, “who carries in him the greatest message in the world”; even fantasizing giving birth to that message (“He strained; he pushed”) by his laborious exertions, he personifies a woman in childbirth (MD 104). (Compare this with Buck Mulligan in Joyce’s Ulysses: “Wait, I am big with child. I have an unborn child in my brain.”) Septimus, further, conforms to the image Lucretius applies to a newborn infant, “like a drowned sailor on a rock” (Lucretius De rerum natura 5.223-227; MD 103-104). Similarly, Lady Bradshaw, a “parturient” in spite of her husband who forbade childbirth, “cramped, squeezed, pared, pruned, drew back, peeped through” (MD 152, 150). But Mrs. Filmer’s married daughter, who models the concept of the recursion, is expecting a baby presented like a small reflection in a mirror; as a personification of the mise en abyme, Mrs. Filmer’s daughter cradles a simpler version of herself (MD 126, 136). Mrs Dalloway seems a veritable maternity ward.

The concept of the reflexive mise en abyme of art writing about itself, illustrates those texts which contain simpler versions of themselves, disrupting assumptions concerning the linear relationship between text and world (Stoicheff 87). It can be regarded as “instructions to enable… reading the work in the way it wants to be read” (Dällenbach 99-100). Its deliberate and elaborate appearances in Mrs Dalloway, perhaps, may require evidence of some pretext for such a structure beyond the ephemeral shadows on the wall of Plato’s cave, a womb-like cavity. The mise en abyme may coincide with or be perhaps modeled on Nietzsche’s aphorism that “behind each of his caves there [does and must] lie another, deeper cave … an abyss (“Abgrund”) behind every ground (“Grund”), beneath every ‘foundation’ (“Begründung”)” (Beyond Good and Evil, Dällenbach 183). The metaphor of  the “abyme” (“abyss”) as “the bottomless, the very deep, the vertiginous and the buried” in one cave behind another according to Dällenbach, implies Nietzsche’s caves. These suggest the comment made by Virginia Woolf concerning metaphorical caves in her novel (Mrs Dalloway) on August 30, 1923: “I should say a good deal about The Hours [the Ur-Dalloway text] and my discovery; how I dig out beautiful caves behind my characters; I think that gives exactly what I want: humanity, humour, depth” (Woolf Diary 2.263). This would seem to validate the words of Dällenbach on the mise en abyme as “reflecting the narrative by taking as its own theme the duplication that characterizes romantic irony,” which calls up “other mirrors, creating multiple, infinite reflexions” (Dällenbach 59).

It is as Federman has claimed for contemporary fiction, Mrs Dalloway “dwells on the circumstances of its own possibilities, on the conventions of narrative, and on the openness of language to multiple meanings, to contradiction, irony, paradox” (Federman 293). With a sensitive dependence on Poincaré’s respect for initial conditions we may finally see that Mrs Dalloway remains quite formidable in its fullness when great consequences are discovered in light of what may seem to have been merely unobtrusive initial conditions.

                                                                                                                                            Molly Hoff

 

 

 

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