Woolf vs. Milton; Round 1

“The hungry Sheep look up, and are not fed,
But swoln with wind, and the rank mist they draw,
Rot inwardly, and foul contagion spread:
Besides what the grim Woolf with privy paw
Daily devours apace, and nothing sed,
But that two-handed engine at the door,
Stands ready to smite once, and smite no more.”
-Milton, Lycidas 125-131

Isn’t it amusing that Milton’s poem that Virginia Woolf calls out by name in her critical essay A Room of One’s Own contains her last named in it? Of course, it is not referring to her on any level, be it that the poem was written nearly 150 years before Woolf was born. It is interesting though, that ‘grim Woolf’ here is reference to the Catholic Church.

Woolf, obviously opposed to the Church by her sexual views as well as her pronounced agnosticism. Yet, despite Milton’s speaking out against the corrupt bishops and other Church figures, Woolf takes it upon herself to poke fun at Milton in her essay. She does not go into too much terrible detail about why she wonders what word Milton had dare think of changing, but in the end, she does not classify him within her group of ‘androgynous’ writers.

Yet, Milton was an extremely politically active figure who commonly was a thorn in the side for many a bishop or king. Perhaps, his involvement deemed him too Christian, since he never thought of breaking away from the Church, only sticking to strong, Protestant beliefs. Yet, for someone who has been linked to Virgil and Homer, should not he be included within Woolf’s list of writers? Milton seems to just be getting the short end of the stick. Perhaps it is that he merely lived in a time when women’s rights were not in the collective, public consciousness. Then why does Shakespeare, who lived only a generation or two before Milton, get elevated to the highest in the pantheon? Perhaps it is that his true identity has remained shrouded in mystery or that his body of work is greater than Milton’s?

It’s all very debatable. Certainly, there is a case for both Milton and Shakespeare in that heavyweight match. Yet, just as Woolf strives to change the tempo of the novel and pursue a different lifestyle than was the norm, Milton, too, ruffles some feathers of his contemporaries. Maybe, just maybe, if they had met, Woolf would have warmed to Milton. Or at the very least, they’d have gotten into a great argument.

The Inheritance of Woolf (Good and Bad) in The Hours.

When I finished watching Stephen Daldry’s The Hours, I was plagued by a feeling of ambivalence. Bookended by the image of Virginia Woolf’s slow and resolute tread into the River Ouse, the plot weaves in-and-out of the lives of three women: Woolf (Nicole Kidman) in 1923, Laura Brown (Julianne Moore) in 1951 and Clarissa Vaughan (Meryl Streep) in 2001. Switching off the television after the final scene and staring at the dark screen, I sat on the couch quietly deciding how I felt about the film. This was two weeks ago. I’m still trying to make that decision.

In the tradition of Mrs. Dalloway, the plot traces one day in the lives of Virginia (writing her masterpiece), Laura (reading Woolf’s masterpiece), and Clarissa (living Woolf’s masterpiece). Although the women live in different places and times, they struggle with similar issues and choices: art or obscurity, happiness or dissatisfaction, life or death. While I felt like I understood the creative quandaries of Virginia and Clarissa, perhaps because of my enrollment in the class and having read Mrs. Dalloway, I (like Pat) was frustrated with Laura Brown. Sure, she was unhappy. Sure, she felt trapped. Haven’t we all experienced the panicked pangs of displeasure? Do we all give up? No. Are we supposed to, according to Laura? While I do not agree with her decision and her later pseudo-redemption with her "I chose life" speech, I do understand her vital role in the plot. At least, for my own purposes. She is the example of the choice to live selfishly. While she chooses to live, she ruins those closest to her. I suppose the unanswered questions and the ambiguous functions which attach themselves to these characters is the very essence of the film.

Despite my frustration with Laura Brown, I was deeply interested in the broken relationship she had with her son, Richard, especially in light of current events. When I read that Nicholas Hughes, the son of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, had committed suicide last week, I instantly had an image of Richard Brown letting himself fall from his apartment window. The ensuing media-based scientific debates about a hereditary inclination to suicide made me think about the legacy that parents left their children: Laura’s to Richard and Leslie Stephen’s to his daughter Virginia. Laura’s abandonment, her figurative suicide, not only influences Richard’s life, but also his writing. He writes about her as if she killed herself – to him, she is dead. However, he does write about her, just as Woolf wrote about her father in To the Lighthouse. While we are never told whether or not Richard’s writing helped him come to terms with his mother’s desertion, his act of writing about his mother in an attempt to better understand her strikes a chord of resonance with Woolf’s writing that is both subtle and sincere.

Finally, I had huge issues with Nicole Kidman’s portrayal of Woolf. According to The Academy, as Pat already mentioned, she must have done something right. However, I am discontented by her performance. While Kidman plays a manic writer very well, I can’t help but wonder if her depiction of Woolf is fair. Is that Virginia Woolf’s entire legacy? Having studied Woolf’s writing this past semester, I have come to know an immensely talented writer, who is as witty as she is staid. Kidman’s Woolf is a curmudgeon who saunters about the house seemingly thinking only of Mrs. Dalloway and her next opportunity to end it all. I was sorely disappointed. Where was the Woolf who wrote Freshwater? Where was the Woolf who dressed as an Abyssinian diplomat during the Dreadnought Hoax? The prosthetic nose and the highborn scowl donned by Kidman illustrate the common perception of the iconic Woolf – the feminist Brit writer who drowned herself. Kidman’s performance, while it shows glimmers of brilliance, such as in the scene with Leonard at the train station, is eclipsed by its homogeny of depression.

The One Where I Harp on Nicole Kidman's Accent in The Hours---for HOURS

I was around thirteen years old when The Hours came out in theaters. It was conveniently rated PG-13, so there was nothing my mom could say when I begged her to take me to see it. I made a point of reading the book before I saw the movie and The Hours was one of the few films that I didn't have to say was better than the book. I loved them equally. I bought The Hours pretty soon after the DVD was released and when I lost my copy somewhere between Florida and New York, I promptly bought a digital version off of iTunes. The movie provided the background each time I opened Mrs. Dalloway and again when I wrote the paper. I feel like I know The Hours like the back of my hand, but every time I watch it, I notice something different. That doesn't mean that I don't have some major issues with the characters or the actors who played them.

Normally, I think that Nicole Kidman is an excellent actress. She somehow manages to make breathiness into a plausible character trait for every role she plays: Satine in Moulin Rouge--breathy because of consumption; Grace in The Others--breathy because she was dead; Ada in Cold Mountain--breathy because she's...Southern? But this doesn't really work when playing a real person. As a thirteen-year-old, I'm not sure I even knew who Virginia Woolf was and after seeing The Hours, I didn't know much more (She wrote. She killed herself. The end, right?). Once I actually started to study Woolf, however, and began to research her life, I discovered this, the last audio recording of Woolf in existence, on the BBC website. I was a more than a little surprised and disappointed to find that Kidman sounded nothing like Woolf. Sure, every actor doesn't have to sound like the person they're playing and, okay, maybe Kidman didn't have access to this recording (the site was last update in October of 2008), it is all about how believable they are as the character and we can't really use Woolf herself as a measuring-stick for Kidman's portrayal of Woolf and on and on. But this breathiness, that Kidman has brought to every role I've seen her in, distorts our perception of Woolf.

Go on and give that recording a listen. Woolf's voice alone is a pretty striking thing. To me, it sounds almost like every exagerrated, stereotypical impression of British snobbery that I've ever heard. That voice is the way we were encouraged to speak in my high school acting class, when first learning the British dialect. Woolf's voice isn't breathy at all, it's strong and clear and, in not giving the audience that impression, Kidman offers us a very one-sided portrayal of Woolf. By changing her voice, Kidman transforms Woolf from a strong woman (albeit one afflicted by mental illness) to one that is weak and vulnerable, like the dead bird Angelica wants to give a funeral for. For some people, The Hours may be the only glimpse of Woolf they ever get, and Kidman should've made it a good one--not turning Woolf into someone so melancholy and frail that one was almost glad to see her go.

There's also been a discussion about the character of Laura Brown (Julianne Moore). I don't find Laura admirable (like Justine), but I also don't find her irresponsible (like Pat). Or maybe I think that she's both of those things. Honestly, I didn't ever think much at all of Laura Brown until she became the subject of such heated discussion on this blog. I thought she was a little boring, only meant to serve as a somewhat-clever bridge between the writing of Mrs. Dalloway (1923) and the being of Mrs. Dalloway (the present-day, Meryl Streep segments). Upon closer inspection, though, it seems like Laura is a what-might-have-been for the character of Clarissa in Mrs. Dalloway. Clarissa "was a Radical" (Woolf, 150) in her youth, reading Shakespeare and Plato and having thoughtful discussions with Sally and Peter "about how they were to reform the world" (Woolf, 33). One gets a sense of who Clarissa might've been had she stuck with Sally or Peter rather than marrying Richard and settling into a life of domesticity, where choosing flowers to a party is more important than reading Shakespeare. Laura is reckless, sure, no good mother would leave two young boys and their father because that was "death"--but she certainly illustrates one of the larger themes of both The Hours and Mrs. Dalloway: how "dangerous" it is "to live even one day" (Woolf, 8). If Laura hadn't experienced the kiss with her neighbor, or left her son to go spend a few hours reading and possibly contemplating suicide, maybe she would've stayed with her family and just maybe, Richard wouldn't have killed himself years later. Similarly, if Virginia Woolf hadn't buried the dead bird, or had been able to have the meal she wanted, or any number of things, perhaps she wouldn't have drowned herself. Who knows? One day can be very, very dangerous and the women in The Hours experience the effects of that danger.

I really wish I had more to say about Meryl Streep in this film but, really, she can do no wrong. I agree with Pat that Clarissa was "the only character...who acts in someone else's interest." Clarissa also seems to be the most well-adjusted. Maybe, though, if The Hours were to have a sequel, she might be experiencing the after-effects of this day and would be a little more selfish because of it.

I think Philip Glass did a great job with the score, the repetitive nature of the music echoed the connectedness of the women's lives. But, listening to Glass's other recordings, I realized that he basically uses the same few notes over and over again...so he loses points for creativity.

Back to Nicole Kidman's voice: perhaps it was the nose.

The Current of Indoctrination

Woolf intends her titular metaphor to have significances as countless as the shifting identities of her characters. We may at first be tempted to translate the symbol by seeing the waves of life's experiences wash away, again and again, the sands of her characters' identities. However, as the novel progresses, Woolf hints that this current is much more malevolent, enveloping, and unnatural than her potentially calming image suggests. Woolf views the waves as an antagonistic force-- as the imposing social obligations that conscript her characters into an existence which, deep within themselves, they regret and even reject.

Woolf expresses this foremost by drowning her prose in compassion and admiration for her characters, though they are flawed and often despise one another. At the beginning of the novel, the young characters distinguish themselves by "speaking" (that is, ruminating) in unique poetic tones. Jinny is "fiery," Rhoda "pale," and most everyone seems to loathe Bernard's intellectual arrogance (21, 16). However, none of the characters can escape the onslaught of the clergy, whom they disbelieve even as children, school, from which they yearn to escape, and urban street mobs, which Louis later pauses to avoid as if they were, perhaps literally, the waves. As he grows older, Bernard laments that the best art is always produced in "solitude" (58). Indeed, he seems nostalgic for the earlier sections of the novel, a time when the characters were freer and more distinguishable. Though the young Rhoda echoes the disenfranchised, contrarian sentiment of A Room of One's Own, and the young Susan pines for unrequited love, all of the characters become in some way disenchanted as they grow older.

Woolf here reveals another application of the metaphor-- the waves draw the countless crystalline grains of sand from the shore, into the sea of conformity. Ironically, Woolf is not echoing the affirming and unifying Hindu image of the soul, in which human drops of water in the sea are in a state of oneness with the universe. Instead, the waves alienate her characters further from the world around them, and from one another. They become, as Bernard describes it, an "encircled population, shuffling past each other in endless competition along the street" (114). Rhoda echoes precisely the metaphor Walter Benjamin applies to the hopeless working class in Paris, "I will fling myself fearlessly into trams" (163). Though the waves may draw the characters together physically over the years, the water soon flings itself upon the shore in a violent splash, alienating them emotionally and spiritually.

[I have chosen to skip ahead to the fourth, "topic of choice" option, as I have not yet had a chance to see one of the films.]

The Hours: Deal With It

When I finally got around to watching Frost/Nixon a few weeks ago, I thought it was a well-paced, suspenseful film with solid performances by Oliver Platt, Sam Rockwell, and (even) Kevin Bacon.  I was, however, constantly distracted by Frank Langella's Nixon impersonation; I didn't see much of a resemblance, and his voice was overdone, with each word spoken from the jowls.  It bothered me the entire movie.  

Last night, I watched Stephen Daldry's film The Hours, and a similar problem arose for me.  Every time Nicole Kidman was on screen as Woolf, I couldn't help but wonder who was in charge of that prosthetic strapped to her nose.  Nearly all the dramatic wind was sucked out of Woolf's sails by that silly makeup job; I couldn't take anything she was saying completely seriously, and it didn't even make her look more like the writer.  That's just one man's opinion though.  She did manage to take home the Oscar for best actress.

The other technical issue I had with the film was the music, particularly during the Laura Brown story line.  I would find myself in a seemingly innocuous moment of a scene, when suddenly my heart would start to race, and I would have no idea why:
Laura: I'm going to make a cake.  That's what I'm going to do.  I'm going to make a cake for daddy's birthday. [music: a swelling, swirling crescendo of strings and piano].  

I was on edge the entire time she was on screen.  Now, I know what you're thinking: wellduh. that's the point; it's part of the suspense.  I maintain, however, that there was no suspense at all.  Nothing actually happens with the Laura character, except the metastasizing of her vague, selfish unhappiness.  When I watch a movie or read a piece of fiction, I appreciate actual drama, not melodrama.  In fact, nothing irks me more than melodrama; I find it disingenuous, and it undermines the value of a work for me.

This brings me to my main contention with this film (or perhaps even Michael Cunningham's book, which I have not read).  I disagree entirely with Justine's assessment of Laura.  Justine wrote, "I really admired her acknowledgment of her unhappiness and the urgency of having to do something about it; of having to think of herself before others."  I believe the opposite to be true.  Laura had an obligation to Richard and his sister, from which she fled.  What is this film saying about personal responsibility?  About the abuse of the American dream? -- start over whenever you feel like it?  What about the responsibility to accept the consequences of your choices?  (I never believed, for a moment, that she "had no choice.") 

Claire Danes, despite what many say about her acting abilities, actually plays a pivotal role in this film.  When Laura arrives at Clarissa's apartment in New York, Julia says, "So that's the monster."  Yet after Laura's vague, quasi apology for her disappearance, it is Julia who embraces Laura, as if to accept her apology, as if to reach an understanding of why she needed to escape dreaded unhappiness.  But I remained unconvinced; what on earth does "It was death.  I chose life." mean?  It seems to me that she had a comfortable life in LA to which she chose to be oblivious.  (I was upset that I couldn't stand Julianne Moore's character, when I love that actress.  Maude Lebowski, anyone?) 

I remember something Denis Leary said in one of his stand-up specials several years ago: "Nobody's happy.  Ok? Happiness comes in small doses, folks.  It's a cigarette, or a chocolate chip cookie, or a five-second orgasm. That's it.  Ok?"  Every time I watch a film with the central theme of "well-off person searches for happiness because they don't recognize their fortune at having food, a warm house, and comfort," I get angry and end up ranting like this.  

The saving grace I found in this film was Meryl Streep's Clarissa.  Because she devotes herself to Richard and to throwing his party, she is the only character in the film who acts in someone else's interest.  Though she breaks down for a moment in front of Louis, her reason is plausible; she is witnessing the physical and mental decay of her dear friend.  She is the only character who realizes that showing love for others is the road to any kind of happiness.  Streep saved me from hating this film, with her small glimmer of hope.
Today, I scrambled through my folder looking for secondary readings to blog about--but to my dismay, nothing was really sparking any ideas. Eventually, I came across Mr. Cowper's poem "The Castaway," mercilessly shoved in the back of my folder with a dog-eared corner, a crease along the side, and the doodle of a forlorn-looking bunny in the margins.
"This looks promising!" I thought to myself, and then proceeded to read over the poem a few times to help generate some blogging ideas. I remember reading over the poem in class, I remember taking notes about it, and I remember an extensive conversation regarding domesticated rabbit poetry--but I had forgotten how much I love this poem. And finally, I decided that I want to retrace our class discussion about Mr. Ramsay, specifically how Woolf takes Coooper's poem (written well before her time, in 1799) and applies it to Mr. Ramsay's grief about his own life.
While I agree that Mr. Ramsay is a pretty ridiculous character for the most part, I think Woolf's incorporation of Cowper's poem does more than highlight Mr. Ramsay's melodramatic flair for eighteenth century poetry recitations around his beachouse. I think Woolf is also showing how Mr. Ramsay is a "castaway" within his own family.
It's funny to think of Mr. Ramsay marching around on a sunny beach occasionally barking out lines from tragic poems. How can he possibly relate his comfortable, beach-house-owning life to that of the Light Brigade from Tennyson's poem or the castaway from Cowper's? The idea seemed silly then--but now I'm not as sure. In the third section of To The Lighthouse (aptly entitled, "the Lighthouse") Mr. Ramsay is sitting with Cam and James on the boat, feeling like, "...a desolate man, old, bereft..." (169) murmuring the last two lines of Cowper's poem loud enough for his two children to hear:
But I beneath a rougher sea
Was whelmed in deeper gulfs than he
Of course Mr. Ramsay's situation isn't like that of the perilous castaway from Cowper's poem; but, are his feelings all that different than the one's expressed by Cowper? At this point in the novel, Ramsay has lost his wife and he cannot emotionally connect with his children (in fact, his children kind of hate him). Essentially, he is alone on that boat, in the middle of the water, much like a castaway. He isn't under any mortal peril, but another kind of threat is present. There is the threat of him losing a slow battle against his own life; a life of unfulfilled intellectual aspirations, and a life where he is sinking under the waves of emotional incompetence towards his family. I don't think it's all that ridiculous for him to connect with this poem, because while he is a rather self-absorbed man (taking into account only his own grief throughout most of the novel, and demanding sympathy from everyone else), I think his self-woe is what makes him one the most realistic characters in Woolf's novel. Woolf uses Cowper's poem so that Mr. Ramsay has something to hold steadfastly onto; he doesn't have his wife, his children, or the kind of emotional consolation he needs. He has his knowledge, he has eighteenth century poetry, and he has the memorized lines of Cowper to express his innermost grief.

Secondary Reading,The Man Who Saw Himself Drown, Mrs. Dalloway

"The Man Who Saw Himself Drown" by Anita Desai was published in 2000, decades and decades after Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway. In the story, a man who is out of in town on business witnesses his own drowning and the ramifications of his death as he walks dazedly through them. The protagonist battles with the consequences of his death, the loss of his wife and children, while also examining what oppurtunities comes with getting a fresh start, ridded of responsibility and identity. As he comes to terms with the realization of his situation, the main character is faced with a choice, "to drown this self that had remained, to drown the double of the self that had already died" (Desai 98) or "to go on with another life, a new life?" (Desai 98)  The story ends with a young boy discovering the body of our narrator, drowned by the timid trickle of a small stream. This story, like Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway, uses a character to weigh and explore the meaning of life and death. Similar to the man in Desai's story, Woolf uses Septimus, an emotional ex-soldier struggling with life after battle. Both Desai's character and Woolf's struggle with the challenge of returning to life after it has, essentially, been taken away from them. For Desai, this robbery of life is literal, but Woolf creates a similar dilemma for Septimus and the hollowing out effect that the war has on him, stealing his idealistic youth, his naive mind. Though Desai doesn't refer to Woolf or Septimus in her story, her character's deliberate choice, his thoughtful acceptance of death in order to escape a life he can no longer fully live is reminiscent of Septimus, listening to the futile and imprisoning cures of Dr. Holmes downstairs, before he urgently "flung himself vigorously" (Woolf 164) from the window sill. Both writers use their characters to ask and observe the same question- when life is no longer full, when our grasp of it's beauties and realities, it's quiet pleasantries and joys has been broken, can relief only be found in death?

...even crazy people like to be asked.

I’m sure it was more than the multitude of groans elicited from my father and my grandmother that began my fascination with The Hours from the first time I caught in on television. We tuned in, on shaky ground, right after Virginia kissed Vanessa, and somehow barreled through the movie for a bit, watched something else, and then tuned in just in time to catch Clarissa kissing Sally. No lie. This may seem silly, but this was my first experience with this movie. I had no idea what was really going on, but it was a (relatively) mainstream film and I was caught up in the Philip Glass and the delicious scandalous rush of it all, highlighted by my father and my grandmother’s fierce reactions of disgust and channel-changing. I was hooked and there were so many things I wanted to know. And I couldn’t show it.

This must have been 2005 (and I must have had my license) because the next day, I drove over to FYE and managed to find a used copy of the DVD for six dollars. I watched it that afternoon while dad was at work; no interruptions and no disapproval.

You cannot find peace by avoiding life, Leonard.

On the contrary, this film was one that threw you into the lives of these three women and the people that mattered to them. It was so delicate and yet so ceaselessly courageous, and I have never identified so much with one film, before or since.

From Laura Brown’s story we have the sense of a woman out of sync with her time and place in more ways than one. I really admired her acknowledgement of her unhappiness and the urgency of having to do something about it; of having to think of herself before others. I love her explanation to Clarissa Vaughn:

It would be wonderful to say you regretted it. It would be easy. But what does it mean? What does it mean to regret when you have no choice? It's what you can bear. There it is. No one's going to forgive me. It was death. I chose life.

She teaches Richard that we cannot live for others, try as we may; Richard sees a similar pattern in Clarissa [“Just wait till I die. Then you'll have to think of yourself. How are you going to like that?”].

At the same time, Clarissa expresses emotions that I have certainly felt. [“When I'm with him I feel... Yes, I am living. And when I'm not with him... Yes, everything does seem sort of silly”]. The three impulsive kisses in this film speak to this urgency, this relevancy of the person’s presence in their lives. With Philip Glass’s incredible score to top it off, this movie is intoxicating and inspiring.

Movie Reviews, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf

When I was in sixth grade and my sister was in high school, I happened upon her copy of the Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf screenplay in a family car ride to D.C. While she slept against the window with her headphones blaring, I diligently read the entire screenplay, for lack of anything better to do. When I had finished it, my middle school mind teemed with questions and confusion. Why was everyone so angry? How could all of these characters mistreat each other with such violent, hateful games ? What was the point? And, most importantly, why was that the play's title? Several years, a high school diploma, and a soon to be bachelor's degree later, I have the same questions.
I thought it would be interesting to watch the movie now, with an older and hopefully more mature mindset, to see what my then 11-year old mind was missing. Though I was still confused and tired after watching Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor (who play the main married couple in the movie) tirelessly berate and deride each other, taking with them their youthful and idealistic guests, I was able to pull a little more meaning from the story as well as the characters in it.
The story begins on a university campus, after an apparent party among the university's teaching staff. George and Martha, a middle-aged married couple stumble drunkenly home. Once home, it is clear that their relationship is less than perfect. George is sarcastic and demeaning, while Martha is taunting and vulgar. Neither gives each other a break and therefore, never receives one in return. While they fix themselves yet another drink (a pattern throughout the movie), Martha informs George that the young, new professor in the Math department will be coming by with his equally young wife for a late drink. It is gradually exposed that Martha's father is the president of the university and that George, a once promising history professor, has proved to be an academic and therefore familial failure in both Martha and her father's eyes. The story moves on from here in a haze of cocktails and crude, emotional games between Martha and George. Their repulsion for what the other has become is so tangible, the young professor and his wife are rapidly and unknowingly wrapped up in it. Throughout the movie, we witness the revelation of dark secrets and harsh betrayals, inflicting pain upon themselves and their guests. 
However, the movie ends, surprisingly, quite calmly. The long night is over. The sun begins to rise. The frenzy of the evening cools and, like in the beginning, George and Martha remain, holding each other's hand. 
The movie is both tiring to watch and intriguing. While I found many of the disagreements and behaviors of the characters disturbing, there is a sort of intrigue to the relationships in the movie, and a feeling that you are watching something too personal to see. The movie, as a whole, is not a feel-good flick. It's subject matter is dark and the characters are painful, pitiful creatures who emotionally and physically unravel throughout the film. However, it's unabashed desire to catch and display human beings at their most primal is something I have rarely seen in a movie before. The complexity and depth of human relationships is what this movie relentlessly explores, placing it's characters in abhorrent positions and testing the difference between passionate love and passionate hate. While I still don't know why the movie is called Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" I can surmise that it serves to make a mockery of the people that this particular movie centers around. The title is a song that Martha repeats numerous times in the movie, alluding to a joke at the party the couples had attended earlier that evening. It is here where the mockery may begin. Clearly, this is an intellectual joke, these people are supposedly academics, the movie is literally set on a college campus. However, despite their supposed intellectual facade, they behave like animals, selfishly and recklessly destroying each other with very little sign of remorse. 
Therefore, though I didn't care for the movie much more than I cared for the screenplay after I read it, I can now recognize the boldness of the script as well as the hypocrisy of institutions such as academia, and marriage that is so definitively parodied.

Consumerism: A Necessary Evil....?

So many demands are made on our time today that we often reminisce about the “good ol’ days” when there were no cell phones, computers, or even cars or televisions. Unfortunately, upon closer examination you’ll probably find that that idyllic existence is an illusion; even without such technology, life—or maybe society—demands that one must have a purpose at all times.

“‘Really I must—really I must’—that is it. Without investigating the demand, the mind cringes to the accustomed tyrant. One must, one always must, do something or other; it is not allowed one simply to enjoy oneself. Was it not for this reason that, some time ago, we fabricated the excuse, and invented the necessity of buying something? But what was it? Ah, we remember, it was a pencil.”
-“Street Haunting: A London Adventure”

With that, over seven decades ago, Woolf berates the musty old ‘must’ that never tires of plaguing our lives. A pencil seems innocent enough. One might write a long letter, or a postcard, or a novel; or one might write a list of things to do which require our attention. Regardless of purpose, the pencil is needed to propel us outside so we can shirk our other duties for a while.

This is the sad reality, folks. I was in the historic district of Seymour, CT for an appointment at the dentist’s over this past winter break. I was set to meet a friend afterward at the mall, but she was running late due to her mother’s concerns over the icy roads (Read: the roads weren’t making her late; her mother was). At any rate, I had some time to spare and thought it would be lovely to peruse an antique shop or two before heading up to the mall. It was cold and rainy out, so it was doubly lovely to be inside and with all kinds of great vintage jewelry, glassware, and books and such. Since I was killing time, I was poring over various objects for a longer than absolutely necessary. I had a conversation with the shop owner, the only other person in the store, and walked through every aisle. After fifteen minutes, she called out to me, “Found anything?” to which I replied, “Oh! You have so many great things!” Apparently, this would not suffice: “That’s not what I asked,” she said, “What are you buying?” With that, I was suddenly obligated. I couldn’t just take in all the pretty things and go on my way aesthetically satisfied before driving in the winter dreariness for eleven miles to get up to the mall.

So I bought a necklace…..and it was worth it. Not that I had a choice.

Out, damn spot!..Gosh!

I looked up and saw the mark on the wall for the first time…a small round mark, black upon the white wall, about six or seven inches above the mantelpiece…I’m not sure about it…I might get up but if I got up and looked at it, ten to one I shouldn’t be able to say for certain (p. 77)…Ah, the mark on the wall! It was a snail. – p. 83 of "The Mark on the Wall" by Woolf
There are some black specks on the wall. I stare at them, certain they are moving. Well, I ought to be able to ignore a few bugs by this time. ‘Il ne faut pas mettre tout sur le même plan…’
I get up and look closely. Only splashes of dirt. It’s not the time of year for bugs, anyway.
– p.349 of Good Morning, Midnight by Rhys

A few days ago, I found myself in the same plight. While checking my e-mail, commenting on my friends' posts on facebook, organizing some upcoming club events, and researching something on the internet, I was thinking about all the work that I had to do and readings that I had to undertake when I suddenly looked up and saw a spot on the wall. It blended in slightly which made me wonder if it was some kind of spider or dirt or…I don’t know. I knew it was some kind of projection by the way the part that blended into the wall had a dark underlining shadow forming a half moon. Yet, I didn’t know exactly what it was...Long story slightly shortened, it was a nail that had been painted over many times.

I found that Jean Rhys in the excerpt from Good Morning, Midnight that we read for class slightly parallels Virginia Woolf’s “The Mark on the Wall” but then diverges by the choices that the narrators make to ascertain what the mark is, or in the latter work was. Both narrators, and myself, use the “mark” or “speck on the wall” as a distraction. For Rhys, the “specks on the wall” intrude on her thoughts while she reflects on her friend Sidonie and her perception of Sasha, the narrator. Sidonie seems to orchestrate great influence over Sasha which may not always be what Sasha wants. Sasha says, “She imagines that it’s my atmosphere. God, it’s an insult when you come to think about it! More dark rooms, more red curtains…” (p.349). The thought that Sidonie perceives that this environment suits Sasha offends Sasha. Sasha seems to be trying to escape “the dark rooms” and “red curtains” but Sidonie, who thinks she knows what is best for Sasha, traps her in the very things she is trying to avoid. Sasha seems to indirectly challenge Sidonie when she says, “But one mustn’t put everything on the same plane. That’s her great phrase. And one mustn’t put everybody on the same plane, either” (p.349). Sasha twists Sidonie’s own philosophy against her. She lashes out, “And this is my plane.” Sasha’s words distance her from Sidonie’s control. Yet, Sasha’s distraction, “the specks on the wall,” seems to weaken her resolve. She broadens the distance from these rebellious thoughts by the taking some luminal and going to sleep at once.

On the other hand, the narrator in Woolf’s work approaches the “mark on the wall” differently. The “mark” saves her from an infantile fancy. The narrator says, “Rather to my relief the sight of the mark interrupted the fancy, for it is an old fancy, an automatic fancy, made as a child perhaps” (p. 77). The narrator chooses more mature and progressive thoughts. The “mark” provokes her thoughts to transcend imagination and histories to the meaning of life. Her cavalcade of thoughts is therapeutic and welcomed. The narrator, enlightened by her deep thoughts, says “I understand Nature’s game—her prompting to take action as a way of ending any thought that threatens to excite or to pain…Still, there’s no harm in putting a full stop to one’s disagreeable thoughts by looking at a mark on the wall.” – p. 82

The narrator of “The Mark on the Wall” seems to be more in control of and willing to face her thoughts than Sasha, whose distraction flashes her from a state of pondering discontent to sleep deprived indifference. Sasha is more willing to face her “specks.” She uses them as an escape plan from her discontent and as a bridge to her luminal. Woolf’s narrator uses the “mark” as a bridge to her thoughts and seeping discontent with oppressive masculine authority. Her thoughts slither in and out of scenes of oppressive males.

From the people who used to live in the house but moved because the man said “they wanted to change their style of furniture” (p. 77) to a ludicrous Shakespeare who had “a shower of ideas that fell perpetually from some very high Heaven down through his mind” (p. 79) to a world where “illegitimate freedom” could spring from the governing “masculine point of view” if “men perhaps, should …be a woman” (p.80) to antiquated, “learned men” whose honor sinks with “dwindling superstitions” (p. 81) and, finally, to a place where men and women sit together and smoke cigarettes after tea, it seems like at the end of the narrative masculine authority is replaced with a semblance of equality where men and women have equal footing and the world blooms in “beauty and [where]health of mind increases” (p.81). Woolf’s narrator utilizes the “mark” to obtain some peace of thought while Sasha’s distraction turns her away from deep thought to mere superficiality and shallow cares, to dirt and bugs.

And my spot? My spot lacked such depth but successfully diverted my attentions and energies to one focus, rather than many.


In “Streethaunting: A London Adventure” Woolf talks about how much she enjoys browsing the streets in the wintertime. She says that streethaunting in winter is the “greatest of adventures” and states many reasons why. When Woolf streethaunts it’s a very relaxing and almost spiritual thing. When I walk the streets I don’t think like Woolf does: she notices almost everything. Including all of the things that people are doing, which I think that most people wouldn’t pay a lot of attention to. When she talks she seems almost like Mrs.Dalloway since she is noticing and remembering everything as she walks down the street. She also has that nosy, curious quality that Mrs.Dalloway has.

In the second paragraph, Woolf gives us the best time to streethaunt. “The hour should be the evening and the season winter, for in winter the champagne brightness of the air and the sociability of the streets are grateful,” she says. She also says that we aren’t longing to get shade and air like we do in the summer, so that makes it more enjoyable. I don’t agree with her: in the winter I like to stay in the house, bundled up in bed with cocoa. I also think that in the winter other people like to stay home as well, so the streets aren’t as interesting. But she thinks the streets are beautiful in winter and talks about the interesting characters she comes upon while streethaunting. “The eye is not a miner, not a diver, not a seeker after buried treasure. It floats us smoothly down a stream; resting, pausing, the brain sleeps perhaps as it looks,” she says. I think this means that we shouldn’t look for interesting things we should just let them come to us.

When Woolf asks the woman what it’s like to be a dwarf, it seems very mean and rude of her. But she seems to almost admire the woman. She talks about how she held her foot out and it was normal-sized. “At length, the pair was chosen and, as she walked out between her guardians, with the parcel swinging from her finger, the ecstasy faded, knowledge returned, the old peevishness, the old apology came back, and by the time she had reached the street again she had become a dwarf only,” Woolf says. This seems like Woolf is saying that we judge a dwarf when we see them walk down the street. But if we get to know them and see who they are we wont see them as just a dwarf.

Woolf also talks about the excitement of entering into a new room. I think her excitement of entering into a new room is the excitement that we get when entering into a new country. “It is always an adventure to enter a new room for the lives and characters of its owners have distilled their atmosphere into it, and directly we enter it we breast some new wave of emotion,” Woolf says. I think she means that we don’t only get these things by the people that are in the room, we also get it by the way the room looks and the objects in it. Streethaunting to her isn’t just walking on the street, it’s walking into shops and observing people.--Baha


I was happy as a clam to be sitting in the Julia Miles Theater and staring at a multicolored, patchwork curtain on a school night. I had no idea what Freshwater was about, but the summer sounds that filled the theater seemed promising and I like Woolf quite a bit. I thought, “I won’t understand it but I’ll probably like it.” This seemed to be confirmed when the characters were introduced and the only name that even wrung a bell was Tennyson. But I got that all the characters, except one, were artsy types and it turned out that that was all I needed to get. I knew that the play was written for the Bloomsburies, one artsy group, to make fun of the old Victorian artsy group; a younger generation making fun of the older. It’s a timeless situation and from it, you can easily anticipate the nature of the comedy.

The set looked like something that would be in the White Box at Fordham. It was a drawing-room/garden with a couple of oddly placed doors and ladders. The floor and lower half of the whitewashed walls were streaked with bold, seemingly hastily painted strokes of bright green paint—grass. It seemed to say, we are not in the realm of the ordinary—yikes. But I had read too much into it. Megan Carter, the dramaturg, explained later that there had been disagreement over whether to set the play in a garden or in a house. Set designer, James Schuette, surprised everyone with a combination of the two. The play is a farce and the set was farcical—perfect.

Naturally, I did not get every joke and reference, but I got enough of them (and enough bare butt) to laugh regularly. I also understood the plotline of Ellen Terry, the de facto hero of the play. She is constantly posing for abstract virtues in her husband’s paintings. Her husband, George Frederick Watts, keeps imploring that she be glad to be immortalized as Beauty, Grace, Modesty, or what have you, but she feels trapped by her beauty and trapped by art. In the end, she escapes with a strapping young sailor who kisses her instead of paints her. She made me think of Elizabeth in Mrs. Dalloway. Just when Elizabeth is “blooming” and starting to be noticed for her beauty, she longs to be in the country with her dad and her dogs. One of her captors is Ms. Kilman, who traps Elizabeth with lectures. Elizabeth escapes by taking off like a pirate on a city bus. Pirate… sailor… just pointing it out. What’s so interesting is that the confining nature of beauty still pervades; the drawing room play is still relevant (one of the many reasons why it was so wonderful to hear the Sex Pistols blaring at the end). Though, I don’t think that city buses or affairs with sailors are the best escapes from beauty’s shackles. Piracy is the only answer?

One last point: I disagree with my classmate that Ellen Terry was cast too old. The play was meant to be performed by a group of friends. When I was 5 years old and putting on plays with my friends and family, I played Friar Tuck, a part for which I was too young, female, and way too cute. The actors in Freshwater were playing the Bloomsburies putting on a play not unlike my backyard performance of Robin Hood. It seemed completely appropriate and much more realistic that the actors were not physically ideal for the roles.

“Fun and illuminating. Two thumbs way up.”—Becca Webster

Theatre Review: Virginia & Freshwater

It’s not often that Virginia Woolf is seen in the theatre. Having only written one play, and a play that is rarely produced at that, Woolf does not seem to inspire much in the way of the dramatic arts. However, in one week I saw two theatre pieces that involved her.

The first one, a staged reading entitled Virginia, based on Virginia Woolf’s life was presented at Drama Books on Woolf’s birthday. The staged reading struck me as a piece that did not really have a real reason for being on the stage. It always bothers me when there is no ‘drama’, or action, happening on stage. This staged reading was case in point. Although it followed Woolf’s life from childhood to her ultimate suicide, it was not something that could not have been another literary form, namely an autobiography. Part of the problem was trying to cover Woolf’s entire life in a 90-minute play. Focusing on one aspect of her life might have been more moving, or even if the play had not gone chronologically. To me, the play felt as though I was merely reading an abbreviated Wikipedia entry about her life. One thing did strike me is the choice for three actors to play all the characters, with one play Woolf the entire show and the others play all the male and female roles. It was certainly interesting to see Woolf’s sister and lover double cast as well as her husband and the brother who abused her sexually.

The second piece was a revival of Woolf’s only play, Freshwater. The play is a farce, first and foremost, and to me, the time when I felt like the cast really got the attitude of the play happened as the Sex Pistols version of “God Save the Queen” blasted during curtain call. The rest of the play, the actors seemed to not really understand that their characters were meant to be ridiculous versions of the actual people and instead seemed more insistent on making them more real and creating a crass physical language. This physical language paid off at many points during the play, but during others, it seemed unnecessary. The one thing that bothered me the most, was that Ellen Page, the youngest character in the show, was being played by the oldest actor on stage. When questioned in class, the dramaturg replied that the director does not see age. This, I feel, is a cop-out. It bothered me that the young lieutenant kept referring to her young beauty in their moments, the decision to leave does not seem as reckless and her through line is essentially the only guiding light for the progression of the show, so why miscast the one crucial character? Other than that, the show was enjoyable. The set, reminiscent of a Victorian drawing room painted to resemble a spring weekend was great. The lighting, however, really did need to go to the next level and take us to ultimate-farce land, rather than simply being naturalistic. All in all, the play is a modest representation of Woolf’s only play, but perhaps, since she wrote it as an inside joke for her friends, maybe it should remain that way.

Within the Gap

Michel de Certeau's essay Walking in the City illuminated a recent trip I experienced with my Service Learning group. On Monday, my group decided to take advantage of the warm weather and locate an abandoned Richard Serra sculpture and photograph it in order to make a proposal for its reinstallation, which is the main goal of the project. Though we knew that the sculpture was somewhere in the South Bronx around the 134th Street and the bridge to Randall's Island, we were unsure of its exact location so we spend several hours thoroughly examining the area.

Other than drifting during commutes or "exploring" Manhattan for new restaurants, I never approached my walks around the City with questions such as, "how could something be abandoned here?" and, "how can the abandoned be reintegrated to benefit the community?" Every element of the area had to be examined.

Unsure as to what exactly we were looking for, other than that it would be large and constructed out of steel, we looked anywhere we physically could enter to make sure that we weren't missing anything. Being that the area is mostly occupied by industry storage lots, power generators, and huge warehouses that compress the City’s garbage, there really weren’t many places where we could go. Our search led us to the water bank where we followed a path around the edge of a fenced off plot of generators. We were commenting on the amount of trash on the muddy bank and joking that this sculpture probably didn’t exist when we noticed several flat pieces of metal that were upheld by wooden beams. I don't know who made the observation that we were looking at shelters but, the three of us uniformly turned around and rushed to trace the path back to the street.

We didn't speak for a while.

There was something incredibly disturbing in finding the homeless literally pushed out to the extremes of the City’s space. This five foot wide piece of land between the extent of industry and the natural boundary of water was probably the last remaining physical space that was unclaimed towards the City’s conceptual identity.

I realized that I was so shocked to see the homeless on the outskirts of industry because I've grown so accustomed to seeing them in the highly urban areas of the City. I admit that I interact with the homeless in a similar manner to Richard's interaction with the vagrant woman in Mrs. Dalloway. While Richard "bore his flowers like a weapon," (Woolf, p. 113) it's become my second nature to use a book on the subway as a distraction from having to make eye contact with the homeless. Though I do happen to donate money and occasionally receive a "God Bless," when I say that I don't have any cash on me, which, as a student, is usually the case, I don't feel that interconnection that Woolf so successfully establishes between Richard and the vagrant woman, "still there was time for a spark between them." (Woolf, p.114)

Instead of this sense that everyone is bound by a unifying thread of human existence what remains are questions like Richard's, who initially wonders what could be done about the vagrant woman, presenting her as a problem that must be solved. Here, as discussed in de Certeau's essay, is where the problem of space becomes very real within the City. As Manhattan expands throughout its conceptual space and further develops its own identity, it becomes crucial to regulate its organization since Manhattan is confined to the physical boundaries of the island. Unfortunately, the homeless often fall into the category that de Carteau describes as, "a rejection of everything that is not capable of being dealt with and so constitutes the 'waste products' of a functionalist administration." Organizations and programs are constructed to “solve” these “problems” but they often only create an abstraction of power within the City that extends their administrative and ideal space, while attempting to utilize their limited physical space.

Several Bronx-based groups interested in ecology are currently working on creating a "green path" for bikes from North Bronx to Randall's Island that would run around the outskirts of industry. I can’t help but wonder how this would affect the inhabitants of the shelters.

We did find the Richard Serra sculpture, which was amazing. In that sense, exploring the area really was successful. Still, the shelters linger in my mind.

White peonies, cut short in small silver vases

I have always felt that I was a bit shallow, but now I suspect that I may be extraordinarily shallow.

I began to have the faintest suspicion of the complete shallowness of my character while reading Mrs. Dalloway, because I related to Clarissa Dalloway. I feel ashamed admitting that, but it is true. We are both privileged females living in the Western world, far too often concerned with trivial things.

I had a Mrs. Dalloway moment last week. I was at the Barnes & Noble cafe with my friend Isabella and we were discussing a dinner party that we were going to have. It was going to be very intime but charming, eight in all, in my grandmother's dining room, with bone china and candles in silver holders going down the length of the table. I was going to wear my Age of Innocence dove-gray silk, Isabella was yet undecided on her wardrobe, but it was most likely going to involve large quantities of tulle and netting. We fell to talking about the flowers. White, I said, only white. White peonies, cut short in small silver vases. I was very firm on this point--in fact, I absolutely refused to hear of anything else. Isabella finally gave in arguing for yellow and as she conceded, I had a moment where I thought, this is silly. This is silly to argue for white peonies for a frivolous dinner party. The entire thing is absurd--the flowers, the dove-gray silk, the candles, the dinner party, me--all absurd. 

It was a random moment of first-world guilt. It hits you when you least expect it. Not when you're sitting comfortably at home reading the horrific NYT story about the Sudanese rape victims. Not when you buy a $1400 handbag. Not when you moan and groan about having to get up for class and then see that in other parts of the world, girls are attacked with acid when they go to class. No, first-world guilt always comes unexpectedly--like when you're arguing for white peonies at a cafe table. And then you have to step back, and take a good look at yourself and the world you inhabit. To compare that world to the one in which the majority of humanity lives-- it's nearly impossible to really comprehend the gap between the two. Yes, it is easy to state the differences: a good deal of the world does not know when their next meal is coming and you do, but to actually realize what that means is difficult. Superficially, of course we understand. But internally? Perhaps not so much.

Similarly, the narrator in Woolf's essay "Street Haunting" observes the juxtaposition of the haves and the have-nots of humanity, except on a relatively microcosmic scale--in London. 

It is jarring to go from "the humped body of an old woman flung abandoned on the step of a public building with a cloak over her like the hasty covering thrown over a dead horse or donkey" to suddenly in the very next paragraph, and presumably, in the next street, "everything seems accidentally but miraculously sprinkled with beauty." The speaker observes this contrast, pointing out that:
[The derelicts] lie close to those shop windows where commerce offers to a world of old women laid on doorsteps, of blind men, of hobbling dwarfs, sofas which are supported by the gilt necks of proud swans; tables inlaid with baskets of many coloured fruit; sideboards paved with green marble the better to support the weight of boars' heads...
The speaker observes all this ironic contrast without any middle-class/upper middle-class guilt whatsoever. In fact, when describing "these derelicts," the speaker seems to feel a sense of revulsion over anything else, even pity. There is no attempt to empathize with these unfortunate beings, though the narrator does speculate about their lives, concluding that "life which so fantastic cannot be altogether tragic." While the speaker certainly sees the abject poverty of these people, it is clear that she or he does not truly understand the abject poverty. If the speaker did understand, then she or he would not have said that the derelicts did not grudge them their prosperity--especially when the speaker in question is wandering the streets of London observing its poor and handicapped as one might look at animals in the zoo.  

A first-world guilt attack, for me, usually consists of a reevaluation of my entire life in short questions running through my head: what is the point, what does it matter, what I am doing with my life? The last question generally echoes around my head longer than the rest, because I feel that instead of living a privileged life in the developed world, I should be doing something to help those who aren't. After all, my life as it is now feels like dumb luck--just being born in the right place and time to the right people. I am undeserving of what I have--I think probably most privileged people are. All of humanity equally deserves to lead the lives that we as developed-world inhabitants lead.  

Of course, I only think this way every so often--you forget about the guilt in the onslaught that happens to be your life. First-world worries consume me--like papers and grades and whether I can take a trip this summer or not and should I get bangs and internship applications--all these questions, which seem so insignificant in the larger scheme of things, are so important to me.

Sometimes I look at my life. I examine it closely, turning it this way and that way in my hand, to see if it catches the light. If I am possessed with nothing, I am possessed with ambition and I've recently begun to get a nagging feeling in me, the kind that starts in your throat and settles in the pit of your stomach and keeps you awake at night. It is not failure, exactly, but it's the middle road between success and failure. Mediocrity, I suppose. (I believe it is a first-world privilege to have continual, melodramatic, soul-searching, inner angst.) It's silly, at eighteen, to think this way, but I can't help it. I have this overwhelming sense of being pressed for time--like I have so much to do and so little time to do it all. I look at the quiet, ordinary days of my life so far, the days when I didn't write or come up with a plan to rule the world or nothing extraordinary happened to me, and half of me says those days are wasted and the other half of me says those days are and will be the most important days of my life.

After all, isn't that what Virginia Woolf writes about? Ordinary days, ordinary lives, ordinary people, and yet all are extraordinary. They all inhabit the same world and they all have a distinct viewpoint. Her works are worlds within worlds--and the dichotomy of two very different worlds living side by side to one another. My day may be ordinary and yours may be extraordinary, and yet we live in the same world. The speaker in "Street Haunting" imagines how pearls in an Oxford Street window could change her life and at perhaps at that very corner, there might be "a bearded Jew, wild, hunger-bitten, glaring out of his misery," looking at the same pearl necklace and thinking how it could change his life, but in a vastly different way. Half-way across the world, a girl hides from the rebel soldiers who have invaded her village, crouches, cowers, prays, knows the stories, and waits for her death, and perhaps in that same moment, I say white peonies, cut short in small silver vases. 

Of Turtlenecks and Roses

One of the things that impresses me most about Virginia Woolf is the way she allows characters to communicate without using words (sort of a strange enterprise for a writer). For me, the big moment when this nonverbal communication or communion occurs in Mrs. Dalloway is in when Clarissa quotes the same lines from Cymbeline as Septimus had some time before:

Fear no more the heat o' the sun,
Nor the furious winter's rages

The familiarity with this quote from one of Shakespeare's most obscure works marks Spetimus and Clarissa as people of quality; they are not parroting "To be or not to be", or misusing the word "wherefore" as we could imagine the other guests might. Their shared moment is a more quiet, subtle one that can only shine and exist away from the people around them; for Clarissa, the line first surfaces in silence, in the absence of Lady Bruton's invitation, and for the last time when she is alone, away from her party.

Likewise, in The Mystery Guest, the narrator and his former girlfriend are linked by reading Mrs. Dalloway. This isn't in the excerpt we read in class, but the party they're at is filled with turtleneck-wearing, Dostoyevski-in-the-back-pocket-of-my-skinny-jeans-grade pretentious snots; amid all the windbaggery, the small line from Dalloway, "Roses were the only flower she could bear to see cut", describes a clear path between the two souls.
In neither case is the literary reference reduced to trivia; neither the narrator and his former lover nor Septimus and Clarissa are trying to gain street cred by showing off their knowledge, unlike the others at their parties, like Brierly who has made a career out of bloviating on Milton or the other guys at the fete, one of whom actually and inexcusably mentions Sven Nykvist.

In both cases, the shibboleth is silent or quiet; Clarissa and Septimus never meet, and the narrator in The Mystery Guest barely hears his girlfriend among the white noise of the party. In both of these works, so much of the speech is unnecessary, wrong, or misinterpreted. Holmes speaks a lot, but he doesn't understand much of anything. Jim Hutton can imitate Brierly, unsaddled by understanding, and the narrator's fellow revelers can and do titter away into the night without saying anything original. For the 'heroes' of our two works, literature, operating in silence, becomes the language of the link. 

"Our" House on Ocean Point.

Growing up, I was never really interested in taking photographs with Mickey Mouse or riding the Log Flume on the Wildwood boardwalk. For me, the word “vacation” was synonymous with the thrill of returning to explore a familiar rocky coast, the salty smell of the ocean that lingered in chilly morning air, and falling asleep to the soft, muted lullaby of a foghorn through an open window.

My father’s family has been vacationing in southern Maine since the late 1960s. For the entire month of July, my grandparents would rent an old house named "High Water" (Hi-Watah to the locals) on Ocean Point, an idyllic peninsular seaside community populated with turn of the century cottages. My father, along with his sisters and brother, would spend the month fishing, boating, and exploring the craggy beaches and Pine forests, while my grandparents would play host to an array of guests: second cousins and their lovers, neighbors, in-laws. Even as time went by and their children grew up and started families of their own, my grandparents held fast to their traditional summers in Maine. For better or for worse, my big (and often dysfunctional) family would voyage over ten hours worth of highway and cram into the old cottage.

It couldn’t have been more than a few months before she passed away that I found myself sitting in my grandmother’s living room drinking tea and having a conversation over the books we were reading. She had just begun To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf; she told me about a very brief passage in the book in which Woolf describes a summerhouse. She said the experience of reading the short sentences was one of those rare instances where she could not only relate to the text, but felt, almost eerily, involved.

Nearly three years later, I have stumbled upon the same passage, and finally understand the connection that the matriarch of my family must have felt with Mrs. Ramsay:

“She…saw the room, saw the chairs, thought them fearfully shabby. Their entrails, as Andrew said the other day, were all over the floor; but then what was the point, she asked, of buying good chairs to let them spoil up here all through the winter when the house, with only one old woman to see it, positively dripped with wet? Never mind, the rent was precisely twopence halfpenny; the children loved it; it did her husband good to be three thousand, or if she must be accurate, three hundred miles from his libraries and his lectures and his disciples; and there was room for visitors. Mats, camp beds, crazy ghosts of chairs and tables whose London life of service was done- they did well enough here; and a photograph or two, and books…Things got shabbier and got shabbier summer after summer. The mat was fading; the wall-paper was flapping. You couldn’t tell any more that those were roses on it.” (26-7).

For Mrs. Ramsay, her family’s seasonal seaside home lacks glamour; it does not age gracefully and is outfitted with retired pieces of furniture. “Shabby” as it is, with its faded walls and furniture in need of a good upholsterer, the house serves to unify the Ramsays. She believes the eight diverse Ramsay children love the home. It comforts her to see her husband away from the immediate and visible stresses of academia. The home itself is populated by memories- aged chairs and tables which have undoubtedly seen many of her happiest days. Mrs. Ramsay considers the Scotland house both a happy tomb for bygone days and a symbol for the closeness she wishes for her family in the future.

Our summer house, though we were only its lowly summer renters, unified, and continues to unify, my family. Though all twenty of us lead radically different lives, we share memories of creaky wooden floors, paper-thin walls, antique beds, mismatched consignment sofas, and dusty watercolors of torrid seas. No matter what change the winter months usher into our individual lives, the house stands as a concrete symbol for what it means to be related to one another. For us, as for Mrs. Ramsay, the house transcends its condition.

I have only been back to Maine once since my grandmother died, and it was only with my parents and my brother. We rented a different house. The whole time I couldn’t fight the haunting feeling that we were intruding upon another family’s memories.

Hidden Sights, Hidden Feelings

While Woolf explicitly mentions only her work on To the Lighthouse in the personal diaries she kept during the General Strike, she also reveals in these worrisome journals the impressions, sensibilities, and sense of fear that guide "Street Haunting. If World War I revealed uncertainty and madness in the state of the world, the General Strike revealed uncertainty and madness in Woolf's immediate context-- her beloved London. Gone are Mrs. Dalloway's flowing passages on skywriters, encounters with heads of state, or other such communal experiences. In "Street Haunting," this sense of British national pride is replaced by feelings of solitude and despair, and the vibrant imagery by grotesque figures and hidden "crevices." Rather than a mysterious and intriguing car that may hold the Prime Minister, in her diaries Woolf describes a "commonplace & official" voice reminding the Londoners in a "very trivial" way that the Prince of Wales is returning (woolfonline.com, personal diaries, “5th May 1926).

Woolf encounters the strike with similar unease, feeling a similar sense of desolation. She writes, "...there is a brown fog; nobody is building; it is drizzling... There are no buses. no placards. no newspapers..." (5th May 1926). The strikers have cut off public transportation, the means of Elizabeth's foray into flaneuse-ing. Hence, any woman who wishes to have a wandering, solitary urban experience must instead stroll, like the narrator of "Street Haunting." One can imagine Woolf taking a stroll during this time of unrest, encountering strange rabblerousers, and marveling at the British working class that seems to have crawled out of the woodwork. As Woolf discovers with fright, if the poor are not driving the buses and building the homes, they gather in the public square. Suddenly, the modern urban world seems much more imposing, much more crowded, much more difficult to grasp within the conventional human understanding of the way the world, or the city, is supposed to work. As in Woolf's lengthy dissertations on the "dwarf" and the two blind men, London seems to her "tedious and depressing," while at the same time it presents an "unprecedented spectacle" (5th May 1926).

Woolf's diaries during this period illuminate the point of view of the narrator in "Street Haunting." Though Woolf may have supported the strikers in principle, she fills her diaries with an uncanny sense of fear and instability, rather than with socialist platitudes. "L.(eonard) & I
quarreled last night," she writes, "I dislike the tub thumper in him; he the irrational Xtian in me" (9th May 1926). In this brief interlude, we understand that Woolf does not stand blindly behind Labor ambitions, and indeed, perhaps holds on to some of the flavor of her bourgeois upbringing. She concludes another entry, "Now to dine at the Commercio to meet Clive" ("7th May 1926"). While we would be unfair to expect Woolf to cease the activities of her normal life, Woolf here reveals that she is clearly not among those taking to the streets. Her following entry of May 20th, which mentions chess, tea, and poetry, suggests even more the objective, outside observer of "Street Haunting."

The conversation with Leonard also allows us to witness an instance that might drive Woolf, an "irrational" woman according to Leonard
, to want to "obtain a pencil” (“Street Haunting”). Leonard unfairly attributes Woolf’s perspective purely to her fright, and to what he perceives as prudishness. At the same time, in the wake of the war, Woolf may be right to suggest that more violence and unrest will only make things worse. Woolf hence elucidates why a woman would then turn to her diary, or to a long walk through the dangerous but fascinating streets.

The Irresponsible Wanderer

While Street Haunting is an essay about London, about its characters, it is also an essay about letting go of one’s identity and becoming, or rather realizing that each person is part of something larger. This, perhaps, is why the narrator’s gender and personal identity are so elusive at times, as she slips effortlessly into and out of other people’s lives and stories. Walking through London streets at night is not only amusing and entertaining for the narrator, but it is an escape, as she becomes part of each character and place she comes across.
After we leave our homes, which themselves have over time acquired our identities, Woolf writes, “We are no longer quite ourselves.” This shedding of our skin that we wear so proudly, or with shame, can be entirely liberating, as “who we are” is forgotten whilst shuffling through crowds of “anonymous trampers.” Clarissa Dalloway, felt comforted when she, “…felt herself everywhere; not ‘here, here, here’; and she tapped the back of the seat; but everywhere”(Woolf 167). This feeling of smallness, but also the feeling of being a part of everything can be a relief. It reveals for a moment that “our own temperaments” are not really our “own”, that we can toss them away.
Woolf writes, “But when the door shuts on us, all that vanishes. The shell-like covering which our souls have excreted to house themselves, to make for themselves a shape distinct from others is broken…” When we leave our homes and the objects which sit in the glow of “the memories of our own experience”, our identities become vague and like puddy; we have nothing to support the claims that, “this is who I am,” no objects to use as proof. Immediately, Woolf’s narrator exalts at this moment thinking, “How beautiful a street is in winter!” Moments prior, the narrator says, “The evening hour, too, gives us the irresponsibility which darkness and lamplight bestow,” as if staying true to one’s identity is a responsibility, as if shedding our skin completely is a childish, reckless act. The narrator’s excuse of going out to buy a pencil is significant, as she is still carrying out the responsibilities of her identity. Though we might attempt at times to completely rid ourselves of “ourselves”, be it, “banker, golfer, husband, father,” we do it hesitantly, not delving too deeply into the experience of another, knowing we should “be content still with surfaces only.” Woolf writes, “We halt at the door of the boot shop and make some little excuse, which has nothing to do with the real reason…” And then, “…we may ask… ‘What, then, is it like to be a dwarf?” Rather than superficially and mockingly observing, I believe the narrator is deeply intrigued by the idea of being someone else- that instead of separating or distinguishing herself from this dwarf, she is blurring the lines by attempting to understand and determine her thoughts.
Though this essay reveals the differences of people, of genders, of classes, it also shows that, “we are streaked, variegated, all of a mixture; the colours have run.” Like Clarissa Dalloway, the narrator of Street Haunting asks, “Am I here, or am I there?”
I believe the essay continues Clarissa Dalloway’s thought that, “… the part of us which appears, [is] so momentary compared with the other, the unseen part of us, which spreads wide…”(Woolf 167).