Many Americans over 60 live in “active adult” communities governed by homeowner’s associations (HOAs). Sunland is one of these communities located in the fictional town of Desert Springs, California. It is a type of way-station for many residents between a home and a rest home. The advertising says “For active adults 55 years and older” but many of the residents are in their 80s. The community has been in operation for 15 years and some residents have lived at it from the beginning while others are newly arrived to the community. The mixture of old and new (age and relative youth) is a constant theme in the story.
The story is told from the perspective of an ambiguous narrator. Is the main character telling the story? Or does a side-character tell the story? Part of the story is the search for this narrative voice. In effect, the quest to discover the best voice to relate a story might be the real goal for the protagonist of a story.
To carry this idea into our story of Sunland, the viewer/reader is confused at first as to who is telling the story. An attempt to create a particular part of Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse in a screenplay and to visualize these moments on the screen in a modern way. (See the attached excerpt from Chapter 5 of To the Lighthouse.) This is one of the most important passages in modern literature, heralding the representation of truth from multiple narrators of the story. Some present and some not present. The various voices make the truth of the situation in the novel more difficult to discover for the reader. It requires a greater reader participation because not only is the reader trying to piece together the story plot, the voice telling the story must also be pieced together. As Erich Auerbach notes in his brilliant essay “The Brown Stocking” in his revolutionary book on literary criticism called Mimesis, the passage offered something very new in the way western literature represented reality.
Part of the mystery, for the viewer/reader is trying to figure out which is the best voice to listen to in trying to figure out a growing mystery that envelops the community of Sunland. Various character voices see the truth in different ways. And within characters there are conflicts between different versions of the truth. The mixture of the three voices of personal voice of I, secondary voice of you or third voice of he or she or they. You tell a story from the inside looking out or you observe a story from the outside in. The difference between the great narrative voice challenges of writing a story. But might there be various other options available to the author in choosing a narrative voice besides choosing between the first person voice, of the second person voice or the third person voice in relating a story? Virginia Woolf, is seems to me, was the first to ask this question for the way truth might be represented in western literature. The question was asked in perhaps it’s most powerful way in chapter five of To The Lighthouse. (The passage is enclosed at the end of this story concept).
The reader of To the Lighthouse is confused as to voices relating to the chapter five passage. Various ghosts float around the scene commenting on it. This leads to a confusion for the reader as to who is really telling the story. Readers of western literature have always been taught to trust just one author of a particular story. But might there be two or more authors of a story? And, might each one have equal viability or respect by the reader he viewer of the Sunland film and television series about an “active adult community” in the desert.
Like the reader of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, our film/tv viewer/audience of Sundland is also confused as to who is telling the story and what genre the story is being presented in. Genres represent certain symbols that tell the viewer the type of story he or she is watching. In many ways, the viewer perception of a film is determined by the genre elements of the story that have been communicated to the viewer. When the viewer/reader understands the genre the author is communicating in, as well as the voice, they offer less participation in the creation of the story. Things are already known to them through the genre symbols and there is less to build in their own mind to create a context for understanding the story.
Yet, what if symbols of a few genres are communicated during the first part of the story? What if these are conflicting genres? What if the western masculine genre is communicated in the first part of the story but what if this genre was missed with the romantic genre of historical romance. Here, a masculine and feminine genre posed as parts of telling the story.
Or what if the genre is not made clear but remains ambiguous? The viewer/reader asks themselves the constant question: Is this a comedy or a tragedy? A romance or a satire? What main genre is this? The question is debated in the viewer/reader’s mind as they experience the story. Yet, it is a question never fully resolved. Later, when a type of answer is attempted, it becomes paradoxical in that one answer, seemingly, had as much weight as the other answer.
All of these content techniques that words are capable of were discussed in a little different way about forty years after Woolf wrote To the Lighthouse by the Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan in his book Understanding Media. One of the areas he discussed was “hot” and “cool” media. He saw a great dichotomy in media between media that allow less participation and media that allow more participation. Media that doesn’t allow much participation from the viewer would be hot media life broadcast. Media that was cool was telephones which allowed a back and forth communication.
He provides an interesting quote from Sir Francis Bacon from Understanding Media:
Francis Bacon never tired of contrasting hot and cool prose. Writing in ‘methods’ or complete packages, he contrasted with writing in aphorisms, or single observations such as ‘Revenge is a kind of wild justice.’ The passive consumer wants packages, but those, he suggested, who are concerned in pursuing knowledge and in seeking causes will resort to aphorisms, just because they are incomplete and require participation in depth.
So, there is the existence of “cool” media (allowing great participation) like the Internet and the cellphone. And, the existence of “hot” media like broadcast television, radio and newspapers.
The two media types fight a continual battle in America. One-way communication versus two-way communication. In many ways, it represents that great political battle. The problem is that governments throughout history have always had the monopoly of communicating via one-way broadcast to society. In other words, methods and techniques of control in western culture have always been based on “not” one-way communication that allows little participation from society.
The focus has been on media but what of “content” within media? This is what Bacon (above) was talking about. For instance, how does one consider that form called screenplays? A modern hybrid between novels and scripts of all sorts. One might also say that content, within media, might allow participation. Such as stories that do not provide an understandable narrator for the viewer/reader. Or, stories that are hard to peg within a certain symbolic system (genre) in the story business. Whether the genre is a story from Madison Avenue. Or Washington DC. Or Hollywood.
Perhaps to achieve the ambiguous character of the narrative voice, we hear from various first person reports in the opening part of the story. Somewhat like the opening chapters of Faulkner’s Sound And The Fury. Various narrators. Perhaps a character like Nick Carraway in Gatsby describing a story that he is involved within. Or, the narrator in the brilliant screenplay Hollywood Boulevard? Perhaps, a narrator who can see another person attempting to narrate the story?
Who is really in control of the story? The quest to find this out might be the real (subliminal) power of a story, something not that apparent but underneath the pinning of everything when things were considered.
All of this is a worthy quest to engage a viewer in for the engagement has a chance to create something entirely new from the viewer’s participation in the story. It is no longer the author’s story alone. It becomes more related to “fan fiction” that emerging genre that produces monsters like Fifty Shades of Grey. As well as hundreds of other experiments in what is called “fan fiction” out there. In effect, McLuhan was proposing in Understanding Media an early type of “fan fiction” in his term of “cool media.”
The premise put forward is that the search for the narrative voice of a story can be as great or more greater than the search for the outside villain of the story. Might in fact, the journey of the hero throughout history, be a journey to discover his or her voice as much as it is to battle monsters with this voice? It seems to me much like the context of Nabokov in Lolita or Conrad’s Marlowe in Heart of Darkness or Nick Carraway in Fitzgerald’s Gatsby.
An early plea to reader of a “cool” reading of the above.
Not a “hot” broadcast of gospel but something at an early stage of “cool” becoming.
Will readers participate in the creation of the story?
It’s a lot to ask for when you think about it.
Jill Jeffries – In her 50s, much like the hostess on The Love Boat, she is constantly working to get members together at various social events. She brings great music groups to Sunland but there are seldom more than a few people on the dance floor.
Wild Bill Swanson – A famous television cowboy from the early days of television, he is in his 80s now and has recently arrived at Sunland after his daughter convinced to sell his ranch home outside of town and move into Sunland. He has lived an independent life and is having a difficult time living within the new set of rules of Sunland. A tall, handsome man even in his 80s, he becomes the “heart throb” of all the single women in Sunland. They are not exactly a bunch of “spring chickens.” There is an immediate attraction between him and Charlotte Carver. But, as their relationship develops, Bill Swanson becomes attracted to a new member of the club. Donald Birdsong.
Betty Flowers – In her 80s, Betty is the official historian of the community who still has a sharp memory and love for gossip. She edits the Sunland Report, a tabloid-like newsletter of the community.
Gertrude Gunther – A relatively new member to Sunland, she is the President of the Home Owner’s Association, the governing group for the community. She has been a long term employee of the federal government and a huge, life long Democrat.
Charlotte Carver – A beautiful woman in her 70s or 80s. It is impossible to tell. She looks so good. She has been a practitioner of yoga for many years. She seems to glow outward when we see her. She worked for a number of years as an actress in Hollywood and knows that the famous tv star Bill Swanson recently moved into Sunland.
Herb Goldberg – One of the “snowbirds” at Sunland who comes to Desert Springs in the Fall and Winter months for the cooler weather. He always finds something to complain about and stands up at all the HOA meetings bitching about something.
Donald Birdsong – Has been hired to run the Sunland Clubhouse exercise facility once a week. A young, buff, good looking guy in his mid 30s.
Clubhouse Auditorium – Where the Home Owners Association (HOA) meetings are held as well as the weekly movies and other group events.
Clubhouse Dining Room
Clubhouse Exercise Room
Clubhouse Pool Area
Clubhouse Bridge Room
Clubhouse Sports Room
Putting Golf Course
Desert Springs Club
* * *
To The Lighthouse
“And even if it isn’t fine tomorrow,” said Mrs. Ramsay, raising her eyes to glance at William Bankes and Lily Briscoe as they passed, “it will be another day. And now,” she said, thinking that Lily’s charm was her Chinese eyes, aslant in her white, puckered little face, but it would take a clever man to see it, “and now stand up, and let me measure your leg,” for they might go to the Lighthouse after all, and she must see if the stocking did not need to be an inch or two longer in the leg.
Smiling, for it was an admirable idea, that had flashed upon her this very second — William and Lily should marry — she took the heather-mixture stocking, with its criss-cross of steel needles at the mouth of it, and measured it against James’s leg.
“My dear, stand still,” she said, for in his jealousy, not liking to serve as measuring block for the Lighthouse keeper’s little boy, James fidgeted purposely; and if he did that, how could she see, was it too long, was it too short? she asked.
She looked up — what demon possessed him, her youngest, her cherished? — and 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 to it, positively dripped with wet? Never mind, the rent was precisely twopence half-penny; 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. Books, she thought, grew of themselves. She never had time to read them. Alas! even the books that had been given her and inscribed by the hand of the poet himself: “For her whose wishes must be obeyed” . . . “The happier Helen of our days” . . . disgraceful to say, she had never read them. And Croom on the Mind and Bates on the Savage Customs of Polynesia (“My dear, stand still,” she said)— neither of those could one send to the Lighthouse. At a certain moment, she supposed, the house would become so shabby that something must be done. If they could be taught to wipe their feet and not bring the beach in with them — that would be something. Crabs, she had to allow, if Andrew really wished to dissect them, or if Jasper believed that one could make soup from seaweed, one could not prevent it; or Rose’s objects — shells, reeds, stones; for they were gifted, her children, but all in quite different ways. And the result of it was, she sighed, taking in the whole room from floor to ceiling, as she held the stocking against James’s leg, that 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. Still, if every door in a house is left perpetually open, and no lockmaker in the whole of Scotland can mend a bolt, things must spoil. What was the use of flinging a green Cashemere shawl over the edge of a picture frame? In two weeks it would be the colour of pea soup. But it was the doors that annoyed her; every door was left open. She listened. The drawing-room door was open; the hall door was open; it sounded as if the bedroom doors were open; and certainly the window on the landing was open, for that she had opened herself. That windows should be open, and doors shut — simple as it was, could none of them remember it? She would go into the maids’ bedrooms at night and find them sealed like ovens, except for Marie’s, the Swiss girl, who would rather go without a bath than without fresh air, but then at home, she had said, “the mountains are so beautiful.” She had said that last night looking out of the window with tears in her eyes. “The mountains are so beautiful.” Her father was dying there, Mrs. Ramsay knew. He was leaving them fatherless. Scolding and demonstrating (how to make a bed, how to open a window, with hands that shut and spread like a Frenchwoman’s) all had folded itself quietly about her, when the girl spoke, as, after a flight through the sunshine the wings of a bird fold themselves quietly and the blue of its plumage changes from bright steel to soft purple. She had stood there silent for there was nothing to be said. He had cancer of the throat. At the recollection — how she had stood there, how the girl had said, “At home the mountains are so beautiful,” and there was no hope, no hope whatever, she had a spasm of irritation, and speaking sharply, said to James: “Stand still. Don’t be tiresome,” so that he knew instantly that her severity was real, and straightened his leg and she measured it.The stocking was too short by half an inch at least, making allowance for the fact that Sorley’s little boy would be less well grown than James.“It’s too short,” she said, “ever so much too short.”
Never did anybody look so sad. Bitter and black, half-way down, in the darkness, in the shaft which ran from the sunlight to the depths, perhaps a tear formed; a tear fell; the waters swayed this way and that, received it, and were at rest. Never did anybody look so sad.
But was it nothing but looks, people said? What was there behind it — her beauty and splendour? Had he blown his brains out, they asked, had he died the week before they were married — some other, earlier lover, of whom rumours reached one? Or was there nothing? nothing but an incomparable beauty which she lived behind, and could do nothing to disturb? For easily though she might have said at some moment of intimacy when stories of great passion, of love foiled, of ambition thwarted came her way how she too had known or felt or been through it herself, she never spoke. She was silent always. She knew then — she knew without having learnt. Her simplicity fathomed what clever people falsified. Her singleness of mind made her drop plumb like a stone, alight exact as a bird, gave her, naturally, this swoop and fall of the spirit upon truth which delighted, eased, sustained — falsely perhaps.
(“Nature has but little clay,” said Mr. Bankes once, much moved by her voice on the telephone, though she was only telling him a fact about a train, “like that of which she moulded you.” He saw her at the end of the line, Greek, blue-eyed, straight-nosed. How incongruous it seemed to be telephoning to a woman like that. The Graces assembling seemed to have joined hands in meadows of asphodel to compose that face. Yes, he would catch the 10:30 at Euston.
“But she’s no more aware of her beauty than a child,” said Mr. Bankes, replacing the receiver and crossing the room to see what progress the workmen were making with an hotel which they were building at the back of his house. And he thought of Mrs. Ramsay as he looked at that stir among the unfinished walls. For always, he thought, there was something incongruous to be worked into the harmony of her face. She clapped a deer-stalker’s hat on her head; she ran across the lawn in galoshes to snatch a child from mischief. So that if it was her beauty merely that one thought of, one must remember the quivering thing, the living thing (they were carrying bricks up a little plank as he watched them), and work it into the picture; or if one thought of her simply as a woman, one must endow her with some freak of idiosyncrasy — she did not like admiration — or suppose some latent desire to doff her royalty of form as if her beauty bored her and all that men say of beauty, and she wanted only to be like other people, insignificant. He did not know. He did not know. He must go to his work.)
Knitting her reddish-brown hairy stocking, with her head outlined absurdly by the gilt frame, the green shawl which she had tossed over the edge of the frame, and the authenticated masterpiece by Michael Angelo, Mrs. Ramsay smoothed out what had been harsh in her manner a moment before, raised his head, and kissed her little boy on the forehead. “Let us find another picture to cut out,” she said.
* * *
The Representation of Reality in Western Literature
“The Brown Stocking”
This piece of narrative prose is the fifth section of part 1 in Virginia Woolf’s novel, To the Lighthouse, which was first published in 1927. The situation in which the characters find themselves can be almost completely deduced from the text itself. Nowhere in the novel is it set forth systematically, by way of introduction or exposition, or in any other way than as it is here. I shall, however, briefly summarize what the situation is at the beginning of our passage. This will make it easier for the reader to understand the following analysis; it will also serve to bring out more clearly a number of important motifs from earlier sections which are here only alluded to.
Mrs Ramsay is the wife of an eminent London professor of philosophy; she is very beautiful but definitely no longer young. With her youngest son James – he is six years old – she is sitting by the window in a good-sized summer house on one of the Hebrides islands. The professor has rented it for many years. In addition to the Ramseys, their eight children, and the servants, there are a number of guests in the house, friends on longer or shorter visits. Among them is a well-known botanist, William Bankes, an elderly widower, and Lily Briscoe, who is a painter. These two are just passing by the window. James is sitting on the floor busily cutting pictures from an illustrated catalogue. Shortly before, his mother had told him that, if the weather should be fine, they would sail to the lighthouse the next day. This is an expedition James has been looking forward to for a long time. The people at the lighthouse are to receive various presents; among these are stockings for the lighthouse- keeper’s boy. The violent joy which James had felt when the trip was announced had been as violently cut short by his father’s acid observation that the weather would not be fine the next day. One of the guests, with malicious emphasis, has added some corroborative meteorological details. After all the others have left the room, Mrs Ramsay, to console James, speaks the words with which our passage opens.
The continuity of the section is established through an exterior occurrence involving Mrs Ramsay and James: the measuring of the stocking. Immediately after her consoling words (if it isn’t fine tomorrow, we’ll go some other day), Mrs Ramsay makes James stand up so that she can measure the stocking for the lighthouse-keeper’s son against his leg. A little further on she rather absent-mindedly tells him to stand still – the boy is fidgeting because his jealousy makes him a little stubborn and perhaps also because he is still under the impression of the disappointment of a few moments ago. Many lines later, the warning to stand still is repeated more sharply. James obeys, the measuring takes place, and it is found that the stocking is still considerably too short. After another long interval the scene concludes with Mrs Ramsay kissing the boy on the forehead (she thus makes up for the sharp tone of her second order to him to stand still) and her proposing to help him look for another picture to cut out. Here the section ends.
This entirely insignificant occurrence is constantly interspersed with other elements which, although they do not interrupt its progress, take up far more time in the narration than the whole scene can possibly have lasted. Most of these elements are inner processes, that is, movements within the consciousness of individual personages, and not necessarily of personages involved in the exterior occurrence but also of others who are not even present at the time: ‘people’, or ‘Mr Bankes’. In addition other exterior occurrences which might be called secondary and which pertain to quite different times and places (the telephone conversation, the construction of the building, for example) are worked in and made to serve as the frame for what goes on in the consciousness of third persons. Let us examine this in detail.
Mrs Ramsay’s very first remark is twice interrupted: first by the visual impression she receives of William Bankes and Lily Briscoe passing by together, and then, after a few intervening words serving the progress of the exterior occurrence, by the impression which the two persons passing by have left in her: the charm of Lily’s Chinese eyes, which it is not for every man to see – whereupon she finishes her sentence and also allows her consciousness to dwell for a moment on the measuring of the stocking: we may yet go to the lighthouse, and so I must make sure the stocking is long enough. At this point there flashes into her mind the idea which has been prepared by her reflection on Lily’s Chinese eyes (William and Lily ought to marry) – an admirable idea, she loves making matches. Smiling, she begins measuring the stocking. But the boy, in his stubborn and jealous love of her, refuses to stand still. How can she see whether the stocking is the right length if the boy keeps fidgeting about? What is the matter with James, her youngest, her darling? She looks up. Her eye falls on the room – and a long parenthesis begins. From the shabby chairs of which Andrew, her eldest son, said the other day that their entrails were all over the floor, her thoughts wander on, probing he objects and the people of her environment. The shabby furniture . . . but still good enough for up here; the advantages of the summer place; so cheap, so good for the children, for her husband; easily fitted up with a few old pieces of furniture, some pictures and books. Books – it is ages since she has had time to read books, even the books which have been dedicated to her (here the lighthouse flashes in for a second, as a place w/here one can’t send such erudite volumes as some of those lying about the room). Then the house again: if the family would only be a little more careful. But of course, Andrew brings in crabs he wants to dissect; the other children gather seaweed, shells, stones; and she has to let them. All the children are gifted, each in a different way. But naturally, the house gets shabbier as a result (here the parenthesis is interrupted for a moment; she holds the stocking against James’s leg); everything goes to ruin. If only the doors weren’t always left open. See, everything is getting spoiled, even that Cashmere shawl on the picture frame. The doors are always left open; they are open again now. She listens: Yes, they are all open. The window on the landing is open too; she opened it herself. Windows must be open, doors closed. Why is it that no one can get that into his head? If you go to the maids’ rooms at night, you will find all the windows closed. Only the Swiss maid always keeps her window open. She needs fresh air. Yesterday she looked out of the window with tears in her eyes and said: At home the mountains are so beautiful. Mrs Ramsay knew that ‘at home’ the girl’s father was dying. Mrs Ramsay had just been trying to teach her how to make beds, how to open windows. She had been talking away and had scolded the girl too. But then she had stopped talking (comparison with a bird folding its wings after flying in sunlight). She had stopped talking, for there was nothing one could say; he has cancer of the throat. At this point, remembering how she had stood there, how the girl had said at home the mountains were so beautiful – and there was no hope left – a sudden tense exasperation arises in her (exasperation with the cruel meaninglessness of a life whose continuance she is nevertheless striving with all her powers to abet, support, and secure). Her exasperation flows out into the exterior action. The parenthesis suddenly closes (it cannot have taken up more than a few seconds; just now she was still smiling over the thought of a marriage between Mr Bankes and Lily Briscoe), and she says sharply to James: Stand still. Don’t be so tiresome.
This is the first major parenthesis. The second starts a little later, after the stocking has been measured and found to be still much too short. It starts with the paragraph which begins and ends with the motif, ‘never did anybody look so sad’.
Who is speaking in this paragraph? Who is looking at Mrs Ramsay here, who concludes that never did anybody look so sad? Who is expressing these doubtful, obscure suppositions? – about the tear which – perhaps – forms and falls in the dark, about the water swaying this way and that, receiving it, and then returning to rest? There is no one near the window in the room but Mrs Ramsay and James. It cannot be either of them, nor the ‘people’ who begin to speak in the next paragraph. Perhaps it is the author. However, if that be so, the author certainly does not speak like one who has a knowledge of his characters – in this case, of Mrs Ramsay – and who, out of his knowledge, can describe their personality and momentary state of mind objectively and with certainty. Virginia Woolf wrote this paragraph. She did not identify it through grammatical and typographical devices as the speech or thought of a third person. One is obliged to assume that it contains direct statements of her own. But she does not seem to bear in mind that she is the author and hence ought to know how matters stand with her characters. The person speaking here, whoever it is, acts the part of one who has only an impression of Mrs Ramsay, who looks at her face and renders the impression received, but is doubtful of its proper interpretation. ‘Never did anybody look so sad’ is not an objective statement. In rendering the shock received by one looking at Mrs Ramsay’s face, it verges upon a realm beyond reality. And in the ensuing passage the speakers no longer seem to be human beings at all but spirits between heaven and earth, nameless spirits capable of penetrating the depths of the human soul, capable too of knowing something about it, but not of attaining clarity as to what is in process there, with the result that what they report has a doubtful ring, comparable in a way to those ‘certain airs, detached from the body of the wind’, which in a later passage (2, 2) move about the house at night, ‘questioning and wondering’. However that may be, here too we are not dealing with objective utterances on the part of the author in respect to one of the characters. No one is certain of anything here: it is all mere supposition, glances cast by one person upon another whose enigma he cannot solve.
This continues in the following paragraph. Suppositions as to the meaning of Mrs Ramsay’s expression are made and discussed. But the level of tone descends slightly, from the poetic and non-real to the practical and earthly; and now a speaker is introduced: ‘People said’. People wonder whether some recollection of an unhappy occurrence in her earlier life is hidden behind her radiant beauty. There have been rumors to that effect. But perhaps the rumors are wrong: nothing of this is to be learned directly from her; she is silent when such things come up in conversation. But supposing she has never experienced anything of the sort herself, she yet knows everything even without experience. The simplicity and genuineness of her being unfailingly light upon the truth of things, and, falsely perhaps, delight, ease, sustain.
Is it still ‘people’ who are speaking here? We might almost be tempted to doubt it, for the last words sound almost too personal and thoughtful for the gossip of ‘people’. And immediately afterward, suddenly and unexpectedly, an entirely new speaker, a new scene, and a new time are introduced. We find Mr Bankes at the telephone talking to Mrs Ramsay, who has called him to tell him about a train connection, evidently with reference to a journey they are planning to make together. The paragraph about the tear had already taken us out of the room where Mrs Ramsay and James are sitting by the window; it had transported us to an undefinable scene beyond the realm of reality. The paragraph in which the rumours are discussed has a concretely earthly but not clearly identified scene. Now we find ourselves in a precisely determined place, but far away from the summer house – in London, in Mr Bankes’s house. The time is not stated (‘once’), but apparently the telephone conversation took place long (perhaps as much as several years) before this particular sojourn in the house on the island. But what Mr Bankes says over the telephone is in perfect continuity with the preceding paragraph. Again not objectively but in the form of the impression received by a specific person at a specific moment, it as it were sums up all that precedes – the scene with the Swiss maid, the hidden sadness in Mrs Ramsay’s beautiful face, what people think about her, and the impression she makes: Nature has but little clay like that of which she molded her. Did Mr Bankes really say that to her over the telephone? Or did he only want to say it when he heard her voice, which moved him deeply, and it came into his mind how strange it was to be talking over the telephone with this wonderful woman, so like a Greek goddess? The sentence is enclosed in quotation marks, so one would suppose that he really spoke it. But this is not certain, for the first words of his soliloquy, which follows, are likewise enclosed in quotation marks. In any case, he quickly gets hold of himself, for he answers in a matter-of-fact way that he will catch the 10.30 at Euston.
But his emotion does not die away so quickly. As he puts down the ceiver and walks across the room to the window in order to watch the work on a new building across the way – apparently his usual and characteristic procedure when he wants to relax and let his thoughts wander freely – he continues to be preoccupied with Mrs Ramsay. There always something strange about her, something that does not quite go with her beauty (as for instance telephoning); she has no awareness of her beauty, or at most only a childish awareness; her dress and her actions show that at times. She is constantly getting involved in everyday realities which are hard to reconcile with the harmony of her face. In his methodical way he tries to explain her incongruities to himself. He puts forward some conjectures but cannot make up his mind. Meanwhile his momentary impressions of the work on the new building keep crowding in. Finally he gives it up. With the somewhat impatient, determined matter-of- factness of a methodical and scientific worker (which he is) he hakes off the insoluble problem ‘Mrs Ramsay’. He knows no solution (the repetition of ‘he did not know’ symbolizes his impatient shaking it off). He has to get back to his work.
Here the second long interruption comes to an end and we are taken back to the room where Mrs Ramsay and James are. The exterior occurrence is brought to a close with the kiss on James’s forehead and he resumption of the cutting out of pictures. But here too we have only an exterior change. A scene previously abandoned reappears, suddenly and with as little transition as if it had never been left, as though the long interruption were only a glance which someone (who?) has cast from it into the depths of time. But the theme (Mrs Ramsay, her beauty, the enigma of her character, her absoluteness, which nevertheless always exercises itself in the relativity and ambiguity of life, in what does not become her beauty) carries over directly from the last phase of the interruption (that is, Mr Bankes’s fruitless reflections) into the situation in which we now find Mrs Ramsay: ‘with her head outlined absurdly by the gilt frame’, etc. – for once again what is around her is not suited to her, is ‘something incongruous’. And the kiss she gives her little boy, the words she speaks to him, although they are a genuine gift of life, which James accepts as the most natural and simple truth, are yet heavy with unsolved mystery.
Our analysis of the passage yields a number of distinguishing stylistic characteristics, which we shall now attempt to formulate.
The writer as narrator of objective facts has almost completely vanished; almost everything stated appears by way of reflection in the consciousness of the dramatis personae. When it is a question of the house, for example, or of the Swiss maid, we are not given the objective information which Virginia Woolf possesses regarding these objects of her creative imagination but what Mrs Ramsay thinks or feels about them at a particular moment. Similarly we are not taken into Virginia Woolf’s confidence and allowed to share her knowledge of Mrs Ramsay’s character; we are given her character as it is reflected in and as it affects various figures in the novel: the nameless spirits which assume certain things about a tear, the people who wonder about her, and Mr Bankes. In our passage this goes so far that there actually seems to be no viewpoint at all outside the novel from which the people and events within it are observed, any more than there seems to be an objective reality apart from what is in the consciousness of the characters. Remnants of such a reality survive at best in brief references to the exterior frame of the action, such as ‘said Mrs Ramsay, raising her eyes . . .’ or ‘said Mr
Bankes once, hearing her voice’. The last paragraph (‘Knitting her reddish-brown hairy stocking . . .’) might perhaps also be mentioned in this connection. But this is already somewhat doubtful. The occurrence is described objectively, but as for its interpretation, the tone indicates that the author looks at Mrs Ramsay not with knowing but with doubting and questioning eyes – even as some character in the novel would see her in the situation in which she is described, would hear her speak the words given.
The devices employed in this instance (and by a number of contemporary writers as well) to express the contents of the consciousness of the dramatis personae have been analyzed and described syntactically. Some of them have been named (erlebte Rede, stream of consciousness, monologue intérieur are examples). Yet these stylistic forms, especially the erlebte Rede, were used in literature much earlier too, but not for the same aesthetic purpose. And in addition to them there are other possibilities – hardly definable in terms of syntax – of obscuring and even obliterating the impression of an objective reality completely known to the author; possibilities, that is, dependent not on form but on intonation and context. A case in point is the passage under discussion, where the author at times achieves the intended effect by representing herself to be someone who doubts, wonders, hesitates, as though the truth about her characters were not better known to her than it is to them or to the reader. It is all, then, a matter of the author’s attitude toward the reality of the world he represents. And this attitude differs entirely from that of authors who interpret the actions, situations, and characters of their personages with objective assurance, as was the general practice in earlier times. Goethe or Keller, Dickens or Meredith, Balzac or Zola told us out of their certain knowledge what their characters did, what they felt and thought while doing it, and how their actions and thoughts were to be interpreted. They knew everything about their characters. To be sure, in past periods too we were frequently told about the subjective reactions of the characters in a novel or story; at times even in the form of erlebte Rede, although more frequently as a monologue, and of course in most instances with an introductory phrase something like ‘it seemed to him that. . .’ or ‘at this moment he felt that . . .’or the like. Yet in such cases there was hardly ever any attempt to render the flow and the play of consciousness adrift in the current of changing impressions (as is done in our text both for Mrs Ramsay and for Mr Bankes); instead, the content of the individual’s consciousness was rationally limited to things connected with the particular incident being related or the particular situation being described. And what is still more important: the author, with his knowledge of an objective truth, never abdicated his position as the final and governing authority. Again, earlier writers, especially from the end of the nineteenth century on, had produced narrative works which on the whole undertook to give us an extremely subjective, individualistic, and often eccentrically aberrant impression of reality, and which neither sought nor were able to ascertain anything objective or generally valid in regard to it. Sometimes such works took the form of first-person novels; sometimes they did not. . . . But all that too is basically different from the modern procedure here described on the basis of Virginia Woolf’s text, although the latter, it is true, evolved from the former. The essential characteristic of the technique represented by Virginia Woolf is that we are given not merely one person whose consciousness (that is, the impressions it receives) is rendered, but many persons, with frequent shifts from one to the other – in our text, Mrs Ramsay, ‘people’, Mr Bankes, in brief interludes James, the Swiss maid in a flash-back, and the nameless ones who speculate over a tear. The multiplicity of persons suggests that we are here after all confronted with an endeavor to investigate an objective reality, that is, specifically, the ‘real’ Mrs Ramsay. She is, to be sure, an enigma and such she basically remains, but she is as it were encircled by the content of all the various consciousnesses directed upon her (including her own); there is an attempt to approach her from many sides as closely as human possibilities of perception and expression can succeed in doing. The design of a close approach to objective reality by means of numerous subjective impressions received by various individuals (and at various times) is important in the modern technique which we are here examining. It basically differentiates it from the unipersonal subjectivism which allows only a single and generally a very unusual person to make himself heard and admits only that one person’s way of looking at reality. In terms of literary history, to be sure, there are close connections between the two methods of representing consciousness – the unipersonal subjective method and the multipersonal method with synthesis as its aim. The latter developed from the former, and there are works in which the two overlap, so that we can watch the development. . . .
Another stylistic peculiarity to be observed in our text – though one that is closely and necessarily connected with the ‘multipersonal representation of consciousness’ just discussed – has to do with the treatment of time. That there is something peculiar about the treatment of time in modern narrative literature is nothing new . . . We remarked earlier that the act of measuring the length of the stocking and the speaking of the words related to it must have taken much less time than an attentive reader who tries not to miss anything will require to read the passage – even if we assume that a brief pause intervened between the measuring and the kiss of reconciliation on James’s forehead. However, the time the narration takes is not devoted to the occurrence itself (which is rendered rather tersely), but to interludes. Two long excursuses are inserted, whose relations in time to the occurrence which frames them seem to be entirely different. The first excursus, a representation of what goes on in Mrs Ramsay’s mind while she measures the stocking (more precisely, between the first absent-minded and the second sharp order to James to hold his leg still) belongs in time to the framing occurrence, and it is only the representation of it which takes a greater number of seconds and even minutes than the measuring – the reason being that the road taken by consciousness is sometimes traversed far more quickly than language is able to render it, if we want to make ourselves intelligible to a third person, and that is the intention here. What goes on in Mrs Ramsay’s mind in itself contains nothing enigmatic; these are ideas which arise from her daily life and may well be called normal – her secret lies deeper, and it is only when the switch from the open windows to the Swiss maid’s words comes, that something happens which lifts the veil a little. On the whole, however, the mirroring of Mrs Ramsay’s consciousness is much more easily comprehensible than the sort of thing we get in such cases from other authors (James Joyce, for example). But simple and trivial as are the ideas which arise one after the other in Mrs Ramsay’s consciousness, they are at the same time essential and significant. They amount to a synthesis of the intricacies of life in which her incomparable beauty has been caught, in which it at once manifests and conceals itself.
* * *
Let us turn again to the text which was our starting-point. It breathes an air of vague and hopeless sadness. We never come to learn what Mrs Ramsay’s situation really is. Only the sadness, the vanity of her beauty and vital force emerge from the depths of secrecy. Even when we have read the whole novel, the meaning of the relationship between the planned trip to the lighthouse and the actual trip many years later remains unexpressed, enigmatic, only dimly to be conjectured, as does the content of Lily Briscoe’s concluding vision which enables her to finish her painting with one stroke of the brush. It is one of the few books of this type which are filled with good and genuine love but also, in its feminine way, with irony, amorphous sadness, and doubt of life. Yet what realistic depth is achieved in every individual occurrence, for example the measuring of the stocking! Aspects of the occurrence come to the fore, and links to other occurrences, which, before this time, had hardly been sensed, which had never been clearly seen and attended to, and yet they are determining factors in our real lives. What takes place here in Virginia Woolf’s novel is precisely what was attempted everywhere in works of this kind (although not everywhere with the same insight and mastery) – that is, to put the emphasis on the random occurrence, to exploit it not in the service of a planned continuity of action but in itself. And in the process something new and elemental appeared: nothing less than the wealth of reality and depth of life in every moment to which we surrender ourselves without prejudice. To be sure, what happens in that moment – be it outer or inner processes – concerns in a very personal way the individuals who live in it, but it also (and for that very reason) concerns the elementary things which men in general have in common. It is precisely the random moment which is comparatively independent of the controversial and unstable orders over which men fight and despair; it passes unaffected by them, as daily life. The more it is exploited, the more the elementary things which our lives have in common come to light. The more numerous, varied and simple the people are who appear as subjects of such random moments, the more effectively must what they have in common shine forth. . . . It is still a long way to a common life of mankind on earth, but the goal begins to be visible. And it is most concretely visible now in the unprejudiced, precise, interior and exterior representation of the random moment in the lives of different people. So the complicated process of dissolution which led to fragmentation of the exterior action, to reflection of consciousness, and to stratification of time seems to be tending toward a very simple solution. Perhaps it will be too simple to please those who, despite all its dangers and catastrophes, admire and love our epoch for the sake of its abundance of life and the incomparable historical vantage point which it affords. But they are few in number, and probably they will not live to see much more than the first forewarnings of the approaching unification and simplification.