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.


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