An Essay On Narrative Style And Speech

In Woolf’s ‘To The Lighthouse’ Essay, Research Paper

In Virginia Woolf’s fiction, the breakdown or breaking open, of traditional literary forms in the light of the twentieth century querying of perception, reality and linguistic meaning, is recorded as a reconceiving of the novel-form. Throughout the course of her novels she lays down a challenge to official ways of measuring proportion, light, time and human character. Abolishing chapter and verse, Woolf creates a rhythmic, wave-like form of undulating passages as in music, where the structure of parts within an individual movement is a continuous flow rather than a series of stops and starts. She identifies language itself as a volatile and indeterminate system of mirroring suggestions; reality as potentially unknowable, and the novel form itself as inclined to substantial change to accommodate these perspectives. Virginia Woolf renounces the narrative persona as a sort of privileged extra character testifying to indisputable mental and physical events and evaluating their significance. She shifts significance to the act of mediation itself as a primary subject to be investigated “>. To the Lighthouse “>develops a system of passing the baton of interior monologue from one character to another by its eavesdropping of the self-sealed consciousness of a group enwrapped in meditation through the round of two life-encapsculating days. In “>To the Lighthouse”> the proportion of direct speech to indirect speech is minuscule, and, indeed rudimentary. If we reduce the first section of the novel to its dialogue, the following structure emerges: ‘Yes, of course, if it’s fine to-morrow,’ said Mrs Ramsay. ‘But you’ll have to be up with the lark’… ‘But,’ said his father . . . ‘it won’t be fine.’ >’But it may be fine – I expect it will be fine,’ said Mrs Ramsay . . . ‘It’s due west,’ said the atheist Tansley . . . ‘Nonsense,’ said Mrs Ramsay . . . >’There’ll be no landing at the Lighthouse to-morrow,’ said Charles Tansley . . . ‘Would it bore you to come with me, Mrs Tansley?’ ‘Let us all go!’ she cried . . . ‘Let’s go,’ he said. ‘Good-bye, Elsie,’ she said. (pp.3-16) Inconsequent voices demur about the weather: typical English conversation implying an apathetic form of communion, signifying little – so we might assess this dialogue if it were presented to us as I have transcribed it, dissecting it from its root-network in the complex matrix of the narrative voice which recounts the soliloquies of the persons from whom these extracts of conversation are gathered. The dominant mode of To the Lighthouse is multiple impersonation of soliloquies. Indeed, the contribution of James in this first section, though fierce and uproarious (he would like to murder his father for saying no to the lighthouse) is wholly soliloquy, suppressed into direct narrative as a child’s impulses seethe unvented beneath the pressure of adult omnipotence. It is the narrator’s painstaking saying of the unsaid, disclosing the continuum of thoughts which motivate, that infuses the trivial conversation with a quality of tense urgency. The voices, in the context of the underlying soliloquy which is the book’s dominant mode, seem choric, especially when the emotion and significance that these prosaic words carry is taken into account. In Mr Ramsay’s ‘But’, detached from the rest of his remark (’it won’t be fine’) by the grammatical form of the sentence, lies all the crushing weight of paternal reason that ever went into crushing a boy’s hopes; in his mother’s optimistic prevarication (’But it may be fine – I expect it will be fine’) is the mediatorial sympathy that filmed the childish eye with a protective membrane like ‘a very thine yellow veil . . . like a vine leaf’ (p.171) until the optic nerve could tolerate broad daylight. The subchorus of ‘the atheist Tansley’ reinforces the paternal chant and is in turn, with severity, countered by the mother’s affirmation. The conversation then moves from dispute to reconciliation as Mrs Ramsay and Charles Tansley share their outing until, with the second section, the movement of recoil cyclically begins again: ‘”No going to the Lighthouse, James”‘. The isolation of all dialogue within the text, where background strains forward between all utterances and strives to become foreground makes all speech in “>To the Lighthouse<-”> curiously anonymous, impersonal and free. Utterances in “>To the Lighthouse<-”> seem to float in mid-air and are seldom directly answered, with the effect that they become charged with extra-personal significance. The narrative voice becomes a primary agent of interruption, forcing individual participations apart by obtruding the rich flow of thought-content which motivates, explains, undermines or contradicts what is said. Speech is made to seem a kind of digression from the major business of life: a radical reversal of a traditional emphasis of the novel, where meaning is assumed to be generated by social or personal dialogue. In this novel, speech takes on a ritualistic and static quality. Conversation may go unanswered, and indeed the speaker may not appear to be listening out for an answer at all, abandoning interest in communication as likely to prove abortive, to be re-engrossed in the interior world. Questions may be left in mid-air, as at the end of Part One, Section 13, where Mrs Ramsay’s question, ‘”Did Nancy go with them?”‘ remains unanswered until Section 15, which consists solely of Prue’s words, ‘”Yes . . . I think Nancy did go with them”‘. Equivocation between outer and inner events is also a reflex of Virginia Woolf’s fictional manner in “> To the Lighthouse<-”>. Indeed, the technique makes possible an insecurity in the reader as to whether an external conversation has actually taken place, or simply an internal passage of thought. Characters habitually dispute issues with others, in rehearsal. Thought fades into speech as though the two were not perceived as distinct. To blur the honourable distinctions between “>she<-”> <+”>thought, she said<-”> and <+”>she did<-”> is to place a giant question mark over the whole field of novelistic perception. Arguing through in Part One, Section 6 the same old issue of visiting the lighthouse, Mr and Mrs Ramsay’s speech is not mapped by the conventional signals of punctuation: ‘There wasn’t the slightest possible chance that they could go to the Lighthouse to-morrow, Mr Ramsay snapped out irascibly. How did he know? she asked. The wind often changed.’ The status of the utterances here is indeterminate between direct speech and reported speech, and indeed implies a blurring of modes. Absence of quotation marks and use of the past tense indicate reported speech; but the form in which the conversation is laid out on the page suggests the immediacy of direct speech. It is only in the next paragraph when Mr Ramsay comes out with the oath ‘Damn you’ that the prose registers the shock of impact by breaking out of this pattern to punctuate with quotation marks. A number of subtle effects are generated by this finely nuanced grammar. One is to emphasise that what is important in the conversation is not what is said but how it is heard. How Mrs Ramsay and the eavesdropping James perceive Mr Ramsay’s utterance is more important than what he is saying for its own sake.


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