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Reading of the modernists involved such a process of disturbance Essay

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‘Modernist writers disturbed their readers by adopting complex and difficult new forms and styles’. To what extent has your reading of the modernists involved such a process of disturbance?

Modernist literature flaunts difficult, often aggressive or disruptive, forms and styles; it frequently challenges traditional ‘realistic’ style and is characterised by a rejection of 19th century traditions. Literary modernism focuses on breaking away from rules and conventions, searching for new perspectives and points of view, experimenting in form and style. It breaks up and disturbs the settled state of literature and emphasises a re-structuring of literature and the experience of reality it represents.

Although art always attempts to ‘imitate’ or represent reality, what changed was the understanding of what constitutes reality, and how that reality could best be represented.

Modernist literature is marked by a break with the sequential, developmental, cause-and-effect presentation of the ‘reality’ of realist fiction, towards a presentation of experience as layered, allusive, and discontinuous: using, to these ends, fragmentation and juxtaposition, motif, symbol, allusion.

From time to time there occurs some revolution, or sudden mutation of form and content in literature. Then, some way of writing which has been practiced for a generation or more, is found by a few people to be out of date, and no longer to respond to contemporary modes of thought, feeling and speech…tradition has been flouted, and chaos has come.1

This process of disturbance can be seen in the experimentation in form in order to present differently the structure, the connections, and the experience of life. The tightening of form puts an emphasis on cohesion, interrelatedness and depth in the structure of the novel. This is accomplished in part through the use of various devices such as symbolism, narrative perspectives, shifts and overlays in time and place and perspective.

Woolf uses these methods to explore what lies outside the specification of the real. Woolf draws on an interior and symbolic landscape: the world is moved ‘inside’, structured symbolically and metaphorically, as opposed to the realist representations of the exterior world as a physical and historical, site of experience.

The painter Jacques Raverat wrote in a correspondence to Woolf:

The problem with writing is that it is essentially linear; it is almost impossible, in a sequential narrative, to express the way one’s mind responds to an idea, a word or an experience, where, like a pebble being thrown in to a pond, splashes in the outer air are accompanied under the surface by waves that follow one another into dark and forgotten corners2

Woolf felt it was precisely the task of the writer to go beyond a linear representation of reality in order to show how people think and dream. Rather than take her characters from point A to point B, Woolf gives the impression of simultaneous connections: a form patterned like waves in a pond. She reveals what is important about her characters by exploring their minds and the thoughts of those surrounding them. Such explorations lead to complex connections between people, between past and present, and between interior and exterior experience. Woolf establishes these connections through metaphors and imagery, and structures the novel using alternating images of beauty and despair, exhilaration and melancholy. These juxtapositions suggest both the impulse towards life and the impulse towards death, which makes the process of reading disconcerting and recondite.

Woolf dispensed with conventional beginnings and endings, and the traditional structure of events in time, for example, Mrs Dalloway tells about one day’s experiences for two characters whose lives are not connected with each other, except by the slightest coincidence at the end. Woolf uses perceived time interwoven with clock time to create a simultaneous experience of past and present. The scene is London after the war, but also Bourton thirty years ago. In this commingling of time, the past exists on its own and in its relations to the present. Time is moved into the interior as well: it becomes psychological time, time as an innerly experienced or symbolic time, or time as it accommodates a symbolic rather than a chronological reality.

Examining the intersection of time and timelessness, Woolf creates a new and disturbing novelistic structure in Mrs. Dalloway wherein her prose has blurred the distinction between dream and reality, between the past and present. An authentic human being functions in this manner, simultaneously flowing from the conscious to the unconscious, from the fantastic to the real, and from memory to the moment.

Throughout Mrs Dalloway the focus continually shifts from the external world to the characters consciousness and how they perceive it. This has the disquieting effect of back grounding observable reality so the details emerge more slowly than when they are presented by an omniscient narrator. However, the London setting is established immediately, the streets and landmarks are real, this verisimilitude of setting seems to give the characters a solidity which is juxtaposed with the fluidity of the depiction of the characters thought processes. Mrs Dalloway supposes that ‘somehow in the streets of London, on the ebb and flow of things, here, there, she survived’3

The fact that the narrative takes place on a specific date is disclosed more gradually than the setting is, for example, Clarissa thinks ‘For it was the middle of June. The war was over’4 and then the narrator tells us it is Wednesday on page fifteen. Later still Peter Walsh’s thoughts reveal that it is 19235. There are also references to Gold cup day at Ascot so by naming a specific year Woolf turns what could have been a fictional fact in to a real one.

Woolf implies a concept of time as a series of life conjunctures rather than impersonal. These are established by the presence of sensory phenomena in different contexts such as the sound of Big Ben, the common perceptions among unrelated observers, for instance, the prime ministers car. Also, by convergences at occasions of group activities as in Clarissa’s party.

Time seems relativistic in the sense it depends on systems of measurement.

The clocks divide the day into quarter hours. The loud voice of Big Ben is associated with the masculine. It is described as ‘a young man, strong, indifferent, inconsiderate, were swinging dumb-bells this way and that’6. It marks the movements of the two doctors, Peter Walsh and Sir Richard as they move through their day, making pronouncements.

St Margaret’s on the other hand is the feminine. It follows Big Ben’s booming ‘leaden circles’ with ‘ring after ring of sound’ that ‘glides into the heart’ like a hostess, ‘like Clarissa herself’7 thinks Peter Walsh as he hears St Margaret’s peeling sound.

Furthermore, The clocks divide time into a pattern,

Shredding and slicing, dividing and subdividing, the clocks of Harley Street nibbled at the June day, counselled submission, upheld authority, and pointed out in chorus the supreme advantages of a sense of proportion…8

The ringing of the clock bells radiates from the centre of the city. The sound creates a design in the texture of the narrative, slicing through the characters subjective experience of time and contrasting this with objective, exterior time.

In To The Lighthouse many of the characters are preoccupied with time. Mr. Ramsay worries about how his philosophical work will stand the test of time, just as Lily expects her painting to be rolled up and forgotten. The very style of the novel brings time into question as Woolf infuses even a brief moment in an everyday event, such as reading a story to a child, with an infinitude of thought and memory 9 Meanwhile days, tides, and seasons keep up their rhythms regardless of human events, while historical time brings cataclysmic change in the form of war. In addition, time brings loss as well as renewal. Mrs. Ramsay dies, while the children she has left behind continue to grow.

In To the Lighthouse Woolf depicts two contrasting kinds of time, the linear and regular plodding of clock or objective time, and the reiterative, non-linear time of human experience. Her depiction of subjective time, layered and complex was, critics have observed, not unlike that of the philosopher Henri Bergson, though there is no evidence of any direct influence.

It is in the ‘Time Passes’ section of the novel that Woolf’s interest in the contrasting forms of temporality is most evident. The narrative style of this part is very unusual and is unlike that of Parts I and III. Its effort to narrate from what Woolf called an ‘eyeless’ point of view is strange, it is as if she is thinking of the philosophical problem, the problem with which Mr Ramsay grapples in the novel, of how to think of the world when there is no one there. This is translated into an artistic problem, of how to narrate the passage of time when there is no one there to witness it.

The scale of events in ‘Time Passes’ is much grander than the scale in ‘The Window,’ thus throughout this section Woolf employs a different method and uses parenthetical asides to impart important news. Instead of focusing on the thoughts of her characters, she keeps a tight focus on the house itself. Dramatic events such as Mrs. Ramsay’s death could not have been confronted in the style of ‘The Window.’ as the subtle, everyday quality of the interactions between events and thoughts would have been disturbed by the introduction of the tumultuous news imparted here.

The ‘airs’ in this section of the novel are like time’s fingers. The constant, regular beam of the Lighthouse is closely allied with time, too, like an all-seeing and immortal eye. Puffs of air ‘detached from the body of the wind’10 pull at the loose wallpaper and the things in the house, the light from the Lighthouse guiding them through the house.

Natural time is seen as objective and inhuman, it is destructive and violent in the sense that it has no concern for human purposes. Woolf’s solution to this problem is to invent a poetic style that, ironically, relies heavily upon the devices of personification and animism. The shadows of the trees ‘made obeisance on the wall’, ‘loveliness and stillness clasped hands in the bedroom’, ‘light bent to its own image in adoration on the bedroom wall’ and ‘in the heat of the summer the wind sent its spies about the house again’11. It can be questioned whether these devices are successful. It is as if Woolf wishes to fill the emptiness of inhuman nature with primitive animistic entities and malign agencies. The solution can seem oddly childlike, personification and animism being, as Freud pointed out, typical of infantile thought12. The problem illustrates, perhaps, the difficulty of avoiding images of human agency even when they are least necessary.

In Mrs Dalloway during sections of ‘mind-time’, Woolf sets various time streams loose at once, either in the mind of one character, who retreats into internal soliloquy, collapsing past, present and future, or in the simultaneous perspectives given by several characters recording a single moment. The result of either technique is that plot time stands still.13 Time is not entirely subjective and elastic in this text, however. The novel does take place within a prescribed temporal context marked ominously by the booming of Big Ben: ‘First a warning, musical; then the hour, irrevocable. The leaden circles dissolved in the air.’ Throughout the novel this chronology is inescapable, cutting through the characters thoughts of the past to bring them back to the present moment

Auerbach points out that To the Lighthouse marks the end of the Western tradition of realism. He argues that the novel employs a new fashion of temporality. It is the gap between the brief span of time occupied by exterior events, about two days in ‘The Window’, and the rich, dreamlike realm of consciousness. The exterior events actually lost the hegemony over subjectivity14. The novel proves the insignificance of exterior events by holding to minor, unimpressive things like stockings, while keeping in minimum the descriptions of such great events as death and marriage. To the Lighthouse is thus a disturbing turning point in literature because it discarded any claim to the organic completeness of exterior events and the chronological order.

To The lighthouse employs a non-linearity and thus counteracts narrative’s usual form of depicting events in a continuous succession. Synchronicity, evident in the coexistence of multiple perspectives at the same temporal moment, disturbs the narrative’s attempt to render the story world as events in succession. And elision, evident in the stories within the story whose endings are invariably left dangling and incomplete, dissolves the narrative’s attempt to achieve completion. Together, these discordant methods undermine the conventional unfolding of narrative. Woolf’s novel employs these techniques of disruption in order to portray narrative continuity as an inescapable yet unattainable illusion.

Plot is generated by the inner lives of the characters. Psychological effects are achieved through the use of imagery, symbol, and metaphor. Character unfolds by means of the ebb and flow of personal impressions, feelings, and thoughts. Thus, the inner lives of human beings and the ordinary events in their lives are made to seem extraordinary. These complex and new methods that attempt to depict the chaotic interior life appear more jumbled and perplexing than the classical realist novel and so seem disturbing. However, Woolf is attempting to create a realistic account of the inner processes of the individuals mind and an expression of the continuous flow of sense perceptions, thoughts and feelings.

Woolf also employs the symbolic apprehension and comprehension of reality as a structural approach to experience. It marked a turning away from writing by observation to transforming fact into a symbol of inner experience. In her diary Woolf wrote

What interests me in the last stage was the freedom and boldness with which my imagination picked up, used and tossed aside all the images, symbols which I had prepared. I am sure this is the right way of using them-not in set pieces…but simply as images, never making them work out; only suggest 15

To The Lighthouse assumes a structure similar to that found in the fictional scene of the painting. In a letter Woolf acknowledges the structure and its unifying symbol as enacted at the end. ‘I meant nothing by The Lighthouse. One has to have a central line down the middle of the book to hold the design together.’16

In To The Lighthouse the Lighthouse has a prominent but fluid symbolic place in the novel. It does not seem to be the key to some hidden allegory since it does not stand for just one thing, each character that contemplates the Lighthouse gives it a special meaning, its significance in the novel evolves as the sum of different parts.

For the teenaged James, the Lighthouse is a stark symbol of masculinity, a phallic symbol. For Mrs. Ramsay, the Lighthouse is a watching eye sweeping through her thoughts with a regular rhythm. To Woolf, the Lighthouse seems to serve as an anchor, a unifying image that ties together the layers of time and thought she explores. Like the clock striking the hours in Mrs. Dalloway, images of the Lighthouse act as the ‘bolts of iron’17 holding the different strands of the novel together.

The focus of the planned excursion is not named until page eight and from then onwards the Lighthouse always appears with a capital letter. It is conventional to capitalize words referring to abstractions, particularly in philosophical writing. This feature has the effect of elevating the significance of the place, as if ‘Lighthouse’ were an abstract concept like ‘Truth’ or ‘Death.’

The Lighthouse makes its first appearance in the text in very lyrical terms. The domestic metaphors used to describe the scene, which are perhaps Mrs. Ramsay’s associations; the island is in a ‘plateful of blue water,’ and the dunes are arranged in ‘pleats’18. The first influence of the lighthouse is the description of James’s excitement ‘The wonder to which he had looked forward, for years and years’19 The lighthouse already seems to have gained a greater significance than its mere physical existence. It is an object of desire to James. However, his reaction to Mrs Ramsey’s promise shows that there is a separation between his dream of happiness (going to the lighthouse) and his dull, everyday experience of life. Prosaically, the lighthouse is a real thing, yet James has made it into an unattainable dream, which he does not expect to come true.

James seems to be in a crisis because there is a prospect that his ideal world and real world will become the same and he will go to the lighthouse. Therefore, the wondrous aura of the lighthouse is attached to mundane things. James endows a picture of a refrigerator with a ‘heavenly bliss. It was filled with joy’20 this implies that fantasies bring relief from the dullness of everyday life, as long as there is the prospect that they will come true. However, James is one of ‘that great clan’21 who live for the future but if future ideals ‘cloud’ the view of reality then there is an implicit suggestion that achieving one’s desire presents a danger in that there would be nothing left to live for. Conversely, people must have some hope of achieving their ideal, or life would become futile.

Woolf’s symbol of the lighthouse expresses this paradoxical idea in that it represents both an idealised fantasy while also being a real lighthouse. It becomes a trigger, provoking the reader to think about the human tendency to live for a future fantasy, together with all the paradoxical emotions Woolf conveys as associated with that tendency.

James looked at the Lighthouse. He could see the white-washed rocks; the tower, stark and straight; he could see that it was barred with black and white; he could see windows in it; he could even see washing spread on the rocks to dry. So that was the Lighthouse, was it?

No, the other was also the Lighthouse. For nothing was simply one thing. The other Lighthouse was true too22

James compares the real and the ideal and decides that the Lighthouse can be both. He provides a useful key for deciphering the symbol of the Lighthouse, ‘for nothing was simply one thing’23. The Lighthouse is the object of striving, some mystical, distant entity with an all-seeing eye. At the same time it is the embodiment of isolation and sadness, linked with James’s desolate image of himself and his father as lonely and apart from other people

The fact that the Lighthouse is a frequent subject for artists adds to its symbolic import. The tightening of form puts an emphasis on cohesion, interrelatedness and depth in the structure, Woolf engages both the subject of art, Lily Briscoe’s painting, for example and the aim of philosophy, in Mr. Ramsay’s work.

‘The Lighthouse was then a silvery, misty-looking tower with a yellow eye, that opened suddenly, and softly in the evening.’24 Mrs. Ramsay incorporates the Lighthouse’s regularly appearing light into the pattern of her thoughts. She recognizes that she is doing this, that she is making the things she sees part of herself, as if the Lighthouse was an eye looking at her. The light strokes also serve to highlight certain cadences in her thought, heightening their meaning by repetition

The parallels developing in this section between Lily’s actions and reflections and the impending trip to the Lighthouse suggest that Lily’s revelation, her moment of clarity and ‘stability,’ is her own version of the Lighthouse, the thing toward which she has been striving 25.

Woolf builds upon the same metaphors and imagery through repetition and association to give them symbolic value of their own. There are repetitions of key images: water, waves, and sea; webs, ties, and threads; and trees through the novels.

In Mrs Dalloway words are used in very certain terms in relation to life. They are used repeatedly throughout the rest of the novel, and built upon as metaphors until they stand alone to symbolize life. The sense of being absorbed in the process of action is inseparable from the fear of being excluded from it and from the dread that the process is going to be interrupted. The metaphor of the ‘interrupter’ and the solemn pause, indicating a fear of being interrupted, are developed throughout the novel.

Clarissa’s sewing is depicted in a rhythmic wave of building, creating, and making. These images recur throughout the novel as they gain symbolic significance. Sewing is a metaphor often used to denote women’s creative capacity and symbolizes both artistry and the creation of life. The wave provides both a sense of calm and fulfillment, yet maintains a suspenseful pause before a crash or interruption

Mrs. Dalloway has an unpleasant feeling she cannot place. After taking a moment to think, she realizes this feeling is attached to ‘something Peter had said, combined with her own depression’26. She realizes it is her parties. Her unpleasant feeling is attached to the criticism she receives from both Richard and Peter about her parties.

Clarissa privately defends her parties. She sees them as an offering, a term she is able to recognize as vague and goes on to define. She is offering a connection. She gives meaning to life by feeling the existence of others and offering a way to bring them together, offering them a chance of connection.

While sitting on the couch, Septimus notices a shadow on the wall. ‘Fear no more the heat o’ the sun.’ This phrase, which acts as a calming device, enters his head. Suddenly, he is not afraid. He sits up and takes an interest in what Lucrezia is doing. She is making a hat. More significantly, she is creating and building

Rezia’s creation of the hat, like Clarissa’s sewing, symbolizes not only the creation of life, but also more specifically, the female ability to create life ‘But this hat now. And then (it was getting late) Sir William Bradshaw’27

Woolf uses this one symbolic line as a metaphor for the transition from life, represented in the making of the hat and death, suggested by Bradshaw, the symbol of the soul’s containment and the character who ultimately provides Septimus with the impetus to kill himself.

Woolf uses a great deal of imagery; her similes often begin as a straightforward comparison, which is then elaborated. This moves the ideas away from the physical reality of the narrative and towards mental events, emotions and ideas providing a bridge between the plot and the interior consciousness of the characters. The reader is shown the dilemma of how to create a meaningful sequence and the impossibility of essentially finding an explicit formal system of how to represent objects and concepts, that are assumed to exist, and the relationships between them.

The cumulative effect of such repeated notions and images is to establish a systematic network of social elements, such as, human time, space, shared symbols, personal relationships, so as to arrive at a vision of modern life on a national scale. This collective existence is apprehended internally, as its participants experience it.

It is both the content and the form used to portray that content which makes reading a disturbing process. The question of the reality of experience itself; the critique of the traditional values of the culture; the loss of meaning and hope in the modern world and the exploration of how this loss may be faced are all themes within Woolf’s novels.

Subject matter and writing style are the two features that characterise Modernism and this applies to Mrs Dalloway. The themes of Woolf’s novels express the angst of Modernism in a precise way and Mrs Dalloway exemplifies the conflict felt in the modern society that produces this angst. The conflict is played out between two forces, one that fragments and disperses social order and causes chaos, and a more stable impulse that looks for unity.

Multiple voices, fragmented narrative and stream of consciousness are the stylistic devices of Woolf that convey the themes of conflict, despair and escape in the novel. Mrs Dalloway can be seen as an attempt to critique modern life, however, the novel can seem overwhelmed by the chaos of characters struggling to find meaning in life when death is such a large presence.

Another aspect of this novel that’ is Modernist and can be seen to be disturbing is its withdrawal from the epic novel, the larger historical or temporal frame found in the 19th century novel. In Mrs Dalloway, there is no organising logic from which to draw a secure and comfortable resolution to life’s struggles. The action or plot is restricted to a single day, no large epic journey is possible and while the struggle for life is apparent, there is nothing of the 19th century moral structure to contain and manage the outcomes.

Death and despair overwhelm life and its purposes, the narrowness of life is suffocating, and lives are fragmented, anxious, disconnected and misrecognised.

To The Lighthouse also undermines what were the conventional expectations attached to novels. Woolf speculated that she might be writing something other than a novel. ‘I have an idea that I will invent a new name for my books to supplant ‘novel’…But what? Elegy?’28 Her work can be seen as more poetry than fiction as it occupies itself with abstract ideas and experimentation more than with plot and character development

Woolf throws into disorder readers’ expectations of how life can be represented within a novel, and she achieves this through seeking a new mode of expression. It is not that she rejects reality, but rather that she sought to develop a higher type of realism, as if more complex forms would allow for the depiction of a more complex and vivid understanding of reality.



Auerbach, Erich, Mimesis: the representation of reality in Western literature / by Erich Auerbach; translated from the German by Willard Trask. New York: Doubleday/Anchor Books, 1957.

Bell, Q, Virginia Woolf: A Biography. London: Hogarth Press, 1972.

Eliot, T.S, American Literature and American Language in Selected Essays. London: Faber, 1951.

Fleishman, Avrom, Virginia Woolf: A Critical Reading. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1975.

Lee, Hermione, The Novels of Virginia Woolf. New York: Holmes and Meier Publishers, 1977.

Naremore, James, The World Without A Self. London: Yale University Press, 1973.

Schulze, Robin. G, Varieties of Mystical Experience in the Writings of Virginia Woolf in Twentieth Century Literature Vol.44. New York: Hofstra University, 1998.

Woolf, Virginia. A writer’s diary: being extracts from the diary of Virginia Woolf edited by Leonard Woolf. London, Hogarth Press, 1953.

Woolf. Virginia, Mrs Dalloway. London: Penguin, 1996.

Woolf, Virginia, To The Lighthouse. London: Penguin, 1992.

1 Eliot, T.S, American Literature and American Language in Selected Essays. London: Faber, 1951.p. 73.

2 Lee, Hermione, The Novels of Virginia Woolf. New York: Holmes and Meier Publishers, 1977. p.106.

3 Woof, Virginia, Mrs Dalloway. London: Penguin, 1996. p.8.

4 Ibid. p.6.

5 Ibid. p.55.

6 Ibid. p.35.

7 Ibid. p.60.

8 Ibid. p.75.

9 Auerbach, Erich, Mimesis: the representation of reality in Western literature / by Erich Auerbach; translated from the German by Willard Trask. New York: Doubleday/Anchor Books, 1957. p.529.

10 Woolf, Virginia, To The Lighthouse. London: Penguin, 1992, p.190

11 Ibid. pp.137-139.

12 Schulze, Robin. G, Varieties of Mystical Experience in the Writings of Virginia Woolf in Twentieth Century Literature Vol.44. New York: Hofstra University, 1998. p.3

13 Naremore, James, The World Without A Self. London: Yale University Press, 1973. p.71.

14 Auerbach, Erich, Mimesis: the representation of reality in Western literature / by Erich Auerbach; translated from the German by Willard Trask. New York: Doubleday/Anchor Books, 1957. pp. 351-355

15 Woolf, Virginia. A writer’s diary: being extracts from the diary of Virginia Woolf edited by Leonard Woolf. London, Hogarth Press, 1953. p.169

16 Bell, Q, Virginia Woolf: A Biography. London: Hogarth Press, 1972. p.168.

17 Woolf, Virginia, To The Lighthouse. London: Penguin, 1992. p.5.

18 Ibid. p.23.

19 Ibid. p.7.

20 Ibid. p.7.

21 Ibid. p.7.

22 Ibid. pp.276-277.

23 Ibid. p.277.

24 Ibid. p. 107.

25 Ibid. 270.

26 Woolf. Virginia, Mrs Dalloway. London: Penguin, 1996. p.183.

27 Ibid. p. 178.

28 Woolf, Virginia. A writer’s diary: being extracts from the diary of Virginia Woolf edited by Leonard Woolf. London, Hogarth Press, 1953. p.78.

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