The Consciousness Effect: Representation of Subjectivity in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and James Joyce’s Ulysses

Falando em Literatura in english? Yes! Elton Uliana‘s article, he’s Brazilian, bachelor of English Literature from University Birkbeck College, University of London. Enjoy!

The Consciousness Effect: Representation of Subjectivity in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and James Joyce’s Ulysses 

A sudden light transfigures a trivial thing, a weathervane, a windmill, a winnowing flail, the dust in the barn door; a moment – and the thing has vanished, because it was pure effect.

   (Walter Pater)[1]


The house of fiction has many windows, but only two or three doors.

     (James Wood)[2]

The works of Virginia Woolf and James Joyce are a landmark in aesthetic history. In the early twentieth century, a moment of rupture and breakdown in cultural order, both writers responded to the changing conditions of the period by proposing a radical overturn of the objective mimetic impulses characteristic of conventional literary representation. In their own idiosyncratic way, each writer indulged freely in communicating a more relativistic, subjectivist version of reality. Woolf’s and Joyce’s linguistic experimentation epitomizes the ‘high modernist’ aesthetic system with its emphasis on consciousness rather then character (realism) or temperament (naturalism); its neglect of plot coherence, unity and closure; and its retreat from omniscient narrative strategy.[3] This pivotal misrule of literary form notoriously involved a multitude of other innovations like the debunking of syntax, the dislocation of cohesive point of view, and the disinheriting of linear time. If this break with tradition allowed for an ironic, if fictitious detachment between object and subject, it also represented a radical shift in the whole category of the subject, which became tantalizingly elusive and self-evident at the same time. These innovations of the modernist project remain remarkably enduring.

     Even though the writings of Woolf and Joyce may be regarded as diametrically opposites in terms of stylistic and thematic psychology, underlying that there is a preoccupation which inevitably unites them: the recasting of human consciousness, perception and memory beyond realistic conventions. This study will analyze the relationship between consciousness and literary representation as structured in Woolf’s To the Lighthouse (1927) on the one hand and in Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) on the other. I shall argue that both Woolf’s and Joyce’s narrative technique produce, in strikingly distinctive manner, an expansion of subjective boundaries, one which destabilizes the self and makes it permeable by the other and impregnated by elusive, ephemeral impressions of external worldly events. I will focus both on the effects produced by free indirect style on the representation of consciousness and on the implications that genre, mode and form have on subjectivity.

     Both Woolf and Joyce use modulations in genre to shape and reproduce the effects of reality on consciousness. Each chapter in Ulysses is constructed in distinctive style, from epic to journalistic, from the dramatic to the catechetic form. In episode seventeen (Ithaca), when Joyce abruptly converts the genre of the preceding chapter from a long-winded prose (which emulates medieval morality tales and Christian parables) to a highly stylized parody of the Catholic catechism, Joyce’s narrator with all its verbal incontinence reveals a consciousness ceremoniously invaded by (low and high-brown) textual paraphernalia:


The trajectory of their, first sequent, then simultaneous, urinations were dissimilar : Bloom’s longer, less irruent, in the incomplete form of the bifurcated penultimate alphabetical letter who in his ultimate year at High School (1880) had been capable of attaining the point of greatest altitude against the whole concurrent strength of the institution, 210 scholars : Stephen’s higher, more sibilant, who in the ultimate hours of the previous day had augmented by diuretic consumption an insistent vescical pressure.

(Ulysses, p. 655)[4]


Here (and elsewhere in the novel), there is a collision between the apparent psychological scantiness of the subjects and the verbal opulence with which they are treated. Suitably enough, the experiences of Bloom and Stephen are focalized through Joyce’s avatar in the text according to the conventions of the cathetic form, or in Joyce’s own words, ‘mathematical catechism’.[5] By categorizing the verbal details of the text and attempting to render the human within this ‘cosmic physical’ frame, Joyce’s writing not only tests the boundaries of genre but also produces a convulsion of subjectivities and data, making the distinction of voices virtually impossible. If the language in the passage with its doctrinal, pedantic (and clichéd) quality does not belong to Bloom (‘irruent’) or Stephen (‘sibilant’), it may not be characteristic of the narrator either.[6] In fact, this current of changing impressions goes so far as to produce a sense in which there seems to be no viewpoint at all outside the text from which the characters and events are observed, anymore then there seems to remain no objective reality apart from the one produced in the narrator’s consciousness.

   In an illuminating study of Joyce, Steven Connor argued that the chapters of the novel seem to form a pattern of stylistic rivalry.[7] The scholar suggests that this stylistic competition amongst the chapters often functions not to give expression to a consciousness, but rather, it represents ‘alien threats to or potential distortion of, that consciousness’.[8] If Joyce’s provoking stylistic design represents a discontinuity of consciousness, a debunking of a coherently expressible, obviously organized and consistently established structure of feelings and thoughts, as Connor suggests, it does so by continuously and self-consciously asserting an overarching unifying sensibility, one which authoritatively interpolates the purposelessness, seemingly pointlessness argument and the supreme autonomy of the work: that of the author, of James Joyce himself. In this way, the more the text disseminates this discontinuity of consciousness by its continuous change in style, mode, tone and diction, the more it establishes the (narcissistic) consciousness of its own author, one which is not only asserted, but in my view also performed in the text.

   Extending this point, ‘personality’ is always in tension with ‘impersonality’ in Ulysses.[9] According to Joyce, the aesthetic emotion is static and clinical, it arrests the mind and raises it ‘above desire and loathing’.[10] T.S. Eliot’s declared in ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ (1919) that a literary work is ‘not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not an expression of personality, but an escape from it’.[11] Expanding on Eliot’s argument, it becomes plausible to suggest that Joyce’s attempt to evade expressions of a particular consciousness (being it of the characters or of the writer himself) by constantly incorporating new genres in the textual fabric of the novel is, in fact, an assertion of Joyce’s own literary ambition and distinct artistic personality.

     This critical instance has another nuance. In a cold, ruthless manner the text manages to implement an ironic detachment between itself and the content it presents. Characteristically, to codify even more the semiotic situation in Ulysses, the narrator plunges into libelous subjects (‘the problem of irritability, tumescence, rigidity, reactivity, dimension, sanitariness, pelosity.’, p. 665) and reflects dispassionately on the shabbiness of ordinary life (‘both contemplate each other in both mirror of the reciprocal flesh theirhisnothis fellowfaces.’,p. 664) but offers no comment on the material related. It is plausible to suggest though that the narrator retains, nevertheless, some of Joyce’s own systematic inclination to scholastic, scientific and even theological thought.[12] Indeed, the author’s almost prurient captivation by ordinariness is established in the text rather magnificently. Joyce manages to combine the cult of the prosaic with wholehearted affinity with it.

     Form and content in To The Lighthouse have a similar vexed relation. However, the narrator’s deliberate (but not always ironic) detachment in Woolf’s text is never in the depraving, corrupting, unpalatable Joycean sense. The perception of inner processes in the novel, that is, the interior movement of characters’ and narrator’s consciousness, is systematically described (represented) by association, exposition or allusion to exterior reality. Nevertheless, these agents are not necessarily involved in the external occurrences. If the minds of the characters in the novel are momentarily anchored in the reality of the body or of real life, it is never in the same bluntly grocer context as in the passage from Ulysses above; instead, it is more likely to be because it leads to an excursion to some subjective, ethereal realm:

“And even if it isn’t fine to-morrow,” said Mrs. Ramsey, raising her eyes to glance at William Bankes and Lily Briscoe as they passed, “it will be another day. And now,” she said, thinking that Lily’s charm was her Chinese eyes, aslant in her white, puckered little face, but it would take a clever man to see it, “and now stand up, and let me measure your leg,” for they might go to the Lighthouse after all, and she must see if the stocking did not need to be an inch or two longer in the leg.

       (TTL, p. 24)[13]

The balance of this extract shifts from apprehensions of interior worlds (Mrs. Ramsey’s and the narrator’s) to presentations of penetrable objects and impenetrable substances. If the scene reveals a ‘myriad of impressions’ in Mrs. Ramsey’s mind, it also suggests at least two distinct layers of voices.[14] Through free indirect speech, Woolf simultaneously opens and bridges a subjective and linguistic gap between character and narrator. This technique enables the reader to see, hear and imagine things through Mrs. Ramsey’s physical eyes (‘and now stand up’), through her mind’s eyes (‘it would take a clever man to see it’) and through the narratorial function (‘for they might go to the Lighthouse after all’); but also through the language of both. In this sense, the novel relegates not only consciousness but also language to relative, temporary state. Thus, the characters’ consciousness in the novel blurs into everything which surrounds them.

     This strategy implies a ‘double flexibility’.[15] The narrative operates in a multitude of simultaneous time dimensions (Mrs. Ramsey’s moment with James, the unspecified time of her conjecture on Lily’s attractiveness, the moments of authorial flagging – e.g. ‘she said’) and promenades itself elastically in space; sometimes observing Mrs. Ramsey, sometimes calling on William or on the Lighthouse. In his anthological study of the brown stocking episode in To the Lighthouse, Erich Auerback stresses that the narrative’s elasticity is constructed around interruptions. Indeed, the novel spatial-temporal expansions and contractions are woven in and utilized as frames for inner processes, both of characters present in the scene and for the perspective of characters that are physically absent. In the passage above, Mrs. Ramsey initial comment is continually interrupted by external occurrences and thoughts: first by the image of Bankes and Lily, then by the impressions these two characters have left in her mind. By the time Mrs. Ramsey finishes her sentence (‘and now let me measure your leg’), the reader is allowed a detailed intrusion in her memory, private thoughts and physical actions. Auerbach suggests that Mrs. Ramsey’s action of measuring the brown stocking against James’ legs dramatizes multiple works of consciousness, but in my view, it also connects the character with subliminal appearances and vibrations and establishes the (fragmented) continuity of the section. The novel embroiders the details at which Mrs. Ramsey is gazing at or focusing on into the activity of her own thoughts. In this way, the text of To the Lighthouse both structures the subjects within these dynamics and is structured by them.

     Time is a subjective process in both novels. The reader is embedded in it and experiences it in different ways. As both novels are concerned with the representation of states of mind, time is also embedded in the consciousness of the characters.[16] For Mrs. Ramsey in To the Lighthouse, the ephemeral moments, if they are saturated with significance, they are as important as if they were ten years for a character in a realist novel:

For she knew that he had turned his head as she turned; he was watching her. She knew that he was thinking, You are more beautiful than ever. And she felt herself very beautiful.

         (TL, p. 115)

Virginia Woolf To the Lighthouse 1927

In this passage and elsewhere in the novel, there are many things occurring in any moment simultaneously. Mrs. Ramsey’s words, feelings and thoughts are filtered through the third person narration. This instance of reported or indirect speech allows the narrator to let the reader know what Mrs. Ramsey is thinking; arguably in her own inflection, without the conventional authorial flagging (‘she though’ or ‘she said to herself’). It also facilitates the encompassing of unredeemed fragments of time. There is a sense throughout the novel that something meaningful, stable and eternal is at the core of personal experiences, of which we are only able to grasp a fleeting glimpse. Mrs. Ramsey represents one way of approaching experience. Her subjectivity is textually set against Mr. Ramsey objectivity.[17] Although they each have their moment of vision, Mrs. Ramsey seems to be always trying to make from the moment something permanent. Woolf continuously deploys different modes of indirect speech, most frequently free indirect style to slip in and out the character’s consciousness and incidentally give the reader a sense of multiple time frames; lapses of time which can be chronological, cyclical, mythical, subjective and so on.[18] The novel’s capacity to depict speech, consciousness and span of time is both mimetic and generative.[19] In this way, the characters’ stream of thoughts and their subjective apprehension of time, although seemingly organic and flowing, are actually affects of a meticulously studied narrative technique, one in which Woolf (and Joyce) is a prolific master.

     There is a remarkable artistry in the very act of perception in both novels. I have argued that Woolf and Joyce emphasized not only in To the Lighthouse and Ulysses but throughout their careers the urgency of reformulating language and literary representation by diverging radically from modes of realistic aesthetic. In their deliberate effort to produce a different kind of fiction, and extend its franchise, both writers developed a revolutionary and seminal mode for rendering the flux of experience and its impressions on the mind. The apprehension of the elusive relationship between the mind and reality in To the Lighthouse and Ulysses produces a fictional world which is nevertheless exuberantly embedded in the very elusiveness of the reality they wish to represent. The subjective flow of mental processes is in continuous dialectic with external objective events. If the world in both novels is vivid, radiant and mysteriously meaningful (in Joyce’s case usually profane), it is also somehow dependent on the mind, on the consciousness of both characters and narrators. Both novels powerfully undercut the idea of a stable, non-fragmented, realistically representable human subject. By deploying a constant interplay between modes of speech and generic conventions and performing continuous shifts in perspective both temporal and spatial, both writers become a kind of cchroniclers of the aesthetic and ontological anxieties of the early twentieth century. Each created an extravagant atmosphere of thought in their works and an unprecedented form of representing states of mind.



Armstrong, Tim, Themes in 20th Century Literature and Culture: Modernism (Cambridge: Polity, 2005)

Auerbach, Erich, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, trans. by Trask, Willard R. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1974)

Bloom, Harold, Novelists and Novels: A Collection of Critical Essays (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007)

Briggs, Julia, Reading Virginia Woolf (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006)

Brooker, Joseph, Joyce’s Critics: Transitions in Reading and Culture (London: University of Wisconsin Press, 2004)

Brooker, Peter (ed.), Modernism/Postmodernism (Harlow: Pearson Education Limited, 1922)

Childs, Peter, Modernism (London: Routledge, 2000)

Connor, Steve, Writers and their Work (Plymouth: Northcode House Publishing, 1996)

Eagleton, Terry, The English Novel: An Introduction (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004)

Eagleton, Terry, The Event of Literature (New Haven: Yale University Press, Terry Eagleton, Terry, The Ideology of the Aesthetic (Cambridge: Basil Blackwell, 1990), 2012)

Ellman, Richard, Ulysses on the Liffey (London: Faber and Faber, 1974)

Ferrer, Daniel, Virginia Woolf and the Madness of Language), trans. by Bennington, Geoffrey and Bowlby, Rachel ( London: Routledge, 1990)

Joyce, James, Ulysses, ed. by Jeri Johnson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998)

Joyce, James, Ulysses, ed. by Kibberd, Declan (London: Penguin, 1992)

Lathan, Sean (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Ulysses (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014)

Levenson, Michael H., A Genealogy of Modernism: A Study of English Literary Doctrine 1908-1922 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986)

Pykett, Lyn, Engendering Fictions ( London: Edward Arnold, 1995)

Raitt, Suzanne, Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse (London: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1990)

Reid, Sue (ed.), Contemporary Critical Essays: Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse – Virginia Woolf (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 1993)

Schwarz, Daniel R., Reading Joyce’s Ulysses (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004)

Smith, Paul Jordan, A Key to Ulysses of James Joyce (New York: City Lights Edition, 1970)

Stevenson, Randall, Modernist Fiction: An Introduction (Harlow: Longman, 1992)

Tobin, Patricia Drechsel, Time and the Novel: The Genealogical Imperative (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978)

Williams, Raymond, Writing in Society (London: Verso, 1985)

Whittier-Ferguson, John, Framing Pieces: Designs of the Gloss in Joyce, Woolf and Pound (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996)

Wood, James, How Fiction Works (New York: Picador, 2008)

Woolf, Virginia To the Lighthouse (London: Vintage, 1990)

Woolf, Virginia, ed. by McNeillie, Andrew, Woolf, The Essays of Virginia Woolf (London: Hogarth Press, 1988)



[1] Quoted in Harold Bloom, Novelists and Novels: A Collection of Critical Essays (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007),

[2] James Wood, How Fiction Works (New York: Picador, 2008), p. 3.

[3] Peter Brooker (ed.), Modernism/Postmodernism (Harlow: Pearson Education Limited, 1922), p. xi.


[4] All quotes from Ulysses will be taken from James Joyce, Ulysses, ed. by Jeri

Johnson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998).

[5] Richard Ellman, Ulysses on the Liffey (London: Faber and Faber, 1974), p. 156.

[6] Derek Artridge, Joyce Effects: On Langrage, Theory, and History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), p. 94.

[7] Steve Connor, Writers and their Work: James Joyce (Plymouth: Northcote House, 1996), p. 61.

[8] Ibid.,p. 61.

[9] For the quest for ‘impersonality’ in literary Modernism see Peter Childs, Modernism (London: Routledge, 2000), p. 7.

[10] Joseph Brooker, Joyce’s Critics: Transitions in Reading and Culture (London: University of Wisconsin Press, 2004), p. 21.

[11] Tim Armstrong, Themes in 20th Century Literature and Culture: Modernism (Cambridge: Polity, 2005), p. 91.

[12] Terry Eagleton, The English Novel: An Introduction (Oxford: Blackwell, 2005), p. 284.

[13] Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse (London: Vintage, 1990), p. 24. All quotes from the novel will be taken from this edition and abbreviated as above.

[14] Virginia Woolf, ‘Modern Fiction’, in Woolf, The Essays of Virginia Woolf, 4 vols., ed. Andrew McNeillie (London: Hogarth Press, 1988),vol. IV, p. 160.

[15] Suzanne Raitt, Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse (London: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1990), p. 68.

[16] Interestingly, Derek Attridge asserts that the function of the term character is that it crystalizes and enforces a number of assumptions about the human subject. See Derek Attridge, Joyce Effects: On Language, Theory, and History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), p.52.

[17] Gay, Peter, ‘On not Psychoanalyzing Virginia Woolf’, in The American Scholar, Vol. 71, No. 2 (Spring 2002), pp.71-75, [Stable URL:], accessed on 26 April 2015.

[18] Lyn Pykett, Engendering Fictions ( London: Edward Arnold, 1995), p. 9.

[19] Angela Frattorola, ‘Developing an Ear for the Modernist Novel: Virginia Woolf, Dorothy Richardson and James Joyce’, in Journal of Modern Literature, Vol. 31, No. 1 (Fall 2009), p. 137.