Cat Pierro

Something Is Sought


ISSUE 5 | REALISM | JUN 2011

Supposing we accept that a novel should be true to life. What then?

Should it seek the unsought and undesired? Should it bring to daylight what used to be (is still almost) too frightening—or too mundane?

Should it present a world populated in every corner by plain, solid objects, nearly tangible, never implausible, bridling our flights of fancy?

Should it record a string of details without imposing any prejudice with respect to their relative importance?

Should it refuse to give voice to the mind’s inner recesses? Should it trap its characters in the plain meaning of their actions?

Should it rather catch the mind in the moments between actions, in the hesitations and interstices that secure that mind’s difference?

Should it line up all the moments of the day, side by side on the examiner’s table, or should it trace the outline of some substance which articulates itself upon them?

Can it even help tracing such a substance?

Should it trace intentions interrupted and longings unfulfilled, or the happy compromises into which fate corrals us merely by pressing forward?

Should it trace surprises, changes of heart, and gradual developments of spirit? Or should it linger in the anxious “boredom” from which alteration is so needed as to be (normally) inevitable?

Should it trace fragility amidst stability, structure within chaos, or desires behind pretenses? Or should it simply watch bricks stack themselves upward into a shape that no one expected not to surprise?

The question, what sort of novel is like life?, becomes the question, what is it like, “life”? What is life?

Where is life?

When is life?

Something is sought, in any case; something is to be hunted down. “Life,” Virginia Woolf calls it in her essay, “Modern Fiction”; and that’s no more vague a word than “reality,” she adds. And whatever we want to call it, we can at least be sure that “the form of fiction most in vogue more often misses than secures the thing we seek.” And this in spite of the novelist providing “comedy, tragedy, love interest, and an air of probability embalming the whole so impeccable that if all his figures were to come to life they would find themselves dressed down to the last button of their coats in the fashion of the hour.”

That kind of writing, “materialist” fiction as she calls it, is one of the realisms that Mrs. Dalloway opposes.

In Mrs. Dalloway, speech predominates. Causes are brought into utterance by their effects. Impressions transform the impressed, and belong to no one absolutely. The strength of an impression carries the narrative forward—or rather, backward; there is an identity between the eternal and the past—until interruptions send us speeding elsewhere.



On the whole the effect is very different from that of “materialist” writing. The author says (again in “Modern Fiction”):

Examine for a moment an ordinary mind on an ordinary day. The mind receives a myriad impressions—trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpness of steel. From all sides they come, an incessant shower of innumerable atoms; and as they fall, as they shape themselves into the life of Monday or Tuesday, the accent falls differently from of old; the moment of importance came not here but there; so that, if a writer were a free man and not a slave, if he could write what he chose, not what he must, if he could base his work upon his own feeling and not upon convention, there would be no plot, no comedy, no tragedy, no love interest or catastrophe in the accepted style, and perhaps not a single button sewn on as the Bond Street tailors would have it.

Mrs. Dalloway shapes itself into a Wednesday. No omniscient narrator announces the time or place, or presents the events from a bird’s eye view. If the narrator is a bird, it is a low-flying bird, swooping about, again and again needing to change direction, having no peripheral vision to rely upon. So we learn along the way that it’s Wednesday, June, London, and not because it’s in the rulebook that such information must eventually be conveyed, but because these things, along the way, make a real difference to Clarissa Dalloway, to what she has to say. Her morning walk is a pronouncement of her love of life and of London and of all London’s parts; of “galloping ponies,” of “cricket bats,” of “absurdly woolly dogs,” of “shopkeepers fidgeting in their windows”; and she, too, is a part of it all, “and she, too, was going that very night to kindle and illuminate; to give her party.”

I can feel the life in Woolf's approach—it seems familiar and exciting all at once. A great deal separates it from the materialists, but to isolate one essential thing, each bit of text comes with a motivation: the narrator in flying low flies close to characters’ actual voices. All parts of the narration seem to matter to a living creature. Even if it is unclear whether a particular character thinks the thought on the page, each thought implies some breathing, pulsating being, however ephemeral, for whom that thought does actually matter. A narrator that tries to efface itself in order to have an “objective” grasp of reality risks focusing on things that can’t possibly be meaningful to anyone, coat buttons for instance, if only in order to demonstrate its own non-being. Woolf’s narrator instead makes its presence, or presences, felt, as various beings who are currently in the process of living. And these various beings’ impressions shape themselves into things—things that grab someone by the shoulders, things that settle all around someone, things that weigh upon someone; perhaps the very things we've been hunting for.

We cross the day toward the party, but not methodically; the moments are not lined up on the examiner’s table and turned over, one by one. Everything happens so breathlessly that we don’t have time not to prioritize. We shoot off in only fruitful directions, to the past, to imaginary places; we seek out not what is small but what pulls. And it turns out that there is a great deal that pulls; we end up with a novel that contains not only the realities of a day, but of an entire lifetime.

Mrs. Dalloway contains a struggle with a second, very different kind of realism. It is not a novelist’s realism but a person’s; Clarissa’s old friend’s, Peter Walsh’s.

The flighty narrator visits Peter’s memories at length.

Then Clarissa, still with an air of being offended with them all, got up, made some excuse, and went off, alone. As she opened the door, in came that great shaggy dog which ran after sheep. She flung herself upon him, went into raptures. It was as if she said to Peter—it was all aimed at him, he knew—"I know you thought me absurd about that woman just now; but see how extraordinarily sympathetic I am; see how I love my Rob!”
They had always this queer power of communicating without words. She knew directly he criticized her. Then she would do something quite obvious to defend herself, like this fuss with the dog—but it never took him in, he always saw through Clarissa.

Peter always sees through things generally, but especially women, and especially Clarissa. Even the smallest insincerity doesn't escape him. “’Here is my Elizabeth!’—that annoyed him. Why not ‘Here’s Elizabeth’ simply?”

The worst is when she makes polite introductions; he hates the charismatic distance she keeps from him, hates that she addresses him in a way that doesn’t acknowledge their shared history. It frustrates him to no end to know her so terribly well but be barred nonetheless from the most intimate access to her. “She had always, even as a girl, a sort of timidity, which in middle age becomes conventionality,” he thinks. These ushers of superficiality—timidity, conventionality—block all means of entry. She refuses to present her unguarded self to the world and thus forbids the world to grab hold of it. Even her dear Peter is doomed to know but only barely to touch. She is cold, he thinks; she is rigid.

Where the materialists may need every button on a man’s coat to believe in his participation in reality, Peter needs something different from Clarissa. By refusing to engage the world (as he sees it), not only does she appear in an unreal (superficial, fake) form, but she bars the real from affecting her in turn. She avoids encountering things; she doesn’t let reality show up in her life.

Here she is mending her dress; mending her dress as usual, he thought; here she’s been sitting all the time I’ve been in India; mending her dress; playing about; going to parties; running to the House and back and all that, he thought, growing more and more irritated, more and more agitated, for there’s nothing in the world so bad for some women as marriage, he thought; and politics; and having a Conservative husband, like the admirable Richard.

A lifeless life—a life which escapes life not insofar as it is implausible but insofar as it shuts itself away so that nothing can touch it; this is Peter’s accusation. Nothing happens in Mrs. Dalloway, an obtuse critic might say; nothing happens in Mrs. Dalloway’s life, says her own most vicious critic. Nothing happens because she avoids life (him). She has clothed herself in clouds and sparkles; she has chosen a husband who won’t find his way into her head; she has lived superficially.

We might well agree that marrying Richard instead of Peter avoids life. If Mrs. Dalloway has a plot, it’s Peter who drives it—his entrance, their meeting, their reuniting after years apart, marks a scene of real suspense. And it is the only scene in which the narrator jumps rapidly back and forth between two characters’ minds, using their shared thoughts as a hinge. Even the most traditional critic could not possibly deny that something “happens” here, in their extraordinary effect upon each other.

There is at least one other moment where Clarissa and someone else have an unspoken understanding. It is when she runs into Hugh Whitbread, another friend, famously superficial:

Evelyn was a good deal out of sorts, said Hugh, intimating by a kind of pout [...] that his wife had some internal ailment, nothing serious, which, as an old friend, Clarissa Dalloway would quite understand without requiring him to specify. Ah yes, she did of course; what a nuisance; and felt very sisterly and oddly conscious at the same time of her hat.

But the unspoken understandings of the superficial are nothing like the understandings between real friends, in which no distance is granted; once something is understood, it is shared property and it must be confessed. “Mrs. Dalloway will see me,” Peter announces when he first arrives at her house; “Oh yes, she will see me,”—perfectly entitled, he makes his announcement and runs up the stairs; and of course he is right; she will see him. Whatever is given once, henceforth is demanded. That is the way of true friends.

“Tell me the truth,” Peter demanded, in the distant past, on the day she refused to marry him. “Tell me the truth,” he repeated again and again, and thus drove her away. Years later, she still believes that “in marriage a little licence, a little independence there must be between people living together day in day out in the same house; which Richard gave her and she him. [...] But with Peter everything had to be shared; everything gone into.” (Those two men come up in quite telling contrast with respect to Hugh Whitbread: “Richard was nearly driven mad by him, and as for Peter Walsh, he had never to this day forgiven her for liking him.”)

But why should Clarissa decline to “go into” things, if not as a retreat? Cast in the light of Peter’s agitation, her morning walk and insistence that she loves life begin to seem as thin and false as her antics with the dog. She stands accused before the reader and before herself as well; she feels Peter's old criticisms even when she hasn't seen him for years. “How he scolded her!” she remembers. “How they argued! She would marry a Prime Minister and stand at the top of a staircase; the perfect hostess he called her (she had cried over it in her bedroom), she had the makings of a perfect hostess, he said.”


Illustration by Naomi Bardoff

We can say anything we like about Peter's ulterior motives, internal inconsistencies, or poverty of viewpoint. The fact will remain that his criticisms present a problem for Clarissa. Woolf herself wrote a friend while working on Mrs. Dalloway that she feared Clarissa might be “too stiff, too glittering and tinsely.” A false face and a trivial, make-believe life—isn't it exactly so?

If we are to find a defense for her, I think it will lie in her very separation from life.

What does she like so much about parties?

[…] the colors, tones, salts of existence, so that she filled the room she entered, and felt often as she stood hesitating one moment on the threshold of her drawing-room, an exquisite suspense, such as might stay a diver before plunging while the sea darkens and brightens beneath him, and the waves which threaten to break, but only gently split their surface, roll and conceal and encrust as they just turn over the weeds with pearl.

Curiously enough, it is the moment before a party that she likes best. Clarissa has a keen awareness of her own subjectivity—of the places and times where she stands at the limit of life. Looking out windows, hesitating in doorways, even in the middle of a busy street:

She would not say of any one in the world now that they were this or that. She felt very young; at the same time unspeakably aged. She sliced like a knife through everything; at the same time was outside, looking on. She had a perpetual sense, as she watched the taxi cabs, of being out, out, far out to sea and alone; she always had the feeling that it was very, very dangerous to live even one day.

“She would not say of Peter, would not say of herself, I am this, I am that.” She refuses her own individuality, disperses herself, to join an eternity. In detaching herself from her own particularity, she allows herself to see life as a whole, in contrast with non-life; she takes life on the whole as an object of passion.

In the middle of her party, after hearing of Septimus Smith who has killed himself, she pulls away, she looks out the window—

She parted the curtains; she looked. Oh, but how surprising!—in the room opposite the old lady stared straight at her! [...] She was going to bed, in the room opposite. It was fascinating to watch her, moving about, that old lady, crossing the room, coming to the window. Could she see her? It was fascinating, with people still laughing and shouting in the drawing-room, to watch that old woman, quite quietly, going to bed. She pulled the blind now. The clock began striking. The young man had killed himself; but she did not pity him; with the clock striking the hour, one, two, three, she did not pity him, with all this going on. There! the old lady had put out her light! the whole house was dark now with this going on, she repeated, and the words came to her, Fear no more the heat of the sun. She must go back to them. But what an extraordinary night! She felt somehow very like him—the young man who had killed himself. She felt glad that he had done it; thrown it away. The clock was striking. The leaden circles dissolved in the air. He made her feel the beauty; made her feel the fun. But she must go back.

The old woman, and the man who had killed himself, both on the outer edge of the tumult of life, make her aware of life’s beauty. It seems that some new happening, some new reality, comes into being here at the limits. Standing in the space between life and non-life, Clarissa opens herself to a new thing entirely, something eternal, something sublime; something that can only be experienced by herself, in private moments, and only by disengaging.

Thus her defense. “The moment of importance comes not here but there,” the author would say; a little change in focus and Clarissa’s experience of life seems not so trivial.

And in dispersing herself, in denying her own qualities, she, too, becomes a part of it all. Peter, her great skeptic, despairing that she is not a thing to hold tightly in the palm of his hand, can’t deny that she is nonetheless a thing of some kind—one that burrows into the heart. She evades his accusations and returns to make contact with him in another way.

Ah, said St. Margaret’s, like a hostess who comes into her drawing-room on the very stroke of the hour and finds her guests there already. I am not late. No, it is precisely half-past eleven, she says. Yet, though she is perfectly right, her voice, being the voice of the hostess, is reluctant to inflict its individuality. Some grief for the past holds it back; some concern for the present. It is half-past eleven, she says, and the sound of St. Margaret’s glides into the recesses of the heart and buries itself in ring after ring of sound, like something alive which wants to confide itself, to disperse itself, to be, with a tremor of delight, at rest—like Clarissa herself, thought Peter Walsh, coming down the stairs on the stroke of the hour in white. It is Clarissa herself, he thought, with a deep emotion, and extraordinarily clear, yet puzzling, recollection of her, as if this bell had come into the room years ago, where they sat at some moment of great intimacy, and had gone from one to the other and had left, like a bee with honey, laden with the moment.

Thus can she ensure her presence in its clarity—not by confessing or by inflicting but by gliding.

*              *              *

Real things turn up in the strangest places and in unexpected ways.