Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Proportion in Mrs. Dalloway

What struck me most about Mrs. Dalloway is its resistance to proportion. This novel helped me to pinpoint more exactly what disturbed me so much about Howards End. It was the insistence upon proportion when the observance of proportion, its enactment, seemed somehow cold, inhumane, and unnatural.
Woolf's resistance to proportion comes through clearly not only in the novel, but also in her essays "Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown" and "Modern Fiction." In a sense, her claim that Many" of the "young Georgians" like "Mr. Forster and Mr. Lawrence. . .spoilt their early work because, instead of throwing away those tools, they tried to use them. They tried to compromise" ("Mr. Bennett" 246) is a condemnation of proportion as an approach to the act of writing literature itself. Her implication seems to me to be that Forster, who describes houses in Howards End at much the same length as Mr. Bennett seems to in his novels, fails because of his Edwardian focus on the "fabric of things" (245), which he attempts to place in equal proportion with the less tangible inner lives of his characters. In "Modern Fiction," Woolf explains the dilemma that the Modern novelist faces: having to forge new tools for expression because "the essential thing. . .refuses to be contained any longer in such ill-fitting vestments as we provide" (3).
Mrs. Dalloway succeeds where Howards End failed precisely because Woolf discards proportion, both in her approach to writing itself and as a thematic structure. The inner life in Mrs. Dalloway does not meekly submit to the outer life—its is disproportionate, overflowing as it actually does. The outer world, instead of solidly existing, is filtered through the minds of her characters. The character Septimus is a striking example of the resistance of Woolf's writing to proportion. When Septimus sees Evanas "behind the railings," or behind the screen, Woolf does not intercede to impress reality or proportion. She does not interfere to say that what he sees is or is not there. We only have the minds of other characters to turn to, and whether the reality of those minds is more or less correct is left to us interpret.
Thematically, Mrs. Dalloway is anti-proportion. Indeed, Sir William Bradshaw for whom proportion is a mantra, is the most universally detested character of the novel. He is its primary evil force. It is in describing Bradshaw's "Worshipping" of "proportion" (97) that Woolf allows herself to intervene, adding at the last minute only that it was "Rezia Warren Smith" who "divined it," i.e. the presence of proportion's "sister": "Conversion is her name and she feast on the wills of the weakly, loving to impress, to impose, adoring her own features stamped on the face of the populace" (97-98). When Septimus finally recovers from his shell shock, or seems to be in the process of recovering, it is the perceived imposition of proportion that forces him to his death. It hardly seems accidental that it is after this episode that Peter thinks "One of the triumphs of civilization" (147). Woolf seems to be arguing that proportion and its sisters conversion are what is behind the destructive imperialism of the English—only she sees the impulse working both internally and externally. Clarissa's party is, I think, in some ways a refutation of such impulses.

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