‘Burning in this Clumsy, this Ill-fitting Body’. Corporeality in Virginia Woolf's Writing

Master's Thesis 2009 47 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Literature




Introduction: Corporeality and Spirituality

The Significance of Corporeality for the Individual

The Social Meaning of Corporeality

Corporeality and Language




After the introduction, which dwells on the relation between corporeality and spirituality, the first chapter explores how the significance of corporeality for the individual is illustrated in Woolf’s novels Mrs Dalloway and The Waves as well as in her theoretical writing. Thereby, similarities between Woolf’s writing and Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception are pointed out.

Chapter two examines to what extent Julia Kristeva’s theory of abjection as described in Powers of Horror is applicable to Woolf’s novels. The characters’ attitudes towards sexuality, food, illness and death are analysed.

Chapter three focuses on the social and linguistic difficulties which need to be overcome in order to write about corporeality. Woolf’s narrative craft is analysed and briefly compared to James Joyce’s writing style in Ulysses.

Introduction: Corporeality and Spirituality

The division between corporeality and spirituality has already been established by Christianity. In his philosophical work of 1641, Meditationes de prima philosophia, René Descartes distinguishes between the body and the mind, in other words between the physical and the mental world. Whereas the mind is the sphere of consciousness, the body is purely mechanical and, therefore, inferior to the mind. Descartes claims that the two spheres are related and interact causally[1]. There is, however, reasonable doubt concerning the truth of Descartes’ theory. Thus, for instance, where exactly is the interaction between the two spheres supposed to take place? Even though there has never been definite evidence for the Cartesian dualism, it is still prevalent in the Western world and characterises our understanding of corporeality.

In her essay ‘On Being Ill’, Virginia Woolf draws attention to the neglect of corporeality in favour of spirituality with regard to literature: ‘[L]iterature does its best to maintain that its concern is with the mind; that the body is a sheet of plain glass through which the soul looks straight and clear’[2]. She criticises that the body is unnoticed and irrelevant since the object of interest is the soul. Literature conveys the false impression that it is possible to directly look into the soul of a person. Modernist novels and Virginia Woolf’s novels in particular appear to be the prime example for this regarding the narrative techniques of stream-of-consciousness, free indirect discourse and merging voices. Nevertheless, Virginia Woolf does not ignore corporeality in her literary work but identifies it as a central topic.

Woolf’s representation of corporeality can be analysed in two of her major novels Mrs Dalloway and The Waves, which are most clearly concerned with questions of corporeality and identity. Virginia Woolf’s autobiographical and theoretical writing as well as Julia Kristeva’s theory of abjection will provide the background for my analysis. In Powers of Horror, Kristeva states that the body is excluded from the social order but it cannot be banned completely; it is a so-called abject, ‘a land of oblivion that is constantly remembered’[3]. Its in-betweenness draws attention to the artificiality of the social system and, thus, threatens social boundaries. In order to maintain these boundaries and, thereby, the illusion that there is nothing outside of the social order, any form of corporeality is defiled[4]. As a consequence, a confrontation with it causes a trauma. Kristeva gives the example of a corpse, which traumatises since it reminds the observer of his or her own mortality[5]. In the course of my thesis, it will become apparent to what extent this theory of abjection enriches the understanding of corporeality in Virginia Woolf’s novels.

Yet before dwelling on the social meaning of corporeality, my analysis will reveal how the significance of corporeality for the individual is illustrated in Woolf’s fiction and her theoretical writing. Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s philosophical ideas about the role of the body during perception as described in his work Phenomenology of Perception will provide the background for this. Finally, the difficulty of writing about corporeality will be further explored in the last chapter, and special attention will be paid to the question how Woolf manages to write about corporeality despite using modernist narrative techniques.

The Significance of Corporeality for the Individual

The philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty states in his work of 1962, Phenomenology of Perception: ‘The body is the vehicle of being in the world, and having a body is, for a living creature, to be involved in a definite environment’[6]. He notes that the body is the connection to the world; only through the senses, one is able to perceive the environment, and only with the help of the body, communication with other people is possible. Yet in order to make sense of a perceived object, one must know the meaning of surrounding objects, in other words meaning is assigned on the basis of already existing meaning. ‘[T]he inner horizon of an object cannot become an object without the surrounding objects’ becoming a horizon’[7]. The surrounding objects constitute the context for the determination of the perceived object. The process of assigning meaning usually takes place immediately and, thereby, refutes the Cartesian dualism since the mind directly intervenes in the perception process; body and mind are not separate spheres as Descartes claims.

Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception was published approximately two decades after Virginia Woolf died. Nonetheless, Woolf was aware of the fact that perception and the assigning of meaning are closely related, and she illustrates this in Mrs Dalloway: ‘The sound of an aeroplane bored ominously into the ears of the crowd. There it was coming over the trees, letting out white smoke from behind, which curled and twisted, actually writing something! Making letters in the sky’[8]. The crowd still associates planes with the air bombing during the First World War and fears to be attacked[9]. This fear is expressed in the word ‘ominously’. Yet the white smoke reminds the reader of a white flag and, indeed, the plane comes in peace. The smoke is instantly interpreted as a message, which is illustrated by the exclamation mark. Furthermore, the exclamation ‘writing something’ is paraphrased and repeated. This repetition with regard to content reveals the conviction of the crowd that the smoke is really a message. The persistence of this interpretation becomes apparent when the crowd does not stop trying to decipher the message although no unambiguous letters can be identified.

As a consequence of the immediate assigning of meaning, the actual perception takes place unconsciously; the significance of corporeality during perception is overlooked. Merleau-Ponty states that thought ‘finally causes us to lose contact with perceptual experience, of which it is nevertheless the outcome and the natural sequel’[10]. The meaning of the world originally derives from perception; it is its ‘natural sequel’. Nonetheless, it prevents us from directly establishing contact with the world. Bernard of The Waves draws attention to this as he realises that it is strange to perceive the world from the outside without assigning meaning to it:

To see things without attachment, from the outside, and to realise their beauty in itself – how strange! And then the sense that a burden has been removed; pretence and make-believe and unreality are gone, and lightness has come with a kind of transparency, making oneself invisible and things seen through as one walks – how strange[11].

The beauty of the world itself remains unappreciated if meaning is assigned immediately. Therefore, Bernard considers it as a burden which needs to be removed in order to establish a more direct contact to the world. The socially constituted concept of meaning is pretence, and Bernard is able to permeate the world after he has liberated himself from it like the water of the sea permeates rocks. Yet this perceptual experience of the world seems strange to him since he is not used to perceive the world without interpreting it. The repetition of ‘how strange’ highlights Bernard’s irritation in this respect. At the same time, the sensual perception of the world requires the denial of his own physical self; he needs to make himself ‘invisible’. It is impossible to perceive one’s own body merely from the outside since body and mind are inseparable. Therefore, Bernard needs to deny his body in order to avoid that he assigns meaning to himself, which would prevent a sensual perception of the world.

During illness, the mind is no longer able to immediately assign meaning to the world, which means that perception is primarily sensual. Ill people are subject to corporeal sensations, which, above all, becomes evident while reading a text. ‘In illness words seem to possess a mystic quality. We grasp what is beyond their surface meaning, gather instinctively this, that, and the other – a sound, a colour, here a stress, there a pause’[12]. As Virginia Woolf notes in ‘On Being Ill’, the understanding of the world changes; ill people experience a spiritual transformation. The concrete world behind the words is exposed, and thereby, it becomes apparent that the body as the connection to this world is the basis of meaning.

Apart from being responsible for the individual’s understanding of the world, corporeality also plays a vital role with regard to personal identity. Even though it is indisputable that body and mind are related, neither philosophy nor neurology has been able to explain the full nature of this relation. Yet precisely this knowledge would be necessary in order to establish a stable identity, which integrates body and mind. In my opinion, the attempt is doomed to failure due to the lack of knowledge but also because of the fact that both body and mind change. Consequently, the concept of identity needs to be modified: identity is not stable but changes constantly; it is always momentary. ‘[I]t becomes clear’, Bernard says, ‘that I am not one and simple, but complex and many. […] I have to effect different transitions; have to cover the entrances and exits of several different men who alternately act their parts as Bernard’[13]. He compares his different selves to actors, who ‘alternately act’ the role of Bernard on the stage. In order to keep up the illusion that there is only one Bernard, he must cover the transitions between them.

Like Bernard, everyone has different selves, which reflect the various aspects of personality. Carmen Rosa Caldes-Coulthard and Rick Iedema note: ‘Identities develop and change, they are at least multifaceted if not in fact plural. Their consistency and continuity are our constructions’[14]. People desire something which distinguishes them from others and makes them unique over the course of time. Therefore, they hide their complexity in the company of others by giving the impression that they possess a stable identity, which does, however, not exist. The past is not unchangeably inscribed in one’s memory; it is adjusted to the present view of the self in order to maintain the illusion that there is continuity in life. In my opinion, the strong quest for a personal identity originates in the observation of nature, where everything has its function and its place. Human beings search for their own function and place in the world, but there is no assigned place for them. This particularity is expressed in the structure of The Waves. Whereas the various episodes in the lives of the characters illustrate their development, the chapters in-between demonstrate the continuity of the waves and nature, which go on in the same manner eternally. At the same time, the novel shows human life to be cyclic like the cycles of nature.

Despite the impossibility of establishing a stable identity, a momentary identity can be established but it must necessarily integrate body and mind since they are inseparable. In The Waves, Rhoda cannot establish such an identity for herself because she feels divided from her body and from the world. This suggests that she suffers from a schizoid personality disorder as defined by R.D. Laing.

The term schizoid refers to an individual the totality of whose experience is split in two main ways: in the first place, there is a rent in his relation with his world and, in the second, there is a disruption of his relation with himself[15].

Rhoda clearly fulfils Laing’s criteria of a schizoid personality since she is both divided from the world and from her body. Thus, she says: ‘The world is entire, and I am outside of it, crying, “Oh save me, from being blown for ever outside the loop of time!”’[16]. Rhoda does not choose to be separated from the world but she is excluded, and the division scares her. She cannot confide in other people and, therefore, recedes into her inner world, which has its own time independent from the objective time of the world around her. It remains unclear to whom Rhoda’s cry for help is directed – God, the cosmic order or other people – but it reveals her own passiveness and her belief that she does not have the power over her life.

In accordance with Laing’s description of schizoids, Rhoda’s ‘body is felt as the core of a false self ’ whereas the mind is regarded as the true self[17]. Consequently, she thinks that her mind is imprisoned in her body; she is ‘burning in this clumsy, this ill-fitting body’[18]. Rhoda would like to get rid of her body since she experiences abhorrence towards it. The pain of possessing a body is associated with a fire, which is ‘burning’ inside of her. According to Kristeva, everybody feels the urge to put off the body but, unlike other people, Rhoda cannot accept that a permanent division from her body is impossible; she is constantly aware of her body and the pain. In this context, waves are a means to extinguish the fire. Rhoda is associated with water throughout the book, and it can be assumed that she drowns herself in order to liberate her soul.

As a result of the division which Rhoda experiences between her body and her mind, she prefers being alone rather than being in company. While she looks into the mirror together with Susan and Jinny, Rhoda says: ‘[T]hat face is my face. But I will duck behind her [Susan] to hide it, for I am not here. I have no face’[19]. Rhoda is ashamed of her mirror image; she distances herself from her face by calling it ‘that face’ and by hiding behind Susan. Rhoda’s behaviour is childish since hiding her body does not erase it, but it merely leads her to believe that it does no longer exist. Furthermore, the notion that she has ‘no face’ also demonstrates her lack of a personal identity, which forces her to imitate others.

In contrast to Rhoda, Clarissa Dalloway, the protagonist of Mrs Dalloway, does not attempt to avoid company but, in fact, establishes her identity on the basis of other people. She loves the attention and admiration which she receives at her parties; they give her ‘this feeling of being something not herself’[20]. This ‘something’ is a social identity, which she does not possess when she is alone. Yet Clarissa’s dependence on others also means that she is shocked if they stop admiring her.

“Fear no more,” said Clarissa. Fear no more the heat o’ the sun; for the shock of Lady Bruton asking Richard to lunch without her made the moment in which she had stood shiver, as a plant on the riverbed feels the shock of a passing oar and shivers: so she rocked: so she shivered[21].

‘Fear no more the heat o’ the sun’ is the first line of Arviragus’ and Guiderius’ funeral song in Shakespeare’s Cymbeline. In this song, death is presented as a relief from all of the earthly fears. By thinking about it at this moment, Clarissa compares the failure of her social identity to death. At the same time, she has a physical reaction to the shock, which is also associated with death: she rocks and shivers like a ‘plant on the riverbed’ which fears to be destroyed by an oar. Clarissa’s mental as well as physical breakdown proves that body and mind are, indeed, both a part of her identity.

Only at the end of the book, is she able to achieve a momentary identity for herself after she hears about Septimus’ death. Clarissa Dalloway has a special relation to Septimus although they never meet. ‘She felt somehow very like him – the young man who had killed himself. She felt glad that he had done it; thrown it away while they went on living’[22]. Clarissa suggests that there is a connection between Septimus’ death and the fact that ‘they went on living’; by killing himself, Septimus liberated Clarissa. Virginia Woolf writes in an introduction to the novel in 1928: ‘[I]n the first version Septimus, who later is intended to be her double, had no existence; and […] Mrs. Dalloway was originally to kill herself, or perhaps merely to die at the end of the party’[23]. The fact that Woolf includes Septimus demonstrates that she decided to make him die instead of Clarissa in order to liberate her and to enable her to achieve a momentary identity independent from her social role. ‘It is Clarissa, he [Peter] said. For there she was’[24]. Peter’s observation implies that Clarissa is no longer someone else but has, finally, established her own identity, which can be noticed by others.

The complexity of identity is further illustrated with the example of the characters of The Waves. They can not only be regarded as separate characters, but also as different aspects of one personality[25], whose identity is constantly changing like the waves depending on the situation and the environment. ‘“The flower,” said Bernard, “the red carnation that stood in the vase on the table of the restaurant when we dined together with Percival, is become a six-sided flower; made of six lives”’[26]. The six lives constituting the flower can be equated with the six characters of the novel, who become reunited under Percival’s influence. Hence, identity is defined from the outside by what one is not, rather than by what one is. Bernard states further: ‘We suffered terribly as we became separate bodies’[27]. Strikingly, he mentions separate bodies, not separate minds or separate persons. The merging voices of the characters suggest that their minds are, indeed, connected and that their separation is purely physical. In addition to that, the introductory word ‘said’, which indicates the current narrator, gives the impression that different selves communicate inside one mind. Among the six characters, Bernard has a major position, which results from his function as a writer. Almost every chapter begins with his monologue, and he summarises the lives of all characters in the end. Thereby, he assumes to a certain degree the function of a narrator, who structures the alternating voices of the characters. Their purely physical separation presupposes, however, that body and mind can be separated, which is in reality not possible. In my opinion, Woolf intends to demonstrate that the division of body and mind would result in pain if it was possible just like the desire to divide them causes pain. Woolf’s suicide suggests that the only possibility to avoid pain if one cannot accept the entity of body and mind is death. Thereby, death is not understood as the dissolution of the body and the liberation of the soul but the final extermination of body and soul.

No matter if the six characters are, indeed, one personality or not, a close connection between them was definitely intended by Virginia Woolf and mentioned in a diary entry of 1929, the time when she was writing The Waves: ‘[W]henever I make a mark I have to think of its relation to a dozen others. And though I could go on ahead easily enough, I am always stopping to consider the whole effect’[28]. She does not write that the characters are supposed to be one personality, but it is possible that this is the effect which she desired by interconnecting them since it makes the readers aware of their own changing identities. If the characters are, however, interpreted as separate selves, the readers identify with the character which corresponds with their momentary identity and, thereby, realise that identity is determined by other people. Hence, Virginia Woolf highlights, at the same time, that identity is multi-faceted and that people must be seen in the light of others, which surround them, since neither objects nor the physical appearance are able to reflect the personal identity.

The Social Meaning of Corporeality

Corporeality is not only a personal matter; the body is socially constituted. Its negative image in society largely contributes to the fact that the significance of corporeality for the individual is often underestimated. According to Kristeva, the origin of our aversion to corporeality lies in the motherly body, which is unclean since it bleeds and gives birth. After its birth, the child rejects the motherly body in order to establish its own identity and to speak; it enters the symbolic order, and the mother becomes an abject[29]. At the same time, the child realises, however, that it originates from the body of its mother and, therefore, needs to reject its own body as well. ‘[I]t finds that the impossible constitutes its very being, that it is none other than abject’[30]. Consequently, not only the self must be abjected, but also corporeality in general since it would remind the child of the fact that it is an abject. Nonetheless, horror is not the only feeling which is experienced with regard to corporeality; the body is also fascinating. Kristeva calls this fascination jouissance, which is French for pleasure. ‘It follows that jouissance alone causes the abject to exist as such. One does not know it, one does not desire it, one joys in it’[31]. Due to this feeling of jouissance, the abject is not only rejected by society, but also attractive.

The abjection of the female body is the basis for women’s inferiority to men in society. In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf illustrates the social disadvantages of women with the example of Judith Shakespeare. She imagines that William Shakespeare had had a sister as talented as him and names the numerous social difficulties with which Judith Shakespeare would have been confronted: the missing chance of education, her tasks in the house, the mockery of men and the missing chance of training. Woolf concludes that all of these difficulties would, finally, have resulted in Judith Shakespeare’s suicide[32]. Thereby, she highlights that, at the end of the 16th century, a woman with the same talents and ambitions as a man did not have the chance to be as successful as him merely because she was a woman.


[1] For the whole passage refer to Katherine Morris, Descartes’ Dualism (Florence, KY, USA: Routledge, 1995), p. 11.

[2] Virginia Woolf, ‘On Being Ill’ (Ashfield, Massachusetts: Paris Press, 2002), p. 4.

[3] Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror, An Essay on Abjection, trans. by Len S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982), p. 8.

[4] Ibid, p. 2.

[5] Ibid, p. 3.

[6] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, trans. from the French by Colin Smith (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1962), p. 82.

[7] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, p. 68.

[8] Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway (henceforth MD), ed. with an introduction and notes by David Bradshaw, new ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 17.

[9] Similar ideas in David Bradshaw, ‘Introduction’, in Mrs Dalloway, ed. by David Bradshaw (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), pp. xi-xlv (p. xii).

[10] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, p. 71.

[11] Virginia Woolf, The Waves (henceforth TW) , ed. with an introduction and notes by Dr Deborah Parsons, new ed. (Ware, Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Ltd, 2000), p. 149.

[12] Virginia Woolf, ‘On Being Ill’, p. 21.

[13] Virginia Woolf, TW, p. 42.

[14] Carmen Rosa Caldes-Coulthard and Rick Iedema, Identity Trouble, Critical Discourse and Contested Identities (Houndsmills et al.: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), p. 19.

[15] Ronald David Laing, The Divided Self, An Existential Study in Sanity and Madness, R.D. Laing: Selected Works, I (Florence, KY, USA: Routledge, 1999), p. 15.

[16] Virginia Woolf, TW, p. 11.

[17] Ronald David Laing, p. 71.

[18] Virginia Woolf, TW, p. 58.

[19] Virginia Woolf, TW, p. 23.

[20] Virginia Woolf, MD, p. 145.

[21] Ibid, p. 25-26.

[22] Virginia Woolf, MD, p. 158.

[23] Virginia Woolf, ‘An Introduction to Mrs. Dalloway’, in The Mrs. Dalloway Reader, ed. by Francine Prose (Orlando et al.: Harcourt, Inc., 2003), pp. 10-12 (p. 11).

[24] Virginia Woolf, MD, p. 165.

[25] Similar ideas in Harvena Richter, The Inward Voyage (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1970), p. 120.

[26] Virginia Woolf, TW, p. 129.

[27] Virginia Woolf, TW, p. 137.

[28] Virginia Woolf, The Diary of Virginia Woolf, ed. by Anne Olivier Bell, 5 vols (London: The Hogarth Press, 1977-1984), III (1980), p. 259.

[29] Julia Kristeva, p. 13.

[30] Ibid, p. 5.

[31] Ibid, p. 9.

[32] Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own (London: Penguin Books, 1945), p. 48-50.


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clumsy ill-fitting body’ corporeality virginia woolf writing

Title: ‘Burning in this Clumsy, this Ill-fitting Body’. Corporeality in Virginia Woolf's Writing