Academic journal article Woolf Studies Annual

Exposure and Development: Re-Imagining Narrative and Nation in the Interludes of the Waves

Academic journal article Woolf Studies Annual

Exposure and Development: Re-Imagining Narrative and Nation in the Interludes of the Waves

Article excerpt

The popular 19th century expression, "the sun never sets on the British Empire" (Wilson), encapsulates the established association of the sun with the reach of empire and with the mission of British imperialism. This mission included "images that show the natives being freed from despotic rule, raised from their ignorance, and saved from cruel and barbarous practices. These vignettes tell of the civilizing mission, which is primarily a story about the colonizing culture as an emissary of light" (Sharpe 100). The story of imperialism thus tells the story of "the colonizing culture" representing and bringing "civilizing" light to the "natives." As Gayatri Spivak reminds us, "imperialism, understood as England's social mission, was a crucial part of the cultural representation of England to the English. The role of literature in the production of cultural representation should not be ignored" (Spivak 269). This story of British imperialism, then, not only instructs the colonized but also instructs the English, justifying imperialism and contributing to the shape of English national identity and narrative formation. (2)

The Waves, widely regarded as one of Virginia Woolf's most experimental texts, attends to national identity as well as textual experimentation. Specifically, the nine interludes, often neglected in criticism on The Waves, are deeply concerned with the politics of empire which "resonate through the interludes.... their images replay[ing] ruling-class expectations of mastery and fears of turbaned, armed warriors assaulting their shores" (Scott 31).

In their essential function, the interludes of The Waves show the movement of the sun from rising in the east to setting in the west, fixing and moving the reader's gaze from the east, a site of expansion and empire-making, to the west, the site of the British homeland. (3) Here I refute Jane Marcus's germinal argument that The Waves "emphatically dramatizes the very historical moment in which the sun does set" (155). In fact, the light of empire is not extinguished by any means. (4) Instead, the interludes reveal how, like their ongoing solar and oceanic cycles, the imperial impulse continues--and, at this moment of anxiety about the future of the empire, specifically continues in the homeland as well as in the colonies. (5)

Imperial colonization enacts violence ideologically by reducing its subject to an object and by placing it within the realm of the Other. Imperial colonization enacts violence materially by subjecting that subject/object to the position of the Other through physical and political domination (see footnote two). Considering these effects of objectification, the colonized space and the feminized space operate comparably, then, in the ideology of imperialism which requires that each occupies the place of the Other in opposition to the dominant (colonizing and/or patriarchal) force of empire. Thus, in The Waves, it is not surprising to find the incorporation of feminine images in the representation of the colonized. What is surprising is the use of feminine images to also represent the imperial project itself. It is these two intertwined depictions of the feminine within imperialism--the subjugation of the feminine as it is relegated to the status of the colonized and the utilization of the feminine to further the cause of imperialism--that I propose to unravel in this essay and that I argue the interludes of The Waves also seek to expose and resolve.

As I explore at length in the first section of this essay, The Waves utilizes the imagery of the sun to demonstrate the effects on representations of the feminine, here used to denote the companion to the monolithic term "patriarchy," in both the imperial project in general (in its use of images and bodies of women to promote and extend the empire) and colonization in particular (in its inhabitation of feminized spaces). As the sun of the interludes, at first metaphorized as a lamp borne aloft by a woman, comes to invade feminized spaces in the novel, the feminized subjects, be they women's bodies or the domestic space of the home, become objectified through the aggression of the sun which, I argue, essentially operates as an imperialistic and patriarchal figure in the interludes. …

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