Hives, Knots, Parties, and Carnations: The Role of the Isolated Self and the Creation of Unity in Four Novels of Virginia Woolf (Project Summary)

After about one hundred hours of research, I have completed my paper. This research process was a wonderful learning experience, and it helped me learn how to narrow down my topic and write on several novels at once.

My essay is titled, “Hives, Knots, Parties, and Carnations: The Role of the Isolated Self and the Creation of Unity in Four Novels of Virginia Woolf”. In her novels, Virginia Woolf strives to create life as it is, to portray life as it really occurs. However, truly capturing life is difficult due to the issue of the isolated, unknowable self. One can never accurately express the workings of their individual consciousness. Language is insufficient, thought moves too fast to be dictated, and true communication almost never occurs. Throughout her novels, Woolf systematically pairs isolation and unity in an attempt to capture the true state of human consciousness. 

In her novels, particularly To the Lighthouse, The Waves, Mrs. Dalloway, and The Years,  Woolf often constructs moments of intense separateness and isolation. Characters struggle to speak with each other and to say what they truly wish to say. Characters feel distant from other characters, trapped within the confines of their consciousness. Woolf creates artist characters who grapple with this sense of the secluded self. In To the Lighthouse, the painter Lily Briscoe endeavors to paint a portrait that captures the Mrs. Ramsay’s essence, but realizes that she will never be able to breach the walls of Mrs. Ramsay’s “hive”-like mind (TL 51). Lily can never truly know Mrs. Ramsay. In The Waves, Bernard, the writer, wants to create the “perfect phrase” (TW 97) that will “sum up” (TW 83) humanity. However, he never achieves this perfect phrase. Rather, in his attempts to do so, Bernard loses his own individuality. The narrative structure of the novel breaks down as Bernard becomes the only remaining speaker of the novel, and the story ends in his death. In Mrs. Dalloway, Septimus Warren Smith, the traumatized World War I veteran with links to poets like John Keats and William Shakespeare, can never communicate his revelations to those around him. He is continually interrupted and discounted by his wife and his doctors. He is unable to achieve communication with other human beings beyond his isolated self. This isolation and failure to communicate leads Septimus commit suicide. In The Years, the speech-maker, Nicholas, questions the concept of the self as soon as the reader is introduced to him. He observes, “…this is how we live, screwed up into one hard little, tight little— knot… Each in his own little cubicle; each with his own cross or holy book; each with his fire, his wife…” (TY 319). Nicholas attempts to unite the people around him and dissolve the walls of their “cubicles” with his speeches. However, like Septimus, he is continually interrupted, and a speech is never allowed to take shape. At the end of the novel, at the family party, Nicholas declares that “There is going to be no peroration… because there was no speech” (TY 466). Neither the party nor the novel can have a proper finish because there was never a speech, never a proper unification of consciousness between the characters.

However, despite these representations of solitude and separateness, Woolf also depicts moments of unity between the characters. These moments are often centered around dinners or parties, and they are moments in which the walls of individual consciousness become permeable. Thoughts are able to diffuse across minds, and true communication occurs. In contrast to the characters of Lily, Bernard, Septimus, and Nicholas, Woolf fashions characters who spur these moments of “communal fellowship” as scholar Kathryn Stelmach describes it. Mrs. Ramsay in To the Lighthouse, orchestrates the dinner around the aesthetic centers of the bowl of fruit. At this dinner, the characters feel a sense of communal unity with each other. Thoughts are shared among minds, as shown by the several characters who begin reciting the poem, “Luriana, Lurilee.” In reciting this poem, the characters “say quite easily and naturally what had been in her [Mrs. Ramsay’s] mind the whole evening while she said different things” (TL 111). Everyone at the dinner feels united to the characters around them. In Mrs. Dalloway, Clarissa is the life giver of her party. She creates a space for perfect communication. She frames the moment of unity in the memory of the characters and the readers, and doing so fulfills her and gives her a sense of eternality. Peter Walsh observes that she “sum[s] it all up in the moment as she pass[es](MD 174), and at the end of the party says, “It is Clarissa…For there she was” (MD 194). Clarissa is the source of communal consciousness, and creates a permanent space of communication. In The Waves, the character Percival unites the six others. He is the center of their dinners, and he creates an almost physical unity between all of the characters. Even after his death, the characters find solidarity around him.

However, The Years is interesting in that there is no moment of communal harmony. Instead, there is the jarring moment in which two children sing a discordant and unsettling song. All of the adults share the same feeling of anxiety, but no one expresses it. Any semblance of a communal consciousness is shattered. Nicholas has the potential to unite the characters, but he is unable to because everyone keeps interrupting him.

The characters of Mrs. Ramsay, Clarissa Dalloway, and Percival create in the way that Woolf herself strives to create. In using these life-giving characters, Woolf draws the reader into the consciousness of the characters and the narrative, just as these three draw other characters into a space of communal consciousness. Woolf’s awareness of the isolation of individual selves, and the ways in which this isolation can be broken down allow her to attain her goal and convey life as it truly is. In her essay, “Modern Fiction,” Woolf writes, “Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end” (“MF” 160). Her strategy of juxtaposing isolated characters with life-giving characters makes her characters and her narratives feel like real life. By pairing isolation and solidarity, Woolf captures the quintessence of the human consciousness, to be at once so isolated, yet to crave and strive for community and communication. 

Comments

  1. This sounds very interesting and in depth. I like how you combined English with philosophy almost in making us think if we ever truly know ourselves or communicate our true selves.
    I know that your paper was a literary analysis so my questions are more a suggestion of an interesting place to go from here rather than a suggestion of what you should have included in your paper. I am wondering if Woolf wrote about people with these character traits of isolation, etc. because of some personal experiences? Is there any relation to historical context or something that caused her to write about this? It is just intriguing that this is such a recurring theme in so many of her novels.
    I also felt as if this project was lacking a comparison with Proust. That could have really elevated the analysis.

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