The outcry in 1942 was definitive: Virginia Woolf wrote novels without characters. According to D.S. Savage, Woolf's characters are completely incoherent, “void of internal definition” that would distinguish one character from another or from the world that surrounds them. According to Savage, Woolf's characters are a bit like impressionable teenagers, who, lacking a sense of self, latch on to anything that surrounds them. According to Savage, characters are so “passively caught up in the stream of events, of ‘life', of their own random perceptions” as to be completely inert. In fact, the boundaries between characters and the world are so muddled as to make the text completely incoherent, leading readers to an “undiscriminating and finally pointless embracing of everything featured in Mrs. Dalloway… [which] obviated the very possibility of order achieved through discrimination” (Savage).While too many this will seem like an embarrassing misreading, Savage's critique is important because it reveals how Woolf's characters defied critical expectations in 1942. What constituted “character” for Savage and for Woolf must have been significantly at odds; Something fundamental about what we call “subjectivity” must have shifted between Woolf and her predecessors that can account for poor Mr. Savage's confusion.
[...] In contrast to Savage's internally defined subjectivity, Clarissa literally flings the doors open one mourning, and opens her subjectivity to the world: “What a lark! What a plunge!”(1) Clarissa thinks to herself as she flings the windows open to the London street outside. She finds her subjectivity outside in the streets of London: Her identity is deeply rooted in her surroundings, in physical objects as well as people, she encounters on the street. She is “absorbed”, on several levels, in her surroundings: to her it was absorbing; all this, the cabs passing”. [...]
[...] This mutual gaze with the lady across the way triggers a series of identifications in Clarissa, leading her eventually to a moment of “completion”. Clarissa's definition of subjectivity extends to the view she takes in. Clarissa first identifies with the sky outside: held, foolish as the idea was, something of her own in it”(204). Clarissa expects the sky to be and “dusky, turning away its cheek in beauty”. She expects the view from the window to reflect dispersal and death, to mirror Septimus's death and perhaps her own death. [...]
[...] And yet, windows provide us with the opportunity to catch a glimpse of another life, just as Mrs. Dalloway does, at the room across the way. Clarissa's view isn't perfect, but it does provide her with a small but affirming connection with another: “Clarissa tried to follow her as she turned and disappeared, and could still just see her white cap moving at the back of the bedroom”(140). Finally, both Mrs. Dalloway and Lily's final climactic “visions” involve windows, suggesting that an artists' task is to see the invisible connections inherent in being. [...]
[...] According to Judith Ryan, “modernism with [Henry] James begins to develop a self in which subjectivity is dissolved and and are reduced to a loosely associated bundle of elements”. The self that emerges from Modernism looks quite different from what Savage's “internally defined” self: It is made up of the bits and pieces that constitute experience; seemingly incoherent, but actually made up with a deeper pattern of interconnectedness with the world. Woolf's depiction of subjectivity finds a fellow traveler in the philosophy of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, a French existentialist who wrote nearly thirty years after Woolf's death. [...]
[...] Carmichael's eyes fix on the center piece, so the narrative pauses to allow the reader to dive into the landscape of fruit along with them: “Thus brought up suddenly into the light it seemed possessed of great size and depth, was like a world in which one could take one's staff and climb hills”(146). The centerpiece is like a novel that one can inhabit, a landscape one can journey through. The centerpiece is also like a painting, reminding Mrs. Ramsay of the vine leaves hanging “over the shoulder of Bacchus (in some picture)”. [...]
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