Academic journal article The Hudson Review

Reality and Virginia Woolf

Academic journal article The Hudson Review

Reality and Virginia Woolf

Article excerpt

On a winter evening in London, two women come into a boot shop, accompanied by a dwarf. The women smile with rosy benevolence and tell the shop girl that they have come to find shoes for "this lady." "This lady"-the dwarf-looks around with a sullen expression on her face: she resents her escorts' charity and yet, unable to venture out alone, she has no choice but to submit to the insult of their help. The shop girl pushes up the little stand and the dwarf unlaces her boot.

Here an odd thing happens. Rather than being humiliated by the attention of the shop girl and the stares of the clientele, the dwarf thrusts her foot proudly onto the stand, as though demanding that everyone look. For her foot is beautiful, fully grown and perfectly proportioned, arched and aristocratic. She looks down on it with triumph and satisfaction. Contemplating her foot, she forgets all else, and believes herself, for the moment, beautiful. Now she will give herself over to the ecstasy of trying on shoes. Suddenly full of self-confidence, she will order the shop girl about; she will try on pair after pair; finally, she will lift up her skirts and do a little dance before the mirror, pirouetting wildly across the floor, craving to be noticed. A word of praise from the shop girl sends a flare of ecstasy over her face. She would stay in the shop forever. But her escorts have other lives to lead and finally succeed in ushering her out of the store. As she goes out the door her happiness fades, her knowledge returns, her shoulders fall. She is a dwarf once more.

Virginia Woolf's fictions are rimed with the grotesque. It is the frost left by the blast of life. In "Street Haunting," the 1927 essay which contains the story of the boot shop, the narrator leaves the shop after the dwarf, only to find that the streets, which seemed charming before, are cloaked in a new atmosphere-the penumbra of the dwarf, which makes everything twisted, absurd, and deformed. She sees two bearded men, apparently brothers and both stone blind, coming down the street, "supporting themselves by resting a hand on the head of a small boy between them." She sees "the stout lady tightly swathed in shiny sealskin; the feeble-minded boy sucking the silver knob of his stick," and passes "the humped body of an old woman flung abandoned on the step of a public building with a cloak over her like the hasty covering thrown over a dead horse or donkey." Wherever the eye falls it meets an image of grotesque proliferation. In Mrs. Dalloway there is the battered old woman, like a rusty pump, "with one hand exposed for coppers and the other clutching her side," croaking songs of love and springtime by the Regent's Park Tube. In Between the Acts there is the upper-class stockbroker Giles Oliver, who walks across a field and sees a snake curled in the grass,

choked with a toad in its mouth. The snake was unable to swallow; the toad was unable to die. A spasm made the ribs contract; blood oozed. It was birth the wrong way round-a monstrous inversion. So, raising his foot, he stamped on them. The mass crushed and slithered. The white canvas on his tennis shoes was bloodstained and sticky. But it was action.

The line between the comical and the disgusting is often obscured in these moments: one thinks of the tobacconist dressed as Queen Elizabeth, artificially gigantic, draped in satin, in a cape "made of cloth of silver-in fact swabs used to scour saucepans." And they are often most unsettling where they are least expected. In The Waves, the birds swooping and hopping in the garden suddenly become interested in the garden floor, in the mass of vegetation where worms crawl and dead matter is corrupted in new forms.

Down there among the roots where the flowers decayed, gusts of dead smells were wafted; drops formed on the bloated sides of swollen things. The skin of rotten fruit broke, and matter oozed too thick to run. Yellow excretions were exuded by slugs, and now and again an amorphous body with a head at either end swayed slowly from side to side. …

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