Virginia Woolf ends
Mona Domosh and Joni Seager, in
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” (
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
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
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
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
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.
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” (
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” (
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” (
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 (
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
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
Woolf communicates this space and its unspeakable sense of completeness in
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
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