Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Virginia Woolf's Short Stories

This post may lack any strict logical coherence, which in many ways seems to be the only possible response to Virginia Woolf's short stories. I say this not in any derogatory sense but simply as an opening observation. They do leave you as a reader very much on the outside by default in the confusion of your attempt to orient yourself in what frequently appears to be the inner monologues of some character or characters, and yet precisely by that psychological element, you are pulled inside, detached from the outside, physical realm though it remains visible. Perhaps more concretely, Woolf often reveals fundamental elements of her narrators, but we would be almost entirely unable to recognize these individuals if we met them. Of course, such a description can't apply perfectly to each story, but it is my initial holistic reaction.

In regard to similarities between Woolf's short stories and Eliot's early poetry, “The Mark on the Wall” offers a possible parallel to “Prufrock” in its narrator who uses this arbitrary mark as a distraction from some thought or memory brooding in the back of his mind: “that old fancy” of war in medieval terms stained red, which “rather to my relief the sight of the mark interrupted” (47). The speaker avoids confronting some idea or possibly a reimagined memory by interposing a Dickinsonian fly, as it were, anything to redirect his or her attention. And the narrator's great attention to the identity of the mark seems to indicate a real interest on his or her part to know what it is (an interest that I definitely possessed), but this conjecture ultimately represents an attempt to hold at bay those more troubling visions. Though he or she suggests many possible explanations for the mark and even expresses the need to find out exactly its identity (“I must jump up and see for myself what that mark on the wall really is” (52)), the narrator argues him/herself back to inertia, hinting at the fear of “some collision with reality” (52)—to solve the riddle will leave the narrator defenseless. Nature urges action as “she perceives . . . [a] mere waste of energy” in a “train of thought” (52), but the speaker bears an innate distrust of action which presumably rules out thought. “Still, there's no harm in putting a full stop to one's disagreeable thoughts by looking at a mark on the wall” (53). I can't really decide how to interpret the narrator's reaction to the revelation that the mark is a snail. It would make sense for the approach I'm taking for the closing line to be one of disappointment at having lost that focal point of distraction, especially in light of war being reintroduced immediately prior (though this new and unidentified character seems to dislike war out of boredom as opposed to the narrator's red fire-conceived vision of knights and castles). However, I don't see any clear indicators to inherently validate such a reading.

“An Unwritten Novel” shares some similarities with “The Mark on the Wall.” The narrator similarly desires some form of denial of consciousness—she asks the woman on the train to “play the game—do, for all our sakes, conceal it!” (19). Newspapers also receive suspicious and somewhat cynical treatment with the assertion that they know all along with the juxtaposition of peace after The Great War with a train wreck. However Woolf further complicates the identity of the narrator of “Unwritten Novel” is further complicated by an identity with the question of “when self speaks to the self, who is speaking?” (28). I'm left wondering if I've been listening to the same person or different levels of that person (again, similar to possible interpretations in “Prufrock”) the whole time.

I did notice quite a few references to color (Sandra Kemp commments on this a couple times in her article), which addresses some of my uncertainties from last week's readings on the influence of art. Woolf seems particularly fond of red and blue which she uses frequently, though all three primary colors are thrown in together in the flowers of “Kew Gardens.” I'm not sure I can draw any meaningful observations from that fact at the moment, though.

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