The Unreliable Narrator in Mrs Dalloway
Instead of looking for the
primitive, she looks rather for the civilized … where nevertheless something is found to be left out. And this something is
deliberately left out.
“Virginia Woolf for French Readers” T. S. Eliot
Eliot’s clever oxymoron expresses the method of the unreliable narrator in Mrs Dalloway who withholds details,
omits facts, and misrepresents himself and others as well. The narrator in
question is Peter Walsh who begins with the trustworthiness of an old friend
and ends with unreliability of an alien. Unreliable narrators whose practice
often involves omission are sometimes difficult to recognize. “With an
unreliable narrator silences and omissions may be just as significant as what
is included” (Hutchinson 31). Irony that is similarly obscure is also a
component, and recognition of irony shares some of the same problems, “saying
as little and meaning as much as possible” (Frye 40). Wayne Booth says, “It is
true that most of the great reliable narrators indulge in large amounts of
incidental irony and they are thus ‘unreliable’ in the sense of being
potentially deceptive” (Booth 159).
this type of narrator may be “unreliable because his evaluations are no longer
representative of those advanced by the implied author and are often quite
contrary to those that are ultimately to constitute the ‘meaning’ of the work”
(Iser 204). For Peter Walsh, being an
unreliable narrator consists in his practice of leaving things out, “forcing
the reader to speculate and to act as his own interpreter of the action”
(Hutchinson 32). He is in good company as an unreliable storyteller with
Gulliver, Tristram, Quixote, and Holden Caulfield among others.
Omitting the subject of narrative, leaving
things out, talking around them, is a common narrative strategy. Proust’s
phrase, “I didn’t know that…,” is a “crude way of smuggling contraband
information into the text” (Shattuck 171). Omission of vital information as
with the rhetorical figure, the aposiopesis, is a frequent figure in the
overall architecture of Mrs Dalloway;
waiting until the end, delaying the subject, is a normal feature. Omission also
occurs when applied to intertextuality in the form of an allusion. Clarissa
claims, “She did undoubtedly then feel what men felt” (MD 47), as if in dialogue with the unnamed Samuel Butler of The Authoress of the Odyssey who
believes that the Odyssey was written
by a woman; he claims that women do not feel what men feel (Hoff Invisible 66). Narration that exploits
this form, concealing the issue in order to better display it, creates the
impression of unreliability.
unreliable narrator in Mrs Dalloway
is a rhetorical device, something of a cliché, however, personified by Peter
and his failed transmission of information that gives his discourse the
character of the fallible and the untrustworthy; his method will often be seen
to be as preterition as well as other modes of deception. It is such a frequent
structural element that it catches the reader’s attention. Oddly, as the narrator
for approximately one fifth of Mrs
Dalloway, Peter has received a disproportionately small share of the
critical attention compared to the space reserved for Septimus Smith who also
occupies around one fifth of the narrative; yet “the more successful the
method, the less it attracts attention” (Ferrer 11).
the literal truth, Peter frequently conceals information. His ambiguous
language also forces the reader to rely on intuitive judgments and to be
satisfied with only a minimal comprehension. Peter can be adjudged as highly
unreliable in many ways. For instance, when he appears suddenly in Regent’s
Park as a man in grey, Peter interprets Rezia’s reactions to Septimus’s
presumed hallucination of his dead friend as “lovers squabbling under a tree,” disposed
as he is to recall quarrels with Clarissa (Dick 54; MD 107). “The domestic family life of the parks” is far from the
cause of Rezia’s unhappiness when Peter surmises “what fix they had got
themselves into.” He interprets
the scene as the fête champêtre in
Tibullus 2.5.101-104, a quarrel with his girl and a lad so savage he would
“swear his wits had gone astray” (Hoff Invisible
117). Since he acts as narrator for a large part of the novel and supplies
much of what we know (or what we think we know) about him and Clarissa
Dalloway, it seems appropriate to explore the things he actually says and the
ways in which he says them.
information Peter supplies is often colored with self-justifying shades of ex parte comments regarding Clarissa and
their mutual relationship. He makes snide judgments concerning her and others
as well, that readers must sort out between the biased and the valid. Not only
does Peter’s voice give most of the information concerning Clarissa, largely
through his memories, but he is also a character in these reminiscences and as
such reveals much about his own situation; these as well may or may not be
reliable. Moreover, large gaps in his narrative created through the deliberate
withholding of information constitute spaces of silence in matters of romantic
interest; readers are presumably required to be satisfied, lacking the relevant
context. Narrative gaps filled through the reader’s projections, however, are a
poor substitute for information. “Although exercised by the text, it is not in
the text”; “what is said only appears
to take on significance as a reference to what is not said” (Iser 168).
participation has not gone entirely unnoticed by critics yet he is accorded
desultory commentary as if his observations were casual judgments instead of
the robust contribution he makes. “The eyes through which we see are not
detached and objective … they are the eyes of Peter Walsh” (Zwerdling 18). In
general Peter has served, largely, as a vehicle for information throughout the
narrative. Catherine Penner, however, accords him the status of a merely
secondary character being, like Sally Seton, a metaphoric aspect of Clarissa’s
past (Penner 7). A few have seen Peter otherwise. “From one perspective the
novel explores thwarted homosexual desire, but, from another, it deals with
thwarted heterosexual desire. It is no wonder that an early reviewer could
assert that the novel’s ‘sole principle event is the return from India of Mrs.
Dalloway’s rejected suitor’” (Parker 108). The reviewer in question, Richard
Hughes, “shifts focus from the concern of the female title character to those
of her male suitor” (Parker 162 note 46). The structure of the narrative
facilitates this fact. “Peter Walsh’s story begins and ends with Clarissa
Dalloway. Clarissa thinks of him on the first page of the novel, and the novel
concludes with his awareness of her” (McNichol 73).
discourse, assumed to consist of valid accounts of the past, is often mistaken
as the trustworthy voice of the narrator.
Yet, this cynical, ironic voice as the source of information regarding
the characters and their dealings may be associated with himself, the narrator,
or both. Thus, a basic understanding of indirect discourse is essential. “We can’t correctly interpret any
sentence as pure narration” (Banfield 308-309.) The narration supplied by Peter
such as is found in Mrs Dalloway would
appear to be notoriously glib, sophisticated, witty, and well-versed in
literature, largely characteristics of the person with whom the narrative
responsibility is shared. The fact that Peter’s voice resembles that of an
omniscient narrator rests in the fact that his discourse as the “producer of an
utterance” is given in free indirect discourse, also known as narrated
monologue style that, in its essence, incorporates the narrator of the entire
novel itself, “a voice famous for disappearing into the other voices it
creates” (Dry 87 note 1; Hafley 42). Plato provides an example of indirect
discourse in The Republic 3. 392
d-394-e as a version of Homer’s Iliad
1.15-21. All of Mrs Dalloway’s
characters express speech or thought in free indirect discourse, often with the
flavor of soliloquy; and in spite of obvious bias associated with each, many
can be accepted as truthful to a large extent (Hoff Invisible “Appendix” 254). In this practice, Peter’s participation,
however, adds an extra layer of mystery to the narrative since his command of
the facts is often questionable.
Free indirect discourse is indicated when
discourse appears without quotations as the voice uses verb tenses that are
back-shifted forms (have/had) with pronoun adjustments appropriate to the
context; it often incorporates the emotive constructions called expressives (Lord!)
including clichéd stylizations, non-factive verbs (seems), and personal forms
of expression characteristic of the speaker with expressions such as “hard as
nails,” and “cool as a cucumber.” Thus, Peter’s focalizations in free indirect
discourse may be identified when his perception is without quotation and when
the narrative is sprinkled with his colloquialisms; and it will differ from the
descriptions employed by Clarissa. Under these conditions it cannot be
attributed to the conventional narrator. It is important to recognize Peter’s
voice as a composite of the parts in the blend. “Neither voice takes over in
free indirect discourse. The narrator is still present, rendering the discourse
a bivocal construction” (Snaith 65). As Clarissa comments, metacritically,
“Everything had to be shared” (MD
10). Free indirect discourse “relies on the linguistic evocation of the
character’s voice” for tracing the relative cognitive viewpoint (Fludernick
280). Much that may appear to be “narration” is derived from Peter’s thoughts
as digressive glimpses of the past, and should be so acknowledged. Further, Peter’s
typical narrative is characterized by references to descriptions of “bookish”
origins that would be familiar to a former Oxford student such as he is, unlike
Clarissa who admits she scarcely reads a book (MD 11). The narrator leaves the scholarly material to Peter in
spite of his having been sent down from Oxford, which perhaps disqualifies him
for reliability. In general, the multivalency of free indirect discourse
enables much irony of content, which is the thematic concern of the text
The first thing to be identified in Peter Walsh, after he
serves to introduce the conventional “India topos,” a conventional rite-of-passage,
a chronotope according to Linden Peach, is that he is an equally conventional
character, in the literary sense, i.e. he is a “vert gallant.” “He had not felt so young in years” (Peach 112; MD 78). The roguish French term is
translated innocently as “the old man in love.” Less innocently, the convention
refers to an old man preoccupied with sex, having many mistresses (Hoff Invisible 96). As Clarissa’s lover in
their youth he is thought an innocent suitor. Gradually, however, his overly
amorous nature is revealed when he is reported to have married the woman on the
boat going to India, when he confesses his current involvement with a married woman
half his age whom he is to marry, and that he is now seeking a divorce from the
woman on the boat, presumably. He confesses to Clarissa that he is “in love
with a girl in India”; “not with her. With some younger woman, of course,” as
Clarissa notes (MD 10, 67).
Peter’s credibility is compromised from the beginning. This woman on the boat clearly arouses
Clarissa’s horror for some unknown reason; “Never should she forget all that!”
(MD 10). Such details of his life in
India are not fully revealed; his current relationship consists of pseudo-confidences
characterized by deliberate restriction of information. Daisy, the little-known
fiancée in question, is married to a Major in the Indian army, she has two
small children as marks of identity, and he expects Clarissa to be nice to her,
to introduce her in spite of the cautions expressed by Mrs. Burgess (MD 237-239). Events reported by way of
partial evidence, narrative lacunae and hidden data, constitute much of what
could be the interesting story of Daisy. The fragmentary accounts of events and
hedged descriptions are signs of evasion, omission, and obfuscation. An alert
reader should be sensitive to the deliberate withholding of information
necessary for evaluation of Peter and his new romance. Admitting that he had
wept for having been a fool, named as such, he repeatedly recalls this
emotional state which he doesn’t
understand himself, “a whimpering, sniveling old ass” tends to undermine his personal sense of
reliability (MD 121).
The absence of detail works against any kind of understanding
because we are attracted not to what is said, but to what is unsaid. Such
concealed formulation renders evaluation of its worth impossible. Yet this
artful vagueness, summary rather than detailed partial revelations, always
stimulates curiosity. Ironically, Iser claims that it is only through such gaps
that a story gains its dynamism through its omissions. “The spaces between them were as
significant as the sounds” (MD 33).
Matters of romance in India seemingly amount to privately held information if
only that the empty spaces are of a nature that relates to his affair with
Clarissa. The validity of Peter’s expressions is more honored in the omission
than in the utterance. In consequence there are “central blanks which the
reader is made to fill in by his own (text-guided) mental images in order to
constitute the meaning of the work” (Iser 172). As a disappointed lover, how
far can Peter be trusted when all implies his untrustworthiness as a raconteur?
Further, notwithstanding the hidden data and empty spaces, it
is obvious that Peter has not entirely forgotten Clarissa as a lover; yet
having denied that he was still in love with her, he makes the problematic
claim that “now she was in love with him” (MD 115, 120). He considers himself attractive to women yet he
frankly admits that he is not altogether manly, unable to “come up to the
scratch,” his personal idiom (MD 237,
240, 241). After walking up Whitehall, where he accuses the young marching
soldiers of being ignorant of “the troubles of the flesh” unlike himself, his
first contact in Trafalgar Square takes the form of a bizarre fantasy with a
touch of magic realism (MD 77; Hoff Invisible 96). His pursuit of a young
woman, presumably a woman of easy virtue, “who seems to shed veil after veil” when “other people got between them,”
alludes to preformed language in a fittingly erotic scene from a dark “Plautine”
comedy, The Eunuchus of the Roman
playwright Terence (ca. 195-160 bce).
The non-factive word seems introduces
a potential for unreliable information and serves as well as an indication of
his sexual insecurity.
This almost Rabelaisian escapade (ca. lines 245-400) which is
“more than farce, more than loose-knit romp” is dramatized by a man named “not
Peter,” but one having some unmentioned “private name” (Douglass Parker 4; MD 78; Hoff Invisible 99). Here one avoids naming the sitting member,
particularly since Peter’s troubles of the flesh repeatedly concern his
inability to come up to the scratch. “You,” she said, walking in Cockspur
Street with an enveloping kindness that ends with the familiar aposiopesis, the
speaker breaking off as if he were unwilling to continue (the figure is
singularly appropriate to Peter’s style – Hoff Invisible 89). He is careful to resume the esoteric allusion from
Terence when Clarissa’s invitation to the party arrives in the evening, “he
could see her with the tears running down her cheeks” (MD 78 ff, 236): “She can go down on her knees; I’m not coming back”
(Eunuchus ca. line 49). The obscure allusion represents a lacuna in the
narrative, a brief instance of his pedantry. Peter’s narrative is often
characterized by works originating in the Classical background of English
According to Richter “he is Woolf’s most erotic male
character. He is continually ‘in trouble with women’” (Richter 315). Lady
Bruton claims “there was some flaw in his character” (MD 162). Such subtle references and allusions as part of Peter’s
characterization are well-worn facets (Fludernik 424). He tells us little, yet
he has demanded that Clarissa tell him the truth (MD 96-97). His reference to preformed language without attribution,
for example, intimates subterfuge. He is twice a self-avowed “buccaneer,” a
practitioner of literary piracy on an unscrupulous adventure (MD 90). From the moment that he feels
that London seems an island and
resolves to explore it, he continues the conceit of the bedroom hero Odysseus,
a feature of Hellenistic aesthetics, until he arrives at Clarissa’s party (Hoff
“Pseudo-Homeric”; MD 77, 94). The non-factive seems, an indication of free indirect discourse, is ironic since he
is actually on an island. Such literary values support, as well as trump,
realism. Still, the disordered sequence of his accounts of the past sows
confusion and untrustworthiness. Memories of the past at Bourton tend to come
in anachronistic bursts, reminiscent of the similar arrangement in Tristram Shandy.
Other passive-aggressive features complete Peter’s
personality as an unreliable narrator. Known for his sharp tongue, he freely
excoriates Hugh Whitbread (the admirable Hugh) and his faults, presumably
fostered in Hugh’s “little job at court,” eating cake, writing letters to the Times, like a “first rate valet”
polishing the Imperial shoe-buckles (MD
111, 262-263). He is only a little less self-justifying when appraising Richard
Dalloway, “a bit thick in the head,” when he thinks of asking him for a job
“teaching little boys Latin,” a pedantic reference to Horace’s “personified
book” (Horace Epistles 1.20; MD 112; Hoff Invisible 120). These persons share in his contempt expressed with
extremely judgmental, opinionated criticisms that render his comments less
credible when everyone is thus flawed. His extreme temper leads him to Clarissa
who also earns an insult; “the perfect hostess he called her… she had the
makings of a perfect hostess” (MD
9-10). The harsh criticism, “she had cried over it in her bedroom,” is hardly
merited by the woman we have met in her own words (MD 10). Their relationship ends in the garden near the dribbling
fountain when Clarissa says, “This is the end” and “it was as if she had hit him in the face” (MD 97).
The withholding of details acts as a stimulus, putting a
strain on the on the imagination (Iser 186). Writerly introspection, however,
seems to have been inactive regarding the deliberate omission of features
common in the literary tradition. Such colorful hyperbolic expression with non-factives
(seemed) and similes indicates
partial evidence and vague descriptions that tend to undermine his reliability
as a reporter. “She seemed contracted…
after he had spoken for hours it seemed.”
Details are never fully revealed yet teasing hints are provocative. Even with the
illusion that the characters directly present the entire spectrum of their
thoughts and emotions, Peter’s lack of detail suggests that much has been left
out. Perhaps his is a “private consciousness, filled with ideas, perceptions,
and emotions too highly censored for communication” (Haring-Smith 144). His
restriction of information is deliberate.
Peter’s propensity for counterfactuals tend to reinforce his
unreliability. Appraising Elizabeth Dalloway, leaping to conclusions, he
surmises, “she can’t be more than eighteen. Probably doesn’t get on with
Clarissa” (MD 84). These are small
matters yet reveal “content that the reliable narrator cannot be presumed to
believe,” masquerading as closure (Dry 97). This is not trustworthy information
and suggests the potential of speculations as well as being instances of
information that he lacks. For example, he is apparently unaware of or has
forgotten the evening when he interrupted Clarissa and Sally walking together
on the terrace, and Sally kissed Clarissa on the lips; “Star-gazing?” said
Peter (MD 53).
He is almost complimentary when describing Sally Seton,
Clarissa’s greatest friend, “an attractive creature, handsome, dark, with the
reputation in those days of great daring” (MD
89). He forms an alliance with “the wild, the daring, the romantic Sally!” Sally
acquires some status in his eyes: “She tried to get hold of things by the right
end anyhow” (MD 109). She is no
admirer of Clarissa’s set however; “Hugh she detested for some reason,” (the
admirable Hugh), telling him “that he represented all that was detestable in
British middle-class life” (MD
109-110). Omissions rise to impotance when Woolf herself credits Jane Austen
with the ability to motivate the reader into filling the blanks: “She
stimulates us to supply what is not there” (Iser 168; Woolf Common Reader 138). Having come to
hostilities over Clarissa’s introduction of Richard as “Wickham,” curiously the
womanizer in Jane Austen’s Pride and
Prejudice who elopes with the youngest Bennet daughter, Sally takes Peter’s
part and becomes the erotodidact, even the procuress; she had marched him up
and down “after that awful scene by the fountain” suggesting that Peter carry
Clarissa off “to save her from the
Hughs and Dalloways … who would stifle her soul … make a mere hostess of her” (MD 285, 114). This much is quite clear
yet has earned no critical attention whatever. Iser asserts that among modern
novelists, where such “fragmented narration so increases the numbers of blanks,
the missing links become a source of constant irritation to the reader’s
image-building faculties” (Iser 184).
Clarissa herself has recalled the excitement that would have
been hers if she “had run away, had lived with Peter” (MD 70-71). The context of a potential elopement, never
accomplished, is prominent.
Curiously, the subject for much speculation concerning the Dalloway
marriage returns as seemingly idle chatter with Peter and Sally together at
Clarissa’s party. Peter claims, enigmatically, that it had been a silly thing
to do, “to marry like that,” weasel words which neglect to mention the true
nature of marrying “like that.” Sally flippantly asks, “And were they happy
together?” She “supposes” the marriage has been a success, with a peculiarly
doubtful tone (MD 287-293; Hoff Invisible 289). The unstated past in
which he suggests that Clarissa “married like that,” seemingly a polite fiction
which leaves a truth unspoken, is an instance of Peter’s consistent failure to
be forthcoming which has not been interrogated. The focal point is not what is
said but what is unsaid. The withholding of information stimulates curiosity
and invites readers to supply what has been withheld. This conversation, even
with the appearance of persiflage, actually is an indication of knowledge they
share and which they decline to give a literal expression.
Peter’s status reveals him as a disappointed suitor since
“old Parry,” as the conventional senex
iratus, never “took to him”; memories of those tête-á-têtes at breakfast return, which may account somewhat for
Peter’s hostility. The aposiopesis regarding unstated suitors and Clarissa’s
edited comment that her father never got along with “her friends” stabs
Clarissa with guilt for reminding him that he had wanted to marry her (MD 62). And Peter avows that it almost
broke his heart. As a cast-off lover his reliability is seriously compromised.
Yet, his emphatic expressives, “No, no, no! He was not in love with her anymore,”
show a side of him that is highly questionable while he is clearly reliving
their unhappy relationship, as if the emphatic denial serves him as truth (MD 115). Anguished memories remind him
that, “Clarissa refused me,” validating Clarissa’s earlier admission that “she
had been right—and she had too—not to marry him,” whatever it may have cost her
to make up her mind (MD 74, 10, 62).
She had fallen in love with Richard Dalloway. Even now Peter, incredulous,
inquires, “ ‘does Richard –‘ The door opened” using the form of an erotic aposiopesis,
stopping short, leaving the rest to be imagined. The figure of speech typifies
omissions of reference.
Peter admits that Richard deserved to have her. “For himself,
he was absurd. His demands upon Clarissa … were absurd. He asked impossible things.
He made terrible scenes” (MD 95). The
weasel words “absurd,” masquerading as his confessional pose regarding unspecified
“impossible demands,” is characteristic of Peter’s style, and evaluating his
sincerity is difficult, lacking some basis for justification. The reader may be “induced to imagine
something … which would have appeared unimaginable as long as our habitual
frame of reference prevailed” (Iser 189).
It is possible that his enigmatic demands are more absurd than he is
willing to admit. This is narrative by preterition as in Peter’s account of
“the final scene, the terrible scene” after Sally, as pander, has carried his
note to Clarissa who seemed petrified by his demands. “He felt that he was
grinding against something physically hard,” unyielding like a door which will
not open (MD 97). Too banal to be a
fiction, this is a tease with suggestive language that offers no information at
all but uses ambiguous words that may suggest erotic language. Peter’s
techniques for pregnant sayings with little meaning are typical of his false
confidences. This scene represents “an empty space which both provokes and
guides the ideational activity” (Iser 195). By this time Peter’s interest in
Daisy appears to have become blunted; she appears as just another notch on the
bedpost until much later when she is remembered all in white (MD 120, 238). His obscurantism, with opinions
ironically published herein, is overtly indicated by his hope “that one might
say these things without being overheard” (MD
“It would not have been a success, their marriage,” he thinks;
the admission affirms Clarissa’s opinion, shared with Sally, who spoke of
marriage as a catastrophe (MD 236, 50).
Clarissa’s reaction, “how they would change the world if she married him
perhaps,” with tears running down her cheeks, is reminiscent of the allusion to
Terence. He follows this admission with another cryptic omission: “She would
think what in the world she could do to give him pleasure (short always of the one
thing) …The other thing, after all, came so much more naturally” (MD 236). This is presented as an
enigmatic scenario at Bourton in which the essentials are undetermined.
Whatever the “one thing” indicates, it falls into the gap of the unknown issues
resembling the matter of marrying “like that.” Clearly something is being
contemplated which is concealed from the reader. This puzzling incident is all the more puzzling because it
has remained critically unremarked. According to Sartre, “texts always take
place on the level of their reader’s abilities” (Iser 207). Peter has resumed
his game of concealment and suppression employing the familiar fore-grounded
device, which looms like the elephant in the room. Equivocations and partial
answers are standard features of the enigma as a deliberate evasion of the
truth created by the narrator who cannot be trusted. Words left unsaid permit
only a partial understanding if any at all. With her thought fading into another
hyper-dramatic aposiopesis that tropes the suppression, Daisy enters the
narrative as the person who “would do anything in the world, anything,
anything, anything …,” perhaps even the “one thing” which Clarissa denies him,
whatever it may be (MD 240). The
unspecified possibilities implied here are truly disturbing.
monologue, which markedly extended his appearance in the morning dialogue with
Clarissa, is replaced with his silent presence at Clarissa’s party indicated largely
through the eyes of others. His presence is first announced by Mr. Wilkins
among other arrivals; Clarissa’s greeting is her standard of the perfect
hostess, “How delightful to see you,” leaves Peter wishing he had gone to a
music hall instead (MD 254). Clarissa
is chagrined by his unspoken criticism. Next he serves merely to rescue Richard
from his conversation about the weather with Ellie Henderson: “Good Lord, there
was old Peter Walsh” (MD 258).
Hearing Wilkins announcing the Prime Minister, Peter launches into his typical
diatribe, “Lord, lord, the snobbery of the English,” that incorporates Hugh
Whitbread, and Lady Bruton as well: “But she derived from the eighteenth
century. She was all right” (MD 261-264).
Clarissa then urges Peter to speak with Aunt Helena whom the
old woman has forgotten and then remembered, Peter remaining silent during
these exchanges. Next, Clarissa addresses Lady Bruton who, seeing Peter, avoids
conversing with her hostess by appealing to Peter just as Richard had done:
“And there’s Peter Walsh,” whom she invites to lunch in order to ask his
opinion on the state of India (MD
272-274). Finally, Clarissa, astonished at seeing Sally Seton as “Lady
Rosseter,” is even more astonished; “Lord, lord, what a change had come over
her” and uses a familiar phrase in regard to Sally’s appearance, “For she
hadn’t looked like that .… Not like
that.” Just what that might indicate
is not specified until Peter vaguely adds his observation on the “change
[which] had come over her” as “the softness of motherhood.” He is perhaps
indicating that producing five sons has brought about her obesity (MD 260, 284). Sally Seton sees him with
Lady Bruton and old Miss Parry just as she catches Clarissa by the arm.
Clarissa excuses herself, and so Sally and Peter, thus alienated, sit down
together discussing Bourton and Clarissa’s marriage, as above, where Peter,
resuming, slams the newly arrived Bradshaws with a final epithet, as humbugs (MD 275-277, 294).
As they wait, their petulant commentary about Clarissa’s
marriage and her status as a snob is surprising since it comes from her closest
friends and is characterized by the omissions previously observed. And what is
the meaning of all this? Peter’s “absurd demands,” his expectation that
everything had to be shared, and his hinting that Clarissa had “married like
that” all motivate the reader to mobilize his or her knowledge and experience
to supplement what is left unsaid. Gaps in the narrative have induced early
critics to say this imperfect novel is deeply flawed, requiring some act of
ideation in order to fill them (Iser 198). These missing links clearly hinder
the reader’s expectations for understanding this modernist narrative. “The more
modern the text, the more the reader is locked out of the text” (Iser 208). The
prevailing absence of vital information is frequent and obviously intentional,
indicating a particular meaning that must be discovered, some obscure clue to
the unknown, perhaps a bit of metadata. Therefore, the search for meaning might
become a theme in itself as part of interpreting a difficult text. It is,
however, the effect of the voids in the text that should be studied, providing
much for the reader to ponder.
In summary, then, Peter’s expressions of memories of the
affair between himself and Clarissa are characterized by the “deliberate
omission of generic features that have been firmly established by the tradition
of the genre” which “denies the reader the orientation it traditionally offers”
when “something was to be formulated which was outlined but concealed by the
text” (Iser 208, 218). The emphasis on omissions effectively lays bare a
continuing device that thwarts the reader’s expectations. Omissions in Peter’s
discourse have not received critical attention; it is as if they had not been
noticed. If these omissions are ignored or if they are regarded as faults of
composition, they may be denied their essential narrative function.
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