Reading Virginia Woolf's novel

 
 

 
 

                                                         The Unreliable Narrator in Mrs Dalloway

 

                       Instead of looking for the primitive, she looks rather for the civilized …    where nevertheless                                                    something is found to be left out.  And this something is deliberately left out. 

                                                          “Virginia Woolf for French Readers” T. S. Eliot    

  T. S. Eliot’s clever oxymoron expresses the method of the unreliable narrator in Mrs Dalloway who withholds details, omits facts, and misrepresents himself and others as well. The narrator in question is Peter Walsh who begins with the trustworthiness of an old friend and ends with unreliability of an alien. Unreliable narrators whose practice often involves omission are sometimes difficult to recognize. “With an unreliable narrator silences and omissions may be just as significant as what is included” (Hutchinson 31). Irony that is similarly obscure is also a component, and recognition of irony shares some of the same problems, “saying as little and meaning as much as possible” (Frye 40). Wayne Booth says, “It is true that most of the great reliable narrators indulge in large amounts of incidental irony and they are thus ‘unreliable’ in the sense of being potentially deceptive” (Booth 159).

Further, this type of narrator may be “unreliable because his evaluations are no longer representative of those advanced by the implied author and are often quite contrary to those that are ultimately to constitute the ‘meaning’ of the work” (Iser 204). For Peter Walsh, being an unreliable narrator consists in his practice of leaving things out, “forcing the reader to speculate and to act as his own interpreter of the action” (Hutchinson 32). He is in good company as an unreliable storyteller with Gulliver, Tristram, Quixote, and Holden Caulfield among others.

Omitting the subject of narrative, leaving things out, talking around them, is a common narrative strategy. Proust’s phrase, “I didn’t know that…,” is a “crude way of smuggling contraband information into the text” (Shattuck 171). Omission of vital information as with the rhetorical figure, the aposiopesis, is a frequent figure in the overall architecture of Mrs Dalloway; waiting until the end, delaying the subject, is a normal feature. Omission also occurs when applied to intertextuality in the form of an allusion. Clarissa claims, “She did undoubtedly then feel what men felt” (MD 47), as if in dialogue with the unnamed Samuel Butler of The Authoress of the Odyssey who believes that the Odyssey was written by a woman; he claims that women do not feel what men feel (Hoff Invisible 66). Narration that exploits this form, concealing the issue in order to better display it, creates the impression of unreliability.

The unreliable narrator in Mrs Dalloway is a rhetorical device, something of a cliché, however, personified by Peter and his failed transmission of information that gives his discourse the character of the fallible and the untrustworthy; his method will often be seen to be as preterition as well as other modes of deception. It is such a frequent structural element that it catches the reader’s attention. Oddly, as the narrator for approximately one fifth of Mrs Dalloway, Peter has received a disproportionately small share of the critical attention compared to the space reserved for Septimus Smith who also occupies around one fifth of the narrative; yet “the more successful the method, the less it attracts attention” (Ferrer 11).

Never giving the literal truth, Peter frequently conceals information. His ambiguous language also forces the reader to rely on intuitive judgments and to be satisfied with only a minimal comprehension. Peter can be adjudged as highly unreliable in many ways. For instance, when he appears suddenly in Regent’s Park as a man in grey, Peter interprets Rezia’s reactions to Septimus’s presumed hallucination of his dead friend as “lovers squabbling under a tree,” disposed as he is to recall quarrels with Clarissa (Dick 54; MD 107). “The domestic family life of the parks” is far from the cause of Rezia’s unhappiness when Peter surmises “what fix they had got themselves into.”  He interprets the scene as the fête champêtre in Tibullus 2.5.101-104, a quarrel with his girl and a lad so savage he would “swear his wits had gone astray” (Hoff Invisible 117). Since he acts as narrator for a large part of the novel and supplies much of what we know (or what we think we know) about him and Clarissa Dalloway, it seems appropriate to explore the things he actually says and the ways in which he says them.

The information Peter supplies is often colored with self-justifying shades of ex parte comments regarding Clarissa and their mutual relationship. He makes snide judgments concerning her and others as well, that readers must sort out between the biased and the valid. Not only does Peter’s voice give most of the information concerning Clarissa, largely through his memories, but he is also a character in these reminiscences and as such reveals much about his own situation; these as well may or may not be reliable. Moreover, large gaps in his narrative created through the deliberate withholding of information constitute spaces of silence in matters of romantic interest; readers are presumably required to be satisfied, lacking the relevant context. Narrative gaps filled through the reader’s projections, however, are a poor substitute for information. “Although exercised by the text, it is not in the text”; “what is said only appears to take on significance as a reference to what is not said” (Iser 168).

Peter’s participation has not gone entirely unnoticed by critics yet he is accorded desultory commentary as if his observations were casual judgments instead of the robust contribution he makes. “The eyes through which we see are not detached and objective … they are the eyes of Peter Walsh” (Zwerdling 18). In general Peter has served, largely, as a vehicle for information throughout the narrative. Catherine Penner, however, accords him the status of a merely secondary character being, like Sally Seton, a metaphoric aspect of Clarissa’s past (Penner 7). A few have seen Peter otherwise. “From one perspective the novel explores thwarted homosexual desire, but, from another, it deals with thwarted heterosexual desire. It is no wonder that an early reviewer could assert that the novel’s ‘sole principle event is the return from India of Mrs. Dalloway’s rejected suitor’” (Parker 108). The reviewer in question, Richard Hughes, “shifts focus from the concern of the female title character to those of her male suitor” (Parker 162 note 46). The structure of the narrative facilitates this fact. “Peter Walsh’s story begins and ends with Clarissa Dalloway. Clarissa thinks of him on the first page of the novel, and the novel concludes with his awareness of her” (McNichol 73).

Peter’s discourse, assumed to consist of valid accounts of the past, is often mistaken as the trustworthy voice of the narrator.  Yet, this cynical, ironic voice as the source of information regarding the characters and their dealings may be associated with himself, the narrator, or both. Thus, a basic understanding of indirect discourse is essential.  “We can’t correctly interpret any sentence as pure narration” (Banfield 308-309.) The narration supplied by Peter such as is found in Mrs Dalloway would appear to be notoriously glib, sophisticated, witty, and well-versed in literature, largely characteristics of the person with whom the narrative responsibility is shared. The fact that Peter’s voice resembles that of an omniscient narrator rests in the fact that his discourse as the “producer of an utterance” is given in free indirect discourse, also known as narrated monologue style that, in its essence, incorporates the narrator of the entire novel itself, “a voice famous for disappearing into the other voices it creates” (Dry 87 note 1; Hafley 42). Plato provides an example of indirect discourse in The Republic 3. 392 d-394-e as a version of Homer’s Iliad 1.15-21. All of Mrs Dalloway’s characters express speech or thought in free indirect discourse, often with the flavor of soliloquy; and in spite of obvious bias associated with each, many can be accepted as truthful to a large extent (Hoff Invisible “Appendix” 254). In this practice, Peter’s participation, however, adds an extra layer of mystery to the narrative since his command of the facts is often questionable.

Free indirect discourse is indicated when discourse appears without quotations as the voice uses verb tenses that are back-shifted forms (have/had) with pronoun adjustments appropriate to the context; it often incorporates the emotive constructions called expressives (Lord!) including clichéd stylizations, non-factive verbs (seems), and personal forms of expression characteristic of the speaker with expressions such as “hard as nails,” and “cool as a cucumber.” Thus, Peter’s focalizations in free indirect discourse may be identified when his perception is without quotation and when the narrative is sprinkled with his colloquialisms; and it will differ from the descriptions employed by Clarissa. Under these conditions it cannot be attributed to the conventional narrator. It is important to recognize Peter’s voice as a composite of the parts in the blend. “Neither voice takes over in free indirect discourse. The narrator is still present, rendering the discourse a bivocal construction” (Snaith 65). As Clarissa comments, metacritically, “Everything had to be shared” (MD 10). Free indirect discourse “relies on the linguistic evocation of the character’s voice” for tracing the relative cognitive viewpoint (Fludernick 280). Much that may appear to be “narration” is derived from Peter’s thoughts as digressive glimpses of the past, and should be so acknowledged. Further, Peter’s typical narrative is characterized by references to descriptions of “bookish” origins that would be familiar to a former Oxford student such as he is, unlike Clarissa who admits she scarcely reads a book (MD 11). The narrator leaves the scholarly material to Peter in spite of his having been sent down from Oxford, which perhaps disqualifies him for reliability. In general, the multivalency of free indirect discourse enables much irony of content, which is the thematic concern of the text (Snaith 87).

The first thing to be identified in Peter Walsh, after he serves to introduce the conventional “India topos,” a conventional rite-of-passage, a chronotope according to Linden Peach, is that he is an equally conventional character, in the literary sense, i.e. he is a “vert gallant.” “He had not felt so young in years” (Peach 112; MD 78). The roguish French term is translated innocently as “the old man in love.” Less innocently, the convention refers to an old man preoccupied with sex, having many mistresses (Hoff Invisible 96). As Clarissa’s lover in their youth he is thought an innocent suitor. Gradually, however, his overly amorous nature is revealed when he is reported to have married the woman on the boat going to India, when he confesses his current involvement with a married woman half his age whom he is to marry, and that he is now seeking a divorce from the woman on the boat, presumably. He confesses to Clarissa that he is “in love with a girl in India”; “not with her. With some younger woman, of course,” as Clarissa notes (MD 10, 67).

Peter’s credibility is compromised from the beginning.  This woman on the boat clearly arouses Clarissa’s horror for some unknown reason; “Never should she forget all that!” (MD 10). Such details of his life in India are not fully revealed; his current relationship consists of pseudo-confidences characterized by deliberate restriction of information. Daisy, the little-known fiancée in question, is married to a Major in the Indian army, she has two small children as marks of identity, and he expects Clarissa to be nice to her, to introduce her in spite of the cautions expressed by Mrs. Burgess (MD 237-239). Events reported by way of partial evidence, narrative lacunae and hidden data, constitute much of what could be the interesting story of Daisy. The fragmentary accounts of events and hedged descriptions are signs of evasion, omission, and obfuscation. An alert reader should be sensitive to the deliberate withholding of information necessary for evaluation of Peter and his new romance. Admitting that he had wept for having been a fool, named as such, he repeatedly recalls this emotional state  which he doesn’t understand himself, “a whimpering, sniveling old ass”  tends to undermine his personal sense of reliability (MD 121).

The absence of detail works against any kind of understanding because we are attracted not to what is said, but to what is unsaid. Such concealed formulation renders evaluation of its worth impossible. Yet this artful vagueness, summary rather than detailed partial revelations, always stimulates curiosity. Ironically, Iser claims that it is only through such gaps that a story gains its dynamism through its omissions.  “The spaces between them were as significant as the sounds” (MD 33). Matters of romance in India seemingly amount to privately held information if only that the empty spaces are of a nature that relates to his affair with Clarissa. The validity of Peter’s expressions is more honored in the omission than in the utterance. In consequence there are “central blanks which the reader is made to fill in by his own (text-guided) mental images in order to constitute the meaning of the work” (Iser 172). As a disappointed lover, how far can Peter be trusted when all implies his untrustworthiness as a raconteur?

Further, notwithstanding the hidden data and empty spaces, it is obvious that Peter has not entirely forgotten Clarissa as a lover; yet having denied that he was still in love with her, he makes the problematic claim that “now she was in love with him” (MD 115, 120). He considers himself attractive to women yet he frankly admits that he is not altogether manly, unable to “come up to the scratch,” his personal idiom (MD 237, 240, 241). After walking up Whitehall, where he accuses the young marching soldiers of being ignorant of “the troubles of the flesh” unlike himself, his first contact in Trafalgar Square takes the form of a bizarre fantasy with a touch of magic realism (MD 77; Hoff Invisible 96). His pursuit of a young woman, presumably a woman of easy virtue, “who seems to shed veil after veil” when “other people got between them,” alludes to preformed language in a fittingly erotic scene from a dark “Plautine” comedy, The Eunuchus of the Roman playwright Terence (ca. 195-160 bce). The non-factive word seems introduces a potential for unreliable information and serves as well as an indication of his sexual insecurity.

This almost Rabelaisian escapade (ca. lines 245-400) which is “more than farce, more than loose-knit romp” is dramatized by a man named “not Peter,” but one having some unmentioned “private name” (Douglass Parker 4; MD 78; Hoff Invisible 99). Here one avoids naming the sitting member, particularly since Peter’s troubles of the flesh repeatedly concern his inability to come up to the scratch. “You,” she said, walking in Cockspur Street with an enveloping kindness that ends with the familiar aposiopesis, the speaker breaking off as if he were unwilling to continue (the figure is singularly appropriate to Peter’s style – Hoff Invisible 89). He is careful to resume the esoteric allusion from Terence when Clarissa’s invitation to the party arrives in the evening, “he could see her with the tears running down her cheeks” (MD 78 ff, 236): “She can go down on her knees; I’m not coming back” (Eunuchus ca. line 49). The obscure allusion represents a lacuna in the narrative, a brief instance of his pedantry. Peter’s narrative is often characterized by works originating in the Classical background of English literature.

According to Richter “he is Woolf’s most erotic male character. He is continually ‘in trouble with women’” (Richter 315). Lady Bruton claims “there was some flaw in his character” (MD 162). Such subtle references and allusions as part of Peter’s characterization are well-worn facets (Fludernik 424). He tells us little, yet he has demanded that Clarissa tell him the truth (MD 96-97). His reference to preformed language without attribution, for example, intimates subterfuge. He is twice a self-avowed “buccaneer,” a practitioner of literary piracy on an unscrupulous adventure (MD 90). From the moment that he feels that London seems an island and resolves to explore it, he continues the conceit of the bedroom hero Odysseus, a feature of Hellenistic aesthetics, until he arrives at Clarissa’s party (Hoff “Pseudo-Homeric”; MD 77, 94).  The non-factive seems, an indication of free indirect discourse, is ironic since he is actually on an island. Such literary values support, as well as trump, realism. Still, the disordered sequence of his accounts of the past sows confusion and untrustworthiness. Memories of the past at Bourton tend to come in anachronistic bursts, reminiscent of the similar arrangement in Tristram Shandy.

Other passive-aggressive features complete Peter’s personality as an unreliable narrator. Known for his sharp tongue, he freely excoriates Hugh Whitbread (the admirable Hugh) and his faults, presumably fostered in Hugh’s “little job at court,” eating cake, writing letters to the Times, like a “first rate valet” polishing the Imperial shoe-buckles (MD 111, 262-263). He is only a little less self-justifying when appraising Richard Dalloway, “a bit thick in the head,” when he thinks of asking him for a job “teaching little boys Latin,” a pedantic reference to Horace’s “personified book” (Horace Epistles 1.20; MD 112; Hoff Invisible 120). These persons share in his contempt expressed with extremely judgmental, opinionated criticisms that render his comments less credible when everyone is thus flawed. His extreme temper leads him to Clarissa who also earns an insult; “the perfect hostess he called her… she had the makings of a perfect hostess” (MD 9-10). The harsh criticism, “she had cried over it in her bedroom,” is hardly merited by the woman we have met in her own words (MD 10). Their relationship ends in the garden near the dribbling fountain when Clarissa says, “This is the end” and “it was as if she had hit him in the face” (MD 97).

The withholding of details acts as a stimulus, putting a strain on the on the imagination (Iser 186). Writerly introspection, however, seems to have been inactive regarding the deliberate omission of features common in the literary tradition. Such colorful hyperbolic expression with non-factives (seemed) and similes indicates partial evidence and vague descriptions that tend to undermine his reliability as a reporter. “She seemed contracted… after he had spoken for hours it seemed.” Details are never fully revealed yet teasing hints are provocative. Even with the illusion that the characters directly present the entire spectrum of their thoughts and emotions, Peter’s lack of detail suggests that much has been left out. Perhaps his is a “private consciousness, filled with ideas, perceptions, and emotions too highly censored for communication” (Haring-Smith 144). His restriction of information is deliberate.

Peter’s propensity for counterfactuals tend to reinforce his unreliability. Appraising Elizabeth Dalloway, leaping to conclusions, he surmises, “she can’t be more than eighteen. Probably doesn’t get on with Clarissa” (MD 84). These are small matters yet reveal “content that the reliable narrator cannot be presumed to believe,” masquerading as closure (Dry 97). This is not trustworthy information and suggests the potential of speculations as well as being instances of information that he lacks. For example, he is apparently unaware of or has forgotten the evening when he interrupted Clarissa and Sally walking together on the terrace, and Sally kissed Clarissa on the lips; “Star-gazing?” said Peter (MD 53).

He is almost complimentary when describing Sally Seton, Clarissa’s greatest friend, “an attractive creature, handsome, dark, with the reputation in those days of great daring” (MD 89). He forms an alliance with “the wild, the daring, the romantic Sally!” Sally acquires some status in his eyes: “She tried to get hold of things by the right end anyhow” (MD 109). She is no admirer of Clarissa’s set however; “Hugh she detested for some reason,” (the admirable Hugh), telling him “that he represented all that was detestable in British middle-class life” (MD 109-110). Omissions rise to impotance when Woolf herself credits Jane Austen with the ability to motivate the reader into filling the blanks: “She stimulates us to supply what is not there” (Iser 168; Woolf Common Reader 138). Having come to hostilities over Clarissa’s introduction of Richard as “Wickham,” curiously the womanizer in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice who elopes with the youngest Bennet daughter, Sally takes Peter’s part and becomes the erotodidact, even the procuress; she had marched him up and down “after that awful scene by the fountain” suggesting that Peter carry Clarissa off  “to save her from the Hughs and Dalloways … who would stifle her soul … make a mere hostess of her” (MD 285, 114). This much is quite clear yet has earned no critical attention whatever. Iser asserts that among modern novelists, where such “fragmented narration so increases the numbers of blanks, the missing links become a source of constant irritation to the reader’s image-building faculties” (Iser 184).

Clarissa herself has recalled the excitement that would have been hers if she “had run away, had lived with Peter” (MD 70-71). The context of a potential elopement, never accomplished, is prominent.  Curiously, the subject for much speculation concerning the Dalloway marriage returns as seemingly idle chatter with Peter and Sally together at Clarissa’s party. Peter claims, enigmatically, that it had been a silly thing to do, “to marry like that,” weasel words which neglect to mention the true nature of marrying “like that.” Sally flippantly asks, “And were they happy together?” She “supposes” the marriage has been a success, with a peculiarly doubtful tone (MD 287-293; Hoff Invisible 289). The unstated past in which he suggests that Clarissa “married like that,” seemingly a polite fiction which leaves a truth unspoken, is an instance of Peter’s consistent failure to be forthcoming which has not been interrogated. The focal point is not what is said but what is unsaid. The withholding of information stimulates curiosity and invites readers to supply what has been withheld. This conversation, even with the appearance of persiflage, actually is an indication of knowledge they share and which they decline to give a literal expression.

Peter’s status reveals him as a disappointed suitor since “old Parry,” as the conventional senex iratus, never “took to him”; memories of those tête-á-têtes at breakfast return, which may account somewhat for Peter’s hostility. The aposiopesis regarding unstated suitors and Clarissa’s edited comment that her father never got along with “her friends” stabs Clarissa with guilt for reminding him that he had wanted to marry her (MD 62). And Peter avows that it almost broke his heart. As a cast-off lover his reliability is seriously compromised. Yet, his emphatic expressives, “No, no, no! He was not in love with her anymore,” show a side of him that is highly questionable while he is clearly reliving their unhappy relationship, as if the emphatic denial serves him as truth (MD 115). Anguished memories remind him that, “Clarissa refused me,” validating Clarissa’s earlier admission that “she had been right—and she had too—not to marry him,” whatever it may have cost her to make up her mind (MD 74, 10, 62). She had fallen in love with Richard Dalloway. Even now Peter, incredulous, inquires, “ ‘does Richard –‘ The door opened” using the form of an erotic aposiopesis, stopping short, leaving the rest to be imagined. The figure of speech typifies omissions of reference.

Peter admits that Richard deserved to have her. “For himself, he was absurd. His demands upon Clarissa … were absurd. He asked impossible things. He made terrible scenes” (MD 95). The weasel words “absurd,” masquerading as his confessional pose regarding unspecified “impossible demands,” is characteristic of Peter’s style, and evaluating his sincerity is difficult, lacking some basis for justification.  The reader may be “induced to imagine something … which would have appeared unimaginable as long as our habitual frame of reference prevailed” (Iser 189).  It is possible that his enigmatic demands are more absurd than he is willing to admit. This is narrative by preterition as in Peter’s account of “the final scene, the terrible scene” after Sally, as pander, has carried his note to Clarissa who seemed petrified by his demands. “He felt that he was grinding against something physically hard,” unyielding like a door which will not open (MD 97). Too banal to be a fiction, this is a tease with suggestive language that offers no information at all but uses ambiguous words that may suggest erotic language. Peter’s techniques for pregnant sayings with little meaning are typical of his false confidences. This scene represents “an empty space which both provokes and guides the ideational activity” (Iser 195). By this time Peter’s interest in Daisy appears to have become blunted; she appears as just another notch on the bedpost until much later when she is remembered all in white (MD 120, 238). His obscurantism, with opinions ironically published herein, is overtly indicated by his hope “that one might say these things without being overheard” (MD 120).

“It would not have been a success, their marriage,” he thinks; the admission affirms Clarissa’s opinion, shared with Sally, who spoke of marriage as a catastrophe (MD 236, 50). Clarissa’s reaction, “how they would change the world if she married him perhaps,” with tears running down her cheeks, is reminiscent of the allusion to Terence. He follows this admission with another cryptic omission: “She would think what in the world she could do to give him pleasure (short always of the one thing) …The other thing, after all, came so much more naturally” (MD 236). This is presented as an enigmatic scenario at Bourton in which the essentials are undetermined. Whatever the “one thing” indicates, it falls into the gap of the unknown issues resembling the matter of marrying “like that.” Clearly something is being contemplated which is concealed from the reader.  This puzzling incident is all the more puzzling because it has remained critically unremarked. According to Sartre, “texts always take place on the level of their reader’s abilities” (Iser 207). Peter has resumed his game of concealment and suppression employing the familiar fore-grounded device, which looms like the elephant in the room. Equivocations and partial answers are standard features of the enigma as a deliberate evasion of the truth created by the narrator who cannot be trusted. Words left unsaid permit only a partial understanding if any at all. With her thought fading into another hyper-dramatic aposiopesis that tropes the suppression, Daisy enters the narrative as the person who “would do anything in the world, anything, anything, anything …,” perhaps even the “one thing” which Clarissa denies him, whatever it may be (MD 240). The unspecified possibilities implied here are truly disturbing.

  Peter’s personal monologue, which markedly extended his appearance in the morning dialogue with Clarissa, is replaced with his silent presence at Clarissa’s party indicated largely through the eyes of others. His presence is first announced by Mr. Wilkins among other arrivals; Clarissa’s greeting is her standard of the perfect hostess, “How delightful to see you,” leaves Peter wishing he had gone to a music hall instead (MD 254). Clarissa is chagrined by his unspoken criticism. Next he serves merely to rescue Richard from his conversation about the weather with Ellie Henderson: “Good Lord, there was old Peter Walsh” (MD 258). Hearing Wilkins announcing the Prime Minister, Peter launches into his typical diatribe, “Lord, lord, the snobbery of the English,” that incorporates Hugh Whitbread, and Lady Bruton as well: “But she derived from the eighteenth century. She was all right”  (MD 261-264).

Clarissa then urges Peter to speak with Aunt Helena whom the old woman has forgotten and then remembered, Peter remaining silent during these exchanges. Next, Clarissa addresses Lady Bruton who, seeing Peter, avoids conversing with her hostess by appealing to Peter just as Richard had done: “And there’s Peter Walsh,” whom she invites to lunch in order to ask his opinion on the state of India (MD 272-274). Finally, Clarissa, astonished at seeing Sally Seton as “Lady Rosseter,” is even more astonished; “Lord, lord, what a change had come over her” and uses a familiar phrase in regard to Sally’s appearance, “For she hadn’t looked like that .… Not like that.” Just what that might indicate is not specified until Peter vaguely adds his observation on the “change [which] had come over her” as “the softness of motherhood.” He is perhaps indicating that producing five sons has brought about her obesity (MD 260, 284). Sally Seton sees him with Lady Bruton and old Miss Parry just as she catches Clarissa by the arm. Clarissa excuses herself, and so Sally and Peter, thus alienated, sit down together discussing Bourton and Clarissa’s marriage, as above, where Peter, resuming, slams the newly arrived Bradshaws with a final epithet, as humbugs (MD 275-277, 294).

As they wait, their petulant commentary about Clarissa’s marriage and her status as a snob is surprising since it comes from her closest friends and is characterized by the omissions previously observed. And what is the meaning of all this? Peter’s “absurd demands,” his expectation that everything had to be shared, and his hinting that Clarissa had “married like that” all motivate the reader to mobilize his or her knowledge and experience to supplement what is left unsaid. Gaps in the narrative have induced early critics to say this imperfect novel is deeply flawed, requiring some act of ideation in order to fill them (Iser 198). These missing links clearly hinder the reader’s expectations for understanding this modernist narrative. “The more modern the text, the more the reader is locked out of the text” (Iser 208). The prevailing absence of vital information is frequent and obviously intentional, indicating a particular meaning that must be discovered, some obscure clue to the unknown, perhaps a bit of metadata. Therefore, the search for meaning might become a theme in itself as part of interpreting a difficult text. It is, however, the effect of the voids in the text that should be studied, providing much for the reader to ponder.

In summary, then, Peter’s expressions of memories of the affair between himself and Clarissa are characterized by the “deliberate omission of generic features that have been firmly established by the tradition of the genre” which “denies the reader the orientation it traditionally offers” when “something was to be formulated which was outlined but concealed by the text” (Iser 208, 218). The emphasis on omissions effectively lays bare a continuing device that thwarts the reader’s expectations. Omissions in Peter’s discourse have not received critical attention; it is as if they had not been noticed. If these omissions are ignored or if they are regarded as faults of composition, they may be denied their essential narrative function.

                                                                                                                                                       Molly Hoff

 

 

 

 

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