The body represented in the "materialist" novels is embedded in social life. All its experiences have social consequences. By contrast, that sensitive organism the "ordinary mind on an ordinary day" is alone, absorbing and contemplating its "myriad impressions" without thereby either contracting to be married or being "ruined"—the two eminently social conclusions for the female body as the subject of nineteenth-century realist representation.
Having rid herself of the importunities of Mr. A more dramatic case in point is Clarissa Dalloway's orgasmic meditation on the "sudden revelation, a tinge like a blush which one tried to check and then, as it spread, one yielded to its expansion, and rushed to the farthest verge and there quivered and felt the world come closer, swollen with some astonishing significance, some pressure of rapture, which split its thin skin and gushed and poured with an extraordinary alleviation over the cracks and sores!
Both qualities could make her vulnerable to social repercussions, aligning her with the abject Miss Kilman or the homoerotically bereaved and traumatized Septimus Smith. The text, however, insists on inviolability as Clarissa's defining feature, and this passage guarantees inviolability by triply framing the erotic experience. First of all, it is a recollection rather than a present event. Second, it is a recollection of a verbal rather than an explicitly sexual incident "a woman confessing, as to her they often did, some scrape, some folly".
Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood and Disqualification
Finally, the sexuality of the narration is a by-product of metaphor and the phonic materiality of the language employed. As the narrator reports, Clarissa did "undoubtedly then feel what men felt," but on the level of plot the experience is unshared and unwitnessed, safely sealed within her physical body.
Ramsay watches the third stroke—the word is freighted—of the Lighthouse and is in turn stroked by the Lighthouse into an arousal and release that the syntax enacts as a series of phrases and clauses deferring and increasing pressure on the key verb "felt":. It is enough! Lighthouse, pp. Here again, the excitement of the swelling and bursting "vessel" occurs in privacy.
Ramsay does have a witness, but the extent of Mr. Ramsay's misunderstanding—"She was aloof from him now in her beauty and sadness" p. Ramsay is indeed aloof from her husband's concerns, but her apparent unhappiness shields an erotically charged abandon quite separate from the emotions of her marriage. Ramsay "poured erect into the air a rain of energy, a column of spray," fertilizing "the fatal sterility of the male" while at the same time depleting herself p. The two moments in "The Window" invite us to compare two distinct modes of sexuality.
In the passage dealing with the strokes of the Lighthouse we see a metaphorized, linguistically incarnated sexuality that is hermetically contained within the body. In the description of Mrs. Ramsay's "spraying" Mr. Ramsay, we observe a linguistically incarnated sexual performance that, in being shared, spends itself.
The visionary body experiences rapture. The social body undergoes evacuation and, eventually, death. In all the novels I have mentioned Woolf emphasizes the demands made on Victorian and Edwardian women by a society that regards their embodiment as license to exploit and exhaust. The social female body is a body at risk. Far more than her predecessors, Woolf seems to have developed conventions of representation for avoiding that risk. The visionary body of these two novels is an inspired solution to the problem of women's culturally sanctioned vulnerability.
It is the body sealed off from social consequences, secure from interruption or invasion: a corporeal correlative of the room of one's own.
In "Women and Fiction," for instance, she dismissed women's writing of "the past" as at best characterized by "divine spontaneity," and more often "chattering and garrulous—mere talk, spilt over paper and left to dry in pools and blots" p. This image of previous female literary production as both social "mere talk" and domestically incompetent "spilt," "left to dry in pools and blots" recalls the messy realm of female responsibility that Katharine Hilbery longs to escape, "the part of life which is so conspicuously without order.
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Woolf predicted, "In future, granted time and books and a little space in the house for herself, literature will become for women, as for men, an art to be studied. Women's gift will be trained and strengthened.
The novel will cease to be the dumping ground for the personal emotions" p. The mess, the disorder, the pools and blots, even the "divine spontaneity" are hallmarks of the female sphere of interrelationships, the drawing room where ladies poured tea, made conversation, and by definition did nothing that could not be interrupted.
In Woolf's account, the writing coming out of such conditions was likely to be spontaneous self-expression, most often "a dumping ground for the personal emotions. In both, Woolf maintained that because historically women's lives have been severely constrained, women's writing has progressed gradually, keeping pace with gains in education and economic independence.
One underlying assumption of such a progress narrative, however, is that women's literary productions, if not women's intrinsic abilities, have been inferior to those of men. This unnamed woman who inevitably resembles Virginia Woolf is represented as newly embodied, indeed as reincarnated. As the specter of a female genius who, in Woolf's ironic appropriation of contemporary geneticist arguments, cannot be "born" because material circumstances allow her no opportunity to develop her abilities, she haunts Woolf's literary history, in abeyance until that moment when she "will put on the body which she has so often laid down" p.
Smith whose latest book entirely eclipses everything she has ever written. Women and Fiction, p. The "well known Mrs. Smith" was by this time a stock figure of modernist representation, the woman writer whose popularity was a self-evident indicator of her mediocrity. Woolf's emphasis here, however, fell on the photograph in the paper and the correlative requirement to "cut a dash"—to assume the glamour and perhaps notoriety of that equivocal figure the public woman. Both are somehow wound up with not being in papers, not being photographed, not cutting a dash—in short, not being publicly available as a physical presence that could be the object of speculation and ridicule.
Woolf observed of George Eliot, "Her big nose, her little eyes, her heavy, horsey head loom from behind the printed page and make a critic of the other sex uneasy. Woolf herself was not immune to such effects. She described one writer of the maternal generation, the celebrated poet and journalist Alice Meynell as having "a face like that of a transfixed hare," an appearance that "somehow made one dislike the notion of women who write.
She is the heroine of her two most powerful novels. Her experience, we might say, has been scarcely transformed in passing through her mind. Woolf discerned this "break" in the passage where "Grace Poole's laugh" interrupts Jane Eyre's denunciation of contemporary gender norms: "Anyone may blame me who likes" Room, p. Of course, the laugh comes not from the servant Grace Poole but from the imprisoned "mad" wife of Mr. It rips through the fabric of Jane's rebellious meditation as a minatory foreshadowing of how society construes—and deals with—female insubordination.
In "A Sketch of the Past" she described the body of her own mother, Julia Jackson Stephen, as a source of both ecstasy and trauma.
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Julia's physical presence provoked in the infant Virginia a euphoria simultaneously sensuous and ego-less: "I am hardly aware of myself but only of the sensation. I am only the container of the feeling of ecstasy, of the feeling of rapture" p. But precisely in her role as superabundant maternal presence, Julia Stephen also created an atmosphere of feminine deference and sacrifice that implicitly authorized masculine dominance.
Never let anybody guess you have a mind of your own. Above all, be pure. Had I not killed her she would have killed me. She would have plucked the heart out of my writing. She used similarly charged rhetoric in "Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown" when she wrote as a modernist of the characteristic devices of Bennett, Wells and Galsworthy: "For us those conventions are ruin, those tools are death" Essays v.
Such injunctions poised the emergent female modernist between fatalities, prohibiting her from the political discourse of "grievance" and "cause" as well as from the representational strategies and social themes of Edwardian naturalism. Woolf seemed to enjoin aspiring women writers both to make it new and to be wholly unself-conscious about the project.
The kinds of "smashing and. If you stop to curse you are lost, I said to her; equally, if you stop to laugh. Hesitate or fumble and your are done for" Room, p. The incipient female modernist had to achieve a concentration amounting to tunnel vision, ignoring both her position as a woman in society and her status as a challenger to past literary traditions. Yet Woolf herself never followed these rules. The brilliance of her middle-period novels stems from her ability to merge the visionary apprehension of "things in themselves" with biting social commentary, particularly commentary about women's contradictory social identities.
Her creation of the visionary body seems less a means to supplant curses and laughter with high-minded approaches to metaphysical reality than a strategy to embed feminist critique in a much broader critique of the dominant social—and in the most conventional literary sense, "realist"—presuppositions about reality. By giving female characters this visionary body, Woolf actively distanced herself from her foremothers' domain, the combination of Victorian public and private spheres that defined the fictional universe of the realist novel.
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Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature
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