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L'Allusion et l'Accès

Peter Vernon
Claudine Raynaud

Metaphoric Epiphanies: Allusion and Access in Virginia Woolf’s Short Fictions

Anne Besnault-Levita

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1The central importance of epiphany in modernist short fiction seems to indicate that “modernist writers have never given up all desire to use art to gain access to truths hidden to ordinary perception”. Yet, as John McGowan argues in an article entitled “From Pater to Wilde to Joyce: Modernist epiphany and the soulful self’, this desire “conflicts with an equally strong wish to divorce art from such knowledge claims.” McGowan analyses the conflict in cognitive terms: “this use of epiphany to gain self-knowledge stands in contrast to efforts in modernist literature, to, in today’s terminology, “deconstruct the self” (McGowan, 417). But this conflict may also be related to the end of what Catherine Belsey characterized in 1980 as an “empirist-realist” epistemology (Belsey, 7). In this perspective, what the linguistic turn challenged at the beginning of the twentieth century is the grounding assumption that language is a tool able to capture the universal and timeless truths of the human condition experienced through a unique individual. Thus, while there might appear to be a link between the modernist “moment of being” and the romantic “spot of time” according to which literature would be a unique way of knowing the self and the world through embodied and participatory experience in language, this link is put to the test by the complexity of the modernist “flash of insight” which finally challenges the very notions of truth, knowledge, and presence, whether this presence be an idea, an intention or a stabilized meaning or reference for which language acts as a convenient vehicle of expression. In other words, there seems to be a common view about modernist epiphanies that could be formulated as follows: while the very possibility of a revelation orientates the writing and the reading of the modernist text towards a significant turning point often seen as offering an access to the unspeakable, the truth that access leads to appears to be both what the narrator and the reader are yearning for and what keeps eluding them. In that sense, there is no experience but where language fails, “[...] for one’s sentences”, writes Virginia Woolf, “are only an approximation, a net one flings over some sea-pearl which may vanish, and if one brings it up it won’t be anything like what it was when I saw it, under the sea.” (Woolf 1981, 223)

2I would like to argue that this common view of the modernist tension between access and allusion has first to be historicized: it has to be understood in contrast with the radical scepticism of a post-structuralist perspective in its purely formal deconstructive mode, but not merely because, as Jean-François Lyotard puts it in The Postmodern Condition, “the recognizable consistency of the form” in the case of modern aesthetics and as opposed to postmodernism, continues to offer the reader “matter for solace and pleasure” (Lyotard, 82). For Woolf, literature clearly has an object, or rather “innumerable objects” which are, in her own terms, “human life”, “life itself” and not solely the exploration of language — which does not mean, of course, that her fiction is never self-reflexive. But this tension also has to be questioned, at least in the case of Woolf s texts, on more theoretical grounds. In this paper, I would like to argue that Virginia Woolf s poetic programme of an encounter with the real, with what she called “the symptom of life”, provides its own critical “knowledge” on the modern text of fiction by shattering, through literary irony, such standard oppositions as literal language and figurative language, the known and the unknown, the said and the unspeakable.

3Many short fictions by Virginia Woolf follow the conventional motif of the quest pattern in a more or less explicitly parodic way. In “The Mark on the Wall”, “An Unwritten Novel”, “ Haunted House”, “Monday or Tuesday” or “The Lady in the Looking Glass”, the narrated “adventure” is that of a mind searching beyond the visible world of reality for a missing dimension, an “it” without a stabilized reference, an apparently inaccessible truth, an object waiting to “achieve [...] its epiphany” by “leap[ing] to us from the vestment of its appearance” (Joyce, 213).

  • 1 All further references to Woolf s short fictions will be to this edition.

4In “A Haunted House” (Woolf, 1991)1, the linear unfolding of the quest towards an expected revelation is first inscribed in the syntagmatic progression of the text by means of repetitions, differences and echoes:

Whatever hour you woke there was a door shutting. From room to room they went, hand in hand, lifting here, opening there, making sure – a ghostly couple.
‘Here we left it,’ she said. And he added, ‘Oh, but here too!’ ‘Its upstairs,’ she murmured, ‘And in the garden,’ he whispered. ‘Quietly,’ they said, ‘or we shall wake them.’[...]

But they had found it in the drawing-room. Not that one could ever see them. The window-panes reflected apples, reflected roses; all the leaves were green in the glass. [...]

A moment later, the light had faded. Out in the garden, then? But the tree spun darkness for a wandering beam of sun.[...]

‘Here,’ she murmurs, ‘sleeping; in the garden reading; laughing, rolling apples in the loft. Here we left our treasure — ‘ Stooping, their light lifts the lids upon my eyes. ‘Safe! Safe! Safe!’ The pulse of the house beats wildly. Waking I cry ‘Oh, is this your buried treasure? The light in the heart.’ (122-123)

5In the opening paragraph, the very idea of the quest is first suggested by the absence of direct or indirect objects in “lifting here”, “opening there” and “making sure”. In what follows, it is made obvious by the verbs “to look”, “to find”, “to seek”, “to wander” and by the different questions asked by the anonymous first-person narrator: “What did I come here for? What did I want to find?”, “Out in the garden then?”. The subtle changes in the representation of time and space also reflect the linear unfolding of the text towards its final moment: the use of the preterite and of the frequentative aspect is soon replaced by the present tense announcing change and climax. The text also progresses from elusive spatial notations — “here”, “there”, “room to room” — and chaotically organized allusions to space — “drawingroom”, “garden”, “floor”, “wall”, “ceilings” — to a precise, or deceptively precise, location in the last line: “ the light in the heart “ (123). Besides, the story’s epiphanic moment is framed by a progression from relative darkness to enlightenment, from distance (between “I” and “they”) to closeness, and by an acceleration of rhythm: first “the pulse of the house beat softly” and “gladly”; then it “beats proudly” and “wildly”. First referred to as sheer grammatical absence — “lifting” Ø —, the object of the quest is then associated to the absence of a recognizable reference — “it” — before becoming a yet-unfound “buried treasure” that will finally be conferred the status of a metaphor: “the light in the heart”. At the end of the protagonists and narrator’s quest, something, therefore, has been found, that nonetheless remains to be deciphered. For the metaphor cannot be purely rhetorical and ornamental, or the value of the “revelation” would be quite frustrating: “the past inhabitants of a house discover that their past happiness, which they had long been looking for, is still alive in the sleepers’ heart”.

6Of course, the “light in the heart” suggests that another reading of the text is required, superimposing its paradigmatic functioning to what could be retrospectively analysed as a parody of the linear building-up of enigmas in the conventional plotted-story. In this perspective, the story’s epiphany becomes the climactic outcome of the text’s metaphoric system of contrasts. As far as the representation of space, time and the world is concerned, the text’s narrative and poetic strategies first oppose outer space to inner space, here to not here, past to present, death to life, nature to civilization (pigeons, threshing machine), cosmic elements (rain, wind, moon) to human ones. But those usually conflicting categories are finally resolved in the final “ moment of being” that fuses the trivialities of everyday life (reading, looking for apples, sleeping) with epiphanic intensity, and expands, through reverberating echoes, a moment of perception into an onrush of vision. In this retrospective and metaphoric view of the text, the value of the “the light in the heart” becomes fundamentally heuristic, as it both creates and reveals what Paul Ricœur in La Métaphore vive calls the “proposition of a world” through fiction. It gives us access, through metaphoric transfer, to a “figurai event” (un “événement figural”):

C’est cette innovation de sens [obtenue par la torsion du sens littéral des mots] qui constitue la métaphore vive. [...] L’interprétation métaphorique, en faisant surgir une nouvelle pertinence sémantique sur les ruines du sens littéral, suscite aussi une nouvelle visée référentielle, à la faveur même de l’abolition de la référence correspondant à l’interprétation littérale de l’énoncé. (Ricœur 1975,288-289)

7The merit of Ricœur’s theory of metaphor, when applied to Woolf s short story, is that it enables us to confront some of the theoretical injunctions underlying its possible critical interpretations. One of those injunctions, which I will here call the “residual essentialism” theory, may seem easy to dispense with. Applied to “A Haunted House”, an ontological mode of theorizing might view the “light in the house” as an easily, although indirectly, communicable Truth, a finally accessible origin reconciling the ambiguous pronoun “it” and the polysemic noun “treasure” through metaphorical access to the unspeakable. In this perspective, it ensues that language is ultimately a transparent medium, that literature is written by a privileged addresser to a privileged audience or addressee, and that there is always a literal meaning to be retrieved under the metaphorical one:

Toute figure, en fait, comporte un processus de décodage en deux temps, dont le premier est la perception d’une anomalie, et le second sa correction, par exploration du champ paradigmatique où se nouent les rapports de ressemblance, de contiguïté, etc, grâce auxquels sera découvert un signifié susceptible de fournir à l’énoncé une interprétation sémantique acceptable. [...]

La métaphore poétique est passage de la langueµ dénotative à la langue connotative, passage obtenu par le détour d’une parole qui perd son sens au niveau de la première langue, pour le retrouver au niveau de la seconde. (Cohen 21,204)

8But what could the “acceptable” interpretation or “decoded” meaning of “the light in the heart” be? Love? Happiness? Memory? If it is so, the text’s metaphoric epiphany has less to do with gnostic illumination and the metaphysics of presence than with poetic deflation and delusion, the very same delusion that was offered previously to the reader expecting “A Haunted House” to be a story of the puzzle-kind.

9Taking the notions of irony and poetic deflation as a starting point, another reading of Woolf’s short fiction, this time inspired by poststructuralist anti-essentialist critical theories could underline the accumulation of rhetorical figures and narrative motifs to suggest that far from being a strategy to access the unspeakable, the use of metaphor is the symptom of an endless circularity of signs that challenges the “logocentric” impulse of literature. As we know, for many promoters of the Deconstruction Theory, there is no “authentic” moment of language when meaning is identical to the speaker’s intention; meaning is the result of a “différance”, but is also endlessly deferred, since there is always an element of undecidability or play in the instable sign. Therefore, a radically deconstructive reading of “A Haunted House” might conclude that the object of the quest in the story is purely metafictional. The final metaphoric epiphany does not access anything, nor does it allude to the “unique and temporary result of a contextual operation” (“le résultat unique et fugitif d’une certaine action contextuelle” (Ricœur 1972, 98); it is an exploration of language emphasizing the impossibility of reference. It follows that Woolf s modernism anticipates postmodernism in the way it “ searches for new presentations, not in order to enjoy them but in order to impart a stronger sense of the unpresentable.” (Lyotard, 82)

10In an article called “ ‘I’m not trying to tell a story’: Three Short Fictions by Woolf”, Susan Dick seems to follow this path when she argues that in “The Lady in the Looking-Glass: A Reflection”, “the failure of the narrator [...] to tell herself the story of the scene she observes becomes the story that she tells” (Dick, 174). In her analysis of the epiphanic moment, the looking-glass to which the protagonist and the narrator both turn does not provide more answers about Isabella’s true being than her physical surroundings and her imagined social circumstances. According to Dick’s reading, the looking-glass is a metaphor for the text’s reflexivity. And yet, the story’s last paragraph obviously pieces together some of the structural and semantic characteristics of the modernist epiphany as evoked by Pierre Tibi in his thorough article on the subject (Tibi, 225):

At last there she was, in the hall. She stopped dead. She stood by the table. She stood perfectly still. At once the looking glass began to pour over her a light that seemed to fix her; that seemed like some acid to bite off the unessential and superficial and to leave only the truth. It was an enthralling spectacle. Everything dropped from her — clouds, dress, basket, diamond — all that one had called the creeper and the convolvulus. Here was the hard wall beneath Here was the woman herself. She stood naked in that pitiless light And there was nothing. Isabella was perfectly empty. She had no thoughts, she had no friends. She cared for nobody. [.... People should not leave looking-glasses hanging in their rooms. (Woolf 1991, 221)

11The epiphany appears here to be a sudden manifestation staged by the visual perception of a trivial object — the looking-glass — which suddenly aquires a semiologic status, the significant and metaphoric shift being from perception to knowledge — “she stood perfectly still”/“And there was nothing” —, from denotation to connotation — “she stood by the table ” / “she stood naked in that pitiless light” —, in a condensation of the visual with the conceptual that seems to aquire a cognitive dimension, or at least to give access to some “temporary absolute” (Tibi, 197).

12Susan Dick, however, turns to a postmodern metafictional and anti-essentialist interpretation of the story based on the anticlimactic, and therefore possibly ironic, punch-line and on her understanding of the words “nothing” and “empty”. Her interpretation of the text ignores the possibility of a phenomenological reading of the looking-glass: the truth staged by the mirror — “it was an enthralling spectacle” — is not that of the looked-at subject, but that of the looking subject. For Susan Dick, the meaning of the metaphoric epiphany is that all art is artifice.

13What is at stake here and in “A Haunted House” is not only the specific value of a specific metaphor but the theoretical positions implied by this very value. Thus, although I tend to agree with the nature of Dick’s anti-essentialist position — “Truth”, according to Woolf is never “something definite, something real”, something “impersonal” that we should “worship” for its “solidity” (Woolf 1991, 88) — I do not think that what can be found in the mirror is merely the artificality of the art it metaphorises. If “people should not leave looking-glasses hanging in their room” (Woolf 1991, 221), it is not because looking-glasses are cruelly faithful to “standard” reality, but because they may be unfaithful to “true reality”, according to Woolf s famous antinomy. “Human character” (the object of Woolf s artistic quest) cannot be fixed in its essence, it cannot be seized by a mirror-text holding its reality “unescapably” (Woolf 1991, 221). “True reality”, to which Woolf s art tries to give us access, is not so much unknowable, and therefore unspeakable, as yet-unknown, still “uncircumscribed”. In some of her essays, journal entries and short fictions, Woolf thus mocks the new modernist doxa when it relies on such oppositons as the known and the unknown, the visible and the invisible:

But as for that mark, I’m not sure about it; I don’t believe it was made by a nail after all; it’s too big, too round for that I might get up, but if I got up and looked at it, ten to one I shouldn’t be able to say for certain; because once a thing’s done, no one ever knows how it happened. Oh! Dear me, the mystery of life! The inaccuracy of thought! The ignorance of humanity! (Woolf 1991, 83-84)

14With the poetical (as opposed to rhetorical) figures of “the light in the heart”, “the looking-glass” and “the mark on the wall”, Woolf therefore rejects both the idea of a Truth accessible through allegory, and the notion of an endlessly deferred allusive meaning. As one of the anonymous charaters of “The Evening Party” explains, for Woolf, what lies on “the surface with its hard separate facts” (Woolf 1991, 85) is not so much invisible as inaccessible through the language of compromise, safety and agreement:

‘Yet how sad a thing is sense! How vast a renunciation it represents! Listen for a moment. Distinguish one among the voices. Now. “So cold it must seem after India. Seven years too. But habit is everything” That’s sense. That’s agreement. They’ve fixed their eyes upon something visible to each of them. They attempt no more to look upon the little spark of light, the little purple shadow which may be fruitful land on the verge of the horizon, or only a flying gleam on the water. It’s all compromise — all safety, the general intercourse of human beings. Therefore we discover nothing; we cease to explore; we cease to believe that there is anything to discover, “Nonsense” you say; meaning that I shan’t see your crystal globe; and I’m half ashamed to try.’
‘Speech is an old torn net, through which the fish escape as one casts it over them. Perhaps silence is better. Let us try it. Come to the window.’ ‘It’s an odd thing, silence. The mind becomes like a starless night; and then a meteor slides, splendid, right across the dark and is extinct. (Woolf 1991, 99)

15This dialogue could be read in the light of John McGowan’s analysis of modernist epiphanies; trying to “gain access to truths hidden to ordinary perception” (McGowan, 417), or, in Woolf s own terms, to “discover” and “explore” the “fruitful land on the verge of the horizon”, the artist embodies his complex experience of truth in a “little spark of light”, a “flying gleam on the water” that will unavoidably let the “fish escape” through its “net”. A reader familiar with Ricœur’s work on the metaphor would perhaps be struck by the opposition between “sense” as “habit”, “agreement” and “safety” — three terms that can be understood as referring to literal meaning — and “live metaphors”, which, by definition, cannot be translatable. In more Woolfian terms though, what is contrasted in this dialogue is not so much two levels of meaning as two modes of discourse, as the words “voices”, “intercourse” and “speech” clearly emphasize. On the one hand, the “old torn net” of clichés and preconceived knowledge, the uselessness of agreements on the “visible”, the renunciation to fruitful communication; on the other hand, the irruption of “life itself” with its risks, shadowy dimensions and “fruitful” promises. In what I see as one of her many fictional poetic manifestos, Woolf reverses once more some “standard” critical dichotomies: in the end, what her metaphoric epiphanies point out is not so much where meaning lies but where it does not lie.



Belsey Catherine, Critical Practice, London, Methuen, 1980.

Cohen J., Structure du langage poétique, Paris, Flammarion, 1966.

Dick Susan, “‘I am not trying to tell a story’: Three Short Fictions by Woolf”, English Studies in Canada 15 (2), (June 1989), 162-177.

Joyce James, Stephen Hero, 1944, New York, New Directions, 1963.

Lyotard Jean-François, The Postmodern Condition, tr. R. Durand, Manchester, Manchester UP, 1985.

Mcgowan John, “From Pater to Wilde to Joyce: Modernist epiphany and the soulful self”, Texas Studies in Literature and Language 32 (3) (Fall 1990), 417-445.

Ricœur Paul, “La métaphore et le problème central de l’herméneutique”, Revue philosophique de Louvain, T. 70, quatrième série, n° 5, 1972.

—, La Métaphore vive, Paris, seuil, 1975.

Tibi Pierre, « Pour une poétique de l’épiphanie », Cahiers de l’Université de Perpignan (18), (premier semestre 1995), 183-236.

Woolf Virginia, The Complete Shorter Fiction of Virginia Woolf (1985), ed. Susan Dick, London, Grafton Books, 1991.

—, The Letters of Virginia Woolf Vol. 4, ed. Nigel Nicholson, London, The Hogarth Press, 1981.


1 All further references to Woolf s short fictions will be to this edition.


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