Reading is a major part of my life. Without books I really don't know what I would do with myself. Just as I would not know what to do with myself if I could not write. It is not just "the story" that excites me, it is the who, what, where, when, and why that interests me. It's the sweat of the writer and the trying to figure out which excersize he or she is using to keep him or her so shapely that gets my blood boiling. So every once in a while, I find myself on the serious side of life.
I ran across my senior overview (2005) that I had written on the narrative techniques and designs used by Virginia Woolf in To the Lighthouse, and Paule Marshall in Praisesong for the Widow, and felt compelled to share it with you. Because as you all know, writing is more than simple pen to paper or fingers to keys. There is life and thought behind all of our blogs. All our processes are different, but in the end, we have all, meaning to or not, made concious decisions before hitting "publish post".
Now, this is not a funny piece. In fact, you would be hard pressed to find anything humorous here. And yes, it is lengthy and many of you may simply scan it or come back to read bits now and again. But these are two of my favorite books that I, for one reason or another, find myself going back to time and again. If you haven't read these books, perhaps you will sometime soon give them a try.
When comparing and contrasting the narrative techniques and designs used by Virginia Woolf in To the Lighthouse and used by Paule Marshall in Praisesong for the Widow, the simplest but one of the most important aspects to look at is how the authors establish structure and theme for their readers. The importance of these aspects is due to the fact that how the aspects of structure and theme work together shapes the readers’ view of the plot and characters. Style is consequently an integral part of the narrative techniques and elements applied in these novels, as it provides depth and meaning to each; the styles chosen and used by Woolf and Marshall not only allow them to influence how their readers perceive each novel, but also allows them to provide readers with a distinct experience of a similar theme. Therefore, in order to understand how Woolf and Marshall impress some of the major literary techniques and elements essential to the novel form, it is necessary to examine in detail each author’s choices, and uses, of the main titles and sections, as well as to carefully observe the opening paragraphs or general prose and their contributions to the narrative. The first look will be at Woolf’s novel, To the Lighthouse.
Wolfe’s title sets the reader up for an excursion to the lighthouse. We do not know which lighthouse, or exactly where it may be, but all the images that a lighthouse brings about in one’s thoughts are set into motion; we are automatically to assume that this novel is to be about an excursion to this lighthouse. Woolf has set her theme into motion before the cover has been opened; the reader is already involved in Woolf’s story and the title becomes the beginning of her narration.
Upon opening To the Lighthouse, the reader is provided with a table of contents listing three sections: “The Window,” “Time Passes,” and “The Lighthouse.” These three title images, and senses of time, both still and moving, guide the reader through the novel and give him or her, a sense of how the narration will be played out. We can assume, for example, that, as readers, we will be given some sort of window view, time will pass, and something of importance will be found out about the lighthouse in question. These simple titles are crucial to the narrative because of their simplicity, and because they are so specific, focused, and universal. These titles are specific because there seems to be a clearly definable beginning, middle and end. They are focused because they seem to the point and literal. They are universal because a window, time passing, and a lighthouse are such general and common terms to use. Although the terms that can be applied to describe these titles are contradictory, there is a definite sense of knowing provided by these titles and a looking forward to something simple and perhaps even relaxing. This is what the reader is given as a first impression, as a lure to go forward and meet the assumed plot and unknown characters. However, Woolf also has something a bit different in store for the reader.
Keep in mind that Woolf has not advertised falsely, thus far. A reader’s interpretation of titles is shaped by past reading experiences and expectations; there is, after all, no particular image that Woolf is portraying, merely suggestions of tangible things and of ideas, both of which are open to a personal response. In this way, Woolf seems to be allowing the reader’s inner, personal self to form his or her own tacit relationship with the novel, just as the characters she creates form their own relationships with the world around them. So, in this way, it seems, the reader becomes one of Woolf’s characters. Theme, plot, and characters are already beginning to silently unfold, even before the reader gets to the body of prose.
Woolf’s prose offers the reader a great many things. It takes the reader directly into moments, dialogues, memories, and inner thoughts; within each, hopes, fears, needs, general wants, and personal desires, all culminate in a mass that is a sort of continuous structured chaos. The chaos, here, takes shape largely from Woolf’s narration of characters and her portrayal of time (flowing from external events to internal thoughts). What seems to structure and organize these chaotic elements are Woolf’s variations of style which present both time and character, and determine how a reader follows the pace of the plot; her combination of styles seems to stand as a guide for how she is relating the story to the reader. Wolf’s use of omniscient point of view is therefore inevitable due to the fact that it allows her narrative voice to flow in and out of the thoughts of all the characters she may present.
In the opening paragraph of “The Window,” the reader is placed at the end of a mother’s dialogue to her son, taking the reader directly into a moment. (Note that there is no opening quotation mark.) Woolf’s style, here, further impresses the idea that Woolf is continuing a narration that has already begun in the main title. The dialogue is simple, it is motherly and caring, promising yet foreboding (note the use of the word, “if”), “Yes, of course, if it’s fine tomorrow… But you’ll have to be up with the lark’ ” (3). The reader at this point, (so far having felt the definite structure of a novel,) would not necessarily suspect that the narration would go into a lengthy, stream of consciousness paragraph which needs to be more carefully digested than the first; a paragraph with much less ending punctuation and divisible preciseness than initially offered.
This switch from a simple style to a complex style steers the reader in the appropriate direction, so that he or she inevitably looks at the series provided in the second paragraph as an eye scanning a room, with everything coming in at once in order to be processed and separated later. The reader is only slightly eased into the narration; the first sentence of the second paragraph is lengthy, but seems normal enough. Then comes the second sentence in this paragraph, where the reader learns that the son is six, that he comes from a long line of people who, “cannot keep this feeling separate from that” (3), etc., that the boys name is James Ramsey, that he is “…transfixed…” (3), that he is “…on the floor cutting out pictures…as his mother spoke, with heavenly bliss” (3). The imagery is a lot to take in one sentence. But this is just as it should be, because it is fully representative of mindful thought. There is no break, just as there would not necessarily be a definitive break in one’s mind if one were speaking or thinking; one thoughtful fact flows into another. And then a break comes with a simple sentence of five, small words, “It was fringed with joy” (3). This small sentence becomes a momentary mental time for reflection, a brief pause, given by the fact that there is timely end punctuation; a single, simple thought. And then as sudden as the tides in the sea, the narration heaves back into the active mind, comma after comma, connecting facts which link to each other as in a stream of conversational thought. Then the chaos is interrupted by Mr. Ramsey speaking briefly and succinctly, “But… it won’t be fine” (4). And so the narrative goes, in and out, thoughts and interruptions, perhaps Woolf’s way of connecting the movement of the sea to the movement of the narrative. The structure of this paragraph also mirrors and plays upon the domestic urgency of the presented situation juxtaposed with the inner urgencies felt by both Mrs. Holloway and her son James.
Marshall presents Praisesong for the Widow with a different direction in mind, choosing the same elements and techniques but in a distinguishable fashion and form. For example, Marshall’s theme pertains to a multi-layered excursion just as Woolf’s does, however, where Woolf is upfront and obvious about the literal layer of her theme, Marshall unfolds her theme with clues and pieces, beginning instead by introducing character and plot. The plot of Marshall’s novel unfolds as the novel’s main character deals with conflict, and it is she whom the reader sees directly in the title; impressed further by her choice of third person limited point of view, recreating how the main character in this novel experiences the world with an authoritative approach.
Marshall’s Praisesong for the Widow, is similar in many respects to Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, and can be analyzed in much the same way. The title Praisesong for the Widow expresses that this novel is about a widow, and beyond that it is a song of praise to her, a religious glorification to her. Praise and song are combined to make a whole word, where normally these words would remain separated in our language. As the title further suggests, there is another way to look at “Praisesong:” it is an African-American term for the kind of praise circle walk that Avey will recall and will later perform. This title now has an ethnic flair that must be navigated by those unfamiliar with the roots of this culture, and re-explored by those familiar to it, just as Avey navigates her own physical, mental, emotional, cultural, and ancestral roots. Noticeably, there is a coming together of the two interpretations, making a new whole; a unique yet traditional song which brings together the old and the new and which remembers what mustn’t be forgotten. The way in which the reader initially interprets this title does not necessarily affect his or her preparedness for the novel. It seems that what Marshall has been unmistakable about is the immediate introduction of her main character “the Widow;” as for “Praisesong,” she leaves room for discovery.
There is a question that arises when noting that the name Widow is used as the reader’s first impression of the main character. By doing so, Marshall impresses upon the reader a general term left open for interpretation, just as Woolf does in her titles. In this way, Avey becomes any widow, stepping outside of the boundaries and stereotypes of, for example, color and race. With this title, however, Marshall cannot necessarily, overstep the connotations and baggage that comes with her title: old age, loneliness, and sadness. The only hint as to her ethnicity thus far comes in the word Praisesong. Without that, she is a woman with no name from any time, a woman labeled Widow.
Just as in Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, subtitles guide the reader through Marshall’s Praisesong for the Widow and give the reader a sense of how the narration will be played out. Marshall has divided her novel into four sub-sections: “Runagate;” “Sleeper’s Wake;” “Lavé Tête;” and “The Beg Pardon”. The titles do not leap out as simply and succinctly as “The Window”, “Time Passes”, and “The Lighthouse”. The reader may have to take in the feeling or idea of what these titles may mean at the moment, and unravel their meanings as they are discovered within the prose. Marshall also uses quotes which coincide with three out of four of the section titles, offering the reader a foreshadowing, and a deeper insight on the chapters to follow as well as something to focus on while reading the body narratives that follow (a feature not found in Woolf’s To the Lighthouse.) These quotes make clearer what the section titles do not, and they serve as a transition into the narrative prose.
When Marshall’s titles are looked at outside and separate from the scope of the body narrative, there is a private and esoteric elusiveness that suggests one can only come to an end by starting at the beginning. Note that unlike Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, the reader will not find a table of contents. The reader is instead plopped into the story one page at a time with no knowledge of what lies ahead -- mirroring Avey’s journey, filled with unknowns, traveling through each moment, in the now, or in the past, but not the future. Just as in Woolf’s novel, the reader here becomes a character in the story.
http://www.m-w.com/cgi-bin/dictionary). This wanderer is now a more subdued being, whose wanderings are for the purpose of finding ancestral knowledge, based on and led by a single memory. When looking at Marshall’s opening paragraphs, the reader sees that it is Avey Johnson who is the runagate, the vagabond, as “noiseless as a sneak thief” (10). She is the fugitive, the runaway, literally running away from the fifteen hundred dollar cruise and her friends, and metaphorically as the reader comes to see, a fugitive from herself, and a vagrant to her departed husband. Avey is caught right in the midst of it all, “With the strength born of the decision that had just come to her in the middle of the night, Avey Johnson forced the suitcase shut on the clothes piled inside and slid the lock into place, taking care not to make a sound…” (9). It is a private and personal moment for Avey Johnson, sudden and elusive. This moment is elusive in that Avey does not truly know why she is leaving or what will happen, and neither does the reader; for this reason, that same uneasiness the reader feels when faced with the title “runagate” resurfaces and the reader becomes aware that Avey too feels like a runagate, sneaking off in the night, not wanting to tell her friends. Based on the novel’s title, the reader can assume that Avey is probably the widow mentioned and the reason for her packing in the middle of the night is of great importance; the reader assumes she is preparing for a possible journey of the self and is eager to follow her every action and thought.
When looking at the section titles and the quotes that follow, the reader is first faced with a runagate: a vagabond, a fugitive, a runaway. Until one begins to read the body of this section we really don’t have much of a clue as to what we may be faced with. We do however get an initial feeling of discomfort and uneasiness due to the criminal connotations this word provokes. The first quote that transitions between the section title and the narrative body enhances this feeling, and adds the sense of a specific known journey, “. . . and the night cold and the night long and the river/to cross . . . –Robert Hayden” (8). But there is a second quote from Amiri Baraka, “I wanted to know my mother when she sat/ looking sad across the campus in the late 20’s/ into the future of the soul, there were black angels/ straining above her head, carrying life from the ancestors,/ and knowledge, and the strong nigger feeling . . .” (8). This second quote brings in a whole other aspect not suspected, which carries on the vagabond theme as a “wanderer” (
http://www.m-w.com/cgi-bin/dictionary). There is in this last definition a direct correlation to the title Praisesong for the Widow, as a wake brings to mind songs of praise and widows. However, wake could also mean “an annual holiday or vacation” (http://www.m-w.com/cgi-bin/dictionary), in which case the reader can interpret this title as eluding to taking a holiday while one is not fully conscious or awake, which is precisely what Avey seems to be doing. It can also be suggested that another possible meaning could be a sleeper’s awakening or a waking up. In this section, (if looking at “Sleeper’s Wake” in its most literal definition,) we see Avey does literally sleep, and she does literally wake up; added to that, her fitful sleep allowed for something quite dramatic and crucial to happen to her, and perhaps it is partially to this part of the plot which Marshall is eluding to. During these moments, quite a few definitions of wake can be interpreted. For example, how the dreams which wake her in her sleep “arouse or excite feelings and passions”, and the way that she is made “aware of” much about her life in her dreams, as well as in the ways she feels “the consequences of” her life’s “events” as if they were a wake or aftermath of a storm, (http://www.hyperdictionary.com/search.aspx?define=awake). The life she lived before and since her husband’s death is waking within her and from this waking, she goes through a metaphorical waking and an awakening of her own; she was not living her own life prior to this journey but now she is waking up and filling with life, awakening, beginning to realize what she had suppressed for so long, leaving the waves in the wake behind her.
Next comes “Sleeper’s Wake”, the wake of someone who is asleep, not one who is dead as one may first assume a wake to be for, “a watch held over the body of a dead person prior to burial and sometimes accompanied by festivity” (
It is only after reading the body narrative of this section that one can see the significance of all the aforementioned definitions and that Marshall is doing the same thing that she does by combining praise and song in her title to make one word; for within the body narrative she has combined various definitions into one. We do see that this section contains many paths that lead to the same destination, for example a personal wake for the widow and the wake that she is ultimately led to, known as “The Carriacou Excursion” (75).
Note that this particular section is the only section not supported by a beginning quote or set of quotes. There is no guidance or foreshadowing beyond the section title “Sleeper’s Wake”. We are tossed into this section with nothing to hold onto but what has come before, just as Avey has nothing to hold onto at this point as we meet her in a restless, fitful, draining sleep that begins on the balcony of her hotel room where the reader, like Avey is bombarded by dream after dream of memory after memory. There is no time to pause or ponder, or even to explain or foreshadow; perhaps this is because a quote here would place a pause where Marshall’s prose seems to demand a fluidity that mirrors the tension and urgency that takes the reader from one section into another.
http://www.french-linguistics.co.uk/dictionary/), it is also the past tense of laver, to wash, and tête means “head” (http://www.french-linguistics.co.uk/dictionary/). This gives a possible anointing or baptismal image when combined. Perhaps one might even go so far as to assume that it represents the low tide around the island (as lava brings to mind volcano which brings to mind island and washed out brings to mind the tide.) One might even presume some sort of bath or shower or clearing of the head or mind. Whatever the possibilities, the reader still may not necessarily come closer to a definitive guide as to what exactly “Lavé Tête” may specifically imply in terms of theme and plot, and so the reader turns the page and finds two quotes, one in Haitian, one in English, both with the same message, “Papa Legba, ouvri barrière pou’ mwê. –Vodun Introuit, Haiti” (148), and “Oh, Bars of my . . . body, open, open! --Randall Jarrell” (148). The first of these quotes breathes a deeper insight and focus for the simple fact that within its translation (open the barrier for me) barrière can, figuratively speaking, imply a social/cultural barrier (http://www.french-linguistics.co.uk/dictionary/), as well as a gate and a tollhouse for the collection of taxes on goods. These possibilities are a crucial concern within this section as we witness the major transformations that are about to come upon Avey both mentally and physically. In this section, Avey’s wants to get to the island, she wants to get back to her roots, to Tatem, to her ancestors, she wants the dirt floor, she wants to escape, she wants her body to stop aching, she wants to sit, and she wants a drink of water. But there is something she must do to get to any or all of these and that something is to let go, to purge her body and her mind, to empty the contents of her purse, to take off and let go of her hat, and to open herself up. Yes, even the seat did not come without begging, and the coconut water with “a little Jack Iron from Carriacou” could not be arrived at had she not sat down with Josephs and opened up to him (174).
What follows “Sleeper’s Wake” is “Lavé Tête,” a French phrase. Lavé means “lava” or “watery, washy, washed-out” (
In this section Avey’s mind is being emptied, purged, readying itself for the final stages of the metamorphosis that is about to occur, “It was as if a saving numbness had filtered down over her mind while she slept…. Or that her mind, like her pocketbook outside, had been emptied of the contents of the past thirty years during the night, so that she had awakened with it like a slate that had been wiped clean, a tabula rasa upon which a whole new history could be written” (151). Later, the reader sees one of the meanings of lavé come into play in connection with Avey’s experience on the boat, an experience which finally washes her out completely. The section title and transitional quotes now take shape and have a deeper meaning for the reader. They can be thoughtfully realized and reflected on, finally, as a main theme of this section; but only after reading the body narrative can this thoughtful realization and reflection take on this full effect.
Finally we come to “The Beg Pardon”. The reader can assume that it is at least on one level, related to that “shrill unintelligible song” that is to be sung on ones knees “at the Big Drum”, the same “The Beg Pardon” sang by Josephs that brought Avey’s dizziness back (165-166). “Down on my knees, oui, at the Big Drum, begging their pardon for whatever wrongs I might have done them unbeknownst during the year…You best beg them, if not they’ll get vex and spoil up your life in a minute… The Old Parents! The Long-time People! ... We must give them their remembrance.” There is finally some sort of familiarity in a section title, a common ground with no speculation which the reader can clearly visualize and feel certain of. For this section, the reader knows that there is going to be some sort of asking of forgiveness. This section title possibly makes a connection to the first, “Runagate”; perhaps a begging pardon by the vagabond, fugitive, runaway will take place. It also offers that there will be a satisfactory ending; especially so when considering the final transitional quote provided by Marshall, “’Ultimately the only response is to hold the event in mind; to remember it.’ –Susan Sontag” (212).
(Note again that, as previously mentioned, Praisesong for the Widow does not provide the reader with a table of contents, instead the novel unravels page by page and needs to be read in this fashion, so that it is up to and including the point a title comes into the narrative that the reader has usable knowledge to apply to his or her understanding of what this element’s message may be.)
Going into the body of this final section, there is a real feeling of structure as well as a feeling of knowing for the reader, perhaps even more so than there is when going into Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. The reason is that up to now, when noting only the main and section titles and their placement in the novel, there has been an overall culmination of uncertainty for the reader in deciphering the titles and any juxtaposing quotes. This is most probably due to Marshall’s reflection of the fact that in the narrative prose itself, the main character has up to this point had her uncertainties, herself. However, once we read through the body narratives and get to “The Beg Pardon”, we can see that there is as much clarity given after all, in this section title as there is for Avey in the body of the novel. And yes, there is definitely that private and personal moment, sudden and illusive, mentioned earlier which finally comes to fruition by the end of the novel, and which becomes wonderfully public and aware.
Like Woolf’s use of mid-style, Marshall’s use provides two different effects by contrast, allowing the narrator to ebb and flow, lie calm, or rage like the waves. Marshall’s narrative, carries an elusiveness which diminishes by the end of her novel as one can see in her layering of theme, plot, and character – her narrative is elusive either because she assumes the reader will know her meanings or because, and more probably, as stated previously, she is leaving room for the reader to experience the unfolding of the journey that unfolds in her novel. As suggested in the main title, Marshall seems to want the reader to do a bit of seeking out the truth before a full image or thought can be fully provoked in the reader’s mind.
Woolf establishes structure and theme well; but it is up to the reader to figure out what is going on once he or she is there, engulfed with stream of consciousness prose, short breaths here and there when one mind stops for a thought or switches to another’s. While Woolf sets the reader up for a mood, linear movement, and an excursion in a seemingly precise, and traditional formatting, it is the narrative prose which sets the reader into unexpected, mindful chaos; the reader needs to crack the code and make the connections the characters are trying to make in a world that seems to be held together and neatly organized.
Woolf and Marshall have obviously done quite a bit of careful planning. In fact their own careful planning must have been great excursions of their own. One tends to take for granted the simple things offered by an author, and it is often times those seemingly simple things that prove to be the most complex of all.
Marshall, Paule. Praisesong for the Widow. New York: Penguin Books, 1983.
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Woolf, Virginia. To the Lighthouse. New York: Harcourt, 1981.