Literature and domination

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Literature and domination sex, knowledge, and power in modern fiction
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Literature & domination
Booker, M. Keith
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University Press of Florida
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Subjects / Keywords:
Geschichte 1900-1990 ( swd )
Fiction -- History and criticism -- 20th century ( lcsh )
Dominance (Psychology) in literature ( lcsh )
Sex role in literature ( lcsh )
Power (Social sciences) in literature ( lcsh )
Roman -- Tarih eleştiri -- 20. yy
Baskınlık (Psikoloji), Edebiyatta
Cinsiyet rolü, Edebiyatta
Güç (Sosyal bilimler), Edebiyatta
Literatur ( swd )
Geschlechterbeziehung (Motiv) ( swd )
Machtkampf (Motiv) ( swd )
Europa ( swd )
bibliography ( marcgt )
government publication (state, provincial, terriorial, dependent) ( marcgt )
non-fiction ( marcgt )


Employing thc theoretical resources provided by cultural critics such as Adorno, Jameson, Althusser, and Foucault, M. Keith Booker examines the treatment of issues of power and domination in modern literature. Discussing texts such as Virginia Woolf's The Waves, Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita, Thomas Pynchon's V., and Italo Calvino's If on a winter's night a traveler, Booker focuses on gender relations as a locus of struggles for power in human relations generally. He also pays special attention to the work of Samuel Beckett, reading the novels Watt and The Lost Ones to explore the issues of power and domination in an Irish cultural context. For all of the texts read, such issues are explored in terms not only of content but of style and form. What is distinctive about many modern texts, Booker claims, is the reflexive way literary meditations on power, authority, and domination turn inward to involve examinations of textuality and reading as images of the kinds of struggles for mastery that inform society at large. Booker suggests that literary knowledge is of a different order than the traditional theoretical knowledge that is equated with power in the West. "Literature has the potential to explore and illuminate objects of inquiry in a mode of dialogue and performance rather than by seeking to dominate them in the traditional mode of science," he writes. "Especially in the difficult and complex texts of modern literature, successful reading requires that readers and texts work together, pointing toward ways the human drive for mastery can be fulfilled through cooperation rather than through demanding the submission of some Other who is being mastered or dominated."
Includes bibliographical references and index.
General Note:
Spine title: Literature & domination.
Statement of Responsibility:
M. Keith Booker.

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University Press of Florida
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Copyright 1993 by the Board of Regents
of the State of Florida.
Printed in the United States of America on acid-free paper
All Rights Reserved
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Booker, M. Keith.
Literature and domination: sex, knowledge, and power
in modern fiction / M. Keith Booker.
p. cm.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 0-8130-1195-7
1. Fiction-20th century-History and
criticism. 2. Dominance (Psychology) in
literature. 3. Sex role in literature. 4. Power (Social
sciences) in literature. I. Title.
PN3503.B62 1993
809.3'04-dc20 92-41442
The University Press of Florida is the
scholarly publishing agency for the State
University System of Florida, comprised
of Florida A & M University, Florida
Atlantic University, Florida International
University, Florida State University,
University of Central Florida, University
of Florida, University of North Florida,
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Introduction: Literature and Domination

1. This Is Not a Pot: The Assault on Scientific
Language in Samuel Beckett's Watt

2. Tradition, Authority, and Subjectivity:
Narrative Constitution of the Self in The Waves

SONTENTS 3. Adorno, Althusser, and Humbert Humbert:
Nabokov's Lolita as Neo-Marxist Critique of
Bourgeois Subjectivity

4. Mastery and Sexual Domination: Imperialism
as Rape in Pynchon's V.

5. Who's the Boss? Reader, Author, and Text
in Calvino's If on a winter's night a traveler

6. Against Epistemology in Reading and
Teaching: The Failure of Interpretive Mastery
in Beckett's The Lost Ones


Works Cited



I would like to thank various individuals who
read and commented on parts or all of this
manuscript, including Robert Cochran of the
University of Arkansas and Brandon Kershner,
Alistair Duckworth, and Al Shoafofthe Univer-
sity of Florida. Special thanks are due to John
Kraft of the University of Miami (Ohio), Ham-
ilton, who read the entire manuscript closely
and made numerous helpful suggestions for re-
vision. I would also like to thank the staff at the
University Press of Florida, who have been so
helpful to me with this and other projects: Dei-
dre Bryan, Larry Leshan, Walda Metcalf, and
especially Lisa Compton, who edited the man-
uscript in a way that was both highly beneficial
and quite painless to me. Finally, I would like
to thank Dubravka Juraga, who not only read
and commented on the manuscript but (as al-
ways) provided support and inspiration in nu-
merous other ways as well.

Chapter 2 was originally published (under
the same title) in LIT 3 (1991): 33-55 (copyright
by Gordon and Breach, Science Publishers
S.A.) and is reprinted here in slightly revised
form by permission of the publisher.





In act 1 of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot
we meet Pozzo, a typical Beckettian tyrant figure who enforces his
power over his slave Lucky with violence and brute force. Yet Pozzo
reappears in the second act as blind and lame, virtually helpless and
certainly unable physically to enforce his domination of Lucky. In
this sense Pozzo can be read as a representation of the breakdown in
traditional structures of authority that so haunts (and inspires) the
modernist literary imagination. Importantly, however, Lucky re-
mains as submissive as ever, so attuned to his enslaved condition that
he automatically responds to orders even when he is not compelled to
do so. In the modern world, traditional figures of authority (God,
priests, monarchs, etc.) no longer serve as effective legitimating
anchors for the power they once wielded. And yet, in the absence of
new authorities to replace the old, that power itself often remains as
fully in force as ever.
Vivian Mercier has noted that the Pozzo-Lucky relation has spe-
cial resonances for Irish audiences, with Pozzo appearing as a stereo-
typical Irish landlord and Lucky as the typical serflike Irish peasant
who is subjugated to him (53). Indeed, Beckett's depiction of the
ongoing power of conventional institutions in an age of disbelief

resonates powerfully with that of his countryman James Joyce, for
whom morally decrepit structures of power continue to hold Ireland
in an iron grip. This Joycean/Beckettian analysis of the modern
condition contrasts sharply with the position ofT. S. Eliot, for whom
the modem loss of authority also implies a loss of structures of power,
2 leading to potential chaos. Eliot's reaction to the breakdown of
authority in modem society is to attempt to restore the authority of
the past and thereby to reinforce structures of power that he sees as
tottering on the brink of total dissolution. But for Joyce and Beckett
the problem is not that there is insufficient structure in the way
power is wielded in the modem world. On the contrary, the problem
is that there is too much structure, even without any authority for that
structure, so that a conservative shoring of fragments like that recom-
mended by Eliot would only serve to make the situation more
oppressive than it already is.
The barren city described with such scrupulous meanness in
Joyce's Dubliners is clearly a reflection not only of life in turn-of-the-
century Ireland but also of a quite general early modernist vision of
urban decay. As such, Joyce's Dublin has much in common with the
unreal Baudelarian London of Eliot. But whereas Eliot's city seems
plagued by a lack of any structure that can give meaning to life,
Joyce's Dublin, like the world of Beckett's Vladimir and Estragon, is
plagued by a paralyzing overabundance of structure. Dubliners can
be read as a sort of plural Bildungsroman in which the characters in
the various stories attempt to explore their own creative self-consti-
tution, only to find that the options open to them have already been
strictly determined by the preexisting discourses and institutions
that hold Dublin in an inescapable death grip.1 Self-constitution in
Dubliners is thus not creative at all, and the various characters find
themselves doomed to repeat the past selves that already haunt the
city's crowded yet desolate streets. Joyce's depiction of the paralysis
of Dublin thus makes the important point that the breakdown in
authority in the modem world does not necessarily correspond to a
breakdown in traditional structures of power. Rather, those struc-
tures simply go on operating under their own momentum, even
without the legitimating authority of some transcendent originating
Writers like Eliot and Pound react to the modernist crisis in power
and authority in ways that seem diametrically opposed to the reac-


tions of writers like Joyce and Beckett. But all of these writers do
participate in a general social and cultural phenomenon that helps
illustrate the central involvement of literature with issues of power,
authority, and domination. And it is no accident that other historical
periods of intense literary innovation and production-the golden
age of Greece, the Renaissance-correspond to similar crises in
power and authority. Moreover, the Eliot/Beckett dichotomy of
modernism occurs in earlier periods of crisis as well, with some
literary works apparently seeking to stabilize threatened structures
of official power and others attempting to finish off those structures
once and for all. But one should also keep in mind that the relation
between literary works and cultural crises is complex. Works that
once were radical have often been appropriated by official culture,
and works that sought to support authority often do so by acknowl-
edging a crisis in authority in ways that threaten to trigger unpredict-
able and even antiauthoritarian reactions.
Conservative critics have argued that the reading of works in ways
that might be diametrically opposed to the author's original intention
is tantamount to the death of literature. But in point of fact it is this
tendency of reading to escape prescribed bounds that gives literature
its real subversive power. As Terry Eagleton repeatedly reminds us
in his recent historical survey of aesthetic theory, the very notion of
the aesthetic as we know it arose in conjunction with the rise of
bourgeois society. In particular, many of our conceptions of the
nature of the work of art (especially those having to do with organic
unity) emerge in close complicity with the rise of the autonomous
bourgeois individual as the principal paradigm of human subjectiv-
ity. Eagleton suggests that the work of art functions as an object of
imaginary identification through which the bourgeois subject de-
velops a fantasy of its own wholeness and autonomy, in a process
much like the Lacanian mirror stage (87). However, this process is
not an entirely simple one. In his discussion of Kant, for example,
Eagleton notes the double movement of the beautiful and the sub-
lime in Kantian aesthetics. The beautiful, he suggests, supports this
imaginary identification, shoring up the subject and giving it the
confidence it needs to compete in a free market, while the sublime
performs a humbling function, reminding the subject that, free or
not, there are limits that are not to be crossed. This double move-
ment is, for Eagleton, essential to the ideology of bourgeois society:


"For one problem of all humanist ideology is how its centring and
consoling of the subject is to be made compatible with a certain
essential reverence and submissiveness on the subject's part" (90).
Indeed, much of the point of Eagleton's survey is to suggest that
despite the fact that the aesthetic is a thoroughly bourgeois concept
4 whose very purpose is the perpetuation of bourgeois ideology, there
is something inherently uncontrollable in the aesthetic that still gives
it a considerable subversive potential: "The aesthetic as custom,
sentiment, spontaneous impulse may consort well enough with polit-
ical domination; but these phenomena border embarrassingly on
passion, imagination, sensuality, which are not always so easily incor-
porable" (28). And ifEagleton himself here sounds more like a liberal
than a Marxist, it is worth keeping in mind the important role that art
has played in the thought of so many modern Marxist thinkers,
including Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, and Fredric Jame-
son-in addition to Eagleton himself.
That art often functions as the enemy of tyranny for both liberal and
Marxist thinkers is surely not insignificant, though phenomena like
the characterization by Benjamin of fascism as the aestheticization of
politics (along with his call for a response that would involve the
politicization of aesthetics) indicate that the relation between art and
despotism is by no means a simple polar opposition. That modern
literature should be so concerned with the same issues that have
been the focus of modern cultural critics suggests a potential role for
literature as cultural criticism, though this parallel is not entirely
surprising given that literature is an important part of the culture that
critics such as Adorno, Foucault, and others are examining. Still,
such parallels suggest that by dealing with struggles for domination
and control both thematically and through enactment in the process
of reading, literary texts can help to expose the workings of power in
the world at large. And one would like to think that this exposure can
lead to an increased awareness of power that will foster an increased
capability for resistance.
Such thinking brings to mind Wolfgang Iser's notion that certain
literary works challenge the reader's expectations, thus resulting in
an expansion of consciousness:

The efficacy of a literary text is brought about by the apparent
evocation and subsequent negation of the familiar. What at first


seemed to be an affirmation of our assumptions leads to our own
rejection of them, thus tending to prepare us for a re-orienta-
tion. And it is only when we have outstripped our preconcep-
tions and left the shelter of the familiar that we are in a position
to gather new experiences. The production of meaning of
literary texts does not merely entail the discovery of the 5
unformulated, which can then be taken over by the active
imagination of the reader; it also entails the possibility that we
may formulate ourselves and so discover what had previously
seemed to elude our consciousness. (290, 294)

On the other hand, this model of enlightenment-induced transforma-
tion, especially if it is taken as an encouragement to political resis-
tance, seems to be based on an equation between knowledge and
power that is itself central to the structure of domination that this
transformation is intended to resist.
Literary critiques of domination thus tend reflexively to become
caught up in the very dynamics of domination that they criticize. Art
by its very nature involves its own kind of domination through the use
of specific forms and techniques that give the art work a certain
coherence and unity, no matter how provisional, fragmented, or
nontraditional that unity might be. And the more the work of art
opposes external principles of determination, the more reliant it
becomes on its own alternative principles in order to achieve any
effect at all. But this may be largely the point. Indeed, what is
distinctive about many modern texts is the reflexive way literary
meditations on power, authority, and domination turn inward to
involve examinations of textuality and reading as images of the kinds
of struggles for mastery that inform society at large. And perhaps this
reflexivity suggests that literary knowledge is of a different order than
the traditional theoretical knowledge that is equated with power in
the West. Literature has the potential to explore and illuminate
objects of inquiry in a mode of dialogue and performance rather than
by seeking to dominate them in the traditional mode of science.
Especially in the difficult and complex texts of modern literature,
successful reading requires that readers and texts work together,
pointing toward ways the human drive for mastery can be fulfilled
through cooperation rather than through demanding the submission
of some Other who is being mastered or dominated.


Unfortunately, this somewhat idealized view of the literary experi-
ence, with its echoes of Kant's "purposiveness without purpose," is
clearly in danger of degenerating into a view of literature-and of art
in general-as a realm divorced from real experience in which
potentially revolutionary energies can be safely defused without
6 posing any significant threat to the powers that be. This danger is
especially keen for modern reflexive literature, which always al-
ready-at least on the surface-turns in on itself. But it seems clear
that reflexivity in literature does not necessarily mean that literary
texts are concerned only with the autonomous world of literature or
that they are sealed off from "reality." After all, reflexivity itself is a
common characteristic of almost every realm of modern intellectual
endeavor. For example, modern scientific developments such as
Heisenberg's uncertainty principle acknowledge that scientists are
themselves part of the reality they are attempting to describe and
that at least some portion of the data gathered by scientific observa-
tion is in fact a reflection of the scientist's own activity in gathering
those data. And Nietzsche's declaration of the self-referentiality of all
human knowledge in his seminal "On Truth and Lies" essay points
the way toward a modern recognition that philosophy does not
occupy some Olympian height from which it can oversee the world
but instead is very much a part of that world, implicated in its own
investigations. Such parallels between the reflexivity of modern
science and philosophy and that of modern literature are surely more
than mere coincidence, and it is worth noting the way Nietzschean
successors like Jacques Derrida have worked to break down the
traditional hierarchical privileging of philosophy over literature as
modes of perceiving the world.
Even intensely engaged social critics are not immune to this
reflexive turn, as the paradoxical self-parody of the highly rational
Horkheimer/Adorno critique of rationality indicates.2 It seems clear,
then, that even the most reflexive of modern literary texts is in some
sense mimetic of trends outside of literature. Thus, a common argu-
ment that has been made in favor of the political engagement of
metafictional texts is that the "real" world is constructed according to
many of the same linguistic codes and conventions as is fiction, and
that a reflexive work of literature, with its self-conscious commentary
on the means by which fictional narratives are constructed, is thereby
commenting on the "real" world as well.


In one of the most extensive investigations in this mode, Robert
Siegle examines works by authors such as Thackeray, Conrad, Robert
Penn Warren, and John Fowles, emphasizing not only the inherent
reflexivity of the texts but also strategies of reading reflexively. For
Siegle, "reflexivity suggests that narrative derives its authority not
from the 'reality' it imitates, but from the cultural conventions that
define both narrative and the construct we call 'reality'" (125). Argu-
ments like Siegle's that the conventions of literature mirror the
conventions of society imply that metafiction is, in a sense, actually
mimetic of reality, since fiction and reality are very much the same
thing. Siegle acknowledges this similarity between reality and fiction
but suggests a difference in emphasis, since metafiction calls atten-
tion to its fictionality in ways that reality does not: "I conclude that
'literary' texts do not differ in any fundamental way from 'ordinary'
texts. Instead, they merely foreground what by means of accultura-
tion we 'naturalize'-that is, they underscore the 'literary' or fictional
qualities of what they share with all discursive texts" (225).
Siegle sees a powerful political potential in this exposure of the
artificiality of the conventions on which the existing order is founded,
much in the way that I have argued that a metafictional work like
Nabokov's Lolita potentially offers an effective critique of other dis-
courses (such as advertising) that are equally fictional but that at-
tempt to pass themselves off as "true." As such, reflexive literature
may participate in the same project as Marxist-oriented examinations
of bourgeois systems of signification by theorists such as the early
Jean Baudrillard.3 Indeed, Fredric Jameson, arguing from a Marxist
perspective reminiscent of Baudrillard's, sees a certain validity in
analogies between the conventions of fiction and the conventions of
the world at large:

it is a historical fact that the structuralistt" or textual revolution
.. takes as its model a kind of decipherment of which literary
and textual criticism is in many ways the strong form. This
revolution ... drives the wedge of the concept of a "text" into
the traditional disciplines by extrapolating the notion of "dis-
course" or "writing" onto objects previously thought to be "reali-
ties" or objects in the real world. When properly used, the
concept of "text" does not reduce these realities to small and
manageable written documents of one kind or another, but


rather liberates us from the empirical object .. by displacing
our attention to its constitution as an object and its relationship
to the other objects thus constituted. (Political 296-97)

However, Jameson sees a danger that such analogies will be taken
8 too far and that, in the mode of Flaubert's Emma Bovary (or
Nabokov's Humbert Humbert), we will come to expect the world to
behave strictly in accordance with the conventions of literary fiction.
But if reality is already openly fictional, then there is no hidden
fictionality left for metafictional works to expose. Jameson thus has
many positive things to say about the self-conscious artifice of mod-
ernist art, which was produced in a time when the realist paradigms
of the nineteenth century were still functional in most areas of
society. On the other hand, he sees the overt artificiality of many
postmodernist texts as being in mimetic complicity with the contem-
porary order of late consumer capitalism, in which alienation is so
pronounced that the world seems just as unreal as these texts. To
Jameson, this phenomenon "consistently affirms the identity of post-
modernism with capitalism in its latest systematic mutation" ("Marx-
ism and Postmodernism" 373).
Jameson's suggestion that postmodernist art has become merely a
symptom of late consumer capitalism parallels the arguments of
Gerald Graff that "conventions of reflexivity and anti-realism are
themselves mimetic of the kind of unreal reality that modern reality
has become. But 'unreality' in this sense is not a fiction but the
element in which we live" (180). Thus, for Graff, literature that calls
attention to its own fictionality and criticism that calls attention to the
fictionality of literature are largely in complicity with the kind of
blatant fictionalizations of reality that inform so much of modern
society. But Graff's target is not really reflexive fiction so much as
ways of reading fiction reflexively. He himself admits that "even
radically anti-realistic methods are sometimes defensible as legiti-
mate means of representing an unreal reality." But, he suggests,
"[t]he critical problem-not always attended to by contemporary
critics-is to discriminate between anti-realistic works that provide
some true understanding of nonreality and those which are merely
symptoms of it" (12).
This "critical problem" is a problem indeed, since it suggests that
criticism and complicity may be virtually indistinguishable. Graff's


concerns are relevant to the more historically oriented work of Peter
Biirger, who suggests that prior to the twentieth century bourgeois
society was centrally concerned with circumscribing art within a self-
contained autonomous realm in which its potentially subversive
energies can be contained and rendered devoid of any genuine social
or political force. Biirger goes on to note that the thrust of avant- 9
garde art was to smash this separation between art and society in such
a way that would lead to revolutionary change in that society, but
then suggests that the failure of the avant-garde consisted in the fact
that bourgeois society managed to absorb the destruction of this
separation without any such changes occurring: "During the time of
the historical avant-garde movements, the attempt to do away with
the distance between art and life still had all the pathos of historical
progressivism on its side. But in the meantime, the culture industry
has brought about the false elimination of the distance between art
and life, and this also allows one to recognize the contradictoriness of
the avant-garde undertaking" (50). As do Jameson and Graff, Biirger
suggests that avant-garde art has lost its critical distance by becoming
too implicated in contemporary social reality.
Graffhimselfseems to have a tendency to think of specific art works
as either "good" or "bad," but the clear parallel between his sug-
gested dichotomy in "anti-realist" works and Jameson's more cultur-
ally situated distinction between modernist and postmodernist works
offers a potential direction out of the abyss by suggesting that the
distinctions Graff and Jameson draw are a property not so much of
the works themselves as of how those works function in a social
context-in short, how they are read. But how one reads is itself a
complicated result of complex cultural factors that go far beyond the
content or technique of the individual work being read. For example,
Adorno privileges the technique of montage as a revolutionary pro-
cedure that explodes the semblance of a reconciliation between man
and nature that is created by the organic work. As a result, the
nonorganic work mounts a protest against the role art is forced to play
in bourgeois society: "Art wishes to confess its impotence vis-a-vis the
late capitalist totality and inaugurate its abolition" (Aesthetic 232).
Biirger agrees that an opposition to organic unity is a principal feature
of avant-garde art, but he questions Adorno's conclusions concerning
the political force of montage by pointing out that artists of a wide
variety of political orientations have employed the technique. As


Biirger rightly points out, "It is fundamentally problematical to
assign a fixed meaning to a procedure" (78).
Attributing the insight to Walter Benjamin's discussions of the
ways modem art acts to destroy the "aura" traditionally associated
with the work of art, Biirger goes on to suggest that "periodization in
So the development of art must be looked for in the sphere of art as
institution, not in the sphere of the transformation of the content of
individual works" (31). Biirger's observation seems accurate, though
it is good to remember that the functioning of art as an institution-
however complex a social phenomenon that might be-is surely not
entirely independent of developments within specific art works. It
seems obvious that the production and reception of works of art
always depend on a complex framework of historical circumstances
that go far beyond the work itself. But surely this relation is not all
one-way. Even if how we read determines the effect of a text more
than the characteristics of the text itself do, revolutionary works
(Joyce's Ulysses would be a central example) can in fact change the
way we read.
In short, history affects literature, but literature may affect history
as well. Of course, it is certainly true that resistance and change
within the world of literature seem to occur more rapidly and more
easily than in the world at large. One revolutionary work can dramat-
ically change the face of literature virtually over night. Indeed, it may
be, as the Russian Formalists argued, that the very essence of the
literary is an opposition to the prevailing norms of literature. But the
Russian Formalists did not suggest that this inherent literary resis-
tance would lead to resistance in the world outside of literature. As
Bakhtin (among others) has pointed out, this formalist notion of
literary evolution tends to divorce itself from events in the world
outside of literature, being concerned only with the "intrinsic, imma-
nent laws of the development of forms within a closed, purely literary
system" (Bakhtin/Medvedev 159). Bakhtin's point is that no strict
separation between literature and the society around it is possible
because both are the products of language.
For Bakhtin, pace the Russian Formalists, changes in literary
practice are in fact intimately related to changes in the society in
which that practice arises. Granted, this model has a tendency to
imply that societal changes cause literary innovation, rather than the
other way around, but Bakhtin's emphasis on specific literary tech-


niques such as parody points toward ways challenges to existing
authority can be initiated from within literature. On the other hand,
Graff-agreeing that literature should have a genuine oppositional
role in society-argues that many trends toward literary innovation
in modern literature may be simply another insidious product of
bourgeois society. In fact, Graff suggests that any resistance to the
existing order is in danger of paradoxically playing into the hands of
the powers that be. He argues that "the real 'avant-garde' is advanced
capitalism, with its built-in need to destroy all vestiges of tradition,
all orthodox ideologies, all continuous and stable forms of reality in
order to stimulate higher levels of consumption" (8). In short, "[t]he
adversary culture has carried out the will of its adversary" (29).
Here Graff seems to be in danger of losing the distinction between
reform, which is the kind of change that is the lifeblood of capitalism,
and genuine revolution, which might potentially lead to its death.4
But these are important points and ones that should be weighed
carefully. Graff is particularly concerned about the way deconstruc-
tionists like Paul de Man and J. Hillis Miller seem to be able to read
any work of literature from any era and come to the same con-
clusion-that the work demonstrates the inability of language to
represent reality. Thus, "this kind of theorist can give us the meaning
of literary works before he reads them. Since the self-reflexive, self-
consuming, 'problematizing' nature of all language is given in ad-
vance by the critic's definition of language, it follows that all texts
must testify-whether self-consciously or 'blindly'-to the fictive
nature of their own structures" (178).
According to Graff, such critics ignore the real content of texts by
imperialistically imposing readings on them. This argument depends
in a transparent way on a faith that there is a "real" text to be dis-
covered by readers, but it points to the increased importance of
methods of reading in dealing with modem reflexive literature. Graff
himself notes the way modernen experimental texts" depend greatly
on an active recuperation on the part of the reader in order to gain
"meaning and coherence" (164-65), always assuming, of course, that
"meaning and coherence" are properties to be valued in a work of
literature. For Graff, the goal of reading is to attain mastery of the
text, even though he paradoxically insists that this mastery must be
based in the content of the text itself rather than in the reader.
Siegle, on the other hand, argues that one of the points of reflexive


literature is to teach us to eschew critical mastery. If reflexive liter-
ature does not gain its authority from the reality it represents, then
criticism likewise does not gain its authority from the text. Thus, the
reflexive critic in a very real sense constitutes the work of literature
that she criticizes, according to her own set of assumptions in ap-
12 preaching the text. But Siegle sees this realization as a statement not
of critical imperialism but of humility: "The reflexive critic, then, has
no illusions about devising a master code; he is more likely to inquire
after the various diffractions of different critical optics" (227).
Ofcourse, Siegle's reflexive critic is always in danger of reinstalling
mastery at the next higher level of critical awareness. Indeed, the
opposition in the attitudes toward reflexive reading shown by Graff
and Siegle (together with Graff's own charge that the adversary
culture is in complicity with that which it claims to oppose) indicates
the seeming reversibility of all readings in the contemporary world.
Baudrillard sees a similar implication in the hyperreality of post-
modern society. With no anchor in reality, such society is governed
by the paradoxical logic of the Mobius strip. Marxism is indistin-
guishable from capitalism, and "the work of the Right is done very
well, and spontaneously, by the Left on its own .... the Right itself
also spontaneously does the work of the Left. All the hypotheses of
manipulation are reversible in an endless whirligig" (174).
For Baudrillard, this paradoxical reversibility of all positions in
postmodernist society leads to a profound pessimism over the possi-
bility of ever mounting an effective challenge to the existing order.
After all, even could revolution be achieved in such a society (a whole
family of literary texts like George Orwell's Animal Farm springs to
mind here), what would be the point of a revolution in which the
revolutionaries are indistinguishable from those whom they over-
throw? But Baudrillard's discussion of the paradoxical logic of
postmodern society resonates with more optimistic assessments of
the current situation as well. Eagleton, maintaining at least some
hope for a Marxist revolution, argues that the contradictions inherent
in postmodernism are in fact a reflection of profound contradictions
between capitalist economy and bourgeois culture in our contempo-
rary historical moment. Thus, many postmodernist works are both
subversive of the existing order (per Siegle) and supportive of it (per
Graffand Jameson): "Much postmodernist culture is both radical and


conservative, iconoclastic and incorporated, in the same breath"
Though without the theoretical specificity of Eagleton's Marxist
perspective, Linda Hutcheon has employed a similar insight into the
contradictory nature of postmodernism in recent extensive examina-
tions of the topic. In A Poetics ofPostmodernism, Hutcheon employs
an impressive array of specific examples from postmodernist liter-
ature to argue her point that if postmodernism sometimes seems to
reinforce existing paradigms, it is only in order to define targets for its
transgressive energies. As a result, "postmodernism is fundamentally
contradictory, resolutely historical, and inescapably political" (4).
Indeed, Hutcheon conducts an ongoing dialogue with Jameson
throughout this book in order to argue the historical engagement and
political force of postmodernist literature. In The Politics ofPostmod-
ernism, Hutcheon continues this same thesis, placing more emphasis
on theoretical perspectives than on literature itself, but continuing to
describe a "paradoxical postmodernism of complicity and critique, of
reflexivity and historicity, that at once inscribes and subverts the
conventions and ideologies of the dominant cultural and social forces
of the twentieth-century western world" (11).
But if Hutcheon is correct (and I think she mostly is), then it is
senseless to make sweeping proclamations about the political en-
gagement and effectiveness of postmodernist literature or of modes of
criticism that focus on reflexive literary techniques. Some works of
metafiction may be more politically engaged than others, but it is not
really a question of determining which works are subversive and
which are supportive of the existing order, since most will be both.
Indeed, attempts to categorize works of literature strictly (as reflex-
ive or historically engaged, as metafictional or representational, as
modernist or postmodernist, etc.) may represent precisely the kind
of quest for domination and control that it is the special quality of
literature finally to elude.
The literary critic thus faces a dilemma. Reading an individual
work in isolation, interesting though the experience may be, is in
danger of degenerating into an empty formalism that loses touch with
the significance of the work and of its functioning within the institu-
tion of art as part of a broad cultural context. But contextual reading is
in danger of losing touch with the specificity of individual works of art


and of imposing prefabricated reductionist interpretations on works
in order to make them fit whatever model of art and of culture the
critic happens to hold. This dilemma is inescapable, but at the same
time it is surely not disabling. These dangers indicate not that literary
criticism is impossible but merely that the literary critic should be
14 wary of the potential pitfalls awaiting her.
Granted, such wariness might potentially result in a situation in
which the critic adequately accounts neither for the specifics of
individual works nor for the contextual functioning of the work. And
such dangers will always exist, of course, since no amount of theoreti-
cal reflection on the critical enterprise can serve as a remedy for bad
criticism. In this study, I try to steer a path between the Scylla of
formalism and the Charybdis of reductionism by focusing in a given
chapter on an individual work while allowing each chapter to reso-
nate with all of the others through the common concern with issues of
domination and power that all of the texts show. I also try to con-
duct-at least in the margins-a continuing dialogue between these
literary texts and the work of cultural critics such as Adorno and
Foucault. All of the texts I examine comment on the drive for
domination not only in their specific thematic content but in the ways
that the texts themselves resist dominative epistemological readings.
In these texts, the process of reading becomes a metaphor for interac-
tion with reality, especially with other people. But this reflexive
emphasis should not be allowed to obscure the fact that all of the texts
I discuss take on a special poignancy from the way their treatment of
power and domination resonates with the real suffering of individuals
in a twentieth century that has been scarred by monstrous totalitarian
governments, vicious ethnic and racial persecutions, and wars of
unprecedented scope and destruction. The concern with power and
domination shown in the texts that I read in this study and in the
theoretical approaches with which I read them is not a matter of
abstract philosophy but of historical reality.
I begin with Beckett's early novel Watt, which directly addresses
Enlightenment epistemology as a mode of domination. This novel
specifically defines itself in opposition to discourses of truth such as
science, philosophy, and religion that were central to the Enlighten-
ment epistemological drive that Horkheimer and Adorno so criticize.
In Watt the self-important claims of such discourses to be able to
discover truth are parodied both in Watt's own absurd quest for


knowledge and in the resistance of the text itself to a mode of reading
based on epistemological mastery. This parody takes the form of a
mockery of specific kinds of rational scientific language, while sug-
gesting certain possibilities in alternative poetic forms of language
use that point directly toward Beckett's later career. Watt, then, is a
philosophical novel in the best sense, but it also raises issues of 15
concrete human reality; Beckett's concern with power and domina-
tion resonates with centuries of political and religious oppression in
Ireland, while the illuminating theoretical discourse of Horkheimer
and Adorno arises in direct reaction to the horrors of fascism.
In the bulk of this study, I look at texts that in one way or another
are concerned with gender issues, since the relations between men
and women in patriarchal society might be expected to present clear
examples of the dynamics of domination in human relations gener-
ally. That Beckett's concern with power and domination is relevant to
these texts can be seen by the fact that Irish writers frequently figure
Ireland as feminine in relation to the dominating masculine presence
of England and other oppressive outside forces. Moreover, Beckett's
implicit suggestion that dominative reading strategies mirror the
ideology of domination that pervades modern society leads to gender
issues in a direct way, since so many gender-oriented critics have
addressed just such issues in recent years. For example, Stephen-
Paul Martin has discussed the way the difficult, experimental texts of
modernism and postmodernism undercut efforts at "masculine" in-
terpretive mastery and demand a "feminine" form of reading: "In
short, open or innovative works ask us to create and nurture them, to
give them shape over time in the parts of our imaginations that make
new forms, and to bring them into full being or maturity through our
continued attention. This means that we are forced to exercise femi-
nine qualities, to perceive in a way that is not encouraged by main-
stream patriarchal society that has brought us to the brink of
annihilation" (9).
Martin's overly direct identification of reading strategies with
gender roles is in danger of perpetuating certain essentialist stereo-
types, such as the picture of the nurturing mother as feminine ideal.
But he is far from alone. Caren Greenberg, for example, has de-
scribed certain totalizing modes of reading (especially psychoanalytic
readings based on the Oedipal drama) as a masculine "struggle for
power and pleasure." To Greenberg, this mode of reading implies


that both readers and writers are male, while "the mediating text is
female" (303). As an alternative, she proposes a "female textuality," a
mode of reading in which the reader eschews domination of the text
and in which "the relationship of the reader to language is recognized
as essential, where the reader perceives the stuff of the text as
16 intrinsically important" (304).5
I begin my exploration of gender issues in relation to power and
domination with a discussion of Virginia Woolf's The Waves, a text
that addresses the tribulations of modernity in such a way that gender
becomes a principal consideration. Woolf's book explores the dif-
ficulties of establishing a viable and stable sense of selfhood in a
modern world in which traditional authority has lost its stabilizing
function. But Woolf's feminist perspective gives the modern sense of
crisis in authority a new twist, since traditional authority never
offered that much stability to women in the first place, except as
strictly circumscribed objects of male domination. As with characters
of Joyce or Beckett, the principals in Woolf's book struggle to define
themselves in new and productive ways but often find the path
blocked by the rigid expectations of a patriarchal society that allows
them to occupy only certain predefined positions. Woolf explores the
potential of literature (especially narrative) to surmount these tradi-
tional expectations, even while suggesting that narrative itself is a
principal means through which these expectations are defined and
enforced. She also suggests that those (especially women) who would
seek to occupy subjective positions other than the ones rigidly de-
fined by conventional society may find it difficult to find any position
to occupy at all. The potentially emancipatory breakdown of the
bourgeois subject can be terrifying and unsettling in the absence of
viable models of subjectivity to take its place. At the same time, The
Waves points toward possible alternative models, suggesting that a
new communal mode of subjectivity in which intersubjective relation
is prior to the individual ego might surmount many of the difficulties
of the subject in modern patriarchal society.
The Waves is concerned not so much with the specific dynamics of
relations between individual men and women as with the limitations
placed on individuals by the large, impersonal structures of power
that comprise modern society. But Woolf's vivid depiction of the
suffering of her characters (perhaps most powerfully in the case of
Rhoda, a character driven to suicide by her inability to occupy a


comfortable subjective position in the patriarchal society around her)
serves as a useful reminder that, like Beckett, Woolf responds not
simply to abstract issues but to the real pain of real people in the
situations she describes. This trend continues in Vladimir Nabokov's
Lolita, a text whose clever and brilliant verbal fabric cannot obscure
the monstrous reality that lies beneath this surface. For Nabokov's 17
Humbert Humbert the girl Lolita is not real but a mere literary
artifact, and the blatant artificiality of the text at first seem to rein-
force his position. After all, Lolita is a fiction, and so is Lolita. But
rape and child abuse are very real, and many young girls in modern
society do in fact suffer Lolita's fate or worse. In this light, Nabokov's
focus on the dynamics of domination and submission in the relation
between Humbert Humbert and Lolita takes on an added power.
Humbert's drive to dominate Lolita participates in a general drive
for domination (especially of his own human nature) that charac-
terizes all of his activities in a way that is highly reminiscent of the
Horkheimer/Adorno critique of the Enlightenment. And Nabokov's
exploration of the way Lolita and her mother are constituted as
individuals by American popular culture-while Humbert is at the
same time equally constituted by European "high" culture-sug-
gests ways we as individuals are not nearly so free as we would like
to believe. Thus, Nabokov's examination of this relation resonates
with certain neo-Marxist critiques of modern society in powerful and
interesting ways. At the same time, this resonance calls attention to
Nabokov's own avowedly anti-Marxist sympathies and suggests a
potential dialogue with the Stalinist terror that looms in the margins
of so many of Nabokov's texts.
Thomas Pynchon also explores the motif of domination in relations
between the sexes in his novel V. In particular, Pynchon situates the
drive for domination in sexual relations (represented in strong form
by the images of rape in his text) within a constellation of power
struggles that he relates to the growth of Western imperialism in the
nineteenth century and of fascism in the twentieth. The graphic
scenes of sexual violence presented in Pynchon's text serve as re-
minders of the horrors of both imperialism and patriarchy-or of any
ideology that allows one social group to deny the humanity of any
other group. And Pynchon's exploration of this theme is made par-
ticularly effective by the way he suggests that these horrors are not
merely things of the past, that the drive for domination that informed


imperialism and fascism is still with us. He reinforces this suggestion
with a text that lures readers into the pursuit of dominative reading
strategies, then undermines those strategies in such a way as to
reveal the ideology behind them.
This focus on reading as a quest for domination of the text is even
18 more clearly the focus of Italo Calvino's If on a winter's night a
traveler. Calvino's book explores different strategies of reading, most
of which involve a totalizing desire for mastery of the text being read,
and it does so in a way that directly suggests that these strategies
closely parallel certain strategies typically pursued in sexual rela-
tions. As with the other authors discussed, Calvino suggests that
these dominative styles of reading are ultimately counterproductive
and lead to an impoverishing encounter with the text. But even
Calvino's overtly reflexive text contains scenes of incarceration, polit-
ical oppression, rape, and murder that emphasize the real human
cost of the ideology of domination he so carefully undermines in his
I complete my study with a return to Beckett, whose late novel The
Lost Ones is in many ways exemplary of the issues I address in this
study. Here Beckett presents a rigidly carceral society that directly
comments on the oppressive conditions informing life in certain-
perhaps all-modern societies. Indeed, despite its abstract tone,
The Lost Ones clearly participates in the genre of dystopian fiction
and thus takes part in much of the same dialogue with political
oppression that informs the great modern dystopian texts like We,
Brave New World, and 1984. But the most effective commentary on
domination in this text is enacted in the reading process itself. The
Lost Ones tantalizes the reader by offering numerous totalizing re-
cuperative strategies that allow one to read it as a fairly straightfor-
ward allegory. But it offers so many of these strategies that each
undermines the other, and in the end no attempt at totalizing reading
can ever succeed. A careful study of The Lost Ones thus offers a
number of useful lessons for those who would seek to oppose domi-
native strategies in both the reading and the teaching of literary texts,
even as its resonance with the dystopian tradition provides powerful
reminders that a great deal is at stake in this opposition.
Together these six texts constitute a convincing argument for the
ability of literary texts to engage issues of power and domination in
socially relevant ways. Of course, other readings of these or any texts


are possible, and if my attempt to use these texts to illustrate certain
points of my own turns out itself to look suspiciously like a form of
domination, then that possibility merely serves to illustrate the
complexity of the dialogue between literature and domination. And if
this complexity dictates that my success must be less than complete,
then so much the better, since much of my point here is that 19
literature is inimical to complete mastery.







Issues of power and domination represent a
central concern of Samuel Beckett's entire oeuvre. Perhaps the best-
known and most obvious example of this concern is the strain of
sadomasochism that runs throughout Waiting for Godot, most nota-
bly in the domination of Lucky by Pozzo, but virtually every Beckett
work contains elements of domination, subjugation, and cruelty.6
For example, in Malone Dies the title character is apparently im-
prisoned by the "powers that be" in the institution in which he writes,
and his only direct encounter with another human being in that
institution involves the visit of a strange man who for no apparent
reason deals him a violent blow on the head (Three 269). Soon after
this visit, the dominated Malone then fantasizes about becoming the
dominator, passing on this dynamic of sadism by fantasizing about
capturing a little girl and making her do his bidding (273).7
This sequential sadism illustrates the extent to which a dynamic of
domination and submission informs the ideology of bourgeois civi-
lization, whose paradigm of intersubjective relation is, after all, not
cooperation but competition. Rather than band together to fight
oppression, those who are oppressed in bourgeois society turn
against their fellows, passing on the chain of domination in sequential


fashion. Beckett images this process most clearly in How It Is, where
love is defined as "two strangers uniting in the interests of torment"
(121), and where intersubjective relations in general consist of an
endless string of tormentors and their victims, who in turn become
tormentors to additional victims, and so on ad infinitum.
The narrator of How It Is points out that this dynamic of domina- 21
tion and submission implies that all of us share a common experience:

in reality we are one and all from the unthinkable first to the no
less unthinkable last glued together in a vast imbrication of flesh
without breach or fissure .. linked thus bodily together each
one of us is at the same time Bom and Pim tormentor and
tormented pedant and dunce wooer and wooed speechless and
reafflicted with speech. (140)

That this commonality of suffering seems to do nothing to prevent the
torment from continuing is, of course, the true tragedy of modern
humanity, and Adorno's work locates the cause of this continuing
dynamic in the ideology of domination associated with the Enlighten-
ment and with the ongoing effects of the bourgeois notion of the
autonomous, independent individual.
Beckett's exploration of domination resonates particularly with the
work of Horkheimer and Adorno in the way that Beckett explores the
implication in this motif of the epistemological drive that informs
Enlightenment thought. For example, Beckett's Murphy (like his
later reincarnation Malone) is an idealist philosopher in the Cartesian
mode who seeks, per the Enlightenment ideal, contemplation in a
cosmos of pure reason untainted by the exigencies of life in the real
world. This preoccupation proves fatuous and in fact leads ultimately
to Murphy's death. Especially important, however, is Murphy's
method for pursuing his quest for pure reason: he sits strapped in his
rocking chair by seven scarves, unable to move-and unable to
escape, even when the chair overturns, leaving him literally off his
rocker (Murphy 28). Murphy's bondage thus dramatizes the conten-
tion of Horkheimer and Adorno that the Enlightenment quest for
domination of nature through the application of human reason leads
to the enslavement of the reasoners as that quest for domination turns
back on itself. Horkheimer and Adorno point to Odysseus, strapped
to the mast as he hears the song of the Sirens, as a central illustration
of this phenomenon, and Murphy can be seen as a parodic modern


Odysseus with his rocking chair playing the role of mast and the lure
of rational philosophy playing the role of enticing temptress.
As Beckett turns from Murphy to Watt his parody of rationalist
philosophy becomes even more focused. In particular, the mock
encyclopedism of the latter resonates with the Horkheimer and
22 Adorno critique of modern science as having abandoned the quest for
true knowledge in favor of mere facts, which may be technologically
exploitable but contain no genuine understanding.8 Ronald Swigger
presents a useful discussion of encyclopedism in modern fiction,
noting that encyclopedists like Flaubert, Borges, and Queneau are
consistently skeptical of the Enlightenment drive toward complete-
ness in knowledge. Thus, Swigger discusses Bouvard et Pecuchet as
"a satirical encyclopedic critique of nineteenth-century perversions
of the Faustian impulse to know. .. Flaubert unmasks the preten-
tious 'authorities' of the age, the exponents and the popularizers of
'official' history, philosophy, theology, art, literature" (357).9
Modern encyclopedists tend to introduce great quantities of infor-
mation from a variety of disciplines only in order to demonstrate the
internal inconsistencies and ultimate follies of those disciplines. The
proliferation of information in the texts of such writers is a far cry from
the late minimalist texts of Beckett, but early Beckett works such as
Murphy and especially Watt employ similar strategies of parodic
encyclopedism. Watt is characterized by an exuberant overabun-
dance of data throughout. Within the first few pages of Watt we meet
a diminutive hunchback, an immense Irish policeman, a pair of illicit
lovers, a pregnant woman, and a married couple, the Nixons. We are
presented with an obscene poem written by an imprisoned solicitor
to his girlfriend, the revelation of the injury that apparently made
Mr. Hackett a hunchback, and the Rabelaisian story of the birth of
Larry Nixon-after which his mother severed the umbilical cord
with her own teeth-all of this before Watt himself even makes an
appearance. And the profusion of comic information in these pages is
typical of the entire book. Watt has more in common with the
exuberant encyclopedic excess of texts like Gargantua and Pan-
tagruel, A Tale ofa Tub, Bouvard et Pecuchet, and Ulysses than with
the stark minimalism of The Lost Ones or Ping.
Mikhail Bakhtin's work on Menippean satire provides what is
probably the most extensive theoretical exploration of the parodic
energies at work in encyclopedic texts. o Bakhtin's work does a great


deal to illuminate the way encyclopedic texts employ parodic ener-
gies to undermine authoritarian discourses. Watt operates in a con-
stant mode of parody, since it is constructed almost exclusively of the
language of precisely the kinds of discourses of authority-"the old
words, the old credentials" (85)-that it seeks to undermine. The
opening scene sets the linguistic tone for the entire book-exact,
detailed language constantly strives to provide a complete and accu-
rate description of the events at hand, but these attempts at scientific
description invariably collapse into absurdity.
In his later project Beckett will turn to a radical linguistic experi-
mentalism in an attempt to explore alternatives to such authoritarian
uses of language. Watt, on the other hand, utilizes such language in
order to undermine it. In fact, Hugh Culik has argued that Watt is
Beckett's last attempt to employ such language and that its failure
leads to his later experimentalism: "To the extent that the novel relies
on the type of knowledge and the type of language it rejects, it is
unsatisfying; but to the extent Watt identifies central issues of Beck-
ett's later work, the novel is important to Beckett's development"
(70). But the failure of rational, scholarly language in Watt is largely
the point, and it is a failure that bespeaks the success of the book.
Beckett's linguistic project in Watt is at one with the goal of his later
work-it is just that his later work undermines authoritarian dis-
courses through the exploration of altratives, while Watt attempts
to dismantle these linguistic practices from within, demonstrating
the madness that lies at the heart of the Enlightenment emphasis on
rational language by showing the inadequacy of this language to the
expression of real human experience.
As Watt begins, Hunchy Hackett approaches his favorite bench at
a tram stop, only to find that the seat is occupied by a pair of lovers:

Mr. Hackett decided, after some moments, that if they were
waiting for a tram they had been doing so for some time. For the
lady held the gentleman by the ears, and the gentleman's hand
was on the lady's thigh, and the lady's tongue was in the gentle-
man's mouth. (8)

This list of anatomical details foreshadows the many comically ex-
haustive lists to be found in Watt, and Mr. Hackett's quest for even
more information (he is especially eager to know where the gen-
tleman's other hand might be) presages the drive for epistemological


completeness that informs the activities of nearly all the characters in
the book.
This combination of precise, descriptive language and a persistent
rage to know makes Watt (like many Menippean texts) read some-
what like a scholarly treatise, though this rational, academic style is
24 consistently undercut by the absurdity and indeterminacy of the
events being depicted. An excellent example of this effect occurs in
the detailed description of Watt's method of walking:

Watt's way of advancing due east, for example, was to turn his
bust as far as possible towards the north and at the same time to
fling out his right leg as far as possible towards the south, and
then to turn his bust as far as possible towards the south and at
the same time to fling out his left leg as far as possible towards
the north, and then again to turn his bust as far as possible
towards the north and to fling out his right leg as far as possible
towards the south, and then again to turn his bust as far as
possible towards the north, and so on, over and over again, until
he reached his destination, and could sit down. (30)

The pretensions to seriousness of scientific language are obviously
undercut by the comic absurdity of such scenes. Moreover, echoing
Joyce and anticipating writers like Robbe-Grillet, the excessive de-
tails of such descriptions often tend to de-realize the events being
described, making them almost impossible to visualize.
Despite the drive for certainty that informs the language of the
text, Watt is a text in which nothing is in fact certain. For example, we
will find out later that the book is apparently being narrated by one
"Sam," who has received all of his information from Watt himself
while the two of them were inmates in an insane asylum. Thus, the
narration in the book is doubly suspect-not only is it filtered
through at least two different narrators before it comes down to us,
but both of these narrators are apparently mad. Moreover, a look
back at the opening scene reveals that it occurs before Watt makes his
appearance in the text, descending from a tram nine pages into the
narrative. This whole scene is thus put into question by the fact that
Watt apparently could not have related to Sam the events depicted.
In addition, the scene seems to be presented from the perspective of
Mr. Hackett, raising the question of how Sam knows what is going on


inside Hackett's mind-a question with broad applicability to fic-
tional narrators in general.
Sam, of course, is perfectly well aware that his text is filled with
such moments, and he asks us to believe that

when the impossibility of my knowing, of Watt's having known, 25
what I know, what Watt knew, seems absolute, and insurmount-
able, and undeniable, and uncoercible, it could be shown that I
know, because Watt told me, and that Watt knew because
someone told him, or because he found out for himself. For I
know nothing, in this connexion, but what Watt told me. And
Watt knew nothing, on this subject, but what was told, or found
out for himself, in one way or another. (127-28)

Here, even as Sam attempts to defend the authority of his narrative,
he again reminds us of the tenuousness of his sources. Further, the
difficulties with Sam's narration go far beyond the question of his
sources of information. A close look at the opening scene, which is
typical of the entire text, shows a number of curious instabilities in
the narrative. On the one hand, seemingly unimportant objects and
events are described in great detail. Thus, we are "treated" to an
exhaustive relation of Hackett's options on seeing his bench oc-
cupied, complete with a typically Beckettian idiosyncratic use of
commas:11 "The dilemma was thus of extreme simplicity: to go on, or
to turn, and return, round the corner, the way he had come. Was he,
in other words, to go home at once, or was he to remain out a little
longer?" (7-8). Yet despite such exaggeratedly complete lists of
actions and options, other important events are not related in the text
at all. After the description of the lovers, the narrative continues with
a policeman's declaration that "I see no indecency" (8). Apparently
Hackett has complained to this policeman about the behavior of the
lovers, yet neither the appearance of the policeman nor Hackett's
complaint to him is actually included in the text. Further, the en-
counter between the policeman and Hackett ends as Hackett takes
his place on the bench, "still warm, from the loving" (9)-apparently
the lovers have gone, but their departure is not indicated in the
narrative. This alternation between information that is given in
excessive and redundant detail and information that is not given at all
will continue throughout the text, calling attention to the ways


narrative always operates in a mode of selection, emphasizing some
details at the expense of the suppression of others.
The necessary incompleteness of narrative is a persistent theme in
Beckett's work. As Beckett's Mercier elsewhere explains to his com-
panion Camier, reality is far too complex to be contained within the
26 confines of narrative:

Even side by side, said Mercier, as now, arm to arm, hand in
hand, legs in unison, we are fraught with more events than could
fit in a fat tome, two fat tomes, your fat tome and my fat tome.
Whence no doubt our blessed sense of nothing, nothing to be
done, nothing to be said. (Mercier 87)

Beckett's later minimalist texts call attention to their incompleteness
by progressively eliminating more and more of the elements that one
would expect to find in a fictional text, demonstrating that they can
still function even without parts that would have been thought to be
essential. Watt operates in the opposite mode, comically striving for
encyclopedic completeness, only to demonstrate the impossibility
(and absurdity) of such a drive for comprehensiveness (and com-
Raymond Federman explains the way Watt subverts the conven-
tions of realistic narrative: "Basically Watt is a narrative experiment
which exploits the inadequacy of language, reason, and logic to reveal
the failure of fiction as a means of apprehending the reality of the
world" (119). But the metafictional shenanigans of Watt comment on
far more than the effectiveness of fiction as an epistemological system;
they comment on epistemological systems in general. After all, the
expectations that readers bring to literary texts are never derived
strictly from literature but participate in an entire range of ideological
predispositions. As J. Hillis Miller points out, "The notions of nar-
rative, of character, and of formal unity in fiction are all congruent
with the system of concepts making up the Western idea of history"
("Narrative" 461). In particular, Miller argues that the Hegelian
model of rational history infects our view of fiction in a quite inclusive

The assumptions about history which have been transferred to
the traditional conception of the form of fiction .. include the
notions of origin and end ("archeology" and teleologyy"); of unity


and totality or "totalization"; of underlying "reason" or "ground"
of selfhood, consciousness, or "human nature"; of the homoge-
neity, linearity, and continuity of time; of necessary progress;
of "fate," "destiny," or "Providence"; of causality; of gradually
emerging "meaning"; of representation and truth. ("Narrative"
459-60) 27

Texts such as Watt that undermine the expectations that readers
bring to realistic fiction thus have the potential of challenging their
readers to reexamine a whole host of philosophical attitudes. In Watt
this challenge is particularly effective because Beckett initiates an
explicit dialogue in the text with a variety of specific discourses of
authority, including religion, philosophy, science, and psychology,
all of which can be associated in one way or another with the Enlight-
enment quest for mastery critiqued by Horkheimer and Adorno.2
Even more interesting than thematic content, however, is Watt's
exploration of language and, in particular, of the way discourses like
philosophy and science use language as a tool to establish and main-
tain their authority.13
Watt's most obvious predecessor in this regard is the "Ithaca"
chapter of Ulysses, which employs many of the same devices (ex-
haustive lists, excessively literal descriptions, etc.) to undermine the
pretensions to authority of rational language. In this chapter Joyce
combines the form of the Catholic catechism with the precise, de-
scriptive language of science to undermine the pretensions of both
religion and science as discourses of authority. Parodying the claims
of such discourses to have all the answers to life's questions, Joyce
presents a series of simple, straightforward queries that are then
answered in excruciatingly (and hilariously) complete and complex
detail. For example, when Bloom turns on the tap to let water flow
into the kitchen sink, the text asks, "Did it flow?" Then comes the

Yes. From Roundwood reservoir in county Wicklow of a cubic
capacity of 2400 million gallons, percolating through a subterra-
nean aqueduct of filter mains of single and double pipeage
constructed at an initial plant cost of 5 per linear yard by way of
the Dargle, Rathdown, Glen of the Downs and Callowhill to the
26 acre reservoir at Stillorgan, a distance of 22 statute miles, and
thence, through a system of relieving tanks, by a gradient of 250


feet to the boundary at Eustace bridge, upper Leeson street .

In fact, this single-sentence answer goes on for approximately half a
page of densely printed text, supplying a vast amount of superfluous
28 (and partially inaccurate) information that provides more confusion
than explanation. In "Ithaca," as in the rest of Ulysses, mere facts are
always insufficient to provide a complete knowledge of reality, and-
far from being a quest for such knowledge-the encyclopedism of the
text is a parody that reveals the absurdity of such quests.
Scientific, objective language like that parodied in "Ithaca" (and in
Watt) was one of the principal tools with which Enlightenment
thinkers sought to extend their dominion over nature. Moreover,
such dialogues with science have particular political connotations for
Irish writers such as Joyce and Beckett. Remarking the surprising
absence of science in most histories of Irish culture, John Wilson
Foster attributes this phenomenon to the fact that scientific modes of
thought have traditionally been associated in the Irish mind with
British imperialism. He notes, for example, the "calculated exclusion
of science, by the architects of the Irish Cultural Revival around the
turn of the century" because of this association (95). Science in
Ireland has traditionally been associated with the intrusion of foreign
powers, and the dialogues with science in works like Ulysses and
Watt participate in a larger critical examination of the political and
cultural domination of Ireland by imperial Britain. Of course, Eng-
land also dominated Ireland with its language, and the importance of
language to the project of the Enlightenment can perhaps best be
seen in the intense concern with language shown by those who were
involved in the seventeenth-century rise of science as the dominant
epistemological discourse of Western society. The growing hege-
mony of the new science resulted in an entire new worldview, but
among other things it was associated with an extensive exploration of
new conceptions of language, conceptions that moved away from the
earlier view of language as a rhetorical tool and toward a view of
language as representation, as a transparent conductor of informa-
tion. The new science, as exemplified by the Royal Society in Eng-
land, was highly concerned with the question of language, and it
waged a fierce and effective campaign against rhetorical flourish and
in support of a plainer and more direct style of discourse. Bacon,


Hobbes, and many other illustrious personages contributed to this
campaign, but perhaps the clearest statement of the position of the
Society can be found in the writings of its historian, Thomas Sprat:

They have therefore been most rigorous in putting in execution,
the only Remedy, that can be found for this extravagance: and 29
that has been, a constant Resolution, to reject all the amplifica-
tions, digressions, and swellings of style: to return back to the
primitive purity, and shortness, when men delivered for so many
things, almost in an equal number of words. They have exacted
from all their members, a close, naked, natural way of speaking,
positive expressions, clear senses, a native easiness: bringing all
things as near the Mathematical plainess, as they can ... (113,
Sprat's italics)

The concern voiced by Sprat went beyond matters of style, encom-
passing programs for the development of universal and natural lan-
guages like that described in John Wilkins's An Essay Towards a Real
Character and a Philosophical Language (1668), in which the intent
is to develop a language in which a word might not only stand as a
symbol for a thing but also inherently indicate the very nature of that
thing. Richard Jones emphasizes the importance of language reform
to the new science by noting that it "is hard to overemphasize the fact
that science in its youth considered the linguistic problem as impor-
tant as the problem of the true scientific method" ("Science and
Language" 157). The scientific facts discovered by the new science
could be used for the domination of nature only if they could be
accurately communicated to others.14
The kind of direct match between signifier and signified envi-
sioned by Sprat is obviously antithetical to poetry, and it is not
surprising that contemporary writers like Swift and Pope reacted
vehemently to such scientific programs for literary reform. For exam-
ple, Swift openly mocks these programs in Gulliver's Travels in a
variety of ways, most memorably in his depiction of the projectors of
Lagado who literalize the advice of Sprat and Wilkins and carry
around bags of things themselves, avoiding the need for words

An Expedient was therefore offered, that since Words are only
Names for Things, it would be more convenient for all Men to


carry about them, such Things as were necessary to express the
particular Business they are to discourse on many of the
most Learned and Wise adhere to the new Scheme of expressing
themselves by Things; which hath only this Inconvenience at-
tending it; that if a Man's Business be very great, and of various
?o Kinds, he must be obliged to carry a greater Bundle of Things
upon his Back, unless he can afford one or two strong Servants to
attend him. (158, Swift's italics)

Roger Lund explains the opposition of the Scriblerians to the
linguistic programs of the new science, arguing that to Swift and Pope
man's identity is related to his use of language as a special gift of God,
so that a mechanical language will disrupt man's role as a special
creature of God, leading inevitably to mechanical men (65). But Swift
and Pope also seem to be reacting against the arrogance of the new
science itself, an arrogance that does away with the need for God by
suggesting that humanity is able to understand and master the world
in which it lives through the use of its own resources. In any case, the
clash between Swift and Sprat amounts to a clash between two
mighty discourses of power, with Swift upholding the traditional
authority of religion and Sprat serving as advocate for science as an
alternative authority.
While the debate between Swift and Sprat helps to identify the
issues at stake in Watt, one should also keep in mind that Beckett's
attitude is far more radical than Swift's, amounting to a rejection not
just of science but of authoritarian (and authoritative) discourses in
general. Thus, scientific thinking serves as an especially obvious
target in Watt, but religion comes in for a great deal of mockery as
well. Beckett's story of "a priest who, on leaving with a sigh of relief
the chapel where he had served mass, with his own hands, to more
than a hundred persons, was shat on, from above, by a dove, in the
eye" (91) is emblematic of the treatment of religion in Watt. Beckett is
also careful to avoid positing literature as an alternative discourse of
authority, since Watt also effectively undermines the claims of liter-
ature (especially narrative) to have a privileged access to reality.
All of the information narrated in Watt is highly suspect. For one
thing, Watt has accumulated his own information in the course of a
journey, much of it through a whole series of previous narrators
(Arsene, Vincent, Erskine, Walter, etc.) all of whom are less than


totally reliable. Arsene explains this series of unreliable narrations to
Watt: "Not that I have told you all I know, for I have not. just as
Vincent did not tell me all, nor Walter Erskine, nor the others the
others" (62). And Sam specifically calls attention to the unreliability
of Watt as a source. Even as Sam tells us that Watt was his sole source
of information, he acknowledges that there is no "proof that Watt did 1
indeed tell all he knew, on these subjects, or that he set out to do so,
for how could there be, I knowing nothing on these subjects, except
what Watt told me," (125).15
Sam specifically calls attention to the fact that, despite his best
efforts, his narrative may be incomplete and inaccurate, suggesting
that perhaps all narratives are necessarily flawed:

It is difficult for a man like Watt to tell a long story like Watt's
without leaving out some things, and foisting in others. And this
does not mean either that I may not have left out some of the
things that Watt told me, or foisted in others that Watt never
told me, though I was most careful to note down all at the time,
in my little notebook. It is so difficult, with a long story like the
story that Watt told, even when one is most careful to note down
all at the time, in one's little notebook, not to leave out some of
the things that were told, and not to foist in other things that
were never told, never told at all. (126)

Despite the apparently authoritative language in which Sam presents
his narration, then, we are warned that his descriptions of events
cannot necessarily be taken at face value.
Sam's narrative undermines itself in more subtle ways throughout
the text, and a close look at the text shows it to be full of gaps,
inconsistencies, and errors. Some of these textual effects are quite
subtle, and a reader seduced by the authoritative language of the text
might miss them entirely. But Watt is also filled with more obvious
devices that call attention to the text's unreliability and incom-
pleteness. Many of the instabilities in the opening narration of Mr.
Hackett's reaction to the lovers on the bench could easily be missed
by a casual reader, but in the midst of this scene Hackett makes a
comment to himself: 'Tired of waiting for the tram, said (1) Mr
Hackett, they strike up an acquaintance" (8). This sentence refers to
the first of the text's several footnotes, which explains the absence of
"to himself" in this sentence: "(1) Much valuable space has been


saved, in this work, that would otherwise have been lost, by avoid-
ance of the plethoric reflexive pronoun after say' (8). As Mathew
Winston points out, this footnote serves as an early signal to the
reader that the usual expectations one brings to a literary text will be
constantly disrupted in Watt (70-71). In particular, the various foot-
32 notes call attention to the artificially constructed nature of the text,
impeding readerly efforts to recuperate the text as a realistic nar-
As Shari Benstock points out, footnotes have been used in a num-
ber of fictional texts, ranging from Tom Jones to Finnegans Wake.
Benstock notes that footnotes are by their nature at the margins of
discourse and call into question what constitutes a text: "To read a
footnote is to be forcibly reminded of the inherent multi-textuality of
all texts" (220 n. 2). In other words, the existence of a footnote
indicates that the main text is incomplete and requires supplementa-
tion in some way.
The last footnote in Watt particularly calls attention to the text's
incompleteness. It explains the inclusion of a variety of fragments, or
"addenda," at the end of the text: "(1) The following precious and
illuminating material should be carefully studied. Only fatigue and
disgust prevented its incorporation" (247). Among other things, the
very existence of these supplemental fragments (like the various
physical gaps and "hiatuses" that are scattered throughout the text)
calls attention to the incompleteness of the text, to the fact that there
is information left out despite the comically precise language and
exhaustive lists that make up so much of the narration. The specific
notation of "fatigue and disgust" also points out that the accuracy and
completeness of the text are limited by the reliability of Sam the
narrator, whose human foibles intrude on his ability to convey infor-
mation through language without loss and distortion. Sam, in short,
suffers from precisely the difficulty that early scientists like Sprat
hoped to avoid.
The footnotes in the text (like those in Swift's A Tale of a Tub and
those in the "Nightlessons" section of Finnegans Wake) undermine
not only the conventions of fiction but those of footnotes (and, by
extension, of scholarly documentation) in general. For example, the
first footnote is superfluous (and plethoric), even as it purports to
explain a space-saving gesture in the text. The strangely precise,
scientific language of Watt, by seeming so inappropriate to the


matter of the text, creates a disjunction that comments both on the
expectations normally associated with fiction and on the traditional
Enlightenment faith in reason and in the ability of rational language
to order and describe reality.
The assault on Enlightenment rationality in Watt can be usefully il-
luminated by comparing Beckett's text directly to the linguistic pro- 33
gram proposed by Sprat. For example, when Sprat suggests that one
should strive to bring language "near the Mathematical plainess,"
he explicitly calls attention to the Enlightenment faith in mathe-
matics as a rational and objective means of describing reality. Beck-
ett's characters often display this same faith, turning time and time
again to mathematics in an attempt to make sense of their absurd
worlds. These attempts generally lead to comically extended com-
putations that ultimately end in total futility. Perhaps the best-known
example of this motif in Beckett involves the laborious calculations of
Molloy to try to determine the most efficient way to rotate his sixteen
sucking stones among his four pockets in order to use all of the stones
equally. It would be a simple problem in probability to devise a
scheme whereby, on the average, each stone would receive equal
use, but this stochastic solution is not good enough for Molloy: "this
was only a makeshift that could not long content a man like me"
(Three 69). Instead, the Newtonian Molloy seeks a strictly deter-
ministic solution that will guarantee that each stone is employed
strictly in turn.
However, unable to accept compromises like numbering the
stones, Molloy soon finds that his quest, like all such quests in
Beckett, is futile. In the end (after five pages of calculations), he
simply throws away all of the stones but one, which then promptly
comes up missing. Even then Molloy still insists on exploring all
possibilities, suggesting that he "lost, or threw away, or gave away, or
swallowed" the last stone (74).16
Watt is filled with such futile calculations, and the text constantly
appeals to mathematics as a privileged mode of epistemology, result-
ing in an unexpected prominence of numbers and calculations in an
ostensibly "artistic" text. This conflation of literature and mathe-
matics can perhaps best be seen in the three that Watt hears while
lying in a roadside ditch. The lyrics to the two verses of this song
begin, respectively, with the numbers 52.285714285714 ... and
52.1428571428571. .. .17 These mathematical lyrics already trans-


gress the conventional boundary between music and mathematics
(between what Julia Kristeva would call the semiotic and the sym-
bolic), thus calling into question the Enlightenment privileging of
reason over lyricism. But such distinctions are, of course, highly
artificial. After all, as even Leopold Bloom knows, music itself is
54 highly mathematical.18 Moreover, it is significant that the two num-
bers that appear in the lyrics of Watt's three (the result of calculating
the number of weeks in a leap year and in a normal year respectively)
are irrational-the last series of digits repeats ad infinitum and the
number will never converge into an exact solution. Mathematics
does not necessarily supply complete and rational answers even to
the simplest of problems.
Perhaps the most memorable mathematical moment in Watt oc-
curs in the story of Mr. Louit and Mr. Nackybal, narrated to Mr.
Knott's gardener, Mr. Graves, by Arthur, his co-worker at Mr.
Knott's house. Arthur tells the story of Louit's research in support of
his dissertation, The Mathematical Intuitions of the Visicelts. Louit,
faithful epistemologist that he is, obtains a research grant and then
sets out on an expedition into the countryside in search of mathe-
matical prodigies among the Irish peasantry. After a variety of lu-
dicrous misadventures (among other things he is forced to cook and
eat his dog for food), Louit's quest for knowledge is rewarded with the
discovery of one Mr. Nackybal, an illiterate bumpkin who can barely
even add and subtract. But Mr. Nackybal is apparently a sort of idiot
savant with the astounding ability of computing (though not entirely
accurately) cube roots in his head for numbers up to six digits.19
Louit returns with Nackybal to his university to display the discov-
ery to his supervisory committee, which appears to be a cross be-
tween Abbott and Costello and academic committees everywhere-
with a suggestion that there is not much difference between the two.
After spending five pages attempting an exhaustive enumeration of
the ways the committee members might all look at one another be-
fore the proceedings begin, the narrative continues with Nackybal's
demonstration, but his performance is overshadowed by the comical
antics of the committee members themselves. All told, this extended
parody of academia runs for twenty-seven pages of exhaustive lists
and mathematical shenanigans, but Arthur runs out of steam before
the story can ever reach its end or make its point, which apparently
has to do with Louit's subsequent academic demise and turn to


smuggling Bando, an illegal sexual stimulant that Arthur recom-
mends to Graves as a remedy for his flagging love life.
Watt's own attempts at understanding reality through scientific
inquiry are a central motif of the book, and Watt himself is heavily
given to mathematical computation as an epistemological technique.
But Watt's excessively careful computations are invariably flawed,
often leading to highly comic results. Attempting to ascertain some
mathematical relation among the series of dogs, men, and pictures
that pass through Mr. Knott's house, Watt remembers a former
occasion when (lying in a ditch, as is his wont) he listened to three
frogs croaking. We are then treated to a page and a half of "kraks,"
"kreks," and "kriks" as Watt contemplates the periodic relation
among the three, simultaneously evoking literary remembrances of
Aristophanes' The Frogs and Finnegans Wake20 but also forgetting
that the entire effort is futile since there is no reason to suspect that
frogs croak with any kind of mathematical regularity in the first place.
Watt's most extended calculation occurs when he is ordered to
feed Mr. Knott's leftover food to the dog but must face the problem
that Mr. Knott has no dog. The obvious solution is to give the food to
a dog from the neighborhood, but Watt (like Molloy) is unable to live
with any sort of contingency. So he manages to turn this simple and
practical solution into an extended problem in logistics, spending
several pages (91-100) attempting to compute all possible eventual-
ities to make certain that the food is always eaten. Such assurance, he
concludes, can be obtained only by hiring a local man and dog to
come by each evening to check for leftover food. But accidents can
happen, and Watt (like Molloy) cannot accept uncertainty. So Watt
realizes that it will be necessary to have a backup man and dog, just in
case. In fact, to cover all possibilities, there must be backups for the
backups, and so on, ad infinitum.
And ad absurdum. Watt's quest for mathematical certainty leads to
ludicrous results, and this infinite series of men and dogs is brought
to an end only by the expedient of the inimitable Lynch clan. This
fecund family can breed their own dogs, generating a constant sup-
ply, and meanwhile they will be able to generate their own backups
through a massive propensity for incest. In fact, this tendency toward
inbreeding among the members of the Lynch clan has already led to a
variety of grotesque (and sometimes impossible) congenital ailments,
a detailed description of which we are treated to in the text. On an


obvious level, the Lynches appear to function as a parody of the Irish
nationalist mythology of the purity of the Irish race.21 But this absurd
family also provides the end point of Watt's detailed mathematical
solution to the leftover food problem, effectively undermining his
pretensions to rationality through their own absurdity.
36 Amidst Watt's attempts at complete documentation and descrip-
tion of the Lynch clan we learn that among these poor souls is one
Kate, "a fine girl but a bleeder." A footnote then explains: "(1) Hae-
mophilia is, like enlargement of the prostate, an exclusively male
disorder. But not in this work" (102). This footnote is particularly ef-
fective in the way that it undermines Watt's apparently conscientious
and careful calculations, reminding us that Watt is entirely fictional
and need not conform to the laws of verisimilitude or to the scien-
tific project of accurately reflecting nature-with a suggestion that
science itself might also not be quite so accurate and reliable as it
would like to believe. This notion is further emphasized two pages
later in a footnote to the calculation of the cumulative life span of the
Lynch clan: "(1) The figures given here are incorrect. The con-
sequent calculations are therefore doubly erroneous" (104). In Watt
such detailed calculations provide not knowledge but confusion, and
the authority of mathematics in general is strongly called into ques-
If Watt's misadventures with mathematics act as an ironic counter
to Sprat's dream of a mathematical language, his difficulty with
language itself provides an even more powerful commentary on the
scientific quest for a transparent language with a direct connection
between signifier and signified. Watt is at least as eager as Sprat to
discover such a well-behaved and dependable medium of communi-
cation, and "Watt's need of semantic succour was at times so great
that he would set to trying names on things, and on himself, almost as
a woman hats" (83). Watt indeed is a sucker for semantics, and his
view of language as naming participates in a philosophical tradition
that runs from Genesis to Saul Kripke. But Watt is no Adam, and his
names tend to come unstuck from the objects they indicate, leading
to an unbridgeable gap between signifier and signified that ends his
dream of linguistic security once and for all.
Watt contemplates a pot in Mr. Knott's house but is unable to
make the name adhere to the object:


For it was not a pot, the more he looked, the more he reflected,
the more he felt sure of that, that it was not a pot at all. It
resembled a pot, it was almost a pot, but it was not a pot of which
one could say, Pot, pot, and be comforted. It was in vain that it
answered, with unexceptionable adequacy, all the purposes,
and performed all the offices, of a pot, it was not a pot. And it was
just this hairbreadth departure from the nature of a true pot that
so excruciated Watt. (81)

Here Watt reveals the metaphysical idealism that lies at the heart of
all conceptions of language as naming-by labeling the object in Mr.
Knott's house as a "pot," one is implying a comparison between this
object and some ideal "true pot."
Watt's encounter with the pot recalls the famous parable of the leaf
in Nietzsche's "On Truth and Lies" essay. Nietzsche argues that, by
applying the name "leaf" to so many different individual leaves, one
effaces the differences among those leaves: "This awakens the idea
that, in addition to the leaves, there exists in nature the 'leaf': the
original model according to which all the leaves were perhaps woven,
sketched, measured, colored, curled, and painted-but by incompe-
tent hands, so that no specimen has turned out to be a correct, trust-
worthy, and faithful likeness of the original model" (83). Nietzsche's
critique of this idealistic conception of naming leads him to the
conclusion that all language (and all human knowledge) is inherently
metaphorical-in short, that the kind of concrete and direct link
between signifier and signified envisioned by the early scientists is an
The rationalist Watt, unable to accept the vertiginous implications
of this radical gap between signifier and signified, apparently de-
scends into madness and enters the asylum, where he meets Sam. In
the asylum Watt begins to experiment with more and more radical
modifications of traditional language use. Sam meanwhile struggles
mightily to recuperate Watt's fractured discourse, converting it back
into conventional narrative. Many critics, noticing the similarity in
names, have in fact argued that Sam plays the same role as Beckett,
attempting to express in language material that ultimately eludes
rational linguistic expression. For example, Culik relates Watt's
bizarre language to the aphasic speech of brain-damaged patients and


notes Sam's efforts to make sense of it: "The problem of Watt (and the
problem of Watt) is revealed to be Sam's task of interpreting, report-
ing, and remaining true to Watt's aphasic speech .... by his name
we understand his task to be similar to Samuel Beckett's artistic task"
38 But a closer look at Sam's attempts to make sense of Watt's mad
speech indicates that Sam may represent the efforts not of Beckett
but of rationalists like Sprat who demand that everything make sense
no matter what. Watt's language becomes more and more irrational
as his narrative to Sam proceeds, yet at every point Sam is able to
develop a rational strategy of recuperation that allows him to trans-
late Watt's speech back into "normal" syntax, though acknowledging
that there is a significant loss of information in the process.
First Watt begins to alter the order of the words in his sentences,
narrating his adventures in a highly unusual syntax. He explains to

Day of most, night of part, Knott with now. Now till up, little
seen so oh, little heard so oh. Night till morning from. Heard I
this, saw I this then what. Thing quiet, dim. Ears, eyes, failing
now also. Hush in, mist in, moved I so. (164, Beckett's italics)

Sam then responds in typical scientific fashion, performing a detailed
analysis of Watt's new mode of discourse and concluding

that the inversion affected, not the order of the sentences, but
that of the words only;
that the inversion was imperfect;
that ellipse was frequent;
that euphony was a preoccupation;
that spontaneity was perhaps not absent;
that there was perhaps more than a reversal of discourse;
that the thought was perhaps inverted. (164)

Culik accurately points out that this list of characteristics provides
a good description of the speech patterns of aphasics, especially as
described in studies of the 1930s.22 But the nonstandard word order
and preoccupation with euphony in Watt's sentences also parallel
certain modernist linguistic experiments, recalling particularly the
work of Joyce through Ulysses. 3 Sam's analysis allows him to make
sense of Watt's peculiar sentences, ignoring the fact that Watt's


speech (like Joyce's writing) may be making a comment on the folly of
such demands that all language must make sense. Moreover, Sam's
scientific approach fails to comprehend the strangely lyric evo-
cativeness of much of Watt's speech, a quality that strongly fore-
shadows the peculiar poetry of Beckett's later, more radical texts,
indicating that language achieves its effects in ways far more subtle 39
than as a mere conduit for intentional meaning. Sam thus recuperates
Watt's untraditional language in a traditionally rational manner:

But soon I grew used to these sounds, and then I understood
as well as before, that is to say a great part of what I heard.
So all went well until Watt began to invert, no longer the
order of the words in the sentence, but that of the letters in the
word. (165)

Watt's change of strategies here closely parallels Joyce's move-
ment from the nonstandard word orders of Ulysses to the fractured
portmanteau words of Finnegans Wake. As Sam continually reminds
us after each of Watt's changes in strategy, "But soon I grew used to
these sounds, and then I understood as well as before." But Sam's
efforts to contain and subdue Watt's irrational discourse are not
entirely successful, and at each step he admits that "I missed much I
presume of great interest." Despite its best efforts, rationality cannot
in fact account for all that goes on in language (or in the world), and
this point is made clear in the many reminders of the incompleteness
and unreliability of Sam's narration, despite his heavy reliance on
rational modes of explanation. Sam's own need for semantic succor is
so powerful, however, that he continues to attempt to make sense of
Watt's speech, even as it becomes more and more bizarre.
To complicate matters, Sam also begins to go deaf, though he
assures us that his "mental faculties were if possible more
vigorous than ever" (169). This suggestion that Sam may not have
even been able to hear Watt offers the possibility that the narrator's
"mental faculties" may in fact be responsible for much, if not all, of
the narrative. In short, Sam may simply have invented much of the
story on his own, and it is possible that he has even created Watt from
the resources of his own delusional imagination. There is a great deal
in the text to suggest that Watt is simply a projection of Sam. As Sam
stands in his garden at the asylum, staring across at Watt in his
garden, Sam admits that "suddenly I felt as though I were standing


before a great mirror, in which my garden was reflected, and my
fence, and I" (159).24
But nothing is certain in Watt, and the resulting epistemological
instability places the reader of Watt in very much the same position
as Watt himself-both constantly encounter incidents of "great for-
40 mal brilliance and indeterminable purport" (73). A recognition of the
fact that much of Watt may be the invention (or hallucination) of
either Watt or Sam (or both) helps to explain the indeterminacy of the
text and to reinforce the point that the excessively rational epis-
temological yearning that informs the narrative is itself a form of
insanity. But a recuperation of Watt as the ramblings of Watt and/or
Sam does not "solve" the text, which is constructed specifically to
defeat such attempts at rational solution. Ultimately it is pointless to
speculate on whether Sam is "real" and Watt imaginary (or vice
versa), since in point of fact neither exists-both were created by
Beckett and both are purely fictional characters.
In the final analysis, Watt's most effective attack on epistemology
thus occurs not in Watt's absurd quest for knowledge or in Sam's
futile attempts to express absurdity within the confines of rational
discourse, but in the text's own resistance to epistemological inter-
pretation. Both Watt and Sam constantly attempt to impose rational
interpretations on the events they encounter in the text, and readers
who do the same are likely to meet with similarly absurd results.
Beckett himself notes in his essay on the van Velde brothers that all
one can really know about a painting is whether or not one likes it,
and perhaps why (Disjecta 123). The same might be said for Watt.
The task of the reader is not to master or to "know" Watt (or any other
text) but simply to experience it.
Sam's drive to recuperate Watt's discourse in rational form is an
obvious commentary on the efforts of readers who would insist on
making sense of Watt as a whole. That this commentary still has any
relevance at all suggests the enduring power of Enlightenment read-
ing strategies even after a century of radical literary experimentation.
Indeed, Sam's recuperation of Watt's language can be read as a sort of
allegory of modern literary history, of the way criticism has been able
to absorb and assimilate the radical linguistic experiments of the
literary avant-garde, stripping them of their subversive power.
Joyce's installation as the Great Man of modern literary history is
probably the most spectacular example of this kind of cultural appro-


priation, and it may be no accident that the "deterioration" in Watt's
language mirrors the progressive radicalism of Joyce's writing in
recognizable ways. But what is even more interesting is the way
Watt's linguistic experiments foreshadow the later ones of Beckett
himself, which can thus be seen as part of a never-ceasing effort to
escape rational recuperation within the bounds of respectable bour- 41
geois art. That the Nobel laureate Beckett was nevertheless accorded
such affirmation and respect from the powers that be serves as a
telling reminder of just how difficult it is for any artist to escape
inscription within prevailing cultural paradigms. Potentially, how-
ever, Watt can function as a voice from the past that parodies the
cultural appropriation of Beckett's later work and reenergizes the
radicalism of that work by demonstrating in the ludicrous episte-
mological endeavors of Watt and Sam the folly of an uncompromising
demand for rational understanding.







In A Room of One's Own Virginia Woolf makes
clear her antagonism toward the domineering pomposity that she
associates with traditional masculine egotism. Male figures in the
book tend to be pretentious clods, as in the case of the various
"professors" who have presumed to write denigrating histories of
women in order to make themselves feel superior by comparison.
But Woolf is more concerned with universities than with pro-
fessors-her targets are not so much specific individuals as the
general patriarchal attitudes and institutions that contribute to mak-
ing those individuals who they are. She notes the way in which men
are as much the victims as the promulgators of patriarchal tradition:

They too, the patriarchs, the professors, had endless difficulties,
terrible drawbacks to contend with. Their education had been in
some ways as faulty as my own. It had bred in them defects as
great. True, they had money and power, but only at the cost of
harbouring in their breasts an eagle, a vulture, for ever tearing
the liver out and plucking at the lungs-the instinct for posses-
sion, the rage for acquisition which drives them to desire other
people's fields and goods perpetually; to make frontiers and


flags; battleships and poison gas; to offer up their lives and their
children's lives. (38-39)

As Woolf's emphasis on images of acquisition and conquest sug-
gests, she sees patriarchal society as leading to a situation in which
individual subjects relate to one another primarily through a mode of
conflict, with the dominant victors aggrandizing their own egos at the
expense of the subjugated losers.25 Though Woolf showed an intense
engagement with social and political issues, her imagination was
highly literary, so it comes as no surprise that one of her principal
tropes for this patriarchal mode of subjectivity was the role played by
the traditional author. For example, she criticized both James Joyce
and Dorothy Richardson for centering their writing on their personal
preoccupations, on "the damned egotistical self" (Writer's Diary).22
Again, however, Woolf's primary target is not individual authors
so much as the institution of authorship as it has developed in
patriarchal society. She writes against this conception of authorship
everywhere in her work, as when she calls on writers to "practise
anonymity" (Writer's Diary 119) or when she praises Shakespeare for
having transcended his personal passions in his writing:

All desire to protest, to preach, to proclaim an injury, to pay offa
score, to make the world the witness of some hardship or griev-
ance was fired out of him and consumed. Therefore his poetry
flows from him free and unimpeded. (Room 58-59)26

Woolf herself works against authorial egotism in a variety of ways.
In Mrs. Dalloway, for example, she writes almost entirely in a mode
of indirect speech, so that most of the narration cannot be attributed
simply to an omniscient narrator but is also influenced by various
characters in the book. In A Room of One's Own Woolfdecenters her
own voice more explicitly, employing an "I" with a fluid deixis that
points first to one subject, then another, never settling into a repre-
sentation of a fixed, stable speaker: "' is only a convenient term for
somebody who has no real being call me Mary Beton, Mary
Seton, Mary Carmichael or by any name you please-it is not a
matter of any importance" (Room 4-5). And in The Waves Woolf
employs six different constantly alternating first-person narrators, so
that the continual switching from one speaker to another acts to


problematize the association of the "I" of the text with any specific
speaking subject.
Woolf's rethinking of traditional notions of subjectivity, and es-
pecially of the interplay between subjectivity and gender, has justi-
fiably made her a major figure in feminist literary criticism of the past
44 two decades. Anne Herrmann, reading Woolfas a modernist, looks at
her highly critical treatment of the masculine literary tradition and
concludes that the resulting dialogue is one of the ways in which
"Woolf deconstructs the centered, unified subject as such" (1).27
Patricia Waugh, on the other hand, argues that the issues of concern
to mainline modernists and postmodernists were never really central
in the writing of many women, who work to establish their own
alternative literary tradition. Importantly, this project also involves
the establishment of alternative models of subjectivity, since for
women and other marginal groups traditional conceptions of the
transcendental self were never relevant anyway: "for those mar-
ginalized by the dominant culture, a sense of identity as constructed
through impersonal and social relations of power (rather than a sense
of identity as the reflection of an inner 'essence') has been a major
aspect of their self-concept long before post-structuralists and post-
modernists began to assemble their cultural manifestos" (3). The new
feminine modes of subjectivity cited by Waugh tend to be collective
in nature, emphasizing intersubjective relation rather than sub-
jective autonomy: "Much of women's writing can, in fact, be seen not
as an attempt to define an isolated individual ego but to discover a
collective concept of subjectivity which foregrounds the construction
of identity in relationship" (10).28
Herrmann and Waugh are both right to a point-Woolf seeks both
to deconstruct traditional models of subjectivity and to suggest new
ones with an increased emphasis on relationality. This dual move-
ment mirrors the duality of subjectivity in bourgeois society, where
the myth of the independent individual contributes to the suppres-
sion of any true individuality, an effect especially emphasized by
Frankfurt school neo-Marxists such as Adorno and Horkheimer. In
both cases Woolf shows a clear understanding of the social con-
struction of the self and of the ways in which that ongoing process of
construction involves a complex series of relationships, not only with
other subjects, but with various traditions, institutions, social prac-
tices, and structures of power that would seek to define and restrict


the kinds of subjectivity that are available in any given case. Impor-
tantly, Woolfdoes not see the "damned egotistical self" that she rails
against as a reality but as a cultural myth. The problem is not that we
have too many strong, stable individuals roaming around dominating
society. On the contrary, the individuals are themselves dominated
by this myth of selfhood, and the inability to live up to this myth only 45
exacerbates the already tenuous sense of self so often displayed by
characters in Woolf's work-and by people in the modern world.
In her fiction Woolf consistently depicts the efforts of individual
characters to construct themselves in relation to others within the
matrix of constraints and opportunities that comprise modern civi-
lization, anticipating recent projects such as Foucault's exploration of
"technologies of the self" and Greenblatt's work on "self-fashioning"
in the Renaissance.29 It is perhaps in The Waves that Woolf's
thoughts on this phenomenon are enacted most vividly. This most
experimental (and most poetic) of Woolf's "novels" (she herself re-
ferred to it as a "play-poem") consists of a series of nine chapters in
which six "speakers" perform a series of soliloquies in a highly lyrical
poetic style. The speakers-Bernard, Jinny, Louis, Neville, Rhoda,
and Susan-are clearly differentiated in terms of their personalities
and characteristics, though all of the soliloquies are spoken in the
same style regardless of the identity or age of the speaker.3 While
there are instances where one soliloquy seems to answer another, or
where the thoughts of one speaker seem to spill over into those of
another, in general the speeches resemble internal monologues, as
the speakers move through various stages of life from early childhood
to old age and death, attempting to narrate identities for themselves
in language. There is a poignant seeking and yearning in these
speeches as the speakers carefully and tentatively investigate the
subjective positions that are available to them in the midst of large
cultural forces that tend to define and restrict those positions. Mean-
while, the nine chapters in which these soliloquies occur are each
preceded by an "interlude" narrated in an extremely impersonal
third-person voice that marks the passage of time during a day (and,
analogically, through the lives of the characters). As in the "Time
Passes" section of To the Lighthouse, there is a certain wistful intima-
tion of mortality in these impersonal interludes, a reminder of the
inexorable passing of time and of the inevitability of death.31 In
a warning against egocentrism (and androcentrism) the sun rises,


moves across the sky, and sets, while waves break on the shore,
totally oblivious to the strivings of the six speakers of the chapters. At
the same time, the forces of nature in these interludes can also be
read as metaphors for the large cultural and political forces at work in
society, forces that often seem similarly unconcerned with the efforts
46 of individual humans.
Perhaps the most effective weapon employed by Woolf against
individual egoism in The Waves is the style of the book itself. The
stylistic sameness of the "speeches" of the various characters has
provoked considerable negative reaction among critics, as when
David Daiches complains of the book's "rigid" prose (107) or when
James Naremore suggests that the inflexible form of the book is
"rather stifling" (189). Indeed, as Naremore points out, the style of
The Waves is not only invariant from character to character but also
remains constant over time, even though the characters move from
early childhood to old age in the course of the book. By way of
contrast, Naremore approvingly notes Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist
as a Young Man, in which the narrative style gains complexity and
sophistication as Stephen Dedalus grows and matures (157).
Joyce's method does seem to provide a more vivid and distinct
picture of the individual minds of his characters than does Woolf's,
but that may largely be the point.32 The commonality of style among
the speakers in The Waves tends to undermine any focus on the
"egotistical self" of individual consciousnesses and to support a sense
of community among the speakers. At the same time, the consistency
of style and tone offers the reader a stable subjective anchor in the
text, pointing toward the way in which Woolf is concerned not only
with a negative deconstruction of traditional myths of selfhood but
also with a positive reconstruction of the self along alternative,
communal lines.33 Importantly, however, this stability resides not in
the meaning of the text (which is often highly indeterminate), but in
the sheer lyric intensity of the book's language.34
The characters in The Waves pursue a number of strategies in their
efforts to construct themselves, though the central mode of sub-
jective constitution in the book is a narrative one. However, Woolf
warns us that narrative self-constitution is often a form of entrap-
ment. She herself radically subverts the conventions of narrative in
the construction of The Waves, while the various characters in the
book discover that the routes available to them are already predeter-


mined by various inherited cultural narratives over which they have
no control. It is only Bernard, the novelist, who seems genuinely able
to construct new narratives of his own (and to appropriate existing
narratives for his own use), and consequently it is Bernard who is
most successful at constructing himself in ways that go beyond the
mere enactment of stereotypes. Similarly, the successful reader of 47
The Waves must go beyond conventional and stereotypical modes of
reading in attempting to negotiate Woolf's highly unusual book.
The ways in which the various characters in The Waves are often
caught within the stereotypical expectations engendered by preexist-
ing narratives are most clearly illustrated in the treatment of Per-
cival, a seventh major character in the book. True to his name, the
dashing Percival is a stock figure of masculine heroism who takes on
almost mythical dimensions. But despite his considerable talents,
Percival is the least free and most predetermined of all the book's
characters. Other characters may use Percival as a model against
which they define themselves in their own efforts to envision them-
selves creatively, but Percival himself is already so thoroughly de-
fined by the traditional expectations of his role as hero that he is not
free to envision himself. To emphasize Percival's lack of freedom,
Woolf gives him no speeches in the book-all we know of Percival
comes from others' thoughts about him, and he quite literally has no
say in his own constitution as a subject.
At the school attended by Bernard, Louis, and Neville as boys,
Percival is admired and worshiped by his schoolmates, particularly
for his exploits on the cricket field. Sports such as cricket serve as
central vehicles for the establishment of a sense of personal mastery
in children. But in the British context, cricket is a game charged with
very specific cultural coding, and Percival's athletic accomplish-
ments serve not to open creative avenues for self-constitution but to
lock him more firmly into the traditional role of hero. After all, it is on
the playing fields of boyhood games that British boys learn the codes
of conduct that will later serve them on the battlefields of the British
Empire, an association that Joyce's Stephen Dedalus makes clear as
he describes his students playing hockey in the "Nestor" chapter of
Ulysses: "Jousts. Time shocked rebounds, shock by shock. Jousts,
slush and uproar of battles, the frozen deathspew of the slain, a shout
of spearspikes baited with men's bloodied guts" (27).
In The Waves, Louis likewise employs military terms to describe


Percival's heroics on the playing field, though mixing them with
religious imagery that indicates the depth of his worship for Percival:
"His magnificence is that of some mediaeval commander. A
wake of light seems to lie on the grass behind him. Look at us
48 trooping after him, his faithful servants, to be shot like sheep, for
he will certainly attempt some forlorn enterprise and die in
battle." (37)

Indeed, Louis, who respects order and authority more than any of
the other speakers, is especially drawn to Percival's boyhood heroics,
but as a perennial outsider he is relegated to the outer fringe of
Percival's circle of admirers:
"The boasting boys," said Louis, "have gone now in a vast team
to play cricket. They have driven off in their great brake, singing
in chorus. How majestic is their order, how beautiful is
their obedience! If I could follow, ifI could be with them I would
sacrifice all I know." (47)

Louis finds the discipline of these boys "marching in troops with
badges in their caps" reassuring, yet even as a child desperate for
some sense of tradition and stability, he recognizes a dark side to
these young proto-Nazis. Their discipline and their love of authority
and conformity are, as is often the case with these qualities, accom-
panied by an intense and sadistic cruelty:

"But they also leave butterflies trembling with their wings
pinched off; they throw dirty pocket-handkerchiefs clotted with
blood screwed up into corners. They make little boys sob in dark
passages .... Yet it is what we wish to be, Neville and I." (47)

Neville, who despises authority more than any of the other charac-
ters do, is the one who forms the most intense attachment to Percival,
partially because Percival is for Neville the object of a homosexual
fascination, but also because of the close complicity between a total
reliance on authority and a total rejection of it. Neville is fiercely anti-
Christian and becomes furious even at the sight of a crucifix, yet his
love of Percival also takes on many of the aspects of religious worship,
as Neville himself explains: "He takes my devotion; he accepts my
tremulous, no doubt abject offering" (48).
But despite such religious imagery, Neville manages to see Per-


cival as a figure of resistance to Christianity, as a sort of pagan god. He
describes Percival in the school chapel: "His blue, and oddly inex-
pressive eyes, are fixed with pagan indifference upon the pillar
opposite" (36). But Neville, like Louis, recognizes a certain sinister
element in the kind of authority represented by Percival. In the next
sentences, Neville goes on to suggest: "He would make an admirable 49
churchwarden. He should have a birch and beat little boys for
misdemeanors." The implication is that churchwardens (like Joyce's
Baldyhead Dolan) are not sincere in their religious beliefs but are
simply involved in a quest for power and domination, desiring a
position from which they can sadistically exert their authority over
Louis, who has great respect and reverence for traditional religion,
clearly sees Percival as a strongly Christian figure, perhaps even as a
representation of Christ himself. 35 The language he uses to describe
Percival is filled with Christian overtones, as when Percival's disci-
ples are referred to as sheep or as a singing chorus. Indeed, the very
different uses to which Louis and Neville put their images of Per-
cival-one to reinforce Christianity, the other to undercut it-
illustrate the way in which Percival is so thoroughly constituted by
the expectations of others. Moreover, his position is determined not
merely by the other characters but also by centuries of patriarchal
tradition. Bernard summarizes him perfectly: "He is conventional;
he is a hero" (123).
Percival goes away to India to serve in the occupying military
forces of the British Empire, not so much because he chooses to do
so, but simply because that is what British society expects of a
dashing young hero. In India he is to serve as a paradigm of British
power, authority, and efficiency. Thus, Bernard visualizes him com-
ing upon an overturned cart that the poor native Indians are of course
helpless to right:

"But now, behold, Percival advances; Percival rides a flea-bitten
mare, and wears a sun-helmet. By applying the standards of the
West, by using the violent language that is natural to him, the
bullock-cart is righted in less than five minutes. The Oriental
problem is solved. He rides on; the multitude cluster round
him, regarding him as if he were-what indeed he is--a God."


Percival is, in fact, very much the same sort of figure as Joseph
Conrad's Kurtz, who recommends that imperial forces should ap-
proach subjugated peoples by demonstrating "the might of a deity"
(Heart 123).36 The suggestion that Percival rides a "flea-bitten mare"
indicates a certain irony in Bernard's depiction of him as a godlike
5o hero figure to the Indians, though this irony is complicated by the
way in which the English characters (especially Louis and Neville)
also view Percival as godlike. But however ambiguous this irony,
Woolf makes clear her attitude toward the male bravado underlying
the ideology of imperialism. Louis turns out to be correct in his
childhood premonition of Percival's death, but that death does not
occur in a moment of heroic accomplishment. Like Kurtz, Percival
experiences a downfall, but in his case it is more literal-his saddle
girth has been insufficiently tightened, causing him to tumble off his
horse in a fatal fall. The ideology of military imperialism in which
Percival is entrapped leads not to the glorious recovery of the Holy
Grail but to abject and meaningless death.
Percival is the most obvious representative of the masculine ego-
tistical self in The Waves. Yet even as he functions as a powerful
image of patriarchal tradition, he also serves as a victim of that
tradition and as an illustration of its folly. The most rigidly defined of
all the characters, he is also the least whole, because that definition
has been provided strictly by others, and the stultifying effects of the
stereotypical expectations of the male role lead to his death and to the
waste of his considerable talents. His story thus simultaneously
undercuts any number of male cultural myths associated with chiv-
alry, military heroism, imperialism, religion, and the general quest
for transcendence. But it also shows Woolf's awareness that the
problem is not individual males but the conventions of society that
force males into invidious roles. On the other hand, it is also clear in
The Waves that the same patriarchal attitudes that so limit Percival's
freedom also provide opportunities to some of the male characters
that are not open to the females. Early in the book, it becomes clear
that society expects different things from boys than from girls-the
six children are separated according to gender and sent to different
schools. Louis, Neville, and Bernard all eventually participate in
professions (especially professions related to the symbolic order of
language) in productive ways, while Jinny and Susan occupy roles
that are largely defined in relation to males, and Rhoda is unable to


find any role at all to occupy comfortably. Most importantly, in a
situation that resonates with Woolf's discussion in works such as A
Room of One's Own of male dominance in the literary tradition, none
of the women write or are engaged with the literary tradition in the
way that all three of the male speakers are.37 Thus, the women are
denied an important arena for self-envisionment that is available to 51
the men, and at least the men have an opportunity to contribute to
the making of the narratives that define them in ways that the women
do not.
Susan, a sort of earth mother, functions very much as the embodi-
ment of the traditional male fantasy of the eternal feminine. Thus, as
Bernard sums up his friends in the book's last chapter, he notes that
"[i]t was Susan who first became wholly woman, purely feminine"
(247-48). A farm girl, she is highly attuned to nature; she is at home
walking in the fields, especially in the early morning before human
civilization has gotten into gear: "At this hour, this still early hour, I
think I am the field, I am the barn, I am the trees; mine are the flocks
of birds, and this young hare who leaps, at the last moment when I
step almost on him" (97). Moreover, Susan is the only one of the
women in the book who will have children, and she is consistently
associated with images of fertility, as when she goes for a walk by the
river: "All the world is breeding. The flies are going from grass to
grass. The flowers are thick with pollen" (100).
Susan marries a farmer, serves as a dependable helpmate on his
farm, bears him sons. In short, she acts out her role as feminine
stereotype and performs the duties that are expected of her. But she
seems to recognize that she is playing a highly artificial part. Unlike
Percival, she does not accept without reflection the role defined for
her. Her feelings are often highly ambivalent, and she often both
loves and hates the nature images with which she is so identified. And
she sees through the stereotypical glorifications of her role as mother:
"I shall be debased and hide-bound by the bestial and beautiful
passion of maternity. I shall push the fortunes of my children
unscrupulously. I shall hate those who see their faults. I shall lie
basely to help them." (132)

Indeed, Susan (at least internally) often rebels against the role into
which she has been cast as traditional wife and mother, recognizing
that "I am fenced in, planted here like one of my own trees" (190).


Like her mother before her, she has been domesticated, harnessed
like a farm animal, her wild spirit placed beneath the yoke of the
quotidian. The earth-goddess image may function as a central cul-
tural myth of motherhood, but real motherhood confines her to
household chores that separate her from the nature she loves, leading
52 not to life but to death:

"I pad about the house all day long in apron and slippers, like my
mother who died of cancer. Whether it is summer, whether it is
winter, I no longer know by the moor grass, and the heath
flower; only by the steam on the window-pane, or the frost on
the window-pane. When the lark peels high his ring of sound
and it falls through the air like an apple paring, I stoop; I feed my
baby. I, who used to walk through beech woods noting the jay's
feather turning blue as it falls, past the shepherd and the tramp,
who stared as it falls, past the shepherd and the tramp, who
stared at the woman squatted beside a tilted cart in a ditch, go
from room to room with a duster." (172)

Feeling so trapped in her life, Susan is intensely envious of Jinny,
whose life as an unmarried society girl in the city is so different from
her own: "I am torn with jealousy. I hate Jinny because she shows me
that my hands are red, my nails bitten" (132). Jinny's nails, of course,
are perfectly manicured. And whereas Jinny's body is like some
delicate musical instrument, Susan's-after yeoman service in the
role of wife and mother-is like a dependable farm implement: "My
body has been used daily, rightly, like a tool by a good workman, all
over" (215). Jinny and Susan are in many ways direct opposites, and
the young Jinny feels just as much at home in the city as Susan does in
the country: "I am native here. I tread naturally on thick carpets. I
slide easily on smooth-polished floors, I now begin to unfurl, in this
scent, in this radiance, as a fern when its leaves unfurl" (102). But
despite her sophistication, social grace, and apparently greater free-
dom when compared to Susan, Jinny is equally envious of Susan and
equally circumscribed within stereotypical male fantasies.
Although she never marries, Jinny perpetually remains the object,
and indeed the creature of the male gaze. She cannot pass a mirror
without examining herself carefully, attempting to envision how she
would appear to a male viewer. A stranger on a train glances ap-
provingly at her reflection in the window, and she feels herself


blossom into existence: "My body instantly of its own accord puts
forth a frill under his gaze. My body lives a life of its own" (63). As she
walks into a social gathering filled with strangers, she is again con-
stituted as an object for the perusal of the men there. Sensing their
reaction to her beauty, she experiences a reassuring feeling of mas-

"The black-and-white figures of unknown men look at me as I
lean forward; as I turn aside to look at a picture, they turn too.
Their hands are fluttering to their ties. They are anxious to
make a good impression. I feel a thousand capacities spring up in
me. I am arch, gay, languid, melancholy by turns." (102)

Whenever Jinny meets a man she wishes to attract, she feels
confident that she can do so with her physical beauty and grace,
needing no help from her wit: "It does not matter what I say" (104).
But of course there is a downside to this situation-the fact that it
does not matter what she says indicates both the power and the
weakness of her physical attractiveness. Men do not care what she
says because they regard her as a physical object whose mind need
not be taken seriously. They are attracted to her body and only to her
body, which they believe is her entire self: "My body goes before me,
like a lantern down a dark lane, bringing one thing after another out
of darkness into a ring of light. I dazzle you; I make you believe that
this is all" (129).
Even as a young girl, the graceful Jinny, athletic and a wonderful
dancer, derives her image of herself very much in relation to her
own body. At school, she hates small mirrors in which one can see
only one's head; for her sense of wholeness, she requires an image of
her entire body: "So I skip up the stairs past them, to the next
landing, where the long glass hangs, and I see myself entire. I see
my body and head in one now; for even in this serge frock they are
one, my body and my head" (42). Jinny has a special rapport with
her own body and thinks with the "body's imagination" (176), antic-
ipating the commentary on the special relationship that women
have with their own bodies in the work of feminists such as H61ene
Cixous. But if Susan becomes trapped in the country where she once
felt so at home, Jinny eventually becomes a prisoner of her own body,
doomed to an existence as a purely physical object, an existence that
becomes more and more terrifying as she grows older and begins to


lose her beauty. Both she and Susan are trapped in roles in which
they can explore only a fraction of the potential selves that they might
As the years pass, Jinny becomes less confident in her ability to
stand out in a crowd: "I am no longer young. I still live. But who
54 will come if I signal?" (193). So she is forced to rely more and more on
makeup and clothing to maintain her physical attractiveness:
'Therefore I will powder my face and redden my lips. I will
make the angle of my eyebrows sharper than usual. I will rise to
the surface, standing erect with the others in Piccadilly Circus. I
will sign with a sharp gesture to a cab whose driver will signify by
some indescribable alacrity his understanding of my signals. For
I still excite eagerness. I still feel the bowing of men in the street
like the silent stoop of the corn when the light wind blows,
ruffling it red." (195)

Looking good to excite male attention is indeed Jinny's profession,
which she acknowledges by comparing herself to Louis working in his
office: "I have sat before a looking-glass as you sit writing, adding up
figures at desks" (221).
Clearly, Jinny is very much a victim, though, like Susan, she does
not accept her victimization passively. In her own mind she knows
that she is more than a body, and though it is through her body that
she excites the response from others that she so desperately needs,
she does not succumb to despair as that body loses its charms. And
she recognizes that the men whom she manipulates are in turn
manipulating her as well, comparing her role as lover to that of the
prototypical rape victim Philomela (via T. S. Eliot): "Jug, jug, jug, I
sing like the nightingale" (177). But Jinny goes on courageously
shoring such fragments as she can against her ruins to the very end, as
Bernard explains in his parting summation of her: "When the lock
whitened on her forehead she twisted it fearlessly among the rest. So
when they come to bury her nothing will be out of order. Bits of
ribbon will be found curled up" (275-76).
Such solace in the mastery of small things is not available to Rhoda,
who lacks Jinny's feeling of bodily integrity and Susan's feeling of
communion with nature. Rhoda avoids being predefined by the
traditional narratives of feminine roles in patriarchal society, but,
lacking any alternative narratives with which she can identify, she is


left with no stable sense of self whatsoever.38 She suffers greatly from
her inability to function in the male symbolic order or to cope with
the signs and symbols used in rational discourse. Her difficulties
appear specifically as an estrangement from symbols, as in a class-
room scene she narrates from her childhood:
"Now taking her lump of chalk she [the teacher] draws figures,
six, seven, eight, and then a cross and then a line on the black-
board. The others look; they look with understanding. Louis
writes; Susan writes; Neville writes; Jinny writes; even Bernard
now has begun to write. But I cannot write. I see only fig-
ures. The figures mean nothing now. Meaning has gone."

At this moment of crisis, Rhoda feels her fragile sense of identity
beginning to dissolve, an experience that she describes in terms of a
loss of temporal (i.e., narrative) continuity: "The world is entire, and
I am outside of it, crying, 'Oh, save me, from being blown for ever
outside the loop of time!'" (21-22). And later she makes this aspect of
her difficulty even more explicit:

"If I could believe," said Rhoda, "that I should grow old in
pursuit and change, I should be rid of my fear: nothing persists.
One moment does not lead to another. ... I cannot make one
moment merge into the next. To me they are all violent, all
separate. ... I do not know how to run minute to minute and
hour to hour, solving them by some natural force until they
make the whole and indivisible mass that you call life." (130)

Rhoda's radical alienation can be described as a general failure ofself-
envisionment, as an inability to constitute any subjective position
that she can comfortably occupy. In an anticipation of Lacan's empha-
sis on the importance of the mirror phase in establishing a subjective
position, and in contrast to Jinny, Rhoda finds that she is entirely
unable to relate to her own reflected image:

"That is my face," said Rhoda, "in the looking-glass behind
Susan's shoulder-that face is my face. But I will duck behind
her to hide it, for I am not here. I have no face. Other people
have faces; Susan and Jinny have faces; they are here. Their
world is the real world. The things they lift are heavy. They say


Yes, they say No; whereas I shift and change and am seen
through in a second." (43)

Rhoda is not at home even in her own body, which is "ill-fitting"
(105). Her body provides no anchor, and she often feels herself
56 beginning to drift out of it, so that "I have to bang my hand against
some hard door to call myself back to the body" (44). She cannot
constitute herself even as the object of the gaze, and her sense of
being "seen through" goes far beyond the cliche of being unable to
hide one's "true" self from the gaze of others. Rhoda, after all, has no
"true" self, even provisionally. Her sense of self is so fragmented that
she feels her body literally to be too insubstantial to be visible: "even
my body now lets the light through; my spine is soft like wax near the
flame of the candle" (45).
Rhoda's lack of selfhood is excruciatingly painful to her and often
quite debilitating. For example, she has virtually no resources on
which to draw to deal with unforeseen situations. At one point she
starts to cross a courtyard but is confronted with an unexpected
puddle. She is so shaken that even this minor obstacle triggers a
major crisis in her life: "I could not cross it. Identity failed me. We are
nothing, I said, and fell. I was blown like a feather. I was wafted down
tunnels" (64).
This sense of dissolution and insubstantiality, coupled with her loss
of temporal connectedness, is a frequently observed symptom of life
in the modem world, but Woolf shows in her depiction of Rhoda a
particular understanding of the role that gender can play in this
modem loss of subjective stability.39 The special difficulty that Rhoda
faces as a woman can be seen especially clearly by comparing her to
Louis, with whom she shares so much. Both are outsiders, both
display a fundamental inability to feel at home and at ease in their
surroundings. But whereas Louis is able to stabilize himself through
an identification with authority, no such solution is available to
Rhoda. Louis will grow up to exert control over a business empire
that involves ships that sail around the globe. The closest Rhoda can
come to this accomplishment occurs in the childhood game in which
she floats white petals in a basin of water, pretending that they are
ships. By tilting the basin or dropping objects into it, Rhoda can
control the movement of these "ships," thus gaining some sense of
mastery (18-19). But in the presence of others, this provisional sense


of security dissolves, and she feels helpless. Lacking skills such as
Susan's ability to sew or Jinny's ability to dance, she has nothing with
which to guarantee her own coherence:

"Alone, I rock my basins; I am mistress of my fleet of ships. But
here, twisting the tassels of this brocaded curtain in my hostess's
window, I am broken into separate pieces; I am no longer one."

Among the other speakers, it is Louis to whom Rhoda is closest. As
Rhoda undergoes her crisis in the classroom, Louis senses her dis-
comfort and sympathizes: "She has no body as the others have. And I,
who speak with an Australian accent, whose father is a banker in
Brisbane, do not fear her as I fear the others" (22). Much in the mode
of Stephen Dedalus, who because his father is not a magistrate feels a
sense of isolation and shame at Clongowes Wood in Joyce's A Portrait
of the Artist as a Young Man, the young Louis is intensely aware of
his foreign accent and of the fact that his father the banker was a
failure at his profession. So it is only natural that he and Rhoda should
be attracted to one another and perhaps unsurprising that they
eventually become lovers.
Indeed, Rhoda and Louis share a special interpersonal communi-
cation (in some ways reminiscent of that shared by Peter Walsh and
Clarissa Dalloway). The speeches of most of the characters are gener-
ally presented as separate soliloquies with no dialogic interaction.
But during the two key gatherings of the adult characters (the first to
bid farewell to Percival as he departs for India, the second a later
reunion dinner at Hampton Court), there are moments when the
speeches of Louis and Rhoda are enclosed together within paren-
theses, indicating a special private communication between the two
of them (140-41, 226-27). And after the reunion dinner, when the
friends decide to walk out into the garden, Rhoda and Louis linger
together behind the others, likeie conspirators who have something
to whisper" (227).
Yet both Louis and Rhoda seem ultimately incapable of genuinely
relating to others, so it also comes as no surprise that their relation-
ship fails:

"If we could mount together, if we could perceive from a suf-
ficient height," said Rhoda, "ifwe could remain untouched with-


out any support-but you, disturbed by faint clapping sounds of
praise and laughter, and I, resenting compromise and right and
wrong on human lips, trust only in solitude and the violence of
death and thus are divided."
"For ever," said Louis, "divided." (231)

However, whereas Rhoda's sense of isolation drives her apart from
society and eventually to suicide, Louis's drives him into the very
mainstream of society, where he seeks to compensate for his outsider
status by showing an inflated respect for tradition and authority and
by becoming an overachiever, first as the star pupil in his school days
and then in the world of business.
Louis's reliance on figures of authority to provide a stabilizing
center to his life can be seen in his admiration for Percival and also in
his reaction to Dr. Crane, the headmaster of the school attended by
Louis, Bernard, and Neville: "Dr. Crane mounts the pulpit and reads
the lesson from a Bible spread on the back of the brass eagle. I rejoice;
my heart expands in his bulk, in his authority" (34). This ability to
identify with patriarchal tradition and authority gives Louis a nar-
rative in which he can participate and allows him to establish a certain
sense of belonging and continuity that is not available to Rhoda:

"Now all is laid by his authority, his crucifix, and I feel come over
me the sense of the earth under me, and my roots going down
and down till they wrap themselves round some hardness at the
centre. I recover my continuity, as he reads. I become a figure in
the procession, a spoke in the huge wheel that turning, at last
erects me, here and now." (35)

This notion of being part of a long tradition, of having roots,
occupies Louis's thoughts almost continuously-as when he fre-
quently fantasizes having descended from the ancient Egyptians.
This same longing for integration also informs Louis's interactions
with the present. Even after achieving success, he remains a "strange
mixture of assurance and timidity" (119), perpetually uncertain of
acceptance, tending to observe and imitate the motions of the people
around him in an effort to make them feel that he is one of them. And
any symbol of substance and security holds great attractions for him:

"I love punctually at ten to come into my room; I love the purple
glow of the dark mahogany; I love the table and its sharp edge;


and the smooth-running drawers. I love the telephone with its
lip stretched to my whisper, and the date on the wall; and the
engagement book." (168)

Eventually, Louis becomes a stereotypical image of male success:
"I have inherited a desk of solid mahogany in a room hung with 59
maps" (219). His male mastery extends across the globe in the
worldwide ventures of his company: 'The globe is strung with our
lines. I am immensely respectable" (200). Yet Louis pays a price for
his success. He is both stabilized and victimized by the authority to
which he appeals. It allows him to assume a role that yields him a
sense of mastery, but it defines that role for him and limits his
ability to go beyond the expectations of that role. He remains cold,
aloof, and alone.
Louis, like Jinny and especially like Susan, recognizes the restric-
tions that have been placed on his freedom. Despite his Eliotic sense
of the solidity of tradition, he displays a typically modernist sense of a
crisis in that tradition, recognizing something sinister about it. His
musings on the importance of tradition are frequently accompanied
by the ominous image of a "chained beast stamping," waiting like the
rough beast of Yeats to bring down the present order. And Louis also
has a private strategy of resistance to authority, retaining even in his
success a small, attic room to which he can repair after a day at the
office to read poetry and think poetic thoughts.
Louis may read the poems of others with admiration, but in his
unwavering acquiescence to authority he is unable to write poetry of
his own. Though he retains, like Leopold Bloom, a touch of the artist,
he is unable to express himself poetically, is limited to the positing of
"unwritten poetry" (66). The female speakers may be unable to write
poetry because of their lack of connection to the male symbolic order,
but Louis suffers a similar inability because of being overly connected
to that order. Indeed, one of the central themes of The Waves
(emphasized by the lyric intensity of all the soliloquies) seems to be
that all of us have poetry within us but patriarchal society often tends
to repress those poetic impulses. In The Waves, then, Woolfuses her
own poetic talents to give expression to the poetic thoughts of the
characters (Rhoda, Susan, Jinny, Louis) who are unable to write
poetry for themselves.
One character who is able to write poetry is Neville, who in fact


becomes a successful poet in adulthood. Neville seems the antithesis
of Louis in his attitude toward authority and tradition, and it is his
staunch refusal to submit to authority that gives him the freedom to
write that Louis lacks. Thus, whereas Louis reveres Dr. Crane and
the tradition he represents, Neville reacts to the headmaster with
60 revulsion and ridicule:

'This brute menaces my liberty," said Neville, "when he prays.
Unwarmed by imagination, his words fall cold on my head like
paving-stones, while the gilt cross heaves on his waistcoat. The
words of authority are corrupted by those who speak them." (35)

Yet despite his constant rebellion against authority, Neville remains
intensely concerned with order. As his reverence for Percival shows,
Neville's rebellion disguises a deep need for the security of some
anchoring center, which he will seek throughout life in the series of
lovers who come and go, worshiping them like gods and then suffer-
ing terribly when they move on.40 His great need is "to offer my being
to one god; and perish, and disappear" (52). He is still defined in
relation to authority, even if that relation in his case is exclusionary as
opposed to Louis's strategy of identification.
One might compare Neville to Joyce's Stephen Dedalus, who
reacts so violently against the Catholic church that church teachings
inform his every thought. As Stephen's friend Cranly tells him in
Portrait, "It is a curious thing .. how your mind is supersaturated
with the religion in which you say you disbelieve" (240).41 Indeed, for
Neville as for Stephen, poetry functions as a substitute for religion.
As he begins to learn language in early childhood, Neville marvels at
its order and structure: "'Each tense,' said Neville, 'means dif-
ferently. There is an order in this world; there are distinctions, there
are differences in this world'" (21). Unable to accommodate the mess,
he, like Robert Frost (and like Stephen Dedalus), constructs his
poems as a momentary stay against the confusion of history. Indeed,
Neville pays the same sort of tribute to poetic tradition, represented
by poets such as Pope, Dryden, Catullus, and Shakespeare, that
Louis pays to the traditions of patriarchal society.
In fact, of all the characters in The Waves, Louis and Neville are
clearly the most alike. Both are neat, punctual, meticulous, and
fastidious, and both have difficulty relating to others, even if Louis
shows this difficulty by attempting to meet the expectations of


others whereas Neville shows it by defiantly refusing to do so.
Neville is, in short, almost as thoroughly determined by authority as
is Louis, both because of his own search for an alternative to the
existing patriarchal order and because, by reacting so directly against
that order, he allows it to determine the positions he is able to
occupy. 61
Bernard, like Neville, is a professional writer. However, as a
novelist he is less concerned with order than is the poet Neville, and
it is in contrast to Neville that Bernard's style of personal constitu-
tion begins to become clear. Bernard tries to accommodate the
mess, to recognize and accept the flux and impermanence of his-
tory. He explains the difference between himself and his friend:
"above all he desires order, and detests my Byronic untidiness; and
so draws his curtain; and bolts his door. ... All changes. And youth
and love" (90). Whereas Neville seeks in his writing to shut out life,
Bernard seeks to encompass and incorporate it. Bernard is more
successful in avoiding the determination of his own identity by
existing narratives because he does not simply react against them
but appropriates them to make them his own. He is characterized
by flexibility, sympathy, and compromise, neither accepting author-
ity with the blind acquiescence of Louis nor opposing it with the
rigidity of Neville. As a result, his sense of self is fluid, multiple, and

"I am not one and simple, but complex and many .... That is
what they do not understand, for they are now undoubtedly
discussing me, saying I escape them, am evasive. They do not
understand that I have to effect different transitions; have to
cover the entrances and exits of several different men who
alternately act their parts as Bernard." (76)

Bernard consistently shows this all-the-world's-a-stage attitude
in his approach to life.42 In a moment of special insight, he sug-
gests: "I was like one admitted behind the scenes: like one shown
how the effects are produced" (266). Bernard seems quite con-
scious of his attempts to constitute himself through narrative,
viewing himself as a participant in a play or as a literary character.
He often sees his life as it might be described by a biographer, and
he frequently refers to himself in third person or even addresses
himself directly. Moreover, many of his own models are highly


literary, though the heroes with whom he identifies turn out to
include a dialogic mixture of figures of authority and figures of
rebellion:43 "For I changed and changed; was Hamlet, was Shel-
ley, was the hero, whose name I now forget, of a novel by Dosto-
evsky; was for a whole term, incredibly, Napoleon; but was Byron
62 chiefly" (249). In short, Bernard constitutes himself very much in
the same way that he writes his novels, assimilating bits and pieces
of experience, especially other people and other authors, into a
heterogeneous whole. As Louis punningly notes of him: "He is
composed" (30).
Among other things, Bernard's recognition of the fictionalized
nature of identity lends him the flexibility to continue his self-
constitution indefinitely without ever becoming fixed in any single
role. He thus becomes a paradigm of the creative constitution of the
self. At first glance, his view of his own life as a literary work is simi-
lar to the attitude of modern authors like Norman Mailer, who
announces that "the first art work in an artist is the shaping of his own
personality" (284). However, whereas Mailer's advertisements for
himself make him the center of his own fictions in an overt effort at
the kind of self-aggrandizement that Woolf associates with masculine
egotism, the self that Bernard constructs is thoroughly decentered
and oriented toward others. He views not just himself but everyone
he meets in terms of the narratives in which they might participate
as characters. Neville realizes this tendency even in childhood:
"Bernard says there is always a story. I am a story. Louis is a story.
There is the story of the boot-boy, the story of the man with one eye,
the story of the woman who sells winkles" (37-38). In short, "We are
all phrases in Bernard's story, things he writes down in his notebook
under A or under B" (70). Importantly, though, Bernard's narratives
do not cast people in rigid roles, nor does he expect the messiness of
reality to be rigidly ordered by his narratives:

"Life is not susceptible perhaps to the treatment we give it when
we try to tell it. Sitting up late at night it seems strange not to
have more control. Pigeon-holes are not then very useful." (267)

And though Bernard at times yearns after "one true story" that will
explain everything, he knows that it will never be found, because
something has always been left out of any story that we can tell:


"Let a man get up and say, 'Behold, this is the truth,' and
instantly I perceive a sandy cat filching a piece of fish in the
background. Look, you have forgotten the cat, I say." (187)

Although we do not actually see any excerpts from the novels that
Bernard writes, his nontotalizing conception of narrative seems to
have much in common with Woolf's own in The Waves, a book she
characterized as having been written "to a rhythm not to a plot" (The
Diary, Vol. 3, 316).4 Bernard's stories similarly refuse to be driven
inexorably onward by plot, not surprisingly causing discomfort in
those, like Neville, who feel that literature is meant to provide order
to life: "Bernard's stories amuse me ... at the start. But when they
tail off absurdly and he gapes, twiddling a bit of string, I feel my own
solitude. He sees every one with blurred edges." (51)
Because of his occupation as novelist, it is not surprising that
Bernard's discourse gradually becomes dominant in the book, finally
taking over the narration entirely in the final summing up.45 In doing
so Bernard subsumes the identities of the other five speakers:

"I am not one person; I am many people; I do not altogether
know who I am-Jinny, Susan, Neville, Rhoda, or Louis: or how
to distinguish my life from theirs .... I have been talking of
Bernard, Neville, Jinny, Susan, Rhoda and Louis. Am I all of
them? Am I one and distinct? I do not know." (276, 288)

Indeed, Bernard's relations with other people involve an intense
sense of interrelatedness and identification as opposed to the isola-
tion felt by Neville and Louis, who remain thoroughly enclosed
within themselves just as they remain circumscribed within the fields
of force exerted by authority and tradition. In the company of others
Louis and Neville feel threatened; they retreat defensively within
themselves. But Bernard opens up even to strangers, like a flower to
the sun, seeking to merge his own identity with theirs:
"Louis and Neville," said Bernard, "both sit silent. Both are
absorbed. Both feel the presence of other people as a separating
wall. But ifI find myself in company with other people, words at
once make smoke rings-see how phrases at once begin to
wreathe off my lips. An elderly and apparently prosperous man,
a traveller, now gets in. And I at once wish to approach him; I


instinctively dislike the sense of his presence, cold, assimilated,
among us. I do not believe in separation. We are not single." (67)

Bernard seems able to relate to anyone, to horse breeders and
plumbers as well as to scholars, poets, aristocrats, and his own
64 friends-and the more the better: "My being only glitters when all its
facets are exposed to many people" (186). Indeed, Bernard's own
sense of self is defined largely in relation to the various people he
meets, whoever they may be: 'Thus my character is in part made of
the stimulus which other people provide, and is not mine" (133).46
This dependence on others is in many ways reminiscent of Jinny, as
when Bernard himself explains: "I need an audience" (115). However,
Bernard is able to take a much more active role in his own strategies
of constitution than is Jinny, particularly through the construction of
narratives that give meaning to his experience as he observes the
world around him: "And striking offthese observations spontaneously
I elaborate myself" (115). In contrast to Jinny, Bernard is an observer,
not an object of observation-when he experiences his escape from
the self late in the book, he notes: "I saw but was not seen" (286).
This ability to observe life without dominating the observations
with the projections of his own personality makes Bernard in many
ways Woolf's ideal of the artist. His intense feeling of relatedness to
others prevents him from assuming the traditional role of the ego-
tistical male author. Moreover, he shows a powerful negative ca-
pability that enables him to assimilate a wide variety of experience,
giving him a symphonic richness of perspective that is lacking in the
monotonic viewpoints of Louis and Neville:

"And I am so made, that, while I hear one or two distinct melo-
dies, such as Louis sings, or Neville, I am also drawn irresistibly
to the sound of the chorus chanting its old, chanting its almost
wordless, almost senseless song that comes across courts at
night." (246)

The song heard by Bernard here is reminiscent of that of the singing
"battered old woman" from Mrs. DaUloway (122-23). Sandra Gilbert
sees this old woman as one of Woolf's "most striking female artists"
(218). However, as I have discussed elsewhere, the old woman's song
is filtered through the consciousness of the male Peter Walsh, so that
it in fact includes aspects of both sexes (Techniques 174). But this


combination of perspectives is precisely that privileged by Woolf in
her discussions of the ideal artist, in which she emphasizes the
necessity of a certain amount of androgyny before creation can take
place at all. In Room she notes that

It is fatal to be a man or woman pure and simple; one must be
woman-manly or man-womanly .... Some collaboration has to
take place in the mind between the woman and the man before
the act of creation can be accomplished. Some marriage of
opposites has to be consummated. (108)

Woolf figures this notion of the androgynous artist most vividly in
her picture of the mythical "Anon, who wrote so many poems without
signing them" (Room 51). Woolf explores the figure of Anon at great
length in a late essay by that title, noting particularly the primal
qualities of Anon as a nameless, androgynous singer, dating back to
the silence of the primeval forest:

The voice that broke the silence of the forest was the voice of
Anon. Some one heard the song and remembered it for it was
later written down, beautifully, on parchment. ... Every body
shared in the emotion of Anons [sic] song, and supplied the
story. Anon sang because spring has come; or winter is gone;
because he loves; because he is hungry, or lustful; or merry; or
because he adores some God. Anon is sometimes man; some-
times woman. ("Anon" 382)47

Anon's song is reminiscent of that heard by Bernard, who is similarly
able to take on the characteristics of both sexes: "For this is not one
life; nor do I always know if I am man or woman, Bernard or Neville,
Louis, Susan, Jinny or Rhoda-so strange is the contact of one with
another" (281). In fact, as an artist he is highly androgynous: ""joined
to the sensibility of a woman' (I am here quoting my biographer)
'Bernard possessed the logical sobriety of a man'" (76).48
For Woolf, the historical artist who comes closest to matching the
mythical Anon is Shakespeare, whom she celebrates for both his
selflessness and his androgyny as an artist. Drawing on Coleridge's
suggestion that the truly great mind is an androgynous one, she thus
notes that "one goes back to Shakespeare's mind as the type of the
androgynous, of the man-womanly mind" (Room 102). Significantly,
Shakespeare is also an important predecessor of Bernard, who often


wanders about mumbling quotations from Shakespeare to himself as
counters to the demands of everyday life: "'Hark, hark, the dogs do
bark, 'Come away, come away, death,' 'Let me not to the marriage of
true minds,' and so on" (259).
Woolf's image of Shakespeare as the androgynous artist who serves
66 as a sort of melting pot for diverse opinions and attitudes represents
an understanding of Shakespeare's work that has been common since
Coleridge's suggestion of Shakespearean androgyny and Keats's
comments on negative capability. It also closely anticipates Green-
blatt's more recent discussion of Shakespeare's knack for "empathy,"
for being able to see things from the positions of others. Indeed,
Greenblatt's suggestion that this empathy is related to an ability to
submit to "self-fashioning" through narrative makes the parallel be-
tween Shakespeare and Bernard here particularly clear.49
On the other hand, Greenblatt's realization that this same empa-
thy is also the special genius of lago-for whom "imagined self-loss
conceals its opposite: a ruthless displacement and absorption of the
other" (236)-indicates a dark side to this process of narrative self-
constitution. Woolfis far too subtle and sophisticated as an artist and
as a thinker to believe that Bernard's mode of interactive subjectivity
will result in an immediate and magical solution of all the problems
facing modern society. Despite the success of many of his strategies,
Bernard is far from immune to the same large cultural forces that are
so stultifying for the other characters. He often feels oppressed by the
mechanical nature of everyday life and by the way in which conven-
tional expectations of behavior "compel us to walk in step like civil-
ised people with the slow and measured tread of policemen" (259). In
some ways Bernard does conform to these expectations, and on one
level he is a highly conventional solid citizen, a professional success
with a small inheritance from his uncle, a loyal husband and father.
But there are "many Bernards" (260), and his personality goes far
beyond this conventional side, especially in his use of literature as a
weapon against the life-sapping banality of the quotidian.50
The sense of merger with others that Bernard feels contributes to
this multiplicity of self, but it is sometimes so overwhelming that he is
in danger of losing himself entirely. Such times can be frightening
even for Bernard, but they can be even more frightening for those
around him. Bernard's attempts to fuse with others are sometimes
perceived as threatening, especially by those such as Neville for


whom thie idea of merging with the other is seen as a challenge to his
own identity, rather than as an opportunity for fulfilling interaction.
At one point Neville sees Bernard approach and begins to feel
threatened by what he knows will be an attempt at intimacy:

"Yet how painful... to have one's self adulterated, mixed up, 67
become part of another. As he approaches I become not myself
but Neville mixed with somebody-with whom?-with Ber-
nard? Yes, it is Bernard, and it is to Bernard that I shall put the
question, Who am I?" (83)

The images of merger and fusion in Woolf's depiction of Bernard,
related to the experience of Freud's "oral" stage (often referred to as
the "oceanic feeling"), are inherently contradictory, involving both a
blissful feeling of merger and a threatening feeling of engulfment.51
Indeed, there are ways in which Bernard's diffuse personality resem-
bles that of Rhoda, who finally dissolves entirely.52 The highly equiv-
ocal nature of Bernard's knack for merger becomes especially clear in
the final pages of the book as he at last succeeds for a brief moment in
escaping his selfhood entirely. This experience has frightening and
disorienting aspects, though it is finally positive. Unlike Rhoda,
Bernard has a strong enough sense of self that he is able to return to
the world from this moment of vision with a new intuitive knowledge;
and even though he knows that he will never be able to express this
knowledge in words, he is still filled with the poetry of the moment. 3
At last thishs difference we make so much of, this identity we so
feverishly cherish, was overcome" (289).
At this moment Bernard's negative capability is at its peak:

"Here on my brow is the blow I got when Percival fell. Here on
the nape of my neck is the kiss Jinny gave Louis. My eyes fill
with Susan's tears. I see far away, quivering like a gold thread,
the pillar Rhoda saw, and feel the rush of the wind in her flight
when she slept." (289)

Not only does he experience this intense sense of sharing, but the
world is filled with poetry and beauty. Yet one cannot escape reality
merely by thinking poetic thoughts, and suddenly reality returns
with a vengeance."4 With the disgust of his old model Hamlet,
Bernard acknowledges this abject return:


"Lord, how unutterably disgusting life is! What dirty tricks it
plays us, one moment free; the next, this. Here we are among
the breadcrumbs and the stained napkins again. That knife is
already congealing with grease. Disorder, sordidity and corrup-
tion surround us. We have been taking into our mouths the
68 bodies of dead birds." (292)

But there is more at stake here than a simple recognition of human
physical mortality. Bernard's antivision also includes the everyday
forces of society that conspire to limit personal freedom:

"Always it begins again; always there is the enemy; eyes meeting
ours; fingers twitching ours; the effort waiting. Call the waiter.
Pay the bill. We must pull ourselves up out of our chairs. We
must find our coats. We must go. Must, must, must-detestable
word." (293)

Successful creative self-envisionment requires eternal vigilance. It
is an activity that must never end, lest we stagnate and succumb to
the banality of cliche and the predictability of the expected. But
Bernard faces this formidable task bravely. Faced with the ultimate
modernist sense of crisis, he responds not with quietism and despair
but with determination and bold action. Refusing to suffer passively
the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, Bernard elects to take
arms against a sea of troubles, though knowing full well that he cannot
finally by opposing end them. Like Gabriel Conroy at the end of "The
Dead," Bernard narrates himself into a typical scene of knightly
heroism, but unlike Gabriel he eschews the egotistical illusions of
the traditional male hero. Moreover, whereas Gabriel turns toward
death, Bernard turns toward life, continuing his battle valiantly to
the end, riding forth against death with a final brave cry: "Against you
I will fling myself, unvanquished and unyielding, O Death!" (297).
And so Bernard, like the dying Hamlet, succumbs to his fate.5 But
the text is not finished. The impersonal narrator of the interludes
absents herself from felicity a while longer, lingering in the text to
add one final line to Bernard's story: "The waves broke on the shore"
(297). And so at last the world is literally seen without a self. In her
closing statement of the folly of masculine vanity and its associated
drive for domination, Woolf reminds us that, despite the heroism of
Bernard's dying defiance, life goes on whenever individuals die. We


are none of us the indispensable center of the world, regardless of
how much we would like to think so. Bernard's final heroism is that
he opposes death not in an effort to evade mortality but in open
recognition and acceptance of it. Like Beckett's Unnamable, Bernard
knows that he can't go on, but he goes on anyway, as long as he can-
which is about the best any of us can hope to do. 69








The fiction of Vladimir Nabokov has been
widely discussed and justifiably admired for its linguistic virtuosity
and formal brilliance. Few critics, however, have explored the social
and political dimensions of Nabokov's work, perhaps largely because
of Nabokov's own denials that his work had such dimensions. In
thinking of Nabokov and politics, one turns immediately to works like
Bend Sinister and Invitation to a Beheading, both of which depict in
excruciating detail the horrifying human cost of totalitarian political
regimes. Yet we have Nabokov's own disclaimer of political interests
in his author's introduction to Bend Sinister:

I have never been interested in what is called the literature of
social comment... I am neither a didacticist nor an allegorizer.
Politics and economics, atomic bombs, primitive and abstract
art forms, the entire Orient, symptoms of "thaw" in Soviet
Russia, the Future of Mankind, and so on, leave me supremely
indifferent. (vi)

Nabokov, apparently sitting atop the Olympus of"pure art," here
seems to deny that he has any interest in real-world events at all.


Indeed, he goes on to proclaim that Bend Sinister bears no relation-
ship to the political and historical context within which it was written:

Similarly, the influence of my epoch on my present book is as
negligible as the influence of my books, or at least of this book,
on my epoch. There can be distinguished, no doubt, certain
reflections in the glass directly caused by the idiotic and despica-
ble regimes that we all know and that have brushed against me in
the course of my life: worlds of tyranny and torture, of Fascists
and Bolshevists, of Philistine thinkers and jack-booted baboons.
No doubt, too, without those infamous models before me I could
not have larded this fantasy with bits of Lenin's speeches, and a
chunk of the Soviet constitution, and gobs of Nazist pseudo-
efficiency. (vii)

A curious denial indeed-one that calls specific attention to the
"reflections" of specific totalitarian regimes in his book, even signal-
ing the reader to be on the alert for specific allusions to the authoritar-
ian practices of both Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany.
Clearly, Nabokov's work is not so entirely divorced from its histor-
ical context as Nabokov would apparently like us to believe. Indeed,
one of the positive critical trends of the past decade has been a
growing recognition that no work is entirely independent of the
social, political, and ideological context of its specific historical mo-
ment. In the case of works like Invitation to a Beheading and Bend
Sinister, the dialogue with totalitarianism, especially Stalinism, is so
direct that the political intonation of the works is quite obvious. But
even a work like Lolita, a spectacular demonstration of verbal dex-
terity without obvious references to any particular political pro-
grams, can have strong political implications, as critics are coming to
see. Dana Brand, for example, notes the way the treatment of
popular culture (especially advertising) in Lolita provides a powerful
commentary on American consumer society. And Elizabeth Deeds
Ermarth notes certain parallels between Nabokov's verbal experi-
ments and the work of Julia Kristeva, both of which unsettle tradi-
tional notions about language and subjectivity.
Neither Brand nor Ermarth makes reference to neo-Marxist politi-
cal theory, but both point toward an understanding of the political
significance of Nabokov's work that can be greatly enhanced by an
appeal to the work of such theorists as Theodor Adorno and Louis


Althusser. Both Adorno and Althusser focus much of their critiques
of bourgeois society on the formation and functioning of the human
subject within the context of that society, and it is in this same area
that a work like Lolita functions most powerfully as a social and
political statement. Nabokov's own critical attitude toward bourgeois
72 society shows through in his Cornell lecture notes on Flaubert's
Madame Bovary, itself an important source and model for Lolita.
Beginning the lecture with a typical Nabokovian proclamation that
"literature is of no practical value whatsoever" (Lectures 125), Na-
bokov goes on to explain Flaubert's use of the term bourgeois as a
synonym for "'philistine,' people preoccupied with the material side
of life and believing only in conventional values" (126). From the tone
here and from comments elsewhere one can surmise that Nabokov
endorses Flaubert's critique of philistinism, though he specifically
distances himself from a critique of bourgeois society in a Marxist
sense by arguing that by Flaubert's definition Marx himself was a
bourgeois thinker, "a philistine in his attitude towards the arts" (127).
Nabokov's assessment of Marx as "bourgeois" is debatable-one
might compare/Terry Eagleton's contrary notation of "Marx's im-
pressively erudite allusions to world literature" (1).56 In any case,
modem neo-Marxists in the West have consistently treated literature
as a privileged discourse and as a potential locus of powerful sub-
versive energies within the framework of bourgeois society.57 But
Nabokov's attempt here to implicate both Marxism and bourgeois
thought in a single criticism is not unusual. For example, his attacks
on Stalinism often included a suggestion of the philistine vulgarity of
Stalin's regime, but this critique tends to extend to the vulgarity of
much American culture as well.58 Indeed, David Rampton suggests
that Nabokov's attempts to initiate two-pronged attacks on the tyr-
anny of totalitarianism and the vulgarity of American popular culture
ultimately undermine the effectiveness of his criticism of either
(42-43). In Lolita, however, Nabokov's satire seems directed almost
entirely at American culture. Perhaps, then, it is not so terribly
surprising that the critique of bourgeois ideology in Lolita resonates
with such critiques in the work of commentators like Adorno and
Althusser in a way far richer than Nabokov himself might like to
believe. For example, Humbert Humbert's drive for mastery and
domination of everything and everyone that he encounters in Lolita
(including his own internal nature) resonates quite directly with the


comments of Adorno and Max Horkheimer on the ideology of domi-
nation that they see as central to Enlightenment (i.e., bourgeois)
thought. Humbert is in some ways the paradigmatic bourgeois sub-
ject, fiercely individualistic yet ultimately constrained by his own
drive for personal dominance, both of the girl Lolita and of life in
general. And Nabokov's depiction of the way the various characters 73
in Lolita are determined by preexisting cultural forces provides a
vivid illustration of Althusser's comments on the constitution of the
subject by ideology in bourgeois society.
Early in Lolita Humbert sets the tone of sexual domination that
will pervade the entire text. In his first sexual encounter with the
nymphet Lolita, he secretly masturbates with the girl's legs sprawled
across his lap, and his own description of the scene clearly indicates
the drive for mastery that motivates him. After some initial uncer-
tainty over the feasibility of this maneuver, Humbert reaches a point
where he feels that success (i.e., orgasm) is assured:

What had begun as a delicious distension of my innermost roots
became a glowing tingle which now had reached that state of
absolute security, confidence, and reliance not found elsewhere
in conscious life. With the deep hot sweetness thus established
and well on its way to the ultimate convulsion, I felt I could slow
down in order to prolong the glow. Lolita had been safely solip-
sized. (62, Nabokov's italics)

"Security, confidence, and reliance" assured, mastery achieved,
Humbert has now safely converted Lolita into an object of his own
desires, effectively obliterating her own subjective identity. He him-
self later acknowledges that in this act, whatht I had possessed was
not she, but my own creation, another, fanciful Lolita" (64). Lolita, in
short, is entirely commodified, and Humbert, that erstwhile critic of
consumerism, consumes the girl with gleeful greed.59
In some ways, masturbation (the ultimate sexual expression of
bourgeois individualism) provides even more sexual mastery than
does sadism, since in this act the Other is indeed "safely solipsized."
The element of mastery inherent in this scene is reinforced by the
fact that Lolita (munching away on a suggestively symbolic apple) is
apparently unaware of what is going on, so that Humbert can pursue
his quest for orgasm without any consideration of her possibly con-
flicting desires-a motif that will recur in his later plan to drug the


girl so that he can molest her in her sleep without her knowledge.
Thus, according to Humbert, his masturbation had "affected her as
little as if she were a photographic image rippling upon a screen and I
a humble hunchback abusing myself in the dark" (64). He himself
acknowledges his feeling of power and domination in this scene by
74 proclaiming that in delaying his orgasm as long as possible "I was a
radiant and robust Turk, deliberately, in the full consciousness of his
freedom, postponing the moment of actually enjoying the youngest
and frailest of his slaves" (62).
It is clear that a major part of Humbert's fascination with
"nymphets" derives from their relative helplessness, from the rela-
tive ease with which they can be dominated, allowing him to shore up
his sense of self through the exertion of his power over them. Yet this
domination is highly paradoxical-the strictures of society dictate
that Humbert's quest for nymphets go largely unfulfilled, so (prior to
Lolita) his mastery of nymphets is restricted to his own imagination
(where he, of course, reigns supreme) and to encounters with pros-
titutes (where he, as a paying customer purchasing a specific com-
modity, is again in charge). In addition, nymphets represent for
Humbert an anterior lost innocence, and thus function as emblems of
the impossibility of mastery in a hopelessly fallen world. It is this
tension between Humbert's drive for mastery and his simultaneous
realization of the impossibility of achieving that mastery that gives
the book much of its energy.
That Humbert's quest for sexual gratification is consistently a drive
to achieve a sense of personal mastery is obvious from any number of
passages in Lolita. Humbert constantly reminds us (and himself) of
his overwhelming handsomeness and sexual attractiveness. He thus
claims early in the book that he could probably have his pick of the
world's beauties, but suggests that he chose "fat Valeria" for his early
bride because she was "a soothing presence, a glorified pot-au-feu, an
animated merkin," and most of all because of "the imitation she gave
of a little girl" (27). In short, she was someone he could dominate and
treat as an object, without fear that she would rebel.60 And he
reinforces this domination with physical brutality, often forcing Val-
eria into compliance with his point of view by twisting her "brittle
wrist." But he miscalculates: she is a person, and the marriage goes
awry. Valeria refuses to conform to his stereotypical notions of what
she should be. She "acquired a queer restlessness; even showed


something like irritation at times, which was quite out of keeping
with the stock character she was supposed to impersonate" (29).
Valeria takes a lover and announces her plans to leave, destroying
Humbert's illusions of mastery. He is astounded that she could take
such decisive action, "because matters of legal and illegal conjunction
were for me alone to decide, and here she was, Valeria, the comedy 75
wife, brazenly preparing to dispose in her own way of my comfort and
fate" (30). So the marriage ends in divorce, and Humbert decides to
restrict himself to nymphets, who will presumably be more pliable,
especially since they exist for him primarily as phantoms.
But Humbert's fantasies take a dark turn into reality when he
meets Lolita, and especially when the death of Charlotte Haze
delivers the little girl into his hands. Humbert clearly derives a great
deal of satisfaction from the authority implied by his nominal position
as Lolita's father. And her social and economic dependence on him
greatly increases this sense of mastery, since, as he explains, "she had
absolutely nowhere else to go" (144). But his domination of Lolita is
not so firm as one might think. He spends much of his time develop-
ing methods to keep the sometimes rebellious child "in submission"
(150), including a variety of bribes, threats, and even physical vio-
lence. As he himself puts it, "I succeeded in terrorizing Lo" (153). In
his drive to master Lolita, to convert her into his possession, Hum-
bert attempts to make her a creature of myth rather than a "typical kid
picking her nose while engrossed in the lighter sections of a news-
paper." He also longs to exert complete dominion over her body,
inside and out:

My only grudge against nature was that I could not turn my
Lolita inside out and apply voracious lips to her young matrix,
her unknown heart, her nacreous liver, the sea-grapes of her
lungs, her comely twin kidneys. (167)

In short, no matter how much mastery he achieves, the fundamen-
tally insecure Humbert always wants more, just as his sexual appetite
for Lolita can never be sated. There is always an inner Lolita that
Humbert cannot know. He is thus terrified that Lolita will accumu-
late enough funds to be able to run away, so he monitors her finances
carefully. And for Humbert potential rivals lurk behind every bush,
these phantoms finally materializing in the form of Clare Quilty, who


takes his Lolita away. This final blow to his mastery is so devastating
that Humbert cannot rest until he finds and destroys his nemesis.
Humbert's desperate drive for sexual mastery clearly bespeaks a
deep-seated insecurity, indicating the way the dynamic of domina-
tion that informs bourgeois subjectivity leads the subject into a
76 position not of power but of helplessness. But Humbert's insecurities
concerning Lolita derive from more than his own fears of sexual
inadequacy. They also come from the realization that his quest for
mastery of the girl is ultimately doomed by the mortal and temporal
nature of human life. Once Humbert removes his nympholepsy from
the realm of aesthetic contemplation and projects it into the reality of
the physical world, he is doomed to failure. He at some point must
come to grips with Lolita's existence as a separate individual with her
own wants and needs. Moreover, as he is painfully aware, she can
remain a nymphet only for a short while; the facts of mortal existence
dictate that children grow to adulthood.
Humbert's drive for domination, in the best Enlightenment tradi-
tion, is centrally informed by the desire to dominate nature itself.
That mortality and physicality are obstacles to Humbert's mastery
even more than is Quilty is indicated by the extreme fastidiousness
that Humbert, rapist and pervert though he is, shows toward phys-
ical matters throughout the course of his narrative. He never fails to
notice (and to note) various images like buzzing flies that serve for
him (as for Shakespeare, among others) as intimations of human
mortality. He is often horrified at what he finds at motels where he
and Lolita stop in the course of their travels, and where "flies queued
outside at the screenless door and successfully scrambled in, the
ashes of our predecessors still lingered in the ashtrays, a woman's hair
lay on the pillow" (212).
Humbert, "a very fastidious male" (40), is repelled by reminders of
the physical side of human life. Bathrooms, for example, tend to
evoke expressions of horror, and Humbert experiences "a spasm of
fierce disgust" when he enters the bathroom he shares with Valeria to
find that Valeria's Russian lover has urinated in the toilet without
flushing afterward (32).61 Humbert is consistently repelled by such
traces of the physicality of his male rivals, which of course serve as
reminders of his own physical nature. He is revolted to find the
handle of his tennis racket still warm after having been held by Quilty
(238), and when he spots Quilty in a bathing suit, he is sickened by


"his tight wet black bathing trunks bloated and bursting with vigor
where his great fat bullybag was pulled up and back like a padded
shield over his reversed beasthood" (239). Indeed, the effect is so
strong that Humbert literally vomits, though he describes his dis-
gorgement with suitable artistic circumlocution as "a torrent of
browns and greens that I had never remembered eating" (240). 77
Horkheimer and Adorno argue that the Enlightenment drive to
gain dominion over nature inevitably leads to a repressed internal
nature, and Humbert's attempts to repress the abject realities of
physical existence seem to substantiate the point. For example,
Humbert's early hopes of converting Valeria into an object of his
fantasy are very quickly interrupted by the intrusion of her physical

But reality soon asserted itself. The bleached curl revealed its
melanic root; the down turned to prickles on a shaved skin; the
mobile moist mouth, no matter how I stuffed it with love,
disclosed ignominiously its resemblance to the corresponding
part in a treasured portrait of her toadlike dead mama. (28)

Humbert is generally disgusted with the physicality of adult women.
They are variously described as having pumpkins for breasts (20),
having heavy hips and coarse skin (74), being of "noble nipple and
massive thigh" (78), being reminiscent of mares (91), and as being ripe
and reeking (245). Most telling is Humbert's direct association of
women with death and decay. His attempts at sexual intercourse with
Charlotte are described as a movement "through the undergrowth of
dark decaying forests" (79). Humbert here participates in a broad
trend in Western cultural history. Simone de Beauvoir notes the
traditional tendency to identify women with the physical aspects of
life in Western culture: "The uncleanness of birth is reflected upon
the mother. And if the little boy remains in early childhood
sensually attached to the maternal flesh, when he grows older,
becomes socialized, and takes note of his individual existence, this
same flesh frightens him ... calls him back from those realms of
immanence whence he would fly" (136). This association of women
with the flesh reflects a disdain for the animality of human cor-
poreality. The male thus opposes himself as "spirit" to the woman as
flesh, as "the Other, who limits and denies him" (129).62


Humbert is particularly repelled by coeds, with their reminders of
what Lolita would soon become:

there are few physiques I loathe more than the heavy low-slung
pelvis, thick calves and deplorable complexion of the average co-
ed (in whom I see, maybe, the coffin of coarse female flesh
within which my nymphets are buried alive. (177, my italics)

This image of the female body as a coffin-echoing Stephen Deda-
lus's meditations in Ulysses on the phonetic similarity of womb and
tomb (40)-is powerful indeed and makes especially clear that
women stand as reminders of the inevitability of death in a fallen
world. On the other hand, to Humbert nymphets represent a lost
innocence, pointing back toward a time of primordial and timeless
This theme in Lolita recalls the Lacanian depiction of human
subjectivity as a condition of inevitable and irremediable loss. Within
a neo-Marxist framework, this theme of loss-so central to all of
Humbert's thinking-also suggests the Althusserian notion that
the bourgeois subject always arises within a matrix of preexisting
ideologies that already determine its course of development.3 Al-
thusser stresses the inevitability of this determination-or "interpel-
lation"-despite our bourgeois illusions of individuality. After all,
the process begins even before birth in the expectations that society
(especially family members) develops in relation to the unborn infant
Humbert's desire for Lolita clearly involves an attempt to escape
such inevitabilities. In particular, he seeks to restore his own lost
childhood innocence, but his relationship with the girl cannot re-
store his childhood. Instead, it destroys Lolita's childhood as well.
The past is irretrievable, beyond mastery. There is, however, one
last possibility for mastery in the realm of art. Art, after all, is a
traditional locus of mastery in Western culture. Alfred Appel ex-
plains: "If the artist does indeed embody in himself and formulate in
his work the fears and needs and desires of the race, then a 'story'
about his mastery of form, his triumph in art is but a heightened
emblem of all of our own efforts to confront, order, and structure the
chaos of life, and to endure, if not master, the demons within and
around us" (vii). Perhaps Humbert can find some consolation by
evoking the past in literature, a realm in which he can still exert


some control through formal manipulation of the materials at hand,
plot being much more amenable to human intervention than is

Unless it can be proven to me-to me as I am now, today, with
my heart and my beard, and my putrefaction-that in the in- 79
finite run it does not matter a jot that a North American girl-
child named Dolores Haze had been deprived of her childhood
by a maniac, unless this can be proven (and if it can, then life is a
joke), I see nothing for the treatment of my misery but the
melancholy and very local palliative of articulate art. (285)

Humbert (again like Stephen Dedalus) would seem to conform
quite closely to the stereotype of the artist seeking to escape the
nightmare of history via an appeal to the timeless and deathless world
of art. Humbert notes how unsettling it can be when people we know
surprise us, refusing to conform to our expectations, expectations
which, for Humbert, are generally derived from literature. People,
in short, change with time. Literary works, on the other hand, are
forever fixed in print, providing a stay against the confusion of

No matter how many times we reopen "King Lear," never shall
we find the good king banging his tankard in high revelry, all
woes forgotten, at a jolly reunion with all three daughters and
their lapdogs. Never will Emma rally, revived by the sympa-
thetic salts in Flaubert's father's timely tear. (267)

This privileging of the permanence of art over the chaos of history is a
familiar aestheticist theme, echoing, for example, the meditations of
Oscar Wilde in "The Critic as Artist."" Wilde's Gilbert argues that
"in life one can never repeat the same emotion" but that in art
emotional experience is fixed, waiting to be encountered again and
again at the reader's pleasure (96).
Gilbert invokes Dante as his central example of the permanence of
art, and rightfully so. It is clear that Dante's work, so central to the
idealistic tradition in Western culture, is closely related to this view
of the world of art as a realm of permanence and freedom from the
mess of reality. Humbert links his own sexual obsessions directly
with Dante, Petrarch, and the Western idealistic tradition:


After all, Dante fell madly in love with his Beatrice when she was
nine, a sparkling girleen, painted and lovely, and bejeweled, in
a crimson frock ... And when Petrarch fell madly in love with
his Laureen, she was a fair-haired nymphet of twelve running in
the wind. (21)
Links with such illustrious predecessors are again part of Humbert's
attempts at self-justification. They are also highly appropriate, since
Humbert's aestheticized view of Lolita is largely derived from the
works of such literary predecessors. Humbert's overt demonstration
of the dark core of his idealistic fascination with Lolita results in a
powerful suggestion that a similar darkness underlies the emphasis
on youthful feminine purity and chastity in the Dantean/Petrarchan
Like any good Petrarchan sonneteer, Humbert seeks to immor-
talize his love "once for all" in art, a goal that will remain with him
throughout his narrative, which in fact ends with a conventional
Petrarchan conceit of the immortalizing power of poetry. He writes,
he says to an absent Lolita, to "make you live in the minds of later
generations. I am thinking of aurochs and angels, the secret of
durable pigments, prophetic sonnets, the refuge of art. And this is
the only immortality you and I may share, my Lolita" (311). Poetic,
perhaps, but Humbert's aestheticization of Lolita is an objectification
of her that denies her separate subjective reality. Further, his (and
ostensibly Nabokov's) treatment of the aesthetic as an autonomous
realm separate from reality is a paradigmatic bourgeois gesture,
echoing the general movement of bourgeois society, the result of
which is not an elevation of art but a strict divorce between the
aesthetic and the social that deprives art of any genuine political
force. 5
Despite his efforts to aestheticize his relationship with Lolita,
Humbert seems driven to confess the sexual nature of that relation-
ship, a phenomenon that recalls Michel Foucault's argument that
modern society has been marked by a consistent compulsion to
confess, especially to confess one's sexual activities, and even more
especially if those activities happen to lie outside the accepted norm.
To Foucault, this intense emphasis on expressing the sexual is related
to a persistent belief that sexuality is somehow "harboring a funda-
mental secret," and that by bringing the sexual out into the open, one


can discover hidden truths about the human condition. Sexuality,
then, reveals "the fragment of darkness that we each carry within us"
(History 69).
This view of sexuality as a privileged form of epistemology par-
ticularly shows up in the tradition of confessional literature, a tradi-
tion in which Lolita is a clear, ifparodic, participant. Foucault could 81
almost be speaking directly of Lolita when he describes this "litera-
ture ordered according to the infinite task of extracting from the
depths of oneself, in between the words, a truth which the very form
of the confession holds out like a shimmering mirage" (History 59).
The obsession with sexuality in Western discourse, then, is primarily
an epistemological drive, an aspect of that fundamental mechanism of
power that Foucault refers to as the "will to knowledge." This will
consists of an urge to master reality by understanding, ordering, and
circumscribing it within the confines of well-behaved human con-
cepts. Knowledge and sexuality are, for Foucault, intimately related,
and the will to knowledge involves highly erotic pleasures: "pleasure
in the truth of pleasure, the pleasure of knowing that truth, of
discovering and exposing it, the fascination of seeing it and telling it,
of captivating and capturing others by it, of confiding it in secret, of
luring it out in the open-the specific pleasure of the true discourse
on pleasure" (History 71).
This will to knowledge is, of course, the central driving force of
Enlightenment science and philosophy. Foucault's thesis, borne out
so nicely by the sexual pun "to know," provides a useful gloss on the
Horkheimer/Adorno critique of the conflation of truth and power in
the Enlightenment and is clearly consistent with the highly epis-
temological nature of Humbert Humbert's preoccupations as well.
Humbert is by profession a scholarly researcher, and his obsession
with Lolita is very much a search for knowledge-thus his obvious
delight when he discovers in a bookstore a volume entitled Know
Your Own Daughter (176). The very structure of Lolita, in which the
first part involves Humbert's quest for Lolita and the second part
involves the "cryptogrammic paper chase" in which he explicitly
serves as a detective deciphering clues, sets up a parallelism between
seduction and detection that makes the epistemological nature of
Humbert's desire for Lolita quite clear. Not only does he wish to
"know" Lolita, but, because of her youth and innocence, he hopes
thereby to learn some truth more fundamental and primal than that


which would be available directly to acculturated adults. However,
this quest is thwarted by the same paradox that inheres in the myth of
virginity: Humbert seeks a special knowledge in innocence, but once
knowledge is gained, innocence is destroyed. Like that of Adam and
Eve (and that of the Enlightenment in general, per Horkheimer and
82 Adorno), his quest for knowledge inevitably results in loss.
Readers who approach Nabokov's text with such epistemological
inclinations will suffer a similar loss. Lolita acts to thwart such efforts
at interpretive mastery in a variety of ways, as imaged perhaps most
clearly in Humbert's efforts to sabotage psychoanalytic readings of his
predicament, readings that function as examples of impoverishing
and domineering styles of interpretation in general. Humbert, in his
own encounters with psychoanalysts during a stay in a sanatorium,
takes great pleasure in making a mockery of their inflexible pro-

I discovered there was an endless enjoyment in trifling with
psychiatrists: cunningly leading them on; never letting them see
that you know the tricks of the trade; inventing for them elabo-
rate dreams, pure classics in style (which make them, the dream-
extortionists, dream and wake up shrieking); teasing them with
fake "primal scenes"; and never allowing them the slightest
glimpse of one's real sexual predicament. (36)

Moreover, aware that psychoanalysts are studying his present case
as well, Humbert has liberally sprinkled his narrative with similar
hermeneutic booby traps, taunting psychoanalytic readers with a
number of overt Freudian symbols, the self-consciousness of which
undermines their validity as interpretive clues. Humbert's dialogue
with psychoanalysis is in many ways representative of the relation-
ship between Humbert and his readers in general. His text is inter-
laced with complex patterns of imagery into which even the most
unpsychoanalytic reader is tempted to read significance. Yet the
interpretation of those patterns is consistently undermined by the
fact that Humbert so self-consciously put them there as part of his
artistic technique. In addition to his own self-interest in presenting
the story as an apologia, Humbert's credibility is undercut by the
highly literary nature of his discourse. Though the text is presented
as a true confession, it is clear that many of the details are nothing


more than literary devices, and the real truth of virtually all of
Humbert's statements is highly suspect.
Many of the people and events in Humbert's narrative lend them-
selves suspiciously well to description through literary allusion, an
effect that is enhanced by Humbert's renaming of most of the charac-
ters to make them correspond to characters in literature. For exam-
ple, Lolita deceives Humbert by pretending to go to piano lessons
with "Miss Emperor," lessons that she does not attend, instead using
the time to get out of his smothering presence for a brief while.
Humbert openly admits that the teacher's name is an allusion, noting
that it is what "we French scholars may conveniently call her" (204).
The reference is to Flaubert's Emma Bovary, who pretended to
attend piano lessons with a Mlle. Lempereur in order to get away
from her husband to meet her lover. And the allusion to Madame
Bovary is doubly significant, since so much of Lolita is informed by
the kind ofbovarysme of which Emma is the paradigm. In particular,
most of the ordinary Americans Humbert meets seem to have had
their consciousnesses almost entirely formed by advertising, maga-
zine articles, movies, and other elements of popular culture. But
Lolita is far from an attack on the mind-numbing effects of popular
culture relative to the mind-expanding potential of "high" culture.
One should not forget that Humbert's own mind is itself constructed
largely from an amalgam of literary references, a fact that helps make
him able to commit the most heinous of crimes in the name of art.
Indeed, Humbert and the other characters in Lolita approach reality
with a system of prefabricated interpretations that seem suspiciously
similar to those employed by the psychoanalysts whom he so derides.
Althusser's comments on the interpellation of the subject suggest
that these interpretations originate not with the characters them-
selves but with the various forces that constitute those characters as
subjects. In Althusser's view, we do not form our attitudes so much as
they form us, and "the category of the subject is only constitutive of
all ideology insofar as all ideology has the function (which defines it) of
constituting' concrete individuals as subjects" (171). We are all al-
ways already interpellated by specific ideologies, and no amount of
sophistication will allow us to escape that process. Thus, Humbert's
view of the world is determined just as much by literary discourse as
Charlotte and Dolly Haze's views are determined by the discourse of
American popular culture.


In its attempts to constitute the populace as a collection of potential
consumers, advertising would seem to be a classic example of the
process of interpellation, and it is significant that advertising plays
such a prominent role in Lolita. When Humbert first arrives in
America, he takes a job with a New York ad agency. This job
84 "consisted mainly of thinking up and editing perfume ads. I wel-
comed its desultory character and pseudoliterary aspects" (34).
America, then, is immediately associated with advertising, and with
an especially appropriate form of advertising at that: as a veil over
reality, advertising acts as a sort of rhetorical perfume, so perfume
advertising acts as a double imposition between the subject and
reality. Humbert here indicates a certain complicity between these
ads and literature, but he makes it clear that he himself has no use for
the material of his job, immediately noting his disgust with the
"deodorized career girls" he meets in New York. He is so unhappy, in
fact, that he suffers a mental breakdown and is forced to spend more
than a year in a sanatorium.
When Humbert later meets Lolita he is taken by her "twofold
nature," consisting of a "dreamy childishness .. stemming from the
snub-nosed cuteness of ads and magazine pictures" and an "eerie
vulgarity" like that of "very young harlots disguised as children in
provincial brothels" (46). Already, then, advertising has been linked
with artificiality (perfume), with insanity, and with prostitution, and
these themes will continue to echo throughout the book. And when
Lolita indicates (at least to the narcissistic Humbert) her infatuation
with him by posting on the wall above her "chaste bed" pictures of
models in magazine ads that roughly resemble Humbert, we are
reminded of the stark contrast between the appearance of the glossy
ads and the reality of the depraved Humbert (71).
The sophisticated Humbert, a former insider in the advertising
business, presumably sees through the false veneer offered by adver-
tising, but the Americans he meets (most notably Charlotte and Lo-
lita) seem to have their visions of reality constituted almost totally by
advertising and related commercial genres. Indeed, Humbert uses
his superior insight to manipulate Charlotte's advertising-induced
expectations, creating for her consumption a narrative of his past that
involves a series of past mistresses "all nicely differentiated, accord-
ing to the rules of those American ads where schoolchildren are
pictured in a subtle ratio of races, with one-only one, but as cute as


they make them-chocolate-colored round-eyed little lad, almost in
the very middle of the front row" (82).66 In this way, the invidious
effects of advertising are linked not only with the exploitation of
women but also with the ideology of racism, and in similar fashion the
contents of the ads mentioned by Humbert throughout the book are
worth considering carefully. Advertising interposes itself between 85
individuals and reality; racism and sexism do the same, resulting in
the treatment of persons of other races or genders not as real individ-
uals but as representatives of the kind of stereotypical formulations
associated with advertising-just as Humbert treats Lolita not as a
real little girl but as a member of the mythical species of nymphets.
The most vivid evocations of advertising in Lolita occur as Hum-
bert and Lolita travel across the country, encountering not America
but an ad agency depiction of America. Humbert, of course, con-
tinues to enjoy his position of lofty superiority, not only regarding the
ads as misleading and mendacious but also taking considerable de-
light in subjecting them to the kinds of close readings that one might
associate with literature. Thus, his own penchant for double entendre
leads him to derive "a not exclusively economic kick from such
roadside signs as TIMBER HOTEL, Children under 14 Free"(149).
But Lolita religiously believes the ads that she reads, lobbying to stay
at various hotels and motels or to visit various restaurants on the basis
of their descriptions in travel ads:
If a roadside sign said: VISIT OUR GIFT SHOP-we had to
visit it, had to buy its Indian curios, dolls, copper jewelry, cactus
candy. The words "novelties and souvenirs" simply entranced
her by their trochaic lilt. If some caf6 sign proclaimed Icecold
Drinks, she was automatically stirred, although all drinks every-
where were ice-cold. She it was to whom the ads were dedi-
cated: the ideal consumer, the subject and object of every foul
poster. (150)

Humbert's mention of the "trochaic lilt" of ad slogans again suggests a
certain complicity between literature and advertising. But most
importantly, his depiction of Lolita as the "ideal consumer" indicates
that she has been constituted as a subject by the culture in which she
lives, created by American consumer society specifically as a buyer of
Numerous other elements of American culture contribute to


Lolita's and Charlotte's constitution as ideal consumers. Charlotte's
view of the world, for example, is derived from "soap operas, psycho-
analysis and cheap novelettes." Lolita is particularly susceptible to
ads appearing in movie magazines, and movies figure prominently
in the formation of the stereotypical expectations of the characters in
86 the book. Humbert, however, again sees through all this nonsense,
attempting to use it to his advantage. When he first sees Lolita, he
attempts to impress her with his "movieland manhood" (41). Later,
he muses that Lolita might be responsive to his advances because of
the romantic expectations common to "[a] modem child, an avid
reader of movie magazines, an expert in dream-slow close-ups" (51).
And he comments on the inaccurate depiction of reality in movies
when he compares his scuffle with Quilty late in the book to "the
obligatory scene in the Westerns," except that this real fight lacks
many of the special effects that have come to be associated with
movie fisticuffs. At the end of the inconclusive tussle, "both of
us were panting as the cowman and the sheepman never do after
battle" (301).
Clearly, much of Lolita can be read as a scathing condemnation of
the misleading view of reality derived from advertising, film, maga-
zines, and other elements of popular culture in America. But
Nabokov does not hold up "high" art as a privileged alternative to
popular culture. Though Humbert appears to see through the way
the Americans he encounters are being duped by their culture, his
view of reality (derived mainly from French "high" literature) is at
least as distorted as theirs, and this distortion leads in his case to even
more horrific results. As Ellen Pifer notes, "If Lolita is the victim of
American pop culture, she is even more cruelly the victim of Hum-
bert's aesthetic proclivities" (170). Indeed, there is a close correlation
between Humbert's belief that he can possess in reality what his
imagination has envisioned as the ideal nymphet and Lolita's belief
that she can possess the idealized consumer goods presented in
advertising. As Brand notes, "Belief in the possibility of the actual
possession of an image is ... the means by which advertisements
reduce people to thralldom" (19).
Nabokov, however, is not suggesting that we somehow put aside
all representations of reality in exchange for the thing itself. On the
contrary, everywhere in his fiction Nabokov makes clear his belief
that there is no unmediated access to reality. As he writes in his


postscript to Lolita, "reality" is "one of the few words which mean
nothing without quotes" (314). Our access to reality is always belated,
always filtered through our own expectations of reality. Pifer has
discussed in some detail this aspect of Nabokov's work as part of her
strong argument for Nabokov's ethical and moral commitment. She
notes that it is not mediation to which Nabokov objects, but rather 87
mediation that attempts to pass itself off as a direct access to reality.
This attitude explains Nabokov's antipathy toward realistic fiction
and the highly artificial quality of his own work. As Pifer puts it,
"Nabokov, who found that even recorded history may be a kind of ro-
mance, or fiction, was understandably averse to any literary method
that aspires to the authenticity of ultimate and objective reality"
Indeed, Nabokov stated that "I do not believe that 'history' exists
apart from the historian" (Strong 138). Pifer's assessment of Nabo-
kov's ethical and moral dimension is probably accurate, but this di-
mension has a specifically political aspect as well. As Brand suggests,
Nabokov's treatment of the consumerist bovarysme of American
society in Lolita suggests that "the society which claims to have freed
itself from traditional forms of coercive authority has evolved new
and more covert forms to replace the old" (14). The stereotypes
promulgated by advertising, pop culture, and various other forces
(particularly psychoanalysis) exert a control over human lives that is
potentially as invidious as that which is exerted in more overt ways by
totalitarian governments. Thus, Nabokov suggests that we not rest
too comfortably on the democratic reputation of bourgeois society,
since that reputation is itself a product of advertising and propa-
Lolita's critique of advertising clearly participates in the same
movement by which its self-consciously literary language exposes the
fictionality of society's conventions. But are such critiques really
effective? Eagleton points out the postmodernist tendency to identify
truth with authority and thus to assume that any attack on truth is
thereby subversive: "But it is considerably too convenient to imagine
that all dominant social ideologies necessarily operate in accordance
with absolute, self-identical concepts of truth, which a touch of
textuality, deconstruction or self-reflexive irony is then capable of
undoing" (378). Eagleton goes on to point out that, given that con-
temporary governments base so much of their operations on outright


lies, it may be that "true facts" themselves can be explosive weapons
of subversion (379).
Eagleton does not explain just how one determines what a "true
fact" is, but his point is well taken.68 One might point, for example, to
Jean Baudrillard's argument that the blatant fictionality of Disney-
88 land works in clear support of the existing capitalist order by making
that order appear genuine in comparison (171-72). It may then be
that an exposure of the fictionality of advertising does not necessarily
lead to resistance against the coercion to consume embodied in
advertising discourse. In point of fact, advertisers quite often make
no effort to present their discourse as true, relying on a complex
system of codes and signals to induce heavily conditioned consumers
to purchase their products in an almost Pavlovian reflex action. As the
recent Isuzu "liar" commercials exemplify, advertising has never
relied primarily on the perception that its claims are literally true.
Instead, advertising interpellates prospective consumers, offering
them a well-defined space that they can occupy with a sense of
comfort and mastery.69
But then, Lolita's critique of advertising does not necessarily rely
on an exposure of the fictionality of advertising. It relies, in fact, on an
exposure of this process of interpellation, of the way consumers are
conditioned to respond to the signals contained in ads and are in a
large measure constituted by those signals. Further, it reinforces this
critique of the interpellation carried out by advertising with its
depiction of Humbert Humbert's interpellation by literature. Hum-
bert and his predecessor Emma Bovary do not literally believe the
literature they later confuse with reality-that is not the point. The
point is that both allow literature to define and determine the sub-
jective positions that they themselves then occupy.70
Nabokov's text works to undermine this process of interpellation.
By centering so exclusively on the consciousness of Humbert, it offers
only Humbert's position as one with which readers can identify. And
it seductively invites such identification by making Humbert charm-
ing, erudite, and articulate. But this identification (a process on
which realistic fiction depends so heavily) is then undercut with
graphic reminders that Humbert is a criminal and a pervert, capable
of being cruel and excessively violent toward the helpless child
Lolita. In addition, the hermeneutic instability of Nabokov's lan-
guage unsettles any attempt to interpret the text in a univocal way.


Lolita thus suggests no subjective position that the reader can com-
fortably occupy and indeed warns against other texts/discourses that
might suggest such positions. The complex rhetorical functioning of
the book thus works against the dynamic of domination and submis-
sion that Horkheimer and Adorno associate with the Enlightenment
heritage of bourgeois society and against the interpellation of the 89
subject by preexisting bourgeois ideologies described by Althusser.
Nabokov's own anti-Marxist sympathies notwithstanding, his best-
known and most widely read book thus provides substantial literary
support for the neo-Marxist critique of bourgeois society.






Severin, the protagonist of Leopold von
Sacher-Masoch's Venus in Furs, presents us with a model of relations
between the sexes based strictly on a process of domination and
submission. To Severin, a man "has only one choice: to be the tyrant
over or the slave of woman. As soon as he gives in, his neck is under
the yoke, and the lash will soon fall upon him" (62). Actually, as it
turns out, Severin rather likes being under the lash, as apparently did
Sacher-Masoch himself. In the end, however, Severin sees the error
of his ways (perhaps having had some sense beaten into him), as well
as diagnosing the system of patriarchal domination that leads to such
problematic relationships. If woman is man's enemy, it is because
man has made her that way: "She can only be his slave or his despot,
but never his companion. This she can become only when she has the
same rights as he and is his equal in education and work" (210).
Sacher-Masoch has since been immortalized by Krafft-Ebing, and
his book has been immortalized as, among other things, a favorite of
Joyce's Leopold Bloom. Further, his study provides an especially
direct commentary on more recent theoretical explorations (such as
those by Theodor Adorno) of the drive for domination of others that
seems to inform bourgeois society in a central way. Sacher-Masoch's


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