The Reader Awakes: Pedagogical Form and Utopian Impulse in The Years.
Anne Fernald has written that Woolf sought and demonstrated a type of reading "that is at once generous and critical," a type of reading that then "teaches us how to read her" (15). One of the readers who read Woolf's texts both generously and critically was Jane Marcus, who similarly praised the generosity she saw in Woolf's stance as an "enraptured reader, egoless and open to the text, rather than aggressively attacking it" (Art & Anger 225). While Marcus was a writer and scholar, it is at least equally valuable to consider her as a reader and teacher, for it is through her always passionate, generous, and yet specific reading of Woolf that she teaches us new ways of imagining the text, imagining the world of the text, and imagining the world in which we read the text.
Beginning with some implications from Marcus's insistence on the radicalism of Woolf's form as well as content, we can work toward reading The Years as a novel with a subversive pedagogy, a text that teaches readers to imagine new alternatives to old forms and exhausted ideologies. Seeing The Years as infused with utopian impulses means reading it not as a plan for a perfect world, but rather as a novel of quietly utopian desires, a novel that yearns for an ever-shifting unity of senses and sensibilities that could resist and perhaps even triumph over the threats of authoritarianism, patriarchy, nationalism, and militarism. As such, the novel may fit within Gayatri Spivak's notion of an aesthetic education in an era of globalization, a frame congruent with many of Marcus's concerns, for Spivak is a reader who values how close attention to the language and structure of texts can train readers toward new ways of using their imaginations, ways necessary for liberty and justice to have any hope of flourishing. "The literary imagination," Spivak writes, "is programmed to fail but can figure the impossible" (Aesthetic 116). The literary imagination has no escape from the inevitable failure of language's aspiration to encompass all the possible representations of the world, nor can such imagination rise free from the histories of imperialism and patriarchy that shape its articulations, but nonetheless it is the literary, with all its polyphonies, that offers what Spivak (discussing Woolf) calls "the impossible possible of 'perhaps'" (117) available only to fictionality. Through the figurations of fiction, the impossible becomes imaginable; once imaginable, it may move beyond the realm of dreams and into discourse, the realm of analysis, thus narrowing the chasm between the possible and impossible.
Figuring the impossible is a task that unites Marcus with Woolf and Woolf with Marcus, and both women valued the act of reading as indispensable to that task. "Reading," Woolf wrote in 1931, "has changed the world and continues to change it" (E5 274)--a statement of great hope and optimism if we assume that the change reading allows is toward liberty and justice. Woolf and Marcus knew that for such an assumption to be valid, we must also assume that readers possess certain skills and habits of imagination, and thus the relationship between text and reader is paramount, because texts can encourage readers toward either an active or passive relationship to their words, structures, and ideas.
The Pedagogy of Form
Throughout her career, Jane Marcus elucidated the ways experimental form could aid radical meaning, and in such essays as "Britannia Rules The Waves" (in Hearts) she pushed against the many critics who argued for social realism as the only valid aesthetic for radical fiction: "When a text like The Waves situates itself in the oppositional framework of minority discourse but is refused a place among the countercanonical classics of the thirties by a certain set of cultural guardians, one senses their fear of 'poetic' language and experimental structure as vehicles for radical politics" (Hearts 60). Valuing experimental form, she was not only sensitive to what texts mean, but to how. Of The Years, she said, "The freedom is in the form ... Our experience of pleasure comes from the artist's handling of aesthetic barriers ... The content of this novel happens to be as radical as its form" (Languages 54).
In the introduction to her annotated edition of Three Guineas, Marcus makes a convincing argument that not only the text but the solid object of the book itself is designed to encourage a particular experience, one that teaches skills of critical, skeptical reading:
Much noisy page turning is required to read this book, as one moves from the page to Virginia Woolf's own notes, to this editor's notes, and then to the bookshelves or the Internet to chase an undocumented allusion or a puzzling phrase. Woolf's genius lies in her commitment to experimental writing: Three Guineas is an interactive text.... Part of Woolf's advanced project in experimental writing was to involve the reader in both the reading and the "writing" of the script for her books. (xlvii-xlviii)
For Marcus, such experimental form is an inextricable expression of the book's political purpose: "Virginia Woolf's political commitment to undermining authority is enacted in the structure and voice of her writing. Her style and her politics are equally antiestablishment" (xlix). To make any sense of Three Guineas, we not only must flip back and forth between Woolf's main text and her footnotes (as well as any editor's notes in an annotated edition), but we must also sort through the various characters and voices Woolf brings in. The polyphony may become overwhelming, making us yearn for an authoritative narrative voice to clear things up and give us a packaged meaning, but it is exactly such authority that Woolf subverts.
While less "noisy page turning" is required of The Years, the style and the politics of the novel are no less antiauthoritarian than those of Three Guineas, no less demanding that readers stay aware, active, skeptical, and willing to imagine connections and conclusions for themselves.1 The Years is less openly in dialogue with the reader (who is not directly addressed), but even a reader who has never heard the name Bakhtin will likely wonder which voices, utterances, and details to pay most attention to in the novel's rich tapestry. Each chapter begins with a prelude presenting a (seemingly) objective, distant view of places and people, few clearly related to the family story that follows by anything other than geography; throughout the novel, characters' thoughts and dialogue are often elliptical and fragmentary; objects, colors, sounds, and sights appear and reappear in ways that suggest significance and symbolism, but the patterns are inconclusive. In contrast to many family sagas, the story of the Pargiters is not teleological, it does not move from glory to ruin (or vice versa); but neither is it static: time passes, people change, some characters find success and others don't, memories haunt and fade, life goes on. The novel scrupulously resists declaring an unambiguous meaning for any of it, but the construction is also far from random. Readers, like the characters, must choose how to make sense of the patterns, what to value and what to discard.2 The reader seeking narrative authority is endlessly frustrated, just as the reader seeking slogans from Three Guineas is going to have to do some real violence not only to the book, but to its polyphony.
Of Woolf's oeuvre generally, Susan Stanford Friedman has written that "Each text sets the ground for its own experiments, which it teaches its readers to interpret" (105).3 This is no less true of The Years than of Woolf's other novels. The frustrations that The Years produces in readers expecting a type of novel it evokes but does not enact are central to its pedagogy: a project of teaching the reader to take an active role with the text rather than to assume a passive, unquestioning stance toward authoritarian novelistic conventions.4 What Woolf sought with The Years was, in part, as Liisa Saariluoma states, to write a book that "deconstructs the family novel mode from within" (290). To do so, it had to resemble a family novel, and thus invite the reading conventions of that subgenre so that the text could then frustrate, challenge, and retrofit those conventions, training the reader toward a new way of reading and, with luck, of seeing the world.
Generational sagas about families had been popular at least from the time of Zola's Rougon-Macquart novels; after the first decades of the twentieth century, though, they came to be seen as a rather dusty genre. For all her critiques of outmoded novel forms, Woolf was a writer obsessed with time and memory, and she must have felt an inescapable attraction to the family saga's possibilities, and particularly to how she could use the conventions of the genre for her own purposes. Conventions regulate readers' expectations, and the subversive writer invokes those conventions, then shapes them either to guide the reading experience toward new effects or to surprise the reader into some new awareness. Readers may expect, for instance, that a novel of generations, which is a type of historical novel, will make note of important historical events, and The Years does (British colonialism, the death of Charles Stewart Parnell, the women's suffrage movement, the death of King Edward VII, World War I), but these events are often noticed only in passing, or their drama is muted, and many major events of the sort that would be prominent in a traditional historical novel are skipped over altogether. Woolf's focus is on the everyday details of life, the steady changes of technology that affect how people communicate with each other and move around in their lives, how money is attained and accounted for, who gets to go to school and who gets to go to work, and what sort of schools and what sort of work they get to go to. The private, quotidian world is emphasized and the public world is radically de-emphasized, shifting what is assumed to be important in historical writing. Woolf's technique, though, is not simply a shifting of emphases or a change in content; what the text shows or doesn't show is inextricable from how it shows or doesn't show it. Conventions are legible because of patterns, and in The Years Woolf creates new patterns, building a complex structure within the exhausted form, paying close attention to the repetition of particular phrases, colors, sounds, and objects through the book, making The Years into something like a novelistic pantoum.5
For the critique of patriarchy and family that was so important to Woolf's project in the 1930s, she needed to pull apart the novel form from the inside.6 She had gathered, she said, "enough powder to blow up St Pauls" (D4 77), but for the most effective demolition, she needed to place that powder inside the structure itself. The normalizing discourse of the family that generational sagas support was a discourse Woolf knew to be highly compatible not only with that particular subgenre of novel, but with traditional novel form generally. Instead of rejecting traditional novelistic discourse for The Years, though, Woolf overloads it, exploding the family novel from within and reconstructing it so that any reader who begins The Years expecting to be able to put the reading protocols of the conventional novel to use soon becomes confused, bored, or frustrated, and those feelings offer the first step toward the reader beginning to understand Woolf's project. If such readers are to do much more than dismiss the novel, they must change their assumptions and expectations so that they can practice different reading strategies.
To Learn, To Dream
The attentive reading practice that novels such as The Years elicit is part of what Gayatri Spivak has advocated as an aesthetic education for ethical imagination. We must, Spivak says, read the literary text for its literariness, we must pay close attention to its textual moves, and "we cannot read if we do not make a serious linguistic effort to enter the epistemic structures presupposed by a text" (Aesthetic 452). As Marcus and others have shown, the epistemic structures presupposed by The Years are ones that reject all totalizing ideology, whether the ideology of dominant literary practice, the ideology of patriarchy, the ideology of nationalism, or the ideology of fascism. They are also structures that question epistemology itself, and so, if we agree with Spivak, then to read this text means to enter into an attitude of skepticism, to be receptive to resonance, to tolerate contradictory judgments of characters and events, and to accept--or even, ideally, to enjoy--the lack of an authoritative narrative voice.
Woolf is thus what Spivak would call an activist of the imagination, a label Spivak insists must be embraced by teachers: "It is not a question of just producing correct descriptions, which should of course be produced, but which can always be disproved... There must be, at the same time, the sense of how to train the imagination, so that it can become something other than Narcissus waiting to see his own powerful image in the eyes of the other" (Readings 54). Here we have the Woolfian idea of fact ("correct descriptions") versus vision (imagination), but like Woolf, Spivak does not simply create a binary opposition: correct descriptions must be produced, just as facts must be accounted for and the bark of guns must be heard, but facts are not sufficient, nor is it sufficient to ask how to prevent war without also asking how to create peace.7 For the ideal of peace, and for the ideal of aesthetic perfection, multiple voices must be brought into play, reaching toward what Marcus dubbed "the collective sublime of Woolf's narrative voice" (Art & Anger 83), a voice that refuses the narcissistic desire to see nothing but a self in the other. This is polyphony, but it is not simply a collection of varied voices; the voices are assembled, they each speak from their own point of view, their differences are not elided, the selves are not erased, yet the assemblage creates a whole that speaks more powerfully than any voice alone. As Marcus suggests, Woolf asks us to imagine that specific narrative voices can become a single voice united through literary form, and so to imagine then what such unity might imply not only within the realm of the literary, but beyond it. Woolf challenges the reader to wonder whether there might be a way to assemble a unity that is not the authoritarian unity she so despised.
Woolf never drafted a plan for a utopia, but a utopian impulse is present in The Years both as allusions within the text itself and, more substantially, in the characters' persistent yearning for a new world. (8) If the novel may be said to have a politics, that politics is both an extension of the frustrations produced by the world's failures and of the hopes inspired by imagining that those failures may be transcended. The pedagogy of The Years encourages readers to learn how to imagine such transcendence. Traditional utopian novels offer methods of transcending the world's injustices, but their pedagogy is that of a lecturer in a large auditorium, with the reader left to do nothing but take notes on Great Ideas. Woolf was skeptical of such an authoritarian approach, and she makes her skepticism explicit in "Character in Fiction," declaring: "There are no Mrs. Browns in Utopia. Indeed I do not think that Mr. Wells, in his passion to make her what she ought to be, would waste a thought upon her as she is" (E3 428). (9) Yet if Woolf seeks to encourage readers to become activists of the imagination, then she must find a way to reconcile with utopianism and build a critical pedagogy into it, because utopian impulses are fundamental for any politics that seeks to be more than realpolitik. Leonard Woolf himself said in Framework for a Lasting Peace in 1917, "Everything is Utopian until it is tried" (58). What Virginia Woolf needed to solve was the problem of writing from a utopian impulse without getting caught by the traps of the utopian novel, and to do so without turning away from the ever-growing horrors of the world in the 1930s. She needed, as Loretta Stec proposes in regard to Three Guineas, "to chart the range of possible responses to utopian impulses in a dystopian age" (180).
While numerous utopian novels were published throughout the 19th century, the 1930s were more dominated by dystopias than utopias, including various works by Katherine Burdekin, Storm Jameson, and others. 10 The most famous of these novels was Brave New World (1932) by Woolf's friend Aldous Huxley, whose fiction Woolf considered too didactic, his novels exemplars of a type for which she declared she had "a horror," and so she cautioned herself that Huxley's mode of fiction was one she must avoid (D4 281). Though Woolf did not want to write utopian or dystopian fiction, and often disparaged the kind of political idealism required of any utopian writer, she nonetheless understood (and felt herself) the yearning for a new world. This is most apparent during the 1930s in Woolf's proposal in Three Guineas for a society of outsiders, a proposal that extends some of what is implicit in The Years via what Laura Moss Gottlieb calls "Woolf's vision of a feminist utopia" (225). The "Outsiders' Society" was as programmatic in its utopianism as Woolf ever got: the outsiders must be pacifists who not only refuse to fight, but also "refuse in the event of war to make munitions or nurse the wounded" and who "maintain an attitude of complete indifference" (TG 126-27). The attitude of indifference requires women outsiders "to take no share in patriotic demonstrations; to assent to no form of national self-praise; to make no part of any claque or audience that encourages war; to absent herself from military displays, tournaments, tattoos, prize-givings and all such ceremonies as encourage the desire to impose 'our' civilization or 'our' dominion upon other people" (TG 129).
The utopian vision of Three Guineas is clear--Woolf's anti-militarist, anti-nationalist, and anti-imperialist ideas were at least as utopian when Three Guineas was published as they are today. But that vision is not absent from The Years, where the utopian impulse most clearly arises in the various musings on a (brave?) "new world," the first of which appears in the 1917 chapter after the air raid, when Sara raises a glass and everyone toasts "To the New World!" (277). Eleanor later asks, "About the new world... Do you think we're going to improve?" (280), but though Nicholas says yes, Eleanor continues to wonder: "When, she wanted to ask him, when will this new world come? When shall we be free?" (281). In the "Present Day" chapter, remembering the air raid, Eleanor recalls the toast "they had drunk to a new world. 'A new world--a new world!' Sally had cried" (312). The final use of the phrase is not by Eleanor, but by North, her nephew who has been to both war and colonial Africa, and whom Marcus identifies as a "potential poet-priest" (Languages 41), a member of the society of outsiders and "the incarnation of the Year-Spirit" (Languages 64). He is asked to speak for the younger generation, and he endorses Peggy's earlier outburst ("'You'll write one little book, and then another little book,' she said viciously, 'instead of living... living differently, differently'" ). To live differently becomes a kind of mantra for him. "It was what she meant that was true...her feeling, not her words. He felt her feeling now; it was not about him; it was about other people; about another world, a new world" (401). As an outsider who is also a member of the younger generation, North may be able to live into a new world of the future that is better than the future that has arrived for Eleanor and her generation.
The Years is a novel of utopian inclinations not in the sense of providing descriptions and prescriptions for a new world, but in its careful limning of what Fredric Jameson dubs "the desire called Utopia" (xiv). Utopia as desire and impulse prefigures or even opposes utopia as system. The utopian appears not in plans for a future society but in the hope for change, the yearning to inhabit a new world for which the need is vivid and immediate, but which is itself less vision than feeling, less blueprint than wish. Woolf's utopia is glimpsed in hints, glances, allusions, and the occasional brief moments where lives are connected through links invisible to the individuals themselves. The future stays unknown to the present, but within each chapter's present the yearning for a better world, a world of freedom and peace, persists for many of the characters. While in the first essay chapter of The Pargiters, Woolf indicates that she planned to span the years 1800 to 2032 (9), The Years did not become a novel of the future--it ends in a present that was past from the moment of publication--but it is a novel in which the future is, in every sense, always present in yearnings for different ways of living and dreams of new worlds.
The future is also present via allusion, though it is not the future itself that the allusion most vividly evokes, but rather imagined futures from the past. In the "1914," "1917," and "Present Day" chapters, Woolf repeats the word sleepers and the fear of waking them, first with Martin and Maggie (where the sleepers are Maggie's baby and Sarah), next in the air raid scene where Eleanor lowers her voice "as if she were afraid of waking sleepers" (280), then when Maggie enters Sara's room and stands staring at Sara and North "as if she had wakened sleepers" (328), and finally when Eleanor falls asleep at Delia's party and North and Maggie talk around her: "She looked peaceful, far from them, rapt in the calm which sometimes gives the sleeper the look of the dead" (360). At the end, the figure of the sleeper and the yearning for a new world are united when North wakes from a doze and is suddenly able to feel his way into a new sense of community (401). Woolf uses the figure of the sleeper for various purposes, most explicitly to signal the carving out of privacy within a public space, but sleep is also the realm of dreams, the place where, in times of crisis, hope and imagination may find release.
Given how vexing Woolf often found H.G. Wells (indeed, reading his thoughts on women helped inspire Three Guineas [D4 75]), she would likely have been aware at least of the title of his novel When the Sleeper Wakes (originally serialized in 1898/99, revised and printed as The Sleeper Awakes in 1910), wherein a man tries to cure his insomnia and ends up sleeping until the year 2100, waking up in an authoritarian plutocracy. Though Wells's novel was fundamentally a dystopia, the conceit of a sleeping person awaking had also been used in various utopian stories, most prominently Bellamy's Looking Backward (1888) and Morris's News from Nowhere (1890), and the phrase that supplied Wells's novel's title was familiar from the English translation of Philip Nicolai's Lutheran hymn "Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme" and J.S. Bach's cantata using its lyrics. Such use of the word sleeper applied to a person (rather than a train carriage) was by the 1930s, though, a bit odd or at least faintly archaic, a word drawing some slight attention to itself, so that a reader familiar with Wells's book, or any other story about a "sleeper" awaking in a new world, may think of that other text and wonder what sort of new world Woolf's sleepers will awake in.
The repetition of the word sleeper, and more importantly the access sleep allows to dreaming, is important to the novel's presentation of characters yearning for different lives and new worlds, a presentation that reaches full flower in the final chapter, where the "Present Day" is filled with memories of the past and dreams of times to come. Within the frame of pedagogy, the final chapter could be seen as the reader's final exam, though it isn't a test so much as a culminating lesson. Our skills of attention have been shaped and strengthened through the previous chapters, we sense the epistemological structure of the text, and we arrive at the last chapter with a bank of memories, some of which are hazy, some of which might even be unconscious. If, as the prelude of the 1891 chapter told us, the year begins in October, then the summer evening of "Present Day" is nearing the end. The sun sets, and "an edge of light surrounded everything." Red and gold are the dominant colors; colors don't have simple symbolic meanings in the novel, their implications shift and shimmer, but there is passion in red and beauty and wealth in gold. Gentler, more delicate, fragile, and peaceful colors (lilac and pink) appear in flowers and "shone veined as if lit from within" (290).11 After fractured conversations and fragmented memories, Eleanor slips again and again into dreaming, and the final chapter brings her into the first hours of a new day. James Haule reads this progress as demonstrating that Eleanor "sees a better human existence which may now be within reach since the darkness of war, like the night itself, is finally over" (241), but this may be a hopeful reading, as the narrative provides no evidence that Eleanor herself believes that a better life (never mind utopia!) has come closer. The novel's pedagogy does not require Eleanor to see a new world, however. We need only to be able to imagine that a better world is possible, and to imagine what such a world might include.
A Unity of Liberation
A yearning for a new world is tied in The Years to a yearning for a certain communal feeling, a unity that brings together incomplete bits and broken shards. Constructing a whole from fragments had been an aesthetic concern of Woolf's from early in her career, and unity and wholeness were thus guiding concepts for her desires and ideals. These concepts were key not only to her aesthetics, but to her politics. Alex Zwerdling, in a discussion of Woolf's pacifism, sees the effect of the many scenes in Woolf's novels of parties and other social occasions as one that works toward a kind of empathy: "Such events are the set pieces of Woolf's novels, and they always serve to test the characters' capacities for identifying emotionally with others toward whom they initially feel indifference or hostility" (278). Zwerdling notes that a "vision of the possibility of human unity affects not only the larger elements of Woolf's fiction (plot, time scheme, characterization) but also the sentence and paragraph" (280) to the extent that Woolf's "style is an instrument of coherence that refuses to compartmentalize or exclude, a verbal expression of the ideal of human unity" (281).
Woolf stages the quest for unity, and the frequent failure to find it, within the diegeses of her novels as well as through their aesthetics, thus achieving her desired melding of form and content. This is visible from the structure of Jacob's Room all the way to Between the Acts, where characters are concerned throughout with questions of unity, harmony, fragmentation, and discord. In The Years, characters yearn for various sorts of unity and the text itself unifies through its narrative voices. The distant, seemingly objective voice of the preludes (and, occasionally, elsewhere) can be read as a prose corollary to a landscape painting, a wide-angle photograph, or a long shot in a movie. (12) Again and again, the text demonstrates that the wholeness desired by such different characters as Eleanor and Peggy cannot be achieved only through words or only through an elite view--these characters seldom finish their thoughts, seldom even complete a conversation. Fragments of experience and philosophy fill each scene, though, requiring a perspective that can see a system, a distance (like the distance of the preludes) that delineates the movement of groups. Aside from the prelude narrator, the only force capable of such a distance is the reader's own imagination. It is the long final chapter that brings together the main characters who are still alive, dramatizing the harmonies and discords that have been set up in the previous chapters, ultimately finishing with the characters all uncertain. But the reader, who unifies the book by turning its last page, is left with a new day and the words "beauty, simplicity, and peace" (412). We can imagine the peaceful, simple, beautiful new day, and as the only observer of all the characters' encounters and ideas we may then be able to imagine how such encounters and ideas could contribute to a greater whole.
Unity remains in The Years a question of possibility more than reality, and the possibility is primarily available to the reader, not the characters. For instance, though physical spaces offer opportunities for moments of unity throughout the novel, those opportunities are mostly visible only to a perspective broader than that of any individual. Houses, in particular, bring characters together and hold them for a few hours or days or years, creating concrete markers of time. But without perception, time and space aren't unified. Abercorn Terrace signifies meaning for all of the Pargiters because they consistently associate it with moments of family life, but Number 30 on the street under Westminster Abbey's shadow remains un-unified by perception: Colonel Pargiter visits it at the beginning of the novel to see his mistress, Mira; then the 1917 section mostly takes place there, but the characters don't know the history, and no connection is made. Or, rather, no connection is made within the diegesis--alert readers can note the link, can flip from page 264 to page 6 and back again, and so the unity is left to the text's traces in the reader's perception. The act of reading can be an act of unification, the reader's imagination a unifying force.
At the end of Three Guineas, the narrator sees a relationship between the concepts of multiplicity and unity:
Even here, even now your letter tempts us to shut our ears to these little facts, these trivial details, to listen not to the bark of the guns and the bray of the gramophones but to the voices of the poets, answering each other, assuring us of a unity that rubs out divisions as if they were chalk marks only; to discuss with you the capacity of the human spirit to overflow boundaries and make unity out of multiplicity. (169)
In this passage, unity is the ultimate goal of the dream of peace, and multiplicity is a step along the way. The narrator is not oblivious to the threat of fascism--not only is it a subject of the book, but it is present in the reference to chalk marks, which we know from The Years may "decorate academic lintels" (54), may be elements of children's games (108), or may indicate the British Union of Fascists (294). (It is vital, Woolf implies, to be able to read the signs well.) In the next paragraph in Three Guineas, she writes: "And since we are different, our help must be different. What ours can be we have tried to show--how imperfectly, how superficially there is no need to say" (169), which receives the final footnote of the book, one leading to a discussion of Coleridge, Whitman, and George Sand, all advocating unity as both an aesthetic and ethical concept. Unity, like chalk, can be an instrument of scholars, children, artists, poets, dreamers, and advocates of peace; it can also be an instrument of fascists. Woolf recognized the seductions and dangers of the concept of unity, particularly as a political concept, all the way back to The Voyage Out, where Richard Dalloway advocates it and Rachel Vinrace wrestles with the idea. As an aesthetic concept, though, it is usually positively inflected, e.g. with Jinny Carslake in Jacob's Room, who says if you look at a box of ordinary pebbles carefully, "multiplicity becomes unity, which is somehow the secret of life" (137). In her essays, Woolf consistently valorizes unity as an artistic achievement, as in her Second Common Reader essay on Hazlitt: "He seldom reaches the perfection of these great writers or their unity" (E5 497-98).
A key technique of the pedagogy of The Years and Three Guineas is first to present readers with some form of polyphonic multiplicity within which flows a yearning for liberatory, communal, anti-authoritarian unity, and then to leave the unifying to each reader's imaginative work. While Woolf insists that the totalitarian unities of fascism and patriarchy must be resisted and destroyed, she also shows that another type of unity is possible: the unity of paratactic meaning.
Spivak has claimed of Jamaica Kincaid's Lucy that what "mainly happens in this novel is, I believe, parataxis" (Aesthetic 354) and we could say the same for The Years. On a grammatical/rhetorical level, parataxis simply means the coordination of clauses without conjunctions, but if we extend the word beyond its technical meaning to refer also to the placement of images, objects, and ideas beside each other without overt explanation of the relationship between them, we can see parataxis as one of Woolf's basic strategies in The Years (as well as many of her other writings). Once she abandoned the essay-novel form of The Pargiters, where the expository prose explaining gaps and disjunctions reduced paratactic meaning, Woolf decided that one of her tasks was "to contract: each scene to be a scene, much dramatised; contrasted" (D4 261). Her strategy of contraction and contrast creates gaps and juxtapositions requiring readers to supply connections of their own between the chapters and between the scenes within each chapter, between the shifting narrative voices and floating points of view, between the panoply of characters, between history and fiction, between the many repeated words and phrases, between the barrage of sensory images (colors, sounds, smells). Each chapter's prelude is perhaps the most obviously paratactic element, with few of the preludes referencing any of the novel's characters or events and thus immediately requiring readers to speculate on how the prelude connects to the chapter that follows, but parataxis operates at every level in The Years. After its prelude, the first chapter begins like a more-or-less conventional family novel, with Colonel Pargiter introduced in his club, talking with "men of his own type" (4) about imperial deeds past, then wandering off to visit his mistress, Mira. Then, just as the Colonel begins to undress Mira with his three-fingered hand, the scene ends and we read a short paragraph in the same mode as the prelude (a brief impression of rain, a street singer, then sunlight) before jumping to the Pargiter children at home in a scene that requires readers to pay attention to a panoply of character names for which we do not yet have associations. The chapter ends with Mrs. Pargiter's funeral, and the next chapter jumps eleven years ahead to 1891, creating the first paratactic relationship between the chapters. Some of what happened between 1880 and 1891 will be referenced in the text, but much will be left for the reader to imagine. Between the scenes within the chapters, there are also gaps, for instance in the 1891 chapter, where Eleanor prepares to give her opinion at a committee meeting but the scene ends with, "She cleared her throat and began" (91), then a space break jumps us to a description of smoke and houses before returning us to Eleanor. It is not until pages later that we learn "she had won her scrap with Judd" (95) at the meeting; later, she will speak of the argument in an exaggerated way that is also not described (98). The absence of a dramatization of Eleanor's argument requires us as readers to imagine it for ourselves, and it focuses our attention not on the content of the debate but on Eleanor's own memory and presentation of it.
In addition to shaping attention and inspiring imagination, parataxis presents us with multiplicity that we must then make the effort of unifying within our imagination. We inescapably feel the need for such effort between the individual chapters, between the prelude sections and what follows, and between the many scenes separated from each other by space breaks (particularly in the "Present Day" chapter), but there is a similar effort necessary when moving between points of view within the same scene. Shifts in point of view are generally signaled by a space break between scenes, but not always, as, for instance, in the moment when Eleanor returns home from the committee meeting. As Colonel Pargiter waits for her, the narrative provides a few paragraphs of the Colonel's thoughts on whether to tell Eleanor about his relationship with Mira, and then, with only a paragraph break, the narrative shifts from the Colonel ("He began to carve the chicken") to Eleanor ("She was very hungry"), a shift smoothed only by the link of food (98). The chapter then stays with Eleanor's point of view until shifting to a one-paragraph objective scene before returning the narrative to the Colonel's point of view (109), breaking it only for a brief scene with Eugenie's servants (110). The chapters continue in this manner, shifting between perspectives until "1917," where the narrative presents actions and dialogue via Eleanor's point of view alone, and then "1918," the only single-scene chapter, limited to Crosby's point of view. "1918" is followed by "Present Day," in which numerous scenes and points of view are juxtaposed and brought together at Delia's party, and the novel ends with one last paratactic leap between the question "And now?" and the rising of the sun over a peaceful morning.
One particularly subtle example of Woolf's paratactic shifts between perspectives occurs in the 1907 chapter, as Sara tries to read her cousin Edward's translation of Antigone. She grows tired and hears the world outside: "Everything--the music, the voices--became stretched and generalized. The book fell on the floor. She was asleep" (128). The point of view then moves to a young woman and man outside.13 They have a brief conversation, then the point of view shifts again: "The moon which was not clear of clouds lay in a bare space as if the light had consumed the heaviness of the clouds and left a perfectly clear pavement, a dancing ground for revelry. For some time the dappled iridescence of the sky remained unbroken. Then there was a puff of wind; and a little cloud crossed the moon" (129). The progression from Sara to an unknown and unnamed couple and then to the moon, sky, and clouds occurs in four paragraphs of fewer than 200 words. The passage moves our imagining first away from a familiar character to strangers and then from strangers to the nonhuman world above. The second part of the movement (from people we don't know to features of the landscape and nature) is similar to many of the prelude sections, but now it is anchored to the people of the main narrative.
In parataxis, Spivak says, "the absence of conjunction is felt as absence, if we read for singularity of language, respecting literature as fiction" (Aesthetic 357). If we read in such a way, seeking out, through a mix of reason and imagination, the absent connections, then the experience of "an overwhelming sense of parataxis (and how the relatively more connected passages negotiate it)" allows us to perceive "a formal description, a homology for what the language describes" (355). A lack of conjunction or transition between textual items increases the possibility of the reader becoming confused, and even frustrated, but as we seek paths out of our confusion and frustration, we train ourselves to bridge the gaps. As the paratactic structure continues, revealing the fractal logic in the chaos, we not only continue to practice certain ways of imagining, but we now extend that practice across more and more of the text and simultaneously strengthen previous habits of reading and thinking while also building new habits. Those habits may then be extended beyond this particular novel, thus functioning as a kind of immunization against the ideological force of the conventional novel.
Immunity is a concept Woolf explored in a July 1932 diary entry: "To be immune, means to exist apart from rubs, shocks, suffering; to be beyond the range of darts; to have enough to live on without courting flattery, success; not to need to accept invitations; not to mind other people being praised... Immunity is an exalted calm desirable state, & one I could reach much oftener than I do" (D4 117). It's a feeling Eleanor has in the "1917" chapter when she rests and feels a sense of timeless, egoless calm. A traditional picture (perhaps of Italy) has no effect on her: "She lay back in the chair. Everything seemed to become quiet and natural again. A feeling of great calm possessed her. It was as if another space of time had been issued to her, but, robbed by the presence of death of something personal, she felt--she hesitated for a word; 'immune?' Was that what she meant? Immune, she said, looking at a picture without seeing it. Immune, she repeated. It was a picture of a hill and a village perhaps in the South of France; perhaps in Italy. There were olive trees; and white roofs grouped against a hillside. Immune, she repeated, looking at the picture" (278). The idea of a work of art possessing (and perhaps conveying) immunity reappears in the "Present Day" chapter, this time through Peggy's perception: "She looked at the picture of her grandmother as if to ask her opinion. But she had assumed the immunity of a work of art; she seemed as she sat there, smiling at her roses, to be indifferent to our right and wrong" (310).
While parataxis offers one strategy for immunization, we can see another in what Woolf does with the sorts of regular details so essential to the verisimilitude conjured by conventional social realism. The array of details in The Years could be assumed, on first reading, to be representing a status quo of ordinary life and things as they are, but they fail to work that way--they feel somehow unmoored, even random, and soon the reader may grow as frustrated as Phyllis Rose, who complained about "Woolf's refusal to define a central character or to shape a narrative, while heaping upon us the kind of detail that demands such a shape" (213), or Pamela Transue, for whom the novel becomes "tedious in its attention to trivialities which often seem dwelled upon to no purpose" (165). The sense of the details as trivial and purposeless is tied to an idea of what a novel like this one should do and be--the shape it demands--and The Years will inevitably frustrate such assumptions. The normal (and normalizing) imperatives of the traditional novel simply do not fit. If, however, the reader does not give up, and instead seeks out a new way of thinking about the purpose and effect of the apparently trivial or random details, then that reader may discover new frameworks to apply to what they read.
As the novel progresses, conversations become more fragmentary and interrupted (usually it is men interrupting women), memories drift, and communication itself seems, inevitably, to fail. Yet Woolf is not Beckett. Failure and silence are present, but they are not the end point. In a world of fascism, silence can too easily become consent or complicity (normalizing discourses don't mind silence). We must remember the prelude narrator. Without that narrative voice, it would be more difficult to make sense of the many scattered moments that make up The Years. The prelude narrator doesn't do this work for us, but rather, like a good teacher, suggests some possibilities and then lets us try things on our own. (14) The prelude narrator has the freedom to dart from perspective to perspective, fact to fact, moment to moment. As readers, we must free ourselves to do the same. Only with such freedom of movement and such open, flexible perspective will we be able to make meaning from the text that follows each prelude.
The "1880" prelude begins with a description of the season and weather, of country and city. It then starts, slowly, to zoom in: spring becomes April; all the people of London become shop assistants, "ladies in flounced dresses"; "shoppers in the West End"; businessmen; people mailing letters; people standing at the windows of clubs in Piccadilly; "ladies in many-coloured dresses wearing bustles, and... gentlemen in frock coats carrying canes"; the Princess; "servant girls in cap and apron"; "diners-out, trotting over the Bridge in hansom cabs" (3-4). The mass becomes comprehensible as we see how it is made up of individual groups, and how each of those groups is made up of individuals. The narrator then pulls back to describe the moon and the clouds above it all, the world of nature beyond the constructions of human society. The sky unites perception: each person who looks up sees that sky and that moon from their own vantage point. The sky and moon may be indifferent to human life and action, but they are as enmeshed in time as the humans are: "Slowly wheeling, like the rays of a searchlight, the days, the weeks, the years passed one after another across the sky" (4). Despite the floating perception of the prelude narrator, though, there is no unifying perception in the novel. The narration does not do the reader's work; instead, it reminds us to think beyond the immediate perspective in any scene, to imagine the world outside the walls of any one room, to imagine lives lived outside the text.
At the beginning of the novel, Delia and Eleanor stand at a window and watch a cab stop two doors down, and so, too, at the end, Eleanor stands and watches a cab stop two doors down, while Delia admires the loveliness of roses. (15) The moment is circular within the novel's structure, but Woolf's repetition is like jazz, always with some bit of difference, some revision. At the window, Eleanor asks a question to end the long night, a question that was previously asked by Kitty in 1910 as she watched Siegfried and by Sara in 1917 when everyone went into the cellar for the air raid, and the words are ones Martin stuttered to Sara in 1914 when trying to get her to speak to him, and they remain a question for all of us: "And now?"
A blank space follows, and then only the final sentence: "The sun had risen, and the sky above the houses wore an air of extraordinary beauty, simplicity, and peace." Eleanor's question isn't answered. The gap, that blank space, stands between the individual characters (trapped in their time and circumstances) and the egoless, enraptured moment of the sky's beauty, simplicity, and peace. "We are forced to lay down our weapons as readers," Jane Marcus wrote of Woolf's work. "All our egotism and individuality, the swords and shields of the hated 'I, I, I' must be abandoned outside the doors of her fiction" (Art & Anger 82). If we can imagine a way to bridge the gap, then we have learned what we needed to learn. Our readerly weapons have not only been laid down, but reconfigured into new tools, the sharp edges now set to plow the soil rather than shed blood, preparing us to imagine fresh growth rather than more death. The narrative voice of this novel is no patriarch laying an outline of history before us; our lessons are over, we have gained immunization against authoritarianism by strengthening our imaginations with paratactic practice, we have escaped the prison of "I, I, I," and we are left to do our own work, to shape our own world, to explore limits, to imagine new worlds, and to figure the impossible.
Amidon, Stevens. "The Years: Mapping a Genre." The CEA Critic, vol. 71, no. 3, 2009, pp. 85-99.
Andrews, Charles. "'Beauty, Simplicity and Peace': Faithful Pacifism, Activist Writing, and The Years" Virginia Woolf: Writing the World, edited by Pamela L. Caughie and Diana L. Swanson, Clemson UP, 2015, pp. 63-67.
Fernald, Anne E. Virginia Woolf: Feminism and the Reader. Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.
Friedman, Susan Stanford. "Virginia Woolf's Pedagogical Scenes of Reading: The Voyage Out, The Common Reader, and Her 'Common Readers.'" MFS: Modern Fiction Studies, vol. 38, no. 1, Jan. 2009, pp. 101-25.
Gottlieb, Laura Moss. "The Years: A Feminist Novel." Virginia Woolf: Centennial Essays, edited by Elaine K. Ginsberg and Laura Moss Gottlieb, Whitston Pub. Co, 1983, pp. 215-29.
Gregory, Rosalyn, and Benjamin Kohlmann, editors. Utopian Spaces of Modernism: British Literature and Culture, 1885-1945. Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.
Hagen, Benjamin D. "Feeling Shadows: Virginia Woolf's Sensuous Pedagogy." PMLA, vol. 132, no. 2, Mar. 2017, pp. 266-80.
Haule, James. "Reading Dante, Misreading Woolf: New Evidence of Virginia Woolf's Revision of The Years" Woolf Editing/Editing Woolf: Selected Papers from the Eighteenth Annual Conference on Virginia Woolf, edited by Eleanor McNees and Sara Veglahn, Clemson UP, 2009, pp. 232-54.
Jameson, Fredric. Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions. Verso, 2007.
Katz, Tamar. "Pausing, Waiting, Repeating: Urban Temporality in Mrs. Dalloway and The Years" Woolf and the City: Selected Papers from the Nineteenth Annual Conference on Virginia Woolf, edited by Elizabeth F. Evans, Clemson U Digital P, 2010, pp. 2-16.
Marcus, Jane. Hearts of Darkness: White Women Write Race. Rutgers UP, 2004.
--. Art & Anger: Reading Like a Woman, Ohio State UP, 1988.
--. Virginia Woolf and the Languages of Patriarchy. Indiana UP, 1987.
Periyan, Natasha. "'Altering the Structure of Society': An Institutional Focus on Virginia Woolf and Working-Class Education in the 1930s." Textual Practice, Jan. 2017, pp. 1-23.
Roemer, Kenneth M. "Paradise Transformed: Varieties of Nineteenth Century Utopias." The Cambridge Companion to Utopian Literature, edited by Gregory Claeys, Cambridge UP, 2010, pp. 79-106.
Rose, Phyllis. Woman of Letters: A Life of Virginia Woolf Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1987.
Saariluoma, Liisa. "Virginia Woolf's The Years: Identity and Time in an AntiFamily Novel." Orbis Litterarum, vol. 54, no. 4, Aug. 1999, pp. 276-300.
Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization. Harvard UP, 2012.
--. Readings. Seagull Books, 2014.
Stec, Loretta. "Dystopian Modernism vs Utopian Feminism: Burdekin, Woolf, and West Respond to the Rise of Fascism." Virginia Woolf and Fascism: Resisting the Dictators' Seduction, edited by Merry M. Pawlowski, Palgrave, 2001, pp. 178-93.
Suh, Judy. "The Comedy of Outsiders in Virginia Woolf's The Years" Fascism and Anti-Fascism in Twentieth-Century British Fiction, Palgrave Macmillan, 2009, pp. 138-82.
Taylor, Rod C. "Narrow Gates and Restricted Paths: The Critical Pedagogy of Virginia Woolf." Woolf Studies Annual, vol. 20, 2014, pp. 55-81.
Transue, Pamela J. Virginia Woolf and the Politics of Style. State U of New York P, 1986.
Wheare, Jane. Virginia Woolf: Dramatic Novelist. Palgrave Macmillan, 1989.
Woolf, Leonard. The Framework of a Lasting Peace. G. Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1917.
Woolf, Virginia. The Diary of Virginia Woolf. Edited by Anne Olivier Bell and Andrew McNeillie, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977-84. 5 vols.
--. The Essays of Virginia Woolf Edited by Andrew McNeillie and Stuart N. Clarke, Hogarth P, 1986-2011. 6 vols.
--. Jacob's Room. 1922. Edited by Vara Neverow, Annotated ed., Harcourt, 2008.
--. The Letters of Virginia Woolf Edited by Nigel Nicolson and Joanne Trautmann Banks, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975-80. 6 vols.
--. The Pargiters: The Novel-Essay Portion of The Years. Edited by Mitchell A. Leaska, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978.
--. Three Guineas. 1938. Edited by Jane Marcus, Annotated ed., Harcourt, 2006.
--. The Years. 1937. Edited by Eleanor McNees, Annotated ed., Harcourt, 2008.
Zwerdling, Alex. Virginia Woolf and the Real World. U of California P, 1986.
(1) Charles Andrews explores the ways the novel's "elliptical, allusive form" and "fragmentary assemblage of voices... require active readership" (67). Andrews reads The Years as an example of "literary activism" and (borrowing from Nancy Knowles) "narrative pacifism," a reading that fits with my own emphasis on Woolf's pedagogical form.
(2) For a particularly thorough accounting of the novel's repetitions of ideas, images, and objects, see Wheare 140-71.
(3) Friedman makes the case for the pedagogical aspects of Woolf's texts and pays close attention especially to scenes in Woolf's novels (particularly The Voyage Out) in which characters read. While Friedman's psychoanalytic approach to Woolf is not at all my own, her essay is further evidence for the centrality of reading to Woolf's aesthetic and for pedagogy as part of her project.
(4) An anti-authoritarian, active stance was one Woolf desired for education generally, and Natasha Periyan has shown that Woolf, who was quite familiar with debates about education and social class, didn't simply want to abolish institutions, but was interested in how educational institutions could be restructured to better foster egalitarian democracy--an interest that Periyan demonstrates is present throughout The Years. Similarly, Rod C. Taylor writes about Woolf's ideas for radical new schools and notes the importance of the reading experience itself to Three Guineas: "The experience that Woolf offers her readers gives them a chance to test out the benefits of her pedagogy, which in turn puts them in direct dialogue with the author" (74). Taylor links the pedagogy that Woolf advocates in the book to the critical pedagogy made famous by Paolo Freire, but if, as Jane Marcus proposes, the reading experience is one key to Woolf's pedagogy, then how Woolf elicits, organizes, controls, and liberates that experience must also be key. Benjamin D. Hagen explores some of this how, but his focus is on Woolf's nonfiction, particularly "A Sketch of the Past."
(5) Before the rise of feminist scholarship, much Woolf criticism was formalist, and though The Years received less attention than the novels of the 1920s, critics who did discuss it recognized many of the features we still value in its structure. The repetitions in particular attracted attention from the first reviews written when the book was published; they were an important focus for such critics as Harvena Richter in Virginia Woolf: The Inward Voyage (Princeton UP, 1970), and they continue to be central to critics' perception of this novel's form. Marcus wrote that "In a sense The Years is about repetition as well as repetitive in style" (Languages 37-38), while Tamar Katz has stated that "Repetition, for The Years, establishes not just the continuity of figures or images that repeat across time, but the potential and the discomfort, for characters and readers, of repeated suspense... in which we anticipate the shape of the world becoming clear" (9-10).
(6) Woolf's use in The Years of the family novel form to subvert patriarchal assumptions has been well established by numerous critics since the 1970s. See, for example, Chapters 2 and 3 of Marcus's Virginia Woolf and the Languages of Patriarchy, as well as Laura Moss Gottlieb's "The Years: A Feminist Novel." For a compelling exploration of Woolf and concepts of family generally, see Alex Zwerdling's Virginia Woolf and the Real World, especially chapters 6 and 7. For more recent scholarship, see Amidon, Saariluoma, and Suh.
(7) Spivak, in a rather Woolfian footnote, writes: "The absence of war cannot be defined as democracy" (Aesthetic 518).
(8) Fredric Jameson (following Ernst Bloch) identifies, in contrast to explicitly utopian programs, "an obscure yet omnipresent Utopian impulse finding its way to the surface in a variety of covert expressions and practices" (3), which is a good description for what it seems to me Woolf is up to in The Years.
(9) H.G. Wells, who was friends with Leonard Woolf and published some essays with the Hogarth Press, was a particularly apt foil for Virginia Woolf's ideas, since he was a prominent writer both of utopian texts and of the sort of traditional novel Woolf disdained. In 1918, she reviewed his Joan and Peter: The Story of an Education, criticizing it for being more interested in conveying ideas about education than in its characters and story (E2 294-98). It is also worth noting that one of Wells's most popular works of nonfiction was titled New Worlds for Old (1908), which was praised by both Galsworthy and Bennett. The book was popular enough that its title is cited by Leopold Bloom in Chapter 15 of Ulysses, and given the repetition of the yearning for new worlds in Woolf's novel, it would make a fine alternate title for The Years.
(10) "If the nineteenth century was not the Golden Age of utopianism," Kenneth M. Roemer writes, "it was certainly a golden age" (79), and this was especially true for literary utopias. Though the utopian novels of the late nineteenth century are well known, dystopias were also published, such as Walter Besant's 1882 anti-feminist story The Revolt of Man. See also Utopian Spaces of Modernism edited by Rosalyn Gregory and Benjamin Kohlmann for more context, including "'The Strange High Singing of Some Aeroplane Overhead': War, Utopia and the Everyday in Virginia Woolf's Fiction" by Christina Britzolakis (pp. 121-40), which explores utopian impulses in Jacob's Room and Mrs. Dalloway.
(11) Marcus notes that Eleanor's name is associated with light: "'Eleanor' is 'Helen,' from Helios, the sun; she puts the sunflower symbol on the houses she builds" (Languages 40). (The sunflowers are first mentioned in the 1891 chapter , when they are called a "symbol of her girlish sentiment" that "amused her grimly" , and then briefly remembered as Eleanor reflects on her life .) Throughout the novel, war, violence, ignorance, and oppression are associated with darkness; possibility, hope, and enlightenment are associated with light.
(12) Some of the most compelling recent writing on The Years has read it cinematically: see The Tenth Muse: Writing about Cinema in the Modernist Period by Laura Marcus (Oxford UP, 2007) and Literature, Cinema and Politics 1930-1945: Reading Between the Frames by Lara Feigel (Edinburgh UP, 2010).
(13) McNees's edition for Harcourt, which I have used for citations through this article, inserts a space break between Sara falling asleep and the shift to outside, creating a greater separation between the points of view. However, this break is not present in either the Oxford World's Classics edition edited by Hermione Lee or the authoritative edition edited by Anna Snaith for the Cambridge Edition of the Works of Virginia Woolf. While many readers would, like McNees, likely read the lack of a space break as an error, the evidence of both this specific scene in the novel and Snaith's meticulous edition suggests that Woolf wanted the point of view changes here to be between paragraphs without added space between them.
(14) Taylor notes that Woolf and Freire's approaches are both "problem-posing pedagogies" (73), and the approach is true of Woolf's novels, as well.
(15) In her "Letter to a Young Poet," Woolf advised: "All you need now is to stand at the window and let your rhythmical sense open and shut, open, and shut, boldly and freely, until one thing melts in another, until the taxis are dancing with the daffodils, until a whole has been made from all these separate fragments" (E5 315).
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|Publication:||Woolf Studies Annual|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2018|
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