Archive for July 6th, 2010

Clarissa Dalloway’s comeback

While writing in graduate school about the role of geographical citation in the novels of Virginia Woolf and Arnold Bennett, I found myself praising Bennett’s approach to recording the history of women much more than I assumed I would have. Despite my praise for Bennett, I do prefer the approach Woolf takes to record the history of contemporary women.

In Anna of the Five Towns, Anna Tellwright is a shell of a character.  She is missing a lot of the characterization and background which theorists like Ian Watt believes is required for the novel. Most of what we know about Anna can be summed up in the title: she is Anna, and she is from the Five Towns.

The reader is allowed minimal access into the inner workings of Anna’s mind or actions.  The narrator’s voice does not allow for anything resembling a voice for Anna.  Our perspective as readers comes from a patriarchal narrator who tells us what we need to know about her, what she is thinking, and how she reacts.  Anna’s thoughts are not available or possibly even in existence. 

Near the end of Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown, Woolf offers a call to arms for us to rescue Mrs. Brown from the clutches of people like Arnold Bennett.  She writes “Mrs. Brown must be rescued, expressed, and set in her high relations to the world before the train stopped and she disappeared for ever.” 

In Epic & Novel, Bakhtin writes about the epic hero, arguing that the epic hero “sees and knows in himself only the things that others see and know in him.” I am reminded of Anna when I read this.  Much like Anna, the epic hero is a means to an end. The only thoughts and reactions that we as readers know are Anna’s are those that the narrator allows us to view.  Bakhtin continues:

There is nothing to seek for in him, nothing to guess at, he can neither be exposed nor provoked; he is all of a piece, he has no shell, there is no nucleus within.  Furthermore, the epic hero lacks any idealogical initiative.  The epic world knows only a single and unified world view.

This should sound pretty familiar to readers of Anna Of The Five Towns.  Anna has no nucleus; she is but a pawn for the narrator to use in a story.  While Bennett’s novel does say some interesting things about social structures and how patriarchy continues to drag women down and force them into conforming roles, there is still a sense of incompleteness to the text. 

Perhaps Clarissa Dalloway is the one who has to rescue Anna and Mrs. Brown.  Unlike the tragic hero, “who, by his very nature, must perish” Clarissa is reborn and lives on to see another day.  For thirty years she lived the life of a shell, Mrs. Richard Dalloway, without a nucleus.

It is at that dinner party one June night in London where she ceases to be Mrs. Richard Dalloway and becomes Clarissa again.  “For there she was.” She is no longer a means to an end, the perfect hostess, “at the top of the stairs,” which Peter warned her she would eventually become, hiding in her room.  Clarissa defies being another shell, another character whose only worth is told through narration.  Her story is told through a multifaceted life filled with dreary conformity and near-death illness, but also with radical thoughts, literature, and lesbian kisses. 

Still, while certainly an advancement for the novel, there are problems with Mrs. Dalloway.  Much as the patriarchal narrator is the one who tells the reader what Anna is seeing, thinking, and doing at any given time, it is a male figure who is the one to describe Clarissa’s rebirth.  Peter is standing with Sally when he begins a monologue describing what he sees before him.  It fills him with “extraordinary excitement” and “ecstasy” and “terror.”  What does this; Clarissa does.

Why does Woolf have a male figure be the final judge of Clarissa’s rebirth?  How can the reader be completely sure then that she is “back” all the way?  Perhaps Woolf is noting that while the intertextual recording of women’s history is a significant step towards liberation, there are still patriarchal concerns pulling at the strings. Clarissa escapes the epic hero’s death because the novel will live to see another day.

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