Inception and Ibn ‘Arabi

Inception was one of my favorite films of 2010. Like most viewers I enjoyed the film’s play on our senses: what constitutes fantasy and reality? Where does one begin and the other end, if there is indeed evening a beginning. So for this reason I was really happy to see the following essay, by Oludamini Ogunnaike, on the similarities between Christopher Nolan’s film and the writings of Ibn ‘Arabi. I hope to see more of this creative and critical engagement of western cinema and classical Islamic studies. Hat tip to Sami for the article.

A small clip from Inception where Dom Cobb explains the concept of the dream world.

The article from Ogunnaike.

Nabokov, Pnin, and the Preposterous

Vladimir Nabokov’s Pnin is replete with illusions and literary duals.  These “doubles,” as I will call them here, range from comic cameos to characters that run the length of the story.  While some critics have complained that these literary techniques on the part of Nabokov have made him guilty of “playing games” (Pifer 211), reducing what otherwise would be considered a great literary genius, to that of a charlatan.  I assert, however, that this approach allowed Nabokov to elucidate on the complexities of human emotion (in the case of Pnin these emotions were often the petty and dark sides of human demeanor) through the use of mirrors and doubles by accentuating the absurdities of life (what I shall refer to as the “preposterous”), be they of existential circumstance or human behavior.

If we turn back to the accusation that Pifer points us to, the “playing games” accusation, this will serve as a fine point of departure to begin discussing Nabokov and his use of literary doubles.  Perhaps what would have served this critic best would have been to split the allegation into two parts: playing, and games.  If we look at the first part, there is no doubt whatsoever that Nabokov is playing with the novel as a form.  From the very beginning of the narrative, the title’s protagonist is charged with being on the wrong train.  This contention, like many others the narrator makes, proves to be incorrect as the novel proceeds.  The technique proves to be very useful in not only challenging the unreliable narrator’s omniscience, but to also establish as to what I see is a key element in Nabokov’s literary double: competition between the doubles.  I will expand on this latter on.

As for the “game,” I substitute this as a synonym for humor, another key ingredient the book (as many of Nabokov’s books are) is ripe with.  This humor takes many forms, from Pnin being the punch line of several of the narrator’s observations: “What are you looking for, Timofey?” … “I search, John, for the viscous and sawdust” (Nabokov 59), to Pnin’ own antics, such as when Pnin recommends that Lawrence Clements have all of his teeth pulled as well: “You will be a reformed man like I” (39).  In both instances I feel that this form of humor adds to, and not detracts from, Nabokov’s mastery of prose.

To begin looking directly into Nabokov’s use of the literary double, I will examine what Leona Toker touches upon in her article “Self-Conscious Paralepsis”.  I found Toker’s insight into Nabokov’s mechanics perceptive in highlighting a prominent element in the relationship between Pnin and his most obvious dual, the narrator.  First is the “intradiegetic” as well as homodiegetic nature of the narrator, who moves from omniscient (intra-) to being the butt of the joke himself (homo-) at the novel’s conclusion (Toker 459).  The intradiegetic aspects of the narration allow the reader access to information not normally obtainable (details about Pnin’s childhood, his love for Mira, etc.).  In the process of doing so, Nabokov morphs the narrator into a competitor with Pnin: a great deal of the slights dealt to Pnin by the narrator showcase the covetous nature of the narrator, who in turn by the story’s end, essentially becomes Pnin, at least in terms of who and what Pnin was at Waindell.

This competition between Pnin and the narrator builds throughout the novel as the main character fights back against the tide of unreliable information that is given to the reader: “Pnin cried to Dr. Barakan across the table:  ‘Now don’t believe a word he says, Georgiy Aramovich.  He makes up everything’.” (185).  As Pnin progresses, Nabokov incrementally moves the narrator from the position of intradiegetic to homodiegitc by forcing the narrator to become part of the story.  This has the effect of providing the story’s protagonist with a real, flesh and blood antagonist, further demonstrating that in terms of Pnin and the narrator being doubles, their dualist relationship is centered around competition and vying.

Another aspect of the competition between Pnin and his narrator is the idea of “duality reduced to unity” (Bowie 256).  In other words, Pnin and the narrator are not simply two separate versions of one another but in fact, by the storie’s conclusion, they become something of one and the same, by proxy of the narrator becoming Pnin, as illustrated above.  Nabokov steers the narration with such grace that the narrator, who has taken Pnin’s position, ends in the same precarious position our narrator found Pnin in: on his way to the Cremona Women’s Club lecture (191).

Nabokov’s use of the literary double is not restricted to competition for the sake of competition, but is in fact used as a ploy for a greater effect: the preposterous.  In examining the many characters of the novel we see an underlining tone of ridiculousness and absurdity that Nabokov use’s to great effect in outlining the preposterousness, if not of life itself, certainly of life’s actors.  Eric Naiman, in his article “What If Nabokov Had Written ‘Dvoinik’? Reading Literature Preposterously”, highlights one of the most prominent characteristics of Nabokov’s writing.  Naiman goes on to underscore the etymology of the word: “derived from the Latin praeposterus, meaning ‘reversed’ or ‘perverted’ (Naiman 576).”  While the latter may seem more appropriate when read along with Nabokov’s Lolita, both definitions apply equally well to Pnin, and the characters therein.

The reversed nature of Pnin’s preposterousness can perhaps easiest seen in the ease with which Pnin himself operates in his alien environment.  Despite being something of a fish out of water, it is the book’s characters who are often reversed in their positioning towards Pnin.  Jack Cockerell for example, one of Pnin’s adversaries, imitates Pnin with such accuracy that the story’s narrator wonders if Cockerell has in fact become Pnin: “[Cockerell] had acquired an unmistakable resemblance to the man he had now been mimicking for almost ten years” (Nabokov 187).  Read in this manner, we can see that preposterous characters in Nabokov’s hands is not only “the ludicrous” but also those in opposition, accentuating again those dark and cruel tendencies of the human spirit.

Perversion in Pnin takes its form not in the sexual, as Lolita does, but rather in the form of information (i.e., the narration) or behavior.  The narrator, who initially beguiles the reader into thinking he is an omniscient reader, slips in and out of the story, giving us information that proves to ultimately be questionable, if not false.  This resulted in nothing less than the narrator “absurdly” and “outrageously” distorting Pnin’s story (Naiman 576).  Both of the attributes of “preposterous,” reversed and perverted, serve Nabokov’s style of writing which challenges his readers, as Naiman states, “to read the early portions of the book with the knowledge derived from the book’s latter end” (Naiman 576).

It would be a mistake to read Nabokov’s use of the preposterous as merely an exercise in silliness, but rather, it would be best served to see Nabokov’s use of preposterous as a means of challenging the preposterous nature of memory, at least as it relates to human memory to be fully accurate and authentic.  The case study for Pnin is the main character’s memory being recalled by the narrator, who was not present for the vast majority of incidents that are conjured from Pnin’s memory, resulting in the main character accusing the narrator that he “makes up everything” (Nabokov 187).  Moreover, this technique of casting doubt on the narrator’s reliability ultimately cements him not only as Pnin’s double, but precisely as Pnin’s double of the past.  All accounts of the narrator are restricted to the past (and even these are not wholly accurate).  But Pnin, as a character and climactically as a book, is about the future.  Despite Clarence Brown’s claims that both Pnin and narrator “strangely coalesce” (Bowie 256), nonetheless, Pnin as a character moves not only out of the novel, as Robert Bowie asserts, but on to what appears to be a brighter future (Bowie 256).  In the end, Nabokov creates two doubles, one of the past (narrator) and one of the future (Pnin), a future which is not knowable, emblematically rendering the narrator as presumptuous as well as preposterous.

All of these mechanics of duality and preposterousness at Nabokov’s disposal are clever methods the author uses to the effect of “narrative circularity” (Naiman 581): it is necessary for these two duals to, if not quite meet by story’s conclusion, certainly come together as a means of having a meaningful dialog and observation on human behavior.  I do not make the case that Nabokov is a moral storyteller, but I firmly believe he has something assertive to say about how human beings act towards one another.  This can be seen, amongst other avenues, in the way in which Nabokov is highly critical of psychoanalysis, particularly Freud and his school of thought, whom he dubs the “Viennese delegation” (Bethea 48); it’s no coincidence that Liza and Eric Wind are dealt with in such contemptuous tones.  By the time the real-time narrative catches up with Pnin and his antagonist, both of them are very much in conversation, a conversation that proves to be a powerful tool for gazing in on the intricacies and entanglements of human life and emotion.


Bethea, David M. “Sologub, Nabokov, and the Limits of Decadent Aesthetics.” Russian Review 63.1 (2004): 48-62.

Bowie, Robert. “Nabokov’s Influence on Gogol.” Journal of Modern Literature 13.2 (1986): 251-266.

Nabokov, Vladimir. Pnin. New York: Vintage International, 1957.

Naiman, Eric. “What If Nabokov Had Written “Dvoinik”? Reading Literature Preposterously.” Russian Review 64.4 (2005): 575-589.

Nicol, Charles. “Pnin’s History.” NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction 4.3 (1971): 197-208.

Mizener, Arthur. “The Seriousness of Vladimir Nabokov.” The Sewanee Review 76.4 (1968): 655-664.

Pifer, Ellen. “Nabokov: The Dimensions of Parody.” Modern Language Quarterly 40.2 (1979): 211.

Toker, Leona. “Self-Conscious Paralepsis in Vladimir Nabokov’s Pnin and “Recruting”.” Poetics Today 7.3 (1986): 459-469.


Disorientation in the Face of Catastrophic Human Tragedy – A Reading of Günter Grass

Günther Grass’s novel, The Tin Drum, explores the schizophrenic nature of the human existence, particularly under conditions of war and horror. Grass’s takes his reader on a tour de force journey of wartime Germany, where a cast of characters are employed via multiplicity to demonstrate the range of human behaviors as well as to demonstrate its absurdity at the height of human deprivation. Stacey Olster also attempts to showcase this dissonance in her article, Inconstant Harmony in the Tin Drum. In it, Olster makes the case that Grass’s use of an unreliable narrator provides a successful vehicle to comment on the unity of the human condition: a chaotic one. While Olster’s article is filled with a number of insights, I would disagree that neither Grass achieves a sense of unity—by proxy of chaos or otherwise—nor harmony in the Tin Drum, but rather leaves the reader in a state of disorientation in the face of such catastrophic human tragedy.

Olster’s argument turns mainly on the axiom of music or sound. To be more precise, Olster draws parallels between Oskar’s life and that of musical scales. Oskar’s obsession with returning to the womb is made allegorical with that of a tonic note in a musical scale. Similarly, all action or friction in the novel is equated with the dominant note (the seventh note) of the chord, vis-a-vie Oskar’s great grandfather, Joseph Koljaiczek, the arsonist. Where Olster sees notes in a scale, I see multiplicity: the inability of Grass to foster a coherent vision of the world nor of his characters. Even the primary narrator is more akin to single notes than to that of a scale (which is comprised of multiple notes played at the same time): “I gathered that they were fighting in the corridor … Hesitantly at first, then with more confidence, Oskar entered the dead-letter room” (Grass 210). Here, Grass has Oskar shift from first to third person narrative within the very same passage. This not only demonstrates the schizophrenia that Grass ascribes to the separate voices of Oskar, but is untrue to the very definition of harmony: that it is the sounding of more than one note or tone, “in which the two [or more] tones are sounded together” (Piston 4). Grass’s technique then is much more akin to the dissonance of multiple keys struck individually at separate times, not arranged in to a cohesive vision; a scale.

Olster’s contention of harmony is also challengeable from another aspect of musical analogy: musical key. Olster claims that Oskar, “structure[s] the melody of his piece around the dominant chordal tone, thus imparting to his composition a musical quality far different from the completed sound of the tonic” (Olster 67). This concept would only stand ground if Grass’s novel had a cohesive vision, a single point from which the narrative departs from. Grass however falls in line with the majority of modern authors in which their writing depicts a world in which there is no central theme, no central vision. This trend has been in play in the European context for the last several centuries as William Chittick describes in his book, Science of the Cosmos, Science of the Soul:

“The history of European thought is characterized by the opposite trend. Although there was a great deal of Unitarian thinking in the medieval period, from that time onward dispersion and multiplicity have constantly increased. “Renaissance men” could know a great deal about all the sciences and at the same time have a unifying vision … The result is mutual incomprehension and universal disharmony (emphasis mine). It is impossible to establish any unity of understanding … Since people have no unifying principles, the result is an ever-increasing multiplicity of goals and gods, an ever-intensifying chaos.” (Chittick 13).

I am invoking Chittick’s passage here to demonstrate the lack of vision that Grass has. I mean this not as a condemnation but as an observable fact and indeed, a characteristic that Grass put into The Tin Drum deliberately. A short example of this is the siege on the Polish post office, during which several characters die, is described as a “colossal joke” (Grass 216). Grass treats this entire scene with a great deal of humor and absurdity. To say that amidst the chaos of the assault Olster claims some mode of harmony is had hard to justify; a musical piece that is set in a certain key must follow and obey that key as a general outline. I can find no such consistent examples in The Tin Drum that corroborate harmony, inconstant or otherwise.

Olster’s comments on Grass’s use of the Catholic Church and Catholic theology are also a point of contention. Where Olster see’s the Church as an attempt to “recapture the triadic fullness of harmony through inclusion rather than exclusion” (Olster 69), I see Grass’s use of Catholicism as a means of indicting the Church on their silent and tacit approval of the atrocities that were committed under their nose. Oskar implores Jesus to beat his drum—a sign of an active God—only to be disappointed: “Time passed, I say, but Jesus did not beat the drum” (Grass 130). Olster sees the Catholic Trinity as the three notes in a chord: “Father, Son, and Holy Ghost” as “three separate notes into one chord” (Olster 69). I do not see any proof from the text that symbolizes these three tones being acted on at once (again, referring to Piston’s definition of harmony) and in fact, shore up support of Grass’s un-unified world; as Hans Magnus Enzensberger wrote: “Gass ist kein Moralist/Grass is no moralist” (Enzensberger 224). To infer that Grass was making a gesture to the Holy Trinity would be to placate Grass as a romanticist, something he is known for being the opposite (Mews 84).

Olster is correct to point out that apparent unwillingness to grow is seated in a lack of “exemplars” (Olster 71). Grass depicts for us a world that is depraved, though he is cautious not to clumsily portray the Nazis as “evil” and the Jews as “good”, or how Alexander Gelley describes Grass’s technique, where he “scrupulously eschews both the demonic (in portraying the Nazis) and the pathetic (in portraying the victims), he can still arouse our horror and pity” (Gelley 117). Instead we see further examples of unharmonious behavior in a number of the adults—Oskar’s “exemplars” (Schmuh’s over indulgence of the sparrows) to Jan’s cowardice at the assault on the post office. Both of these examples further support the theory of Grass’s world being a dissonant landscape.

Another aspect of the lack of harmony in The Tin Drum is the method and manner in which the characters communicate with each other, namely Oskar. The protagonist’s two methods of communication result in either destruction, vis-a-vie his glass slaying voice, or from the “non-meaningful utterances” (Bance 148) of his drum. Indeed, Grass’s world lacks so such disharmony that the characters themselves become caricatures of the absurd, unable to communicate through normal means of speech. Further more, the drum, which is a monophonic instrument, capable of producing sounds that are scarcely tonal and almost always singular, significantly challenges Olster’s abstraction of harmonies of any stripe. Instead, the drum symbolizes Oskar’s inability to cope and communicate with the adult world around him. In fact, one may say that the drum is the method by which he does communicate with his world, which is why he is so misunderstood. An example of this is the contest between Matzerath and Oskar, in which the drum is threatened to be taken away when the drum itself presents a hazard to Oskar: “It was feared I would cut myself on the treacherously sharp edges of the tin” (Grass 54).    This obsession of Oskar over his drum reinforces the notion of it being a fetish of sorts, one by which he retains a magical and youthful attachment to the fantasy world he imagines he lives in.

Alienation, Memory, and Childhood: The Quest For Meaning In Adult Life. A Reading of Tintern Abbey

Melancholy, much more than any other emotion, permeates so much of the poetry of the eighteenth century. And while William Wordsworth remains indebted to this mood, he takes his own turn at the loss of innocence through the transition from childhood to adulthood. Unlike some of his contemporaries—Thomas Grey comes chiefly to mind—in which his Elegy Written In A Country Church-Yard, considered to be “the most popular poem of melancholy in the eighteenth century” (Quinney 132), Wordsworth inherits this poetic legacy while steering it in a new direction. Where Thomas’ focus was on the invisibility and anonymity of the narrator, living a condemned life in which the future has been “emptied out” (Quinney 132), Wordsworth relates to us a journey, one from childhood to adult, where the melancholy and loss of childhood is compensated by an heightened awareness and cognizance of maturity. The end of childhood is not the death of the self for Wordsworth, but rather the terminus of a stage, all bliss and felicity withstanding. It is in the fullness of intellect and its illumination of spirit that Wordsworth, as a grown man says, “And so I dare to hope, though changed, do doubt, from what I was when first I came among these hills” (lines 65-67). In spite of the alienation he experiences in the transition from boy to man, Wordsworth sees the fully mature human being as the only one capable to synthesize the disparate images of nature, which he sees before him, and through “abundant recompense” (line 88) re-sacralize the world into a “sobre pleasure” (line 139).

In order to have a better grasp on both the transition to adulthood and the compensation had therein, it is necessary to take a moment and examine Wordsworth’s conception of childhood. For Wordsworth, childhood is a quasi-animal state, in which one (at least according to his experience) not only wonders at nature, but sees oneself as a part or extension of it. When Wordsworth visited Tintern Abbey as a young boy, he did so “like a roe”, where he, “bounded o’er the mountains, by the sides of the deep rivers, and the lonely streams” (lines 67-69). These mosaics of natural phenomena are not simply landscape artifacts but interconnected entities that he visits in his time there. These “glad animal movements” (line 74) cement the boy of Wordsworth’s youth as an equally natural expression amongst the natural landscape.

The childhood that Wordsworth also describes is an un-nuanced and unarticulated existence. His boyish encounters in Tintern Abbey constitute more to do with raw emotion than intellectualized endeavors. When, as a boy, he thought of the mountains and woods, their appearance manifested to him as “an appetite” or “a feeling and a love” (line 80). Their forms appeared to him without the need of external influences. Having “no need of a remoter charm” (line 81), nature appears to Wordsworth solely based on his youthful sensorium, an ecstatic exchange, in which all of nature seems holy and sacred to Wordsworth.

It is necessary to expound on the nature of youth as Wordsworth interprets it in order to gauge and comprehend the alienation and loss he experiences in adulthood. And it is in adulthood that alienation, loss, and melancholy, are negotiated. Wordsworth’s urban experiences allude to this fact, where in “lonely rooms” and “mid the din of towns and cities, I have owed them ” and “passing even into my purer mind” (lines 25-28) his sense of sorrow and alienation come to fruition. Here, the negotiation of child and man is rooted in memory and its ability to provide Wordsworth the basis by which he can measure and treat his loss. In summary, Wordsworth reckons childhood and adulthood as two disparate stages in which the defining characteristics of the first stage cannot be carried over into the second (Grob 35). This is clearly demonstrated in the poem’s narration of loss: the “glad animal movements”, “coarser pleasures”, “dizzy raptures” and the like. This loss, or alienation, is forever gone as Wordsworth writes, in the present tense, “I cannot paint what then I was” (lines 75-76). The passage from child to adult is permanent. The only recompense for this loss is the illumination that Wordsworth receives upon maturation, as I shall discuss shortly.

Despite the entranced nature of his childhood, Wordsworth satiates this absence in moving from what I will term the experiential-self (the child) to the knowing-self (the adult). It is the primacy of knowledge over enraptured enthusiasm that ingratiates his soul in its newfound context. While recognizing the “nameless, unremembered, acts of kindness and of love” (lines 34-35) Wordsworth makes his case for knowledge as that which brings man happiness: “of aspect more sublime; that blessed mood, in which the burthen of the mystery of all this unintelligible world, is lightened” (lines 37-41). This “serene and blessed mood” gives Wordsworth the peace of mind that will abide in him until his death (“until, the breath of this corporeal frame” line 43).

Wordsworth’s knowing-self is also the means by which he is able to acknowledge and act upon the “other”. In specific, the “other” in Tintern Abbey is his sister and “dearest Friend” (line 116). When Wordsworth first visited the Abbey as a child, there was no mention of her as he “bounded o’er the mountains”. His time then was purely individual and self-experiential. In the bloom of adulthood, Wordsworth is able to articulate strong feelings for his sister; feelings previously reserved for his natural landscape. Amidst the myriad of emotions that Wordsworth conveys to us, compassion is one of the strongest amongst them. From here, Tintern Abbey takes on the role of didactic prescription, where Wordsworth attempts to administer the cure he found in his experience at the Abbey to his sister: “Into a sober pleasure; when thy mind shall be a mansion for all lovely forms oh! then, if solitude, or fear, or pain, or grief, should be thy portion, with what healing thoughts of tender joy wilt thou remember me” (lines 141-145). Wordsworth is leaving his poem as an inheritance to his sister, where if she should find herself suffering from similar alienation or despair, she need only call on these “healing thoughts”. This is without a doubt one of the poem’s more strident empirical moments, where Wordsworth’s experiential-self and knowing-self, as subject and findings, are packaged and prepared for treatment on another individual, with expected success.

As I stated initially in this paper, Wordsworth shared the fixation on sorrow and disappointment with several other eighteenth century Sensibility poets. Some literary critics, such as Laura Quinney, have claimed it to be his favorite subject (Quinney 131). I do not seek to depart ways with the likes of Quinney in observation but in scope, for Tintern Abbey most certainly deviates from both Wordsworth’s past writings, as well as that of the Sensibility poets, favoring optimism over pessimism. In Tintern Abbey, Wordsworth is able to reconcile the experiential-self with the knowing-self. To articulate this plainly, I see Wordsworth’s take on the nature of both states, the experiential and the knowing, as an affirmation of life: it is neither devoid or flushed of meaning. This is accomplished by the experiential-self being assimilated by the knowing-self. The ingenuity of Wordsworth’s technique is accomplished by using the same source material as his predecessors: nostalgia, anxiety and regret (Quinney 131), and by synthesizing them into a new articulation out of that body of work; or as Mary Jacobus puts it: an “indiscriminate melancholy” (Jacobus 107).

Wordsworth’s approach to the self, by distancing and re-imagining himself from the Sensibility poets, allowed him to spark a new conversation on the nature of the self and how it might be approached. Where the poetry of his contemporaries frequently focused on the “inner erosion and failing” (Quinney 132) of the human spirit, Wordsworth’s perspective looks towards the future. He sees life, in the present tense, as “a moment”, where there is “life and food for future years” (line 64). This bricolage of old and new material left and leaves much to be inspired by. No doubt, such motifs have been applied by other great writers; Marcel Proust comes foremost to mind, in his use of memory as the vehicle through which he explored all of his major works. I see Wordsworth’s evolution from boy to man, as conceived with and by the act of memory, a presage to Proust’s petites madeleines, in which they ignited the memory of the author’s protagonist, carrying the tea to Marcel’s lips (Proust 45). So too did Wordsworth employ memory as a vehicle, the Abbey here a stand-in for Proust’s madeleine. The indebtedness that modern fiction owes to writers, such as William Wordsworth, cannot be emphasized enough. Perhaps, through re-engaging with texts from a bygone era, we can benefit from the lyrical wisdom they house, versus common day philosophies that revel in their forward-looking stances, claiming that novelty, change, and innovation alone are capable of ascribing meaning to our context. Such systems of thought have a habit of “placing little or no value on the preservation of views or perspectives from the past” (Jackson 170). Wordsworth clearly demonstrates the value and contribution his works made and the potential to continue to speak to us more than two centuries later.


  • Jacobus, Mary. Tradition and Experiment in Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads (1798). London: Oxford University Press, 1976, 107.
  • Greenblatt, Stephen, ed. “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, on Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour, July 13, 1798.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Vol. 2. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2007. 259-262.
  • Grob, Alan. “Wordsworth’s Immortality Ode and the Search for Identity” ELH 32.1 (1965): 32-61.
  • Jackson, Sherman. “Taqlid, Legal Scaffolding and the Scope of Legal Injunctions in Post-Formative Theory Mutlaq and Amm” in the Jurisprudence of Shihab al-Din al-Qarafi Islamic Law and Society Vol. 3, No. 2 (1996): 165-192.
  • Lau, Beth. “Wordsworth and Current Memory Research” Studies in English Literature 42.4 (2002): 675-692.
  • Proust, Marcel, trans. Lydia Davis. Swann’s Way. New York: Penguin Group, 2002. 45.
  • Quinney, Laura. “Tintern Abbey,” Sensibility, and the Self-Disenchanted Self.” ELH 64.1 (1997): 131-156.

Pessimism, Skepticism, and Despair in Early 20th Century England — A Reading of Mrs. Dalloway

The early part of the Twentieth Century saw England as the major super power in the world. During this time, England ascended to the height of its imperial powers, with its grasp and influence worldwide. A phrase was even coined in recognition of this fact: “The Empire on which the sun never sets”. And yet despite England’s great power, its citizenry was undergoing a dramatic paradigm shift on several fronts: religious, psychological, and epistemological, to name a few. Post World War I, life in England would never be the same as people came face to face with not just the imagery of war, but also living with its aftermath: the mentally and physically wounded. Writing from this era reflected the changing and uncertain nature of this time. Mrs. Dalloway showcases this conflict on both social and individual levels. From disenchantment of social expectations to the inability to see the good in humanity, Virginia Woolf demonstrates the loss of meaning through the internalization of the self, a literary process that confines the “knowing” aspect of the self to what lies behind the senses. In doing so, none of the characters in Mrs. Dalloway are able to find any transcendent meaning beyond themselves, instead succumbing to an anguish and lethargy which ultimately consumes them.

The notion of a lost self is readily immanent in Woolf’s story, for she titles the book, “Mrs. Dalloway”. Woolf’s purposeful omission of Clarissa’s first name in the title makes a clear statement on how Clarissa sees herself and how she has lost her autonomy as a person. She is exhibited as an addendum; a reference to her husband. In two short words, Woolf establishes the link between Clarissa’s role as wife and how that role defines her throughout the novel. Woolf’s choice of “Mrs. Dalloway” or “Mrs. Richard Dalloway” illustrates the loss of self that Clarissa has suffered (Forbes 39). To help elucidate, this short passage drives home the point: “She had the oddest sense of being herself invisible; unseen; unknown “¦ this being Mrs. Dalloway; not even Clarissa anymore; this being Mrs. Richard Dalloway” (Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway 10-11). The last act that Clarissa makes as a fully-autonomous person was her refusal to marry Peter Walsh (Woolf 46).

The commentary in Mrs. Dalloway on the self is not restricted to its inability to act upon the world, but also looks at how the self, both by its inability to project itself on and in the world, suffers from isolation and despair. Perhaps the most tragic character in the novel is Septimus Smith, who is tortured by his wartime experience. Having seen the realities of war up close, Septimus’ view of humanity has become dark. Once an aspiring poet, he now sees human nature as bankrupt and cruel. However, the most unique aspect about Septimus’ view on human nature is its active observation. For Septimus, human nature is not a passive enterprise. It is, as he states, “Once you stumble, Septimus wrote on the back of a postcard, human nature is on you.” (Woolf 92). The viewpoint being expressed here, though dramatized through Septimus’ mental instability, sees human nature as not just predatory, but separate from humans themselves. According to Septimus, human nature is an entity unto itself, stalking man, and waiting for an opportunity to pounce. His character drives home the perception that the self is wholly separate from its environment and even from itself (human nature).

Woolf’s setting also articulate an atmosphere of isolation and solitude. This sentiment is expressed as a doom: “and yet “¦ feeling as she did, standing there at the open window, that something awful was about to happen” (Woolf 3). The preceding quote is in the opening dialog that is going on inside Clarissa’s head. It speaks to the isolation as expressed by Clarissa as well as Septimus, who feels, “quite alone” (Woolf 92). Often, this despair of isolation is expressed through the disjointed thoughts and ramblings of Clarissa. In one such passage, Clarissa begins by recollecting a time that she and Peter Walsh went in to London together but injects mid-thought, “It was to explain the feeling they had of dissatisfaction; no knowing people; not being known” (Woolf 152). The same paragraph strays into thoughts about transcendental theories and how her soul might come to, “haunt certain places after death” (Woolf 153). This disjointed narrative style, reinforcing the isolation that Clarissa and the other characters experience, echoes what Erich Auerbach says about Woolf’s prose: “[It] is often something confusing, something hazy “¦ [a] vague indefinability of meaning” (Auerbach 551). I will next demonstrate how Woolf’s stream of conscious contributes to the sense of pessimism and despair in Mrs. Dalloway.

Virginia Woolf’s narrative style, stream of conscious, does not simply serve to provide an alternate form of writing dialog. It has a very precise purpose, namely the continued deconstruction of reality throughout Mrs. Dalloway. What I mean here is that the prose goes beyond just illustrating the words that Clarissa is thinking. By mixing all of her thoughts together “thoughts that include the recollected thoughts of other characters or even the thoughts of those characters (Septimus is one example)” the reader is never able to firmly establish any sense of reality outside of the characters. Reality has become firmly contingent upon the interlocutors’ circumstances and tonality, not, as Auerbach describes, “on form” (Auerbach 535). I see this as another literary technique to further distance the self from the world. In writing about twentieth-century art, Bryan Appleyard writes in his Understanding the Present, regarding this subject: “The symptoms of this lethargy are all about us. The pessimism, anguish, skepticism and despair of so much twentieth-century art and literature are expressions of the fact that there is nothing “big” worth talking about anymore, there is no meaning to be elucidated.” (Appleyard 11). What I take from Appleyard’s observation is thus: Woolf’s characters, while differing slightly from Appleyard’s observation (talking incessantly), are unable to come to any “continuity of action” (Auerbach 552); their dialog is helpless to affect or impact their world in such a way as serving any of the characters’ needs. What we are left with, as the reader, is only, “an appreciation of the multiple enmeshments of the motifs” (Auerbach 551).

There are numerous consequences of retracting the self from the world. One such example as expressed in the novel is the delusion of the self. This self-deception is more than a fabricated lie that the characters tell themselves, but rather the process of deconstructing and diminishing the possibility of any external reality. Ironically, this process relies upon the very same external influences it is trying to deny, by mimicking them for appropriate such notions of reality. To help clarify my point I will provide a few examples from the text. As Clarissa stands by herself one night in reflection, she imagines herself, as Deborah Guth declares it, “a martyr” (Guth 35). In Woolf’s words, she describes Clarissa as, “a single figure against the appalling night” (Woolf 30). In another instance, Clarissa recalls an instance when she was feeding ducks at the lake, where she, “stood by the lake, holding her life in her arms which, as she neared them [her parents], grew larger and larger in her arms, until it became a whole life, a complete life” (Woolf 43).

Perhaps the best example to illuminate this point is the death of Septimus. Clarissa absolves her grief over Septimus’ death by proposing some noble cause in his suicide. Her question, “did he plunge holding his treasure?” (Woolf 184), does not find any reference in the words or sentiments Septimus uttered in the storyline. In fact, it is entirely plausible to say that Septimus had not truly wanted to kill himself: “He did not want to die. Life was good. The sun hot” (Woolf 143). I say all of this in support of this theory: the retracted-self, in being incapable of seeing itself as a part of the external world, will seek to create an image of itself through the process of self-invention, not self-discovery. Clarissa, pondering if Septimus took his treasure with him, has more to do with her fear of death and her attempt to ascribe meaning on to both life and death. In other words, Clarissa seeks to use Septimus’ death, through the process of self-invention, to transcend the lack of meaning she is incapable of finding in the external world.

The retracted-self of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway finds its perceptions of the external world increasing inhospitable and incompatible. Where Clarissa was once a student of poetry she hardly reads at all anymore, “except memoirs in bed” (Woolf 8). Likewise, Peter Walsh’s early fascination with eighteenth-century rationalists (Addison, Pope) has fallen by the wayside. Again, the most convincing example is Septimus. For a man whose life was literature, and whose guiding purpose in volunteering for the war effort was, “to save an England which consisted almost entirely of Shakespeare’s plays” (Woolf 86). In their respective pasts, Woolf’s characters engaged their worlds and found some measure of meaning. In limiting their capacity to “know” whether self-inflicted, in Clarissa’s case, or through the misfortunes of war, in Septimus’, is not important “they lost the tools that gave their lives and purpose and meaning. Turning to Septimus again, we can see that, in his insanity, he “becomes little more than a compilation of literary fragments culled from his voracious readings” (Wyatt 440). Without engaging the world and finding some meaning to contextualize the self, Woolf’s characters will have no other choose to react as debased, rootless individuals, reduced to living half lives as social cripples.

Clarissa’s separation from the world is marked by retreating to an imaginative space. There are several allusions to this process in the course of the novel. However, one specific instance stands out strongest. It is the passage in which Clarissa has retreated to the upstairs of the house. She likens this experience as “a nun withdrawing, or a child exploring a tower” there was an emptiness about the heart of life; an attic room” (Woolf 31). Clarissa’s steady withdrawal of her “self” from the world creates a context that separates her knowing mind from the external world. All acts of knowing are reduced to internal processes, as Clarissa notes, “The, for that moment, she had seen an illumination ” an inner meaning almost expressed” (my quotes) (Woolf 32). Indeed, the world takes on a dimness that enshrouds the three main characters of Clarissa, Peter, and Septimus. Retreated to a dimension that is incapable of providing the defining sustenance all three crave, their total actions fail to reach the world around them.

It is no coincidence then, after examination of the notes from Woolf’s diary, that we find Clarissa and Septimus sharing similar, if not identical values. Only their expressed methods differ. In fact, Woolf notes in her diary, that Septimus was created as Clarissa’s literary double (Leonard Woolf 56). The author even planned for Clarissa to kill herself (Samuelson 60) instead of the latter version, where Septimus takes his own life. This aesthetic technique sheds tremendous light on how and why Woolf made the two characters so empathetic towards one another. It also illustrates why both characters, possessing tendencies towards withdrawal from the world, share similar dilemmas of survival and finding meaning in the world. Both characters struggle with sanity: Septimus’ struggle being a public spectacle where Clarissa’s is internal, as demonstrated in Woolf’s notes. This duality of mental suffering is supported by Woolf’s above statement that both Septimus is Clarissa’s double. In the end, my case for both characters suffering from insanity is rooted in the aforementioned theory of self-invention. Essentially, neither character, despite unsuccessful attempts to innovate meaning, fall victim to a life devoid of any context and meaning.

Woolf’s claim that Septimus is the literary double of Clarissa, when examined from the context of the self separated from the world, is not without problem. What comes across to me is more of a parody, at times, than genuine similarities between the two characters. This brings me back to Clarissa’s grieving moment, when she hears of Septimus’ death. Woolf’s Clarissa projects a tragic sentimentality onto Septimus; a sentimentality he did not espouse. Again, I am brought back to the line, “Life was good. The sun hot” (Woolf 143). This seems to stand in contradiction to Clarissa’s, “did he plunge holding his treasure?” (Woolf 184). By ignoring Septimus’ admission that “life was good”, Woolf presents herself as ambivalent in regards to her desire in remaining aloof from the narration. In The World and the Book, Gabriel Josipovici states: “We have to ask, not: What do these words mean? but: What do these words when spoken by that person mean?” (Josipovici 21). What does these words mean to Woolf, who has omniscient knowledge of her characters? Clarissa claims to be cognizant of Septimus’ reality, yet, the above words do not reflect this. The conclusion I am left with is: cloistering of the “knowing self” leads to a lack of consciousness on the part of the characters’ surroundings in Mrs. Dalloway. I come to this conclusion through examining Woolf’s own statements, which attest to the duality between Clarissa and Septimus. A duality that I feel is at times duplicitous and unreliable. If Woolf’s literary aim was to state that one cannot extrapolate real meanings from the extant world, then she has succeeded. The results of such a cosmology support the theme throughout Mrs. Dalloway, that reality can only be observed, never outwardly experienced.
The fact that Woolf, a writer of some capacity, would choose to strip the characters in her novel of the means of defining themselves in the world, is as curious is it is fascinating. In his article, Dehumanized, Mark Slouka makes the argument for the importance of the arts and humanities in shaping and defining who we are. He sees the humanities as providing “a certain way of seeing, of reckoning value” (Slouka 42), a value that Slouka and Woolf would share, despite the decades that separate their lives. It cannot be coincidence then, that many of the characters in Mrs. Dalloway have purposely left those mechanisms which gave them meaning: Peter’s literate, Septimus’ poetry, and Clarissa’s reading and studies. The result is surrender to knowing anything about the world. Knowledge or affirmation is not a purely intern act. Incapable of finding joy or meaning in life, the cast of characters slides into a pessimism and a debilitating skepticism.

Accepting Slouka’s theory on “reckoning value”, I see no method for the characters in Mrs. Dalloway to adapt to the demands of a changing society. In this sense, Clarissa as well as many of the other characters in the novel, harbor hostilities to both change and tradition. For the latter, Clarissa’s opposed to tradition has stripped her of context and definition (Mrs. Dalloway versus Clarissa Dalloway). Similarly, for Septimus, the past is “an idyll contrasted with the present” (Wyatt 440). This further illustrates the defining force that literature had on Septimus. Without it, he is a simulacrum of his former self. For both characters, it is not the yearning for the past as much as it is a longing for pastoral themes or perceived images they conjure up. Change is also representative of the enormous challenge the characters face in their society. By accepting the validity that the self can only observe, and not affirm, Clarissa’s dilemma is that she is incapable of taking ownership of her own happiness. The result is a hostility towards those who possessed the ability to thrive, such as Hugh Whitbread, for who she stated had “the most extraordinary, the most natural, the most sublime respect for the British aristocracy of any human being he had ever come across” (Woolf 72). She began the soliloquy with, “Hugh she detested for some reason” (Woolf 72). This animosity concurs with Auerbach’s observation of Woolf’s literary style, in which he says that there is “something hostile to the reality which they represent” (Auerbach 551). I myself have also questioned Woolf’s literary motivations here, and in my conclusion, I can find no other viable alternative for the characters to act upon, given they have been put into a situation where the only outlet is something that lies between fatalism and nihilism. Examined in this light, Woolf’s transparency as an author, who seeks to withhold omniscient knowledge from the narrative field, begins to fail in light of her characters having few to no other options.

In conclusion, I find Wool’s writing to be highly explanative when seeking to understand many of the driving ideologies and popular philosophies of her time. Such philosophies have endured and have found their way into current forms of literate and popular discourse. The modern world still labors under the weight of truth and the search for meaning in life. Perhaps by examining in detail the writings and thoughts of earlier generations, we may find the necessary tools to answer these questions, if not for all humanity, at least of ourselves in our own time and space.


  • Appleyard, Bryan. Understanding the Present: Science and the Soul of Modern Man. New York: Doubleday, 1992.
  • Auerbach, Erich. Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003.
  • Forbes, Shannon. “Equating Performance with Identity: The Failure of Clarissa Dalloway’s Victorian “˜Self’ in Virginia Woolf’s “˜Mrs. Dalloway'” The Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association 38.1 (2005): 38-50.
  • Guth, Deborah. “Rituals of Self-Deception: Clarissa Dalloway’s Final Moment of Vision” Twentieth Century Literature 36.1 (1990): 35-42.
  • Guth, Deborah. “‘What a Lark! What a Plunge!’: Fiction as Self-Evasion in “˜Mrs. Dalloway'” The Modern Language Review 34.1 (1989): 18-25.
  • Josipovici, Gabriel. The World and the Book: A Study of Modern Fiction. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1971.
  • Samuelson, Ralph. “The Theme of “˜Mrs. Dalloway'”. Chicago Review 11.4. (1958): 57-76.
    Slouka, Mark. “Dehumanized: When Math and Science Rule the School.” Harper’s Magazine Sept. 2009: 32-40.
  • Woolf, Virginia, A Writer’s Diary. Ed. Leonard Woolf. New York: Mariner Books, 2003.
  • Wyatt, Jean M. “Mrs. Dalloway: Literary Allusion as Structural Metaphor” PMLA 88.3 (1973): 440-451.