Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Exhibiting the Example: Virginia Woolf's Shoes

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Exhibiting the Example: Virginia Woolf's Shoes

Article excerpt

It would appear that Virginia Woolf had a thing about footwear. Shoes, slippers and boots, "old," "shabby," or lost, recur in her fiction and also make pointed appearances in her non-fiction. In To the Lighthouse (1927), a "pair of shoes" has been "shed and left" in the deserted holiday home of the Ramsays, still keeping "the human shape" which indicates "how once they were filled and animated" (194). In the late novel The Waves (1931), we find "the boot without laces stuck, black as iron, in the sand" (148). In the posthumously-published Between the Acts (1941), after Giles Oliver crushes a choking snake, "the white canvas on his tennis shoes was bloodstained and sticky. But it was action. Action relieved him. He strode to the Barn, with blood on his shoes" (119). These images of unexplained loss and violent death bring out two of the more obvious associations shoes carry in Woolf's writing. In this essay, I explore less what shoes stand for than how they stand; that is to say, my emphasis will not be on the interpretation ofshoes as objects that carry the burden of something else (violence, loss, etc.) but on the ways in which shoes step forth in order to foreground the practice of exemplification itself My focus is on Night and Day, Jacob's Room and the essays and reviews of literary tourism (or literary geography, as she also called it).

In these works, Woolf often associates shoes with particular museological contexts so that they become for her a kind of shorthand by which she questions practices of exhibition and exemplification--issues that go to the heart of her career-long concern with modes of representation and perception. Shoes feature less as personal memorials (heavy with the weight of pathos) and more as figures in a narrative mode that foregrounds the selection, artifice, and experience of the exhibited example. This argument has four stages that correspond to sections of this essay. In the first place, a conceptual framework of examples, things, and memorial objects is drawn upon in order to clarify how Woolf's shoes function. While the ideas of Agamben, Brown, inform the argument, I examine shoes not in order to exemplify their work but to chart some of the ways in which Woolf's writing was already, from its own perspective and with slightly different conclusions, asking similar questions. The second stage argues that Woolf's interest in shoes reflects her critical interest in literary tourism, specifically in writers' house museums. In Night and Day and in non-fictional responses to museological practices, she questions the use of shoes as personal memorial objects, and I argue that in these texts shoes function both as an example of the example, that is, as a reference to those house museums and as a questioning of metonymic exemplification. The third section then considers, in a close reading of Jacob's Room, how Woolf explores problems of selection, display, and classification. Jacob's Cambridge room, and his shoes, are best read not as personal objects, or as symbols of loss, but as devices through which Woolf pursues her implicit critique of museological practice. This critique structures the final section of the essay, which examine how Woolf consistently emphasizes the role of the observer and the historical situation of the museum. These aspects of her approach emerge in her representation of the umbrella as an item of disruption and somatic experience. Signifying repression and exclusion, the umbrella offers a counter-object to the shoe, for the umbrella appears as the object of the observer as the shoe is the object of the observed.

My argument, then, is that Woolf deploys the shoe as a code for the attempted exemplification of the subject practiced by house museums and literary tourism. Neither a metonym nor a "singularity" in Agamben's sense, shoes highlight how those questions of representation, classification, and selection which underpin exemplification emphasize the artifice and arbitrariness of that practice. …

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