Monday, October 29, 2012

Footsteps on the Cityscape With Virginia Woolf

An avid walker, Virginia Woolf brings her passion for movement to the pages of her work. In  The Waves, originally published in 1931, we observe male and female characters navigating through urban places by walking. We seem them grapple with meaningful explanations for walking. From a philosophical perspective, this reminds us of our discussions regarding French sociologist and philosopher Michel DeCerteau and his movement imperative, the advent of the flaneur and the impact of this urban movement for women. Feminist theorist Linda McDowell offers further insights into the freedom factor for urban walking and allows us to better understand the liberation that occurs with Woolf’s female characters as they take to the city landscape.

DeCerteau believed that walking enabled the participant to gain a tactical view of the city, thus engaging in the happenings of urban life, deciphering stories and creating new memories. “He (DeCerteau) compares the act of walking to rhetoric, so that the appropriation of spaces can be seen as a kind of troping,  the official stories about movement in the city,” (Whitworth, 2007 ), p 16. Let’s examine strains of DeCerteau in The Waves by looking at a conversational exchange between characters Bernard and Neville. 

“It is true, and I know for a fact,” said Bernard, “as we walk down this avenue, that a King, riding, fell over a molehill here. But how strange it seems to set against the whirling abysses of infinite space, a little figure with a golden teapot on his head …. No, I try to recover, as we walk,  the sense of time, but with that streaming darkness in my eyes I have lost my grip,” Woolf writes in The Waves. (Woolf, 1931; 2005), p 167.  Neville disagrees.

“Unreasonably ridiculous,” said Neville, “as we walk, time comes back. A dog does it, prancing. The machine works …. I am beginning to be convinced, as we walk that fate of Europe is of immense importance, and, ridiculous as it seems, that all depends upon the battle of Blenheim. (Woolf, 1931; 2005), 167.     

While these male characters have a command of the public space and may dispute the role of time while walking, theorists such as McDowell posit an oppositional view for feminist theorists. She asserts that traversing over the public landscape may be considered a liberating factor for women. She writes, “…the public spaces of the city have been significant locations in women’s escape from male dominance and from the bourgeois norms of modern society.” (McDowell, 1999) p 49

In her fictional works, Woolf liberates women into the public realm via women walking in the public spaces of the city, as evidenced by Mrs. Dalloway’s excursion. Further, in the book Mrs. Dalloway, we also read about her daughter (Elizabeth) walking as part of a shopping journey. In The Waves, we see Jinny take to the streets of London to walk her dog and partake of daily living, giving her a sense of public freedom, unrestrained from her traditional roles.   Jinny becomes a female flaneur, a feminist act of modernity brought to us by Virginia Woolf.  “The quintessential figure of the modern metropolis, according to Baudelaire was that of the flaneur: the strolling observer, who gazed, but did not participate in the spectacular developments in the city. The flaneur was an anonymous figure in the urban crowd, invisible but all-seeing, a spectator who was, according to Frisby, “a prince who everywhere rejoices in his incognito.” (McDowell, 1999), p154

While early female flaneurs were classified as “streetwalkers,” Woolf casts aside this discriminatory label and interjects her characters into the public space, allowing them to participate in the DeCerteanian mode of tactical observation.  “The latter group of women, commonly and accurately termed ‘streetwalkers’ were regarded as fallen women in the hypocritical sexual double standard of the Victorian era.  The very act of their appearance on the streets left the status of women open to interpretation and, often to unwanted sexual advances,” McDowell writes. (McDowell, 1999), p 154

For the Jinny character, who often used her beauty to command attention and wield power over others, the process of aging was characterized as one that put her “underground,” a subterranean experience “below” the freedom exerted by the flaneur.  “Here I stand,” said Jinny, “in the Tube station where everything that is desirable meets – Piccadilly SouthSide, Piccadilly North Side, Regent Street and the Haymarket. I stand for the moment under the pavement in the heart of London. Innumerable wheels rush and feet press just over my head. The great avenues of civilization meet here and strike this way and that. I am in the heart of life,” Jinny states. (Woolf, 1931; 2005), p 140. “But look, there is my body in the looking glass. How solitary, how shrunk, how aged! I am no longer young. I am no longer part of the procession, Jinny laments. (Woolf, 1931; 2005), p 142.  Her aging body, drives her away from the vitality, away from the “action,” and into a bystander role.

Footsteps taken across the urban and pastoral landscapes provide readers with flashes of insight into the use of public and private space, the dynamics associated with these various realms and the courage of Virginia Woolf to empower her female characters to walk out into the public space.   


McDowell, L. (1999). Gender, Identity and Place. Minneapolis: Polity Press .

Whitworth, E. A. (Ed.). (2007 ). Locating Woolf. New York : Palgrave Macmillian.

Woolf, V. (1931; 2005). The Waves. (e. Mark Hussey, Ed.) Orlando, Florida: Harcourt.


Sunday, October 21, 2012

Lefebvre's Concepts of Social Space in the Waves: Observations on Susan and Bernard

As every society forms its own space, scholar Henri Lefebvre points to a “conceptual triad” comprised of spatial practice, representations of space, and representational spaces, setting forth a method to understand how cultures use space.  (Lefebvre, 1991).

Readers of The Waves navigate through Virginia Woolf’s book find the characters grappling with the issues surrounding social space and their role situating themselves as they grow, adapt and change to fit altered circumstances of age, new relationships and worldly desires for marriage, career, independence and other dimensions.

For example, Woolf’s character Susan, who is the daughter of a clergyman, moves through the first portion of The Waves seeking happiness and defining herself in a traditional role. “I do not want as Jinny wants, to be admired. I do not want people, when I come in, to look up with admiration. I want to give, to be given, and solitude in which to unfold my possessions,” Susan states in The Waves. (Woolf, 2006)

For Lefebvre, the spatial practices of individuals expresses the outcome of social patterns, including emotions, desires and actions.  “In reality, social space ‘incorporates’ social actions, the actions of subjects both individual and collective who are born and who dies, who suffer and who act.” (Lefebvre, 1991)

We find a demarcation of urban and pastoral space resonates for Susan, who seeks to retreat to the country life to raise her family in a traditional atmosphere, allowing her to embrace a traditional “mother” role. “I will not send my children to school nor spend a night all of my life in London. Here is the vast station everything echoes and booms hollowly. The light is like the yellow light under an awning. Jinny Lives here….The streets are laced together with telegraph wires. The houses are all glass, all festoons and glitter; now all front doors and lace curtains, all pillars and white steps,” Susan recounts in The Waves. (Woolf, 2006)

An individual’s choice – to live in the city, to live in the country, to travel abroad, to remain close to home – all represent the incorporation of value systems into an every changing atmosphere.  “The production of Space forms the keystone of the all-important ‘second phase’ of Lefebvre’s analysis of the urban that began in 1972. This later phase deals with social space itself as a national and ‘planetary expression’ of the modes of production….Lefebvre moved his analysis of ‘space’  from the old synchronic order of discourses “on” space …. To the manner in which understandings of geographical space, landscape and property are culturally and thereby have a history of change.” (Key Thinkers on Space and Place)

As a passenger on the train heading home, Susan recounts her departure from the city, and re-entry into the pastoral farm land, allowing her to re-unite with her father, an emotional moment for her. “Now I will let myself lean out the wind. The air rushes down my nose and throat – the cold air, the salt air with the smell of turnip fields in it. And there is my father with his back turned, talking to a farmer, I tremble. I cry. There is my father.”  (Woolf, 2006)

Sharing her delight of an early-morning walk through the farm, Susan states, “At this hour, this still early hour, I think I am the field. I am the barn, I am the trees; mine are the flocks of birds, and this young hare who leaps, at the last moment when I step up almost on him.” (Woolf, 2006)

Woolf’s character’s, and many fictional characters throughout literary works, find themselves struggling with questions of space and place. “But now let me ask myself the final question, as I sit over the grey fire, with its naked promontories of black coal, which of these people am I? It depends so much upon the room. When I say to myself, ‘Bernard,’ who comes?  A faithful, sardonic man, disillusioned, but not embittered. A man of no particular age or calling. Myself, merely.” (Woolf, 2006)

 “Social space thus remains the space of society, of social life. Man does not live by words alone; all subjects are situated in a space in which they must either recognize themselves or lose themselves, as space which they may both enjoy and modify,” Lefebvre states. (Lefebvre, 1991)

Key Thinkers on Space and Place. (n.d.).

Lefebvre, H. (1991). The Production of Space . Malden: Blackwell.

Woolf, V. (2006). The Waves. Orlando: Harcourt.


Friday, October 12, 2012

The Poetics of Space in The Lady in the Looking Glass

Finding Bachelard’s Poetics of Space in Virginia Woolf's The Lady in the Looking Glass

The Lady in the Looking Glass by Virginia Woolf offers the reader a powerful analogy of the mind to a room, allowing us to derive key lessons from theorist Gaston Bachelard regarding the positioning of the individual in time and space.

Lady Isabella finds herself standing before a mirror in the drawing room pondering the life sequence that has passed before her as Woolf drills in on a spatial analogy. “Her mind was like her room, in which lights advanced and retreated, came pirouetting and stepping delicately, spread their tails, pecked their way; and then their whole being was suffused, like the room again, with a cloud of some profound knowledge, some unspoken regret, and then she was full of locked drawers, stuffed with letters, like her cabinets,” Woolf writes in the Lady in the Looking Glass. (Woolf)

In his work, The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard offers additional insights into the conceptual yet hidden realm of the future in prose.  “With the theme of drawers, chests, locks and wardrobes, we shall resume contact with the unfathomable store of daydreams and intimacy,” Bachelard states. (Bachelard, 1964) For Isabella, this imagination translates into a fantasy world of love, passion, love lost that may contrast her life as a “spinster.” “….Isabella has known many people, had had many friends: and thus if one had the audacity to open and drawer and read her letters, one would find the traces of many agitations, of appointments to meet, of up bradings for not having met, long letters of intimacy and affection, violent letters of jealousy and reproach, terrible final words of parting – for all those interviews and assignations had led to nothing – that is she never married, and yet, judging from the mask-like indifference of her face, she had gone through twenty-times more of passion and experience than those whose loves are trumpeted forth for all the world to hear.” (Woolf)

In the world of the lonely spinster Isabella, the cabinet offers a receptacle to hide the anguish of her solitude. “Wardrobes and their shelves, desks with their drawers and chests with false bottoms are veritable organs of the secret psychological life,” Bachelard states. “The pages inside those marble-looking envelopes must be cut deep and scored thick with meaning. Isabella would come in, and take them, one by one, very slowly, and open them, and read them carefully word by word, and then with a profound sigh of comprehension, as if she had seen the bottom of everything, she would tear the envelope to bits and tie the letters back together and lock the cabinet door in her determination to conceal what she did not wish to be known,” Woolf writes. (Woolf)

 As the drawer is pried open, so too is the soul of Isabella for the reader to view. “Every poet of furniture – even if he be a poet with a garret, and therefore has no furniture, knows that the inner space of an old wardrobe is deep. A wardrobe’s inner space is also intimate space, space that is not open to just anybody,” Bachelard writes. (Bachelard, 1964) “Isabella did not wish to be known – but she should no longer escape. It was absurd. It was monstrous. If she concealed so much and knew so much one must prize her open with the first tool that came to hand – the imagination,” Woolf writes. (Woolf)

For Bachelard, the concept of the drawer files away the creativity and quells vitality. “Concepts are drawers in which knowledge may be classified; they are also ready-made garments which do away with individuality of knowledge that has been experienced. The concept soon becomes lifeless thinking since, but definition, it is classified thinking,” Bachelard states. (Bachelard, 1964)

“To talk of ‘prizing her open’ as if she were an oyster, to use any but the finest and subtlest and most pliable tools upon her was impious and absurd. One must imagine – here she was in the looking glass, it made one start,” Woolf writes. (Woolf)

For the protagonist of this story, the Bachelard projection of lifelessness rings true as Woolf writes: “Isabella was perfectly empty. She had no thoughts. She had no friends. She cared for nobody.” (Woolf). In the final revealing scene, the reader learns that Isabella’s current letters are comprised of bills, not even worthy of opening.

This Virginia Woolf work offers a somber treatment of the spinster, revealing alienation and the secret concealed nature of the individual’s soul through the spatial relationships drawn between the mind, the room and its contents.




Sunday, October 7, 2012

Orlando: Moving Through Space and Time As a Man, As A Woman

The reader of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando plunges  into a world of suspended disbelief as the individual wanders alongside the protagonist, Orlando, who begins the book ensconced in a courtly life of British nobility and then after a “long sleep” transforms into a female version of Orlando, relegated to face the challenges of operating as a female in a male-dominated world. Extending over a  400-year time span, the reader reels through decades, making observations about social customs, gender disparities and the atmospheres for women and men.  

For reference material for Orlando’s homestead, Woolf relied heavily Vita Sackville West’s writing of her personal experience at her childhood estate in the work, Knole and the Sackvilles. In light of this connection some scholars have said, “It has been one of the sentimental commonplaces attached to Orlando criticism that it is the “longest and most charming love letters in literature.” (Woolf, 1928). Sackville West was prohibited from inheriting Knole from her father, and watched with anguish as the property was transferred to her father’s nephew instead. We further find strains of this in Orlando as the female Orlando faces peril over land claims.  

Now, through the pages of Orlando, we see the male, and then female version of Orlando walk the grounds, participate in courtly activities and ponder literature, politics, gender role and the like. From a space and place perspective, we once again see the formulation of a domestic space. Woolf literature contains a multitude of contexts that underscore the separation of the public sphere and the private, domestic sphere. For example, readers observe Mrs. Dalloway in the book with the same title, take command of the domestic sphere with her parties and we see Mrs. Ramsey in To the Lighthouse guide the home and all those who meander under the roof.

Scholars refer to this phenomenon as a “veiled sacredness” or an invisible dynamic.  “I refer here to opposites that we take for granted, such as the contrast between public and private space, family and social space, cultural and utilitarian space and the space of pleasure and the space of work – all opposites that are still actuated by veiled sacredness. (Poststructuralism)

By breathing life into one character, first as a man and then as a woman, Woolf creates Orlando and advances the he/she binary to overtly addresses the dichotomy between male and female activities in social, political and economic spheres.  “The binary division is so deeply implicated in the social production of space, in assumptions about the ‘natural’ and built environments and in the set of regulations which influence who should occupy which spaces and who should be excluded,” according to McDowell in Gender, Identity and Place. (McDowell, 1999)

Woolf’s literary transformation of the body of Orlando from male to female offers a vehicle for discussions about the gender roles of men and women. “Work on the body has also altered understandings of space, as it has become clear that spatial divisions – whether in the home or in the workplace, at the level of the city or the nation-state – are also affected by and reflected in embodied practices and lived social relations,” McDowell states. (McDowell, 1999)

French anthropologist Pierre Bourdieu stated that “men are presence in space and women are insignificance.” (McDowell, 1999). We see this dichotomy in Orlando as the protagonist moves from a stately, noble man, to a woman who strives to engage in the social scenes of London.

In the poststructural discussion of Foucault, Woolf’s Orlando typifies a breakthrough a heterotopias: “Heterotopias are linked for the most part to bits and pieces of time i.e., they open up through what we might define as pure symmetry of heterochronisms. The heterotopias enters fully into function when men find themselves in a sort of total breach of their traditional time.” (Poststructuralism). With chronological time interrupted by an individual who lives for several hundred hears, the heterotopia of Orlando emerges. Despite the dichotomy of he/she-ness found throughout the book, Woolf also leaves us with markers to indicate the sameness of men and women.

Woolf points to the individual’s memory and the character as devoid of altering a person’s identity. “The change of sex, though it altered their future, did nothing whatever to alter their identity. Their faces remained, the portraits prove, practically the same. His memory – but in the future we must, for convention’s sake, say “her: for “his” and “she” for “he” – her memory then, went back through all of the events of her past life without encountering any obstacle. (Woolf, 1928)



McDowell, L. (1999). Gender, Identity and Place. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Poststructuralism. (n.d.).

Woolf, V. (1928). Orlando. Orlando, FLA: Harcourt.