Modernism’s Shaggy Sea Monsters

This paper will take aim at two texts – Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse (1927) and John Banville’s The Sea (2005) – each of which appears to neatly satisfy its formal narrative requirements and temporal implications but actually leaves these radically unresolved. I will first read Woolf’s text along conventional schematic lines: Part One, ‘The Window,’ establishes the problems and demarcations of space; Part Two, ‘Time Passes,’ provides a nuanced narrative reflection on time, history, and the psychology of traumatic events; and Part Three, ‘The Lighthouse,’ resolves space and time in the completion of Lily’s painting and of the quest to reach the lighthouse by Mr Ramsay and his two youngest children. But does Woolf in fact resolve this family romance by aesthetic and formal means? Lily might finish her painting, and therefore establish her place in the Ramsay saga, but standing alongside her at this pivotal moment is the one inscrutable character left unresolved by everyone else, and especially by the presiding shade of Mrs Ramsay: Augustus Carmichael. He is a shaggy Poseidon, equally indifferent to fame as a poet as he is to the opinion of these overthinking mortals, and he (p)resides in mythic time, outside of and untouched by the historical time and psychological time governing the narrative and its characters. In this way he presents a fundamental challenge to an understanding of Woolf’s modernist experiment in this novel, whereby he opens up an aporia unplugged by any available experimental means. John Banville’s The Sea charts uncannily similar territory and topology: the second half of my paper will make a case for Banville’s emulation of Woolf’s aporetic and mythic Carmichael, doubled in the diabolic Grace children, Chloe and Myles. Banville has Max Morden recall a tragedy from childhood that allows him space to grieve his recently deceased wife, as well as to indulge his self-consciously pompous and digressive narrative compensations. But here too Banville leaves open the way for the ‘strange tide’ to sweep mythic indifference beneath the local urgencies of human affairs. Why these shaggy sea monsters? What exactly are we missing (or gaining) in not reeling them in?

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About msbyron27

Lecturer in Modern and Contemporary British and American Literature, Department of English, University of Sydney
This entry was posted in Abstracts – Presentations (2014). Bookmark the permalink.

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