Like some of you, I got caught in a thunderstorm after last Friday's class. My copy of The Waves, which was swam inside my purse, took quite a beating; the book dried into a wave shape with corners watercolored with the periwinkle from the cover. I admit that I rather like it when design of an object reflects its function or content but the rain distorted some of my markings present inside. The rain especially targeted the last page of Bernard's soliloquy since the traces of words written in my light blue V5 pilot dispersed into blossoming water marks. I can't decipher what I originally wrote, which is rather appropriate since I find the the concluding section an especially perplexing component of The Waves.

I could argue that Bernard's soliloquy is Woolf's version of bildungsroman for the lost male who finally achieves his destined role as a patriarch. After all, Bernard takes over as the sole voice of the concluding section. While the other voices distinguish themselves against others, Bernard is most capable of self-reflection and defining himself without necessarily comparing himself to the others.

Yet, I referenced to the "self" three times within the last sentence and it is precisely this issue of "the self", self-identity and being that is such a struggle for Bernard: "Let me cast and throw away this veil of being." (p. 218) For a character who has just taken over as the dominant being in the concluding section of work, Bernard seems more concerned with abandoning his self-identity rather than relishing in his maturation into a complete individual. Though he is appointed as the one to reflect upon the others and to stand as an individual at the moment that the sun sets over the waves, Bernard's reflection is a cumulation of experiences bound into the story of one life. Then the waves break on the shore and Bernard's being disappears.

The last line of The Waves could indicate death. It could also indicate a complete transcendence into a realm outside of the confines of semantics and linguistic structures. Woolf is a keen observer of relationships amongst people or, rather, the lack of boundaries between beings. Like the thread that extends between the characters of Mrs. Dalloway, the waves rock the beings within The Waves and unite them. However, Woolf achieves such fluidity in her prose that the beings lose their distinctive shapes until they are entirely freed from the confines of "identity" and "the self."

Just like the waves that dispersed Bernard's identity at the conclusion of Woolf's novel, the rain unbound my presence from the fibers of the book's pages.

"There Was A Guy..."

I was having beers with a few of my buddies at a table in the corner of a towny bar last July, as we commiserated about how our jobs prevented us from doing that sort of thing more often, when I first heard a strangely compelling alternative rock song come soaring out of the jukebox: "This monkey's gone to heaven, this monkey's gone to heaven..." I turned to my friend Mike, who had put the song on, and asked who the band was.  "It's the Pixies, man," he said.  A few days later, I went out and bought the album Doolittle, and it remained in heavy rotation in my car for the rest of the summer.  

I mention this because I have a similar feeling about that song as I do about The Waves.  The lyrics of "Monkey Gone to Heaven" appear enigmatic at first, just a series of images: "There was a guy/An underwater guy who controlled the sea/Got killed by ten millions pounds of sludge from New York and New Jersey."  Now, it may seem obvious that Frank Black is writing about the environment here, yet it is the way he put it ("an underwater killed by...sludge") that caused the meaning to elude me for a long time; it was the simplicity of it that stifled my analysis.  It's the same way that The Waves continues to cause problems for me in my reading.  Here's Rhoda's take on the dinner party in Percival's honor:

Strangers keep on coming, people we shall never see again, people who brush us disagreeably with their familiarity, their indifference, and the sense of a world continuing without us.  We cannot sink down, we cannot forget our faces.  Even I who have no face, who make no difference when I come in (Susan and Jinny change bodies and faces), flutter unattached, without anchorage anywhere, unconsolidated, incapable of composing any blankness or continuity or wall against which these bodies move.  It is because of Neville and his misery.  The sharp breath of his misery scatters my being.  Nothing can settle; nothing can subside.  (88)

I think that there are several ways to approach this passage.  We have no need to go to the dictionary for any of the words, and the sentences, though lengthy, are constructed plainly.  We can look at the broad scope: Woolf is trying to convey the awkward discomfort or even melancholy that first arises in a mixed social setting, being forced to put on a congenial face and interact with people amiably, even though all parties know that they are merely exchanging formalities.  It isn't hard to pick up on this aspect of the reading.  Yet, when we examine each of the clauses on their own, Rhoda's emotion becomes abstract and indefinable: "Even I who have no face, who make no difference when I come in (Susan and Jinny change bodies and faces), flutter unattached, without anchorage anywhere..."  Here, there are only glimpses of finite, understandable language; we know that Rhoda feels removed from Susan and Jinny, both of whom she perceives to be well adjusted: they "change" their appearances at the party to fit the setting.  But the first clause, "Even I who have no face" can, to me, go one of two ways.  Either Rhoda feels that she does not have the "face" suitable for a party, meaning she cannot feign enthusiasm among acquaintances, or she may mean that she feels diminished, faceless in the sense that she is overlooked, unrecognized.  "Nothing can settle; nothing can subside," seems (and I believe that I can only say "seems") to reflect her restlessness, her discomfort in this environment.

It is not in spite of these complexities, but because of these complexities, that this passage (and indeed, much of the book) is bizarrely tangible.  Woolf isn't writing literal events, she is contemplating emotions (the same way, I think, James Ramsay had the urge to stab his father, but didn't).  I think back to that night at the bar now that I consider where Rhoda is coming from.  There were certainly moments when shooting the bull about our jobs, or the summer Olympics, or about the Mets' bullpen, or retelling stories from our past would dry up.  And, though friends, we'd each sip our beers or adjust our caps or chuckle uncomfortably.  Although Rhoda's speech is ambiguous and complex, it is perhaps one of the best attempts in prose that I have read which seeks to defamiliarize something as common as a social setting, and truly flesh out the initial feeling of discomfort that many of us understand but have never tried to define in such precise terms.

It seems that I find strange parallels in my life sometimes.  Last semester, my roommate, an avid hip-hop fan, said, "Dude, I have no clue what this song is about, but it sounds sweet."  On Saturday, he came into my room and said, "Dude, you're still reading that?"  Thus, I relate the Pixies' song to Woolf's book because both are stupefyingly simple, yet rich and puzzling; every time I listen to that song, or read the same passage of The Waves over again, I notice something I hadn't the time before.  The same way that the riff of "Monkey Gone to Heaven" is a straightforward E-Fsharp-A-D, Woolf's diction is direct and elementary.  Yet, the simplicity of each impeded my understanding of them.  It's been a painstaking trudge through The Waves for me, but not because I can't read it.  Beneath the simplicity of the language, it takes care on the reader's part to decipher the intricate emotions that Woolf is handling. 

The Transience of Things

I once heard a term: mono no aware. It means recognizing the transience of things and the bittersweet sadness at their passing.

It’s the sort of theme inspires rainbows, the last days of summer, and that farcical “bag scene” in American Beauty. Since I discovered this little phrase, it has been my favorite theme, and I look for it everywhere- in books, films and even in the people I meet.

In all my reading, though, no where do I find this theme of transience more prevalent than in the works of Virginia Woolf. It is why, considering all her works as a whole, she is my favorite writer. And the work that I believe is most exemplary of this theme is in Woolf’s novel, To the Lighthouse.

Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision. –Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse (1927)

It’s one of my favorite last lines I’ve ever read and, if you don’t take my word for it, the American Book Review lists it as the tenth best last lines in all of literature:

In a conversation I had with Julie Crosby, professor of English at Columbia University and director of the Women’s Project (the very woman who produced Freshwater), she summed up one reason to her what the ending was so meaningful to her: “One of my favorite moments is near the end of To the Lighthouse. I take such comfort in Woolf’s idea that the artistic visions of women can be realized with such deep satisfaction.”

The reason, though, why it is my favorite line is that, up until this point, Lily has suffered the “extreme fatigue” of life; she has seen the aging of children, the deaths of people she cares about, and withstood innumerable failures. The beauty of that one singular moment in Lily’s life is at the cost of all the hours, days and months that came before it. And even though her painting will one day be “junk in someone’s attic,” Lily acknowledges the value of what she has accomplished and literally sees her “vision” through her painting. She achieves something that even her male counterparts, Mr. Tansley and Mr. Ramsay, who are plagued with Thoreau’s quiet desperation, have not done. It is what all of us strive for- a moment of being, in which we experience our personhood and our art (whatever it might be) in relation to the world. What’s more is that Lily is able to express that in her painting and, like Woolf, in her words.

I know in my life, I live, if for nothing else, in anticipation of these moments. And while probability is against me, and I may never achieve “my vision,” I am still grateful for the worthwhile occasion when I am able to experience a version of that vision through remarkable characters like Lily and in learning about great writers like Virginia Woolf.


Notebooks & Pencils

I am not equating Joan Didion to the magnitude of Virginia Woolf (although I enjoy the works of both authors immeasurably). The writing styles are by no means identical; however, they share some similarities that I do not believe are a result of mere coincidence. While reading Woolf's, "Street Haunting: A London Adventure," a few select passages in Didion's well-known nonfiction essay, "On Writing A Notebook" unexpectedly came to mind. It occurred to me, that the same woman who would create buying a pencil after World War I into an occasion, would likely keep a notebook during the Vietnam War.

The narrator in "Street Haunting" meditates, "One is forced to glimpse and nod and move on after a moment of talk, a flash of understanding, as, in the street outside, one catches a word in passing and from a chance phrase fabricates a lifetime. It is about a woman called Kate that they are talking, how "I said to her quite straight last night . . . if you don't think I'm worth a penny stamp, I said . . ." But who Kate is, and to what crisis in their friendship that penny stamp refers, we shall never know; for Kate sinks under the warmth of their volubility; and here, at the street corner, another page of the volume of life is laid open by the sight of two men consulting under the lamp-post. They are spelling out the latest wire from Newmarket in the stop press news. Do they thin, then, that fortune will ever convert their rags into fur and broadcloth, sling them with watch-chains, and plant diamond pins where there is now a ragged open shirt? But the main stream of walkers at this hour sweeps too fast to let us ask such questions" (Woolf).

This interrupted thought-manner of writing is mirrored in much of Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Joan Didion’s collective work. In "On Writing A Notebook," Didion recalls various single moments throughout her life that she captured in her journal. Those moments are not explained with the help of length anecdotes, but random phrases, years and names. Woolf’s "If you don’t think I’m worth a penny stamp," is Didion’s, "So what’s new in the whiskey business." Didion writes:

"So what's new in the whiskey business?" What could that possibly mean to you? To me it means a blonde in a Pucci bathing suit sitting with a couple of fat men by the pool at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Another man approaches, and they all regard one another in silence for a little while. "So what's new in the whiskey business?" one of the fat men finally says by way of welcome, and the blonde stands up, arches one foot and dips it in the pool, looking all the while at the cabana where Baby Pignatari is talking on the telephone. That is all there is to that, except that several years later I saw the blonde coming out of Saks Fifth Avenue in New York with her California complexion and a voluminous mink coat. In the harsh wind that day she looked old and irrevocably tired to me, and even the skins in the mink coat were not worked the way they were doing them that year, not the way she would have wanted them done, and there is the point of the story. For a while after that I did not like to look in the mirror, and my eyes would skim the newspapers and pick out only the deaths, the cancer victims, the premature coronaries, the suicides, and I stopped riding the Lexington Avenue IRT because I noticed for the first time that all the strangers I had seen for years - the man with the seeing-eye dog, the spinster who read the classified pages every day, the fat girl who always got off with me at Grand Central - looked older than they once had."

One hotel, one scene, one passerby Didion overhears, creates the very "fabricated lifetime" Woolf’s narrator is speaking of. In both passages there’s the men in conversation; there’s Kate and there’s the blonde. There’s capitalist and feminist undertones. There is the judgment. But more than that, there is the answer to Woolf. In "Street Haunting" there is too much visual stimulation to stop and ask questions with regard to what one is witnessing. Perhaps we can only ask the questions later on. Didion is writing her rereading of the notebook. She's had many of these "walks" and is now in a position to ask questions, to reflect on why she noticed the things she did or continues to. Both the narrator and Didion are affected by the same sights and remake the same sights. In a small way, Didion’s sad spinster is the narrator’s dwarf; her mink coat, the narrator’s diamond pins; her whiskey business, the narrator’s wire from Newmarket. And the reader is left to form their own opinions about the two women judging them.

More importantly, both authors are living in the mind frame of war. As a progressive woman and writer, Woolf is a form of counterculture in her own right, and in effect, the narrator of "Street Haunting" owns a small part of that. Didion happens to be a woman who embodies those qualities as well. She lived during the era that defined counterculture, the time to ask questions and demand answers. Whether it is the unique conditions these women worked under that is responsible for the minor resemblances, is something to think about. Whether Didion was influenced by Woolf, I do not know. Still, in essence, buying a pencil and writing a notebook can be one in the same.

A Rose by Any Other Name...

Excepting the commonality of the name, I could have been named Rose…rose, that gorgeous flower.

As I was going a little crazy trying to make sense of the flower images in Mrs. Dalloway, I decided to look up what other people thought about it. I was shocked but I was not at all satisfied by my research. From the deciphered meaning that “Woolf uses flowers to signal that an erotic experience between women is immanent” (p.60)in Communication and Women's Friendships: Parallels and Intersections in Literature and Life by Ward & Mink to the meaning from Quamar Naheed’s D. H. Lawrence: Treatment of Nature in Early Novels that “flowers and green fields in the novel again and again symbolise peace and contentment" (p.13), I didn’t feel like these interpretations spoke for Woolf’s obsession with flowers. Therefore, I abandoned my search on flowers and focused on roses. I specifically looked at Septimus because I like him.

After Rezia is disturbed by Septimus trying to throw them under an on-coming omnibus or train, both Rezia and Septimus ponder their miseries. Septimus wonders why his life has been spared and “his weakness” (p.68) pardoned. He and Rezia are on an outing to Regent’s Park and he listens while slowly becoming lost in his thoughts.

"Now he withdraws up into the snows, and roses hang about him—the thick red roses which grow on my bedroom wall, he reminded himself.” .” ~ p. 68
Woolf, Virginia. Mrs. Dalloway. USA: Harvest Book and Hogarth 1981

The image of the blanketing, enveloping cold clashes and enhances the red rose image. The snow is white, frigidly enveloping, while the roses are described as a red comfort. The roses protectively cushion Septimus from the snow with their red amassing presence. Yet, the roses with soft petals and searing red warmth appear to be protective but also to be harming. Sure their beauty is reassuring but roses do have thorns. They can hurt the unwary who tries to grasp their beauty.

I think this might reflect the reality of life. Life can be beautiful and damning. Some people reflect more on the bad side of life and others on the good side of life. For Septimus, the balance of the good and the bad became skewed. We see him tortured by life and looking forward to death but we also see the dead making his life agonizing to live. He could have focused on the comforting aspects of flowers while displacing danger from the thorns to the snow. He could also be trying to ignore feeling by blocking out the prick of the thorns. His apathy to the thorns and coldness of the snow might be his way of realizing life’s dangers but protecting himself with a weak, snow and rose barrier.

It brings new thought to stop and smell the roses; Septimus envelopes himself in them.

Darkness and Being Alone

"I am alone; I am alone! she cried, by the fountain in Regent's Park (staring at the Indian and his cross), as perhaps at midnight, when all boundaries are lost, the country reverts to its ancient shape, as the Romans saw it, lying cloudy, when they landed, and the hills had no names and the rivers wound they knew not where-- such was her darkness."  (Woolf, 24)

There are times when we feel alone in the world, as if no one is around to help us or to be our companion's in life.  Rezia is certainly lost in this feeling of being alone.  Her husband, Septimus, seemingly gone mad and haunted by hallucinations, has left her without any companion in life, since she has moved away from her home and sisters in Milan.  Her poetic thoughts of being alone and comparing her darkness to the ancient land of England that the Romans came across when England is still uncharted territory is very poignant.

None of us know what the isles of Britain looked like before the conquering armies of Roman landed and charted out and built the framework of what is now modern day England.  It is impossible to know, but reminds us of the time when maps were made of the world that look silly to us with their misshapen continents in our age of Google Earth.  One of the last untouched worlds I can think of is New Zealand.  Visiting the small island nation, it reminds me of a prehistoric Scotland or England.  Not touched by the houses and development the way the flatlands of England are, the land seems virgin and untouched, a place where you could imagine rivers not knowing where they were going.  This feeling of untouched land seems to resonant extremely well with Rezia's predicament.

Her predicament also reminds me of Hedda's predicament in Ibsen's play Hedda Gabler.  The character, who is in control of her life in every possible facet, suddenly loses control towards the end of Act IV.  The life that she was leading seems marginalized and she cannot see any remedy to her predicament.  She, too, is in a darkness.  Her darkness is solved by her suicide at the end of the play, but an action so bold I cannot see Rezia committing.  Rezia plans to solve her darkness by divorcing Septimus, but will that solve the problem?  Will she really be happy if she returns to Milan?  Can that solve being alone?  Or will she just remain in the darkness, never having a cartographer to map out the river of her emotion.

On the Potential of Limitations

Whether an author structures his or her work in a traditional manner or diverts from an established format to experiment with its boundaries, a novel must begin in some way. Seeing as I can't even decide how to begin a post, I imagine that deciding on an opening sentence must be one of the most difficult, and intimidating, parts of writing a novel.

Woolf begins Mrs. Dalloway in a striking way: "Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself." This opening sentence is short, crisp and assertive; there is an action and a specification that "the" flowers will be bought. It's also a very powerful way of introducing the actual body of a novel entitled Mrs. Dalloway and its title character. However, the magnitude of the declaration seems to shrink when the reader realizes that Mrs. Dalloway just declared that she would buy flowers, which seem rather trivial and easy to acquire. There is a discourse in the opening sentence that makes the reader linger; the content of the opening doesn't reflect the potential for achievement that is portrayed through the assertive tone of the declaration.

This opening immediately reminded me of the first sentence of Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, which begins with the assertion, "There was no possibility of taking a walk that day." Perhaps this is a strange parallel since it's negative, but, seeing that Woolf was heavily influenced by the female writers of Victorian Literature, a sense of similarity exists. The opening of Jane Eyre seems to allude to the weather, but, upon closer examination of Jane's situation, the short sentence becomes remarkably dense; rather than simply not going for a walk that day, Eyre doesn't even have the possibility of going outside. This limitation upon possibility reflects Jane's lack of mobility in Victorian England due to her low position in the social hierarchy as an orphan and a woman. Bronte's choice of opening her feminist novel is effective because the extent of Jane Eyre's immobility is introduced in the initial sentence as a theme that will challenge Jane Eyre throughout the novel.

Mrs. Dalloway seems indebted to the Victorian tradition of female authors, such as Bronte and Austen, who have their heroines assert themselves within the social limitations of their society. However, Woolf seems to challenge her title character further than Bronte since the novel is entitled with the social salutation for Clarissa as a married woman. Her limitations seem to exist in relation to the bounds of marriage and the act of losing one's maiden identity when a woman accepts her husband's social label.

However, something is achieved through Mrs. Dalloway's declaration that she will buy THE flowers HERSELF. This initial line declares a goal that the character will attempt to carry out throughout the novel. While Mrs. Dalloway completes her task of buying flowers well before noon, the larger task at hand, or her party, seems to be the goal symbolized by the flowers. Perhaps throwing a party is rather trivial, but its an action that Mrs. Dalloway carries through. Clarissa Dalloway seems strong because she acknowledges the limitations that British society places upon women, takes what she can, and becomes dedicated to stretching the potential of these limitations. The opening line emphasizes the active element of Mrs. Dalloway; while the other major characters of the novel are haunted by their past, Mrs. Dalloway actively prepares for her party.

Philosopher Robert Audi, who developed the Theory of Action, proposes that people actually utilize their choices more when they have fewer options to choose from. Perhaps this concept can be applied to a reading of Mrs. Dalloway, who, limited by her role in society, regards throwing a party as a way to assert herself within her time. While today's social mindset is that subdued women in past patriarchal societies should be pitied because of their lack of possibilities, perhaps Mrs. Dalloway encourages one to celebrate those women who took their limitations and found new potential within the boundaries.

My hands are small I know...

My cousin subscribes to a peculiar and aggravating kind of feminism. (He calls it feminism anyway.) He says he judges women harshly because they are made of better stalk than men. He is jealous of them because they are morally superior and more capable. Apparently, if you worship women, you can blame them. If they can save you, they are responsible for your demise. I've encountered this attitude elsewhere, mostly in emo music and emo boys. I was surprised to find it in two of Woolf's characters, Septimus and Peter. Of course, they are not feminists (much like my cousin), but they invest women with the power of salvation--an oppressive expectation to lay on a mere mortal. A lovely hand motif helps illustrate my point.

Septimus marries Lucrezia so that she will cure him of his inability to feel (86). One night it caused him to panic and "he asked Lucrezia to marry him, the younger of the two, the gay, the frivolous, with those little artist's fingers that she would hold up and say 'it is all in them.' Silk, feathers, what not were alive to them" (87). Poor Lucrezia didn't know she was volunteering to bring Septimus back to the land of the living. Her hands could make hats, not cure PTSD, depression, or madness. The weight of this expectation leads to the symbolic undoing of their marriage. Her hand becomes too thin for her wedding ring and with that, Septimus declares himself the lord of all men and free from his marriage (67). So much for Lucrezia’s lively hands.

As Septimus gives up on his marriage, Peter is nearby dreaming of women. He invests the trees with womanhood and notices how they then dispense charity, comprehension, and absolution (57). Continuing the revelry, he imagines a female shape being "sucked up out of the waves to shower down from her magnificent hands compassion, comprehension, absolution” (57). Even the hands of a fantastic woman can cure! Earlier he had seen a woman and imagined that her cloak was opening like "arms that would open and take the tired" (53). For Peter, femininity and sainthood are one and the same. We’ve seen what those expectations did to Lucrezia. Poor Daisy seems headed for a similar fate…unless she takes one of those hands and gives Peter a good slap.

The faith that these men put in women is oppressive but the bit about the water woman and her magnificent hands is emo-tastic. Couple that with Peter’s lament about Clarissa’s ability to make him suffer and we’ve got a hit. But if girls rule and boys drool, why are girls oppressed? I think Woolf is trying to say that girls are people too and canonizing them doesn’t do anyone any good.

The Flame and the Flower

Fresh off her morning shopping jaunt through the streets of London, Clarissa Dalloway returns home to further prepare for her party. She scales the stairs of her home and makes her way up to the room of her own for her afternoon nap. Woolf describes her ascent and consequent restlessness:

“Like a nun withdrawing, or a child exploring a tower, she
went upstairs,paused at the window, came to the bathroom. There
was the green linoleum and a tap dripping. There was
an emptiness about the heart of life; an attic room. Women must
put off their rich apparel. At midday they must disrobe…” (31).

Woolf chooses to describe Clarissa as retreating to her attic room as a nun would to her cloister. It seems to be a perfectly appropriate comparison for our rigid and prim heroine as we are able to imagine her reverently roaming the corridors and stairwells of the Dalloway estate. Then, Woolf throws the reader a curve-ball as she goes on to further compare the protagonist to a “child exploring a tower.” This simile seems to be the anti-thesis of the first. The mention of the exploring child evokes a sense of lighthearted deviance and mischief. The child exploring the tower embraces his or her curiosity; he or she indulges the urge to discover something previously unknown. Dissimilar to the child, the image of the withdrawing nun suggests repression of irreverent impulses and obedience to convention. To liken Clarissa to both is to illustrate her central conflict, her struggle with the duality of her personality. The reader gets the sense of her constant struggle to compromise her inner desires with her outward appearance.
While the adventurous child and the quiet nun are wildly different in their behavior, they share the unifying characteristic of intact virtue. Both battling sides of Clarissa are represented as virginal and sexually innocent. Woolf goes on to describe Clarissa’s late morning nap: “So the room was an attic; the bed narrow; and lying there reading, for she slept badly, she could not dispel a virginity preserved through childbirth which clung to her like a sheet” (31). Mrs. Dalloway lays on her “narrow” bed tossing, turning, and ruminating about her sexual dissatisfaction. She struggles to kick off the claustrophobia of the virtue that she believes clung to her long after she left the marriage-bed.
As she has a daughter, Mrs. Dalloway is most certainly not a virgin; however, it is likely that while she physically let go of her virginity, she feels emotionally unfulfilled by her previous sexual experiences with Richard. She goes on to think about her long-ago relationship with the wild and sassy Sally Seton and has a sudden “illumination; a match burning in a crocus; an inner meaning almost expressed.” Is the enlightened vision of the fiery perennial Clarissa’s way of vividly expressing her lesbianism in terms that she can fully comprehend with regard to herself? Is it a way of articulating her vague yet passionate feelings towards other women? Is Clarissa truly tormented because of her unfulfilled lesbianism, or is she just generally dissatisfied with her life as a married woman? After all, she feels the same excitement after her surprise visit with Peter Walsh in her attic room: “she heard a hand upon the door. She made to hide her dress, like a virgin protecting chastity, respecting privacy” (40). When he leaves her, she thinks that if she had married him, she would have been privy to the “gaiety” (47) she felt during their brief meeting everyday. The wide-eyed child and the hushed nun come together on the field of innocence, yet somehow manage to clash on the front of Clarissa’s mind. She is neither, but she remains both. She desires to explore the tower, but she requires her withdrawal into subdued snobbishness.


"Getting up rather unsteadily, hopping indeed from foot to foot, he considered Mrs. Filmer's nice clean bread knife with "Bread" carved on the handle" (149).

This is easily the most heartbreaking sentence I've ever read. Unlike Bradshaw and Holmes, who never seem to show any humanity or empathy from their high perch, just before Septimus leaps from his, he cannot help but spare Mrs. Filmer's grandmotherly cutlery from sharing his gruesome fate. The contrast here is frightening; these doctors can neither understand nor care about the patient entrusted to them, but the supposed mad man can, in the final seconds of his life, show nothing but compassion for this stranger and concern for affects.

Holmes rushes up the staits, never doubting that he knows best as he pushes Rezia aside and barrels into the room. He never considers that his violent and unwelcome entrance may cause rather than present Septimus' death. He also does a lot of talking, and everything he says is false; he does not "come as a friend", and Septimus is neither "In a funk", nor a "coward". Despite all of his pronouncements, his words contain not a single morsel of truth; rather, after all his speech, he can only say to himself that he has no idea "why the devil [Septimus] did it" (150). Holmes is, thus, either lying to himself or exceptionally stupid.

Unlike the doctors, Septimus and Rezia are able to move throughout the scene and think correctly without speaking; Rezia does not say anything, rather, "she saw; she understood". Septimus does not need to speak, but rather is able to make a series of rational and empathic decisions in the moments before his suicide. Whereas Holmes has nothing but bluster and ignorance, coupled with the need to pronounce his thoughts on the world, Rezia and Septimus' quiet manner allow them insight and agency. By giving up the ability and conquering the need to conquer and colonize with speech, Septimus has gained a greater empathy and agency than the quacks who drive him out the window.

I see signs now all the time*...

When I was a little girl, I thought my mother created the world for me.

She died a few months after my first birthday, so I didn't remember her at all. I relied instead on the stories of my family to know my mother. Perhaps it was a result of their firm Catholic upbringing or maybe it's just what you tell a young child who is missing a parent, but my family taught me to believe that she was in Heaven, looking down from above, still helping me and guiding me, from all the way up in the clouds. I was certain she was an angel and no one corrected me.  

After much deliberation and examination of scholarly texts, namely my children's Bible, I concluded that if my mother was indeed an angel, she could communicate with me, like the angels in the Bible who brought messages to Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds. So I waited for my mother to appear in a blaze of light and glory, with wings and a halo and a long white robe, with a message for me. But she didn't come and I was puzzled, because I had been so certain she had a lot of things to tell me: about how nice it was living in Heaven, what God was like, whether Jesus still had the holes in his hands and feet, if the angels sang everyday or just on Sundays, how to be good--you know, the things that mothers tell you. 

I remained puzzled until one cool summer night. My father and I had just driven out to the house in Long Island for the weekend--it was dark when we arrived and I was half-asleep. My father pulled me gently out of the car and set me on the driveway. I was too tired to move, so I just stood there and looked at the stars and then it hit me. "Daddy," I said, "Daddy, look at the stars. Mommy put them there for me. She made the stars like that. She's saying hello." I don't remember what my father said to this, only that he smiled and lifted me up so I could get a better look.  

From that point on, I was convinced that my mother left unspoken messages for me, hidden in the fabric of everyday life. To other people, they were ordinary things, but to me, they were extraordinary. Only I knew that the bird that sang outside my window in the early morning was a song from my mother. Only I knew that my mother communicating with me by the way the world smelled after the first April rain. Only I knew that the warm sunlight which fell through the trees was her way of embracing me. Only I knew that her bright orange tiger lilies against our white picket fence meant something more. I realized that my mother left signs for me everywhere, in everything. I just had to see them. 

I don't remember when I outgrew this way of thinking, when I stopped living in a world where everything was loaded with meaning. But I haven't thought about this for a long time. Mrs. Dalloway has reminded me of my convictions about my mother's signs as a little girl. More specifically, Septimus Warren Smith has reminded me of this strange aspect of my childhood, in his lucid insanity, where he interprets everything as a sign:

So, thought Septimus, looking up, they are signalling to me. Not indeed in actual words;  that is, he could not read the language yet; but it was plain enough, this beauty, this exquisite beauty, and tears filled his eyes as he looked at the smoke words languishing and melting in the sky and bestowing upon him in their inexhaustible charity and laughing goodness one shape after another of unimaginable beauty and signalling their intentions to provide him, for nothing, for ever, for looking merely, with beauty, more beauty! (212)**

Septimus notices the extraordinary in the ordinary. Everything is of significance to him, everything has a message which needs to be communicated to the masses. The smoke letters in the sky, an ad for toffee, are beautiful to him, and are signs that promise to "provide him" with more beauty forever. He understands the meaning behind the smoke letters, even though he can't read the language yet (whether this is in reference to the fact that the smoke letters have not finished spelling out the word "toffee" yet or whether Septimus simply believes it is written in a language he cannot understand I do not know)--he sees significance in them that the sane people around him don't. They are too busy straining to spell out the word, instead of "looking merely" like Septimus, who perceives he understands "their intentions."

In his altered mental state, Septimus experiences revelations, which he notes "on the back of envelopes" (215). These revelations include, "Men must not cut down trees. There is a God...Change the world. No one kills from hatred. Make it known," (215). Septimus hears messages from singing birds, he sees the wickedness of people by simply walking past them in the street, he learns profound truths by the voices rustling above his head. The world of Septimus Warren Smith is a world where everything is charged with meaning; it is the world of the insane. He sees signs and messages and profound truths in the mundane. 

As we discussed in class, Mrs. Dalloway examines how people who never meet can be connected and have the same thoughts--but at the same time, Septimus Smith is a testament to the fact that people can look at the same world and come away with vastly different conclusions. What his wife sees as a toffee ad, Septimus sees as a promise of enduring beauty. Mrs Dalloway offers a world viewed from the sane and the insane, juxtaposes and contrasts these two points of view. 

I for one, find the world of Septimus Warren Smith to be a good deal more beautiful than that of Mrs. Dalloway's, of Peter Walsh's--a good deal more beautiful and a good deal more terrifying. Being able to see signs in the most prosaic things, in ordinary nature, lends an air of purpose to the often random universe we seem to inhabit; yes, you can find truth in this world, if only you'd sit and listen. 

Yes, you can find truth, beauty, messages from lost mothers, and meaning, if only you'd sit and listen. If only you'd sit and look. 

*The title of this blog is taken from a line in the Bloc Party song "Signs"
**Professor Fernald, this quote absolutely refuses to be block-quoted--it won't stay tabbed, so I bolded it out of desperation. 

Synchronicity is Not a Coincidence

“They always had the queer power of communicating without words. She knew directly he criticized her. Then she would do something quite obvious to defend herself, like this fuss with the dog—but it never took him in, he always saw through Clarissa. Not that he said anything, of course; just sat looking glum. It was the way their quarrels often began” (60).

Woolf focuses a large part of her literary endeavor in Mrs. Dalloway on describing the mental states of her characters. In order to convey how deeply World War I has wounded humanity's collective consciousness, its understanding of itself and of morality, she details what occurs in her characters' minds, as much as in their worlds. (Indeed, it is interesting to count the instances of the word “thought" on a single page, especially in Peter's passages.) However, Woolf often emphasizes a particular element of these descriptions-- the instances when characters seem to telepathically share a thought or mental perception. In these moments, it is almost as if the characters have a sort of supernatural power, like Darl in Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, who sees in his mind events that occur in distant places. I initially thought of two terms to describe this phenomenon: coincidence, and synchronicity. I then realized that the two words that had chosen me were opposites, rather than synonyms. Does Woolf simply mean to emphasize the characters' similarities, or even suggest that this is a commonplace and unremarkable occurrence (coincidence), or does she mean to write that these thoughts occur in the characters experiencing them as a result of the same external forces acting upon them (synchronicity)? Woolf confirms that she undoubtedly intends the latter.

Woolf extends this synchronicity to the characters' interactions. As she writes of Clarissa and Peter, "They always had this queer power of communicating without words" (60). In the midst of Woolf's challenging prose, this device almost seems to serve as an apology for the novel's lack of dialogue. More importantly, though, Woolf communicates that the characters are able to convey their feelings to one another, to determine whether to be empathetic or not, through the force of sharing a mental wavelength. This is a very unusual form of action for novels, even modernist novels, which usually develop relationships using dialogue and/or action, rather than description. "She knew directly he criticized her," and "He always saw through Clarissa" (60). Woolf emphasizes the characters' different points of view, but uses vague verbs to indicate that Clarissa and Peter have a common understanding—they share a discourse that exists outside of language. Woolf does not explain how Clarissa knew this, “directly.” Does Peter say it to her directly?

Woolf writes of Clarissa, "Her only gift was knowing people almost by instinct" (4). Similarly, in Peter's passages, Woolf builds a character with an extraordinarily keen sense of perception, who deconstructs the social pretenses of Clarissa's world with aplomb. Septimus, too, shares in this heightened sensitivity, perceiving "inexhaustible charity" in a toffee advertisement (22). Though his observation seems to be a humorous aberration of the theme, Woolf nonetheless uses it for the same higher purpose-- to convey that this is a shared "power," a shared experience—at least it is so between the characters Woolf cares about.

However, Woolf includes an ominous detail about Septimus that makes this power seem more like a curse than a gift--"He had fought," she writes, "he was brave" (23). Similarly, when Peter pursues a woman in the streets, she seems to whisper, calling him "You," a "private name," which was formerly limited to "his own thoughts" (53). And so, as in As I Lay Dying, with this hypersensitivity comes an increased susceptibility to mental corruption, to obsessive compulsive tics and sublimations like Clarissa’s fussing with the dog, and indeed to mental illness. Woolf's synchronicities have endless significance, but at their core, perhaps, is a human psyche disturbed by something which we might now call post-traumatic stress disorder, except in this case on a grand, civilizational scale.

There's a War On

Being young in a dynamic city with days full of things to do, I rarely stop and read the front section of the Times from cover to cover anymore, something I used to enjoy every morning in high school.  Even worse, I sometimes forget that our country is at war.  

One evening last spring, as I was making my way home for Easter, I decided to pick up an issue of Rolling Stone to occupy me as my flight out of JFK was delayed.  I stumbled upon Jenny Eliscu's piece entitled "The Troubled Homecoming of the Marlboro Marine."  Before then, I followed the war as it was developing in Iraq, but I hadn't contemplated things like Stop Loss or PTSD.  I became quite angry as I read the story of Blake Miller, a man who has become something of an icon for striking up a cigarette during a brief respite at the battle of Fallujah.  The distant, forlorn look in Miller's eyes, Eliscu writes, has been misconstrued by the American public as a triumphant gaze.  Miller came home burdened by what he was forced to do in Iraq, and he now occupies his time in a motorcycle club, drinking, and smoking packs of cigarettes a day, having given up on his counseling for PTSD.

As I read Woolf's portrayal of the shell-shocked Septimus Smith in Mrs. Dalloway, I was reminded of the Marlboro Marine.  Although Miller has to deal with the red tape of the VA, I suppose he is fortunate that he has some means of obtaining medication or therapy.  This isn't the case for Septimus.  In my reading, I found an oscillation in the narrator's depiction of the relationship between Septimus and Lucrezia, which I do not believe is sympathetic to Septimus' plight.  He comes across as insane, though "Dr. Holmes said there was nothing the matter with him," while Lucrezia's melancholy in England seems justified because of his psychosis (65).

"Every one has friends who were killed in the war.  Every one gives up something when they marry.  She had given up her home.  She had come to live here, in this awful city.  But Septimus let himself think about horrible things, as she could too, if she tried.  He had grown stranger and stranger."

This passage illustrates the lack of understanding of the emotional burdens that soldiers carry.  To Lucrezia, Septimus "let himself" be haunted by the memory of the war, and of his dead comrade, Evans.  In spite of her Italian heritage, Lucrezia ironically comes across as quite British in her perspective; she is stoic and pragmatic.  It is as if she says to Septimus, "Buck up.  This is an ordeal we've all been through."  She too could "think about horrible things," but she knows that this mindset is fruitless.  Perhaps this is why she finds Septimus odd; in her view, he freely gives himself over to his delusions.

I don't blame Lucrezia for her view of Septimus.  In fact, because she experienced the war as closely as he did, I see her as strong, courageous, and admirable.  Her feeling of "suffering" is justified, I think, by her ignorance of the real psychological trauma in her husband (64).  Yet, because of the times in which we live, I couldn't help but read Septimus in a more sympathetic light, not "strange," but damaged.  His delusions are understandable and heartbreaking.  The fictional Septimus, or the real-life Blake Miller ought to remind us that, for those involved, a war doesn't really end with a ceasefire.