Finding a Place of One’s Own: Virginia Woolf’s Mrs.
- Author: Carissa Foo C. L.
- Publish: Feminist Studies in English Literature Volume 21, Issue3, p5~35, Dec 2013
Virginia Woolf ends
A Room of One’s Ownentreating women to leave the common sitting-room and experience the world. This paper explores what it means to have one’s own place through an analysis of women’s experience in places of the city and home in Mrs. Dalloway. To create a place of one’s own is to sense and possess places not as how one is supposed to, but how one could and would experience. This paper argues that there is a constructive synergy between women and place that is dependent on their ability to make sense of circumstances and sensuously interact with place. When they experience places for themselves rather than ideological constructs, oppressive localities that propagate femininity and domesticity become potentially liberatory. Place is read anew as characters confront the gender-stratified world, superimposing the ‘places’ of their mind onto place; it becomes suffused with a fleeting and elusive quality that emanates from commingling spaces. This paper posits this sense of place as empowering and pervasive because it does not fixate or delimit; rather, it equips women with a renewed understanding of space that, thenceforth, transforms their relations with place.
Virginia Woolf , feminism , women’s writing , modernism , space , place , gender studies
Mrs. Dalloway(1924) follows the main protagonist, Clarissa Dalloway, as she physically wanders about the more affluent parts of London, exploring the topography of a decadent polis during the postwar period. The novel is set against the backdrop of city streets that envelop the hustle and bustle, sights and sounds of “carriages, motor cars, omnibuses, vans, sandwich men,” summing up an average visual and auditory moment in early twentieth-century London ( MD4). Clarissa experiences the more affluent parts of London and is, as Peter Walsh puts it, “worldly” and “care[s] too much for rank and society” (57). She is set apart from other female characters, and appears to be aligned with patriarchy and imperialism. Scholars such as Renee Dickinson remark how an initial reading of Mrs. Dalloway“fails to provide viable alternatives for women,” noting how “each female character is incorporated into or exiled from patriarchal systems” (1). The tendency to read Mrs. Dallowayas serving the gendered power relations is tempting at first, especially considering how marginalized female characters such as Rezia and the unnamed female vagrant often hide away in parks. This association seems to reinforce the social and gender stratifications of the city. Take for instance, Rezia’s almost immediate response to “take [Septimus] away into some park” when sandwiched by a horde of people (12). She hides her husband away because “failure” must be “concealed” (12). There is a system that decides according to gender, social, and cultural backgrounds where people belong.
Mona Domosh and Joni Seager, in
Putting Women in Place, discuss how the “frenetic gendering and interpreting” of place “sets the stage for conflict—and slyly inserts a hierarchical dichotomy between ‘man’ and the natural world” (175). Places become symbols of power, and spatial stratification is a means of allocating power, associating particular places with certain classes of people and gender. What is worrisome is how readily these constructed myths are internalized as legitimate, uncorrupted truths. Spatial stratification is voiced through Richard Dalloway who associates “female vagrants” and the “poor mothers of Westminster and their crawling babies” with parks ( MD85). Here the narrative traces Richard’s thoughts on mothers and their children, and then shifts immediately to the predicaments of the female vagrant on the bench: “But what could be done for female vagrants?” (85). Richard instinctively groups the maternal and less privileged together and pigeonholes them into one locality, the park. While parks were initially enclosed and private, made “for the houses of the gentry and for the recreation of the rich,” Hilary Taylor, in her comprehensive survey of the history of parks in England, “Urban Public Parks, 1840-1900,” writes that with the Victorian age, they were developed to “improve the lot of the working poor” (202). She points out that by the mid-1800s, parks were made to simulate the countryside—“the park as a vision of nature” (203). Richard’s opinion reflects this vision; but more importantly, he reproduces the spatial polarization that aligns women with nature-like places. He presents the early twentieth-century idea of place where, according to Elizabeth Munson, “a woman alone was not able to walk as freely and easily,” where there were “conduct manuals, urban directories” that limited women’s access (63). In addition, Peter continuously associates Clarissa with Bourton and pastoral England, reiterating a similar gender stratification of place: “He saw her most often in the country, not in London” ( MD112). Like Richard, his comments are filled with hierarchical overtones and indoctrinated with gendered norms. This is not to suggest that the male characters are figures of patriarchy, but they are conditioned to think and behave according to preexisting modalities of gender and class. They unknowingly reify the engendering of places—city as masculine, countryside as feminine—that controls movement about places.
While the poor and outcast find refuge in the park, complying with engendered space, the genteel Clarissa relishes the urban and ordered metropolis, a comparatively more patriarchal site. Her apparent complicity with ideological monoliths may seem to support gendered spatial dichotomies and distinguish her from other women. Yet further analysis reveals that it is her very passion for the city that works against the status quo. Clarissa finds a place of her own by simply remaining and enjoying the city for itself. Her notion of space is not clouded by essentialist ideologies and heteronormative treatment of place; it is not dichotomic. Clarissa does not see the park as refuge or the streets as freedom per se. She merely enjoys the experience of walking these places. Traversing the streets of London is her passion. Her experience in place enables her to see place beyond gender stratifications.
Right from the beginning, Woolf establishes Clarissa’s intense adoration for the city and her devotion to walking the sinuous streets and bends of London; not only does she “love walking in London,” she asserts that it is “better than walking in the country” (
MD5). This immediately undermines and refutes Peter’s constant attempt to align Clarissa with pastoral England: “He saw her most often in the country, not in London” (112). Clarissa’s dissociation from the country is tersely expressed in her physical detachment from Bourton: “I never go there now” (31). This implicitly draws attention to the gendered setup of places. By distancing herself from the country, Clarissa is reluctant to comply with accepted systems of association. While Rezia internalizes the imposed idea that one of a lower position in society belongs in parks and hidden places in the metropolis, Clarissa goes head-to-head against such presumptions and their entrapping incarnations. By refusing the pastoral and maternal and dwelling in the city, Clarissa tears asunder the falsifying façade of place as being benignly functionary.
It is important to note that Clarissa’s love for the city is not an inversion of gendered relations. It is not as simple as shifting from one category, from the countryside to the city, or feminine to masculine. After all, subverting gendered stereotypes by means of inversion does not remove the power structure. It merely indicates a shift in the hierarchy; the ruling caste may change, but ideology and oppression remain. As Alison Light, author of
Forever England, aptly states: “far from being the ideal refuge from the city, secure and unchanging, the country might turn out to be no different at all” (93). In this respect, viewing the country as an alternative to the city is modifying the status quo without challenging the residing power structures. It is thus important to emphasize that Mrs. Dallowaydoes not reinforce ideological polarization of place. In Virginia Woolf and London, Susan Squier notes that although Woolf’s “early view of the city [is of] a male territory often hostile to women,” this shifts to “include an appreciation of the city’s power to embody women’s experience” (7). Clarissa’s embrace of the city is not a spiteful response or an attempt to invert the power structure. Rather, it marks the first step to reexamining gendered relations of place. Albeit a small step, it is a significant move towards working slowly but progressively within the ideological place to find spaces of one’s own, as opposed to adopting a reactionary approach to changes.
Clarissa’s passion for place is not bounded by binaries such as the inside and outside, private and public. Just as she mitigates the ideological overtones of the city, she is also unfazed by the domesticity and confinements of the home. In
Gender Identity and Place, Linda McDowell, a professor of Human Geography, highlights how the home is commonly associated with domesticity, tying women to particular stereotypes: women are “encouraged to identify with and restrict themselves to the home” because “housekeeping [is] seen to rely on women’s ‘natural’ skills and [is] financially unrewarded” (73). Women ‘naturally’ belong to the house and their identities are intertwined with the chores they perform at home. Wendy Gan, a scholar on inter-war British women’s writing, writes on the agendas of place: “women were supposed to belong to the private sphere of hearth and home and men to the public sphere of the city with its institutions of politics and commerce” (49-50). In addition to the gendered setup of the city and the countryside, the public and private are also strategically designed to instill order.
Despite the apparent spatial stratification, Mrs. Dalloway makes ambiguous the distinction between the domestic and public space, breaking down traditional allocations of space. For instance, Clarissa’s first stepping into her house portrays the domestic home as a “vault,” an enclosed structure that protects (22). She describes the experience as being “like a nun who has left the world,” which is the bustling streets of London (22). While this paints the house as a sterile and ascetic hiding place compared to the blooming city, the attention drawn to the details of the abode quickly rejects any dichotomizing. Clarissa feels “blessed and purified” as she is welcomed by “the click of the typewriter,” the cook’s whistling and the “gay sounds” and “green lights”; these “moments” are like “buds on the tree of life, flowers of darkness” (22). Her perception of place goes beyond the physical as she is captivated by auditory and other sensory images of place. Clarissa does not distinguish between the exterior and interior places, and is certainly not limited by the physical makeup of the places. The physical constraints of place do not limit its potential to provoke mental wanderings and contemplation. The home and its rooms, despite the lack of spaciousness, are just as capable of intermingling past and present sensibilities, and blurring distinctions.
1The hall is the larger room in a house that receives guests. Other terms for this include the parlour, the living room, and the sitting room.
The private rooms upstairs are intimate and exclusive getaways where Clarissa, as other women, can hide away from the chaos of the outside world. The attic room, in particular, is stripped down and sparsely furnished with a narrow bed. It is a room of rest where “like a nun withdrawing,” Clarissa “must put off [her] rich apparel” (23). This exclusive space grants her a canvas onto which her subjectivity and consciousness can be mapped.
The room is a blank slate where Clarissa can map out her contemplations. There is an explicit relation between the “emptiness about the heart of life” with “an attic room” (23). In
The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard describes a sense of clarity where in such rooms as the attic, encumbrances are stripped off: “Up near the roof all our thoughts are clear” (18). Likewise in Mrs. Dalloway, in the attic room, women have to “put off their rich apparel” to appear discreet at midday (23). This is reiterated in the cleanliness of the sheets and how they are “tight stretched in a broad white band from side to side” (23). The layout of the room reflects the “emptiness” (23). There is an interconnectivity between place and the individual, where Clarissa adapts to the function of the room and, in return, is empowered by its tranquility.
As she retreats into the attic, the room above all, she pieces together a distant memory of Sally and herself. She goes on to contemplate the “question of love,” re-considering her relationship with Sally: “this falling in love with women” (24). Significantly, Clarissa is brought back to a particular night where Sally “rushed off in a passion” to her place and the couple “sat, hour after hour, talking” in a room “at the top of the house” (25). It is no coincidence that Clarissa in her attic room specifically recalls an experience she once had in a similar attic-like place. In that moment, the actual place of the attic room in London intermingles with the remembered “bedroom at the top of the house” in Bourton and a liminal space opens up as temporal and spatial walls are transgressed. In coalescing her memories of Sally in the room in Bourton and her present reflection of that memory in her attic room, Clarissa incidentally brings together a space that goes beyond the temporal and physical—a place, created through her idiosyncrasies, that extends the spatial dimensions of the transfixed place. Time is polychronic as the happenings of multiple temporalities actuate simultaneously. The void of the room is filled with memories, while the remembered room is superimposed on the empty slate of the present attic room.
As Clarissa recollects how Sally and she talked about reforming the world, meaning to find “a society to abolish private property,” the crux of the memory lies not in their decision to rise up against capitalism, but in their camaraderie (25). The scene of them discussing divulges a “quality which could only exist between women” and this tight bond is more relevant than the actual execution of their plans (25). Clarissa reflects that it is only “on looking back” that she sees “the purity, the integrity, of her feelings for Sally” which “was not like one’s feeling for a man” (25). This epiphany would not have been possible without her present consciousness and position. The dialogue between the past and present Clarissa, between the past and present rooms, has to manifest in the physical, at present attic room, in order for a fresh understanding of the respective past experiences to unravel. The room is spatially confining and lacks spaciousness compared to the open streets; but it is its physical narrowness that stimulates the mind to explore a space that subsumes diversified subjectivities, expanding linear space while destabilizing chronological time.
Another room in the home that empowers women to carve a niche for themselves is the kitchen. Conventionally, it stands as the epitome of feminine space, shackling women to domestic chores. Yet far from inhibiting women in
Mrs. Dalloway, it provides insulation from politics and subordination—something only possible through the expansion of one’s sense of place. One has to rethink one’s relation with place. As the Dalloway household receives its guests in the hall and rooms, Mrs. Walker is diligently cleaning up and preparing the food. It is noted that she is of a lower social position than Clarissa. While Clarissa has the comfort and peace of the upper room, Mrs. Walker is relegated to the margins of the home. Her apathy towards the guests has a two-fold significance: firstly, it uncovers the relation between women and domestic place; and secondly, it challenges social and gender modalities. In the scene of the party, where Mrs. Walker is busy preparing for service and the Prime Minister arrives, social and gender distinctions converge. The Prime Minister here represents two powers: the male patriarch, and the highest authority in society. Despite his prominence, Mrs. Walker is indifferent to his arrival: “Did it matter, did it matter in the least, one Prime Minister more or less? It made no difference at this hour of the night to Mrs. Walker” (120). On one hand, her stoic composure may be the response of a woman benumbed to mundane and routine domestic work. On the other, more significantly, the indifference reveals how the space of the kitchen allows her to dispense with ceremony, deliberately ignoring hierarchical and social classes.
This nonchalance is not simply a resigned acceptance of the chores that have been thrown upon Mrs. Walker. In refusing to acknowledge the presence of the honoured guest, she is in fact making slight of the Minister’s sovereignty and the power with which he is associated. Her “saucepans, cullenders, frying-pans, chicken in aspic, ice-cream freezers, pared crusts of bread, lemons, soup tureens”—and the inexhaustible list goes on—trump the Minister’s entrance: “one Prime Minister more or less made not a scrap of difference” (120). Outside the kitchen, such audacity and irreverence would not be tolerated. Yet in the banality and routineness of her chores, she has somehow acquired power in the place of the kitchen that allows her to ignore and thereby act against the strict hierarchical order to which she is subjected.
The Practice of Everyday Life, de Certeau suggests that “without leaving the place where he has no choice but to live,” the individual can still “establish within it a degree of plurality and creativity” (30). He speaks of a strategy that makes do with the circumstances into which one is thrown. The kitchen may be a symbol of the entrapment of women—an absolute domesticity—but as soon as Mrs. Walker “delimits” her own place from the “environment,” that is, the kitchen as a place “bewitched by the invisible powers” of patriarchy and gender stratification, she acquires power (de Certeau 30). The delimiting of her space is enabled through Mrs. Walker’s busyness in the kitchen. Her way of busying herself, performing everyday chores, is a practice that she acquires while adapting to the place to which women have been assigned.
In “Negotiating Space in the Family Home,” Moira Munro and Ruth Madigan affirm that “women often create social space […] by using their role as ‘housewife’ or ‘carer’ to distance themselves” (115). By deliberately busying herself, Mrs. Walker is creating that social space, carving a space for herself. In this space, she is able to control the forces of society by interpreting them in the language of her own space: she sees the Prime Minister as nothing more than her pots and pans in the kitchen. In transforming the domestic place of the kitchen into a space of her own, disparities in social standing are negotiated. The kitchen is no longer a mere physical locality, but a space capable of diluting rigid social distinctions. Manipulating the space and language of the kitchen, Mrs. Walker brings the Prime Minister down from his lofty pedestal to her level of pots and pans and repetitious chores. She is more caught up with the doneness of the salmon than the grandness of his arrival. De Certeau terms this the “mastery of places” where one can “transform foreign forces into objects that can be observed and measured” (36). It is arguable that, despite creating a space of her own, Mrs. Walker still remains a servant, excluded from the party and on-goings in the hall; yet, it should be emphasized that her acquired power is not one that catapults her from a low social position to a higher one. It is not about moving up the ranks. Rather, it is about how women master the practices of place and acquire a way of experiencing and working within places that oppress them. Being emplaced no longer disempowers them, but the very predicament of being confined pushes them to create for themselves spaces of their own.
Just as the kitchen empowers Mrs. Walker to neglect the Prime Minister, the hall, as the party venue, levels distinctions between the guests. Despite the Minister’s elaborated entrance with Richard escorting him, “nobody look[s] at him” (125). They acknowledge that he is the “symbol of what they all stood for, English society,” yet they continue talking amongst themselves(125). In the liminal space created by the hall area where guests are received, cumbersome social ties, ranks and formalities are temporarily displaced. Celine Rosselin, in “The Ins and Outs of the Hall” discusses the “progressive spatial transition” that occurs in the hall (58). She attests to how “the hall allows the transition from one status to another”; it is a “space of reversals” (59). The hall is a threshold where the guests are reduced or elevated respectively to one another’s position; they become relatively equal. It is a liminal place where transpositions and transitions occur. Irreconcilable differences are mediated as people participate and interact in the given space. This is emphasized by Clarissa’s confession to how every time “she gave a party she had this feeling of being something not herself,” quite forgetting “what she looked like” (
MD124). Through the use of the “background” of the party (the hall area), Woolf allows distinction and segregation to be “forgotten” (124). The space of the hall mitigates the separating effects of dichotomies and becomes a place where each individual can view another on relatively equal grounds.
In addition to manipulating the hall area to marry and bring together distinctions, Woolf also uses the premises of the hall to distance the familiar. The Prime Minister, a known representative of the English society, is taken for a stranger while Elizabeth becomes a foreign “lovely girl” whom Richard watches at the party (141). As Richard encounters Elizabeth walking down the stairs, he does not immediately recognize her. He perceives his daughter from a distance—she is a stranger to him—and begins to appreciate her beauty: “Elizabeth had felt him looking at her […] He had looked at her, he said, and he had wondered, who is that lovely girl? and it was his daughter!” (141). The hall here creates a healthy distance, an estrangement, that rejuvenates the father-daughter relationship. Liesl Olsen affirms this in Modernism and the Ordinary, writing that the “regularity” and “hollowness” of modern life, denoting “stability, efficiency, and comfort,” “must be radically shaken up” (4-5). The ordinariness of experience brings society to a state of equilibrium that dulls the senses, and in order to move away from such habit, there need be a shaking. It is this jolting of individuals from their comfort zones that allows a rekindling of affection in desensitized relationships. Nowhere else in the novel captures such an intimate and endearing moment between Richard and Elizabeth: “but Richard was proud of his daughter. And he had not meant to tell her, but he could not help telling her […] That did make her happy” (
MD141). It is a moment of connection made possible through the temporary estrangement enabled in a place.
Through the avenue of the hall, ordinary and accustomed modes of association and thought-processes can be “re-seen or seen anew” (Olson 4). It serves as an in-between zone where people are stripped of the inhibitions and habits with which they are associated, and are placed in similar standing with others. In the given spatial premises, they assume new lenses and re-perceive relationships. They may possess remnants of their original identities, but they simultaneously take on new personas, as in this description of Clarissa: “Every time she gave a party she had this feeling of being something not herself, and that everyone was unreal in one way; much more real in another. It was, she thought, partly their clothes, partly being taken out of their ordinary ways” (
MD124). The background of the party (the hall area) takes people away from their comfort zones and strips them of their accolades and positions. It temporarily blurs social distinctions; the Prime Minister looks as “ordinary” as a “[chap] behind a counter” (125). The hall unsettles hierarchies and makes it “possible to say things you couldn’t say anyhow else,” enabling people, who would usually not associate with each other, to socialize and mingle (124). In her analysis of Mrs. Dalloway, Squier discusses how Clarissa’s parties are “subversive” and “promise to bring together not just different people, but different sectors of the city, perhaps even different classes” (99). While the party is the social event, and it does bring the public into the private domain, the hall is the physical liminal zone that intensifies the sense of subversion and transformation. It is a place of interchange, facilitating the crisscrossing of the private/public, interior/exterior. In the hall, the distinction between the powerful and pedestrian fades away. It is an exemplification of transformative place. This place is able to invert power relations and is, in spite of its physical structure, mutable according to one’s sense of place.
The notion of finding a place of one’s own has hitherto been about transforming spaces and subverting traditional ideas of places. In the aforementioned places, the individual thoroughly involves herself in place. Invoking Woolf’s contemplations on the need for women to “see human beings not always in relation to each other but in relation to reality,” it is pertinent that one directly mingles with place, to throw oneself into place, in order to truly experience what it means to exist (
Room131). To find a place of one’s own and to make sense of one’s space, one’s interiority needs to be intertwined with exteriority. The crisscrossing of interior (the mind) and exterior places is elaborated in “The Metropolis and Mental Life,” in which Georg Simmel describes how the “swift and continuous shift of external and internal stimuli” intensifies the “emotional life” of the individual (325). He iterates how the mental life of modern individuals cannot be separated from physical place in which they are emplaced.
An instance in the novel that illustrates the interplay of interiority and exteriority, in which the individual is united with place, is the brief experience Clarissa has onboard an omnibus:
While Clarissa embraces the physical setting by directly tapping the seat, it is apparent that her sense of space expands beyond the parameters of the omnibus to a pervasive “everywhere,” where people can be “[sought] out” and characters can be known through places (111). The resounding inability to exactly capture or extract a concrete commentary of Clarissa’s meaning of space subverts the gender stratification, ideological and essentialist encumberments that have burdened the respective forms of place and space. The narrator’s summation, “She was all that,” seems to indicate that Clarissa is defined and suspended in the space that surrounds her. Yet the reluctance to make tangible what exactly “that” is, other than finding her kith and kin and places, renders Clarissa almost enigmatic, undermining her autonomy.
The apparent “lack of essence” of Clarissa may position her in a state of transition that promises liberty, yet disguised beneath is in fact, as Christine Battersby in her discussion on general gender politics aptly explains, “simply a stage en route to a new developmental fixity” (348). Clarissa’s deceivingly
neither-here-northerebut almost-everywheredisposition is a liminal state of consciousness where the mind attempts to negotiate between interiority and exteriority. This liminality that laces Clarissa’s sense of space is important to the process of finding of a place of one’s own; for it grounds spatiality in a specific somewhere that cannot be exactly pinpointed. It follows that place can be created almost anywhere as long as women are willing and empowered to take up this sense of space, as Clarissa does.
The sense of space is exemplified in the scene where Clarissa walks towards Bond Street. As she looks at the Dutch painting along the way, a part of her lives and becomes tangible through the art. Concurrently, her physical and real self seems to be unwinding and becoming nothing. Tension arises between the interiority (Clarissa’s consciousness) and exteriority (the painting)—it is as though Clarissa is neither her actual self nor manifested in the portrait, and yet she seems to have utterly permeated the narrative:
This particular occasion illustrates how the actual walking up Bond Street unwinds the social identities wrapped around Clarissa, accentuating once again the dynamics of inside and outside. As Clarissa gazes at the Dutch picture, she concurrently deconstructs and re-constructs herself. The timely insertion of the parentheses at this point, where she ponders the identities that she assumes, is imperative because the artwork fuses Clarissa’s thought-processes with the physical and static picture—her body is mirrored in the Dutch picture. The exact content and image are unknown, but the very form of a picture suggests a semblance to a realness somewhere else. It is a represented, painted version of reality that only distances itself further from what it seeks to portray. As Clarissa contemplates her existence, the picture allows her thoughts to be mapped out physically, while her sense of invisibility becomes flesh through the actual canvas before her.
What is intriguing is, despite the ongoing exchange, nothing of the ambiguous Dutch picture is envisioned, nor can a more concrete essence of Clarissa’s existence be extracted. Through her thought-processes, provoked by the external stimulus (Dutch painting on Bond Street), a liminal space opens. Clarissa ceases to see herself as a subject in relation to her gender and social roles and does not scrutinize the subject or composition of the picture. Woolf deliberately omits information on the picture and skillfully manipulates the diction (“seemed nothing,” “invisible,” “unknown,” “unseen,” and “no more”) to delineate a seeming sense of emptiness from the external that can only be filled by the imaginative power of the inner mind. The intermingling of interiority and exteriority clouds the distinctions between Clarissa’s actual experience and thoughts. This is especially demonstrated when her identity is obscured as she ruminates on the Dutch painting: “she had the oddest sense of being herself invisible; unseen; unknown” (8). This space, created through the interaction of exterior place and interior space, does not compartmentalize, but opens up possibilities. Thus, although by the end of the short episode, Clarissa is stripped of the encumberments of identity and left with a deluge of possibilities, and the picture is nothing more than a passing sight, a mysterious and inexplicable sense of unity emanates from the exchange. It is precisely this mysterious aura that gives the created space its unique quality; it grants a motility and adaptability that enables women’s places to be transported and situated almost anywhere, from the open city streets to the tight spaces of the home.
A reading of Woolf’s autobiographical writing, “A Sketch of the Past,” may shed light on this elusive sense of completeness that surrounds the spaces women create. Woolf recalls a time when she walks into Kensington Gardens and is “suspended” as “everything suddenly became unreal” (78). She experiences a “collapse,” much like the peeling off of identities that clothe Clarissa, and as this occurs, she is all at once “exposed to a whole avalanche of meaning that [has] heaped itself and discharged itself” upon her “unprotected” and exposed self. In that instant, she becomes “motionless” (“Sketch” 78). Woolf describes the sensuous experience: “I see myself as a fish in a stream; deflected; held in place; but cannot describe the stream” (80). Although she stands still and is immobilized in a physical location, the aura of the place that transports and carries is like a raging stream that escapes definition. The idea of being immobilized by movements from the surrounding spatial images is supported by Bachelard, who expounds on how the immensity of the intangible can move an individual without physically getting the individual to move: “the movement of a motionless man” originates “in a body of impressions which, in reality, ha[s] little connection with geographical information” (184-5). He postulates a paradoxical stasis where the individual stands still but moves through flowing impressions of recollections of the past and imagination. While impressions cannot literally move an individual, the thoughts and images triggered in place can transport the individual back and forth in a created space.
As Woolf meditates on specific places, there is a commingling of the images as places are replayed through her memories, and also her imagination:
Woolf’s perception of Kensington is a mix of the intangible and capricious faculties of the mind and senses. The Kensington she sees is the actual garden but
not-quitebecause a memory of Kensington has invaded her at present consciousness. The result is a coalescence of two Kensingtons in an envisioned space that, despite her fragmentary recollections, exudes a sense of holism. It is the precise inability to articulate the concreteness of place, the ineloquence of expressing feelings of place, which enables this space to permeate and extend beyond physical, political, and social delimitations.
Woolf communicates this space and its unspeakable sense of completeness in
Mrs. Dallowaywhen Clarissa remembers the lake at Bourton. As Clarissa articulates the word, “lake,” two images are brought to mind—the lake she visited when “she was a child” and the lake she came to when she “was a grown woman” (31). While the lake she visits at a younger age is set up to be more engaging and activity-filled, with her “throwing bread to the ducks,” the lake in the latter recollection is still and exudes an air of somberness:
The lake, in reality, is unchanged, yet through Clarissa’s reenvisioning, two starkly different images of the same physical site are presented. Concurrently, two subjectivities of Clarissa at different stages of her life also emerge.
As Clarissa recounts her childhood and reflects on her existence, she integrates parts of her childhood and adulthood—of which both are rather fragmented accounts—and joins them up until they “be[come] a whole life, a complete life” (31). What appears to be a haphazard montage of separate and nonlinear scraps of memory evolves into a more comprehensive biography of Clarissa, revealing insight to her past. Concrete and hard facts may be absent in this depiction but one gets a glimpse of Clarissa’s interiority through the overlapping of both places. The insouciant bourgeoisie has a stolid and contemplative moment where an unnamed emotion catches her heart. Just as she sinks into a moment of epiphany, the reader is likewise drawn into the evanescent moment created by the dialogue of spatiality encouraged in place.
For women, finding a place of one’s own is a process; it is the act of constructing spaces from the places they experience. It is not so much the exacting of a physical site, but a creation of space through the experience of physical place. By the same token, the sensibility that overwhelms individuals—one that empowers them to rethink relations and meaning—takes precedence over the identification of specific emotions. Returning to the episode where Clarissa fuses the two memories of the lake, Clarissa is confounded by “the pressure of an emotion which caught her heart, made the muscles of her throat stiff, and contracted her lips in spasm as she said ‘lake’” (31). This unknown “emotion” lingers throughout her recollection and touches Peter: “that emotion, reached him doubtfully; settled on him tearfully; and rose and fluttered away [...] Quite simply she (Clarissa) wiped her eyes” (32). It is a surreal moment where words and emotions are conveyed without verbal expression. Sensing the emotion, Peter is overwhelmed and responds to Clarissa “as if she drew up to the surface something which positively hurt him as it rose” (32). It is as though the emotion has spoken for them as Peter and Clarissa seemingly engage in a dialogue that is held in thoughts. While nothing more is said of the emotion, it is implicit that it is an affect that is related to the lost love and time they once had; it is something that Peter and Clarissa both experience, but cannot seem to adequately put to words. In the moment of exchange, barriers between Peter and Clarissa, time and space dissolve. In the space of the two memories of the lake, there is a celebration of unity. The emotion is intangible, yet has the ability to provoke and “ma[ke] the muscles of [Clarissa’s] throat stiff” (31).
This inexpression can be elucidated in
Practicewhere de Certeau speaks of “a knowledge” that one “bear[s] witness to without being able to appropriate it” (71). Similar to the aura surrounding the space in which Clarissa has forged from her past memories and present consciousness, this knowledge is never graspable—it is “anonymous” (de Certeau 71). De Certeau analyzes the activities that people practice in order to operate in society and often, out of these practices come adaptability, creativity, theories, stories and even survival skills. Clarissa’s fancy for walking and thinking, her tendency to trespass various physical and mental sites are examples of practices that articulate perspective. While these practices unravel “configurations of knowledge,” they do take the form of “a knowledge that subjects do not reflect” (de Certeau 70). On this particular knowledge, de Certeau expounds:
In the novel, the practitioner is the involved character who recalls or participates in a physical or mental activity while the nonpractitioner is any person, thing or place that is comparatively less engaged, one that is being remembered. In the passing on of knowledge—knowledge that is constantly changing as spatial points and subjectivities of the past and present intersect—the individual in question does not hold an absolute sense of knowledge per se. It is in the processes of conveying and through dialogues that the holistic and integral sense of knowledge pervades. It is a knowledge that is “unaware of itself” (70). This unawareness is translated into the inability to express but its presence is pervasive. Herein is the aura, a cadence and beauty, which marks place; it is this pervasive and sensuous experience of space that empowers women to venture beyond the trappings of the places to which they are relegated.
Place as elusive yet pervasive is most profoundly expressed in one of Woolf’s earlier works, “The Mark on the Wall,” where upon reading, a quasi-void, or an elusive shade, hangs over the text. The protagonist sits in a tight space and fixates on the mark on the wall before her. She is physically still, but ideas and guesses about what the mark may be wash over the narrative. Experiencing an influx of ideas is vaguely expressed in the essay as “spaces of light and dark,” “blots of an indistinct color”; even the protagonist herself surrenders in the attempt to put a mark to it: “I don’t know what....” (61).
The laconic and pensive
I don’t know...tells not only of the immense difficulty to articulate the mysterious shades of space, but perhaps also alludes to how women create and find places of their own. I don’t know…captures a sense of openness and indeterminateness, urging the individual to continue seeking and searching. There is a presentness and on-going quality about it. It does not mean ignorance or resignation, but points to women subconsciously transforming place and integrating their own sense of space into wherever they are situated. Finding a place of one’s own may mean literally settling down in a room and writing on a desk. Still more saliently, it is about acquiring a sense of space where places are materials from which that sense is constantly being forged. Women can only have a place of their own if they detach themselves from their relations to things as presented for them, and begin to experience and learn of themselves in relation to the material world.