Sunday, December 5, 2010

Between the Acts

Many different ideas emerge in Between the Acts. It was suggested in class that this work is more relaxed than much of her work. Woolf seems to be moving away from the idea of “I” to more of a collective “we.” This makes her more relatable because the reader feels included rather than preached to. This novel becomes less about pushing her own opinions on others and more about how the common reader thinks and feels. This different approach ties into the theme of many individuals coming together as a community and acting as a single unit. It seems that Woolf is comparing the mind of the individual to the mind of the group. The individual perceives the world as it applies to only her/him whereas the group perceives how something as it affects everyone. There is more freedom in acting as a group. Where an individual may be less inclined to push an issue because only they find it relevant, and group has no such obstacle. A group is full of others who believe the same thing and so the group feels more empowered to do something about it.

Something I found completely ironic is Woolf’s question in the novel of “Did the plot matter?” She goes on to suggest that the plot does not really matter because emotion can be created within the reader without one. However, to me at least, this novel is one of the closest to having a plot that we have read this semester. Is it the conflicts within the novel (ie: Isa’s marriage to Giles) that makes the novel so much more plot-like? It fuels and carries the story forward and adds something to be worked out or worked on throughout the course of the novel.

Critical Article, Liesl M. Olson

One point Olson makes is that “Woolf's finest writing calls attention to ordinary experiences in a world full of ordinary things. “ I wonder if this fascination with making the ordinary extraordinary is a productive of Woolf’s illness. Mrs. Dalloway is a very intense and consuming novel yet nothing stereotypically spectacular happens in it-it is just the thoughts of ordinary people in their ordinary lives, which Woolf herself mentions in “Modern Fiction” when she speaks of observing “an ordinary mind on an ordinary day.”

Another idea Olson brings up is that “If Mrs. Dalloway explores how people respond to change- the shift from war to peace, the pressures within the class system, and the realizations wrought by a family's growing older - then we might understand Woolf's focus on ordinary events as showing how her characters normalize these changes. “ This is a really interesting take on why Woolf focuses so much on the ordinary. A pattern I have noticed time and again when people go through a tragedy of some sort is that they focus all their energy on everyday tasks and somehow this enables them to better deal with their tragedy.

Olson uses Mrs. Dalloway as an example of Woolf’s focus on the ordinary “as a source of knowledge about another person.” This suggests that if you can be exposed to a person’s thoughts about an ordinary day in his or her life then you can know much about that person’s character. Olson refers to the ordinary as a “powerful force” here and reinstates its ability to prevail over the traumatic.

Olson speaks of “Woolf’s distinction between moments of being and non-being.” She suggests that this shows Woolf’s view that the modern novel should not be made up entirely of “heightened moments of self-consciousness” but also of the ordinary and everyday occurrences of life. Basically, she believes that novels should not be completely based on once-in-a-lifetime occurrences but also look at how the character acts in everyday life in order to be well-rounded and complete. This view shows a character as they are when not facing disaster or strange happenings.

Olson uses the example of Septimus to explain the importance of the ordinary. She suggests that he is best revealed when doing ordinary and habitual things; that “unselfconscious routines reveal who these people are.” She explains that this is seen in Clarissa as well. She cannot recall what Peter Walsh is currently doing but she reflects back onto things about him that are constant and unchanging. She remembers by his ordinary habits than by the exact things he has done or is doing.

Olson speaks also on Woolf’s ideas in her essay about Jane Austen. Woolf approves of Austen’s ability to make the ordinary things of life so revealing of her characters. She believes that it can cause a character’s own “self-revelation.”

Olson, Liesl M. “Virginia Woolf's ‘Cotton Wool of Daily Life’.” Journal of Modern Literature, Vol. 26 2003. 42 -65.

Critical Article, Susan M. and Edwin J. Jr. Kenney

The Kenney’s have a different way of describing Woolf’s illness in relation to her works. They find that “By thinking of Virginia Woolf and her fiction as manic-depressive, "mad," or even just plain "out of control," many biographers and critics thus deny her the element of control over her life that we find so evident in her diaries, letters, memoirs, and manuscripts, and also in other people's recollections of her.” I think that this view can be applied to Mrs. Dalloway-Septimus has often been described as Clarrisa’s insane side yet Clarrisa herself manages to keep her own bit of madness under control and directs it into other things like her parties. We see this when Clarrisa is mulling over Septimus’ suicide, she has enough “madness” to find the idea of suicide pleasant and understandable yet she has enough control to not act on those impulses but rather continue to persevere.

The Kenneys suggest that Woolf embraced her illness and did not want rid of it, that “she was also unwilling to give up the compensations that what she called her mystical illnesses provided her, ranging from a chance to lie down and rest to a plunge into the unconscious to find fresh material for fiction; and therefore she was bound, if not determined, to keep the "illness." This causes me to wonder how different Woolf’s writing would have been without her illness, or if she would have written at all. Would she have been capable of calling the same intrigue into mundane things with her illness? Or would she have not attempted to write about the ordinary at all?

In the article, the Kenneys talk about Woolf’s husband, Leonard, and his role in helping her cope. They describe the times when Leonard had to make the choice to either encourage or dissuade Virginia from writing in order to prevent a breakdown. However, they suggest that this was not all Leonard’s doing but that Woolf also exercised much control over this aspect of her illness – that she understood when writing would either help or hinder her ability to neutralize her episodes. The Kenneys push even further down this train of thought; they ask questions that go deeper into why this worked and what this therapy shows.

They Kenneys discuss how Virginia related the completion and reception of her books to her childhood thus explaining why she reacted so strongly towards the finishing of a work. They suggest that she was somehow acting not really towards her works but rather towards events in her past that the works forced her to relive. One instance of this is the death of Virginia’s mother. Virginia always felt guilty for not acting appropriately grief-stricken at that time and has attempted to atone for that ever since by replaying it in her mind and trying again.

Virginia’s breakdowns are seen in this article as temporary vacations of a sort from reality when her emotions were just too much for her to deal with. It is also suggested that Virginia used her writing as a way to deal with these emotions as well; that she worked out how she felt about the past on paper in order to make such feelings easier to approach and deal with.

Kenney, Susan M. and Kenney, Jr., Edwin J. “Virginia Woolf and the Art of Madness.” The Massachusetts Review, Vol. 23 1982. 161 -185.

Critical Article, Thomas C. Caramagno

Caramagno opens with this quote from one of Woolf’s letters: “As an experience, madness is terrific I can assure you, and not to be sniffed at; and in its lava I still find most of the things I write about. It shoots out of one everything shaped, final, not in mere driblets, as sanity does. And the six months-not three-that I lay in bed taught me a good deal about what is called oneself.” (Virginia Woolf, Letters 4: 180). I feel that this quote sums up so much about Woolf as a writer and explains many of the whys in Mrs. Dalloway. Caramagno more or less uses this quote as proof of what he believes of Woolf, that her illness allowed her to write in a way that was so drastically different from others.

An interesting common view that Caramagno brings up is that “Woolf became an artist because she was a neurotic, that she filled her books with references to death and strange desires for a depersonalized union with the cosmos because she was afraid to live fully outside fiction.” The first part of this statement I fully agree with; however, I am not certain I completely agree that she did not live fully. Yes, she placed limits on herself to some degree but I think that she lived as fully as possible with her illness and those things that she could not do within her real life-she lived out in her fiction. She does what she thinks is best not only for herself but for her family.

Caramagno suggests in his article that Woolf was describing the sane and insane versions of herself in Mrs. Dalloway via Clarrisa and Septimus-that she was aware of her manic-depressive state and used the novel to portray the ups and downs of her mindset. He believes that Woolf was searching for a connection between her sane and insane sides (aka Clarrisa and Septimus) via her writing. That she was attempting to make the two parts of herself come together somehow.

Caramagno speaks to the nature of Woolf’s manic episodes. He explains that when people experience this mania “They re-create the world and replace it with inflated visions of themselves.” This would explain why so many of Woolf’s works had to do with either herself, people she knew, or a combination of the two. It seems to me that she used this mania to her advantage and portrayed the lives of others in the way that she perceived them. Caramagno explains that Woolf’s manic episodes differed in their severity. That when she was only mildly manic she was able to direct that extra energy into her works; only when she was severely manic did she become “mad.”

Caramagno says that the depressed spend a lot of time looking back over their entire lives searching for the moment that caused them to be depressed. Perhaps this would also explain Woolf’s reasons for writing so much about her own life and childhood; maybe she was using her writing to explore her past and find that moment that Caramagno speaks of. He believes this moment to have been when Woolf suddenly loses her mother because her first breakdown occurred not much longer after that.

Caramagno, Thomas C. “Manic-Depressive Psychosis and Critical Approaches to Virginia Woolf's Life and Work.” PMLA. Vol. 103, 1988. 10 -23.