My Literary Manifesto

I have long been interested in possible connections between literary works and their historical and cultural contexts. Although New Criticism proved to be an efficient (and often essential) way to analyze and understand a text, I found myself wondering how Wimsatt and Beardsley espoused such a scientific and mechanized form of literary criticism. For me at least, the formalist critics left something to be desired. However, as we neared the end of the course, I was excited (and relieved) to read more about new historicism and other forms of cultural studies. In blurring the lines between literature and history, Greenblatt and others revealed the possibility of deconstructing assumptions about historical and cultural context. While keeping this in mind, a reader can more clearly understand the ways in which historical and cultural circumstances can affect what is written in a “fictional” sense, and vice versa.

While reading “Learning How to Curse,” I was reminded of the writings of Michel Foucault. In a general sense, Foucault often urges his reader to challenge assumptions about the nature of various ideologies, and to examine the ways in which ideologies function. Similar to Foucault’s ideas, New Historicism relies upon the notion that a purposefully interdisciplinary approach to literature, social sciences, and history can lead to some of the most interesting, and most startling discoveries.

In reading these texts, in addition to those suggesting a similarly deconstructivist approach, I came to realize my own interest in the way that literature can function in revealing unexpected ideologies and significant meaning in various genres and media of written work. I am excited to continue literary studies while examining and analyzing the context of the time during which the work was created.

 

Postcolonialism and Mrs. Dalloway

Throughout Mrs. Dalloway, we are reminded of the importance of the cultural context in which the novel occurs. Though the book is set after the height of British imperialism, there remains a strong sense of cultural and national superiority. The “British Empire” is often referenced, and plays a significant role in the mindset and discourse of the characters. Our Dictionary of Critical Theory defines the postcolonial as “referring to all the cultures affected by the imperial processes from the moment of colonization to the present day” (pg. 304). In these terms, Mrs. Dalloway is not necessarily a postcolonial text. The novel does, however, present an interesting alternative; Woolf explores the British reaction to it’s own colonialism through her characters. In the mind of many of the characters, Britain is much more than a country. The success of British authority seems to legitimize colonial rule, as it’s empire becomes a symbol of the superiority of Western civilization. This ideology of British superiority then manifests in the discourse and actions of the characters in Mrs. Dalloway.

Many of Woolf’s characters assume mindsets that are indicative of colonialist thinking. Clarissa seems to have assumed a distinctly euro-centric outlook that often lends itself to selfishness. Despite Richard’s involvement in British foreign affairs, Clarissa remains ignorant to non-western civilization. She “cared much more for her roses than for the Armenians. Hunted out of existence, maimed, frozen, the victims of cruelty and injustice (she had heard Richard say so over and over again) — no, she could feel nothing for the Albanians, or was it the Armenians?” (pg. 117). In this instance, Clarissa seems to espouse an “orientalist” mindset. Despite hearing Richard speak of the Armenian genocide, Clarissa disregards the distinction between these cultures, and thus groups them into a category of “other.” Her xenophobic mindset ultimately prohibits her from attempting to understand the affairs of an Eastern country. Clarissa goes on to ask “but she loved her roses (didn’t that help the Armenians?)” (pg. 117). In this context, Clarissa espouses euro-centrism in a way that denies this eastern culture an identity separate from the West. She assumes that the Armenians must in some way benefit from her love of roses. The absurdity of this claim embodies the ignorance inherent in a British colonialist perspective.

Peter Walsh’s questioning of British imperialism presents an interesting juxtaposition to Clarissa’s distinctly colonialist perspective. Although Peter has served the British in India, he questions the merit of Western imperialism and empire as he reflects on the civilization that surrounds him: “Coming as he did from a respectable Anglo-Indian family which for at least three generations had administered the affairs of a continent (it’s strange, he thought, what a sentiment I had about that, disliking India, and empire, and army as he did), there were moments when civilization, even of this sort, seemed dear to him as a personal possession” (pg.  54). Peter finds himself wondering how he can respect the civilized nature of British society, while criticizing British foreign policy. Unlike Clarissa, he was witnessed the effects of imperialism, whilst Clarissa has merely been influenced by the colonial era itself.

In comparing Clarissa to Peter, we see a distinction between euro centrism and a simply isolationist attitude. Clarissa is blithely unaware of the affairs of British colonialism, yet still perpetuates an orientalist worldview. On the other hand, Peter has administered the affairs of the British Empire, and now simply wishes to withdraw and exist solely within the bounds of developed society. In Mrs. Dalloway, we see range of reactions to British colonialism. Each experience in this cultural context seems to result in a decidedly Westernized mindset, regardless of its severity.

Sources:

Woolf, Virginia. Mrs. Dalloway. Orlando: Harcourt, 2005. Print.

Macey, David. Dictionary of Critical Theory. London: Penguin, 2001. Print

“British Empire: The Map Room: Asia: World: Maps.” The British Empire. Web. 11 Nov. 2011. <http://www.britishempire.co.uk/maproom/pinkbits.htm>.

Stanza Exercise

An Unknown Home

An uncertain arrival

To a foreign environment,

Unpacking our bags,

Unpacking our memories,

A collective tension

Brings us together

Feelings of anticipation

Fill these halls

Will the new compare to the old?

The days pass,

Left to our own devices, past uneasy introductions

New beginnings begin to seem more comfortable

But,

The home we come back to is not our home yet.

So we are left to ask: Where to go from here?

 

The chosen form of this stanza, free verse, relates closely to the meaning and content. Ultimately, the stanza acknowledges the overwhelming element of uncertainty in new surroundings. It achieves this, in part, by using free verse. Because there is no intended rhyme or meter, the technical form of the stanza evokes feelings of doubt, apprehension, and anxiety. The lack of a regimented form allows for the transition to college life, and residential life in particular, to manifest in literary terms. More specifically, when most enter the college atmosphere, they find that their lifestyle is much less regimented and disciplined. Correspondingly, the form of the stanza creates a sense of deregulation. Further reflecting this transitional period is the variation in line length. The lines that comprise the first half of the stanza are generally short, consisting of three or four words. These brief, almost interjectory remarks mirror the rushed and chaotic mindset present during the first few days in a new residential environment. As the stanza progresses, the lines increase in length, and the tone shifts from anxiety-ridden to contemplative. After adjusting to a new residential environment, it becomes possible to consider the future and how it might relate to the present circumstances. The last two lines confront the essential conflict in adjusting to a new lifestyle and living situation. Although it may seem as though we are to regard this new environment as our home, it does not feel as such. The narrator has begun to accept the new surroundings as reality: “new beginnings begin to seem more comfortable,” yet there is still a sense of resistance and hesitancy, which is apparent in the line: “the home we come back to is not our home yet.” The culmination of the stanza in a question underscores the function of the content and form; despite feelings of acceptance, there is not an instinctual feeling of home. The narrator has explained the environment, contemplated and questioned the future, yet still remains uncertain and uneasy.