Moving Tropes: New Modernist Travels with Virginia Woolf

By Lamont, Elizabeth Clea | Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics, Annual 2001 | Go to article overview
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Moving Tropes: New Modernist Travels with Virginia Woolf


Lamont, Elizabeth Clea, Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics


The article concentrates on one of Virginia Woolf's profoundly lyrial novels, Mrs. Dalloway, to question the dominant acceptance of Woolf's British rootedness and lack of wanderlust. Through a close reading and analysis of pertinent passages, the article shows how Woolf was not simply experimenting with forms, but also pushing forward in her tropes movement across borders and travel. Every character in the novel is somehow related to a foreign place. The domestic dimension of this novel, stressed for so long, is problematized to give way to a fresh view of Woolf as more transnational than appears. The article calls on recent works in anthropological and feminist criticism related to boundary crossing to throw light on Woolf's text. The study draws parallels between movement of characters in London and the rhetoric of travel indicated or subsumed in the lyricism of the text. Even in shop windows gazed at by the protagonist in the novel, global relations of power are inscribed, destabilizing the stasis of home and creating metaphoric hybridity.

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   London is enchanting.
   I step out upon a tawny coloured magic carpet ... Faces
   passing lift up my mind; prevent it from settling ...

-- Virginia Woolf

All must end upon the Odyssey ...

-- Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf's profoundly lyrical fourth novel, Mrs. Dalloway, set in London and focused on a day in the life of one woman and her preparations for a society soiree, is most often interpreted as a thoroughly British, purely `domestic,' novel. In fact, before feminist recuperations of her oeuvre made waves beginning in the early 1970s, Woolf's novels were valued by many scholars of the modernist period more for their aesthetic experimentation than the way in which they address important social and political issues. In the few sentences John Fletcher and Malcolm Bradbury devote to Woolf in their survey of canonical Modernism, her novels are described as "exploration[s] both of the aesthetic of consciousness and the aesthetics of art" characterized by "a kind of joyous artistic freedom" to focus on "form" (408-09). Beyond an interest in formalist issues, comparisons between Woolf and her Modernist contemporaries--T.S. Eliot, James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, H.D., Ezra Pound and others--have never been extensively drawn. One significant reason for this oversight is the fact that Woolf, living and writing in Bloomsbury, never embraced the wandering, expatriate, "starving artist" existence that other Modernists did. Geographical wanderings, critics insist, produced an added dimension to the works of the High Modernist canon noticeably absent from Woolf's life and work. (1)

And yet, Woolf's novel is teeming with hidden--or at least largely critically unrecognized--lyrical metaphors of movement and multiple tropes of travel at work within its English domestic setting that frustrate and problematize purely aesthetic readings of the novel. (2) Indeed, every character in the novel is implicitly or explicitly linked to "foreign" places, peoples or travel. And yet what does it mean that, punning, Woolf names one of Septimus's nerve doctors Dr. "Holmes"? Or that Dr. Bradshaw wants to commit Septimus to a home? Mrs. Dalloway seems to propose a dialectical relationship between incessant movement and domestic stasis that performs a radical re-interpretation of twentieth century ideas of the English home and empire. Of particular importance is a re-examination of the character, Peter Walsh, not as Clarissa's patriarchal nemesis, but as an Anglo-Indian struggling to fashion some sort of coherent identity out of his colonial past, and a character of central importance to Woolf. Further, how might Clarissa Dalloway and Septimus operate as doubles in a geopolitical sense? And what should one make of the Irish characters, Moll Pratt and Mrs. Walker, who appear briefly in Clarissa's movements as she prepares for her party?

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