‘The mundane’ in the short stories of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf

‘How readily our thoughts swarm upon a new object, lifting it a little way, as ants carry a blade of straw so feverishly, and then leave it…’

Virginia Woolf’s The Mark on the Wall suggests a number of ways of considering the mundane in literature. The line both isolates ‘thought’ from ‘object’ and shows them to be fundamentally connected. It communicates interplay between physical and mental reality, yet, at the same time, Woolf makes it clear that their relationship is abstract and subject to the ‘swarm’ of the thousand different ‘thoughts’ that surround them. Emily Dalgarno writes of ‘a kind of power’ in Woolf’s writing ‘to see beyond the horizon of ordinary perception.’ The Mark on the Wall is concerned with this perception, as it explores the distinction between the world of individual thoughts and the mundane reality from which they stem. This symbiosis between objects and sign is central to Joyce’s Dubliners. Here, Joyce constructs conflict as his characters are unable to perceive one thing, in the same way, imbuing the mundane with significance as banal reality gives way to individual interpretation.

In order to examine the role of the mundane, it is necessary to define and clarify the term. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the ‘mundane’ denotes ‘belonging to the earthly world, as contrasted with heaven’ a meaning that had later come to describe the ‘ordinary’ or ‘commonplace.’ The mundane then is to do with physical experience. If taking Kant’s understanding of the sublime as ‘a feeling of the superiority of our own power of reason, as a supersensible faculty, over nature’ mundane experience appears to rest in direct opposition to this. Unlike the expansion of thought connected to the sublime, the mundane is concerned with tangible experience indicating involvement with the ‘earthly world’ over a metaphysical exercising of reason.

In the opening paragraph of The Boarding House, Joyce establishes a sense of the mundane that pervades the short story. His language is corporeal, describing physical attributes and action as opposed to contemplation. Joyce objectively introduces his protagonist, Mrs Mooney, informing his reader of her relations with the estranged husband from the removed perspective of third-person narrative; ‘One night he went for his wife with the cleaver and she had to sleep in a neighbour’s house.’ The line is imbued with references to the physical; the setting of a butcher’s shop, the bodily need for sleep, and the inferred image of hacking through flesh all root the passage in ‘the earthly world.’ However, what makes this sentence so curious is the tone of banality created by Joyce’s syntax. Here, the verbs ‘went for’ and ‘sleep’ are pre-modified by similar pronouns. This constructs a strange situation in which sleeping and attempted murder hold the same syntactic status; a balance concretised by the equal syllables on either side of Joyce’s conjunction. Thus, the sentence fulfils both definitions of the mundane as a descriptive sentence that combines the physical world with the common place.

However, Joyce makes it clear that reality, as understood by his characters, is not confined to physical experience. His language is descriptive yet it is equally astute; moving into the minds of his characters through the use of free indirect discourse. Thus, a reader can access the internal perceptions that disclosed from the other characters. Mrs Mooney’s conception of herself as a ‘woman who was quite able to keep things to herself’ (p71) runs parallel to the doubts that pervade the mind of her lodger, Mr Doran, giving a complexity to the narrative as it indicates the contrasting ways in which the physical events are experienced. This emphasis on perception is intriguing as it provokes a shift from the mundane to the subjective. In his Essay on the Sublime, John Baillie constructs an extensive investigation of the sublime. His language is eulogistic, praising the sublime as the mind’s ‘consciousness of its own vastness.’ Baillie is referencing the sense of ‘elevation’ attached to rational thought yet the ‘vastness’ of consciousness is intriguing on a number of levels. Whilst The Boarding House is rooted in palpable life, it is essentially to do with the shifting and wholly immaterial perceptions of its characters. Consciousness then dominates the work. However, rather than depend on lofty contemplations, it is drawn from the mundane. Thus, a strange situation is created in which ‘consciousness’ is as present in the mundane as it is in the sublime.

This symbiosis between what is seen and what is thought draws us back to Woolf’s The Mark on the Wall. Woolf’s language is expansive, following the stream-of-conscious of her narrator’s meditation on the nature of human identity. Woolf asks us to ‘Suppose the looking glass smashes’ and leaves only ‘the shell of a person which is seen by other people.’ (p79) ‘Shell’ is important here; it emphasises the significance of internal reality and connects the language to the ‘snail’ that the ‘mark’ is discovered to be. The very anatomy of a snail denotes internal significance as its hidden and vital being is contained within such a ‘shell.’ Here, we may recall Woolf’s famous assertion in Modern Fiction that ‘if the writer were a free man and not a slave…he could base his writing upon his own feeling and not upon convention.’ ‘Feeling’ and personal contemplation are at the heart of The Mark on the Wall as the story is driven by consciousness over narrative. Fletcher and Bradbury remark that Woolf is ‘…Paterian enough to believe that consciousness is itself aesthetic,’ likening her use of stream of consciousness to a ‘kind of poeticized subjective vision…’ This notion is intriguing as it more readily connects Woolf’s writing to Baillie’s understanding of the sublime than to her subject of the mundane ‘mark’; denoting a preoccupation with thought that is remote from physical experience.

Yet, Woolf does not sever consciousness from the material world but shows them to be fundamentally connected. In The Mark on the Wall, she sustains the narrator’s reflection with the ‘small round mark…above the mantelpiece’ (p77) Here, Woolf’s narrator imbues the mundane with its own significance. Her narrator’s belief that ‘it can’t have been for a picture, it must have been for a miniature’ (p77) draws the reader’s attention to the ‘powdered curls, powder-dusted cheeks’ of the portrait of a ‘lady’(p77) for whom the mark may have been made. Thus, a single mark acquires its own history and its own personal narrative. In elevating the narrative status of the ‘mark,’ Woolf challenges the classical understanding of the sublime as superior to the mundane. In his Course in General Linguistics, Saussure argues that in binary pairs, one side tends to hold authority over the other. To set out a strong generalisation, it can be suggested that the sublime has been frequently favoured over the mundane within the canon of pre-twentieth-century literature. Baillie’s Essay on the Sublime compounds this preference as it suggests that literature that aspires to ‘lofty’ ‘genius’ is the holder of ‘the truly excellent and great manner.’ The imagination of Woolf’s character is motivated by the mundane yet it forms a platform for human reason. This creates a strange symbiosis in which characteristics typical of the ‘sublime’ are dependent on the banality of physical existence.

This is equally explored in The Boarding House. Here, the mental activity of Joyce’s characters is not polemical to the mundanity of their situations but is drawn from the world in which they operate. Joyce compounds this dynamic in the final part of the story in which Mooney’s daughter Polly contemplates her relationship with Mr Doran. In this passage, the mundane takes on its own significance as her ‘secret amiable memories’ (p79) are drawn directly from the sight of her ‘pillows.’ This relationship between object and thought is intriguing in that it transforms individual perception into a form of semiotics. Polly’s reverie is sustained by the ‘cool iron bed-rail,’ its pressure and shape taking on phallic symbolism for both Polly and the reader alike. Thus, Joyce demonstrates interdependence between the mundane and the world of thought as the banal is imbued with individual significance; with its own ‘secret’ language.

The Boarding House describes symbiosis between mundanity and thought. However, Joyce makes it clear that the same perceptions cannot be derived from the same object. In The Dead, Joyce distinguishes the characters of Gabriel and his wife Gretta by their contrasting reactions to the same piece of music. The music itself is unsuccessful; its singer is ‘as hoarse as a crow’ (p229) and it finishes abruptly. Yet, for both Gabriel and Gretta, the melody is imbued with connotation and reflection. However, sense of conflict is created as the event provokes contrary emotions in the two characters. Whilst for Gabriel, the music evokes tender memories of his wife and provokes his desire for her, for Gretta it forms a direct link with her past lover, a ‘boy’ whom she believes to have ‘died for [her]’ (p238) and whose loss she bitterly laments.

Gabriel responds internally to this confession with bitterness; ‘While he had been full of memories of their secret life together, full of tenderness and joy and desire, she had been comparing him in her mind with another.’(p238) Strikingly, the ‘tenderness’ ‘joy’ and ‘desire’ that colour Gabriel’s perception are immaterial experiences that belong more to the language of the sublime than to banal existence. This correlates with his fantasy of ‘run[nning] away together with wild and radiant hearts’ (p233) expressed earlier in the narrative, with Joyce’s free indirect discourse indicating that the metaphor is constructed by the character’s mind rather than by the author alone. The reflection then deals with a fear of the mundane and with the desire to escape prosaic ‘duties’ (p233) Gabriel is filled with exalted passion and the possibility that he may be interferer is relation to another, suggests a banality of character that is too much to bear.

Joyce constructs an intriguing binary between a craving for the sublime and the mundane nature of existence. Gabriel’s desire for the immaterial is dependent on physical interaction; he longs to ‘…cry to her from his soul, to crush her body against his, to overmaster her.’ (p235) Joyce’s sentence is characterised by binary opposites; the physical and the metaphysical, power and submission, the masculine and the feminine. However, these characteristics are not distinct but depend on one another for clarification. Thus, the desire for a connection of the soul is expressed through sexual desire just as the wish to ‘overmaster’ Gretta is indicative of Gabriel’s inability to assume control. The paradox of Gabriel’s desire thus lies in the analogous relation between the mundane and the desire for transcendence as the very contemplation of ‘soul’ relies on the binary of physical existence.

This symbiosis between physical and metaphysical perception is echoed in Virginia Woolf’s Kew Gardens. The story is concerned with memory yet it depends on the material; employing objects to communicate the emotions of its characters. Just as Gabriel’s spiritual and physical desires depend on one another, the unnamed ‘man’ (p84) in Woolf’s story contains his memory of an unsuccessful marriage proposal within objects. Whilst the restless movements of the ‘square silver buckle’ on the shoe of his companion communicates ‘what she was going to say’ the ‘love,’ and ‘desire’ of the man ‘were in the dragonfly.’(p85) Here, Woolf creates a strange situation in which the passions of her character are so contained within the physical world that ‘if the dragonfly settled on the leaf she would say “Yes.”’ (p85)

This absorption of emotion into mundane objects brings us back to Joyce’s The Dead. Strikingly, Joyce’s free indirect discourse is limited to Gabriel’s inner conflict, making the thoughts of his wife accessible only through their dialogue. Here, a key point is raised about the elusive nature of language in expressing the metaphysical. Gabriel seeks to share his ‘soul,’ yet is unable to express himself. Here, the mundane suggests a form of oppression as the boundaries of language confines Joyce’s character to the physical world. The impossibility of moving beyond the prosaic can equally be seen in Woolf’s The Mark on the Wall as her narrator’s attempts to explore the complexities of human existence are ultimately and inevitably confined to the mundane.

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