Wednesday 22 July 2009

Virginia Woolf’s Multi-personal Dialogues, by Thomas J. Scheff

According to Milan Kundera (1995), only the greatest writers are able to notice, remember, and use concrete representations of thought. Here I suggest that Virginia Woolf provides an example in her representations of interior multi-personal dialogue. It has been also suggested that women might excel in this respect (Sprague 1994), so I will compare some female and male writers. An incident that occurs in To the Lighthouse (1927; Auerbach 1953) is a starting point. In this incident, Mrs. Ramsay is measuring a stocking that she is knitting against her son James’ leg. She makes four short utterances, but most of the text involves her inner thoughts. This brief note will concern only the interior dialogue after the second utterance, the dialogue that perplexed Auerbach.

In this dialogue, Mrs. Ramsey seems to be imagining herself from her admirer’s (Mr. Bankes) point of view, just as Woolf, in the two interior dialogues, is imagining the world from Mrs. Ramsay’s point of view, a world within a world. Just as Mrs. Ramsay was able to plausibly construct the world from Mr. Bankes’ point of view, because she knew him well, so Woolf was able to construct the world from Mrs. Ramsay’s point of view, since she knew so well the model (her own mother, Julia Stephen). When Woolf’s sister Vanessa read To the Lighthouse, she wrote to Virginia " have given a portrait of mother which more like her than anything I could ever have conceived possible. It is almost painful to have her so raised from the dead. far as portrait painting goes you seem to me to be a supreme artist..." (Lee 1997, 473-474).

An analysis (Sprague 1994) of interior monologues proposes that they are particularly feminine, especially the multi-personal aspects. Sprague shows that both Woolf and Doris Lessing portray extensive interior monologues of their women characters, and that these monologues are multi-personal. Even a glance at male and female authors suggests that it is the women who notice the details of inner dialogue. There is a considerable amount of interior dialogue in Proust and Joyce, but it is not multi-personal. Rather it is in the mode of Mrs. Ramsay’s first monologue, reflecting only the individual’s own thoughts, feelings and memories.

On the other hand, in the work of George Eliot, even though written in the 19th century, there are already suggestions of extensive interior monologue, some of it multi-personal, in one of the women characters, Gwendolyn Harleth, in Daniel Deronda. Although not as elaborated as Woolf’s treatment, these monologues suggest the same type of inner process as Woolf. Given the presence of extensive multi-personal interior monologue in three women writers (Eliot, Woolf, and Lessing), there seems to be a connection between this type of writing and gender.

None of the male characters in Proust’s great novel are able to manage role-taking with the women or men they desire. Indeed, the loved ones of Proust’s male characters are mysteries to them. Swann’s love for Odette, St. Loup’s for Rachel, Charlus for Morel, and the narrator’s own loves for Gilberte, Oriane (the Duchesse de Guermantes), and Albertine are all infatuations based upon the inaccessibility of the loved one’s consciousness. After Swann’s marriage to Odette, when he learns a little about her, he looses interest. Unable to connect mentally and emotionally, these men suffer agonies of jealousy, at least some of which is unwarranted. Proust’s depictions of male romantic yearning are all failures in imaginative role taking.

Proust’s own life suggests that he himself often failed in entering the consciousness of his friend and lovers, and in allowing them access to his own. His approach to friendship, at least, seems to have been based on extravagant gifts, flattery, and careful hiding of his own thoughts and feelings. He lavished praise on his friends’ writings, even when he thought them beneath contempt. He feigned interest in the interests of his friends to the point that they thought him as zealous as they. One of his male friends, in his memoir of their friendship, stated that Proust was a lover of sports, like himself. He mistook Proust’s avowal of interest in his own interest in sports as the real thing. His friends were aghast as the portraits in his novel that resembled them. It appears that in real life Proust was just as at sea in understanding his intimates as his male characters were in his novel.

If women are usually better than men at spontaneous, non-instrumental, rapid role-taking, with looseness of association, this difference might explain women’s greater intuition then men. It may be that rapid, loose and/or non-conventional associations are a feature of parallel, rather than serial processing in mental activity. Parallel mental processing means that one is thinking in several different trains of thought at once. These parallel trains of thought are all, or all but one, going on outside awareness. When these several trains are all attempts to solve the same problem, they can give rise to extremely rapid and imaginative solutions to difficult problems. Perhaps someday a novelist will go further than Woolf by depicting simultaneous interior trains of thought and other wonders of the human spirit.

Erich Auerbach (1953). The Brown Stocking, in Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Milan Kundera (1995). Testaments Betrayed. New York: Harcourt.

Hermione Lee (1997). Virginia Woolf. New York: Knopf.

Claire Sprague (1994). Multipersonal and Dialogic Modes in Mrs. Dalloway and The Golden Notebook in R. Saxton and G. Tobin (Editors), Woolf and Lessing. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Virginia Woolf (1927). To the Lighthouse. New York: Harcourt (1989).

The illustration is the cover of the first edition of To the Lighthouse.
This post is based on parts of an article published in Journal of Consciousness Studies. 2000. 7: 3-19. You can reach my (Tom Scheff’s) website (where this article is #15), by clicking here, or you can access the article directly by clicking here.

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