Add widgets here through the control panel: Display / Widgets
<< Back


Posted 3/11/2012 8:00am by Eugene Wyatt.

"Here, for example, is Mrs. Dalloway, walking toward Bond Street in London and thinking about her inevitable demise:

Did it matter then, she asked herself, did it matter that she must inevitably cease completely; all this must go on without her; did she resent it; or did it not become consoling to believe that death ended absolutely? but that somehow in the streets of London, on the ebb and flow of things, here, there, she survived, Peter survived, lived in each other, she being part, she was positive, of the trees at home; of the house there, ugly, rambling all to bits and pieces as it was; part of people she had never met; being laid out like a mist between the people she knew best, who lifted her on their branches as she had seen the trees lift the mist, but it spread ever so far, her life, herself.

Mrs. Dalloway 1925, Virginia Woolf

Is this a sentence? It doesn't have a beginning, middle, or end, and as you read it you can't chart its progress toward a designed close. Who says 'she was positive'? Is it Woolf, standing outside her character and pronouncing authoritatively on Mrs. Dalloway's inner state? The questions are unanswerable, for as Erich Auerbach observes (Mimesis, 1946), 'we are given not merely one person whose consciousness ... is rendered, but many persons, with frequent'—and, I would add, unannounced—'shifts from one to the other.' For a second, when 'Did it matter then" is followed by "she asked herself,' we seem to be in the company of a conventional narrator-novelist who reports the speech of her character. But then 'did it matter' is repeated, and it is clear that what we're hearing is a musing. The perspective now ruling is an interior one; even though the third-person pronoun 'she' carries the train of thought along, we sense that this is merely her form of self-reference. A sequence like 'she survived, Peter survived' shows how it is done. 'She survived' might be spoken by a narrator, but 'Peter survived' is obviously uttered by someone who shares an intimacy with him; we cannot believe that the observation is made at a distance, by a third person, but then again, 'lived in each other' seems to belong at once to Mrs. Dalloway and to her creator. As the sentence continues, Mrs. Dalloway shares an intimacy not only with Peter but with everything—a house, trees, people, mist, branches—all of which ebb and flow with her and through her. Everything enters her, and she enters everything. Near its end the sentence names the action it is imitating; it spreads; she spreads, 'ever so far, her life herself.' Formally, the sentence is fragmentary; no, it is fragments, held together barely by a soft 'but,' which is more like an 'and,' many participles, many ofs, all tumbling forward, all jumbled up, yet unified somehow by her consciousness, streaming, variegated, and always the same."

How To Write A Sentence 2011, Stanley Fish

Tags: Fish, Woolf
Posted 1/18/2012 9:48pm by Eugene Wyatt.

Stanley Fish in his How to Write a Sentence describes the additive sentence mastery of Virginia Woolf: here is a sentence from To the Lighthouse and several pages later he quotes and discourses on a sentence from Mrs. Dalloway.

"Sterne, Salinger, Stein, Hemingway—the additive, non-subordinating style is obviously versatile; it can be the vehicle of comedy, social satire, philosophical reflection, realism, and something approaching photography. In any of its guises it displays the advantages of being able to stop on a dime, arrest action, freeze the frame, stay still at the same time the reader moves linearly—all effects achieved in spectacular fashion in a sentence from Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse (1927). Mrs. Ramsey has just rebuked her daughters for mocking "the little atheist" Tansley. We see them react in a moment that expands and remains in focus despite the passing of considerable reading time:

She was now formidable to behold, and it was only in silence, looking up from their plates, after she had spoken so severely about Charles Tansley, that her daughters, Prue, Nancy, Rose—could sport with infidel ideas which they had brewed for themselves of a life different from hers: in Paris, perhaps; a wilder life; not always taking care of some man or other; for there was in all their minds a mute questioning of deference and chivalry, of the Bank of England and the Indian Empire, of ringed fingers and lace, though to them all there was something in this of the essence of beauty, which called out the manliness in their girlish hearts, and made them, as they sat at table beneath their mother's eyes, honour her strange severity, her extreme courtesy, like a queen's raising from the mud a beggar's dirty foot and washing it, when she thus admonished them so severely about that wretched atheist who had chased them to—or, speaking accurately, been invited to stay with them in—the Isle of Skye.

The word "behold" is a command: behold this woman! In the sentence, our surrogate beholders are the three daughters who gaze upward at their mother as if at a portrait and think thoughts in silence. From its beginning to "a life different from hers," the sentence proceeds in the subordinating, hypotactic mode: "looking up from their place" is the present action the three young woman perform, but the present is immediately framed by the "after" clause—"after she had spoken so severely"—-which provides a past and causal perspective on what they are doing. But then, "in Paris, perhaps" the prose breaks free. Who says "perhaps"? Is it a qualification from the outside, made by an omniscient narrator, or does the word belong to the three sisters, who perhaps have not yet settled on their preferred dream? And who is it that wants not to be "always taking care of some man or other"? Surely the daughters have not yet taken on that burden; does this wish belong to their mother, who is now playing in the fields of her daughters' consciousnesses? Are the "infidel ideas" the sisters "sport" with theirs or hers? Is it for her or for themselves that they imagine "a life different" from the one their mother leads? The latter is the more likely; the austere majesty of Mrs. Ramsey leads them to question the world of ceremony and courtesy they associate with her; and yet—the sentence does not progress, but keeps adding to the perspectives and vistas that open up in its leisurely spaces—the severity from which they imagine themselves freed has its own attractions, its own beauty, which is summed up in the person of their mother, to whom they, and the sentence, return, re-conceiving her as a queen admonishing her subjects. At the same moment the subordinating style, with its clear temporal demarcations ("who had chased them—or, speaking accurately, been invited to stay with them"), also returns, putting events and persons in their proper place.

What makes the Woolf sentence able to shift direction and emphases without seeming discontinuous or disjointed are those "slight ligatures" that mark the coordinating style: "and," "for," "though," "when." These interact with a succession of present participles—"looking," "taking," "raising," "speaking"—verbal forms indicating ongoing actions, no one of which is completed and all of which combine in almost a symphonic fashion to paint a densely layered moving, kaleidoscopic, sometimes frame-frozen picture."

How to Write a Sentence Stanley Fish 2011, Harper

Tags: Fish, Woolf