Friday, April 22, 2005

Virginia Woolf Essay—Mrs. Dalloway

When Virginia Woolf said we should "not take it for granted that life exists more fully in that which is commonly thought big than in what is commonly thought small," the words that stand out for me are "commonly thought." It isn't that these things really are small or unimportant, only that their importance is not obvious—it does not smack you in the face—yet it is safe to say that life is mostly made up of events without a great inherent significance—whether brushing your teeth or getting up for work in the morning. However, there is a significance to that which is small, and one of the primary goals of stream-of-consciousness writers such as Woolf is to bring the importance of seemingly small thoughts, actions, and events to light. Their primary mode of conveying this notion is by showing how such small things are a point of access to something much grander and more significant—it is small thoughts and actions that connect and give context to the big thoughts and actions. As a result, an accomplished stream-of-consciousness writer such as Woolf only exposes a seemingly insignificant thought or action from even a minor character in the service of an important end.

In Woolf’s novel, Mrs. Dalloway, one such seemingly small event occurs when Clarissa’s daughter, Elizabeth, boards an omnibus after having lunch with her tutor, Miss Kilman:

Suddenly Elizabeth stepped forward and most competently boarded the omnibus, in front of everybody. She took a seat on top. The impetuous creature—a pirate—started forward, sprang away; she had to hold on the rail to steady herself, for a pirate it was, reckless, unscrupulous, bearing down ruthlessly, circumventing dangerously, boldly snatching a passenger, or ignoring a passenger, squeezing eel-like and arrogant in between, and then rushing insolently all sails spread up Whitehall. And did Elizabeth give one thought to poor Miss Kilman who loved her without jealously, to whom she had been a fawn in the open, a moon in a glade? She was delighted to be free. The fresh air was so delicious. It had been so stuffy in the Army and Navy Stores. And now it was like riding, to be rushing up Whitehall; and to each movement of the omnibus the beautiful body in the fawn-coloured coat responded freely like a rider, like the figure-head of a ship, for the breeze slightly disarrayed her; the heat gave her cheeks the pallor of white painted wood; and her fine eyes, having no eyes to meet, gazed ahead, blank, bright, with the staring incredible innocence of sculpture (Woolf 205–206).
By no means does Elizabeth get much direct attention in the novel. On the contrary, she gets only these few pages as access to her consciousness, and the characters will occasionally refer to her throughout. Yet this apparently insignificant event of boarding a bus and riding up to the Strand, narrated through the consciousness of a relatively minor character, actually contributes in a big way to what Woolf has to say about the changing nature of England in the early 1920's.

In the passage quoted above, Woolf sets Elizabeth up as both a reflection and a product of the shift in power, class, and customs taking place in English society. Like many other British modernist novelists of the time, E.M. Forester being a great example, Woolf takes a strong interest in the shift from an imperialist culture, with the gentry as the dominant class, of the 19th Century to an industrial culture, with a more dominant capitalist class. The passage above is notable for portraying Elizabeth as everything a young woman, and a member of a rich, politically powerful family, should not be.

First, one must remember that in 19th Century Britain, young women like Elizabeth should not even be traversing a city like London unescorted with the British notion that a gentile woman like her is not equipped to be responsible for herself—that is a father/brother/beau's job. However, here we find Elizabeth as she "...competently boarded the omnibus, in front of everybody. She took a seat on top." So not only do we find she is competent, but neither is she shy of asserting herself in public or claiming a prominent seat. While this could be attributed to her position as a member of the gentry, the reader is led to understand that this is not normal behavior for someone in her position as she is an "...impetuous creature—a pirate…reckless, unscrupulous...arrogant...insolent...disarrayed..." and a host of other adjectives contributing to a picture of Elizabeth not acting as a gentle-woman ought to act.

Yet we already know Elizabeth does not play the part of a young Lady. Earlier in the novel, Clarissa worries, " [Elizabeth] dressed, how she treated people who came to lunch she did not care a bit..." (Woolf 16), though Richard thinks it is "...only a phase...such as all girls go through" (Woolf 15). But on the bus, Woolf lets us know that it is not a phase. Elizabeth does not want the part of Clarissa who, though it galls her when Peter points it out to her, is one of the wives who throw parties to help advance her husband's career, or Lady Bruton who, though she wields the power of the gentry in influence, she is not competent enough in practical matters to write her own letter. Instead, Elizabeth fancies herself on the bus as a "...figure-head of a ship, for the breeze slightly disarrayed her; the heat gave her cheeks the pallor of white painted wood; and her fine eyes, having no eyes to meet, gazed ahead, blank, bright, with the staring incredible innocence of sculpture." Elizabeth sees herself as putting herself in the forefront (like a figure-head) and staring out in to uncharted territory ("having no eyes to meet") instead of following the proscribed path of marriage and family that her mother followed. As her mother notices, "[t]hat she did not care more about it [courtship]—for instance her clothes—sometimes worried Clarissa" (Woolf 205). Instead, we find Elizabeth as a blank slate (her "incredible innocence") whose course has not been decided. She has resisted the influence of her mother and her social position, and she has resisted the attempted domination and subversion of Miss Kilman, as is pointed out when she fails to "...give one thought to Miss Kilman...she was delighted to be free."

Elizabeth's newly realized independence and freedom she experiences in this seemingly insignificant event—seemingly abstract chain of thought—is what later leads to her ability to make a monumental decision in her life. It is later during the bus ride that Elizabeth recalls what Miss Kilman also said to her, "...every profession is open to a woman of your generation" (Woolf 206) and instead of stopping where she should, Elizabeth decides to continue up to the Strand, London's central business district. Once there, Elizabeth is inspired and decides, "In short, she would like to have a profession" (Woolf 207).

Elizabeth's bus ride and ultimate realization she wants to give up her current class and way of life for a new one is Woolf's tool for showing the reader one example of how England in the 1920's is changing. Lady Bruton's class is the one fading. Woolf implies that Butron's family (which is used as a symbol for her class) is being relegated to the past. Richard wants to write a history of her family, feeling that such a people should be remembered (Woolf 167). In other words, Woolf is implying Bruton's type, the gentry and imperialists, are fading into history—or at least their power and influence is. Lady Bruton's primary concern is Britain's fading imperial influence ("but what a tragedy—the state of India!" [Woolf 274]). Elizabeth, on the other hand, does not care at all for this. She desires to become a professional and join the rising ruling class of Britain, the ones she so admires on the Strand. But without the realizations, freedoms, and connections she experienced on the omnibus, would she have been prepared to make such a monumental choice? Probably not—at least, not right then. The seemingly insignificant event of a bus ride turns out to supply the background and abstract connections—in the form of fleeting thoughts and associations—that allow Elizabeth to make the decision she does, and Woolf to help us to understand through Elizabeth the changing social climate of England at the time. In other words, especially in a stream-of-consciousness style, there is no such thing as an insignificant thought.


At January 19, 2007 at 5:59 AM, Blogger superclosetnerd said...

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