Turning Inwards: the journey from intertextuality to metafiction in Mrs Dalloway and Atonement

Intertextuality refers to the relationships between texts and can take many forms, both overt and covert. In Mrs. Dalloway, Woolf employs overt intertextuality to create meaning, reinforce the text’s themes and ultimately to place her work within a cultural and literary context. In addition, covert forms of intertextuality are present in the form of narrative structure, parody and indirect allusion to other works. The intertextuality in Mrs Dalloway can further be viewed as a covert form of metafiction, because Woolf’s allusions to other fictional works emphasise the fictional nature of her own text, causing the reader to question the purpose of their reading and the meaning that can be derived from it. McEwan’s Atonement utilises the same forms of intertextuality, alongside an overt metafiction that is central to the novel’s plot, and thus raises the same questions. The progression from intertextuality in Woolf’s modernist work to the postmodern technique of self-referential metafiction in McEwan’s novel begs both readers and writers to question the very nature of fiction, the place of the novel in our culture, and the pleasure, meaning and purpose that can be derived from it.

Perhaps the most widely used—or easily identified—form of intertextuality is the use of direct quotations from, or references to, other texts. Mrs Dalloway contains repeated references to Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, which highlights the theme of death and provides a sense of connection between the psyches of Clarissa, Septimus and Peter. As Webb points out, the book begins by providing a sense of Clarissa’s love for “life; London; this moment of June” (Woolf 2), and yet “when that moment betrays her she reassures herself with a Shakespearean consolation for the dead” (Webb 281). Clarissa comes across Cymbeline spread open in a shop window and reads:

Fear no more the heat of the sun
Nor the furious winter’s rages
(Woolf 7)

She contemplates the deep sadness of modern life post-WW1, reflecting that “this late age of the world’s experience had bred in them all, all men and women, a well of tears” (Woolf 7). Shakespeare’s verse offers death as a consolatory escape from sadness and fear, and Webb asserts that the repeated tag “‘Fear no more’ seems merely a talisman such as people mutter to steel themselves […] but in this context it is something more”. Her “vision of death” is “the allegorical shape she finds in her history” (Webb 281), and this is a vision shared with, and realised by, Septimus in his suicide.

Shortly before jumping from the window to his death, Septimus’s thoughts provide another intertextual reference to Cymbeline: “Fear no more, says the heart in the body; fear no more” (Woolf 123), followed by a number of references to Shakespeare himself. On the window sill, Septimus enjoys the hot sun and is unafraid—when set alongside Shakespeare’s verse, this highlights the meaningless of his death. While Clarissa feels a connection with Septimus, which is reinforced by this intertextuality, she ultimately rejects his suicide: “fear no more the heat of the sun […] she felt somehow very like him […] glad that he had done it” but she “did not pity him” (Woolf 165). Peter Walsh, too, is connected to Clarissa through the intertext of Cymbeline. As he thinks about Clarissa’s rejection of him, Woolf writes “still, the sun was hot. Still, one got over things” (56). The overt intertextual use of Shakespeare’s Cymbeline is an important tool in highlighting the thoughts and mental states of Clarissa, Septimus and Peter, and elucidates both the connections and distance between them.

A number of covert intertexts have been identified in the study of Mrs Dalloway, including the genre of Greek drama, Homer’s The Odyssey and Dostoevsky’s Stavrogin’s Confession, which Virginia Woolf co-translated while working on Mrs Dalloway. Furman argues for Stavrogin’s Confession as an intertext of Mrs Dalloway not as a “direct influence on Woolf”, but as “an assertion of parallels, connections, affinities […] the notion of intertextuality, the idea of all writing coexisting in some kind of network of relationships” (1084). These relationships between texts are an inherent part of literary culture, and in the case of Mrs Dalloway this intertextual network is symbolic of the complicated relationships between Woolf’s characters.

Furman’s argument focuses particularly upon Septimus and his similarities to Dostoevsky’s Stavrogin, writing that “both protagonists are closely associated with the idea of madness” (1084) and that “Septimus is not merely an updated and modified Stavrogin, but rather a creative transposition of Dostoevsky’s protagonist” (1089). This is a subtle form of covert intertextuality that Woolf perhaps did not employ consciously. Regardless of conscious authorial intention, it’s evident that what we read influences what we write, and that texts can exert an influence upon each other in various ways. However, Furman’s “creative detective work” in “establishing intertextual connections” (1097), while providing valuable context on Woolf’s writing process and influences, does not contribute to the reader’s meaning making in the same deep way as the Shakespearean or Homeric allusions.

Woolf hints at the importance of Greek intertexts in Mrs Dalloway by alluding to Greek words in the following passage, early in the book, in which Septimus is sitting in the park:

He listened. A sparrow perched on the railing opposite chirped Septimus, Septimus, four or five times over and went on, drawing its notes out, to sing freshly and piercingly in Greek words how there is no crime and, joined by another sparrow, they sang in voices prolonged and piercing in Greek words, from trees in the meadow of life beyond a river where the dead walk, how there is no death. (Woolf 20)

To interpret the sparrows’ meaning requires an understanding of Greek, and thus Woolf’s allusions to classical Greek literature are a key element in understanding her novel. This passage is joined, a few pages later, with a scene in which Lucy, “taking Mrs Dalloway’s parasol, handled it like a sacred weapon which a Goddess, having acquitted herself honourably in the field of battle, sheds, and placed it on the umbrella stand” (Woolf 25). It’s unsurprising, perhaps, that Clarissa’s servant treats her as a Goddess, but this allusion to Greek mythology highlights Clarissa’s privileged position in the novel, while also symbolically evoking the parasol as weapon of protection against the “heat of the sun” (Woolf 7), thus linking the Greek and Shakespearean intertexts in a complex network of meaning. Hoff recognises this link, writing that “solar symbolism in the Homeric poem preoccupies many characters. In Mrs Dalloway, the heat of the sun marks the arrival of another day and its subtraction from the total allotment each person can expect” (189). Woolf’s solar symbolism, drawn from both Shakespeare and Homer, is used to signify both life and death.

Parody is another form of intertextuality that is present within Mrs Dalloway, particularly parody of James Joyce’s Ulysses, which in turn references The Odyssey as a key intertext. Hoff contends that “as a parody of Ulysses […], Mrs Dalloway attacks Joyce’s methods by appropriating his arcane sources” (187). Intertextuality in the modernist era was thus a means of both contextualising a work within a network of other texts, but also of critiquing the work of one’s peers. In this sense, intertextuality is a form of covert metafiction, raising the observant reader’s awareness of the text’s status as a fictional work within a literary discourse. Hoff remarks that “there are at least 600 paraphrases and parodies […] a restructuring so complete taken from a selection so broad suggests that, technically speaking, literature is one of the things that Mrs Dalloway is about” (188). The metafictive practice of writing literature about literature progressed further in the postmodern era through the use of overtly self-referential plot techniques, but the kernel of this trend was certainly present in modernist texts such as Mrs Dalloway.

In Atonement, McEwan employs intertextuality as a narrative device, but this postmodern novel also turns inwards upon itself through the use of metafiction. The metafictive plot device of a novel within a novel remains hidden until the epilogue, a decision that may leave the reader feeling cheated, questioning not just the worth of this text, but also the worth of literature as a whole. However, Atonement is concerned about stories and literature from the very start, while the ending is merely a continuation of this larger theme. As Finney points out, although “a minority of reviewers” have criticised this “essentially realist novel” for resorting to a “modish self-referentiality”, McEwan’s text is in fact concerned from “beginning to end […] with the making of fiction” (69). A careful reading of Part One reveals a number of intertextual clues that hint at the novel’s final outcome and themes. By turning inwards in a self-referential, metafictive manner, but also drawing from a wide range of intertextual sources, Atonement both continues and extends upon some of the themes of Mrs Dalloway.

While it is easy to feel cheated as McEwan’s detailed, ultra-realist omniscient narration falls away to reveal the postmodern metafiction at its core, Finney has pointed out that there are a number of intratextual clues that reveal McEwan’s purpose, beginning with the novel’s epigraph, taken from Jane Austen’s Northranger Abbey. Finney states that the epigraph “serves as both a warning and a guide to how the reader should view this narrative”, and that Austen’s protagonist Catherine Morland, who is being reprimanded in the selected passage, failed to “make a distinction between the fictive and the real” (70). This warning to the reader is a signpost at the novel’s beginning and is followed in the opening chapter by the scene of Briony preparing for rehearsals of her play, The Trials of Arabella. The play itself is a kind of fictional intertext that resurfaces at the novel’s conclusion. In the opening scene, Briony thinks about the play and reflects upon the nature of her writing, realising that “self-exposure was inevitable […] the reader was bound to speculate that she was describing herself. What other authority could she have?” (McEwan 6). These thoughts also call into question the authority of the omniscient narrator. Finney points out that Briony is presented as “an author first and a girl on the verge of entering adolescence second” (70). While Part One then goes on to describe the events of that afternoon in intricate detail, from multiple perspectives, the theme of literature and questions of authorial voice are foregrounded from the very beginning.

Just as Mrs Dalloway parodies Ulysses, Finney claims that Atonement parodies the dinner scene in Woolf’s To The Lighthouse, and points out that “McEwan offers his reader internal evidence of Woolf’s influence (this time deleterious) on the young Briony’s narrative style when she is picture reading The Waves” (72). McEwan uses intertextuality to critique the modernist movement, and this further emphasises the fact that this novel is concerned with literature, the act of writing, and the ethical implications of setting words to paper. Mathews writes that, through the references to Austen and Woolf, “McEwan seems chiefly concerned with the ethical implications of their fictional strategies”, and claims that this point is “underlined in Cyril Connolly’s rejection of Briony’s original manuscript” (151). The ethical implications of putting pen to paper are also experienced quite visibly by Robbie in the key plot incident in which his explicit letter to Cecilia falls into Briony’s hands.

The act of letter-writing is a recurring motif and plot driver in Atonement, and “critics have noticed that Atonement refers to a specific intertext, namely E.A. Poe’s ‘The Purloined Letter’” (Pyrhönen 103). Pyrhönen also notes the novel’s grand reveal in the epilogue is reminiscent of a detective story, and that Briony sees herself as a detective (104). Robbie, thinking of Cecilia, is in his study surrounded by some of Atonement’s other intertexts: Auden’s Poems, Housman’s A Shropshire Lad and Criterion literary magazine, revealing his own literary interests. Smelling a book that Cecilia had handed to him, he thinks “on its leather surface were her fingerprints”, realising that he is “worshipping her traces” (McEwan 84). This again intertextually references the genre of detective novels, in which fingerprints often play an important role. As Pyrhönen points out, Robbie’s letter becomes a clue in Briony’s own detective work, although she doesn’t realise it is a false one (107). The structural parallel between Atonement and detective novels is a special form of intertextuality, similar to the structural similarities between Mrs Dalloway and Greek drama.

Another feature of the letters in Atonement is the use of intertextual allusion in Robbie and Cecilia’s correspondence. For fear of having their letters confiscated, “they wrote about literature, using characters as codes” (204), just as McEwan is doing, meaning that the letters draw attention to the novel’s own techniques. Behrman identifies that Robbie and Cecilia’s letters refer to a number of medieval characters, including Troilus and Criseyde, and writes that a study of these medieval intertexts can “provide insight regarding the vexing question of Atonement’s status as a novel” (454). For example, the reference to Troilus and Criseyde “enables McEwan to hint in a most circumspect manner at the potentially destructive nature of Robbie’s passive endurance” (Behrman 457). There is perhaps also a hint here that passive reading of a novel can be similarly destructive.

The passive reader of Atonement might feel their fictional world falling apart as the epilogue unfolds, and question their investment of time in the engaging, realist text that suddenly turns upon itself in a metafictive trick. When it’s further revealed that Robbie and Cecilia had actually died, the emotional investment in the metafictional part of their tale seems wasted. Yet of course, the novel is fiction to begin with, so why does fiction within fiction feel like a cheat, when fiction itself is already a cheat? By posing this question, McEwan interrogates the very worth of the fictional novel and its place in our culture.

Relationships between literary texts can be formed using a variety of literary techniques, and with multiple effects. In Mrs Dalloway, Woolf’s overt intertextual references to Shakespeare and allusions to Greek epics such as The Odyssey function in unison to both elucidate and link the inner journeys of disparate characters. In addition to these intertextual allusions, Woolf’s parody of Ulysses is a form of intertextuality that places her work in a critical literary context, as an engaged voice in the modernist movement. The conscious use of intertextuality draws attention to the novel’s own status as a fictional text, but in a relatively subtle way when compared with the overt metafiction of McEwan’s Atonement. The use of the metafictional plot element of a novel inside a novel can be viewed as an inward-looking form of literary allusion. While McEwan does turn inwards in his novel, he also draws upon a wide range of intertexts to provide clues to the active reader. These techniques also draw deeper meaning into the novel and are used to criticise the realist and modernist projects. In his journey from intertextuality to meta-fiction, McEwan raises important questions about the place that novels and literature hold in our culture.

Works Cited

Behrman, Mary. “The Waiting Game: Medieval Allusions and the Lethal Nature of Passivity In Ian McEwan’s Atonement.Studies in the Novel 42.4 (2010): 453-470. Web. 5Th Aug 2013 <http://search.proquest.com.libraryproxy.griffith.edu.au/docview/861741301>.

Furman, Yelena. “Translating Dostoevskii, Writing a Novel of One’s Own: The Place of ‘Stavrogin’s Confession’ in the Creation of Mrs Dalloway.” The Modern Language Review 104.4 (2009): 1081-1097. Web. 5Th Aug 2013 <http://www.jstor.org/stable/25655048>.

Finney, Brian. “Briony’s Stand against Oblivion: The Making of Fiction in Ian McEwan’s ‘Atonement’.” Journal of Modern Literature 27.3 (2004): 68-82. Web. 5Th Aug 2013 < http://www.jstor.org/stable/3831941>.

Hoff, Molly. “The Pseudo-Homeric World of Mrs Dalloway.” Twentieth Century Literature 45.2 (1999): 186-209. Web. 5Th Aug 2013 <http://www.jstor.org/stable/441830>.

Mathews, Peter. “The Impression of a Deeper Darkness: Ian McEwan’s Atonement.” English Studies in Canada 32.1 (2006): 147-160. Web. 5Th Aug 2013 <http://search.proquest.com.libraryproxy.griffith.edu.au/docview/205779943/fulltextPDF?accountid=14543>.

McEwan, Ian. Atonement. London: Vintage, 2011. Print.

Pyrhönen, Heta. “Purloined Letters in Ian McEwan’s Atonement.” Mosaic: a journal for the interdisciplinary study of literature 45.4 (2012): 103-118. Web. 5Th Aug 2013 <http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/mosaic/v045/45.4.pyrhonen.html>.

Woolf, Virginia. Mrs Dalloway. London: Vintage, 2004. Print.

Webb, Caroline. “Life After Death: The Allegorical Progress of Mrs Dalloway.” MFS Modern Fiction Studies 40.2 (1994): 279-298. Web. 5Th Aug 2013 <http://muse.jhu.edu.libraryproxy.griffith.edu.au/journals/modern_fiction_studies/v040/40.2.webb.html>.

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