Speech-Acts, Represented Thoughts and Human Intercourse in Virginia Woolf's Short Fiction


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Speech-Acts, Represented Thoughts and Human Intercourse in Virginia Woolf's Short Fiction
   1 SPEECH-ACTS, REPRESENTED THOUGHTS AND HUMAN INTERCOURSE IN “THE INTRODUCTION” AND “TOGETHER AND APART” Anne BESNAULT-LEVITA  Journal of the Short Story in English , 50 (Spring 2008), Special issue on Virginia Woolf  : 67-84.   Virginia Woolf’s short stories have long been the marginal part of Woolf's canon. In the 1980s-1990s, Ralf Freedman’s Virginia Woolf: Revaluation and Continuity  (Freedman 1980), Dean Baldwin's publication of Virginia Woolf: A Study of the Short fiction  (Baldwin 1989) and Dominic Head’s chapter on Woolf in The Modernist Short Story: A Study in Theory and Practice  (Head 1992) were essential landmarks in the reevaluation of what is now considered to be an essential collection of genius pieces and formative experiences in genre, form and gender. This assessment has been more recently endorsed by Nena Skrbic’s Wild Outburst of Freedom:  Reading Virginia Woolf’s Short Fiction (Skrebic 2004), by Kathryn Benzeland and Ruth Hoberman’s collection of essays Trespassing Boundaries: Virginia Woolf’s Short Fiction  (Benzel 2004) and, in France, by the regular SEW conferences published in  Études Britanniques Contemporaines i . In those works, many interesting pages introduce or discuss the stories comprised in  Mrs  Dalloway’s Party , a sequence written by Woolf around 1925 and first edited by Stella McNichol in 1973 (Woolf 1973). The critics generally agree about the specificity of this “cycle” in which “the setting is created by the interior world (or psychic geography) and by the heterogeneity of individuated experience” (Skrebic 148). Baldwin’s analysis, for example, focuses on the “party consciousness” evoked by Woolf in her diary: “But my present reflection is that people have any number of states of consciousness: &  I should like to investigate the party consciousness, the frock consciousness & c” (Woolf 1980: 12) ii . It draws our attention to generation and gender issues by highlighting the central interaction of the “endangered self” with its social surroundings (Baldwin 40). Focusing on the way “The New Dress”, “Happiness”, “Ancestors”, “The Introduction”, “Together and Apart”, “The Man Who Loved His Kind”, “A Simple Melody” and “A Summing Up” function as a sequence “tied together by theme, language and characters” and as a “place of transformation” between the  Mrs Dalloway  and To the Lighthouse , Beth Rigel Daugherty’s approach, in “A Corridor leading from  Mrs Dalloway  to a New Book: Transforming Stories, Bending Genres”, is structural as much as thematic (Rigel 101-110). The critic underlines the contrast between “external social appearances and internal private realities”, between the characters’ “desire to communicate” and their “inability to do so” together with the “transitoriness of happiness against a black drop of human suffering” (107). Above all, she emphasizes the “interconnectedness” of those stories: they all begin in medias res, all “illuminate an internal conflict”, all have “a Woolfian moment of being or recognition” and “feel concluded”, and all use connected words or phrases and images such as struggling flies and unmated widow birds. In “A Tolerable Shape:  Mrs Dalloway's Party  and the Short Story Cycle”, Nena Skrbic also highlights this structural coherence: “Each of the stories involves confessional-like situations in which the characters bring to the fore the parts of their life (identity or social status, for example) that they have to come to terms with and reveal their personal feelings,   2 hopes and aspirations to the reader. All the characters are at once ordinary and exceptional, profoundly sympathetic and deeply flawed” (Skrebic 144). She also dwells on the thematic unity of the sequence, completing Rigel Daugherty’s study by exploring the characters’ “preoccupation with memory” (145) and “struggle between sameness and dissimilarity” (147), by insisting on “the repetitive experience of failure and fracture that social interaction entails” as an effect of the cycle, and by tackling the issue of “women's self-perception” and the way it raises “questions of manipulation, objectification, and loss of self-worth” (149). But Skrebic’s analysis is also aware of the way “language gives a framework to relationships” in those short fictions: “in the cycle, Woolf operates as social analyst, bringing into focus the question of how we communicate and how we place the individual socially.” (148-149) The stories in  Mrs Dalloway's Party  are indeed built around the idea of conversation as a form of social exchange in which different discursive communities defined by personal background, age and gender are involved. They examine utterances in their social context, raise questions about gender and its narratorial representation, and analyze discourses as the sites of ambiguities and conflicts. Their use of the clashing modes of internalization (achieved mainly through free indirect speech) and dialogue reflects on communication as a praxis that problematizes the self, intersubjective recognition and interpretative strategies at the same time. This is why I would argue that pragmatics iii  and feminist narratology iv  as critical approaches might add to my predecessors’ commentaries. As representative evidences of this point, I have chosen two stories in which “the party” can be read as a metaphorized social stage implying specific linguistic games and role playing, and where the “introduction” motif — two characters of the opposite sex being introduced to each other by a third overbearing one — obviously implies forms of negotiation with cultural impositions, the other and language. In “The Introduction”, Lily Everit, who is attending her first party, tries “to remain inconspicuous”, and “hangs to the memory of [her essay on Swift] and the compliment” made to her by her professor as if it could protect her from “the intimidating world of male accomplishments (Westminster, Parliament, the telegraph)” embodied by Bob Brinsley to whom Mrs Dalloway introduces her (Baldwin 40). In “Together and Apart”, the meeting once again brought about by Mrs Dalloway, but this time between two “middle-aged characters who could be friends but are enable to find a bond” (Baldwin 42), ends up in “that paralysing blankness of feeling” which Baldwin attributes to Mr Serle’s “masculine arrogance” (Woolf 2004: 187-188) v . In both stories, the conventional narrative framework — an introduction and the ensuing conversation as a potential form of self-discovery and social apprenticeship — leads the reader to expect direct discourse to be the main mode of character-presentation. But Woolf’s “party consciousness” is explored through a more modernist discursive framework, and actual dialogue is reduced to a few lines while the inner voice of indirectly reported thought is pervading. My contention here is that although the actual utterance of impersonated speech in those stories is almost stifled by the use of free indirect and free direct discourse, it should nonetheless be studied as speech-acts reflecting on the characters' discursive negotiation with their conflicting agendas in the context of the prescriptive ideology of the party. This negotiation should then be shown to be at work in the stream of consciousness technique which turns out to be another mode of conversation involving similar forms of inner conflicts. In the end, more than a modernist domination of thought over speech, of the modernist solipsistic self over social interaction, what “The Introduction” and “Together and Apart” seem to me representative of is Woolf’s fictional critique of conversation and self-representation, and her pragmatic critique of interpretation vi . The prescriptive ideology of the party   3 In “The Introduction” and “Together and Apart”, as in the other “Party” stories, the represented social scene has obviously changed a lot since Jane Austen's descriptions of the manners of rural gentility. The subject is no longer courtship or marriageship, but human intercourse: Of all things, nothing is so strange as human intercourse, she thought, because of its changes, its extraordinary irrationality, her dislike being now nothing short of the most intense and rapturous love, but directly the word ‘love’ occurred to her, she rejected it, thinking again how obscure the mind was, with its very few words for all these astonishing perceptions, these alternations of pain and pleasure. (“Together and Apart”, 187) The male characters do not exactly represent an ideal of manhood, like Knightley in  Emma , the female characters are not exactly debutantes, and Mrs Dalloway is not supposed to be a matchmaker or an arbiter of relationships. However, in Woolf’s stories as in Austen’s novels, the party is more than a social occasion. It turns out to be a life experience, an encounter with “civilisation” (182), with “the world” — “this was the famous place: the world” (180) — and also with the “traditions” of a “regulated way of life” (180). At “the very first sight of people moving up stairs” in Mrs Dalloway’s house (“The Introduction” 178), the character-focalizers begin to experience an increased awareness of the social and gender roles that are now imposed upon them — “As she walked with Mrs Dalloway across the room, [Lily Everit] accepted the part which was now laid on her” (180) — roles which they are shown to resist and to “accept” at the same time, as if the painful division between their private and public selves (a well-known modernist subject) was inescapable: “[Serle] smiled; he accepted it; he crossed his knees the other way about. She did her part; he is” (“Together and Apart” “187). “Remembering her youth,” and her own life — “(to introduce a couple made her think of meeting Richard for the first time!)” (181) — thinking that there is something profoundly human in “a man feeling this for woman, and woman that for man, and there flowing from that contact all those homes, trials, sorrows, profound joy and ultimate staunchness in the face of catastrophe” (181), Mrs Dalloway “bear[s] down on [Lily] from the other side of the room”, “approache[s] her with a smile which Lily knew (though this was her first party) meant: ‘But you’ve got to come out of your corner and talk,’ and “never quite drop[s] her arm” until she finds “a group where there were young people talking, and Bob Brinsley” (178-79). As Lily progresses through space with her “commanding” guide (178), feeling “the strange mixture of excitement and fear, of desire to be left alone and of longing to be taken out and thrown down, down into the boiling depths” of the party (178), Woolf’s writing weaves together lexical, grammatical and metaphorical allusions to forms of cultural impositions. The prepositions suggest an impending threat: “bearing down on her”, “to menace her and mount over her”, [Mrs Dalloway] came straight down on her”, the part which was now laid on her”, “this regulated way of life which felt like a yoke about her neck”, “the yoke that had fallen from the skies onto her neck crushed her” (178-182). The use of passive forms such as “to be taken out and thrown down” (178) or to be “flung into a whirlpool where either she would perish or be saved” (179) hints at a form of violent subordination which is corroborated by the overwhelming presence of the symbols of masculine might: “Westminster Abbey; the sense of the enormously high solemn buildings surrounding them” (179), “the towers of Westminster; the high and formal buildings; talk; […] high towers, solemn bells, flats built every brick of them by men’s toil, churches built by men’s toil, parliaments too; […] What had she to oppose to this massive masculine achievement?” (179). Unable to escape from what the reader is led to see as a form of military enrolment (the image of the soldier and the uniform recurs three times in the short story), Lily’s “being (no longer sharp as a diamond cleaving the heart of life asunder)” turns “to a mist of alarm, apprehension and defence” (178) and “yield[s] to the pressure of unquestionable might,   4 that is the conviction that it was not hers to dominate, or to assert; rather to air and embellish this orderly life where all was done already.” (180) In “Together and Apart”, the prescriptive ideology of the party is also at work: the predictive value of Mrs Dalloway’s “you will like him” in the first sentence implies a whole world of tacit social obligations and presuppositions. Yet it is treated in a more peripheral way. Probably because in Hegelian terms, Miss Anning and Mr Serle, aged around forty, do no longer stand for the naïve subject misrecognizing itself to be the centre of the world. As the first paragraph of the short story suggests, they seem to know that they cannot but be governed by “unwritten laws and social customs, a framework […] from which [they don’t] think to disassociate [themselves]” (Hegel 541): Mrs Dalloway introduced them, saying you will like him. The conversation began some minutes before anything was said, for both Mr Serle and Miss Anning looked at the sky and in both of their minds the sky went on pouring its meaning[,] though very differently[,] until the presence of Mr Serle by her side became so distinct that she could not see the sky, simply, itself, anymore, but the sky shored up by the tall body, dark eyes, grey hair, clasped hand, the stern melancholy (but she had been told ‘falsely melancholy’) face of Roderick Serle, and, knowing how foolish it was, she yet felt impelled to say: ‘What a beautiful night!’(183) Nonetheless, the characters’ increased social and gender awareness of the other’s differences does not prevent them from performing their part in a conventional way: “‘Well!’ said Miss Anning, patting the sofa cushion emphatically. And down he sat beside her.” (183). It does not prevent them from experiencing a sense of foolishness or inadequacy (this is particularly true of Miss Anning whose maturity has not made much more secure than Lily Everit), nor does it spare them the pain of expecting what they finally will not get: Miss Anning felt that she had struck accidentally the true man, upon whom the false man was built. (183) Let him think so; not liking him, she wanted him to run away with an absurd idea of her. (186) In the two stories, the reader’s own romantic expectancies about the forging of a new relationship are deflated through situational irony. The encounter is soon experienced on both sides in terms of “confrontation” and “collision” and the feeling of isolation is intensified: Their eyes met; collided rather, for each felt that behind the eyes the secluded being, who sits in darkness while his shadow agile companion does all the tumbling and beckoning, and keeps the show going, suddenly stood erect; flung off his cloak; confronted the other. (186) In “The Introduction”, this “collision” leads to an anticlimax of horrified disillusion and to the revelation of a gendered relationship of victim and victimizer: But as she said this, she saw him — how else could she describe it — kill a fly. He tore the wings off a fly, standing with his foot on the fender his head thrown back, talking insolently about himself, arrogantly, but she didn’t mind how insolent and arrogant he was to her, if only he had not been brutal to flies. (181) In “Together and Apart”, it is followed by a “paralysing blankness of feeling” so that “neither Mr Serle nor Miss Anning could move or speak” (187-188). Each time, what had been a rather quick exchange of words is ended in a definitive and almost pathetic way: the mutual recognition demanded by the cultural and literary codes set up in the short stories has failed: ‘I saw you at the Meistersinger, and you cut me. Villain,’ said Miss Cartwright, ‘you don’t deserve that I should ever speak to you again.’ And they could separate.” (“Together and Apart 188) “ Failed” communication   5 As many critics have shown, conversation is an essential theme and critical practice in Virginia Woolf’s work. In its represented ideal form, it can be about inventing oneself or re-positioning oneself as a speaking subject; it implies an agonistic yet creative exchange with the other, and might even lead to a felicitous vii  and almost wordless sense of community, as in the following passage from the Voyage Out  : When two people have been married for years they seem to become unconscious of each other's bodily presence so that they move as if alone, speak aloud things which they do not expect to be answered, and in general experience all the comfort of solitude without its loneliness. The joint lives of Ridley and Helen had arrived at this stage of community, and it was often necessary for one or the other to recall with an effort whether a thing had been said or only thought, shared or dreamt in private. (Woolf 1970: 194) Because it can invert power-relations and ideological locations, or, in more feminist terms, because it is the place from where to seek an alternative to the authoritative dominance of patriarchal discourse, conversation is also a writing and a reading praxis to which Woolf ascribes a political as well as an ethical value viii . But we also know that in their fictional form, whether this form be a dialogue in the traditional sense of the term or the paratactic juxtaposition of disembodied voices, Woolf’s conversations always problematize the process of communication, often contrasting discourse with silence, talk with small talk, speech as “an old torn net” (“The Evening Party” 93) with voice as the meaningful rustling of inarticulate sense. In “The Introduction” and “Together and Apart”, the sense of failure associated with the dialogue first appears to be linked with the way the over-determined social structure previously described leads to an apparently over-determined linguistic structure: ‘Mr Brinsley — Miss Everit. Both of you love Shelley.’ […] ‘And I suppose you write?’ he said, ‘poems presumably?’ ‘Essays,’ she said. (181) In this extract, the cultural presupposition voiced by the male character (“as a young woman, you probably think that you should write, and if you do, it cannot but be in the feminine and confessional mode of poetry”), reinforced by Mrs Dalloway’s presumed psychological knowledge, prevents the exchange of words from being a sharing of views. The three lines are acts of authoritative assertion that unveil or hide irreconcilable pragmatic implicatures ix . The conversation stops here, but as the narrator of “Together and Apart” suggests, “it had began some minutes before anything was said” (183), as soon as Lily entered Mrs Dalloway’s rooms, “hug[ging] to herself the thought of her essay of Dean Swift which Professor Miller had marked with three red stars” (178), proud of a success which could be very well be interpreted by the reader in more ambiguous terms of gender conflict: to write an essay is indeed a form of literary emancipation (Woolf’s own essays prove it), but this emancipation is here slightly and ironically subdued by the patriarchal figures of the Dean and the Professor to whose authority (a rather misogynous one in Swift’s case) the young Lily Everit is still subordinated. In “Together and Apart”, the conversation lasts a little longer in terms of narrative time and number of words. Yet, it is interspersed with a pattern of never-actualized signifieds (reported in free direct or indirect discourse) that designate some of the actual utterances as “dull commonplaces” (184): ‘What a beautiful night!” […] Foolish! Idiotically foolish! (183) That is what she felt now, the withdrawal of affection, Serle’s disappearance, and the instant need they were both under to cover up what was so desolating and so degrading to human nature that everyone tried
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