Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

The Pseudo-Homeric World of Mrs. Dalloway

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

The Pseudo-Homeric World of Mrs. Dalloway

Article excerpt

A big book is a big bore.

- Callimachus, fragment 465

Never did any book [Ulysses] so bore me.

- Virginia Woolf, Letters 3:80

The relationship between Mrs. Dalloway and Joyce's Ulysses has been construed by critics as adversarial almost from the beginning, partly because of the vitriolic attack on Mrs. Dalloway by Wyndham Lewis in 1934. But Lewis's cheap shot was merely a squib. The ad ignorantiam arguments by which he claimed that the scenes in Woolf's novel are "exact and puerile copies of the scenes in [Ulysses]" (138) launched a line of successors who swallowed his model whole.(1)

Lewis's claim that the sound of the smoke-writing airplane "boring into the ears of the crowd" (MD 29-30; emphasis added) is "a pathetic 'crib' of the fireworks display and the rocket that is the culmination of Mr. Bloom's beach ecstasy" (138-39) apparently relies on the sky that serves as a background in both instances. No doubt Lewis's interest in the pseudo-Homeric image of Bloom impersonating Odysseus among the Phaiakians admiring Nausicaa leaves Lewis dazzled; yet he doesn't mention the airplane that appears and reappears like a portentous bird in Proust's Remembrance of Things Past, an indebtedness that Woolf explicitly acknowledges (Diary 234, 322). Clearly excluding most contemporary novels, Lewis feels that Ulysses is or ought to be the cynosure of the literate world. As for Mrs. Dalloway, Odysseus, Nausicaa, and her Scherian family (suitably obscure) will appear elsewhere.

We need a more careful explication.(2) The fact is that Woolf's airplane is a writing instrument inscribing Homer's "winged words" with "white smoke from behind," quite unlike Joyce's fountain-pen-like fireworks (MD 29, 42). The aerial display follows the backfiring automobile (19), both of which are aurally related to Aristophanic crepitation from boredom (Henderson 196), a sequence of scatological commentary. Another serious oversight is the statue of a "canine" Gordon "with one leg raised" (MD 77). Doubtless those aware of the techniques of parody and satire, associating the raised leg with the smoke from behind, might also associate them (in spite of the chiastic arrangement)(3) with Joyce's Ulysses, which as Woolf expressed it includes "a dog that p's" and "a man that forths" (Letters 2: 234). Appropriately, Margaret Rose reminds us, "discrepancy between the parodied text and its new context is one of the chief sources of the comic effect" (23) and its criticism of society as well (Levin 248). Woolf herself says parodies should be amusing,

do the work of the critic with greater daring than the critic can usually display. . . . First they make us laugh, and then they make us think . . . [giving] a little model of the work in question [with a] sense of the defects of that work by a few deft pinches and twists which bring out the absurdity without destroying the likeness.

(Essays 89)

Rose addresses the problems associated with recognizing parody in literature-which as Jonathan Culler explains "requires a somewhat different mode of reading" (152) - the first concerning the naive reader who is unable to recognize that parody exists at all. The second, also highly relevant to Lewis's situation, concerns the reader who recognizes the quotation "but does not comprehend the intention"; this reader may believe that the author is "unintentionally misquoting . . . because his sympathy for the parodied text is so strong that his assumptions about it have not been affected by the parody" (Rose 27). Lewis and others miss the actual parody and introduce irrelevancies that inspire accusations of plagiarism. Another reader might feel "both the parodied text and its author to be the targets of satire." Finally, Rose offers the "ideal reader reaction" as one in which the reader of the parodied effect "enjoys the recognition of the hidden irony and satire" (27). As a parody of Ulysses, a device that replaces "authorial intrusion" (Oettli 68) and that frees us from the "demands of poetic seriousness" (Culler 152), Mrs. …

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