Scope of the Semester

As the semester closes I began looking towards the overall scope of the books we’ve read – what themes did we start with, and what all has been brought on board as we chugged along?

One of the topics I resonated with most this semester was the idea of searching for the self, and once found, finding an avenue to express that self. Where have the characters been able to look in the uncertain, dangerous, sensational times of turmoil the books feature? In Return of the Soldiers we had women waiting on men, both figuratively and literally – their selfhood determined almost entirely by their ability to satisfy Charles’s wife searches only for his approval, his relative searches only for glimpses of the old him – even his old teenage lover drops her life [and husband!] to care and entertain and restore him. In Swastika Night we had women with even more restrictions. With no place in the actual world, the book used this loss of self to highlight women’s actual importance (the sermon-giver slipping up to tell the women to bear girls instead of boys). Again and again, characters are used as vehicles to highlight the importance of one thing: their ability to both hear and be heard.

Almost all the characters we read this year struggled from some form of suppression – an inability to speak, an inability to be heard, or an inability to be comfortable with letting others express themselves. The characters who survived were those who were able to express; the characters who didn’t implode from internal pressures. In Mrs. Dalloway Septimus dangles back and forth, unable to talk, and on the rare occasions he tries he is cautioned or discredited back into silence – by both his wife and his doctor. Though Deborah takes what she wants during her husband Graham’s absence in To Bed with Grand Music, she is never allowed to openly discuss the world she wants to live in – instead she has to perform an act with her mother and caretaker, pretending at every turn that her actions have her child’s wellbeing at heart.

On the other hand, White Teeth opens with Archie saved by a rapping on his car window – an invitation for verbal exchange, and though speech, survival. In Absolute Beginners our unnamed protagonist deals with the multiplicity of free speech, it’s positives and negatives. And so survives.

I realized: it’s hard to talk about a concept that doesn’t yet exist formally. As humans we require language to bridge the gap between the turmoil of emotions and the regulated facts of the known, of the packaged and boxed. When PTSD was merely termed shell shock it was harder to grasp not only the problem but the implications of the existence. Before the oppressed women and minorities placed direct verbal confrontation on their plight the concept of their injustice was much easier to ignore. In reviewing the literature read this semester, a great thesis for the class would be that the advancement of language is crucial and in fact a prerequisite requirement to change itself. Until the vocabulary is created, repression and subsequent suppression is all we have.

On Crapitalism

When I came into graduate school last spring, one of the more constants joke I heard dealt with money. Everything, it seemed, from low wages to slip-n-slides, came down to this one word: capitalism. Or, as the grad students would say, “Capitalism, man.” I assumed it was some rippling effect of lit criticism – maybe Marxism had been making the rounds in the semester previous. Nevertheless, I laughed along and finished the semester, copping the joke when appropriate.

Then this fall I began teaching as a Teaching Assistant. One day I brought several boxes of Lucky Charms cereal into class to rhetorically analyze.

“Why is this box on the shelves?” I asked, halfway into the process.

“To feed people!” my students cried.

“Then why isn’t it outside, being given away?”

Capitalism, man.

“Why is every single thing on every shelf in the entire grocery store there?”

Capitalism. I hadn’t really understood that myself until I started discussing the issue with my students. The realization was mind blowing – every single creation, from cereal boxes to coffee shop price-tagged wall art, was just a transactional method of pulling money from one bank account to another. It’s like that quote – all we do is stand, sit and lay down – except simpler – all we do is buy and sell. All the motions in between are byproducts.

Our class discussion of Absolute Beginners, and especially the readings I dug up for our annotated bibliography, are the first interactions I’ve had with the idea of capitalism since my mind blowing experience teaching. Specifically, one of the articles deals with the double vision culture has when looking at youth subcultures.

On the one hand, youth subcultures are viewed as terrors because they actively critique and opt out of large parts of culture, saying no to viewpoints adult culture find crucial and saying yes to activities adult cultures find unsavory. Youth culture is always billed as the death of culture – when the truth is, of course they are. Current culture and the proponents of current culture absolutely die – and the critiques and changes of youth subcultures quietly become the new main. This has been experienced in my lifetime with the emergence of indie music, which as a young teen was never on the radios and yet is a staple now. The mainstream acceptance of videogame culture is also new – shy of ten years ago there was no such thing as videogame character tee-shirts available for purchase in local malls.

On the other hand (the hand that links back to capitalism), youths are viewed as naive, powerless individuals who blindly accept and perpetuate the media. This includes everything from pop singers to social values.

The argument that is attempted here states that teenagers are dangerous, and their ignorance and acceptance of unwholesome values actively cause the destruction of culture. But this is incorrect. If teenagers are disengaging with their parents’ views yet are unable to say no to what the media tells them, whose fault is this actually? Teenagers or the media who uses their ethos? Teenagers for whatever reason actively critique and disregard popular, mainstream culture as given to them by their parents. And yet they are seduced by the ethos of media into believing whatever they are told. Parents are lame, but televisions are cool, it seems.

And what drives the media? The same transactional relationship that drives everything else.

Capitalism, man. And therefore it is not the youth culture we should fear or hold responsible, but the media for any supposed destruction of culture. Or perhaps media is still the middle-man, and capitalism is both the birth and death of every culture, always one step ahead, jumping from profitable culture to profitable culture.

~Eric

Rollo’s Problematic Romance

The sincerity and consistency with which Anna Schmid rejects Rollo Martin (aka Holly) thematically impressed me. In The Third Man by Graham Greene we find a female lead who, yes, somewhat standardly, is in love with another character. However, this love is towards a character (Harry Lime) who is presumed dead and stays off-camera for the majority of the movie, is constant. Anna expresses no desire to move on – in fact, on page 82 she states her express desire not to move on. When Rollo states, “You’ll forget him time. You’ll fall in love again” (82) she replies, “I know, but I don’t want to. Don’t you see I don’t want to” (82).

In the book her reply ends with a period, not a question mark, which informs the audience that her question is not genuine – it is rhetorical. Of course he can see she doesn’t want to move on. She has made this plain. However, Rollo doggedly ignores Anna’s position again and again. Why? Perhaps he is a bad novelist after all, pushing a tired narrative that Anna wants no part of.

Rollo spends the entire length of the piece pursuing, which activates all sorts of reader expectations. Perhaps Rollo and Anna will become the grieving friends who collapse into each other’s arms in a moment of rapture. Or, perhaps they will find that their mostly dead friend has brought them together, magically and irrevocably, a bittersweet endstop to their sad journey. Or, perhaps Graham Greene will frustrate traditional story expectations by providing us with a woman who is polite but firm in her refusal of Rollo’s artless attempts to sleep with her.

Why is this an important plot point to consider? When examined even briefly, Holly’s pursuit of Anna is ridiculous – it is inappropriate, unwarranted, unsignaled and unreciprocated. Pages 81-82 describe Holly’s transition into loving Anna, and it is not a romantic conversion. He describes Anna as having a face that lacks beauty and is instead, “…a face to live with, day in, day out. A face for wear” (81). How flattering to be found not beautiful but durable. His short moment at the window sets off his love. As Calloway describes it, “When he had risen half a minute before he had been the friend of Harry, comforting Harry’s girl; now he was a man in love with Anna Schmidt who had been in love with a man they had both once known called Harry Lime” (82). The love is artificial, born of a one-sided look. It means nothing to Anna. It is ridiculous and insulting, and yet the civility of women in Anna’s time restrains her from giving a proper verbal rebuff. Instead she is forced to let him in at all hours, including three a.m.

Consider that decision to visit Anna at three a.m. Up to this point there has still been zero chemistry between the two, and their only connection continues to be Harry Lime. And yet, after a night of drinking, Rollo begins to make his way to Anna’s apartment at 3 am. “…he set out obstinately on foot to find Harry’s girl. He wanted to make love to her – just like that: no nonsense, no sentiment. He was in the mood for violence, and the snowy road heaved like a lake and set his mind on a new course towards sorrow, eternal love, renunciation” (112). Excuse me?

Harry has a serious problem when it comes to women, and his attitude is revealed through how he describes them. Again and again in the book he is said to refer to romance and women as “situations” – an event rather than a person. Rollo’s love is not fleeting – it is momentary, a by-product of circumstance, over as soon as the location changes. And worse, Rollo is completely unable to see his proposed love affair to Anna from her end. Why would she want to live in the world where she casually sleeps with Rollo before he leaves forever? What a strange, pointless degradation to Harry Lime, whom she still loves?

Rollo is a dreamer when it comes to women, and not in a good way.

~Eric

Response Paper – To Bed With Grand Music

Eric 

Dr. Sarah Cornish

ENG 629

10/13/2016

War and Liberties, Masculine and Feminine

In To Bed With Grand Music, Marghanita Laski gives us, at face value, the sweeping romantic infidelities of a 1940’s British mother and wife during the Blitzkrieg bombings of London. Deborah loosens (or awakens) throughout the timeline of the novel  – from pious and faithful to morally ambivalent, increasingly self-serving in a culture increasingly pushing civic duty and restraint, and cunning enough to always find the bill “footed”. Deborah Robertson, Laski’s main character, is forced to answer to many different societal forces throughout the novel: her absent husband Graham, her omnipresent mother Mrs. Betts, her nanny Mrs. Chalmers, and of course, the most constant of her young suitors, Timmy, her only child.  However, her list of responsibilities do not end there: they continue with Britain, with stereotypical femininity, and the rising but unnamable unhappiness inside herself, seen firstly when she pushes herself out into London, and secondly, when the war tilts toward its conclusion and begins to squeeze her back into her former mold.

Is Deborah a woman with a great Lacanian lack, searching for love in all available places? Or a woman who has tasted a new measure of freedom and as such, has lost her taste for domesticity?

Laski makes it clear there is no fitting place for Deborah within 1940s British society – instead she exists only momentarily, in wartime. As in Swastika Night, the audience is confronted with a world in which women have no true resting place. When Graham leaves “the country” home, Deborah finds that she is not satisfied by the everyday fare of traditional female domesticity. However, her departure to London provides its own emotional turmoil as Deborah finds her needs are not overtly condoned by the “city”. Thus begins a menagerie of increasingly sophisticated and feminine/masculine-blending sexual advances. Laski’s novel takes place in a fractured moment in time and focuses on the emotional chaos embedded in this moment. Within this sphere infidelity can and does exist. The only certainty is that the sphere will eventually pop. Or will it?

At first glance, Deborah seems determined to offend her reader. The audience is given increasingly intentional stories of seduction. Deborah is seduced by men, yes, but also by the world of men: London, a job, a flat in the city, opulence in times of rationings. These seductions culminate in Graham’s friend Ken Mathews, who comes to give Deborah a package from Graham but is seduced into an altogether different contribution. The crocodile bag he sends to Deborah evokes the way male society would have the audience see her – she is now irredeemably a prostitute, paid for sex.

And yet, consider the war experience according to the men in the novel. Almost every male Deborah encounters has benefitted from the war. Each suitor is richer than her husband – mostly soldiers, with money to spend and a war looming over them to encourage spending it. Her second employer, Aradio, has an antique business that only grows as the war continues. Even Deborah’s husband Graham is described abroad having “moonlight picnics in the desert and sherry-parties and dances and what-not” (11). The war is not described as something to fear, but as a social event that thrusts men towards luxury and new horizons while simultaneously absolving them from familial responsibility. Consider Graham’s opening lines: “I’m not going to promise you I’ll be physically faithful to you, because I don’t want to make you a promise I may not be able to keep” (2). Why is this moment, arguably the beginning fracture of Deborah’s later infidelities, set up as nonchalant and honest? War is liberation – for men at least.

And what are the women left behind given? Deborah continues her discussion of the juxtaposition, telling her mother, “ I tell you it’s almost unendurable, thinking of him away in the sun, seeing new places and people and going to parties and things, while I’m stuck here. And I know I ought to write him nice long cheerful letters about the happy home he’s left behind and what-not, and I simply can’t. I’m too miserable. Most of the time I just wish I were dead.” (11). Deborah rejects the world she’s given for one she chooses, one that seems to mirror rather closely the liberated lives of men in wartime.

Questions:

  1. What is Timmy’s function in the novel? What are we to make of Deborah’s interest in him, which rises mainly when he attempts to “woo” her (35)?
  1. What lack in her life is Deborah trying to fill by her actions in this novel? Graham’s love? Masculinity? Need for attention? Independence? A daily reassertion of external value?
  1. Deborah is an easy target as a bad mother, and yet in doing so, the audience lets off Graham scotfree. Why does Graham get a free pass at familial obligations, and what does it mean that Deborah is vilified by her same attempts to avoid them?

Works Cited

Laski, Marghanita. To Bed With Grand Music. 1946. Persephone Books Ltd, 2009.

Ideal I versus Ideal Me

Alfred’s final ponderings before leaving von Hess deal not only with women, but seem to introduce a new moral code, an alternate view on how to bring about equality. On page 107 Alfred states, “Everything that is something must want to be itself before every other form of life. Women are something – female, they must want to be that, they must think it the most superior, the highest possible form of human life.” Here he introduces the concept that has brought their society to ruin. And yet the concept is so illuminating, because it is presented in a way that suggests that the same code is what will ultimately bring about fully realized women instead of “half women” (29).

Alfred continues. “ But of course we must not think it too. Otherwise the crime is committed again, and we shall be a mess. Women must be proud of having daughters, we must be proud of having sons” (29).

So is this concept the disease or the cure? In the same conversation, Alfred explains that the women have submitted to this masculine rule because they have never been given a chance to be themselves. “Women always live according to an imposed pattern, because they are not women at all, and never have been. They are not themselves. Nothing can be, unless it knows it is superior to everything else. No man could believe God was she. No woman could believe God was He. It would be making God inferior” (28).

From this we hear that the sense of self (implied as crucial to actual living) is contingent on the belief that the individual creature is “superior” to all others.

This theory seems to be an interesting take on the sex / gender binaries. Instead of trying to leave the binary of us/them or man/woman, the binary structured here is individual/others. And yet, each binary is individual and unique to the user. . Its uniqueness comes because it establishes the individual as an ideal form of themselves. Consider Lacan’s theory of the “Ideal I” – a theory where we look out at others in the world, people with higher standings than ourselves, and put them in envious relation with ourselves. We see their success, envy it and wish to make that success their own. Indeed, we wish we were this ideal person – this person becomes our “ideal I”. Potentially, Swastika Night’s theory throws out the “ideal I” theory by replacing it with another: individual, entirely self-based acceptance.

And yet, what does a world where everyone finds themselves the most important person in any room look like? Do we become a mass of ego-inflated messes? Do we hear the plight of others, or only the plight of ourselves? As mentioned before, Alfred suggests this theory is a problem when applied to large groups, such as the Germans. And yet, on a personal, individual to individual level, it is presented as the solution.

As was mentioned in class, even when one race/gender/other subdivision of humanity reaches out to another to help, that reaching out is in itself an act that concedes and denotes privilege. How then are we ever to achieve equality thinking everyone is equal? When any act of equaling demonstrates that we are not?Typically we hear that equality is reached by each person thinking they are no more important or special or unique than any other person. How interesting, then, that this book from the 1930s should offer such a different take on human equality.

Perhaps this theory can create an environment where everyone knows and acknowledges how important others are in their own mind. By first validating the self, we are then primed to validate others. As in, 1. I know I love and care about myself as I am created perfectly to execute my life. 2. I know this characteristic is universal, meaning that others think about themselves in the same way. This belief is equally valid as mine. And because of this, 3. I am able to empathize with others, knowing exactly how highly they value themselves and their circumstances.

This might sound trite, but ask yourself: how often do we truly consider one another as complexly as we consider ourselves? How easy is it to throw up our hands when it comes to foreign oil spills or local presidential elections or Black Lives Matter movements? In Swastika Night, Alfred spends several sections of the book being blown away by and later revising his opinions on the fact that women might be more than animals. The reader can scoff at this hyperbole, but the point remains: there are others in the world we conveniently fail to consider. And a theory or worldview as honestly self-centered as Alfred’s might be, incredulously, the best way to acknowledge the complex being and feelings of others.

~Eric

A Foot-Off-The Ground Novel

I remember reading Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf back in high school. It must have been junior year, the same year I decided to become an English major. And Mrs. Dalloway took me completely out of my depth. I remember that 11th grade was the first time I’d even heard of stream of consciousness. I had no idea how to handle it. That same year we read The Sound and the Fury by Faulkner. Our teacher walked us expertly through Faulkner and I loved it. But Woolf floored me. And bored me. Getting flowers “herself”, for a party, this first sentence and background theme is supposed to impress me? Get outta here. I’ll be over here reading Fight Club.

Then we read Woolf this year and I thoroughly enjoyed it – I’d changed and could appreciate it, and could even hear it, distinctly, progress from one character to another. I was no longer lost.

And then came Novel on Yellow Paper. I have to say, as a better reader than I’ve ever been, I don’t feel outmatched (though perhaps that’s the natural arc of this entry I’m writing). Reading the novel, I felt as if a narrator was leading me happily around and astray. In the first few pages of the book, the best theme (mentioned twice) is that we should figure it out ourselves.

A 2009 review I found describes it in warm tones throughout. “When first published in 1936, it overnight turned Smith into a celebrity. It was swiftly followed by the first two collections of her poetry for which, today, she is better known. But the subversiveness of this novel has never lost its appeal, its greatness lying in its exuberant celebration of the uncircumscribed spirit.”

The article also relates Novel on Yellow Paper to Mrs. Dalloway, though it feels scant – like Mrs. Dalloway is the best known stream-of-consciousness novel known, so we unearth it to show we know what we’re talking about. To be fair, I’d say this post is doing the same thing – if not for the fact that Dalloway is an assigned book in this course. Dalloway had foil characters all striving towards the same goals, appreciating and despairing over the same themes. Novel on Yellow Paper feels like a medley of different tones and concepts. But what is the unifying force? A bubbly narrator? Does that count?

So am I a bad reader, still wanting my hand to be held? What is the payoff of reader frustration, and how does an author balance that alongside reader buy-in? Because buy-in is a real thing that ideas live and die by – a book that does not try to impress me should not be surprised if I walk away unimpressed. This is a real question. As they say, if you’re gonna jerk me around, at least buy me a drink.

The same article informs us, “”So blended and intertwisted in this life are occasions for laughter and of tears.” This line from De Quincey, which Smith quotes, perfectly describes Pompey’s condition”. Smith, our author, is literally dropping in her own quotes and giving them to characters. Which, yes, happens in some way in every novel – characters are based off real-life characters, novelists pull quotes from their friends and add them into dialogue. Hmm, I guess this thought doesn’t thread – I can’t dismiss Smith for transporting elements of her story from her poems and other works – all writers cannibalize from their lives.

I feel a fault line, and I’m trying to trace what it is that I feel. I have appreciated every book in this course up until this one – and I would love to know why.

~Eric

Who is God When the Devil is a Loving Huntsman?

I had easily thirty-plus questions while reading this fantastic, fantastic novel. (Seriously, I’ve already bought a copy for a friend’s birthday.) But the question I’ll engage with is this: is the devil (as presented in Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner) the “god” of shortcuts? And who is God when the Devil is the loving huntsman (Warner)?

The devil’s motivations are about as clear as his natural form, by which I mean they aren’t clear at all. The devil appears as lightning and thunder, as a man walking through the woods, potentially as bees and a kitten, and finally, definitively, as a gardener. A male gardener! The audacity. (Why did the Devil, and by extension Warner, decide to appear to Laura as a male? Going with traditional tropes or what? There’s another great thesis right here.)

What are his motivations? Is he setting women free from society or is he capturing them for himself? We only get Laura’s conjectures here, and it’s worth noting that the Devil appears to have little interest in correcting her thoughts. Oddly teacher-like, he tells Laura, “I encourage you to talk, not that I may know all your thoughts, but that you may” (pg. 216). He’s not here to be analyzed. He’s here to help Laura mentally unpack.

Whatever he exacts from his servants, we are left unaware. While the entirety of Great Mop appears to be under the devil’s “persuasion”, we are only privy to one other’s interaction with the devil. The man behind the mask, described as both China-man like and as a young girl’s face on pg. 181.

On pg. 217-18, the devil describes the masked man thusly.

“‘He’s one of these brilliant young authors,’ replied the Devil. ‘I believe Titus knows him. He sold me his soul on the condition that once a week he should be without doubt the most important person at a party’”

When Laura asks why he didn’t barter to just be a talented author, the Devil replies, “He preferred to take a short-cut, you see” (pg 218).

What shortcut, then, has Laura taken in exchange for her servitude to the Devil?
What if, just as the writer skipped the work and went straight to the reward, Laura too has skipped the work of establishing the independence she values so much?

In fact, this is exactly what she has done. Lolly Willowes employs magic realism to disappear the feminist struggle. Who needs to use your own voice to engage and enact your personal freedom when the Devil is around to casually throw wrenches (or bees) into your oppressor’s way? It seems Warner is unable to completely imagine a world free of some sort of patriarchy, or at least some form of oppression. Unable to leave the binary, twentysomething know-it-alls might say. But then again, who’s to concretely say she’s wrong?

Examining the Devil character seems, on the surface, to make things even more confusing. During his time helping Laura, no blood is shed, and no feelings are hurt. Indeed, the Devil solves the problem of Titus by marrying him off! How is this Devil character so nice – patiently waiting for Laura to come around to him, correcting not only her life but the other lives around her down beneficial lanes? How is he such a gentle, kind being, giving Laura time and open-ended questions to come fully face to face with who she has become – exactly what one might wish from a teacher?

This is problematic, or at least worrying, if we allow what the other literature has to say about Satan as he appears in other literature. Or is it?

Satan is the revolutionary-thinking hero of Paradise Lost, and (spoiler alert) in the Genesis section of the Bible, assuming the snake is the Devil (never actually stated in the Bible – read this critically to analyse the typical shaky logic-ing required to equate them), all the Devil does is tell a different story. He states that God is lying, and that Adam and Eve will not die if they eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Instead, they’ll just get knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 4-5). Which is exactly what happens.

And do Adam and Eve die? Or do they just get kicked out of paradise because God now fears they’ll eat from the Tree of Life and become just like him? (Genesis 22.) (Side note – if you want to argue that A & E did die, as God then banished them from Eden and doomed them to one day die, 1. This is lazy and redactive – how are they threatened with death if the concept doesn’t yet exist?, and 2. Eve’s “mistake” is then the only reason they leave the garden and start all of humanity. So the eating of the apple, just like the tree’s name implies, gives them knowledge, perhaps, but also the lives of everyone who has subsequently lived on Earth. It does not, opposite of popular belief, give them death. Weird that knowledge is somehow anti-religious though.)

I’ve successfully connected to one of my other questions – who is God when the Devil is a loving, harmless huntsman? Where the Devil works and low-key lusts for his subjects, values and enlightens them, is it correct or fair to paint God as the Devil’s direct opposite? As aloof, removed, a thing of artifice in opposition to the thunder, wolves and foxes and wildness of the Devil? (218ish). If the Devil is pro-feminist, pro-nature and pro-independence, what is God? The critique is unflattering, even if Warner never directly brings Him into the text.

~Eric

Hard to Hug a Strawman

When my girlfriend and I left the screening of Strong Sisters, the image and story of the two female politicians hugging from across the party line stayed with me. I texted her the next day, saying, “I want to live in a world where I hug people with opposite political views.”

The symbolism of the gesture, as well as why the hug registers as so unique, is very important.

Hugging someone acknowledges that you support them. They lean into you and you lean into them.

You acknowledge the physical – you both are humans, not strawmen set up by the opposing political side as easy targets to berate and hate.

You validate their struggles, their beliefs and mindsets. Most of all, you validate the idea that, even if you don’t agree, those beliefs and mindsets are important to that person.

You acknowledge that humans do not have to carry the same values in order to coexist. This view is hotly debated – different beliefs and mindsets cause both isolated and national levels of harm. Unaccepted difference of opinion is a major (if not final) root of conflict. Our own class, a British Literature course with an emphasis in World War 1 cause-and-effect, confronts this issue squarely. In Mrs. Dalloway Septimus is not given a space where his thoughts and views are given respectful consideration, and it kills him. In Return of the Soldier, Chris is not allowed to express his unhappiness in marriage and during the war he represses the whole thing, resetting his brain instead back to a frilly, teenagerish summer love.

Watching this hug during the film, I found myself saddened that such respect for people IN SPITE of politics is not more prevalent. Why did this feel  like such a unicorn sighting, and what can we do to change that? Why does this rejection of the “other” side of an issue occur? Is it due to the media, where good politicians know that a controversial quote will float directly to the front page? Or is it our patriarchal society, and we conflate being disagreeable with being strong? Conversely, what will it take for compromise to stop being conflated with weakness? More women in government may absolutely be what we need to redefine our patriarchal definitions of a 2 party system.

~Eric

 

The Limitations of the Mundane

Throughout my book, I kept writing little phrases in the margins (as we all do, annotators unite!). I was contrasting these little moments that happen again and again throughout Mrs. Dalloway. In this novel, there is a friction between the mundane, the topical, the surface level, and the interior, the private, the ocean below the postcard of the beach.

I was first tipped off to this in the novel when the airplane begins writing out letters in the air. At first I waited patiently for the reveal of this heavily, HEAVILY telegraphed symbol (on page 28 the plane is on-the-nose described as a “symbol”). Yes, I thought, please tell me, what should I be looking at? But the word literally won’t materialize.

I was impressed with this for multiple reasons.

Firstly, the scene sets up a predictable outcome but finds an unusual way out. This relaxes Virginia Woolf’s audience at the same time it gives us faith in our author. From here we see that not only is Woolf in control, but also that we won’t be able to immediately predict the outcomes of the symbolic situations she orchestrates for us.

Secondly, the scene sets up the larger theme of frustrating reader expectations when it comes to interactions between characters. Again and again we find characters that the book projects as have something essential, something they very much feel the need to say but cannot (118). Richard, in reaction to Peter’s return, buys Clarissa flowers and tries to tell her he loves her but cannot. In the past, Peter and Clarissa stand at a fountain teetering on the edge of their relationship, but neither can utter the words to take their connection past the platonic (64). Perhaps most essentially, Septimus is never thoroughly questioned about what he feels he needs to say, and in the very last moment, when his doctor does wait for him to speak, he finds he cannot (98).

Finally, most interestingly, this scene actually provides us with enough clues (toffee is mentioned at least 3 separate times during the scene, and the letters T O F end the section) that the answer is fairly (though not indisputably) clear. Simply put, we pretty well know what the plane is trying to say. However, this also sets up the rest of the novel – we, as readers privy to the character’s inner thoughts, KNOW what each character wants to say – our frustration comes from the fact that they don’t say these things out loud to each other.

Septimus seems to highlight most centrally the book’s theme that being unable to express these deep interior thoughts is a suffocating predicament. To be stuck in a world with real comments on life and forced to participate in trivialities (for example, the dichotomy between and his wife asking for the time, despite the fact that she doesn’t actually care what time it is, and is only trying to draw him away from his thoughts on page 70) is maddening. On page 89, Septimus thinks,

“One cannot bring children into a world like this. One cannot perpetuate suffering, or increase the breed of these lustful animals, who have no lasting emotions, but only whims and vanities, eddying them now this way, now that” (Woolf).

For Septimus, the words he does not say are the words that might actually send him back to his wife and the rest of the living world. The people around him want to draw him out of himself, but neither the doctors or his wife are interested in listening to what he might say. Mrs. Dalloway, we are led to believe at the end of the novel that she may actually speak something of substance to Peter And Sally Seton. Of course, the reader is not privy to this moment – we get only hints of course, and Woolf is loathe to abandon her practice of reader frustration – but, as the book closes, readers again have a good idea of what will happen next. As with the plane, it is not the actual thing that is happening that is important. The feelings discussed will be neither novel nor new, but they are absolutely essential to the human condition.