Monday, September 27, 2010


Upon starting To the Lighthouse, I once again realized how different this novel is from Mrs. Dalloway. I guess that one has become a bit of a marker to me, since it was the first Woolf novel I have ever read and I’ve read it so many times. This novel actually reminds me more of Jacob’s Room stylistically, although the narrator is not actually present in the story as in Woolf’s earlier novel. Still, it’s reminiscent of it in the way it follows different characters, despite the centrality of Mrs. Ramsay. I suppose the setting of the beginning helps this connection – the influence of St. Ives, Cornwall, the lighthouse.

In this particular novel, Woolf once again busies herself with the problem of perception it seems, although this time it is also more intertwined with the “woman question” and also art. Particularly important seems the struggle of Lily Briscoe, as Woolf writes, “such she often felt herself – struggling against terrific odds to maintain her courage; to say: ‘But this is what I see; this is what I see,’ and so to clasp some miserable remnant of her vision to her breast, which a thousand forces did their best to pluck from her” (23). Through Lily, these three notions – of perception, of femininity, of art – are explored by Woolf. She is not a traditional woman in that she occupies herself seriously with art, which, in turn, isn’t taken seriously by anyone else. Even Mr. Bankes questions her on her portrait of Mrs. Ramsay, in which he believes she reduced a woman of great beauty to a purple shadow. But it is, she insists internally, what she sees – she is not after mimicking reality, but capturing her own vision. Thus, the problem of perception appears – is there such a thing as the “right” vision? Is Lily’s perception and portrait wrong because it does not suit Mr. Bankes aesthetic values and perhaps the values of the Victorian era? A couple of pages later, Lily herself wonders about the notion of liking or disliking people and what that really means – does it mean anything? Once again, we are back to the question of whether we can ever know another person or do they remain – like Mrs. Ramsay – as only our impressions upon the canvases of our lives? Is it important for Lily to realize her vision in capturing Mrs. Ramsay’s portrait or is it more important for her to capture the essence of Mrs. Ramsay and is that even possible?

The character of Mrs. Ramsay is another question – that of femininity. This is a woman, I presume, somewhat modeled after Woolf’s own mother – very much admired and very much beautiful. But Woolf questions what is behind that outward beauty. Mrs. Ramsay says she never has time to read books, despite the fact that she had received so many from various poets inspired by her beauty. She is a bit of an “angel of the house” – always subordinate to her husband, always pleasant, always saying “yes” to her children, but minding if Mr. Ramsay says “no”. Her thinking is eclipsed within the marriage scheme – she keeps mentioning Lily’s facial features that might make it harder for her to marry. Thus, even she does not take Lily’s art seriously. This brings about the question of patriarchy, so deeply ingrained in Victorian women, that they fail to see the advantages of supporting each other in other aspects and only focus on what they know, what they have been taught to be their role in society, into which Lily does not necessarily fit right in the traditional sense.

Sunday, September 19, 2010


Having read Jacob’s Room as well as Mrs. Dalloway, I found that the two novels have a certain common tendency: fleshing out of modern alienation, the gap between people, modern aloneness. In Jacob’s Room, this is predominantly visible with the character of Jacob, although it is definitely true for all characters. After all, someone – I am not sure whether it was Leonard or Strachey or maybe someone else – described all the characters in the novel as ghosts. This is certainly true and even Woolf supports this notion by a once previously mentioned quote, “Nobody sees any one as he is, let alone an elderly lady sitting opposite a strange young man in a railway carriage. They see a whole – they see all sorts of things – they see themselves…” This means something close to a permanent, inevitable alienation – if we don’t see other people as they are, but we see ourselves in them, the world is full of us, a vast I am, ever-present. Does this ever allow any kind of real connection with anyone else? Jacob’s Room does not really answer this question positively. Ever since the beginning of the novel, someone is always searching for Jacob, but at the end, all that is found are Jacob’s old shoes, his room, his things. Both Clara and Bonamy and even Florinda are left longing for Jacob, but at the end of the novel, the gap is materialized – Jacob is dead and cannot be reached anymore in any way. Everyone is alone – Bonamy without Jacob; Clara, even though with her dog and an older man companion, tangled in her thoughts; Florinda, sitting alone, with distance between her and the supposed father of her child – a child that does not necessarily bring any hope; Mrs. Wentworth Williams, looking out at her (and presumably Jacob’s) child; Jacob’s mother engulfed in her thoughts of her dead husband; the Captain’s invalid wife, abandoned by him. Even the brothers Archer and Jacob are never portrayed as having a real relationship, not even with their mother. As Virginia Woolf explores the notion of the human mind, she unsettles – it is almost as if everyone is locked inside their own mind, without the ability to really be open with another person.

In Mrs. Dalloway, it is a similar case. Here, Woolf once again presents the reader with characters permanently locked in their aloneness. Clarissa and Richard, as a married couple, should be able to have some sort of connection, but in the end, despite his sudden passion and rushing home thinking “my Clarissa”, flowers in his hands, meaning to tell her he loves her, Richard fails to relate his feelings to his wife. Woolf leaves her response quite ambiguous – we do not know whether Clarissa really understands without Richard saying it out loud, or whether Richard hopes/believes her to understand, without having to say anything. Mrs. Dalloway’s relationship with her daughter is similarly superficial – she presents her at her party like an object and the reader never sees any kind of affection, aside from pangs of jealousy that have to do with Miss Kilman. All of these relationships are sterile, empty, lonely.

It is similar with Peter Walsh. Even though it is evident that there was something between them, both Clarissa and Peter cannot communicate very well. She is sitting, mending her dress, annoyed at Peter’s constant fidgeting with his pocket knife, while Peter sits and ridicules Clarissa’s hostess life in his mind. The words they say to each other do not reflect what they truly think or feel. Perhaps only “don’t forget my party” means something more, a “don’t forget me”, but this is still enclosed within something else, Clarissa cannot say out loud what she really wants and thinks and neither can Peter. Even though they may have loved each other and perhaps still do, the reader questions the depth of their relationship, the depth of any relationship and how far that depth can ever reach. The epitome of this aloneness, to me, has always been Peter’s thought, “and that is being young” (hence the address of the blog) when he sees Septimus and Rezia at the park, at a very turbulent and sad moment in their relationship. Peter interprets it completely differently, seeing himself in the situation, the youth he still wants to associate with, even though he completely misinterprets the event. At the same time, does the fact that he does misinterpret it even matter? Does it matter that we see ourselves in others and thus, misinterpret them, unable to know them? That point, after all, serves Peter only in the progression of his thoughts and has no implications. But it still tells a lot about human relationships and this particular feeling of alienation permeating this work. There is no hope of knowing your loved ones, let alone complete strangers.

Finally, there is Rezia and Septimus, each one locked in their own fantasy – for Rezia, it is one of a normal life and for Septimus, the horrors of the Great War. Once again Woolf presents a marriage unable to communicate (perhaps an influence of her own mental illness and the role, if any, it played in her marriage to Leonard?) and locked within their own separate minds. Rezia talks of birds and flowers, remembers her life in Italy, longing for it all over again, trying to convince herself and Septimus that everything is all right. Septimus, on the other hand, recedes further and further into himself, into the psychological turmoil the War had caused, unable to understand Rezia and her situation. Rezia cannot understand him, not participating in the War herself, and desperately locked in her own desire for a normal life.

This is only two novels so far, therefore I cannot really say if this pattern continues in Woolf’s other works. However, even in Kew Gardens, this is a bit evident – with the married couple, separated from each other by their pasts; the old and young men separated by experience; even the young couple seems a bit distant from each other, perhaps wanting different things; the women chattering, separated by language. All of these are little glimpses, impressions, of the ways people in modern London and, of course, beyond, can be lonely, even in these large cities, with thousands of people surrounding them. I’m not sure whether this would be a suitable topic for the final paper, but, aside from the role of Laura, the invalid sister of Virginia, in Woolf’s works, this is certainly something I am interested in exploring.

Sunday, September 12, 2010


Your part is to insist that writers shall come down off their plinths and pedestals, and describe beautifully if possible, truthfully at any rate, our Mrs. Brown. You should insist that she is an old lady of unlimited capacity and infinite variety; capable of appearing in any place; wearing any dress; saying anything and doing heaven knows what. But the things she says and the things she does and her eyes and her nose and her speech and her silence have an overwhelming fascination, for she is, of course, the spirit we live  by, life itself” (212).

In the literary manifesto that “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown” is, Woolf essentially repudiates the writers of the previous era, because, according to her, any insight into human nature, into life, was effectively lost among various and numerous descriptions, such as the houses the writer did not write any life into. However, at the same time, she acknowledges the difference between writers – based on nationality as well as the writer’s temperament. She writes, “You see one thing in character, and I another. You say it means this, and I that. And when it comes to writing each makes a further selection on principles of his own. Thus Mrs. Brown can be treated in an infinite variety of ways, according to the age, country, and temperament of the writer” (200). This, I feel, undermines the rest of the speech, in which she rejects the approach of previous writers. Literature is, truly, always about some aspect of human nature at least. And thus, while I have not personally read any Wells, Galsworthy or Bennett, I do believe they wrote about human nature in some way, only maybe this way was different than what interested Virginia Woolf. After all, she does say that the writer treats Mrs. Brown according to his own set of principles. At the same time, I do understand that at this particular time in the beginnings of the twentieth century, life was changing quite drastically and people like Woolf felt there was an unbridgeable gap between them and the older generation in various matters, literature included. Still, I guess every generation has its own values and sets of principles with which it looks upon life and Mrs. Brown. And here, Woolf tries to get her listeners to further define theirs. What I do like about this particular speech/essay is that she seems to want to make literature a more accessible thing – a sort of unity between writer and reader, no pedestals for either one.

Monday, September 6, 2010

#3: shakespeare was knocked overboard...and then he went under.

When I first began reading Jacob’s Room, I was actually quite surprised as to how different stylistically it is from Mrs. Dalloway. Whereas in the latter the reader spends his time entangled in the thoughts, minds of various characters, in this novel, the stream of consciousness is not so acutely present. It is more like reading Virginia Woolf’s mind, while she’s picturing and creating this novel in her own mind, with her narrating it. If that makes any sense. I imagine the difference stems from the fact that Jacob’s Room is an earlier novel and with Mrs. Dalloway, Woolf reached a different depth in her interest in the human mind and flow of thoughts and, of course, a different depth of writing as well as a different purpose.

After a couple of chapters into the novel, I began to realize how much this novel reminds me of James Joyce’s The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which was published six years earlier and as the essay on “Modern Fiction” suggested, Woolf was very much aware of Joyce as a literary figure. Also, in the chronology in the beginning of the novel, it shows that Ulysses was published the same year as Jacob’s Room. What reminded me of Joyce’s novel was at first the progression of time – from the early childhood of Jacob, with time skipping forward every couple of pages, presumably until his premature death and his lingering presence or marked absence carried through the people that knew him and long for him. There are also many scenes from school, which also reminded me of Stephen Dedalus and his schoolboy days. Other similarities include both  boys’ forays into love and lust, albeit for different reasons, but in similar circumstances – both are involved in some way with prostitutes. I do not know how much of an influence Joyce was on Woolf, if any at all, but I do not know whether these similarities are coincidental. After all, both Joyce and Woolf were the pioneers of modern fiction and literary forays into the intricacies of the human mind.

The difference is, of course, that Joyce’s novel is written entirely in stream of consciousness and presents the reader with a semi-autobiographical account of a writer’s life. While Jacob Flanders seems to like literature similar to what Stephen Dedalus admires,  he is not particularly defined as an artist and the reader certainly does not get to spend as much time in his thoughts. Woolf only gives us snippets of his sentences or feelings, while we see him through the eyes of other people. It is almost a reverse of Joyce’s novel in that this time, we see a character not from within, but without. It is also through the eyes and thoughts of ordinary minds on ordinary days, which Woolf was very interested in.

There were a couple of other very interesting things. For instance, Jacob’s thoughts on women in church (pg.31), where he compares them to dogs in church – a distraction that causes the mind to wander. Another description is that women are “as ugly as sin”, all of which is reminiscent of the idea of women as the cause of sin and temptation. While Jacob denounces all sorts of “elderly people” (which also emphasizes the difference between Victorian and modern generations, reminiscent of Woolf’s “Modern Fiction” essay, as one man Jacob visits for luncheon has a book by Wells on his shelf), he also shares this certain imbedded notion about women, which I thought was very interesting, especially in a Woolf novel, as she was a leading figure in the feminist movement. Also, every since A Sketch of the Past, I have been wondering about the figure of Laura, the mentally disabled sister of Virginia Woolf. For a feminist writer that she was, I am really interested in whether Laura has any presence in Woolf’s work or whether she is marginalized there as well. She was mentioned only in passing in Sketch, or at least the excerpt that we have read, so I am hoping I will have some sort of an answer to this after I read more of Woolf’s work. The one possible influence of Laura I see in Jacob’s Room so far could be Captain Barfoot’s invalid wife – she is stuck at home with Mr. Dickens (a very curious name for obvious reasons) taking care of her, presumably childless, knowing that her husband is making trips to Betty Flanders. I imagine such a knowledge would probably be very disturbing and saddening. Still, she seems to be physically disabled, while Laura was mentally disabled and eventually institutionalized and thus, disabled in a much more severe way than Woolf herself, as she was periodically instutitionalized.

To end with, here is my favorite passage so far, 

“Nobody sees any one as he is, let alone an elderly lady sitting opposite a strange young man in a railway carriage. They see a whole – they see all sorts of things – they see themselves…” (29). 

This is how I see Woolf’s fiction altogether – it is not necessarily a picture of other people’s minds, not even ordinary minds on ordinary days, but a picture of Woolf’s mind only. We cannot experience the act of being somebody else, their consciousness, their mind and thus, we are only limited to seeing parts of ourselves in everything and everyone.