Academic journal article Woolf Studies Annual

Nature and the Nation in Mrs. Dalloway

Academic journal article Woolf Studies Annual

Nature and the Nation in Mrs. Dalloway

Article excerpt

The first step of science is to know one thing from another. This knowledge consists in their specific distinctions; but in order that it may be fixed and permanent distinct names must be given to different things, and those names must be recorded and remembered.

Carolus Linnaeus [1707-1778] (qtd. in Eiseley 15)

In Virginia Woolf: A Writer's Life, Lyndall Gordon calls Woolf's consistent challenge to labels and categories the "most subversive element in [her] work" (67). And indeed, while in the process of composition, Woolf wrote of her intentions for the novel then tentatively titled The Hours, telling her journal, "I want to give life and death, sanity and insanity; I want to criticise the social system, and show it at work, at its most intense" (D2 248). Mrs. Dalloway came to contain a complicated study of socialization, in its final form offering a discourse that brims with verbal acts of categorization by which an individual or group is placed within boundaries, and with language that not only allows but seems to encourage the reader's critical response. Of special interest here is the function of biological reference and metaphor within the words spoken and thought by members of the social system in this novel, ways in which the natural is associated or used to qualify.

In categorizing by the use of biological language, one may hope that the association of a qualified subject with the natural will lead to perceptions of their synonymy, to a view that the order and laws of a collective, even a nation, only reinforce those extant in nature. The particular preservation of a social system may be ensured if its members invest belief, as have so many of their predecessors, in the might and ultimate majesty of nature. By this rationale social formations and distributions of power, often those pertaining to gender or international relations, are treated as unquestionable or static. At several points in Mrs. Dalloway, the relation of the natural to either members or the whole of the social system functions to highlight and challenge the use of the natural to legitimize social and political constructions. Woolf critiques an assumption that many characters in this work share: that the nation's order and socially or politically formed identities have less to do with a willful or subconscious engagement of ideology than with biological factors.

In Imperial Leather, Anne McClintock writes of the importance of the metaphoric and natural in establishing difference between men and women in the home, and then connects this to the use of natural references and familial metaphors to explain social difference within a larger national context. She argues that "[b]ecause the subordination of woman to man and child to adult were deemed natural facts, other forms of social hierarchy could be depicted in familial terms to guarantee social difference as a category of nature" (McClintock 45). Continuing, McClintock states, "The metaphoric depictions of social hierarchy as natural and familial thus depended on the prior naturalizing of the social subordination of women and children" (45).

In one early passage, subtle interrelations are quickly and smoothly established, connecting nature both to the life of the individual within the nation, and to the militaristic activity of the nation itself. We read:

(June had drawn out every leaf on the trees. The mothers of Pimlico gave suck to their young. Messages were passing from the Fleet to the Admiralty. Arlington Street and Piccadilly seemed to chafe the very air in the Park and lift its leaves hotly, brilliantly, on waves of that divine vitality which Clarissa loved. To dance, to ride, she had adored all that.) (MD 7)

This narrative progression places military communication beside images of biological development and natural dependency, a succoring that sustains; parallels in structure suggest that messages of national import pass with a movement comparable to that of milk to a child. …

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