Published: Jan. 20, 1999 By

[1]  Virginia Woolf's writing has been said to instance the connection between the body and the letter, and to exemplify, if not Cixous's écriture féminine, then a language that reflects female experience. Readings by Shari Benstock, Daniel Ferrer, Leigh Gilmore, Jane Marcus and others have focused on Woolf's rhythmic, poetic prose, on her argument by image and metaphor, and on her use of syntactic devices like ellipses and dashes to situate meaning differently from traditional writing. Interest in non-traditional meaning that escapes what Woolf calls in "The Mark on the Wall" the governing masculine standard has been encouraged by Woolf's own discussion, particularly in Three Guineas and A Room of One's Own, of the conditions of female writing and of the "feminine sentence" whose difference from the normative default would arise out of the female body.1 These readings see the feminine, the body, and non-lexical textual elements as forming together the Other of what Ferrer calls "articulate, paternal language," so that one need not derive non-lexical reading from the feminine body to see them connected.2 The reading I offer here, likewise, does not see an essential causal relation between biological fact and language; rather it sees language as a performance of psychological, which is to say bodily, conditions. Thus feminist analysis can take a textual form that is not bound to the body, though it is already (always) about the body. Further, Derridean and more broadly poststructuralist textualist readings that have been largely excluded from feminist discussions (indeed to which much feminist writing has found alternatives)–and that have been applied to, say, Joyce–are both relevant and necessary to feminist analysis of the body, gender, and culture. Feminism can read the body in the text. This reading takes place not on the writer's body but in the body of the text: expression takes shape not only in the explicit meaning of the sentence but in its form and sound, its organization and in less-overt signifying elements of the text. I am interested to show, with Benstock, "how writing restages the drama of subjectivity" through "phonetic and accentual values" which, as Ferrer writes, are difficult to analyze because they "exceed the limits of the logical organization of language."3These less overt elements of the text construct psychological states that can elude logically organized language.4 Like nonsense, these elements are not so much representational as performative; they exist in relation to the grammatical/narrative order somewhat as parapraxes do in relation to censored intentional language.

[2]  "Virginia Woolf was a Miss Stephen," as Quentin Bell writes in his biography, but she did not make the translation easily.5 The story of Virginia and Leonard's courtship, and of her reluctant acceptance of his marriage proposal in 1912, is well documented. Virginia's reasons for it seem to have a lot to do with her deep-rooted ambivalences about the body, sexuality, and identity. Leonard quickly came to see that Virginia's mental illness and her antipathy toward marriage appeared to be related. Clearly Virginia's illness had other causes, but it also had symbolic power.6 Leonard's painstaking care of Virginia is in this context also a kind of penance, an aggressive askesis that serves to confirm Virginia's response to him. This ambivalence amounts to a psychosexual crisis of self-division that continued throughout Virginia Stephen Woolf's life; it is projected in her fiction through the letters S and W, and V too in significant places–her initials–which recur alliteratively, especially in passages which dramatize what we can call, following Michael Fried's appropriations inRealism, Writing, Disfiguration, the scene of naming–scenes which involve the choice of name through marriage.7 The recurrence of the letters of Woolf's name represents a problem of her personal identity, a dispersal of character related to her biography.8 Because Woolf's maiden and married names are singular and apposite to her own life they come to play a special part in her theater of self-expression. That Leonard's name is also S-W (Sidney Woolf) may contribute valence to the initials in this context. The name is traditionally a vehicle of self-definition; the name, especially one's changed name in marriage, expresses more explicitly social constructions of the self and the threat of transformation that attends the passage from a virgin to a bride (Dora Carrington, Woolf notes, was determined not to change her name in marriage and "signs herself aggressively Carrington for ever"9). Hence Virginia Woolf's name, signed in the text through its initials in those emotionally charged places where marriage is a special issue, signifies more specifically about identity in Woolf's work.

[3]  These alliterations occur elsewhere in Woolf's writing, and are in part unavoidable as normal features of language. Any alphabetical writing is at some level anagrammatical. Particular patterns of letters may be found without genealogical warrant; so Saussure, in his relentless pursuit of anagrams in the text, found the cryptogram he sought of "Leonora," the mistress of Fra Lippo Lippi, despite the fact that her name was actually, as it turns out, "Lucrezia."10 Similar pursuits of the all-too-ready anagrammatism inescapable in language have led anti-Stratfordians to prove that various people wrote Shakespeare.11 The concerns Woolf's alliterations map, however, are addressed explicitly in her fiction often. The order of the letters is unimportant, but they are not significant in isolation. Her letters perform and make visible in their relation a play of her identity, a theater or staging of the name which asserts both an identity and its inevitable separation from itself, the death of the self.12 This dispersion of the self in the act of its own self-installment, the signature, marks for the later Woolf a posthumanist vision that answers her all-too-human condition, for the signature always finally names, as Peggy Kamuf has put it, "a general subject."13 Perry Meisel has argued likewise that the consequence of difference in Between the Acts "is to release the artist into a common life of literature, with the notion of literary property and selfhood subject to revision at the hands of Woolf's deindividuating argument."14 This essay focuses of necessity on a more limited subject–on Woolf's first two major works to materialize her signature. But where other analyses find Woolf's non-lexical elements meaningful regardless of context–ellipses and alliterations are significant because they privilege in themselves a different logic–this reading finds them significant because they appear in specific places in the text as symptoms of a consciousness partly thematized there. Woolf's signature controls to an unusual extent the shifting readings of identity advanced in her work, beginning with her two early marriage novels, Jacob's Room and Mrs. Dalloway.

Miss S and Mrs. Wolf

[4]  Virginia Stephen's ambivalence toward marriage involves the body most immediately, and then other questions of personal freedom and personal identity. Virginia's ambivalence toward men and toward marriage relates in part to her sexual victimization by Gerald and George Duckworth, her half-brothers, and her mental breakdowns may be related to those dire events.15 I am concerned here more specifically with the connection between that ambivalence to the body and Virginia's name crises. The association comes out clearly in Virginia's letters to her friends just before the marriage–particularly to those friends with whom she had an especially intimate or personal relationship. To Violet Dickinson, who had taken care of her during her second nervous breakdown, she writes on 4 June, 1912: "I've got a confession to make. I'm going to marry Leonard Wolf. He's a penniless Jew."16This is a strange way to present Leonard Woolf two months before their marriage, though it's supposed to make light of Dickinson's displacement in Virginia's affections. Leonard after all had been Thoby Stephen. s friend from Cambridge, and was one of the Bloomsbury group when it first formed, before he went to Ceylon as a British civil servant. But what's perhaps more telling here is that Virginia would so miswrite Leonard's family name. There are two central connections here, between marriage and a change of name ("Wolf"), and between marriage and the body, present in Leonard's Jewishness. Virginia mutilates Woolf's name again in announcing the wedding to Janet Case and to Madge Vaughan, though she also gets it right.17 But Clive Bell calls him "Woolfe" in a letter as late as September, 1913.18 Case was Virginia's tutor in Greek and a close friend; Vaughn was Virginia's older cousin and the model for Sally Seton, with whom Clarissa Dalloway recalls having had a brief early affair in Mrs. Dalloway.19 During Virginia and Leonard's early correspondence, when Virginia had got to know Leonard a little, she asked whether they could use their "Christian names."20 Leonard, of course, had no Christian name. It is a rather insistent redefinition of Leonard's identity, with which he acquiesced (at Cambridge "we never used christian names"21). One conversation between Ralph Denham, the pseudo-Leonard ofNight and Day, and Mrs. Hilbery, the mother of Katharine, the pseudo-Virginia of the book, revolves around the question of marriage in church, which is made a problem rather inexplicably in the book:

"It's the Church of England service you both object to?" Mrs Hilbery inquired innocently."I don't care a damn what service it is," Ralph replied.

"You would marry her in Westminster Abbey if the worst came to the worst?" Mrs Hilbery inquired.

"I would marry her in St Paul's Cathedral," Ralph replied.22

The point of his interest in St. Paul's seems to be that Ralph can be more Christian than he needs to be, if necessary. "Mr and Mrs Woolf never went to church," observed a maid of the Woolfs, Louie Mayer: she could only make the observation because she could forget Leonard was Jewish, as though his not going to church signified secularity.23 Of course the desire to see Leonard as Christian recognizes his Jewishness, on some level, registering an ambivalence about religious identification from the outset. Still Leonard Woolf's mutilated name represents more generally his suppressed Jewishness.

[5]  Virginia also connects the name and the body through her association of Jewishness with physicality. This is all the more significant because the name and the body are connected through marriage. Leonard is a Jew first; in another June letter giving his description to Maud Vaughan she wonders how to begin: "First he is a Jew: second he is 31."24 Virginia's anti-semitism manifests itself mostly as a rejection of a supposed Jewish physicality: Jews are "sumptuous" or sexually abusive:

One of the men left Paris yesterday, and the theory is that she killed her illegitimate child; and the Jew, knowing this, does what he likes with her.25

This recalls a story about Leonard in the early Bloomsbury days: in 1904 he had dinner with Virginia and Thoby at their Gordon Square house, and Virginia (according to Quentin Bell) collected stories about him.

Lytton Strachey said that he was like Swift and would murder his wife. He despised the whole human race. He trembled all over, he was so violent, so savage; he had pulled his thumb out of joint in a dream; he was, in short, a serious and powerful figure; but he had gone off to live in a jungle and no one knew whether he would ever return.26

Bell seems to be dramatizing a little: in 1911 Virginia includes "Wolf" in an ironic list of "cultivated ones" at the Opera, and Leonard's trembling–though Ralph Denham in Night and Day also trembles energetically–was a physical weakness, Leonard says in his autobiography, that made it hard for him to write during courtroom trials in Ceylon. But Bell does appear to give part of Virginia's image of Leonard. Objecting in May 1, 1912 to the "strength" of Leonard's desire Virginia writes, "Possibly, your being a Jew comes in also at this point. You seem so foreign."27 Virginia casts Leonard as a native or animal Other whose physical life is threateningly predatory. And Jews are dirty:

I will come on Saturday morning with great pleasure–no clothes–not very clean. Just back from a political meeting, and sat on the platform (for the sake of my Christian blood) next Portuguese Jews, whose sweat ran into powder, caked, and blew off.28

Woolf makes this connection interestingly in earlier versions of "The Duchess and the Jeweller" where the jeweller, a "little Jew boy in a dark alley" who now hides his past in impeccably fashionable clothes, is both elephantine of nose and "a giant hog in a pasture rich with truffles."29 At his medical exam for the civil service in Ceylon, Leonard writes defensively, "the doctor complimented me on having the cleanest feet of anyone he had examined that morning."30 Indeed this connection between Jewishness and dirtiness has a long tradition, which Hitler sums up when he explains in Mein Kampf that Jews can be smelled at a distance.31 Woolf objected to Leonard's relatives–"Jews in Putney"–whose separate Jewishness is especially marked because they kept kosher.32 To Duncan Grant, who had been a possible suitor for her, she writes that "Mother Wolf" was not invited to the wedding, and notes in signing off: "(God! this is the last of S!)."33 Virginia's repeated revisions of "Woolf" in relation with her marriage help establish her connection of the letter with the body; in the ideal theater of Woolf's prose, the leonine "Woolf" is cut short for consuming the virginal S.

[6]  Mrs W, as she was known to the community of servants in Bloomsbury, indeed personifies herself and other characters persistently through letters and initials.34 In her writing character names are often given as letters only, as Kamuf has noted.35 In the short story, "The Legacy," Gilbert Clandon does not know that his wife Angela had an affair with "B.M.," who is mentioned in her diary: "The initials B.M., B.M., B.M., recurred repeatedly. But why never the full name? There was an informality, an intimacy in the use of initials."36Initials are at once anonymous and intimate. After marriage Woolf comments on her new initials to Lytton Strachey, another suitor.37 Clearly Virginia does not miss the fact that her first and last names signify in this argument.38 Vita Sackville-West, in a memorial article about Woolf, wrote that "[t]enuousness and purity were in her baptismal name, and a hint of fang in the other."39 Woolf discusses the letter S in the 1923 version of her play, Freshwater. She has Lord Tennyson shriek: "Oh, oh, oh–twelve s's in ten lines–twelve s's in ten lines! The prosssperity of the Britisssh–the ssspawn of the Horse Marines–consssumption ofssspirituous fissshes–Oh, oh, oh, I feel faint!"40 The painter Watts, whose line is criticized, revises it so "there is not a single letter s in the line" (68). Tennyson is taken instead with his ownm's:

The moan of doves in immemorial elms. The murmuring of innumerable bees. . . . Forgive my weakness. It is years since I encountered the letter sin such profusion. Hallam eradicates them from theTimes with a penknife every morning. Even so, the Siege of Sevastopol was almost the death of me. (68)

The violence of that removal is remarkable; indeed in the 1935 version of the play (a household performance) these passages themselves were removed. Note that the words "a single letter s" (in the Berg typescript the s is in upper-case) refers also to singleness, to S being Virginia's single state. And Virginia herself sees that in marrying she lost not only her last name, but her first too, no longer virgin. In 1912 she notes her "lost virginity."41

[7]  But then, by the accounts we have, she did not lose her virginity: the marriage was not consummated sexually. Woolf writes to Ka Cox after the wedding:

Why do people make such a fuss about marriage&copulation? Why do some of our friends change upon losing chastity? Possibly my great age makes it less of a catastrophe; but certainly I find the climax immensely exaggerated. Except for a sustained good humour (Leonard shan't see this) due to the fact that every twinge of anger is at once visited upon my husband, I might still be Miss S.42

Thus Virginia neither had her cake nor ate it. Woolf reports in her diary entry for 5 September, 1926 that she and Leonard did not have sex.43 About Orlando Woolf writes that she "enjoyed the love of both sexes equally," but that "Love is slipping off one's petticoat and– But we all know what love is. Did Orlando do that? Truth compels us to say no, she did not."44 As late as 31 December, 1919, she writes that she perhaps "always was" "Virginia."45 And yet if virginity is not lost in marriage then it is not exactly virginity either: Virginia never really was virginia in the first place. Virginia both is and is not her proper name.

[8]  Virginia's ambivalence toward the body, marriage, and sexual union, then, is a question of personal identity expressed through her name. It becomes manifest through Woolf's initials, projected especially in her first formally experimental novels, Jacob's Roomand Mrs. Dalloway. Both discuss marriage, the closural socially defining paradigm of The English Novel, one before and one after the fact. The Voyage Out andNight and Day, Woolf's first two novels (all were published after her marriage), also explore themes of marriage and death, and Night and Day responds to Virginia's courtship with Leonard; perhaps on account of their more conventional form they do not show as clearly the conditions of identity reconstitution found in the later works.46 The latent crisis may have taken longer to appear, and it may not have been clear from the start that this issue would assume such weight, for Virginia. Jacob's Room expresses the condition that is always before marriage: Jacob's ontological state is that which aspires to but can never attain symbolic stability or union, moving as he does on his ladder from one relationship to another. Mrs. Dalloway looks at the issue from the other side, presenting a world where instability or social diffusion is seen as childish stages only, to be grown out of. Both works examine these states critically; both, in fact, seem displeased with the opposite conditions they show. Both novels (Mrs. Dalloway in particular) show Woolf finally disbanding the premises on which they are founded–the marriage/proper-name paradigm of identity as unity, the proper self–and pointing toward something more diffuse that is to arrive with the later fiction. For in the end the cryptographic self is itself a defensive attempt to preserve a self, if only a self that can be fractured, that can have a crisis. To find her name projected into language in the signature (we are about to see it in her text) is to see the idea of her self asserted as an ideal referent of her identity. The fragments both threaten and preserve the self, not lose it. As Sylvère Lotringer puts it, "The Saussurian anagram inhibits the circulation of desire by constituting a nominal reserve in which the subject remains caught."47Woolf's fiction looks to get beyond this condition; but it must do so through and not despite the reification of the signature. The signature installed within the text is both monumentalized and, as Derrida writes, loses its ownership over the text.48 Woolf must risk the monument–the very vertical order she resists throughout her work–in order to get into the text. Two early works discussed here suggest this logic; diffusion becomes a positive virtue only later in the fiction.


[9]  Jacob's Room is a novel largely about the choice of marriage, in the context of the diffusion of European self-division (World War I). Woolf's signature appears in passage after passage concerning marriage. These passages open the novel:

So of course," wrote Betty Flanders…"there was nothing for it but to leave."Slowly welling from the point of her gold nib, pale blue ink dissolved the full stop; for there her pen stuck; her eyes fixed, and tears slowly filled them . . . the lighthouse wobbled…the mast of Mr. Connor's little yacht was bending like a wax candle in the sun. She winked quickly….She winked again. The mast was straight; the waves were regular; the lighthouse was upright; but the blot had spread.49

Here writing and the world coincide: the blot obscures the wavering world, the veiling "wink" rhyming with the spreading "ink." The connection with marriage is made at the bottom of the page. Mrs. Flanders is crying for her husband, dead two years, and her tears make Mrs. Jarvis think that "marriage is a fortress and widows stray solitary in the open fields, picking up stones, gleaning a few golden straws" (7-8). These passages carry a marked S-W alliteration: the concentration of S and W words ("Slowly welling," "she winked," "widows stray solitary") stands out. Consider then this fall passage, later in the book, which describes a prospective husband, following the double injunction that in order to marry "one has to choose," "we must choose. Never was there a harsher necessity! or one which entails greater pain, more certain disaster; for wherever I seat myself, I die in exile" (69):

A young man with a Wellington nose, who has occupied a seven-and-sixpenny seat, made his way down the stone stairs when the opera ended, as if he were still set a little apart from his fellows by the influence of the music. (69)

The nose is a symbol in marriage, as Sterne explained thoroughly, but the marriage choice, a controlling interest in the novel, involves Woolf not on the symbolic level but, as the opening passage about ink hints, in the physical diffusion of the text. Phrases like "with a Wellington," "seven-and-sixpenny seat," "way down the stone stairs when," and "were still set," also exemplify this concentration. Some of the words, such as "with" or "when" or "were," are common enough in any passage. But it is striking to find Woolf employing S and W alliteration in passages that deal with her own S and W, with maidenhood and marriage.

[10]  Passages that describe Jacob's relation with Florinda refigure Virginia and Leonard's relations through the embedded S-W signature. Florinda too combines an interest in names with virginity. "She had called him Jacob without asking his leave" (76), which recalls Virginia's suggestion to Leonard that they use their Christian names. I underline the relevant alliteration (as I do in other quotations from Woolf below)50:

As for Florinda's story, her name had been bestowed upon her by a painter who had wished it tosignify that the flower of her maidenhood was still unplucked. Be that as it may, she was without asurname, and for parents had only the photograph of a tombstone beneath which, she said, her father lay buried. Sometimes she would dwell upon the size of it . . . . she talked more aboutvirginity than women mostly do . . . she had her confidante: Mother Stuart.Stuart, as the ladywould point out, is the name of a Royal house; but what that signified, and what her businesswas, no one knew. (77)

The passage is about virginity and the signification of surnames. What does it signify that Florinda was without a surname (when even the royal Stuart does not signify clearly)? What does it mean that she would sometimes dwell "upon the size of it"? Is "it" the photograph, or the tombstone, or something else paternal? The passage signals this problem of signification itself, Woolf's virginity and the crisis of naming, a crisis precisely when it is hard to say what is to be lost, connected with being named virginity, yet being without a surname (Virginia is married and therefore without her own S). Florinda here stands in for Virginia. Her name means "Virginia" ("that the flower of her maidenhood" etc.), though she is not a virgin. As with her absent surname, which suggests her dispossession, the pointedly relevant misnomer shows the necessary disenfranchisement of naming: it is, as Gertrude Stein observed, at once arbitrary, impersonal, and significant. The S-W initials recur markedly, with the V–Virginia's name, practically–appearing at the end to signal the question that S and W involve in the first place, the question of marriage and personal identity: "shewas without a surname."

[11]  Florinda is said to be preoccupied with virginity, much as Virginia (as this passage itself confesses) was; in 1909, for instance–a passage worth quoting among several–Virginia wrote her brother-in-law Clive Bell from Cornwall:

Suppose I stay here, & thought myself an early virgin, & danced on May nights, in the British Camp!-a scandalous aunt for Julian….Cant you imagine how airily he would produce her, on Thursday nights "I have an Aunt who copulates in a tree, & thinks herself with child by a grasshopper." (Bell I, 155)

In fact Florinda's relationship with Jacob is overdetermined by Virginia's relation with Leonard: "Florindawept, and spent the daywandering the streets; stood at Chelsea watching the river swim past . . . when itstruck her that she liked that man Jacob better than dirty Jews" (78). The typescript reads "better than those dirty Jews," which, like "dirty Jews," wrestles with the implications of universality and specificity: it might signify a more universal reference, whereas "dirty Jews" could refer only to the dirty ones, as one might refer to "dirty Christians" as a sub-category of Christians. Jacob is sitting at his table and copying an essay "upon the Ethics of Indecency."

Jacob took her word for it that she was chaste. . . . The tomb of her father was mentioned. Wild and frail and beautiful she looked, and thus the women of the Greeks were, Jacob thought; and this was life; and himself a man and Florinda chaste. (78)

The passage repeats that, to Jacob, Florinda was Virginia, if we take "chaste" to mean virgin. Virginia's is the much noted Greek statue profile, her Greek nose and "frail and beautiful looks"–it is clear from Leonard's autobiography that that is how he (and others) had thought of her; she is Arnold's Hellenism to Leonard's Hebraism. Leonard is not one of the dirty Jews, but he is a close relative, as the word "spit" suggests about Ralph in Between the Acts: "Ralph, a Jew, got up to look the very spit and image of the landed gentry . . . they had no child."52 "Whether or not she was a virgin seems a matter of no importance whatever. Unless, indeed, it is the only thing of any importance at all [underlining added]" (79). The words underlined are added to the final typescript.53Whether Florinda is Virginia is the real issue.

[12]  In contrast to Florinda's lying is Clara's honesty. "Alas, women lie! But not Clara Durrant. A flawless mind; a candid nature; a virgin chained to a rock" (123). (Clara does not "lie" in another sense too–hence her virginity–though Florinda, the lier, does.) The Blake reference recalls Virginia's writing Leonard candidly on May 1, 1912 that, when she kissed him, she felt no more than a rock–a comment that must have stuck in their collective imagination. Clara is really a virgin, hence unattainable in marriage for Jacob, the ideal he misses having in the book, because one cannot be Virginia and also married. Jacob's potential love interests can only be women who are already married, like Sandra Wentworth Williams (the last of his three exemplary romantic interests), or else not virgin, like Florinda. All the more reason why Dick Bonamy, Jacob's doting male friend (and homosexual–hence his comical name; see 152 and 154), thinks that Clara is probably the answer to the Jacob question. He realizes this in a meeting with Clara, while Jacob is in Athens with Sandra Williams:

The insipidity of what was said needs no illustration–Bonamy kept on returning quiet answers and accumulating amazement at an existence squeezed and emasculated within a white satinshoe (Mrs. Durant meanwhile enunciating strident politics withSir Somebody in the back room) until the virginity of Clara's soul appeared to him candid; and he would have brought out Jacob's name had he not begun to feel positively certain that Clara loved him–and could do nothing whatever. . . . "Was Clara," he thought, pausing to watch the boys bathing in the Serpentine, "thesilent woman?–would Jacob marry her?"But in Athens in the sunshine, in Athens . . . satSandraWentworth Williams, veiled, in white, her legs stretched in front of her . . . . (152)

The passage is marked with the S-W pattern. Will Clara declare for Jacob? Would Jacob ask her? Neither does, but the issue is again Clara's truthful (candid) "virginity"–that she is Virginia–and Jacob's "name" ("he would have brought out Jacob's name," for marriage would "bring out" his last name in Clara). Is Clara S-W, "the silent woman"? Sandra, an untruthful contender for Jacob's affections, is herself a false S-W (SandraWentworth Williams), "veiled, in white" (cp. "Sandra's veils," 160). White is Clara's color in the novel, the color of virginity and truth, hence Sandra's "V" (signalled here with the word "veiled") is not virginity but a sign of falseness.

[13]  A voice shouts in the street, "'Verdict–verdict–winner–
winner,' while letters accumulate in a basket," and Jacob signs them (90). W is the winner, Jacob. s signature. This passage recalls a terrifying episode in the Woolfs' lives, soon after their marriage, when Virginia felt ill. As Leonard tells it in Beginning Again,

I suggested that we should return to London at once, go to another doctor–any doctor whom she should choose; she should put her case to him and I would put mine; if he said that she was not ill, I would accept his verdict and would not worry her again . . . ; but if he said she was ill, then she would accept his verdict and undergo what treatment he might perscribe.54

They went to Dr. Henry Head, and Leonard "won his case."55 The truth of V ("verdict," verum dictu, true word) is its resisted verdict: W is the winner.

[14]  In Jacob's Room things fall apart, and there's no getting over it. The novel tries on allegorical variations on the theme of loss and marriage–the virgin Clara, the model Florinda, the married Sandra; in each case sexual union means death, the dispersion of the signature. A brooding, dissociated, even oddly resigned tone pervades the work. Jacob cannot marry because his bride would be unworthy if marriageable, worthy only unmarried. In passages where Woolf writes about marriage, choosing, the name and naming, and sex (or virginity), her own initials sign the text. W is the winner. The diffusion of the signature affirms this sense of loss: to be VSW is to be lost to oneself. This loss is intensified, not diminished, by the repeated projections of the self in each scene of naming; whenever the self that is lost gets signed again, it is lost again. The novel cannot see a way out of this loss, for "one must choose," and every choice is a death in exile, every name an exile or "de-facement," in de Man's word, of the self.56 Woolf's fiction strives toward a solution to this impasse, toward a deterritorialization of the self: for just as the desire to create a narrative of overcoming is a modern impulse that parallels the signing of the (doomed) self, so it leads beyond itself to postclassical (unrestricted, in Bataille's sense) economies of the self. There's no getting rid of the signature: instead the death it signs is got rid of by quitting the signatory.

Wreathed Upon the Sky

[15]  In the end, of course, Jacob does not marry but dies in the war. His death merely reveals the hopelessness of his condition.Mrs. Dalloway, Woolf's next novel, returns to the unresolved question of marriage. Could one be true to oneself (be virgin) and yet marry? One of the book's explicit concerns is Mrs. Dalloway's choice to be free in a golden cage rather than tethered in a desert, to be what her suitor Peter Walsh had called "the perfect hostess" rather than change the world with him as his closely watched co-exile.57 This work again concentrates on naming and whiteness, which function in a theater of self-loss and self-preservation. It features marriage-related passages marked with S-W alliteration; new here, however, is an increasing interest in letters themselves. Equally important, the schizophrenia implied in Jacob's Roomas an alliterative dispersion and diffusion of personality is made an explicit subject. The schizophrenia of identity is so much Woolf's conscious preoccupation that she appears to become aware of the personal projection in her work, and of her manifest interest in letters as vehicles for vexed identity. It is not clear how far she sees this connection, from the internal evidence, but it is precisely this indeterminacy of her textual condition that makes it what it is, both a textual expression of crisis and a personal one. For otherwise it would be merely conscious or merely read, her conscious device or our invention disconnected from her autobiographical confessions, like Saussure's fancied anagrams in Roman poetry: in either case only artificial.

[16]  Mrs. Dalloway is introduced with a light emphasis on the signature: "vivacious, though she was over fifty, and grown verywhite since her illness" (4). She is described as white again when her adolescent infatuation with Sally Seton is recounted: "That was her feeling–Othello's feeling, and she felt it, she was convinced, asstrongly as Shakespeare meant Othello to feel it, all because shewas coming down to dinner in a white frock to meet Sally Seton!" (35). That involvement behind her, Clarissa makes the accepted object choice with the respectable Richard, a choice that involves his name above all and is connected with W:

For of course it was that afternoon, that very afternoon, that Dalloway had come over; and Clarissa called him "Wickham"; that was the beginning of it all. Somebody had brought him over; and Clarissa got his name wrong. She introduced him to everybody as Wickham. At last he said "My name is Dalloway!"–that was his [Peter's] first view of Richard–a fair young man, rather awkward, sitting on a deck-chair, and blurting out "My name is Dalloway!" Sally got hold of it; always after that she called him "My name is Dalloway!" (61)

The passage seems to apologize for getting Leonard as "Wolf," though Richard does not match Leonard closely. The conjugal relation with Richard bore a child, but left Clarissa feeling virginal; what sexual reference we do get comes in by way of the book's explicit metaphorical descriptions. When Clarissa and Septimus break up, they meet by a fountain, "the spout (it was broken) dribbling water incessantly. Howsights fix themselves upon the mind! For example, the vivid green moss" (64). The mossy fountain is a sign of the sexual charge, and of the sexual possibility that has been broken. But Richard, like Jacob, is overdetermined by reference to Leonard. With Richard, Clarissa

could not dispel a virginity preserved through childbirth . . . . she had failed him. And then at Constantinople, and again and again. She could seewhat she lacked. It was not beauty; it was not mind. It was something central which permeated;something warm which broke up surfaces and rippled the cold contact of man and woman, or ofwomen together. (31)

Clarissa, like Virginia, remains miraculously virgin, but while she recognizes some sexual attraction to women, when she imagines male sexuality it is a violent dispersion and a breaking up:

It was a sudden revelation, a tinge like a blush which one tried to check and then, as it spread, one yielded to its expansion, and rushed to the farthest verge and there quivered and felt theworld come closer,swollen with some astonishing significance, some pressure of rapture, whichsplit its thin skin and gushed and poured with an extraordinary alleviation over the cracks andsores! Then, for that moment, she had seen an illumination; a match burning in a crocus; an inner meaning almost expressed. But the close withdrew; the hard softened. It was over–the moment. (32)

This not particularly alliterative passage marks with a sudden flourish of the signature the extraordinary, violent disruption that characterizes sexual union for Woolf. The "inner meaning almost expressed" is glimpsed through the expansion and diffusion of blood red to the farthest "verge"–the "blush" that counters Clarissa's implicit virginal white.

[17]  Woolf writes of the sexual event much as she did of Mrs. Flanders' spreading tear and ink-stain inJacob's Room, as an expansion or overlapping of physical realities. This diffusion is articulated in Septimus's hallucination of voices, which is based in part on Woolf's own illness. It is a dispersion, a breaking up of the parallel relationship between Septimus Warren Smith and his wife Lucrezia:

But Lucrezia Warren Smith was saying to herself, It'swicked; why should I suffer? she wasasking, as shewalked down the broad path. No; I can't stand it any longer, she was saying, having left Septimus, whowasn't Septimus any longer, to say hard, cruel,wicked things. (65)

Septimus wasn't Septimus any more: being schizophrenic is like being married, not-oneself, not virgin or truthful. "But often now this body she wore"–speaking of Clarissa–"this body, with all its capacities, seemed nothing–nothing at all. She had the oddest sense of being herself invisible . . . this being Mrs. Dalloway; not even Clarissa anymore" (10-11). One's body becomes invisible with the loss of its name. So Hugh Whitbread has an especially smooth exterior (which agrees with the whiteness in his name) to cover up, figuratively, his wife Evelyn's internal illness:

Was Evelyn ill again? Evelyn was a good deal out of sorts, said Hugh, intimating by a kind of pout or swell of his very well-covered, manly, extremely handsome, perfectly upholstered body . . . that hiswife had some internal ailment, nothing serious,which, as an old friend, Clarissa Dalloway would quite understand, without requiring him to specify. (6)

Like the "Verdict–verdict–winner–winner," which specifies by writing out the signature which "letters" win, this passage explains Mrs. W's ailment on the material level of the text. Both suffer the signature of matrimony, so Clarissa feels in response to Evelyn's ailment "very sisterly."

[18]  Mrs. Dalloway marks a turn in Woolf's text. Here the divided self foils the problem of compromised unity: to be married is to be divided, but this division is not a death of the self but an alternative to it. Septimus dies only when society threatens to unify him. The disease is itself the cure, the cure is the disease. The novel recognizes the loss of self that attends the signature–the loss of the name–but now this loss preempts the threat of dissolution. The self is already divided, not itself: Clarissa/Virginia is both married and white, both virgin and mother; Dalloway is not Wickham; Septimus is not himself. In Jacob's Room dispersal is a threat; here it is solidity that is threatening. The signature in Mrs. Dalloway suggests a consciousness of ailment as division which comes with the loss of one's name, but while this loss is still threatening, it also suggests a way out. If the self is dispersed in its signature, its dispersion also constitutes the self. The signature is expressed by the famous sky-writing of letters in the book:

Dropping dead down the aeroplane soared straight up . . . and whatever it did, wherever it went, out fluttered behind it a thick ruffled bar of white smokewhich curled and wreathed upon the sky in letters. But what letters? (20)

The letters are hard to read because they smear and melt and are rubbed out in the sky, like the ink at the beginning of Jacob's Room–they might spell K-E-Y, among other things.58 But we may have learned to read "what letters." The passage is about death, the name "wreathed upon the sky" in "white smoke," but in its very death the self lives, signed throughout the passage.

[19]  Woolf's signatures, then, signify not merely as textual elements but as part of a personal drama where, as it does for Freud, semiology and psychology combine. Where Freud attempts to doctor the ruined self, however, Woolf constructs in her later work a sublime, deterritorialized architecture that exceeds the subject. We have seen her first experimental novels hint at a narrative or argumentative advance: the signature that at first embodies the state of loss where doubleness is death later figures a condition of division and simultaneity threatened by unity. This move, on a figurative level, characterizes a standard (and reasonable) interpretation of Woolf's fiction.59 In both novels, however, the signature marks a disruptive threat to the self, a crisis of psychological constitution. Although in Mrs. Dalloway it is that psychological constitution that is on trial, the winner remains W, the married, unified self. On the other hand, the pure self–Clarissa, Virginia, Clara–emerges both as impossible and as undesirable. With the signature, writes Lotringer, "The name is no longer simply dispersed throughout the text (a paragram) or gathered in a limited space (an anagram). That space itself is oriented"; "Saussure's despair," in Barthes. phrase, is "the glory of language."60 Ultimately the author lives not in her works but in language.

[20]  Woolf's later work tests repeatedly the life of letters–whether their dispersal means an artistic and individual life or death. Their arguments cannot even be sketched here: how in To the Lighthouse William Shakespeare's sonnet and Sir Walter Scott'sWaverly, and in Orlando Vita Sackville-West, Woolf's doubles, represent the dispersed afterlife of letters that are preserved, like the works of "Sh–p–re," in a common song; or how in Between the Acts Lucy Swithin ("S-within") shows that only what is "dispersed" endures. They complete Woolf's rejection of her sentence, the verdict of matrimony. The gendered loss of the self–the name change of marriage–becomes a universal condition, and, more importantly, the condition of universality. It is left to Woolf's later work to produce a different textual body, a self that is the textual body, a signature that exercises its own body, the body of the text.


  1. Virginia Woolf, "The Mark on the Wall," Monday or Tuesday(NY: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1921), 99-116. back
  2. Daniel Ferrer, Virginia Woolf and the Madness of Language, trans. Geoffrey Bennington and Rachel Bowlby (Routledge, 1990), 64. back
  3. Shari Benstock, Textualizing the Feminine: On the Limits of Genre (Norman: Oklahoma UP, 1991), xv; Daniel Ferrer, Virginia Woolf and the Madness of Language, 63-64. back
  4. See Sylvère Lotringer, "The Game of the Name," diacritics(Summer 1973), 9. back
  5. Quentin Bell, Virginia Woolf, 2 vols. [1972] (Frogmore, England: Triad/Paladin Press, 1976), I,1. back
  6. Thomas Caramagno charts Woolf's cycles of apparent manic depression in The Flight of the Mind: Virginia Woolf's Art and Manic-Depressive Illness (Berkeley: California UP, 1992). On mental instability in Woolf and in her family see also Louise A. DeSalvo, Virginia Woolf: The Impact of Childhood Sexual Abuse on Her Life and Work (Boston: Beacon P, 1989); Roger Poole, The Unknown Virginia Woolf (Cambridge, England: Cambridge UP, 1978, 1995); and Stephen Trombley, All That Summer She was Mad: Virginia Woolf, Female Victim of Male Medicine (NY: Continuum, 1982). back
  7. See Michael Fried, Realism, Writing, Disfiguration: on Thomas Eakins and Stephen Crane (Chicago: Chicago UP, 1987). back
  8. For relevant readings of dispersal and ellipsis in Woolf see Robert Kiely, "Jacob's Room and Roger Fry: Two Studies in Still Life," Modernism Reconsidered, ed. Robert Kiely (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1983), 148; and Benstock, Textualizing the Feminine, 138. back
  9. Quentin Bell, Virginia Woolf II, 80. back
  10. Lotringer, "The Game of the Name," 8. On V/W alliterations inTo the Lighthouse in connection with Saussure's argument see Ferrer, Virginia Woolf and the Madness of Language, 64, 162 n. 39. back
  11. Shawn James Rosenheim, The Cryptographic Imagination: Secret Writing from Edgar Poe to the Internet (Johns Hopkins UP, 1997), 10, 151-3. back
  12. See Jacques Derrida, "Aphorism Countertime," Acts of Literature, ed. Derek Attridge (NY: Routledge, 1992), 425; also Leigh Gilmore, Autobiographics: A Feminist Theory of Women's Self-Representation(Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1994), 93, xiv. back
  13. Peggy Kamuf, Signature Pieces: On the Institution of Authorship (Ithaca and London: Cornell UP, 1988), ix. back
  14. Perry Meisel, The Absent Father: Virginia Woolf and Walter Pater (New Haven: Yale UP, 1980), 234. back
  15. See Caramagno, The Flight of the Mind; Quentin Bell accuses George in his biography, but Poole adds Gerald as a molester inThe Unknown Virginia Woolf, 28-9. back
  16. Virginia Woolf, Letters, vol. I: 1888-1912 [6 vols.], ed. Nigel Nicholson and Joanne Trautmann (NY: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1975), 500. On editions of Woolf's letters see the summary in Mark Hussey,Virginia Woolf A to Z: A Comprehensive Reference for Students, Teachers and Common Readers to Her Life, Work and Critical Reception (NY: Facts on File, Inc., 1995), 146-7. Ralph Denham, Leonard's figure in Night and Day, is also described as penniless (that is, his being penniless is considered a description for him). back
  17. Virginia Woolf, Letters I, 500-1, 501. back
  18. Quentin Bell, Virginia Woolf II, 17. back
  19. Quentin Bell, Virginia Woolf I, 60-1. back
  20. Virginia Woolf, Letters I, 476. back
  21. Leonard Woolf, Sowing: An Autobiography of the Years 1880 to 1904 [1960] (NY: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1975), 119. back
  22. Virginia Woolf, Night and Day [1919] (NY: Penguin Books, 1992), 416. back
  23. Louie Mayer, "Louie Mayer," Recollections of Virginia Woolf, ed. Joan Russell Noble (NY: William Morrow, 1972), 159. back
  24. Virginia Woolf, Letters I, 503. back
  25. For "sumptuous," see Woolf. s letter to Dickinson, Letters I, 394; the murder is reported in a March 1911 letter to Clive Bell,Letters I, 454. back
  26. Quentin Bell, Virginia Woolf I, 101. back
  27. Virginia Woolf, Letters I, 496. back
  28. 1910 letter from Virginia to Dickinson, Letters I, 441. back
  29. "The duchess and the jeweller," typescript M74, with the author's ms. corrections, unsigned and undated [10 p.], New York Public Library Berg Collection, New York, NY, 2, 3. The work was published as "The Duchess and the Jeweller," A Haunted House and Other Short Stories (NY: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1944), 94-102. back
  30. Leonard Woolf, Sowing, 202. back
  31. See Sander Gilman, "The Jew's Body," Too Jewish? Challenging Traditional Jewish Identities, ed. Norman Kleeblatt (NY: The Jewish Museum, 1996), and Sander Gilan, Franz Kafka, The Jewish Patient(NY: Routledge, 1995), 43-68. back
  32. Virginia Woolf, Letters I, 502-3. back
  33. Virginia Woolf, Letters I, 508. back
  34. Ann Stephen, "Ann Stephen," Recollections of Virginia Woolf, 15. back
  35. Peggy Kamuf, Signature Pieces, 154. back
  36. Virginia Woolf, "The Legacy," A Haunted House and Other Short Stories (NY: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1944), 133. back
  37. To Lytton Strachey, Letters II, 456. back
  38. About the incongruity of her name see Poole, The Unknown Virginia Woolf, 9. back
  39. Virginia Woolf, Letters II, xix. back
  40. Virginia Woolf, Freshwater: A Comedy [1923, 1935], ed. Lucio P. Ruotolo (NY: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976), 67. back
  41. Virginia Woolf, Letters II, 9. back
  42. 4 September, 1912 letter, quoted in Bell, Virginia Woolf I, 5. back
  43. Virginia Woolf, A Writer's Diary (NY: Harcourt Brace, 1954). back
  44. Virginia Woolf, Orlando [1928] (NY: The New American Library, 1956), 144, 176. back
  45. 31 December, 1919 letter to J.T. Sheppard, in Letters, vol. II: 1912-1922 [6 vols.], ed. Nigel Nicholson and Joanne Trautmann (NY: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1977), 408. About Woolf's interest in chastity see Jane Marcus, "The Niece of a Nun: Virginia Woolf, Caroline Stephen, and the Cloistered Imagination,"Virginia Woolf: A Feminist Slant, ed. Marcus (Lincoln: Nebraska UP, 1983), 8-10, 20; Marcus defends this valorization of chastity in "Still Practice, A/Wrested Alphabet: Toward a Feminist Aesthetic,"Feminist Issues in Literary Scholarship, ed. Shari Benstock (Indiana UP, 1987), 88-89. back
  46. Mark Hussey, "Refractions of Desire: The Early Fiction of Virginia and Leonard Woolf," Modern Fiction Studies 38, 1 (Spring 1992): 127-46. back
  47. Lotringer, "The Game of the Name," 9. back
  48. Jacques Derrida, Signsponge, trans. Richard Rand (NY: Columbia UP, 1984), 56. back
  49. Virginia Woolf, Jacob's Room [1922] (NY: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1978), 9. back
  50. I consider marked those passages where words that begin with S and W are clustered together. It is not always clear where there is a cluster and where not; I try to leave some S and W words that occur in a passage out of consideration if they do not occur close to the others (as with the word "story" in the passage quoted here). In his analysis of the S-C signature of Stephen Crane, Fried counts also words that have interior S's and C's, but I do not. The reader may note some of these unaided for instance the combination "would dwell" (77) gets marked once for "would" but, because of its doubled d's, could be marked twice: wouldd well. back
  51. Virginia Woolf, "Jacob's Room," typescript, with author's ms. corrections, New York Public Library Berg Collection, New York, NY. back
  52. Virginia Woolf, Between the Acts (NY: Harcourt Brace Jovanovitch, 1941), 40. back
  53. Virginia Woolf, "Jacob's Room," typescript, with author's ms. corrections, 167-169. back
  54. Leonard Woolf, Beginning Again: An Autobiography of the Years 1911-1918 (NY: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich), 154-5, quoted in Poole, The Unknown Virginia Woolf, 138. back
  55. Poole, The Unknown Virginia Woolf, 142. back
  56. Prosopopeia defaces the self it is meant to represent by seating it, in Woolf's phrase. See Paul de Man, "Autobiography as De-facement," The Rhetoric of Romanticism (Columbia UP, 1984). back
  57. Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway [1925] (NY: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1953), 7, 155. back
  58. A traditional reading is that the "smoke words" produce "a modest insufficiency of meaning." Gillian Beer, "The Island and the Aeroplane: The Case of Virgina Woolf" [1990], rpt. in Virginia Woolf, ed. Rachel Bowlby (Harlow, UK: Longman, 1992), 144. back
  59. For example, Makiko Minow-Pinkney, Virginia Woolf and the Problem of the Subject (Brighton, England: The Harvester Press Limited, 1987). back
  60. Lotringer, "The Game of the Name," 5; Roland Barthes, Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, trans. Richard Howard (NY: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1977), 147. back