I was accepted to present this paper at the Northwest Undergraduate Conference on Literature.
Virginia Woolf’s fiction largely revolves around solving a major puzzle of her life: why some moments are meaningful and everlasting and others are forgotten, if ever acknowledged. Woolf’s autobiographical essay “A Sketch of the Past” reveals much of her personal history and rather meticulously details her process of crafting in print what she called a “moment of being,” a heightened experience that lives freshly, if mysteriously, in the mind forever. The essay is exactly what the title suggests it is: a rough picture of the author’s childhood and earliest memories. Woolf wrote the essay late in life, many years after writing her much-praised novel To the Lighthouse. That novel is also claimed by critics to be Woolf’s most autobiographical. As the cover of my edition reads, “The subject of this brilliant novel is the daily life of an English family in the Hebrides.” Literary critic Daphne Merkin writes that although the novel is “[s]et in the Hebrides, it is based on Woolf’s recollections of idyllic childhood summers spent at St. Ives on the Cornish coast” (1). Taken together, then, in addition to divulging Woolf’s personal history, “A Sketch of the Past” and To the Lighthouse uncover the extent to which personal, subjective reactions to specific moments early in Woolf’s life influenced her decades-long experimentation with modernism and stream-of-consciousness narration.
In “A Sketch,” Woolf describes her first memory: the colors of her mother’s dress as the two of them travel to St. Ives. This memory leads Woolf to another, which, she writes, “also seems to be my first memory, and in fact it is the most important of all my memories” (64): lying half asleep in her nursery at St. Ives, hearing the waves of the ocean crash on top of each other, basking in sunlight filtered through yellow blinds. Of this memory, Woolf writes, “I could spend hours trying to write that as it should be written, in order to give the feeling which is even at this moment very strong in me. But I should fail…” (65). The reason her description of the moment should fail is that Woolf first needs, she writes, to describe “Virginia herself” (65). But to write who a person is, Woolf continues, is as difficult as to write what a moment is; it’s as difficult to describe rightly what happened as it is to describe whom it happened to. To capture on page, then, a person’s familial history, idiosyncrasies, routines, internal thoughts (in all their whimsical oscillation), passions, fears, surroundings, and sensory input is Woolf’s goal. Woolf has all these various components coalesce into a single moment of being. To succeed at this is “to write [the memory] as it should be written.” It’s describing the person herself, what’s happened to her, and through what lenses she’ll see the world in front of her (for Woolf, a pale yellow or green one, like the sunlight in and the sea outside her nursery at St. Ives).
Woolf’s focusing on the interiority is conspicuous, and even a first-time reader will pick up on it quickly. What’s more difficult to pin down, though, is an understanding of the regular processes through which Woolf’s characters — and, indeed, Woolf herself — go to synthesize and utilize the emotions and memories that well up inside their consciousnesses while experiencing a moment of being. More difficult still is understanding what inspires a moment to cross the blurred line that somewhat separates heightened, remembered moments from what Woolf called moments of “non-being,” or unremembered life “embedded in a kind of nondescript cotton wool” (“A Sketch” 70).
Moments of being necessarily happen during — and punctuate! — ordinary life. Liesl Olson argues that in addition to writing the workings of a subjective mind, Woolf is “deeply invested, stylistically and ideologically, in representing the ordinary” (43). Olson argues that Woolf uses the habitual and relatable actions contained in moments of non-being to help craft her characters. Pointedly, Olson uses the character Septimus Warren Smith, in Mrs. Dalloway, to support her claim: he “is best revealed when he is doing ordinary, habitual things, and when he briefly reverts back to his habits before the war” (50). But separating too cleanly the ordinary (moments of non-being) from the heightened (moments of being) risks missing Woolf’s point: that heightened experiences can happen anytime, anywhere, and for any reason. Woolf herself, in a fit of modesty, admits to not being able to depict moments of non-being: “The real novelist can somehow convey both sorts of being. … I have never been able to do both. I tried — in Night and Day; and in The Years” (“A Sketch” 70). Therefore, in Woolf’s fiction, “doing ordinary, habitual things” and experiencing extraordinary, heightened moments of being are not mutually exclusive; they can, and often do, happen simultaneously. The passing in and out of heightened moments of consciousness is too seamless — and puzzling — to place each in its respective mental compartment.
Woolf has more questions than answers. After interrogating the moment for decades, she remains puzzled: “Unfortunately, one only remembers what is exceptional. And there seems to be no reason why one thing is exceptional and another not. Why have I forgotten so many things that must have been, one would have thought, more memorable than what I do remember?” (“A Sketch” 69-70).
Often in Woolf’s fiction, a moment that seems to be comprised of forgettable daily living is exactly the opposite, an unforgettable one. In the second paragraph of the novel, Woolf introduces the reader to a paradox: a moment of being is both simple and complex:
…James Ramsay, sitting on the floor cutting out pictures from the illustrated catalogue of the Army and Navy Stores, endowed the picture of a refrigerator, as his mother spoke, with heavenly bliss. It was fringed with joy. The wheelbarrow, the lawnmower, the sound of poplar trees, leaves whitening before rain, rooks cawing, brooms knocking, dresses rustling — all these were so coloured and distinguished in his mind that he had already his private code … though he appeared the image of stark and uncompromising severity, with his … fierce blue eyes … so that his mother … imagined him all red and ermine on the bench… (3-4).
Here is the moment in all its complexity; nothing is left out. The wheelbarrow outside, the leaves whitening before rain, the caw of rooks all come into James’s mind, and are distilled there. Yet it is simple: Mrs. Ramsay hasn’t done anything and James is just on the floor cutting out ads. Nonetheless, their minds are discerning, at work. James is fringed with joy. Mrs. Ramsay’s mind is thirty years into the future as she speaks with “heavenly bliss.”
The past, the present, and the hopes of the future often interplay in a moment of being. Mrs. Ramsay, at the end of the first section, for example, experiences a heightened moment that results from the remembrance of the past day’s events and a mind overtaken by a Shakespearean sonnet. A scene in which Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay sit together reading and doing other small tasks, the final chapter of the first section is interesting in that it’s the last moment the reader has with Mrs. Ramsay. David Herman closely analyzes the few words spoken by the Ramsays in this chapter. Because there are nearly as many pages as there are “utterances” in the chapter, Herman argues that “Woolf uses the scene to suggest how inner and outer worlds, inferences and utterances, are integrated to form larger ecologies of talk” (78). What Herman writes of ecologies of talk is also true of heightened experiences, but instead of “inner and outer worlds” becoming “integrated to form larger ecologies of talk,” they become integrated to form larger, more heightened moments of being. Mrs. Ramsay’s moment of being builds itself slowly, adding layers as new sensory input and memories become available. Mrs. Ramsay
…waited a little, knitting, wondering, and slowly those words they had said at dinner, “the China rose is all abloom and buzzing with the honey bee,” began washing from side to side in her mind rhythmically, and as they washed, words, like little shaded lights, one red, one blue, one yellow, lit up in the dark of her mind, and seemed leaving their perches up there to fly across and across, or to cry out and to be echoed; so she turned and felt on the table beside for a book. (119)
Mrs. Ramsay has intangible things — words spoken at dinner — take on shape and color in her mind; not only are they red, blue, and yellow, but they, as separate entities, have motion in her consciousness. Her reading of the sonnet takes this moment even higher, literally heightening — and then solidifying — the experience:
“Nor praise the deep vermilion in the rose,” she read, and so reading she was ascending, she felt, on to the top, on to the summit. How satisfying! How restul! All the odds and ends of the day stuck to this magnet; her mind felt swept, felt clean. And then there it was, suddenly entire; she held it in her hands, beautiful and reasonable, clear and complete, the essence sucked out of life and held rounded here — the sonnet. (121)
Notably, the only sentence the reader gets from the sonnet is a line that comments not only on a rose, but on a rose of brilliant color. “Rose,” then, is a trigger word, connecting the moment at dinner, in which her husband recited the poem that contained the line about “the China rose,” with the present one, bringing about, for lack of a better word, a climax (“How satisfying!”). This is a process; the past and the present, “the odds and ends of the day,” the feelings being transmitted between the Ramsays, and the two poems all come together to form this “beautiful,” “clear,” “rounded” moment: the essence of life.
Marco Caracciolo fails to give this process its due. He also fails to understand the irreversibility of a “crystallized” moment. Caracciolo writes, “The Shakespearean sonnet was read by Mrs. Ramsay as an example of crystallized meaning … But in fact, this poem shows that nature has already crept into the human world and that all attempts at distinguishing between the two domains [humanity and nature] are ultimately biased: the words of the poem float on the other side of the window…” (262). Caracciolo, however, has mixed up the poems in this scene. Mrs. Ramsay never “sees” words from the Shakespearean sonnet float on the other side of the window. She does, however, see the words of the poem Mr. Ramsay read at dinner float there, but only before she reads Shakespeare’s words. After having read the sonnet, Mrs. Ramsay’s mind goes “up and down, up and down with the poetry” (122); the words are stuck, as if to a magnet, in her consciousness, residing exclusively there. Mrs. Ramsay internalizes, gives shape, color, and meaning to the poems, and they become inextricably enmeshed, or blended, with the emotions and remembrances of the day. As a stone — perhaps the “very stone [that] one kicks with one’s boot [that] will outlast Shakespeare” (Lighthouse 35) — exists as long as the physical world exists, this moment existed in Mrs. Ramsay from its formation until she herself perished (whenever that happened). Woolf’s focus is not determining whether certain moments crystallize in the mind; they do. Her objective is to convey these snapshots of the mind, these visions, these crystallized moments of being, in her fiction.
Eudora Welty writes in the forward of the novel that “beyond being ‘about’ the very nature of reality, it is itself a vision of reality” (xii). The concept of “vision” runs throughout the novel; the mind has its own visions: Mrs. Ramsay “sees” colored words float in her mind; James “sees” the leaves whitening before rain. Woolf herself “sees” the yellow glow of sunlight through the blinds in her childhood nursery decades after it first shone there. So important is the internal vision of the mind that Woolf, for emphasis, chose the word for her novel’s last. Reflecting on her work of art, Lily Briscoe concludes both the novel and her painting at once: “Yes … I have had my vision” (209).
In the novel, Woolf never tells the reader what colors and shapes make up Lily’s painting. But she does describe what her own painting of her earliest moments of being would be comprised of:
If I were a painter I should paint these first impressions in pale yellow, silver, and green. There was the pale yellow blind; the green sea; and the silver of the passion flowers. I should make a picture that was globular; semi-transparent. I should make a picture of curved petals; of shells; of things that were semi-transparent … Everything would be large and dim; and what was seen would at the same time be heard; sounds would come through this petal or leaf — sounds indistinguishable from sights … When I think of the early morning in bed I also hear the caw of rooks falling from a great height. (66)
The colors and the sweeping nature of Woolf’s personal remembrance of a moment of being matches the visual mental imagery of both Mrs. Ramsay and James. It’s comprised of many disparate entities — the sea, mothers, the caw of rooks — that vaguely and somewhat opaquely come together. A single thing, however, must bring these far-flung entities to each other. For Lily, it was the final brushstroke down the center of her canvas. For Mrs. Ramsay, it was the rose of the Shakespearean sonnet (itself a model of strictly structured, everlasting human emotion). In fact, there’s a wealth of examples in “A Sketch” demonstrating a singular thing bringing coherence to a moment of being :
We were waiting at dinner one night, when somehow I overheard my father or my mother say that Mr. Valpy had killed himself. The next thing I remember is being in the garden at night and walking on the path by the apple tree. It seemed to me that the apple tree was connected with the horror of Mr. Valpy’s suicide … I stood there looking at the grey-green creases of the bark — it was a moonlit night — in a trance of horror. (71)
The grey-green apple tree came to represent, arbitrarily, the suicide of a family friend. The moment is rooted, shall we say, in Woolf’s consciousness by that tree. Woolf gives still another example of an object bringing a moment of being together at St. Ives: “I was looking at the flower bed by the front door; ‘That is the whole,’ I said. I was looking at a plant…” (71). That plant embedded another moment in Woolf’s mind, a moment in which she refuses to strike “Thoby,” opting instead to be beaten up by him.
The imagery is too consistent to ignore. The lighthouse, the apple tree, the plant, the rose from the sonnet, Lily Briscoe’s final brushstroke down the center of her canvas all organize and finalize the many actions, emotions, sights, and sounds that are present in a moment of being. There is something in the shape of the lighthouse that is significant for Woolf (what Freud would think of this is subject matter for another paper entirely). Again, Woolf explains this significance through the hypothetical painter Virginia Woolf: “If I were painting myself I should have to find some — rod, shall I say — something that would stand for the conception” (73). The conception of To the Lighthouse is represented by the lighthouse. The lighthouse itself, though, is meaningless, arbitrarily assigned to represent the conception as all symbols and words are arbitrarily assigned to the things they represent; the meaning is found in everything that that rod-like structure stands for. In both life and fiction, Woolf held her colorful, oscillating, semi-transparent, globular memories together with single, rod-like structures.
The reasons for which Woolf’s mind — or rather, considering the timelessness and popularity of Woolf’s writing, every mind — works this way remains a puzzle. Woolf hasn’t solved it. Her awareness of the limits of the printed word in her pursuit to solve it is evident throughout both To the Lighthouse and “A Sketch of the Past,” hence the reliance on visual art in both works. In “A Sketch,” Woolf even dreams of “ some device” in the future that will tap into and playback her moments of being completely, purely (67). Clearly, though, Woolf underestimated the power of her fiction to do, in effect, what she’d have technology do: write the moment as it should be written. She has done that.
Caracciolo, Marco. “Leaping into Space: The Two Aesthetics of To the Lighthouse.” Poetics Today 31.2 (2010): 251-284. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 7 November 2012.
Herman, David. “Dialogue in a Discourse Context: Scene of Talk in Fictional Narrative.” Narrative Inquiry 16.1 (2006): 75-84. MLA Bibliography. Web. 20 November 2012.
Merkin, Daphne. “To the Lighthouse and Beyond. The New York Times. 4 September 2004. Web. 18 January 2013.
Olson, Liesl M. “Virginia Woolf’s ‘Cotton Wool of Daily Life.’” Journal Of Modern Literature 26.2 (2003). 42-65. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 30 October 2012.
Woolf, Virginia. To the Lighthouse. 1927. Orlando: Harcourt, 1981. Print
—. “A Sketch of the Past.” Moments of Being. Ed. Jeanne Schulkind. Orlando: Harcourt, 1985. Print.