"All the world's a stage..."

“Although it was so brilliantly fine–the blue sky powdered with gold and great spots of light like white wine splashed over the Jardins Publiques–Miss Brill was glad that she had decided on her fur. The air was motionless, but when you opened your mouth there was just a faint chill, like a chill from a glass of iced water before you sip, and now and again a leaf came drifting–from nowhere, from the sky”

How exquisitely Woolfian of Katherine Mansfield to begin her short-story, “Miss Brill,” by not only comparing the air to a crisp, bright drink but by introducing her heroine by her marital status and intention – a la Mrs. Dalloway. Or, as “Miss Brill” was published in 1920, perhaps Woolf was the mime, choosing to begin “Street Haunting” and Mrs. Dalloway in these veins. As woman modernists, outward shows of friendly camaraderie and private rivalry aside, Woolf and Mansfield are both interested in a similar quandary. Both attempt, through the crises of Mrs. Dalloway and Miss Brill, to illustrate isolation. Through the liveliness of a meticulously plotted party and the buzz that comes with the inauguration of the Season, both writers examine the malaise that accompanies the realization of remoteness.

Miss Brill, exhilarated by the quickening pulse of the public gardens at the start of the French Season, dons her beloved impish fur and perches on her usual bench to observe and comment on the passers-by. Like my Aunt Marian, who enjoys nothing more than keeping a quiet commentary of those who parade down the beach in various states of dishabille (Oh, Di! Take a look at this one!), Miss Brill quietly passes judgment on the strangers who move around her. A lonely woman at her core, Miss Brill establishes false relationships: her fur, her pupils, her geriatric. She fantasizes that her class would be interested in her Sunday tradition and that the old man she reads the newspaper to is dazzled by Miss Brill, the secret weekend actress. While she sits imagining these amicable relations, Miss Brill, stationary in both her pose and existence, casts a discerning eye on the strangers who pass her by. “How she loved sitting here, watching it all! It was like a play. It was exactly like a play.” Suddenly, Miss Brill’s Sunday is a matinee and she quickly reasons that she herself plays a part. She is an actress, and part of a cast. She belongs. The band nearly brings her to tears as she imagines they are part of an ensemble whose upwelling notes will lead to a song-and-dance number.

Poor Miss Brill. No sooner has she concocted a delusion of unity and connectedness than it is devastated by her hero and heroine whose conversation she can hear. The lovers turn the tables on Miss Brill. Now, the critic meets criticism. In mocking tones, they scoff at her pathetic appearance and her presence among them. Immediately after finding solidarity with the strollers in the gardens, she is faced with true alienation. Not only is she ignored, but she is scorned by the hero and heroine whose appearance she admired so much.

Mansfield’s Miss Brill, like Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, not only wrestles with her own identity, but moreover, perhaps, with the role her identity plays in the lives of others. Miss Brill, accompanied to the park only by her stuffed fur (“Little rogue!”), grows restless with her silence. She yearns to be acknowledged. She yearns for a part. Unmarried, Miss Brill thinks only about her pupils and the sickly old man. Needless to say, it doesn’t sound like the woman has many friends. When she synthesizes a unified world, a structure which she herself helps to support – a play – she is momentarily fulfilled by her role as actress. After the comforting epiphany, the snide comments of the lovers snap her into reality. Miss Brill is then forced to acknowledge her separateness.

In the same way that Mrs. Dalloway attempts to assert herself as hostess by presiding over a dinner-party congregation, Miss Brill inserts herself into the lives of others. By commenting, she silently assumes a role and wields a quiet power. Similarly, Clarissa attempts to solve her issues with her own atomization and privacy, by hosting a party. Clarissa’s dinner party, for her, becomes a sort of play. She carefully assembles the players and designs the set. She buys the flowers and mends her costume. She constructs communication and connection. When the party comes into fruition and the curtain goes up, Clarissa is made to cast off her expectations. Septimus’ suicide, like the jarring comments of Miss Brill’s lovers, infiltrates the diorama and Clarissa retreats to resolve, for herself, the problem of alienation. She is forced to acknowledge human alienation in her neighbor's solitary room and she is forced to interpret the death of a stranger.

Woolf and West

Rebecca West—could that possibly have been her real name? It is far too awesome. No, she would’ve had to ride a horse and carry a holstered gun to be Rebecca West. Or she would’ve had to float down 5th Ave in monochromatic, impeccably crafted clothing from wool coat down to unmentionables. Nope, she was neither of these people. She was Cicely Isabel Fairfield, writer, critic, person. Now who is Evadne? Show me that woman.

 Don’t get me wrong, I loved reading West’s “Indissoluble Matrimony.” It made my blood boil over with hatred for the imperial mamma’s boy, George. I loved the slippery and strong Evadne. Those characters flawlessly represent the struggle between husband and wife, colonizer and colonized—a tasty comparison. But the key word here is “flawlessly.” These characters are not realistic. Evadne is quasi-immortal, seemingly drowned by her husband but still beating him home. Furthermore, she is unphased by all this violence. She caresses him as he climbs in bed. A little much, no? Even Sally in Mrs. Dalloway is not that irrepressible.

 Ah, but we never meet Evadne. No, we meet George’s idea of her. Here is the horse I’ve beaten before: men’s mystical perception of women.  Septimus and Peter think Clarissa and Rezia can save them; George thinks Evadne has corrupted his soul, that he needs an absolution from the church. He confesses that he wants “a child’s God, an immense arm coming down from the hills and lifting him to a kindly bossom” (a.k.a. his mama). West and Woolf grapple with this same issue: men’s oppressive expectations of women. But in Mrs. Dalloway, we see beyond these expectations.  When Clarissa and Peter meet after years of estrangement, we see inside Peter’s head, where Clarissa can make him suffer like no other human being.  Then we see inside Clarissa’s, where her need for Peter’s approval renders her somewhat pathetic. Woolf does not leave us with the inflated perception of Clarissa. West, though, gives us only the male gaze. We can only see Evadne as a mysterious, cat-like porpoise thing.

 Though Woolf and West were contemporaries, “Indissoluble Matrimony” came before Mrs. Dalloway. It was not influenced by the groundbreaking Mrs. D. West’s characters would be much more relatable if the narration had woven through different psyches the way Woolf’s narration does--perhaps West kicked herself in the pants when Mrs. D was published. Or maybe she didn’t. Side-by-side these texts are wonderful. We have West saying “Yeah, just try and repress us. We can swim better than you.” Then we have Woolf saying, “Ouch, boys, that hurts.” Both are true.

Woolf vs. Milton; Round 1

“The hungry Sheep look up, and are not fed,
But swoln with wind, and the rank mist they draw,
Rot inwardly, and foul contagion spread:
Besides what the grim Woolf with privy paw
Daily devours apace, and nothing sed,
But that two-handed engine at the door,
Stands ready to smite once, and smite no more.”
-Milton, Lycidas 125-131

Isn’t it amusing that Milton’s poem that Virginia Woolf calls out by name in her critical essay A Room of One’s Own contains her last named in it? Of course, it is not referring to her on any level, be it that the poem was written nearly 150 years before Woolf was born. It is interesting though, that ‘grim Woolf’ here is reference to the Catholic Church.

Woolf, obviously opposed to the Church by her sexual views as well as her pronounced agnosticism. Yet, despite Milton’s speaking out against the corrupt bishops and other Church figures, Woolf takes it upon herself to poke fun at Milton in her essay. She does not go into too much terrible detail about why she wonders what word Milton had dare think of changing, but in the end, she does not classify him within her group of ‘androgynous’ writers.

Yet, Milton was an extremely politically active figure who commonly was a thorn in the side for many a bishop or king. Perhaps, his involvement deemed him too Christian, since he never thought of breaking away from the Church, only sticking to strong, Protestant beliefs. Yet, for someone who has been linked to Virgil and Homer, should not he be included within Woolf’s list of writers? Milton seems to just be getting the short end of the stick. Perhaps it is that he merely lived in a time when women’s rights were not in the collective, public consciousness. Then why does Shakespeare, who lived only a generation or two before Milton, get elevated to the highest in the pantheon? Perhaps it is that his true identity has remained shrouded in mystery or that his body of work is greater than Milton’s?

It’s all very debatable. Certainly, there is a case for both Milton and Shakespeare in that heavyweight match. Yet, just as Woolf strives to change the tempo of the novel and pursue a different lifestyle than was the norm, Milton, too, ruffles some feathers of his contemporaries. Maybe, just maybe, if they had met, Woolf would have warmed to Milton. Or at the very least, they’d have gotten into a great argument.
Today, I scrambled through my folder looking for secondary readings to blog about--but to my dismay, nothing was really sparking any ideas. Eventually, I came across Mr. Cowper's poem "The Castaway," mercilessly shoved in the back of my folder with a dog-eared corner, a crease along the side, and the doodle of a forlorn-looking bunny in the margins.
"This looks promising!" I thought to myself, and then proceeded to read over the poem a few times to help generate some blogging ideas. I remember reading over the poem in class, I remember taking notes about it, and I remember an extensive conversation regarding domesticated rabbit poetry--but I had forgotten how much I love this poem. And finally, I decided that I want to retrace our class discussion about Mr. Ramsay, specifically how Woolf takes Coooper's poem (written well before her time, in 1799) and applies it to Mr. Ramsay's grief about his own life.
While I agree that Mr. Ramsay is a pretty ridiculous character for the most part, I think Woolf's incorporation of Cowper's poem does more than highlight Mr. Ramsay's melodramatic flair for eighteenth century poetry recitations around his beachouse. I think Woolf is also showing how Mr. Ramsay is a "castaway" within his own family.
It's funny to think of Mr. Ramsay marching around on a sunny beach occasionally barking out lines from tragic poems. How can he possibly relate his comfortable, beach-house-owning life to that of the Light Brigade from Tennyson's poem or the castaway from Cowper's? The idea seemed silly then--but now I'm not as sure. In the third section of To The Lighthouse (aptly entitled, "the Lighthouse") Mr. Ramsay is sitting with Cam and James on the boat, feeling like, "...a desolate man, old, bereft..." (169) murmuring the last two lines of Cowper's poem loud enough for his two children to hear:
But I beneath a rougher sea
Was whelmed in deeper gulfs than he
Of course Mr. Ramsay's situation isn't like that of the perilous castaway from Cowper's poem; but, are his feelings all that different than the one's expressed by Cowper? At this point in the novel, Ramsay has lost his wife and he cannot emotionally connect with his children (in fact, his children kind of hate him). Essentially, he is alone on that boat, in the middle of the water, much like a castaway. He isn't under any mortal peril, but another kind of threat is present. There is the threat of him losing a slow battle against his own life; a life of unfulfilled intellectual aspirations, and a life where he is sinking under the waves of emotional incompetence towards his family. I don't think it's all that ridiculous for him to connect with this poem, because while he is a rather self-absorbed man (taking into account only his own grief throughout most of the novel, and demanding sympathy from everyone else), I think his self-woe is what makes him one the most realistic characters in Woolf's novel. Woolf uses Cowper's poem so that Mr. Ramsay has something to hold steadfastly onto; he doesn't have his wife, his children, or the kind of emotional consolation he needs. He has his knowledge, he has eighteenth century poetry, and he has the memorized lines of Cowper to express his innermost grief.

Out, damn spot!..Gosh!


I looked up and saw the mark on the wall for the first time…a small round mark, black upon the white wall, about six or seven inches above the mantelpiece…I’m not sure about it…I might get up but if I got up and looked at it, ten to one I shouldn’t be able to say for certain (p. 77)…Ah, the mark on the wall! It was a snail. – p. 83 of "The Mark on the Wall" by Woolf
vs
There are some black specks on the wall. I stare at them, certain they are moving. Well, I ought to be able to ignore a few bugs by this time. ‘Il ne faut pas mettre tout sur le même plan…’
I get up and look closely. Only splashes of dirt. It’s not the time of year for bugs, anyway.
– p.349 of Good Morning, Midnight by Rhys

A few days ago, I found myself in the same plight. While checking my e-mail, commenting on my friends' posts on facebook, organizing some upcoming club events, and researching something on the internet, I was thinking about all the work that I had to do and readings that I had to undertake when I suddenly looked up and saw a spot on the wall. It blended in slightly which made me wonder if it was some kind of spider or dirt or…I don’t know. I knew it was some kind of projection by the way the part that blended into the wall had a dark underlining shadow forming a half moon. Yet, I didn’t know exactly what it was...Long story slightly shortened, it was a nail that had been painted over many times.


I found that Jean Rhys in the excerpt from Good Morning, Midnight that we read for class slightly parallels Virginia Woolf’s “The Mark on the Wall” but then diverges by the choices that the narrators make to ascertain what the mark is, or in the latter work was. Both narrators, and myself, use the “mark” or “speck on the wall” as a distraction. For Rhys, the “specks on the wall” intrude on her thoughts while she reflects on her friend Sidonie and her perception of Sasha, the narrator. Sidonie seems to orchestrate great influence over Sasha which may not always be what Sasha wants. Sasha says, “She imagines that it’s my atmosphere. God, it’s an insult when you come to think about it! More dark rooms, more red curtains…” (p.349). The thought that Sidonie perceives that this environment suits Sasha offends Sasha. Sasha seems to be trying to escape “the dark rooms” and “red curtains” but Sidonie, who thinks she knows what is best for Sasha, traps her in the very things she is trying to avoid. Sasha seems to indirectly challenge Sidonie when she says, “But one mustn’t put everything on the same plane. That’s her great phrase. And one mustn’t put everybody on the same plane, either” (p.349). Sasha twists Sidonie’s own philosophy against her. She lashes out, “And this is my plane.” Sasha’s words distance her from Sidonie’s control. Yet, Sasha’s distraction, “the specks on the wall,” seems to weaken her resolve. She broadens the distance from these rebellious thoughts by the taking some luminal and going to sleep at once.

On the other hand, the narrator in Woolf’s work approaches the “mark on the wall” differently. The “mark” saves her from an infantile fancy. The narrator says, “Rather to my relief the sight of the mark interrupted the fancy, for it is an old fancy, an automatic fancy, made as a child perhaps” (p. 77). The narrator chooses more mature and progressive thoughts. The “mark” provokes her thoughts to transcend imagination and histories to the meaning of life. Her cavalcade of thoughts is therapeutic and welcomed. The narrator, enlightened by her deep thoughts, says “I understand Nature’s game—her prompting to take action as a way of ending any thought that threatens to excite or to pain…Still, there’s no harm in putting a full stop to one’s disagreeable thoughts by looking at a mark on the wall.” – p. 82

The narrator of “The Mark on the Wall” seems to be more in control of and willing to face her thoughts than Sasha, whose distraction flashes her from a state of pondering discontent to sleep deprived indifference. Sasha is more willing to face her “specks.” She uses them as an escape plan from her discontent and as a bridge to her luminal. Woolf’s narrator uses the “mark” as a bridge to her thoughts and seeping discontent with oppressive masculine authority. Her thoughts slither in and out of scenes of oppressive males.


From the people who used to live in the house but moved because the man said “they wanted to change their style of furniture” (p. 77) to a ludicrous Shakespeare who had “a shower of ideas that fell perpetually from some very high Heaven down through his mind” (p. 79) to a world where “illegitimate freedom” could spring from the governing “masculine point of view” if “men perhaps, should …be a woman” (p.80) to antiquated, “learned men” whose honor sinks with “dwindling superstitions” (p. 81) and, finally, to a place where men and women sit together and smoke cigarettes after tea, it seems like at the end of the narrative masculine authority is replaced with a semblance of equality where men and women have equal footing and the world blooms in “beauty and [where]health of mind increases” (p.81). Woolf’s narrator utilizes the “mark” to obtain some peace of thought while Sasha’s distraction turns her away from deep thought to mere superficiality and shallow cares, to dirt and bugs.


And my spot? My spot lacked such depth but successfully diverted my attentions and energies to one focus, rather than many.

“Streethaunting”

In “Streethaunting: A London Adventure” Woolf talks about how much she enjoys browsing the streets in the wintertime. She says that streethaunting in winter is the “greatest of adventures” and states many reasons why. When Woolf streethaunts it’s a very relaxing and almost spiritual thing. When I walk the streets I don’t think like Woolf does: she notices almost everything. Including all of the things that people are doing, which I think that most people wouldn’t pay a lot of attention to. When she talks she seems almost like Mrs.Dalloway since she is noticing and remembering everything as she walks down the street. She also has that nosy, curious quality that Mrs.Dalloway has.

In the second paragraph, Woolf gives us the best time to streethaunt. “The hour should be the evening and the season winter, for in winter the champagne brightness of the air and the sociability of the streets are grateful,” she says. She also says that we aren’t longing to get shade and air like we do in the summer, so that makes it more enjoyable. I don’t agree with her: in the winter I like to stay in the house, bundled up in bed with cocoa. I also think that in the winter other people like to stay home as well, so the streets aren’t as interesting. But she thinks the streets are beautiful in winter and talks about the interesting characters she comes upon while streethaunting. “The eye is not a miner, not a diver, not a seeker after buried treasure. It floats us smoothly down a stream; resting, pausing, the brain sleeps perhaps as it looks,” she says. I think this means that we shouldn’t look for interesting things we should just let them come to us.

When Woolf asks the woman what it’s like to be a dwarf, it seems very mean and rude of her. But she seems to almost admire the woman. She talks about how she held her foot out and it was normal-sized. “At length, the pair was chosen and, as she walked out between her guardians, with the parcel swinging from her finger, the ecstasy faded, knowledge returned, the old peevishness, the old apology came back, and by the time she had reached the street again she had become a dwarf only,” Woolf says. This seems like Woolf is saying that we judge a dwarf when we see them walk down the street. But if we get to know them and see who they are we wont see them as just a dwarf.

Woolf also talks about the excitement of entering into a new room. I think her excitement of entering into a new room is the excitement that we get when entering into a new country. “It is always an adventure to enter a new room for the lives and characters of its owners have distilled their atmosphere into it, and directly we enter it we breast some new wave of emotion,” Woolf says. I think she means that we don’t only get these things by the people that are in the room, we also get it by the way the room looks and the objects in it. Streethaunting to her isn’t just walking on the street, it’s walking into shops and observing people.--Baha

Of Turtlenecks and Roses

One of the things that impresses me most about Virginia Woolf is the way she allows characters to communicate without using words (sort of a strange enterprise for a writer). For me, the big moment when this nonverbal communication or communion occurs in Mrs. Dalloway is in when Clarissa quotes the same lines from Cymbeline as Septimus had some time before:

Fear no more the heat o' the sun,
Nor the furious winter's rages

The familiarity with this quote from one of Shakespeare's most obscure works marks Spetimus and Clarissa as people of quality; they are not parroting "To be or not to be", or misusing the word "wherefore" as we could imagine the other guests might. Their shared moment is a more quiet, subtle one that can only shine and exist away from the people around them; for Clarissa, the line first surfaces in silence, in the absence of Lady Bruton's invitation, and for the last time when she is alone, away from her party.

Likewise, in The Mystery Guest, the narrator and his former girlfriend are linked by reading Mrs. Dalloway. This isn't in the excerpt we read in class, but the party they're at is filled with turtleneck-wearing, Dostoyevski-in-the-back-pocket-of-my-skinny-jeans-grade pretentious snots; amid all the windbaggery, the small line from Dalloway, "Roses were the only flower she could bear to see cut", describes a clear path between the two souls.
In neither case is the literary reference reduced to trivia; neither the narrator and his former lover nor Septimus and Clarissa are trying to gain street cred by showing off their knowledge, unlike the others at their parties, like Brierly who has made a career out of bloviating on Milton or the other guys at the fete, one of whom actually and inexcusably mentions Sven Nykvist.

In both cases, the shibboleth is silent or quiet; Clarissa and Septimus never meet, and the narrator in The Mystery Guest barely hears his girlfriend among the white noise of the party. In both of these works, so much of the speech is unnecessary, wrong, or misinterpreted. Holmes speaks a lot, but he doesn't understand much of anything. Jim Hutton can imitate Brierly, unsaddled by understanding, and the narrator's fellow revelers can and do titter away into the night without saying anything original. For the 'heroes' of our two works, literature, operating in silence, becomes the language of the link. 

Hey Neil Simon

I'm aware that Gregoire Bouillier's The Mystery Guest alludes heavily to Mrs. Dalloway.  As I read through "The Window" section of To the Lighthouse and got to know Mr. Ramsay, however, the narrator of The Mystery Guest and his sentimentality over the flowers rolled around in the back of my head, and I thought of the contrast between he and Ramsay.  I also inexplicably felt the urge to go on YouTube and watch the opening theme to The Odd Couple.  

The contrast between these two men is stark, to say the least.  In the scene with the bouquet of roses, Bouillier's narrator is caught up in a Woolfian "moment of being."  His language attempts the "purest ecstasy" that Woolf describes in her memoir "Sketches of the Past" (Moments of Being, 75).  In that text, she writes, "I could spend hours trying to write that as it should be written, in order to give the feeling which is even at this moment very strong in me.  But I should fail" (75).  The protagonist of The Mystery Guest seems to be caught up in the same kind of sublimity:

Yes, suddenly it began to seem as though our separateness was bringing us back together, managing the impossible while we stood in front of that bouquet, in that silence.  And during those freighted seconds everything grew more and more beautiful and harmonious and red and white and orange between us, and I wanted to believe in it...  (78-79)

The beauty of the passage lies in the feeling of its transience, as if the narrator's happiness and comfort lasts only in front of that bouquet of roses.  It reflects a level of observation and keen emotional intuition in him that is lost in most men.  (I feel somewhat confident in the area of dudes and emotional expression.)  In the grand scheme of things, however, the reader should be able to sense a certain melodrama in the narrator's placement of such import on a vase of flowers, as if they could actually "bring us back together."

On this note of constructive cynicism, the dissonant cadence of Felix Unger and Oscar Madison gnaws its way back up my spine as I turn away from Bouillier and back to To the Lighthouse.  In a scene that I find quite poignant, Mrs. Ramsay is watching over James as he cuts pictures out of a catalogue, reassuring him that they will try to go to the lighthouse the next day.  Enter Mr. Ramsay.  Ever the pragmatist, he says, "James will have to write his dissertation one of these days," effectively ruining the moment and fueling James' hatred for his father (To the Lighthouse, 31).  "There [isn't] the slightest possible chance that [you] could go to the Lighthouse tomorrow," Ramsay says later (31).  

In terms of masculinity, Bouillier's storyteller and Mr. Ramsay provide a sharp counterpoint to one another.  However, I think there are several reasons for this.  To the Lighthouse was published in 1927, and it seems to me that in the character of Mr. Ramsay, the reader is meant to see the fading of the stern Victorian era; he is more of an uninvolved overseer of his family, rather than an affectionate father.  He is also reminiscent of the dour Leslie Stephen, Woolf's father; this opinion is based on the knowledge I have from class, as well as from the reading of Virginia.  Bouillier's The Mystery Guest, on the other hand, was published in 2004.  Based on casual observation, Bouillier's rendition of a man in love makes me think that Zach Braff would be the protagonist of the film version of this novella; he's that guy who's constantly lovesick, and tries to sum up significant portions of his life with sprawling inner-monologues.

The clash between these two men is obvious.  Mr. Ramsay shatters a potential "moment of being" with his practicality, while Bouillier's narrator is grasping for a "moment of being" where it seems one doesn't exist.  It might be entertaining to watch the two of them share an apartment though.