Prospero’s Power of Conversation

Prospero’s Power of Conversation

this-thing-of-darkness-snipIn Act I of “The Tempest,” William Shakespeare paints Prospero as a character who possesses a great deal of power, quite analogous to that of the King of England. Attributing this power to his education in “liberal arts,” Prospero’s enchanting abilities appear to stem from his study of books, the donning of a magical cloak, and by carrying a magical staff, much as the King’s crown and vestiges, although not powerful themselves, lend to the visual definition of his authority. While each of these items do supply Prospero with the ability to cast spells, it is his “art” of conversation that affords him the most power.

As Paul Brown remarks in “‘This Thing of Darkness I Acknowledge Mine’: The Tempest and the Discourse of Colonialism,” Prospero calls to his various listeners “and invites them to recognize themselves as subjects of his discourse, as beneficiaries of his civil largess.” (Brown 218) The technique with which Prospero bestows his “civil largess” upon his daughter, Miranda, and his servant, Ariel, varies in degree of applied patience, yet it conclusively achieves the desired effect as each bend to his will. While Caliban, Prospero’s slave, offers the vilest resistance, Prospero demands compliance by employing the use of painful threats, only occasionally requiring additional reinforcement through action. Prospero?s command of language, ultimately his most useful tool, influences and manipulates the thoughts, ideas and behaviors of all the play’s participants, including those of the audience.

Miranda’s character is akin to the citizens of England, each governed by the power and guidance of their rulers. Through suggestive conversation, Prospero educates Miranda on the subject of their history, molding her perspective to ready her for a future orchestration of events. As he begins the tale, Prospero asks Miranda to, “pluck my magic garment from me. So, [laying down his magic cloak and staff] Lie there my art.” (Shakespeare 14, 24) Here Prospero engages in conversation exclusively, making a point to shed all other forms of power. With this simple action, Shakespeare demonstrates the innate power of Prospero’s persuasion and how it is used to educate and thus govern Miranda with the provision of a singular perspective. This directly reflects England’s own normative view as colonizer, enforcing the belief that English culture is superior both within and beyond the country’s borders.

Prospero takes pride in his ability to educate. He speaks passionately of this role in regard to Miranda, “Here have I, thy schoolmaster, made thee more profit than other princess’ can, that have more time for vainer hours and tutors not so careful.” (Shakespeare 19, 171) Prospero has been grooming Miranda to be obedient all her life, and she, a naive student, exclaims, “Heavens thank you for ‘t!” (Shakespeare 20, 175) In his technique of reinforcing his daughter’s loyalty and attention by repeatedly asking, “Dost thou attend me?” (Shakespeare 16, 78) requires Miranda to engage in the dialogue and actively confirm, “Your tale, sir, would cure deafness,” (Shakespeare 17, 107) In this way, Miranda reflects the desired perspective as it is presented to her, satisfying Prospero’s need for loyalty and support in his plot to resume his dukedom. As Brown explains, ?A major strategy of this scheme is to engineer another courtship between Miranda and the son of his enemy “his daughter having been duly educated for such a role.” (Brown 219) In grooming Miranda to marry Ferdinand, Prospero intends to place her like a pawn among royalty, ensuring his ties to political authority.

In Ariel, Prospero’s servant, Shakespeare depicts an English colonizer, one sympathetic toward the American Indians. Ariel proves useful in forging a foundation for Prospero’s new world order but must be commanded to continue in the face of unpleasant tasks, particularly those he believes will cause harm. Applying the approach used with Miranda, Prospero begins to question “Dost thou forget from what torment I did free thee?” (Shakespeare 22, 250) Ariel challenges that he has not. With this exchange Prospero begins a detailed call and response, “Hast thou forgot the foul witch Sycorax? Thou hast. Where was she born?” (Shakespeare 23, 261) Recounting this story of how Prospero freed Ariel from the witch’s curse actively recalls the details of Arial’s torment and debt to Prospero for release. Ironically, this freedom from the pine has merely released him into a new form of bondage. (Brown, 220) According to Brown, “This operation of constant reminding acts as ‘symbolic violence.’ What is really at issue is the underlining of a power relation.” (Brown 220) Illustrating a bending will, Ariel replies, ?Pardon, master. I will be correspondent to command and do my spriting gently.” (Shakespeare 24) As Ariel submits, Prospero is able to expand his power to that of the spritely realm with Ariel to do his bidding.

Caliban, having occupied the island long before Prospero, represents the idea of “savage” as it exists within the colonization of Ireland and America. Prospero tries in vain to educate Caliban, to civilize him in the ways in which Prospero is accustomed. Miranda too, as an extension of Prospero, teaches Caliban the language common to her and her father. In regard to this education, Caliban is not grateful for their “gift,” but rather feels enslaved by it. “You taught me language and my profit on ‘t is I know how to curse. The red plague rid you for learning me your language!” (Shakespeare 27, 367) Before the arrival of Prospero and Miranda, Caliban understands his thoughts perfectly well, explaining that they didn’t give him knowledge, but only the means to express what he already knows in a way they understand. He too can understand their demands as they bark orders at him. Brown believes Caliban “recognizes himself as a linguistic subject of the master language. Caliban’s refusal marks him as obdurate yet he must voice this in a curse in the language of civility … Whatever Caliban does with this gift announces his capture by it.” (Brown 220) In his unwillingness to easily submit, Caliban poses a real challenge for Prospero. While still embracing his mastery over communication, Prospero must change his approach. Keeping the upper hand, he incorporates the use of threats backed by real action, making Caliban submit out of fear.

At the play’s end, as so ordered by Shakespeare, the shipwrecked aristocrats suffer to Prospero’s content, extracting sufficient remorse from their maddened state with no lasting harm dealt by his hand. His daughter, too, is arranged neatly in the arms of King Alonzo’s son, assuring her royal future and his. Ariel is freed for a job well done, and even the stubborn Caliban all too easily sees the light after falling further from grace, accepting Prospero as a more desirable master than Stephano. Each fragment is neatly tied up with one exception. In what way does Shakespeare deal with Prospero?

By educating the island inhabitants as he sees fit, Prospero gets an unforeseen education of his own. During the marriage of Miranda and Ferdinand, Prospero is startled with the realization of his aloneness without her. Fiedler with the idea that Shakespeare “appears more and more to divest himself of the very power he has so relentlessly sought. … even as Prospero’s game plan succeeds he himself is played out, left without a move as power over his daughter slips away.” (Brown 226) Prospero speaks of this dissolve of power, as well as the erasure of existence when he says, “We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded in sleep.” (Shakespeare 70, 156) Caliban’s attempt on Prospero’s life leads Prospero to look more closely at his inability to civilize the savage. He raves, “A Devil, born a Devil, on whose nature nurture can never stick; on whom my pains, humanely taken, all, all lost, quite lost!” (Shakespeare 71, 188) And lastly, in an effort of revenge on his brother, Prospero learns compassion, characterized by his epiphany that “The rarer action is in virtue than in vengeance.” (Shakespeare 75, 28) Brown believes, “At the ‘close’ of the play Prospero is in danger of becoming the other to the narrative declaration of his own project, which is precisely the ambivalent position Caliban occupies.” (Brown 228) and is unsatisfied with how Shakespeare handles Prospero’s abandonment of magical external power with no “triumph for colonialism” (Brown 228). With this I disagree.

At the time Shakespeare writes “The Tempest,” no societal answers existed in response to the play’s questions. Shakespeare appears to synthesize the culmination of Prospero’s lessons to demonstrate the hope for England of one day being wiser, more accepting of others, and willing to forfeit control where it already exists rather than to attempt the civilization of the world. As the rest of Prospero’s powers fade, his reign over language is not lost. “Now my charms are all o’erthrown, and what strength I have ‘s mine own.” (Shakespeare 86, 1) The power of persuasion has always been an innate part of his being only to fade when Prospero himself expires. He uses his remaining capacity for language to appeal to the audience. He seeks their applause and thus forgiveness for his character flaws. This may also be a plea from Shakespeare himself to forgive weak plot point. The questions raised are left to us, the audience to ponder and answer for ourselves.

Works Cited:

Shakespeare, William, et al. “The Tempest” Ed. Gerald Graff and James Phelan. William Shakespeare, The Tempest; A Case Study in Critical Controversy, Boston: Bedford/St. Martin?s, 2000, 10-87

Brown, Paul. “‘This Thing of Darkness I Acknowledge Mine”; The Tempest as the Discourse of Colonialism” William Shakespeare, “The Tempest;” A Case Study in Critical Controversy, Boston: Bedford/St. Martin?s, 2000, 205-229

Summary of Paul Brown’s “‘This Thing of Darkness…”

Summary of Paul Brown’s “‘This Thing of Darkness…”

this-thing-of-darkness-snipA Summary of Paul Brown’s “‘This Thing of Darkness I Acknowledge Mine’: The Tempest and the Discourse of Colonialism”

In his essay, Paul Brown explains that Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” reaches beyond mere contemplation of colonialism and more toward “intervention in an ambivalent and even contradictory discourse” (205). Brown feels that Shakespeare attempts, in his narrative, to suitably redefine the power relations between classes, gender and cultures, but fails to accomplish this task.

Three connections within complex colonial discourse, according to Brown, are “class discourse (masterlessness), a race discourse (savagism) and a politically and courtly sexual discourse” (209) as illustrated by the desire of John Rolf, a Virginia planter, for Pocahontas, the daughter of Powhatan, chief-of-chiefs. Using Rolf’s letter asking for the Governor’s blessing over their marriage, Brown shows Rolf’s belief that the power of British civility can transform the “other” or American Indian, even if sexual desire may threaten to undermine that mastery. (207) This, in turn, is compared with Prospero’s narrative in which his ruling power is determined by his control over his subjects’ sexuality, particularly Miranda’s and Caliban’s. Brown argues that the colonizer seeks to control, repress and exploit the “other” even as the “other” has beneficial offerings that may erode that civil order.

Moving beyond the American example, Brown examines British counterculture and Irish “others” to illustrate the colossal range of contemporary colonialist discourse. He discusses the perceived threat within England of anti-social man, the masterless who require “surveillance, classification, expulsion and punishment” (210) as Brown believes is embodied in “The Tempest” by Stephano and Trunculo. Their threat of counter-order serves to unify rulers in their authority, channeling a positive civil service. (211) Brown next points out evidence of this within the context of Ireland. It was in need of reordering and of “a colony where the savage other needed to be civilized conquered and dispossessed.” (214) Masterless Irish were especially targeted, and jesters like Trinculo were exemplary of that lot. (210) To further tie Ireland to “The Tempest,” Brown offers the idea that the uninhabited island (of civility) offered not only the opportunity for the expansion of civility, but the undoing of it as well, freedom being a temptation. (216)

Brown says the narrative of the play “is always related to questions of power.” (218) The tempestuous storm was produced by Shakespeare to show Prospero’s mastery over the island. He demonstrates his control over his listeners as he narrates, establishing himself as father and educator of Miranda, rescuer of Ariel, colonizer of Caliban, and corrector of errant aristocrats. Prospero’s function is to divide the characters along gender lines as with the malleable Miranda and irreformable Caliban, and along class lines such as in the usurping aristocrats versus unmastered plebians, conjuring colonial discourse. (221)

This binarism is accompanied by the aesthetic ordering of power through “narrative to maintain social control.” (223) “Euphemistic” use of romantic rhetoric as well as gifts of freedom and education underline the non-exploitive representation of power as when Caliban is taught to speak Prospero’s language. (223) This language is seen by Caliban as linguistic capture and restraint, not a gift. (220) Alternately, to “denigrate the masterless” (225), as with Trinculo and Stephano, Caliban is placed in a more positive light. His eloquence is revealed when describing the island and how its music causes him to dream. This dream, according to Brown, is the apothesis of colonial discourse, a wish for release, a desire for utopian powerlessness. (225)

Prospero too desires to “divest himself of the very power he has so relentlessly sought” (226), as is the plausible threat of freedom to the civilized. After losing his power over his daughter, the play ends not with his resumption of public duty but his retirement. Brown asks, “Is this final distancing from the narrative an unraveling of Prospero’s project?” (227) The disruption of the marriage masque by Caliban’s plot leads to Prospero’s declaration that all representation is illusory, yet he “goes on to meet the threat and triumphs, and thus completes his narrative.” (227) Brown is troubled by the “ambivalence” here between narrative declaration and dramatic struggle. “The threat must be present to validate colonial discourse; yet if present it cannot but impel the narrative to further action. The process is interminable. And yet the play has to end.” (228) It is for this reason, Brown believes, that “The Tempest” declares no triumph for colonialism but simply offers up it’s characteristic operations.

ASSESSMENT AND RATIONALE

Paul Brown aligns himself with the post-colonial school of criticism. This is demonstrated by his use of intertextuality and his goal to show the oppression of colonized peoples. He talks not only of language as a binding factor in colonization as given to Caliban by Prospero and Miranda, but he also examines the euphemistic manipulation of language by Prospero to establish and maintain dominance. In exploration of the colonized people’s reaction, Brown studies Caliban and in what ways he speaks out against his plight. In the end, he looks for ways to change the system of colonization and finds ambivalent answers in Shakespeare’s interpretation of order.

I am interested in this essay because it supports my initial interpretation of Prospero’s role in “The Tempest.” Paul Brown’s exploration of Prospero’s art of conversation and the power he holds over his fellow characters resonates with my assessment of that power. In addition, I have learned much from Brown’s essay in the context of colonization. This information has influenced me to push beyond my limited interpretation based on New Criticism and complicate it within the context of events occurring at the time the play was written. For me, this legitimizes and expands the themes present in my original assessment of Prospero.

Work Cited:

Brown, Paul. This Thing of Darkness I Acknowledge Mine; “The Tempest” as the Discourse of Colonialism; William Shakespeare, “The Tempest;” A Case Study in Critical Controversy, Boston: Bedford/St. Martin?s, 2000, 205-229

Getting “The Tempest”

Getting “The Tempest”

tempestI took my professor’s suggestion, sitting for several hours over the weekend with my copy of “The Tempest” and a pencil. I started back at Act 1, picking most of the descriptive notes from the bottom of the page and transferring them into the text. Reading through once more, with those in place, I made notes about the plot in the margins. As I made my way through Act III, it was obvious that I had learned much along the way. Still, I continued to transfer many of the notes, even if I didn’t think I needed them, because this made the double entendres far more apparent and enjoyable.

The difference between “getting the gist” and picking up the humorous subtleties brought a whole new dimension to life. The whole interaction about chickens and foul was lost on me the first time through. When seeing a performance, the actors’ physical cues and tone help identify Shakespeare’s play on language and the running jokes referenced throughout. In reading, I truly miss the cues. It was good to discover that the more effort I put in, the more I was rewarded with enjoyment. All this talk about Shakespeare being such a drag had me doubting how much I’d like him.

Beyond addressing the language, I did have some questions about what happened between some of the characters. In Act III, scene I, it seemed rather forward of Miranda to ask Ferdinand to marry her. Am I judging from a perspective outside the social norm for the day?

In Scene III, Caliban seems to finally speak without venom when he describes the island and his relationship to it. He talks of the noises that lull him and from what he finds comfort. Why does Shakespeare suddenly give us this new glimpse of the character in alight we?ve never seen and yet in the midst of convincing Stephano to kill Prospero?

Also, is Prospero really as magical as he boasts himself to be? It seems he has a genius mind for orchestrating events, but beyond lulling his daughter to sleep, becoming invisible, and freeing Ariel from the tree, he seems to rely much more on Ariel?s handiwork than his own.

Prospero in Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”

tempestIn reading Act I of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” Prospero’s character is complex, making him an interesting element to focus on. He orchestrates many of the Act’s events, exhibiting many facets, from deriving great pleasure from his daughter’s smile to how demanding he can be on those who serve him.

While Prospero loses his rightful ruling position over Milan at the hand of his brother and is exiled to an island with his daughter, Miranda, he still seems to hold power, both influential and magical. By way of fate, a ship carries his brother and others near to the island and, through the shear will of Prospero, it is tossed about the sea, caught in a Tempest as reparation for the pains he has suffered. This retribution appears to be warranted, leaving me, the reader, glad for Prospero’s chance to demonstrate to his brother the ways he has suffered. But the question remains, how far will Prospero go? When a distraught Miranda asks the same question and it is revealed that none aboard the ship are physically harmed, Prospero appears to be a fair and just soul.

By enslaving the island’s only native inhabitant, Caliban, the animal-like son of a witch, as well as Ariel, an ethereal sprite he released from the holdings of a curse, Prospero?s duality is revealed. He may be too kind hearted to fully destroy the ship’s men, but he has certainly bound others to serve him with an unrelenting exhibition of power. Where does this fit within the ideals of a man who desires to serve his people and who desires to serve his daughter’s best interests? Perhaps he truly believes he helped Caliban by teaching him to communicate, but he is unwilling to see how he might be usurping Caliban’s rightful place as King of the island. He certainly freed Ariel from the pine tree but, as Ariel fulfills each of Prospero?s requests to repay this debt, he finds yet another request awaiting him.

What do these inconsistencies say about Prospero’s character as a whole? Is he really at such odds with himself, or does the text later reveal what ties these traits together? Perhaps these servants are used to show dedication from an earthly as well as spiritual world as each continues to server Prospero regardless of his brother?s refusal to do so. Even the old wise man Gonzales seems eager to help him by sending him to the island with provisions.

The Moral Anarchist

The Moral Anarchist

Joseph Conrad, The Secret AgentStevie Verloc: The Anarchist with a Complete Morality in Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent

Morality is generally understood to be a code of conduct put forth by society, but in Joseph Conrad’s novel, The Secret Agent, two conflicting societies have different interpretations of what that means. While government agencies strive to maintain law, order and preserve their power, the anarchists’ mission is to upset governmental order by way of chaos, moving mankind toward enlightenment and individual freedom. The self-proclaimed anarchists in Conrad’s novel may collectively embody aspects of that ideal, yet each of them lacks some key element, whether it be identification with or analyzing the plight of the common man, or the ability to act out against convention. Surprisingly, it is the incompetent and unlikely Stevie who fully realizes these inherent anarchic virtues. It is he who has, as the narrator states, a “complete morality” (126).

Conrad uses image and appearance as an important component to define the ironic shortcomings of his anarchist characters. Mr. Vladimir conveys this significance of appearance to the corpulent Mr. Verloc when he scolds, “You haven’t even got the physique of your profession. You ‘a member of a starving proletariat’ never!” (16). To live like the proletariat is to understand the plight of the common man. Mr. Verloc’s obesity symbolizes his ties to the convention of the lazy bourgeoisie and also to his lack of productivity, in particular his inability to provoke change. Michaelis can be accused of the same as he comes “out of a highly hygienic prison round like a tub” (31) and is sent to Marienbad by a wealthy woman for three seasons (31). Michaelis enjoys the conventions of the bourgeoisie. This is evident by way of his bulk, the mention of his wealthy, dietary benefactor and his relationship with the Assistant Commissioner. Karl Yundt, being frail and toothless, is portrayed as a man whose bark is worse than his bite. “His enunciation would have been almost totally unintelligible to a stranger” (32). The only people who understand what he’s saying are those who already know his point, rendering him ineffectual to change the minds of those who do not. In the grand scheme of the novel, not one of these images exemplifies the attributes of a true anarchist.

Conversely, Stevie’s appearance projects anarchy in every aspect. He is described as “delicate, and in a frail way, good-looking too, except for the vacant droop of his lower lip” (7). This boy is thin, fragile and, unlike Mr. Verloc or Michaelis, more representative of the proletariat. His lower lip symbolizes his intense compassion. It droops even further when he witnesses the unjust treatment of any living being. When frustrated with “the poor cabman beating the poor horse in the name of, as it were, of his poor kids at home” (126), “a magnanimous indignation swelled his frail chest to bursting” (124). This image of Stevie’s chest about to burst is not unlike that of a bomb about to explode. Stevie is the bomb, a true instrument of change. While Stevie’s physical expression is telling of his character, the images he creates on paper also illustrate his pure anarchist qualities. If one circle represents the ideal, Stevie’s drawings of consecutive circles become directly representative of chaos beyond what any anarchist propaganda can achieve. It is obvious that Stevie is unable to discuss the principles of anarchy as do the others in their meetings, but he speaks volumes with his actions and reactions.

Anarchists believe that property and ownership is an oppressive crime of the bourgeoisie. Still, throughout the novel, the anarchists remain tied to the convention of money because this very system they fight against is one that they must also function within. Mr. Verloc is rattled to his core at the threat of Mr. Vladimir cutting off his paycheck, reacting “with all the force of his will against that sensation of faintness running down one’s legs” (20). Ossipon, while considering the demise of his publication, concerns himself with where his next paycheck will come from. Surprisingly, the Professor, one of the most credible anarchists in his willingness to detonate himself for change, also shows this vulnerability to convention. Once Mr. Verloc is dead and Comrade Ossipon asks the Professor what he should do next, the Professor replies, “Fasten yourself upon the woman for all she’s worth” (59). Following this instruction to attain Winnie’s money, Ossipon reveals his desire for power, to govern Winnie in place of Mr. Verloc and to assume her possessions. Neither the Professor nor Ossipon has achieved their goal of living free. Instead, they are jockeying for ownership, money and power as much as those they fight against.

Dissimilarly, Stevie is not bound by the rules of ownership and money. Provided for by his family and free from financial burden, Stevie gives all he has to the poor. In the case of Mrs. Neale, a woman who does housework at the Verloc’s, she repeatedly presents to Stevie a story about her poor, infant children. This is done to manipulate Stevie’s emotions until he offers Mrs. Neale a shilling on their behalf. “In the normal evolution of his sympathy Stevie had become angry on discovering that he had no shilling in his pocket. In his inability to relieve at once Mrs. Neale’s ‘little ‘uns’ privations, he felt that someone should be made to suffer for it” (137). Stevie then strikes the table with his fist, angry over the plight of Mrs. Neale’s children. He is selfless in motive and unaware of the injustice preying upon him, only wishing to help those in need. In this situation, Stevie’s detachment from his own money combines with his explosive reaction toward the unjust oppression of the poor and his anger over the inability to initiate change.

Another shortcoming of the anarchists is the willingness to analyze what is happening directly in front of them. Neither Mr. Verloc nor Winnie likes to scratch below the surface of circumstance until Stevie becomes a catalyst for this behavior. Their marriage, in Mr. Verloc’s mind, is one based on Winnie’s love for him and his admiration of her. Oddly, even after Mr. Verloc sends Stevie off with the bomb and the boy is killed, he still believes he is “loved for himself” (191). In truth, Winnie always acts the role of dutiful wife and would have continued that role had Stevie not been a part of the chaos that rattled her foundation. She merely tolerates Mr. Verloc until the moment she despises him for murdering her brother. Not until that moment does she finally admit to herself that this union is a marriage of convenience, simply a way to keep her mother and Stevie safely with her. She explains this to Comrade Ossipon, saying of Mr. Verloc, “He seemed kind. He wanted me, anyhow. What was I to do with mother and that poor boy?” (202). Winnie suddenly realizes that she is no longer responsible for Stevie’s needs and is subsequently free from Mr. Verloc. Without the catalyst of Stevie’s death, Mr. Verloc and Winnie may have indefinitely gone on looking solely at the surface of things.

Stevie, by comparison, is an analyst. He looks at the world around him and is distraught by the injustice he sees. As early as age fourteen, on his first job, Stevie sets off fireworks in his office building and is fired. This is not a naughty prank. It is eventually discovered that this is a reaction to the other office boys “working upon his feelings by tales of injustice and oppression til they had wrought his compassion to the pitch of frenzy” (7). This type of reaction resurfaces when Stevie sees the starved horse and poor cabbie as he walks Winnie across the street. Without the language to articulate his feelings, all he can explosively stammer is “Poor! Poor!” and “Shame!” (125). While his external expression is extremely simple, a great deal more is going on internally. “Jostled, but obstinate, he would remain there, trying to express the view newly opened to his sympathies of the human and equine misery in close association” (125). Stevie sees injustice without shying away. He faces it directly on an emotional level and then explodes.

Stevie is not an anarchist of intellectual words like those anarchists who write and sell propaganda in the novel. For him, this is not an intellectual journey open to debate. Stevie’s anarchism stems from the core of his being and clearly shines through his actions, whether apparent in his physical appearance, his outbursts, or his art. In small, unplanned events, he reacts to the disorder of oppression in a way that, in itself, upsets the order of things. Stevie is chaos. It is this principle that makes him a true anarchist without self declaration. It is this everyday embodiment of anarchy that attracts Mr. Verloc, who draws upon Stevie as a resource to detonate his bomb. Although the effect was not as intended, Stevie, in his “complete morality” ultimately becomes the instrument of change.

Mrs. Dalloway’s Water Symbolism

Mrs. Dalloway’s Water Symbolism

mrs dallowayWhile water communicates the concept of fertility and femininity, its fluidity also represents the cycle of life and death. In her novel, Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf uses these many aspects of water to symbolize the significance of Clarissa Dalloway’s experiences with Peter Walsh.

On the opening page, Clarissa Dalloway remembers plunging from her bedroom window into the still morning air, “like a flap of a wave; a kiss of a wave; chill and sharp and yet (for a girl of eighteen as she then was) solemn, feeling as she did that something awful was about to happen” (3). Clarissa, prior to the war, finds this wave invigorating and filled with potential. She wants to immerse herself in it and be carried upon it. In her innocence, she enters into the cycle, yet a part of her understands that the wave will eventually crash and return to the sea. Her relationship with Peter Walsh is pending, as is the war, and she senses that her life is about to change.

As Clarissa’s thought’s return to the present, she explains how her ability to freely immerse herself in this life is inhibited. As she walks the city streets, she has “a perpetual sense ‘of being out, out, far out to sea and alone’ that it was very, very dangerous to live even one day” (8). Riding her wave at Burton as a young woman, she is carried into a socially unacceptable and delicious encounter with another young woman, Sally Seton. Bound by the suppression of her innermost truth, because Clarissa understands that society will not allow for the enjoyment of such encounters, she protects her innermost thoughts from the scrutiny of others. This secret causes her to feel secluded and alone, even among the busy streets of Westminster.

Peter Walsh is a threat to Clarissa’s secret. His love for her drives him to question everything about her, the intimacy of which she prefers to avoid although she does enjoy the attention. After an entire summer spent at Burton in their youth, Peter can stand it no longer. He needs to know how she feels about him and confronts her. They stand “with the fountain between them, the spout (it was broken) dribbling water incessantly” (64). Woolf uses this fountain to illustrate their lack of fluid communication. Peter begs Clarissa for the truth, his tears and words dribbling as freely as his emotion. Clarissa, sensing the danger of being so open in return, stands rigid in the solitude of her secrets. She rejects Peter for the less intimate Richard, breaking both their hearts much like that pump. After suffering the blow of unrequited love, Peter crosses the sea, leaving for India to serve in the war, thus ending their first cycle together.

The image of the sea represents loneliness, separation and disconnect again for Clarissa and Peter. The one man who knows her better than any other has gone. When each of them is in their fifties, Peter returns across the watery divide and they are forced to examine the resurfacing emotions that return with him. For Peter these emotions come back in full, fluid force. He asks himself, “bursting into tears this morning, what was all that about” (80)? As he shows an outpouring of emotion as he did the first time, Clarissa is again externally solid and unyielding, “as cold as an icicle” (80). Later, as Peter visits Regents Park, he hears the bubbling “voice of an ancient spring spouting from the earth” (80). He envisions a woman, perhaps a vision of Clarissa, placing one hand on her hip and holding the other out like a pump. This image is reminiscent of the broken pump that stood between himself and Clarissa at Burton and ends the second full cycle between them. Once again, they are lost in the sea of loneliness.

As fluid as the water is that represents their experience, Clarissa and Peter have remained unchanged. Unlike a wave that climaxes, crashes and rolls back into the ocean, Clarissa does not flow with her desires but remains an unyielding object merely riding the surface of the tide. Peter is still taken with Clarissa and spouting his bubbling and gurgling emotion, but his love never fully flows to fruition. Clarissa continues to bury deep her gift of Sally Seton’s kiss to avoid the chaos it would bring if it ever drifted to the surface. She concludes that all of life, as it exists day by day, is orderly and enjoyable in its sturdy and unmoving way, reaffirming her choice to suppress her true love for both Sally and Peter in exchange for her security with Richard.