Narrating Grief in Virginia Woolf's Jacob's Room and John Banville's the Sea
Weston, Elizabeth A., PSYART
These novels reveal how loss can both challenge narrative expression and help a person or community to live with loss. Studies of bereavement, along with contemporary iterations of psychoanalytic conceptions of mourning and melancholia, help reveal the effects of grief upon the psyche. This approach also helps illuminate the narrative forms which can contain the experience of grieving. The expression of overwhelming loss often requires creative narrative forms that experiment with space, time, metafiction, and different modes of remembrance. Woolf's novel voices the collective experience of the losses of WWI, expressing the impact of loss through spatial metaphors of absence and by memorializing a single life and the generation he represents. Banville's novel captures the process of reshaping one's life story after the rupture of loss, a process of placing the absence in time through recollection and that can lead to reengagement with the world that remains.
Loss, especially intimate loss, ruptures the lives of those it leaves behind, threatening the narratives that we all form in order to lend a sense of continuity to lived experience. Individual and communal loss both challenge narrative production by undoing the unity and legibility of the survivors' life stories. Rather than offering a false image of an easy way through grief, these two works insist upon fidelity to the task of acknowledging the totality and depth of grief, while also exploring ways to live with the new reality it inaugurates. These ways may or may not meet the conventional criteria of "successful" mourning with its criterion of turning away from an old attachment to form new ones, or "successful" grieving, with its progression of stages that lead to satisfying resolution.
These ideas of "successful" responses to loss are in fact more a matter popular psychology than completely accurate representations of psychologists' views. For Freud himself, mourning itself and the uncompleted mourning that marks melancholia are distinguishable more by difference in degree or persistence than by qualitative difference. In "Mourning and Melancholia," Freud explains the processes of mourning or "normal grief," in which "the loss of the object is undoubtedly surmounted, and this process. . .absorbs all the energies of the ego while it lasts" (176). Before the loss is surmounted, during the stage of inwardly absorbed energy, the mind is essentially in a state that seems indistinguishable from melancholia. Mourning is only different from melancholia in that mourning is often considered a process with some endpoint, whereas melancholia need reach no such conclusion. And Elisabeth Kübler-Ross does not actually insist that her stages of grief, "denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance," unfold linearly or are necessarily ever over in a final sense: "They are tools to help us frame and identify what we may be feeling. But they are not stops on some linear timeline in grief. Not everyone goes through all of them or goes in a prescribed order" (7). These two foundational theorists of mourning and grief, respectively, do not promise any means of easing the pain of loss. This pain must either be suppressed or borne, and if it is to be borne, the grieving person or group often turns to narrative to help give some sort of shape to the pain: by telling stories about the dead and the meanings of their lives, and also by reworking the their life stories to integrate the new reality of absence. This turn to narrative does not always enable survivors to "move on" or to fully assimilate the new absence into consciousness; some losses are simply too much to bear if apprehended directly, certainly at first, and possibly for ever (particularly in the case of especially traumatic or violent loss). This is the truth of grieving: it may not end or follow any sort of linear progression and it may never be fully put to rest. Grieving is akin to a narrative process, but like any narrative course, it does not necessarily follow a unidirectional linear process nor yield a simple sort of resolution. …