Structural Modernism

Modern British Fiction – Final year B.A Fiction Assignment
Virginia Woolf, though influenced by Joyce, criticised his way of writing, saying that “she was looking somehow for a different direction in which to go”. Discuss the relationship between form and narrative in Mrs Dalloway and Dubliners.
When tackling the subject of what constitutes a ‘modernist’ text, and, by definition, what distinguishes it from the conventional ‘realist’ text, perhaps the most evident feature of the ‘form’ of the novel – the way in which it is narrated, is the question of authorial presence within the fiction. Catherine Belsey, who talks of the ‘tyranny of clarity’ in literature says that “through the presentation of an intelligible history which effaces its own status as discourse, classic realism proposes a model in which author and reader are subjects who are the source of shared meanings”. Classic realism establishes a tyranny over the reader by constructing a world (Jonathan Culler refers to “the novel as a hierarchy of systems”) which is temporarily fragmented, and reconstructing it to reaffirm a concept of ‘meaning’ or ‘delineating’ which has been implied throughout the novel. In journeying towards its own preordained closure, the realist novel, far from reflecting the ‘real’ world, constructs a new structural (and artificial) world, and this is, in itself, a ‘disclosure’ of the author’s own projection or intended ‘reality’. By reconstructing an order which was initially fragmented, the novel reinforces its own status as ‘reality’, and reveals its own assumptions concerning the structure of the world, and the systems of meaning into which the reader has been coaxed.
The lack of satisfactory closure in, for instance, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness 1902 illustrates a (self) conscious swing away from the idea of one overwhelming system of hierarchies, or (‘world view’) by presenting itself as an ‘interrogative’ text, inventing a narratorial perception (Marlowe) which is capable of (inconsistently) viewing the world in a different and ultimately irreconcilable ways. The precursor of ‘modernism’ which this illustrates, namely that of a self conscious narrational voice, indicates not least the way in which the ‘form’ of language was, in the intellectual atmosphere of the time, becoming more and more separated from any one universal ‘meaning’. Coupled with the historical fact that “in the case of very few years, final judgements [i.e on the world and its universal meaning] succeeded one another at an alarming rate” was the subsequent realisation that “reality was not a matter of fact, as many novelists made it; it was an aesthetic and metaphysical question” – texts began to take on ambiguous and ‘interrogative’ characteristics, and authors attempted to withdraw further and further from their texts, as Heart of Darkness illustrates.
With this questioning of the whole assumption of ‘universal reality’ (a consequence of the ‘death of God’ at the hands of Darwin, and the death of the identifiable romantic self at the hands of C19th philosophers amongst others), came the questioning of the representation of hierarchical reality in language – ultimately the question of ‘structure’.
The novel emerged as a self-conscious avoidance of an imposed structure , and the author began to attempt to place himself in a position next to the reader where the two would be in a passive state of reception whilst the world of the novel actively worked upon the perceptions of the both. According to John Russell for instance, “Joyce achieves pure neutrality…. which calls for an artist to refine himself out of the picture” Joyce (he cites Scholes and Litz) “developed a system… whereby the events and characters… determined the diction and syntax of the narrative prose” The contradiction comes, of course, when we begin to look at the form of Dubliners in detail (contradiction is unavoidably inherent in any argument to which the term “modernism” is applied). John Russell himself says that “one of the ways in which Joyce maintains a judicial air is through a rather liberal use of colour”. Whilst Joyce is trying to ‘refine himself out of the picture’, and let the world objectify him, demonstrating his own passive ‘affectation’ (the world impresses its (chaotic) self upon him – not the other way around) there is the inevitable and inescapable fact that he is both the subject of, and, paradoxically, the creator of, his own created discourse – he and the reader become the ‘objects’ of this fiction.
‘Modernism’ was a reaction against structure but, ultimately, there can be no expression without a certain acknowledgement of structures and common meaning. Though the form of the novel was inescapable for this very reason, what is known as ‘the modernist text’ developed a new means of expression. By its acknowledgement of its own problematic nature, its reaction against traditional fictional ‘structure’, and its attempt towards impersonality, marginal barriers were broken down, and everything became relevant to represented reality. As Michael Levenson says “humanist art has been vital; the coming geometric art will be organic” – fiction under a modernist label abandons linear narratology, syntagmatic coherence and instead adopts a lateral “paradigmatic” structure, a “multiverse” of interacting layers or levels. The important word is “geometric” in this approach to modernism.
Inevitably the composing of a novel in itself inheres certain acts of free indirect thought representation where the author imposes thoughts into a character’s representation, and this is true of all fiction. However, a noticeable resistance to narratological closure, in both Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway and Joyce’s Dubliners, encourages us as readers to look into the whole question of how one character is perceived by the author, and, with the ‘absence’ of author in the text, how one character is perceived by another; how one character’s perception of another character is ‘understood’ by the character being represented in that moment and so on. With the idea of ‘perception’ comes also the idea of ‘point of view’, ‘tyranny’ of one character over the other, and thus necessarily the distortion of an event or character by the mind whose senses we are given access to by the narrator. It would be very difficult to argue the presence of anything but “free indirect thought” in either of these novels, and the conceptualisation of ‘people’ by each other is often brought to our attention.
Page 11 of Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway blatantly confesses, for instance, the tyrannic victimisation, through Clarissa’s perception, of Peter Walsh – a character who we so far only know through her thoughts – whose ‘real’ character is substantially different from what Clarissa perceives him as: “on the ebb and flow of things here, there, she survived, Peter survived, lived in each other…”. Characters live within each other (and often nowhere else but there – Evans for instance or, in James Joyce, Michael Fury in The Dead), but often the way they are perceived differs, and the ‘self’ is not only constantly in question – it is very seldom traceable. Each character (including, of course, the author in our list of ‘dramatis personae’) ‘writes’ his own world, and a system of layers of thought and speech representation between characters emerge on a paradigmatic axis in the reading process.
The contradictoriness between different characters concerning the same individual or event (or contradictoriness, even within the perception of one character) emerges through the use of various formal techniques. Thoughts and perspectives are seldom separated out distinctly from each other; the ‘stream of consciousness’ often takes the form of a list (in Woolf particularly) which doesn’t always fit together narratologically: “she scarcely read a book now, except memoirs in bed: and yet to her it was absolutely absorbing; all this; the cabs passing ; and would not say of herself, I am this, I am that” – Clarissa’s view of Peter does hold true to this refusal to categorise in that her perceptions of him (and indeed most external phenomena) are ‘writings’ , impositions of meanings onto the outside world, but often these meanings or readings of the world around her – and the same goes for all her characters – are varied and contradict one another. Woolf secretly provides us with an insight into this by showing Clarissa’s impressionability with the originality of the idea of “I prefer men to cauliflowers”. This statement has some bizarre (and by implication, profound) meaning which conditions Clarissa’s perception of Peter’s individuality. However, when we find later on that the idea actually comes from Sally Seton (one night in the gardens), and that Peter has ‘adopted’ this ‘originality’, it causes us to reshuffle our ideas of him and, of course, Clarissa.
By giving us this insight it could be argued that Woolf lapses into her inevitable position as narrator momentarily – she cannot avoid, in exposing this ‘misprision’ of Clarissa’s, confessing her mysterious presence within both the Sally Seton – Peter Walsh relationship, and the Peter Walsh – Clarissa relationship.
Although Mrs Dalloway is written in a kind of constant free indirect thought representation (like Dubliners), it may be possible to isolate and argue instances where the very nature of the modernist tone lets the invisible author idea down. One, as we have seen earlier on, is the material circumstance of the ‘writership’ of any thought, any character and any sentence. One cannot escape the form of language ultimately and still remain intelligible, in terms of the sentence itself. ‘Modernism’ was a ‘revolution of the word’ in a time when “ the word was uprooted, the image had lost its coherence, thought and feeling had separated, the symbol no longer had its transcendence” – both Woolf and Joyce were aware of the inescapable reflexivity of the nature of ‘conceiving’, and both attempt to avoid this by inventing characters who put themselves at the centre of meaning and perception/Septimus p18: It is I who am blocking the way, he thought . Was he not being looked at and pointed at ; Was he not weighted there, rooted to the pavement for a purpose? But for what purpose?” In this Mrs Dalloway as Malcolm Bradbury says, “is the story of its own act of creation” – and the way in which different centres of perception are played off against, and reinforce, each other is identifiable in both novels. The prose to an extent becomes a poetics (“a new poetry of prose” (Bradbury)) in which propositions are made through paradoxical alignments of points of view and statements – “She felt very young; at the same time unspeakably old. She sliced like a knife through everything; at the same time was outside, looking on” (Mrs Dalloway p10).
Like Joyce, who invents the chaos of “Joyce’s Dublin”, and then selects examples of people living within, and making sense of parts of this overacting entity – Dublin – there is an entity, perhaps even a type of character in Mrs Dalloway which does not take on the form of a person, but haunts the pages of the book and the streets of London. The plane which advertises in the sky above London is given different symbolic values by the people in the street (its independence from the ground could be a symbolic representation of the ever widening gap between the word and the thing, the ground being set out in streets, structured, two dimensional – the plane being free to move in any direction, unconstrained); it is ultimately ambivalent and mysterious, but seems to represent either a conspiracy or a separate sense of ‘hope’ or even ultimate ‘purpose’ which, though beyond our grasp, is still there at least to be looked at. The ambivalence of this symbol is, because of its sense of distance, mystery, and secret meaning, in some ways reminiscent of the strange but powerful black limousine which halts on Bard Street on page 16. The “symbol of the state”, though treated parodically, possesses a sense of portentous destiny through its mystery, possesses not only a ‘significance’ for the people in the street which provides them with a “sobriety and stillness upon faces which a second before had been utterly disorderly”, but seems to have an intangible, almost neoclassical aura about it. Perhaps it could be argued that the ultimate signifier of this system of Britain – upon which language and order depends – is given a voice if its own, but this voice is perhaps, in itself more of a silence or void: “the cultural bankruptcy of the modern state, the broken language of the modern age” (Bradbury)Certainly the passage on page 19, where the car is described in its surroundings is one of the few places in the book where thought narration cannot be assigned to any one character.
The sense of the nearness,and yet unfathomable ambiguity of ‘greatness’ is produced by a narrational voice which is almost a transhistorical one. Though this passage (p19) could very easily be ironically interpreted, at whom is the irony directed? Whose voice is being used to satirise the scene as it takes place? Like “the face in the car” perhaps this will never be known, like the ambiguous significance of the “cabbages” and “cauliflowers” – another symbol which “no longer had its transcendence” of singular meaning and significance here is shown by Woolf to be a matter of multiple meaning, dependent upon many different perceptive consciousnesses.
By illustrating the paradigmatic relationship of Clarissa’s perception of Peter, Peter’s perception of Sally, and Sally’s supposedly intimate relationship with Clarissa (the Sally-Clarissa relationship is always given from Clarissa’s perspective), and exemplifying the changing interpretations of what at first appear as individual quirks, “sayings”, diglossic, original. The way this theme runs through the layers of perception between these three characters also reflects (though not in a way which is identifiable) Woolf’s hand in the writing of the novel, in that she seems to say that we are trapped within the two dimensional ‘plan’ of language, symbolised by, amongst other things, the “chartered” nature of London’s streets (N.B. Romantic ideas (this from Blake’s London) are inevitable despite modernists supposed ‘ break with the past’). Words have no meaning outside the system, and singular meanings between signs (cabbages, “greatness sealed within”) are consciously left untied. Language is an ‘inconceivable’ maze-like network.
This reference to structuralist ideas brings us onto Jonathan Culler’s ideas about the novel. To understand the novel Structuralist Poetics tells us, “is not only to follow the unwinding of the story, it is also to identify various levels…it is to pass from one level to another”. In a way, the investigation of ambiguous symbols is a following up of what we are invited to do, that is, to attempt to locate an overall meaning in the ‘modernist’ text through the building up of the different levels of perception. This is certainly what Woolf encourages the terrified Septimus Smith to do – he tries to give the world a shape and in contrast with Clarissa who ultimately, though frustratingly, has learnt the art of social acquiescence, commits himself to the only ultimate reconciliation of where it leads him – suicide is the only certainty.
It has been argued that Woolf’s hand is visible again when she gives Clarissa some hyper-perceptive sense of Septimus’ life and death and what it meant, but again the ambiguity of the act of ‘perception’ is so rife that Woolf, or some element of overarching ‘morality’ is again impossible to locate.
In view of the Structuralist Poetics quotation, both Dubliners and Mrs Dalloway do not have a singular “unwinding of the story”. Rather, they have a “multiverse”of varying personal stories – stories belonging to individuals, stories which possess traceable individual voices – and it is the voices which cannot be assigned to fictionally established ‘personalities’ or stories, which have so far taken up a great deal of debate.
Both Woolf’s and Joyce’s texts bring attention to their own form, do not try to “efface” their own “status as discourse” but rather represent a multitude of interacting discourses. Grammatical structures, especially in Woolf do not make sense, and neither novel has any real sense of a wider ‘plot’ structure. On first appearance, the lack of chapter headings in Woolf seems to contrast with the short story format of Dubliners, but gradually we begin to see that the separation of ‘stories about people’ in Joyce is to an extent arbitrary and inexclusive. The repetitive and highly visual (Dubliners is often published with illustrations) image of Maria in “clay”, who “laughed and laughed again till the tip of her nose nearly met the tip of her chin” seems to possess a lilting, ironic voice whose origin is certainly not to be located in any of the characters of this story. The Dickensian (and self confessed “scrupulous meanness” with which Joyce writes his sketches supposedly led him to include the dead in compensation to the people of Dublin but there is no way that Dubliners would be complete without it. The way in which Gabriel plays “the host in the house” could be an analogy of the whole book – Joyce plays the host in Dublin – and it has resonances in terms of autobiographical relevance and also in the way in which it echoes the (often repeated) “perfect hostess” image of Clarissa – but the ‘house’ itself is also ever-changing.
As we are guided around (yes, we are undeniably ‘guided’) each book (though perhaps not by the author him/herself), “others become our temporary, one after the other and we experience the fiction not from orchestra or balcony, but from some centre of the novel’s world… the experience of reading a novel comes closer than does that of any other form of literature to our personal experience in time” (Alan Friedman, The Turn of the Novel).
Time is another very noticeable formal element in these two novels; Mrs Dalloway ‘takes place’ in the space of about seventeen hours (though time’ is, of course, subverted, and scenes from thirty five years ago are re-lived simultaneously at various instances), and in Joyce the action, as far as we know, could all be taking place simultaneously – the book could be day long or a lifetime long.
The modernist endeavour it seems, was to break down established barriers, established perceptions of ‘time’, ‘sanity’, ‘individual voice’, ‘structures’ and ‘fictional form’, and through what Barthes calls the ‘referential illusion’ – the introduction of characteristics which do not signify but simply say ‘we are real’ – to rebuild new methods of perception. However, much as a reaction to ‘realism’ modernism was, it still relies on the genre of fiction and, to an extent, the structure of language to express itself. As readers we soon find ourselves accepting – even not noticing – formal innovations and, though there is no identifiable message to these texts, there is still the undeniable presence of a fictional ‘tone’ in both novels (though they are multiply discursive). Modernism was more a development of realism, ‘the novel confronting itself;’ than a complete break with its own history. Perhaps what both novels are ‘about’ is the pain of confronting a futile but inescapable and paralysing history. The direction which Woolf was looking for was a progression away from syntagmatic “structure”, towards a new paradigmatic “structure” – but both of these are “structures”.