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.


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