For my Big Project, I’m looking at Mrs. Dalloway, a work by Virginia Woolf (but you probably already knew that). I ended up choosing Virginia Woolf because she is a feminist author whose personal life is just as thrilling as her works (more-so, really). Plus, it gave me a great excuse to watch The Hours and shudder at Nicole Kidman’s prosthetic nose (that was a joke. I realize it has nothing to do with my post.) Ms. Woolf’s personal life is both well-researched and well-documented, since she kept a diary which has since been published. (Why is it brilliant artists with mental problems always keep equally brilliant journals? Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, Vincent van Gogh…if you haven’t read van Gogh’s collection of letter and journal entries, you really should. They’re beautiful.)
The way that I kinda wanted to go into this project is to research how Virginia Woolf’s more unconventional traits affected the writing of Mrs. Dalloway, a work that deals with depression, suicide, feminism, marriage, and lesbian feelings. (Of course, unlike Clarissa, Woolf did a bit more than just feel her lesbian feelings. She felt other things. I’m very sorry for that joke.) Clarissa’s feelings towards Sally aren’t dealt with with a heavy hand in the story, but it still made me think of how we perceive Virginia Woolf differently because of her mental illness, her extramarital affairs, and her androgynous thinking. It relates to the Differences chapter in the Theory Toolbox. If we were to read Mrs. Dalloway without knowing of her history with mental illness, how would it affect our reading of it? It makes me think of (goddammit) Tompkins, and how our readings and interpretations of a work can completely change it in a way that makes the original different. I wonder how Mrs. Dalloway was read when it first was published, seeing as I’m not well versed on how much everyone knew of her social life. While I doubt it was a secret that Virginia Woolf was sleeping with other prominent authors, and I know that her female lover criticized Three Guineas openly, but did that change the way that critics at the time reviewed her work?
Maybe this is a path I can take in my research?
I know this is probably the point of this class, but I keep finding it somewhat strange how things I read in here end up applying so well to the other classes I’m taking.
In this instance, as I was reading Pat Conroy’s ‘The Water is Wide’ for my ‘Deconstructing Literacy in the South’ (Much more interesting than it sounds by the way), I was constantly struck with how such simple concepts to us, things we probably don’t even remember learning, such as the lines in the road, were completely foreign to the children of the Island that Conroy taught on. If you are unfamiliar with the story, I’ll direct you to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Water_Is_Wide_%28book%29 and suggest that you read it because it is something that will really make you think.
Theory Toolbox made me really sit back and think about the effect that culture has on how we relate to people outside our own social constructs. While I’ve always used the phrase ‘reading emotion’, I’ve never thought of it as something that had to be taught like reading does. Finding meaning in any sort of work is also a sort of reading. As we’ve learned with Tompkins, meaning in texts is all about what the reader values and looks for. Ultimately, we’re going to read symbols in a way that’s in accordance with what we value and find important.
I agree with Morgan, I actually really liked Tompkins article. I’d always thought of canonical texts as standing outside of literary fashions and criticism, but Tompkins really enlightened me to the fact that they have simply been able to adapt to every fashion that comes through.
While I was skeptical at first of those notion, Professor Seaman put in terms of The Wife of Bath, which made it much easier to believe. She said that while Alyson was once thought of as a buffoon, she is now an early type of feminist. While Taylor sees her as the complete opposite of a feminist, I think that if we view her by medieval standards, she shows an incredibly amount of forward thinking and the origin of what would one day become the feminist movement.
But back to Tompkins.
She used the examples of Hawthorne and Melville, both great authors by our standards, throughout her essay and managed to make her point well. However, one point that really drew ire with me was when she wrote “[critics] could not have possibly understood [Hawthorne] given the attitudes that must inform effusions such as these” (141). I feel like it’s a little arrogant to say that they did not understand it, as if our knowledge is completely superior. This is like doctors in the 18th century laughing at those in the medieval ages, only for them to be shown up a century later. In today’s time, knowledge is accumulating even faster, which could cause new critical theories to form at quicker paces than ever. It’s incredibly likely that in another century, people will look back on our critiques of The Scarlet Letter and will wonder at our conclusions.
Due to our in-depth class discussion on the canon—and amidst much hate and harsh feelings for these literary works of ‘higher importance’—I personally found Jane Tompkins’ essay to be rather enlightening on this subject, shedding light on the canon in a different way than I have previously experienced.
Tompkins uses her example of Hawthorne as an author to sort of represent the misinterpretations of his peers of his works—that is, to highlight the fact that while we may see genius in a contemporary work of literature, in fact for future generations what we found beneficial and ‘meta’ may not be what they will see as important, if they continue to see any relevance in the text at all. This idea was my favorite part of Tompkins’ essay because it at least allows that while some texts of the ‘overarching canon’ may have held a particular significance for the people of whose age it was written, this significance quite possibly has shifted due to our different cultural and time period lenses. Moreover, her use of Hawthorne as an example also shed light on the fact that texts like his and those found in the canon actually serve as the best examples of some crucial skills and techniques that we still consider crucial today, whether for literary criticism, theory, composure, etc. Overall, I found her essay to really make me consider the various works of the canon and question their significance for our literary world today—and actually dislike the canon itself a little less!