Virginia Woolf – “A Haunted House” Essay
Virginia Woolf – “A Haunted House”
Modernist literature is marked by a break with the sequential, developmental, cause-and-effect presentation of the ‘reality’ of realist fiction, toward a presentation of experience as layered, allusive, discontinuous; the use, to these ends, of fragmentation and juxtaposition, motif, symbol, allusion.
Language is no longer seen as transparent, something if used correctly allows us to ‘see through’ to reality: rather language is seen as a complex, nuanced site of our construction of the ‘real’. Experimentation in form in order to present differently, afresh, the structure, the connections, and the experience of life.
The tightening of form: an emphasis on cohesion, interrelatedness and depth in the structure of the aesthetic object and of experience; this is accomplished in part through the use of various devices such as motif, juxtaposition, significant parallels, different voices, shifts and overlays in time and place and perspective.
The (re)presentation of inner (psychological) reality, including the ‘flow’ of experience, through devices such as stream of consciousness.
The use of such structural approaches to experience as psychoanalysis, myth, the symbolic apprehension and comprehension of reality.
The use of interior or symbolic landscape: the world is moved ‘inside’, structured symbolically or metaphorically.
Time is moved into the interior as well: time becomes psychological time (time as innerly experienced) or symbolic time (time or measures of time as symbols, or time as it accommodates a symbolic rather than a historical reality), not the ‘historical’ or railway time of realism. Time is used as well more complexly as a structuring device through a movement backwards and forwards through time, the juxtaposing of events of different times, and so forth.
A HAUNTED HOUSE is a symbolic representation of Modernism as seen through Virginia Woolf?s style. It is not accidental the fact that it is a short-novel; the profound concentration of images, symbols, connections has a greater impact than it would have had in a more detailed presentation. A few pages are enough for condensing images laden with significance, and their apparent arbitrary flowing is enriched by their mirroring into the attributes of Modernism.
It is not dangerous or far-fetched to compare the novel with a poem, with some sort of Virginia Woolf?s Ars Poetica in blank verse; as in a poem, the novel has its interior rhyme that circles around the idea of literature as treasure, it?s refrain ? ?Safe,safe,safe? and even its poet ? ?a ghostly couple?- in its musical searching for the Muse; additionally, the novel opens and ends with the same idea of ?wakening? as in a ring-like poem, but also pointing to writer?s recapture in the world of words.
We should ask ourselves why the novel doesn?t start with the image of the couple who sleeps; and the answer is obviously related to the fact that the sleeping couple is not as important as the ghostly one; modernists didn?t agree with the cannons, especially those ?imposed? by the tradition in writing; that is why we are not aware of the symbols and of their importance and contribution to the novel until we read the novel again, and again…Prima facie, it seems to be a love story beyond time and death: the old ghostly couple still love one another after having been dead for a while, they return to the old house, full of memories of laughter, kisses, and joy. But this is a simplistic and out of the literary context interpretation.
If we admit that this is a literary manifesto, then we should perceive A HAUNTED HOUSE as Virginia Woolf?s retrieval, as a writer and as a woman.
Why a couple? Why two couples?
Virginia Woolf is seen as a feminist writer; but in this novel she doesn?t choose a female character, but a couple; it is her attempt to make inner peace following the natural laws which tell that we have all, no matter of the sex, our feminine and also our masculine part within our essence (yin/yang).The couple is the symbol of universal harmony, equilibrium and peace. It is not a female ghost and a male ghost, but a couple, which means that the gender barriers have already been crossed, thus creating an homogeneous entity. The ghostly couple?s replays underline this idea: they round each other and they fill out the other?s sentence. They form a single voice, the voice of the writer:
“Here we left it,” she said. And he added, “Oh, but here too!” “It’s upstairs,” she murmured. “And in the garden,” he whispered. “Quietly,” they said, “or we shall wake them.”
The sudden movement between ?them? and ?us? is nothing too striking for Modernists. The permanent shift, the well-known ?camera-eye? is a literary technique used in order to offer a dynamic perspective on reality like the imperceptible and chaotic movement of thoughts.
The pen, the page, the book become symbols for the act of creation, and the ghostly couple ? the inspiration over the writer?s shoulder. This second paragraph is like a scene from a dramatic play and the comparison is sustained by the presence of the curtain as a substitute for secret, blindness, unseen, hidden. These are the attributes of the reality as it is perceived by the modernists: the reality which lies beyond the physical appearances and beyond what is obvious. One might say, one would be certain, one might rise and see for oneself? are three distinctive phases in the process of creation, of understanding, of searching the core of truth detached opinion, resigned certainty (the margin -stopping the pencil on the margin?- points to resignation) and ? action, respectively; the power of action as the power of seeing the house of creation and accepting it, with its ?bubbling? (speak all to nought) as well as with its ?wood pigeons? (the purity of art).
My hands were empty? is another important refrain as it is also present in the third paragraph too. The hands, as a symbol for concrete, for object, for reality itself, will never be able to catch the spirit of inspiration; the creation of art is not a technical manipulated process, human physical abilities are not important.
It would be enough to suit that the biblical story that the apple is alluring and tasty, and also that in both Hebrew and classical tradition the fruit is associated with sexual love, which Adam and Eve discover, in some interpretations, after eating it. But in classical myth another famous apple is The Apple of Discord (or Erris) which led to the Trojan War. We should also take into consideration the apple of the eye which is the pupil, and by extension, any intimate or cherished object. (The Lord guarded Jacob as ?the apple of his eye Deut.32.10)
In A HAUNTED HOUSE the apples are in the loft (loft ? a large unpartitioned space over a ware house or also a raised shelter where the pigeons are kept) and this may be the level that has to do with aspiration; the apples here turn their ?side? as the door is opened; the apples are reflected; the apples are rolled.
All these scenically provided indications lead us to the idea that the apples are the objects of focalization, enriched with the power of changing perspectives; the fruits are the result of the act of creation; their presence may imply sin, or passion, or discord the storm-beaten destiny of a human being but in the meantime they point to Knowledge as a profound desire, to fertility in litarature. We should ask why the apples are not in the hands (again my hands are empty) but in the loft the level of creation is not easy to be reached, the tremendous search for the truth, for knowledge, for self-achievement is very tough and subjected to many trials.
The text provides two kinds of birds: the wood pigeons (Eurasian pigeon with white patches on wings and neck) and the thrush (Songbirds characteristically having brownish upper plumage with a spotted breast). Generally speaking, the symbolism of birds is metaphorical: they like freedom, they build themselves homes, they often engage in social relations with other members of their species and they communicate with them by acoustic means recalling articulated language that is why the bird world is a metaphorical human society (as in Chaucers PARLIAMENT OF FOWLS). In Christian myth it was a heavenly dove that filled Mary with the Holly Spirit.
But in A HAUNTED HOUSE the symbols of the birds are much more profound; they are connected with flying, flying as freedom or flying as the words fly (?winged words? ? Homer); they are connected with thoughts and with their ?savage? structure ? words that ?bubble?, words that remain in ?shadow?. Their presence in the novel underlines the visual and acoustical effects; they are life, they are nature, they are certainty within this allegorical description. (Carl Jung said that birds represent thoughts while birds in flight symbolize moving and changing thoughts. Birds are generally associated with freedom and abandon. In old dream interpretation books, birds are considered lucky omens except for blackbirds, which are generally negative. Doves and eagles are generally spiritual symbols. Virginia?s wood pigeon and thrush have the meaning of a spiritual or psychological freedom).
Rooms are spaces sometimes independent of people and sometimes reflecting them; rooms allow for the freedom of (imagination) movement within the confines of the familiar: From room to room they went.
Houses usually symbolize our emotional and psychological selves. All of your experiences, stages of development, and parts of your conscious and unconscious life may be represented by that house. The house may be representing issues concerning a particular dilemma in life, or it may be more general and comprehensive. Virginias house is in fact her being, her dualist profound being ? the sleeping couple, her inspiration the ghostly couple, her aspiration the apples, her frustrations and her desires of deliverance the birds, her consciousness the glass. Its the image of a secure place.
Any part of a house usually represents a part of the self . One by one, the elements that roll around the house, complete the writers being and feelings:
Going up and down the stairs could mean several different things. It could represent changes in consciousness, movement from one inner plane to another, or a change in understanding. It is a constant shift of perspectives in a literary work or vision.
Climbing (upstairs) may represent an achievement and a movement in a positive direction, but also Modernism itself as opposed to descending (downstairs) which may symbolize doubts or the old cannons and conventions in literature.
The curtain is some sort of a shield of protection from difficulties and temptation and The garden may be a symbol of lost innocence or youth. The doors are very important because they play the role of an opened or closed passage: opened door ? free information, chaotic movement and closed door ? denial of information, refusal; going through a door may represent going from one state of consciousness to another, or from one inner plane to another. Locked or closed doors may represent an obstacle or opportunities that are not currently available to you. Also doors may represent choices.
The loft is the last thing built and it symbolizes the higher self, or best self (the self that is in contact with the eternal) or also the sum total of ones life works. But the loft is filled with apples and it may imply the accomplishment of desires, of goals, the high level of literature.
The window is a rich symbol. Its accurate interpretation can lead to awareness. The reflection of apples and roses may represent the desire for greater satisfaction and more peace. But a window may also represent a time frame. Windows in our houses allow us to see the world on the outside, the windows in Virginia Woolf?s novel are an encouragement for better seeing the world within ourselves, as well as the world outside.
The drawing-room – formal room where visitors can be received and entertained is the room of consciousness.
The wind could be symbolic of spirit or the life force. The wind may represent changes. The greater the force of the wind, the grater the change. The sound of the wind is special because it is a sound of nature and has spiritual significance.
The garden is reflected in the house’s windowpanes: the window panes reflected apples, reflected roses, all the leaves were green in the glass. By using the garden motif, by reflecting apples, roses (indicative of divine love), leaves green in the glass (green meaning rebirth and growth), the passage points to the idea of wisdom, purity, timelessness. For a time, one of the house’s inhabitants had left the other, had gone beyond the garden, had seen the stars turned in the Southern sky. But as a limb of his dwelling space, he had returned.
Woolf?s passages are filled with light and suggest rich inner immensities. She recreates the ecstatic moments during which the external world and the self unite in a stasis that is like a still-life painting.
In A HAUNTED HOUSE, the light fades. ?Out in the garden then? … the trees spun darkness for a wandering beam of sun, the beam of the lamp falls straight from the window … the candle burns stiff and tall … the eyes of the house are vigilant and watch wild beams of moonlight cross both floor and wall?, and thus the imagery of light leads to the buried treasure, the light in the heart? or the treasure of freedom, the inner vastness inherent to every man.
Woolf?s language is a malleable, living material: words and punctuation, line length, text shape. The arrangement of her words is a symbol, half concrete and half emotional.
Until the peak of creation is reached, the procedure is rational, but the experience of creation itself is irrational, a vision or a communion. There is no invention in the writer until he is inspired and possessed. Only the one who is inspired my enter the temple of literature. When inspired the writer practices his creative art and this is a process by means of which passage from nonbeing to being is brought about. By implication, the experience creates ?creativity?. Creativity means freedom. Most obviously freedom from the pollution of mortality; the novel opens and ends with the same idea of ?awakening? as a returning to reality; that means that the sleep is not a sleep in itself, here, in this novel, but the inspired state in which, as noticed in the whole novel, the self is related to the object by becoming one with it.
Toolan, Michael J. Narrative. A Critical Linguistic Introduction.London & New York: Routhledge,1991
Avadanei, Stefan. Introduction to Poetics. (vol .2) . Iasi: Institutul European, 2002
Lodge, David. The Art of Fiction. London: Penguin Books, 1992 (excerpts)